The Marquis – Epilogue – THE END

It’s true what they say about London – it’s rainy, gloomy, but full of charm. After only a few days here I feel like a maiden who’s eloped with the prince of her dreams to his magic land. My heart slowly cleanses itself of all the hurt and trauma from Northville, and I actually feel this love can put my soul back together.

Kieran and I spent the first couple of weeks alone in a beautiful townhouse. In the morning we’d watch the fabled London rain together, me wearing his shirt and holding a steaming cup of tea by the window, surrounded by his strong marble arms. On each one of these mornings my heart swelled with heavenly pleasure and joy. We visited old cathedrals, places and museums, we went out to concerts and restaurants on fairy-tale dates, and I can swear all I feel is bliss. Until I think of my mother.

It’s a good thing she stayed back in Northville. A good thing for me. It’s not like she didn’t want to come and be part of our lives, but the idea made me cringe with every one of her pleas. Kieran offered to pay for her to enjoy a most comfortable life wherever she would like to lead it, but since staying with us wasn’t an option because I refused, she decided to stay in Northville, where she could contemplate her past and her wounds.

Northville. The place can never go back to normal life. The town people saw too much, experienced too much, know too much. They agreed to help keep the serpents’ secret, and now the town has become a fortress, a heavily guarded keep for the serpents’ world-changing mysteries.

Lauren remained in the dungeons deep under the manor in the end, while Zed, Joyous and Jeanie stayed behind to oversee Northville’s fortification, and only joined us again today – on my first exhibition.

We’re at one of the most renowned art galleries in London, now filled with my paintings. They’re enjoying great success, but I have a feeling that has more to do with the power and money of the Marquis de Vandenesse than with my work. This event seems more of an introduction to the Londoner high society than anything else. People are more curious about me – the Marquis’ future wife – than about the paintings, though a few persons do show themselves impressed by a few pieces which they also decide to buy. Whether for the sake of the art or for the Marquis’ favour, I’ll never know for sure. But what I enjoy most about tonight is watching the young and handsome Kieran Slate as the Marquis de Vandenesse surrounded by elegant people seeking his attention, and realizing that all his hypnotic black eyes ever seek is me.

“It must be a true blessing, being worshipped like that,” a calm voice says, and soon the woman it belongs to steps in front of me.

“Vivien!” I make a move to hug her, but the golden lace dress I’m wearing screams at the brusque move. It threatens to tear, though it cost a small fortune – a paradox of fashion I always failed to understand, and a purchase I decide not to replicate. Vivien giggles a bit when I fail to wrap my arms around her, giving her an apologetic smile.

“You’re the most envied woman in the room, Saphira Lothar, soon-to-be Saphira de Vandenesse.” She looks me up and down, her intelligent brown eyes as kind as her words and voice. “Beautiful, talented, special and loved beyond measure by your man. None of these people miss any of these things, trust me.”

“I have a hard time fighting my vanity right now, I must admit.” I squeeze her hand, hoping the gesture expresses as much as a hug would. I keep my voice down, though I want to call out how happy I am to have her here. “So wonderful that you came.”

“I won’t stay long.”

“I don’t understand. Where are you going? I mean, I doubt you wish to return to Northville . . .”

“Indeed, I have no desire to do that.” She drops her gaze, but I keep mine steady on her. I can’t help but marvel. Despite all the torture she’s been through, she’s lost nothing of her inherent refinement and style.

Vivien Grant is a highly educated young woman, she speaks four languages fluently, she’s been to the finest schools, and majored in Philosophy. She’s a true intellectual. Her cleverness is obvious in her eyes, which intimidated men all her life – the very reason she was always single, I think. But after everything she’s been through she’s lost a bit too much weight, and the black pencil dress doesn’t do much to hide the willowy lines of her body – something that makes her look like a model, and attracts the eyes of fat-bellied rich men. She’s not too tall, not too short, and she moves with the gracefulness of a ballerina. The natural porcelain smoothness of her face adds a touch of innocence to the nobility of her features, and so does her un-dyed brown hair that’s now restrained in a sleek elegant chignon.

“But where will you go?” I whisper. “And . . . why?”

She lifts her eyes and directs her gaze to someone in the room. I follow it and see Zed in the Marquis’ entourage. Though the pain that last distorted his edgy, stony features is now well hidden behind the “Stone-mask” and the ice-blue of his eyes, there’s a bitterness and sullenness about him that scream it out. I remember Joyous’ explanation about what killed Yvette, and I grab Vivien’s wrist.

“No! It can’t be! You really . . . The Black Monks’ curse . . . Vivien, are you?”

She yanks her hand away and looks around as if to remind me we are being watched, and to get a grip on my temper. “I don’t understand what happened, Saphira. I just know I can’t be around him anymore. I just . . . shouldn’t feel how I feel about him. Yvette died because of it. And somehow he holds me responsible for that, as if it’s my fault we are now bound to each other, I . . .” She looks up, blinking and seeking to dry her tears and gag her sobs.

I take her hand in both of mine. “Please, Vivien. You just arrived, I just got you back. You can’t leave me again, please.”

“You don’t need me, Saph. You’ll enjoy a wonderful life with Kieran, and you’ll share your happiness with Jeanie and Joyous. I don’t fit in this picture, I’m broken and nothing can fix me.”

“With more reason. You need us.”

“No, Saph, I don’t need you, no matter how much I love you. And neither did you need me for healing, let’s be honest. What healed you was Kieran’s love that is special and perfect. Joyous loves Jeanie the same way, with a love that is natural only for superhumans.” Her voice breaks with sadness. “With the same love Zed felt for Yvette, and will never feel for me.”

Distress must be obvious in my face, because Kieran joins us and wraps a protective arm around me. “Is everything all right here?”

Vivien looks at us with her eyes full of tears but also kindness. “I wish you to be so very happy together, Saphira and Kieran, with nothing to ever shadow your love again. From the bottom of my heart, I truly wish that for the two of you.”

Unable to control her tears anymore she turns and hurries away, losing herself in the crowd. I want to follow, but Kieran stops me.

“Don’t.” He looks at Zed. I follow his gaze, and I see it – the terrible truth. Connections fire in my head as I grasp the truth.

“Oh. My. God.”

“The stake is high, Saphira,” Kieran whispers gravely. “And whether it will ever burn or not depends only on Vivien Grant.”

 

***

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for having followed the story of Saphira and Kieran the Marquis! It’s been an exhilirating ride for me, and I hope you enjoyed it as well. Stay tuned for many more goodies to come on this site, from personality tests and psych secrets to new thrilling stories of suspense and love. Also, feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the tests, articles and stories, I’ll be happy to answer them. A big, warm hug,

Yours,

Ana

 

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Freed – Ep. 44 of “The Marquis”

It’s heart-breaking, watching Zed bent over the bed where Yvette lies, her face like wax. I would’ve never imagined the Head of Security, the man I once nicknamed “Stone Face” expressing such intense hurt. His edgy features are distorted, his eyes scrunched shut as he bites his knuckles as if that helps him subdue the pain to a bearable level, hands clasping tightly to each other. So much death, so much pain.

“It was Lauren Morris who killed her,” Joyous whispers in my ear. We’re standing in the doorstep of a small service hut adjacent to the manor. “She killed Yvette on her way to the tower, where she planned to do the same with you. They fought, but in the end Lauren was stronger.”

“But that’s not possible,” I babble among sobs, keeping as quiet as I can in order not to disturb Zed. “I saw the two of them fight each other before, Lauren would’ve never stood a chance against Yvette.”

“Normally not, but Lauren had a secret weapon – the truth about what happened when the Black Monks’ curse hit Zed, and his fingers drilled into Vivien.”

My head snaps to him. “Something happened then?”

Joyous the Healer keeps looking at Zed as he talks, as if assessing the state of his health from a distance. “Vivien and Zed connected on a very deep level. We still don’t understand exactly in what way, but we know the first thing Zed said when he opened his eyes – after you made the painting of him – was Vivien’s name. The event had a powerful effect on Vivien as well, an effect that apparently went as deep as her DNA, which we’ll test soon. We don’t think what binds them is romantic in nature, we rather think it’s biological, but it’s still something we have yet to fully understand.”

“Then how . . . why . . . how could Lauren use that as a weapon against Yvette?”

“It was all in the way she put things. It seems she made Yvette think Zed and Vivien were now bound like star-crossed lovers who would only resist being together in order not to hurt her, and that weakened Yvette’s desire to live.”

“Joyous, are you sure about this? How do you even know what was said between Lauren and Yvette?”

His face takes on an infinitely sad expression, like that of a parent melting with pain as they see their child cry. “When Zed found Yvette she was still alive. She died in his arms, after she gave him her blessing to be with Vivien.”

Tears course down my face, bundling on the tip of my chin. This is a tragedy. I try to keep my sniffling inconspicuous, but I can’t bring myself to leave the hut, not wanting to miss the chance of helping Zed if he needs me in any way.

Other serpent-men come in and out, pretending to have things to do in the hut in order to quietly check on Zed, then they leave just as quietly and grim-faced.

I know the kind of pain that’s consuming him, and I know no one should approach him now. He needs to be with Yvette. Still, I can’t take my eyes and focus off them until Jeanie approaches and whispers between Joyous and me.

“The town people got a priest for the dead. He’d start with Yvette now, so that her soul can be on its way. She’s the only human, the rest of the dead are Black Monks and serpents, and for some reason he doesn’t consider matters as urgent for them.”

I’m more than relieved that my sweet curly-headed, milky-skinned Jeanie is safe and sound, but all I feel capable of giving her is a slight nod. She looks devastated as well, and it has to do with Jeremy. He’s not dead, though, and that moves him down on my list of priorities.

Lauren is top of it right now. I need to talk to her. I already forgave her for many things, such as having sought and used every opportunity to hurt me all my life, for having destroyed my relationship with Jeremy right before our wedding, even for having tried to kill me, but I can’t forgive her for this cruelty – when asked whether she regretted having killed Yvette, only a few hours later in the dungeons, she says with a vicious grin that she doesn’t in the least.

She says that Yvette was a plump middle-aged woman who embarrassed herself by pursuing a relationship with a man who seemed much younger than her, not to mention outrageously more handsome. She also says that she’d merely cleared Zed’s future of what would’ve proven ballast that he respected too much to shake off. That he should actually be grateful to her. Her only regret is having tormented me the way she did, now realizing I’m the only innocent person in this entire story. I can’t listen to any more of this. I turn on my heel and stomp out of the dungeons along with en escort of serpent-men.

The serpents manage to keep Zed away from Lauren’s cell, since he would surely end her, and she stands under both my and Kieran’s protection for having made the decisive move in the fight between Kieran and Basarab. Hadn’t it been for her, my lover would now be dead too. We have yet to see what to do about her.

Joyous, Jeanie and a few serpent-men escort me to the study to see Kieran. Here he’s having his last important talk before he brings his business in Northville to a final close, they say. And right before we knock on the doors they open widely to let a team of men in white medical clothes carry away a screaming and raging Jeremy Simmons. They make for such a commotion, that we instinctively clear the way to the sides to let them pass, restricting our reactions to staring after them, seeking sense of the picture.

Jeremy’s bulk is useless against the expert arms of the very same men who’d broken my bones with jets of water at the asylum. All I can do is watch as they take him away. His maddened eyes latch on to me like I’m everything to him, his fingers splaying towards me like a man’s reaching for his only hope.

“Saphira, listen to me!” His voice reminds me of the lamenting lunatics back at the asylum. “This wasn’t my fault, Saphira! This was not my fault! We are both victims, Saphira!”

He keeps calling out my name as the men in white drag him away down the corridor, his screams growing faint. A presence behind me makes me turn, and my eyes meet the beautiful face of Kieran Slate.

Our arms wrap around each other, our embrace tight like that of two people frantic to keep together, terrified they might be separated again. We touch each other to make sure the other isn’t hurt, and I must say the hard feel of his body under his shirt elates me – it gives me the feeling that he’s not only whole and healthy, but also indestructible. I couldn’t take knowing him in mortal danger again, it would surely kill me.

I cup his face and look up into his pitch black eyes, revelling in the awareness that we’re together again, and promising him and myself that I’d never leave his side again.

“I love you, Kieran, I love you so much!” I stand on my tiptoes, kissing his cheeks and his forehead that he seems happy to offer, bending down to me.

“And I adore you, Saphira.”

We kiss deeply and desperately, our souls merging with each other, forgetting time, place and the group of serpent-men hovering around us, watching. Joyous clears his throat and touches Kieran’s shoulder, bringing us both back to reality.

“There are a few more matters you might want to deal with right away. Like Saphira’s mother, for example, she’s desperate to see her daughter.”

“Take her to a room in the west wing. Saphira will come to see her after she’s rested.” He looks at me again, a delicate smile on his face. “It might take until tomorrow.”

For a moment there I ask myself if all the horror I’ve been through is the price for the out-of-this-world love that I’ve been blessed to experience. It’s so unique, intense like the strongest drug, and so much more powerful than anything I’ve ever felt, even for Jeremy. Jeremy . . .

“Isn’t that measure too drastic?” I ask Kieran a while later, after immediate matters have been attended to, and the door to our chamber closes behind us. “Locking Jeremy in the lunatic asylum, I mean. In the end, he was under Basarab’s possession while he did everything he did, even as he first cheated on me.”

“Precisely because of that,” Kieran says, removing his shirt and revealing the marble perfection of his elegant muscles. “Basarab’s possession left him seriously damaged, plus that –“ he approaches and wraps his arms around my exhausted body. “He did serve the Elite, Saphira, remember? Those old pigs that run half the country paid Jeremy Simmons to keep them warm in Northville and in his side of London, and he obliged without scruples.”

The Elite . . .

“What will happen to them?” I whisper.

“They will pay dearly for what they’ve done, but that’s no longer our concern. I want to dedicate my life to making you happy, Saphira. No more revenge, no more bitterness, no more war.”

Kieran bends his head and kisses me under the light of full moon that hazes between the vaporous curtains. I close my eyes and relish in the silky, warm feel of his lips, excited like the first time my crush kissed me, and yet feeling so at home. The most wonderful sensation, the perfect interlacing between the highs of infatuation and the depths of true love. I nestle my head at his chest, listening to his heartbeat. Maybe we still have a chance of putting all this behind us, a chance at complete happiness, even after so much evil. Maybe this love does have the power to dispel the shadow of everything that happened.

“Take me away from all this death, Kieran.”

***

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Blades and Roses – Ep. 43 of “The Marquis”

Ivan Basarab is dead. It becomes clear to me as the wounds in Kieran’s picture begin regenerating like slowly closing zippers. His reptilian powers of self-healing work freely, which means no one is attacking him anymore.

The canvas of Basarab’s picture, on the other hand, is drenched in red, dripping thickly on the floor and on Lauren’s shoes. It’s dead quiet outside, as if the wind itself were holding its breath, and all I can hear is the beating of my own pulse in my ears. As the breeze makes it through the window again I release the air from my lungs and fall to my knees.

“It’s finished,” I whisper, covering my face with palms full of colour.

“What just happened?” Lauren mumbles. I look up at her through the blurry veil of my tears, but I can see she’s completely bewildered. Intoxicated with hatred and seeing me hopelessly fighting to save Kieran, she did the only thing that was in her power– she stabbed and slit Basarab’s picture. The outcome is something neither of us expected, but synapses fast-wire in my brain, helping me put two and two together.

“Normally it’s the pictures that work as doubles for the people,” I explain quietly, “taking all the blows and the harm. But it seems the energy you put into your attack combined with the energy I put into making the painting reversed effects.”

“What the hell does that mean?” The turbid green of her eyes isn’t enough to camouflage her bewilderment this time.

“It basically means that by killing the picture, you killed the man.” I can hardly believe it myself as I voice it. “Incredible . . .” Incredible what human emotion, intention and energy can do. “It was . . . teamwork.”

A fat drop of red splashes on the tile under the tripod holding Basarab’s picture, and releases a chain reaction – the rusty smell of blood fills my nose, making me sick. The adrenaline has kept me unaware of the smell until now, but the relief that it’s all over brings back sensitivity to all my senses.

Billy Dean – Ivan Basarab – has open wounds that reach his bones, fat and muscle visible as if the canvas were made of flesh. My stomach can’t take the image, and I break down, crawling on all fours and struggling against the sickness.

Fortunately Lauren proves great presence of mind. She hurries to me, helps me up and out of the room from the Dark Tower, leading me down the gloomy spiral stairs and away from the horror behind. Even the spiders and insects seem to clear from the place as we descend.

I feel so sick that I rely on Lauren completely. From the night she almost beat me to death at the asylum I know how strong she is despite the very few pounds of flesh that cover her bones, but the fact that she’s so fast and stable on her feet despite the stilettos and the tight leather outfit is rather admirable.

As we emerge in the granite main corridor on the ground floor I manage to voice my thoughts, and Lauren admits she’s been training with Jeremy – probably while the Inspector was under Basarab’s possession – for months for this mission. In my head, I thank God her allegiances switched from Basarab to us, otherwise she would’ve easily killed me. In my stained canvas gown, barefoot and exhausted, I wouldn’t have posed much of a challenge.

The manor is huge, hollow, quiet and dark, only our steps filling it like ghosts. Lauren leans me on a pillar by the main entrance in order to try and open the double doors, but even with all Jeremy’s training she’s not strong enough to pull aside the enormous bronze lock that traverses them. I should’ve thought about it, the thing is designed to withstand a whole crowd pushing to open the doors.

We have to go down to the catacombs and use the opening that I discovered the night I first witnessed Kieran turn into a serpent. His men had replaced the glass I’d broken with a bulky bronze door, but I know the way to open it.

Lauren and I emerge out onto the rocky fields. The sea is far, but the salty breeze seems to carry drops from its raging crests. I close my eyes but open my arms and breathe in deeply, allowing the freshness of the night to fill my lungs.

“It’s over. It’s really over.” Relief courses from head to feet, turning me soft.

The horrors of these past months run before my mind’s eye and through my heart like they say things do a moment before you die. Before I first met Kieran at the Royale a felt eternity ago I was a pampered upper class girl secluded among her paintings, with little knowledge of the world out there. So much has changed since then. Right now I feel like I’ve just escaped execution after a long line of torments and tortures. My flesh hurts and my soul aches, but I’m alive.

A hand clasps my upper arm and hides me behind a back dressed in dark fighting clothes. I recognize the leather expansible outfit the serpents wore when they left for battle, as well as Joyous’ locks. He hisses at Lauren, who retreats in a hunched, rather awkward-looking fighting position on her mosquito legs, eyes wide and knives ready to protect herself.

“No, Joyous, wait,” I intervene, holding tightly to his arm and straining to make him listen. “She’s helped me back in the tower. She’s on our side now, and it was her who killed Basarab.”

Joyous doesn’t react immediately, but keeps circling Lauren while I keep dragging after him and holding tightly to his arm to prevent him from hurting her. He measures her from head to toes viciously, and finally addresses me, yet not taking his eyes off Lauren.

“Maybe it was only an act she put on as she realized her people were losing.”

“Her people were losing, but Kieran was dying. She saved him, Joyous!”

He still doesn’t look convinced. After glancing from Joyous to me a few times Lauren gives a crooked, daring smile and drops her knives, lifting her hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. The expression on her face still retains a kind of mocking pride, though – her way of keeping dignity as people emerge from the shadow, throw her down and tie her hands behind her back. Frankly I don’t blame her for it. She had to put up with enough humiliation.

“Treat her well until this is cleared,” Joyous orders. “Put her in a dungeon, but make sure she has minimal comfort.”

I want to intervene and plead that they don’t put her in a cell at all, but Joyous clasps my shoulders and makes me look at him. There’s something pained in the Healer’s eerie honey-coloured eyes surrounded by dark circles.

“I know you trust her, Saphira, but I can’t do the same, since . . .”

He pauses, and my heart jumps. “Since what?” I clasp his wrists in anguish. “Don’t hover, Joyous, I beg of you!”

He drops his voice as if to help keep us both calm. “There have been losses, Saphira.”

“Losses, what losses? Oh, God, Jeanie?!”

“No.”

My pulse seems to settle, but then the name hits me like an arrow in the breastbone.

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

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Judgment Day – Ep. 42 of “The Marquis”

Lauren approaches the picture of Billy Dean. I can only see her back – her blood-red hair in a bun, her tall skinny frame clad in black leather – as she strolls away from me. She keeps proud and straight perched on her stilettos, as if she’s demanding an explanation from Billy’s bespectacled, narrow face. Now that I think about it, in reality his front rodent-like teeth are even more prominent.

“But how can this be?” she whispers, inspecting Billy’s painting. “He’s not one of the men who committed the crime against Catherine Lancaster.”

“You know about that?” I can’t hide my surprise.

“I know about many things. Jeremy – Billy,” she corrects herself sourly, “– sometimes talked after sex. He always stopped before his tongue rolled too much, but I got the essential. I also know the Marquis suspected the real Ivan Basarab was one of Catherine’s tormentors. Jeremy – Billy – said his father had been among them and the true Ivan Basarab, and that he was merely continuing his father’s work, since the man himself was dead.”

I nod to myself. “That was only a diversion Billy created on purpose. He discovered that Northville had been a gloomy, anonymous enough resort where rich people acted out their inner demons for decades, and in time he discovered their dirtiest secrets. He used these discoveries in order to divert the Marquis from the truth. These people used Billy as a notary for bad business such as questionable adoptions and money laundry, especially since he seemed so easy to manipulate and to intimidate. He took advantage of that, one thing led to another, and within a few years he practically owned them. Billy has an incredibly high IQ, and he used his intelligence to get what he wanted. I’m sure he got himself introduced to the Marquis’ ‘makers,’ and got them to enhance him the way they’d enhanced other so-called superhumans like the Marquis. That’s how he must’ve obtained his demon-like ability of taking possession of other people’s bodies, as incredible as that sounds. I think he found a way to engineer the Black Monks too.”

Found a way,” Lauren repeats, still inspecting Billy’s painting closely, her hand tracing his nose and lips and chin. Her voice is full of hatred. “This man fucking possesses other people, Saphira. How can you simply put it like that – he found a way?”

“I couldn’t really afford dropping on my butt and gaping at the idea,” I reply, throwing my hands in the air. “I had other priorities, I couldn’t stop to investigate the science behind the way. Lauren, I almost died almost every day these past few months. I saw the Marquis turning from a stunning young man into a slimy, huge serpent, I found out there are immortals out there, I discovered that my father was a rapist and a murderer, that an army of leper monks invaded Northville, and I got almost beaten to death in a lunatic asylum just to name a few of my troubles. I’m not even sure my brains are still inside my head.”

A sound like canvas tearing interrupts my tirade, and my head snaps to the source of it. The Marquis’ painting is bleeding, his shirt soaking with viscous red.

“Kieran!” I haste toward the picture, grabbing the paintbrush and the crayons off the floor, and I start repairing feverishly.

Another tearing sound in another canvas makes my eyes search desperately for the source until they fall on Billy’s picture that is bleeding as well.

“They’re facing each other,” I shriek as Kieran takes more blows, his beautiful ivory face getting slash after slash as if Billy were attacking him with Wolverine-like claws. I’m aware of Lauren looking puzzled from my desperately moving hands as they work on Kieran to Billy’s painting that’s also getting wounds so ugly they seem inflicted with an axe. His flesh is split to the bone in many places. It looks like the Serpent and the Slayer are literally killing each other. Neither is winning or losing, they’re chopping each other to pieces.

I can barely keep up ‘repairing’ Kieran, and I don’t register when Lauren grabs the knives she’d meant to use on me just shortly before. I only spin round in dread when her outcry, vicious and full of hatred, rings in my ears. For an instant there I’m sure she’s attacking me, but I’m wrong.

With wide eyes I watch Lauren lunge to the picture of Billy Dean, the man who’d loved her his entire life, but who’d used her without scruples. She rams both knives exactly in the centre of his face, making blood surge as she pulls downward, cutting Ivan Basarab in half, and shredding him.

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday, we are drawing towards the end! ONLY TWO EPISODES TO GO! Until then, feel free to roam this site for all the goodies it has to offer.

 

 

Eros and Thanatos – Ep. 39 of “The Marquis”

The dark tower provides a large view over the fields. Kieran’s serpent eyes penetrate the night, while I stand in the alcove opposite from him, looking up at the painting I made a felt century ago.

The painfully handsome Marquis de Vandenesse looks down at me from the wall, his marble features as ruthless as a young devil’s, but the black eyes that used to scare the life out of me have a creamy softness to them. Indeed, like Kieran pointed out on the Night of Venice, the portrait seems a confession. It allows a glimpse of the boy Kieran Slate behind the powerful Marquis.

I feel him approach, which compels me more than his portrait. A gush of wind from the open window inflates my gown as I turn to look at the serpent Marquis who’s chained my heart to his. Tall and beautiful just like the young man in the picture, he takes my breath away. His shirt is open, revealing the marble sinews of his body, and I can’t help a surge of lust.

“The air carries the scent of death,” he murmurs, casting my senses in a daze.

I have a flashback of the moment we first met – that fated night at the Royale by the sea, when he’d first used his hypnotic powers on me.

“You promised you’d never influence my senses again,” I whisper.

“And you think I’m doing it now?”

“It feels like you are. It’s that opiate effect, numbing the pain I want to feel.”

“I assure you, it’s not intentional, but maybe automatic. I want to keep pain away from you so much, I might do it instinctively.”

He looks down at his hands, and I follow his gaze. My heart skips a beat at the sight of his long fine fingers twisting a diamond ring between them. I swallow the spike of emotion that bolts up from my heart in order to prevent embarrassing manifestations. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize what he’s doing.

“A while ago I crossed Gunnar Lothar’s threshold,” he says, “asking for your hand in marriage. I asked the man I hated for what I thought would be the deadliest weapon against him. Things have taken many unexpected turns since then, and soon there was nothing left of my initial plans, but one thing never changed – my wanting to marry you, Saphira. I desire you as my wife more than I ever desired anything, even revenge. I won’t lie to you, there’s a chance that I’ll find my end tomorrow, and there’s no priest to forge our bond before that happens. All we have is tonight and the deadly breath of the Black Monks out there. Let it be our minister and seal our vows, and be sure that I’ll love you forever even from the Underworld.”

My breath catches at his words, which he speaks taking my hand in his and sliding the ring gently on my finger. It’s a bit of a loose fit, but the intensity in his dark gaze fits mine perfectly.

I stroke his cheek, taking full delight in the feel of him, and I can’t hold back a longing sigh. That sets him on fire, and he takes over my mouth in a hot-blooded kiss, lifting me in his arms. I wind my legs around him, welcoming him between my thighs, rubbing and weaving myself on him as he takes me to the bed. I’ve lost my head for Kieran Slate long ago, but now I let go completely. Death is just around the corner for both of us, so I might as well relish in our love like there’s no tomorrow.

I peel the shirt off him with feverish hands, thirsty for him as I savor his silky lips, his jaw, his neck, and lower my mouth down his smooth chest, my hands seeking the hardness in his pants. He doesn’t have much patience either, breathing hard with lust, soon taking over and kissing me into submission.

Looming over me, he guides me on my back on the satin sheets, his fiery mouth pleasuring my skin all over. Before I know it I’m lying completely bare under him, while he stands on his knees over me, a beautifully shaped marble devil, naked and growing bold. He’s big and hard for me. His hand sinks and my hair, twisting and tugging as he brings himself to my lips. Making sure I want it as much as he does, he glides down my mouth.

His smooth hardness slides over my tongue to my throat, turning me on so bad that I moisten and writhe, my face on fire. I can’t refrain from clasping his backside and guiding him deeper, making him grind into my lustful mouth and moan with unrestrained pleasure. He flexes and clenches his fist in my hair, gritting his teeth and knitting his brows as if it’s too much for him, and then, completely unexpectedly, he retreats and curls at the end of the bed.

I don’t know what just happened, and I stare at him rocking like a hiding child. I crawl to him and touch his shoulder, ready to beg him to come back and take me, but he tenses yet more.

“Please, Kieran, look at me,” I whine, but he’s bracing himself so tightly that the flesh under his fingernails is even whiter than the rest of him, his face hidden, his lamentations low but heartbreaking. I go gently to my knees before him, caressing his thick, black hair. I keep insisting until his face dashes up, and the sight of him sends ice slithering down my body.

His eyes are the black blisters of the serpent, his lips like black leeches, and his flesh turns glutinous as scales slowly replace the skin. I don’t know by what miracle I manage to catch the outcry in my throat before it reaches my mouth. Every cell in my body screams to get away from him, but I force myself to keep still – this is the man I love, a victim of bastards with power over science.

My hand shakes slightly as I take it to his face, brushing a tendril away from his now snake-skinned forehead.

“This is too much for me, Saphira,” he pleads. “My basic instinct runs wild at sudden pleasure, and the beast comes out. I want to make love to you, so bad, but if I lose control fully, it’s very dangerous.”

“Don’t think about that,” I whisper, bringing my face within an inch of his. “This is true love. I love you and I trust you, Kieran.”

A blood tear slithers down his cheek that slowly changes from serpent scales to glutinous mass, then to beautiful ivory skin. His blister-like eyes are still pained and deeply worried, but he does allow me to get closer and closer. I force myself to keep my eyes open as my lips touch his, expecting them to feel like the black leeches they look, but instead they’re dry and pleasant. His kisses are gentle, and his tongue careful as it seeks mine.

There’s a lump in my throat as I imagine that split serpent tongue exploring my mouth, and indeed I feel the two tips, coarse and cold, but their touch is so shy that it makes me grow downright audacious. I sink my hands in his hair and pull him over me on the bed, inviting him to push his tongue down my throat, even though chill after chill runs down my skin.

Flashes of that tongue pulling Pukov’s stomach out lash at me, the white tablecloth splattered with blood, the coiling and wriggling under Pukov’s shirt. But Kieran Slate is the man I love, and I want him inside of me, even if that means having him between my legs in his serpent form.

But instead of disturbing, his love turns out sensual and intoxicating, and I find myself wanting more and more of his scales on my skin. I finally understand that the snake-man is as much part of Kieran Slate as his hypnotic powers, and if we’re both going to die soon, I want to experience him to the deepest level, and to the last cell.

“Use your powers on me, Kieran,” I whisper. “I want to be high on you, and I want an overdose.”

The words are a powerful catalyst for Kieran. His eyes, at first stunned, then confused and then profound, pour themselves like a black drug into mine, and cast me in a spiral trance. I let go of all reason, and my mind goes blank, leaving me fully prey to the sensations Kieran gives me, making me arch and moan under his kisses and caresses.

My thighs part to accommodate him as he slides deep inside me, long and hard and smooth. Moist and lascivious I grind my hips to meet his moves, riding towards the climax that makes all my muscles flex, and Kieran Slate shows his true face above me – his features are prominent, beautiful and white as ivory, while his black eyes bleed, and his sensual mouth lets out moans of pleasure.

I’m still convulsing with the remains of climax as he drops on his back by my side, taking me in his arms and kissing my forehead and my lips and my cheeks. The opiate haze he’d cast over me begins to lift, and I come back to a feeling of happiness and fulfillment that pulses in my chest.

“I love you, my bride.” His voice is creamy and rich, and his hands restless as they caress my body like he worships me.

“And I adore you, Kieran.”

***

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The Picture of Kieran Slate – Ep. 38 of “The Marquis”

“All weakness of the flesh passes on to the voodoo picture,” the young butler mutters to himself, staring in awe at the portrait of Zed that blackens and crumples with the pestilence that until now had been eating at his body.

The meaning of all this sends my neurons spinning, making me barge out of the room and run down the grand stairs towards Kieran’s study, my bare feet slapping the granite floor. The double doors open as I haste toward them, and Kieran appears, my heart surging at the sight of him.

Those pitch black eyes that I love beyond all reason and common sense meet mine. I lose the last bit of control over myself and jump in his arms, practically assailing him. He says my name with the reverence of a priest invoking an angel as he lifts me, and claims my lips like a starved animal.

I savor the feel of his hot, silky kiss with every fiber of my body, and I hold him so tight that my muscles hurt.

“I’ll never let you go again, never,” he says in his intoxicating, low voice. We kiss desperately again and again, only pausing to drink in the sight of each other’s faces, touching each other as if we both want to make sure this is real.

Remembering I must look much like the loser of a boxing match, I search for my own reflection in the black luster of his irises – I’m indeed disheveled and I seem a ghost, but I can’t see the bruises. I speak my mind before I think it.

“Medicine man’s talents extend to face-lifts?”

Kieran doesn’t find it amusing, and pain distorts his youthful features.

“I’d be just as crazy about you if you were a goblin,” he says. “But Jeremy Simmons and Lauren Morris will pay with their lives for what they did to you.”

“Please, Kieran, whatever happens, don’t hurt Lauren.”

A frown curls his otherwise marble-smooth brow. “Why do you defend her?”

“Long story. But fact is, she was punishing me because my father abused her when she was a child.”

“That’s no excuse for trying to beat you to death.”

“Oh, is it not?” I snap. “Didn’t you start off with the same intention? Didn’t you want to make a sacrificial lamb of me too for my father’s wrongdoings?”

His eyes become slits, his pain all too obvious as he beats his own chest with his fist.

“I wish you were inside this for one minute to feel how remorse tortures me. It sears to look at you, and yet I can’t look away. From the moment I laid eyes on you, you were like a drug, and the more I saw you, the more I wanted you until I desired you so much that it hurt, Saphira. I fell in love with you, and the deeper I fell, the more I despaired. Every time I did something to hurt you was like driving a dagger in my own flesh.” He drops his voice, a dangerous glint crossing his eyes. “I love you so much that I’d let myself be killed for you.”

He kisses me once more like a madman, taking my breath away in the most literal sense. I push him gently so I can inhale and stop my head from spinning in the wake of his love declaration that got me melting in all the right ways and places, and I catch a glimpse of the gathering behind him. I lean to the side to see clearer past Kieran, and my mouth opens as I make sense of it.

Kieran peels himself from my field of vision to clear the sight of his desk, which now serves as a stretcher for Zed. Surrounded by his peers, the Head of Security lies still as a corpse. Except that he’s very much alive, not to mention plague-free. His stony features are once again recognizable, his dark-blond hair clean, and the black skeletal fingers that Kieran had almost surgically extracted from Vivien’s flesh have skin on them again. His peers had cut the black suit off him, exposing the nakedness of his sturdy body that’s covered with tattoos, contributing even more to the intimidating look of him.

“It’s a miracle. You are a miracle,” Kieran says, turning me around and looking at me like I’m the Holy Grail.

“You know what happened with the picture I made of Zed?”

“The butler boy searched the place like crazy while we were trying to save Zed, and explained he was looking for things you could use to paint. I suspected what the whole thing was about, and as the bubonic blackness started retreating from Zed’s skin it all became crystal clear to me.”

He cups my face with his hands. “I knew there was something very special about these golden eyes of yours, I knew it all along. You see people in a way the fewest can. In the portrait you made of me you focused all humanity and vulnerability that I’d thought forever lost. It was the first thing that scared me in a very, very long time Saphira. And now it turns out you can do so much more.”

“But how . . . How is that even possible? The whole voodoo thing, I mean.”

“It’s your born potential activated by close contact with – well, with me. When I first influenced your mind with my own powers, your potential unlocked. You became subconsciously aware that the impossible is possible. Your subconscious mind pulled out that unique something that you were born with, since we are all born with one special particularity that only we can excel at, and sharpened it into a weapon. Back when you painted me you could have used that picture to hurt me; your probably did, in a way, by baring my soul in it and therefore making me love you. All people have unique talents that they can develop to more-than-human extents, but most cannot unlock their true potential naturally, like you did. Most people need psychological guidance and maybe –” he gestures at himself and his men, “ – tampering a bit with genetics. That’s why I say you’re a miracle.”

This blows my mind, and I fear I might faint. I grip tighter to Kieran’s supporting arms.

“Is it . . . magic?” I breathe.

Kieran smiles. “Let’s say it’s a kind of magic that can be explained.”

“Will this magic be enough to defeat Ivan Basarab’s Black Monks?”

A shadow falls over Kieran’s face as he understands what I’m getting at. “It could be, but it would take an enormous toll on you. Every portrait you paint using your newly discovered power draws vital energy from you, and during battle you would have to repair portraits again and again before they are consumed with plague or wounds. You can’t possibly do that for all of us, we’re two dozen people.”

“And Basarab’s Black Monks are at least a hundred. You’re greatly outnumbered, Kieran.”

“Then give me Basarab’s true name, and I will take him on, one on one.”

Joyous enters the room and intervenes. “It’s too late, Kieran. Black Monks surrounded the manor, and the catacombs are blocked halfway to the asylum. If you get out there, they’ll cast their curses on you a hundred at a time. You may be the most powerful serpent ever engineered, but with that kind of viciousness you’d be dead within the first couple of yards.”

“Plus,” I put in with a shudder, “Basarab’s identity provides more reason for worry than for hope.”

Kieran squares his shoulders and takes the powerful attitude of the leader everyone knows and needs right now. “Give me his name, and I’ll find a way to reach and eliminate him – It’s as simple as that.”

“No, it’s not.” I look around at the men’s confused faces. “Basarab has a special power of his own, and I’m afraid it’s a nasty one.”

***

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Russian Roulette-Vivien – Ep. 35 of The Marquis

Kieran Slate – a.k.a. the Marquis of Vandenesse – is a dangerous though honourable man. His people would give their lives for him, and I would as well. My skin is still all pebbles from the story of how he saved Joyous, and what the ever-present grin on the young man’s face actually stands for.

I can’t stop thinking about it as we make our way towards poor Vivien’s cell down the sickly-lit asylum corridors – Yvette made sure the route is safe. She leads the way, her head bobbing as she glances in all directions, while Zed Stone Mask tails behind me.

I’m only wearing a white gown specific for patients, and I feel as light as the feather coating of a hen, even doubting that my body still has the same consistency from before. Whatever Joyous did with me, it’s downright not of this world. The only familiar sensations are the nervous sweating of my palms, and the bite of the cold floor on the soles of my feet, but considering everything I went through since the night the Marquis entered my life hardly anything surprises me anymore.

Yvette stretches her arm behind her to stop us as she peeks around a corner. I come to a halt and Zed bumps into me, since his eyes have been scanning the place from above my head for potential spotters.

“There’s a guard at her door,” Yvette whispers. “I’ll distract him, and you get in. It should be unlocked, this is a wing that hasn’t seen the slightest investment in many years, and it’s where they keep the weakest patients that don’t stand a chance of escape.”

I shudder as I realize what this means for Vivien’s state, and I barely refrain from rushing Yvette.

“Then why do they need a guard?” Zed says.

“There may be no danger of escape from the inside, but Inspector Simmons imagined that Vivien Grant might get saved.” She throws a meaningful glance at Zed. “He foresaw a scenario such as this one. But he didn’t foresee my part in it.”

Yvette doesn’t wait for a reaction from either Zed or me before she dashes around the corner and stalks toward the guard. The clicking of her high heels on the floor draws the man’s attention immediately. There’s something domineering and intimidating about “Plump Morticia” that has the men in this place tremble. This must’ve pushed Zed’s buttons, I imagine. He’d probably never go for girlish, sweet or vulnerable. I’ve said it before – I’d thought him emotionally crippled until not long ago, or gay in the best-case scenario – but it turns out he’s just darn hard to impress.

“Get back,” he whispers, placing a large hand on my shoulder and drawing me backwards. He takes my place by the corner and peeks around it, his skill allowing perfect stealth. He moves indeed like a serpent, and I doubt any human could pick up being followed or observed by him.

“Let’s go, Guardian Angel,” Yvette’s voice echoes across the corridor as she addresses the guard at Vivien’s door. “We have a situation at the main entrance. The guys need back-up.”

“But Miss Danes,” the man replies shyly, “I’m forbidden to leave my position.”

“You’ll be forbidden your pay check if you go smart-ass on me.”

“Miss Danes, I have orders from Lord Barkley.”

“Barkley’s out of town, which means I am ‘Orders’ now. Get moving, there’s crazy asses at the door making your peers’ life difficult.”

My heart races, I’m nervous to a sweat and taken aback by Yvette’s approach. She’d proved there’s a ghetto matron behind the warm accommodating lady when she kicked Lauren’s butt, but still. Intimidated, the guard follows her – I can tell by the fading echo of their steps.

“Now,” Zed says and dashes around the corner towards Vivien’s cell. I follow on my tiptoes, my heart beating fast in anticipation of the moment when I’d lay eyes on her.

A bitter moment it is. Zed opens the door, and as it peels off my field of vision it reveals my good Virgin Vivien lying on a dirty mattress by the grated window. She’s skeletal-thin, the skin glued to her bones, and paper-white. She lies straight like a wooden board, wearing only the sack-like gown that she’s had on as I witnessed her being subjected to electroshocks. She seems dead.

I hurry over and drop on my knees by her side, caressing her forehead with trembling fingers. Her eyes are closed and her mouth half open, her lips cracked and there’s white foam at the corners. Despite the wretched condition she’s in her features are still smooth and noble, the face of a true princess.

She mumbles something very low, as if she’s delirious. I barely manage to keep hysteria at bay as I grab her around her waist with both arms and try to lift her off the bed.

“Zed, please help me!”

“Take it easy, Saphira, and keep it low,” he warns in his usual cold, detached voice.

“Please, do something! She’s in great suffering!”

“And your pulling and dragging doesn’t make it any better. Step aside.”

I obey, allowing him to scoop Vivien up from the bed and take a few long strides to the door, which I open wide, completely forgetting to check the area. I bump into a guard in white blocking our way, glaring over my head at Zed. But before I even get to shriek Zed leans Vivien on me – I instinctively support her weight – then twists and breaks the man’s neck right before my eyes. The guard drops dead on the floor, and all I can do is stare in shock at his still open, blank eyes. A second later the alarm starts screaming.

“Let’s move,” Zed calls over the sharp, maddening sound as he picks Vivien up again. Not a muscle moves on his face, as if taking a life is nothing more than shaving for him. I register what he says but I can’t react, staring at his back taking distance from me on the corridor, Vivien’s bony legs dangling from the cradle of his arms.

“Now, Saphira!” He urges, spinning around to look at me. The lights go out frame by frame, turning the corridor into a tunnel of black closing toward Zed. It stirs me from the grip of stun and gets my limbs moving.

Soon I’m running to Zed, who gets out of the way to allow that I take the lead, then follows close behind me at a jog, telling me when to turn left or right along a labyrinth of corridors. The place grows more ruinous and desolate as we reach deeper into the old maze of the asylum, the doors we run by rusty, the light bulbs hanging by bare threads and flickering. This part of the asylum is a dangerous place, humidity having permeated the ceiling and touching the electricity lines. A part of it where patients are left to die. A living grave.

“Turn right,” Zed calls again, but the moment I take the turn I realize we’re heading toward a dead-end.

“We’re trapped!” I shriek.

“The hatch, lift the hatch!”

I skid and drop on the floor where I see a rusty trap door indeed, and clasp the grip with both hands. I pull once, twice, three times, but it’s not fast enough. By the time I manage to open it, allowing Zed to jump into the dark abyss beneath it with Vivien in his arms and without a second thought, the sound of running men chasing us already reaches my ears.

Scared, I don’t waste another moment and jump after Zed. I sprain my ankle upon landing, but my brain releases endorphins immediately. I’m aware that pain will strike with a vengeance if we get out of this alive, but right now I’m grateful I can keep moving, even though with difficulty.

A gunshot rips through the dark catacombs and through the sound of my breathing. I stop in place.

“Keep running!” Zed calls, and for the first time ever he truly sounds desperate. His command gets me back in a strained limp, while he waits with Vivien in his arms and starts moving only after I’ve taken the lead. I realize he wants to protect me and that he won’t run any faster than I do, which spurs me on to try yet harder.

I stumble and fall over something hard and edgy, and as I pat around in the darkness to save myself my hands find what feels like dry hay. The smell is foul, and as I begin to make out the contours of corpses I start to scream like crazy. The dry hay was someone’s hair.

Zed grabs my wrist and lifts me up from the pile of bodies, but I can’t stop screaming. I’m forced to step on them to move forward, stumbling, falling, crying.

“You’re gonna get us killed!” Zed growls. He doesn’t try to keep it low anymore either.

As we escape the foul-smelling grave and reach what resembles flat terrain again it feels like being released from shackles. With a yell of effort I force myself to run, focused only on one spot before me – a white circle, literally the light at the end of the tunnel.

I ignore everything else as I hurry toward it with all I’ve got, and when the light begins to take clear shape my heart rejoices like I didn’t think it still could after everything I’ve been through in this cursed place.

Kieran steps out of the light to meet me, and I fly right into his open arms. I cry uncontrollably, caressing his marble statue of a face, so beautiful as he kisses my forehead and my hands, his pitch-black eyes searching mine with hunger and pain.

Another gunshot tears through the background. Then another. Kieran lifts his face to look behind me, and his expression goes steel-sharp. I turn around to see Zed falling to the ground with Vivien in his arms as Kieran’s men pour behind him to shield him from further bullets before the metal high-tech doors close. I realize they must be marking the borders from where Kieran had secured the catacombs that link to his manor. Still, for Zed, it’s too late.

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Stay tuned for a new chapter of The Executioner on Tuesday! Until then, enjoy the previous episodes here. If you don’t feel like waiting for the episodes, buy the whole book here, and enjoy a ride of suspense, mystery and love. Looking forward to reading from you! Love, Ana.

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The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 6

“I did what you asked and talked to Joyous to arrange you a meeting with the Marquis, Saphira. It’s happening tonight.”

As my mind wraps around the idea joy fills my chest. I grab Jeanie’s hand in anticipatory anxiety. “And you think it’ll work? Jeremy will sure have men on my tracks, he’s had me followed for days.”

Jeanie gives me a sly smile. “Joyous organized a pub party with masquerade theme. We won’t be leaving the house wearing or carrying masks so Jeremy won’t suspect that we’re going to that pub of the whole bunch in the Old Downtown, but the hostess will hand us our fake visages once we’re in, and his men will lose our trail.”

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“Joyous has.”

I wrap my arms around her, and barely manage to restrain my glee for the rest of the day. I can only think of Kieran, and that I’ll actually see him again tonight.

When the moment comes for Jeanie and me to descend the stairs in the evening I’m anxious but determined. I’ve defied worse men than Jeremy by now, to put it mildly. I’m wearing leather trousers and high heels, but underneath I have fishnet stockings and in my bag there’s a scarf that I can use as skirt. We’re planning to change in the ladies room at the pub so Jeremy’s men don’t recognize us by our outfits.

We bump into Jeremy at the front doors, blocking our way out. He stands flanked by two of his policemen, hands on the holster, gun easy to see. Being muscular and dressed in black he’d make an impression on anyone who’s seen and experienced less than me lately. His sister overhauls me and walks straight to him.

Despite her red skirt, black pumps and leather jacket she looks like a milky-skinned, fluffy schoolgirl. Her shiny curls bounce down her shoulders, and I realize – maybe for the first time in my life – that Jeanie Simmons, the little girl who used to watch with her nose stuck to the window as her older brother played with us in the yard has grown into a young woman. But her face is still as innocent as back then, and her skin as beautiful.

“Jeremy, you promised,” she whines at her brother. “Saphira has had enough grief, she needs something to help lift her spirits.”

Jeremy looks me up and down. I know he wants me – he’s always had a thing for leather pants and high heels. His eyes are on me, but he speaks to his sister.

“And I’m not in your way. But the boys here will be coming with you, and they won’t leave your side. The Marquis could be lurking.”

“But Jeremy, they’re wearing uniforms and they carry guns! They’ll freak everybody out!”

Jeremy glances at them. “Okay, get civilian jackets and hide your gear,” he commands the men, who do as told and escort us to the car while a frowning, suspicious Jeremy watches from the door.

Jeanie and I can’t talk on the way to the Old Downtown, since the men’s ears are surely funnels that lead straight to Jeremy, but we’re both restless. Our plans have gone to waste. Even if the hostess gives us masks at the door, we won’t be able to lose the men.

“I wonder why Jeremy didn’t come himself,” Jeanie spews and folds her arms across her chest like a pouty child as the men escort us among the crowd and the pubs in the Old Downtown.

“He didn’t want a fight with me.” I sound as defiant as I feel. “He’ll be avoiding me for a while longer until he thinks I’ve calmed down.”

The air is wet and chilly, soaking my flesh. Like Jeanie, I hug myself to keep the cold out of my bones and hurry awkwardly in my ouchy shoes.

There’s great hustle at the entrance to the Black Horse. Once inside the foyer and among the aspiring attendees the wet cold turns to sweaty heat. Bodies crush Jeanie and me into our companions, some people rub between us, but the policemen hustle their way back in position quickly.

I’m ever more desperate that we won’t be able to lose them as we approach the hostess, who imparts coupons and gesticulates, establishing some order. She’s costumed as a witch, but she manages to get the chaotic crowd through as efficiently and fast as a jail warden. Soon I’m right in front of her. She looks me straight in the eye, and I recognize Lord Barkley’s secretary from the lunatic asylum.

I’m sweating, certain I’m lost. A scream so sharp that it stabs my ears shoots from amidst the crowd behind and a great commotion starts, crushing and swaying us like a violent sea storm.

***

“He’s got my bag,” a girl calls. “Someone get the police!”

The commotion in the entrance foyer of the pub becomes crushing, people pushing elbows into my ribs and my back, shoving me right into the witch-costumed hostess’ arms. One of the policemen makes it right behind me, but Jeanie gets a brilliant idea.

These guys are officers,” she calls out, ripping my “escort’s” jacket open. He cusses under his breath as his police-blue shirt and his gun become visible to the public.

People grab and steer him towards the screaming girl, and Jeanie rips open the other guy’s jacket while the hostess pulls me to her and talks so close to my ear that her spittle lands on it.

I staged the theft.” With that she pushes a mask in my hands, grabs my nape and hauls me inside the pub. Her cloaked back topped by a pointy hat shifts to cover the entrance and thereby shield me from being followed.

I gather myself quickly and make my way through the crowd to the heart of the pub. I manage to hustle through the line to the ladies’ room, but the girls I elbow in the process have been waiting for quite a while, and they’re irritable. They lose their manners too, shaking fists and cursing like wantons from the cheapest brothel.

“I just need to talk to someone who’s inside, I’m no competition for the toilet,” I try to defend myself.

It doesn’t help, they’re still aggressive. I’m scared, but I have to go through with it. In the end, I’ll get out of here dressed differently and wearing a mask, so I stand a good chance of getting away without a beating.

It’s full inside the ladies’ room, and I must take my clothes off right here, among giggling girls by the mirrors. They go “Oh,” and “WTF” as I proceed with my business like an exhibitionist. I’m embarrassed, but there’s no time for pudency.

The leather pants are sticky on my sweaty legs, and losing them doesn’t go as fast as I planned at home. I’m not as graceful as I imagined I’d be as I step out of them. I stumble and catch myself by holding on to one of the girls, who’s enthusiastic that under the pants I’m wearing torn fishnet stockings just like hers.

With a friendly “Hot,” she helps me back into my high heels and watches with an impressed grin as I tie the black sheen scarf around my hips. I shuffle off the silk shirt and reveal the pink corset with black lace above the breasts, and pin my hair up in a bun, which I cover with a black sheen cap. It’s not like I’m the only blonde in here, but better take too many precautions against being recognized than too few.

I can’t believe the exhilarating feeling I get as I fling the door open and hold up my mask in front of my face, walking out of there like Catwoman on Jimmy Choos. With every step I pray I don’t sprain my ankle and spill myself on the floor before all the open mouths that shook fists at me only minutes ago. If that happens, and my disguise is compromised, I’m pretty sure my own mother would have difficulty identifying me under all the bruises from the beating I’d get. But God hears my prayers.

I make it past the waiting line and work my way slowly among the masks, the back-slapping men and laughing women, but soon I attract more attention than I can use. The costume is too sexy. I chose it because it was easy to conceal from Jeremy, but now I realize it’s practically “begging” for attention.

The thought worries me, but before I can dwell on it I see him. The man in the Zorro mask strolling his way towards me. My heart drums as he gets closer.

I’d never fail to recognize the Marquis’ marble-like skin and defined features, they’re so handsome and youthful. I sigh as his arm goes around my middle and his bittersweet scent slithers through my nostrils. For a moment there I think he’s using his powers on me again, but then I admit to myself I’m just drunk-in-love with him, and I let go.

He gently leads me to sit at a corner table that seems reserved for us. He keeps his arm on the wall at the level of my head, trapping me in the small space, his other hand caressing its way up my thigh, his fingers sinking hungry into my flesh, tearing the stockings. I keep back the sounds of pleasure that threaten to leave my throat, since people stand crammed together close to the table, shielding us like a human curtain.

“It wasn’t me, Saphira,” Kieran’s voice ripples. It feels like chocolate to my senses. “I didn’t kill your – Gunnar.”

“I never doubted that.” I keep it low too, making sure my words drown in the chatter. “But Jeremy has the whole town instigated against you. You have to get out of Northville.”

“I can’t. Not without you.”

“As soon as all this calms down I’ll move to London, and I’m sure you have your ways of finding me there. We’ll just let things cool for a while.”

“It hurt like hell to be away from you even for a few days. You want me to put up with that torture for another while that might be months?”

Emotion swells inside me. Our surroundings seem to fade away. His dark shirt is open at the neck and down to the upper part of his chest, revealing the smooth skin beneath it that I long to explore. My fingers tremble at the silky feel of it, the feel of a creature half human, half serpent.

“I missed you so much, Kieran,” I whisper.

My words set him on fire. He kisses me with those beautiful lips that make me vibrate down to my core, a rich, full kiss. His tongue fills my mouth, and I give in under his tight embrace.

“I don’t want to be separated from you another minute,” I let out among heated pecks, my hands sinking in his glossy hair.

Kieran rests his forehead against mine, looking down at his hand that still kneads my thigh.

“Run away with me, Saphira,” he lures. “We’ll leave everything behind us, the past, the revenge, and till the end of time I’ll work on making it up to you for all the pain I’ve caused you.”

“You’d do that? You’d give up the very purpose that kept you going all these years for me?”

He looks straight into my eyes. “I’d do anything for you, Saphira. As for revenge – even if not by my hand, Gunnar Lothar is dead, and his circle of monsters broken. They’re running in all directions, scared. The arms of the law should take it from here. My job is done.”

I caress his face, wanting to take in the feel of him through the fine ridges in my palms. “There’s nothing I want more than to run away with you, Kieran, leave everything behind and start anew, start clean, just you and me. But that would fuel Jeremy’s hatred against you, he’d hunt you down with even more bile and determination.”

“I’m not afraid of Jeremy Simmons.” He cups my face with both his hands. “Come with me. I promise you the dark times are over. I promise you’ll be able to love me and feel good about it too – your words, your wish.”

His eyes search mine full of hope, and I understand that this is his tormented soul’s only chance at redemption. I either accept, or Kieran Slate will succumb to the serpent Marquis forever. I make a firm decision and take the hand he offers me as he stands.

I’ve never felt more certain of anything. It’s for the first time when I’m completely sure that I’m doing the right thing. I’m madly in love with this man, and I’m well aware that eloping with him through the back door means surrendering myself to him entirely. I make the choice full-heartedly. He grabs a short leather jacket from the pegs by the exit, flings it over my shoulders, and we plunge out into the night.

The streets are narrow, dark and chilly, only here and there an orange light flickering at a window, but Kieran’s arm around me and the warm proximity of his body is all the “safe” I need. I mentally say farewell to the buildings that stand dark and timeless on each side of the cobbled street like a tunnel – this is the old part of Northville, which miraculously escaped bombardment during the war. These houses are almost as old as the line of Kings and Queens, and their walls witnessed many of the Middle Ages’ terrors and horrors, including the black plague. There are still basements where community graves were found.

Just a few months ago I thought I could never leave this place, even though its mystery chilled me to the bones, but somehow I couldn’t stop probing it. Today I know the town was always a cruel place, and that all through my life it’s been an anonymous retreat for rich twisted devils and their dark practices. I’m glad it’s going down.

Rain begins to fall from the laden skies, the drops big and hard like gravel on my face. I put the jacket over my head, but my legs are wet and freezing. The rain shortly soaks Kieran’s shirt too, making it cling to his sinewy body, but he doesn’t seem bothered in the least.

“Don’t you –”

“I’ve been through far worse than a little angry water, Saphira,” he interrupts, increasing pace as we slosh through the puddles. “It’s you we need to get to warmth fast.” My feet practically swim in the cold water in my shoes.

“Where are we going?” My teeth clatter, and Kieran’s hold tightens.

“An inn. Joyous awaits us there with a car.”

But at the next street Kieran suddenly halts. He pulls me back behind the last corner we passed, and he does it so fast I get dizzy. I come to myself and follow his gaze around the gutter to realize that we’re looking at Virgin Vivien’s house – what’s left of it after the fire. Two figures in monk-like cloaks – one tall and broad, the other small and thin – go separate ways from it. They’ve obviously been in there together, but it turns out one of them – the one that heads our way – is a woman. I can’t see that far, especially through the heavy rain, but Kieran’s eyes turn to serpent slits, and he identifies her.

“You won’t believe this. It’s Pretty Lauren.”

Surprise kicks out my manners and language. “You gotta be shitting me.”

***

 

The oldest inn in the old city. A gas lamp burns low on the table by the window where the Marquis stands, parting the curtains with his fingers and watching the entrance. I walk in drying my hair with a towel, the floorboards gritting under my feet until I drop on the bed. We haven’t had time to change clothes, so I’m still wearing the torn fishnet stockings and the pink corset with black lace, which is humid and uncomfortable. I stare at the Marquis, and I’m sure he feels it, but he keeps looking out the window into the night.

“That was surely Ivan Basarab, Saphira, why didn’t you let me chase him? There would have been no one truly dangerous left to chase me and my kind, and we could’ve lived in peace forever.”

“What if you failed to catch him?” I keep my voice low and soft, cautious not to instigate him in any way. “He would’ve known we’d try to get his real identity out of Lauren, and he would’ve killed her like he did Gunnar.”

“I would’ve caught him.” His voice is controlled, but I know better. The way he stands there in his wet clothes that cling to his spanned body, the profile of his face resembling that of a ruthless prince, they tell me how much he wants to get out there into the storm and hunt down the Slayer.

“You don’t know that, Kieran. You know nothing about the real Ivan Basarab, he could be some engineered creature himself as far that goes.”

“I’ve fought engineered creatures before. My makers sent me for the lives of many, and I have yet to meet my match – I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s a truth I’m not even proud of.”

“But this is The Slayer, Kieran. He’s specialized in taking down assassins like you.”

“And yet he works from the shadow because he’s afraid of me.”

He twists a chair through the air and brings it into place before me by the bed, then he straddles it with smooth feral moves The memories make me lean back, but he gathers my hands in his and comes so close that his bittersweet scent infiltrates through my nostrils and lures me back into calmness.

“Saphira, I meant it when I asked you to run away with me. I crave it, but Basarab’s presence here will bring death and destruction over Northville even with me gone. When Basarab doesn’t need Lauren Morris anymore he’ll kill her, and he’ll probably end Inspector Jeremy Simmons too. Not to mention what he’ll do to poor Mrs Grant who’s trapped at the asylum. Hell will break loose over this town, Saphira.”

I look down as I process his words, in order to keep my true thoughts hidden until the right moment. Until I’ve truly understood his. “Why didn’t you think about all this before you asked me to elope with you?”

“I did, but I – ” He hesitates for a moment, then his voice drops to a soft, chocolate slur. “Truth is that moment I didn’t care, Saphira. All I cared about was being with you.”

“And what changed?”

He presses my hands to his wet chest and moves by my side on the bed, making the mattress wobble. I can feel he searches my face, but I keep looking down to hide my tears. My heart slams into my chest and pumps an embarrassing flush to my cheeks.

“I’ll tell you what changed when I first met you, Saphira. The boy I used to be, Kieran Slate, I thought he found his end under the punches and knives of Pukov’s men. What my makers brought back to life was a ghost who, fuelled by anger and hatred, grew to be the best of their monsters. I crawled in the sewers underneath London and left them only to bring death upon rich bastards that my makers wanted removed from their way. I did unspeakable things to them, Saphira, and I enjoyed it. I came to Northville determined to do unspeakable things to Catherine’s tormentors. And to do terrible things to you. The night at the Royale, when I turned around and saw you staring at me I couldn’t believe my wicked luck. My luck that you’d walk right into my claws.”

Tears drip on my thighs that are criss-crossed by fishnet stockings like a hooker’s. I feel bad, and he makes it even worse as he lifts my head and looks directly into my tears-filled eyes.

“But the next instant it hit me how unlike your father you were,” he says. “Your face . . .” He strokes a tear off my cheek, looking at me as if I’m a vision. “These stunning golden eyes, they ripped straight through me. I became instantly aware that I’d been blinded by my hatred, and that I shouldn’t make a victim of you. Still, I took such second thoughts as weakness from my part, vestiges of the human I once was. Yet by the time I found you back in the banquet hall I’d changed all my plans, making them easier on you . . .”

“Nothing of what you did to me was ever easy on me, Kieran,” I whisper. I should feel anger, and yet I’m overwhelmed by pain as if a knife cuts me with every one of his words. He takes me in his arms and presses me to his wet, hard chest, his voice vibrating in my skull.

“I swear that hurts me more than it hurts you. Saphira, I fell in love with you, I fell fast and madly and relentlessly. You have no idea how it tormented me, how I suffered when I realized that I wanted you to myself more than anything . . . But I can’t just take you away and leave destruction behind, leave innocent people in the claws of the evil that I brought upon them. We’d never find happiness like this.”

“When?”

“When what?” He holds me tight, and I can barely breathe anymore.

“When did you realize you felt something for me?” I manage.

He caresses my hair and my face like a worshipper. “I first admitted to myself that you meant something to me on your date with Pukov – jealousy made killing him so much more pleasant, as horrible as that sounds. Soon I stopped fighting my feelings for you because they were too intense, and I realized everything I repressed was coming back with a vengeance. Now I surrendered completely to this madness, to this love. But if we leave Northville, Saphira, and we build our happiness on the demise of these people, it will haunt both of us forever.”

push him gently with my palms and look up into his face with all the emotion I feel inside. With all my being I return the passion that I feel coming from him, but I must assume the responsibility that goes with it.

“Talk to your men, Kieran, ask them to save this town. They’ll fight for you, they’re loyal – proof that the vestiges of your good nature were there long before you met me. And leave discovering Basarab’s true identity to me.”

He looks at me puzzled. “Why are you . . . What is – ”

“Please, listen.Your men are strong, bred to kill and experienced fighters, the only protection this town has.” I swallow. “Jeremy is biased by his hatred for you, so he and his policemen won’t oppose Basarab, who will surely wipe out the whole place once he’s done with it, just like you said. You and your men are Northville’s only chance.”

“I’ve been meaning to offer a very similar solution, but I don’t agree to you having any part in this – ”

“It would be easier for you to take Basarab down if you knew his true identity, right?”

“Of course, but –”

“Kieran, I have a plan.”

The door flies open, and Jeanie and Joyous storm in. Jeanie’s curls and red dress are heavy with rainwater and her eyes alarmed, while Joyous – for the first time without a smile in place – looms lank behind her, his prominent boned head that is almost a circus curiosity high above her rosy cheeked-face. His stare is as creepy as ever, and I still doubt his mental sanity by the look of it, but he’s indeed compelling, attractive maybe in a weird way.

“You need to get out of here, fast, the police are already close,” Jeanie urges, heaving with palms on her knees.

Kieran jumps to his feet and grabs my hand, but I yank it away.

“Go, Kieran!”

“I don’t like this.” He reaches for me again, but I leap from the bed and hurry to the table, drawing a chair and taking a seat. I can already hear the calls of the squad outside. “Please trust me. And whatever happens with me – do not intervene.”

“What? No way, I can’t do that!” His face is dead-white as he approaches me. I grow desperate as the fight-mongering calls from outside take up. Steps are already rapping up the stairs, but Kieran still won’t move, his eyes flashing into slits and his hands elongating into claws. Jeanie yelps and stumbles backwards, retreating in horror.

“I’m begging you, Kieran,” I cry.

Joyous takes two long strides to the window, throws it open and grabs Kieran’s arm.

“Let’s go. It’s the best thing to do right now.”

Kieran keeps in place. “I will find you again, Saphira, even if I have to turn this whole God forsaken town upside down.”

“You do that.” I get up and press my lips on his, which takes him by surprise. I try to imprint the smooth, rich feel of them into my memory in case this goes wrong. The plan is clear in my head, and it takes only a moment to whisper the most important part in Kieran’s ear. It’s supposed to make him feel more in control, and it does.

His eyes take human shape again. He stares hard at me, and only follows Joyous out the window when the policemen’s steps almost reach the door. I sit back down and take Jeanie’s hand. It helps me keep from shaking.

Without even trying a knock Jeremy breaks down the door and steps over the threshold with an angry frown, his men pouring in like cockroaches from behind him.

***

To continue see Episode 28. Starting on Tuesday the story of the Marquis and Saphira will go on with Episode 34 until Episode 43-45, which will mark the end. I hope you enjoy it to the fullest! All previous episodes of the story are available here: The Marquis – Online Story, and only the scenes between Saphira and the Marquis summarized here:

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 4.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 5.

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts and feelings in a comment and, if you liked this, please don’t hesitate to share the post.

 

Pic source.

 

 

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 5

Daylight makes it through my eyelids, stubborn and stingy. I shield my eyes and squint around to realize I’m tucked under the long coat, alone on the couch. I sit up with a jolt, and my eyes find the Marquis.

He’s sitting at his desk, wearing a dark suit that compliments his athletic shoulders and arms. He’s as cool and composed as ever, but the moment he looks from his papers to me his gaze changes from that of a cold prince to that of a man who knows, who understands and who cares – the gaze of Kieran Slate. He smiles and stands.

“Good morning.”

I watch as he approaches, the events from last night replaying in my head like a movie on fast-forward until he squats by the couch, taking my hand and kissing it.

“I would’ve brought you to a cosier room, but I thought you’d freak out if you woke in a place where you didn’t feel safe.”

“Feel safe?”

“Last night I told you this study was the only place serpents couldn’t breach,” he reminds me.

“You’re dressed.”

“I had clothes and water brought here. I knew you’d be scared if you woke up alone, so I didn’t leave you for a second.”

Once again affection overwhelms me. “Your wounds?”

He unbuttons his jacket and his shirt, revealing his marble pectoral as the fabric falls off his shoulder. Only a thin scar even whiter than his skin reminds me of the gaping wound from last night. My eyes widen.

“Wow.”

“I told you by morning I’d be as good as new.”

“That’s mind-blowing.”

“What you did for me last night, Saphira,” Kieran says while his hand brushes through my hair as far as the tangles permit it, “it started mending other wounds too. Wounds that don’t show on my body.”

I search his beautiful face and I’d do it forever, but a knock on the door distracts both our attention. Kieran gives me another glance, assessing me up and down – probably to make sure I’m decent – before he permits the visitor to enter.

The double doors open to reveal the head of security Zed with his hands on the knobs. Our eyes meet. His features are as stony and controlled as ever, his ice-blue eyes as focused, but the scars on his face in the shape of scratches bring back a flash of memory – Kieran’s claws slashing the first attacker.

“It was you,” I whisper, remembering the way he writhed and hissed like a lunatic snake – which is exactly what he was, according to Kieran’s explanations. A pang of fear goes through me, but Kieran’s protective arm winding around my shoulder brings back a sense of safety.

“Zed only attacked you because of the moon’s influence, Saphira,” Kieran says. “His animal instincts controlled him, but not anymore.”

“You can rely on me to protect you as I did before, Milady,” Zed adds, bending his head, but his body keeps stiff and straight.

I look him up and down, fascinated by the difference between the animal and the man. “Milady” doesn’t go unnoticed either.

“Call me Saphira.”

He nods.

“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding between you and Kieran,” I say. “It was all my fault.”

“No apologies needed. You wouldn’t apologize to a wolf for having provoked him with your presence in the woods either. Plus that we regenerate fast, no permanent harm was done.”

“What do you have?” Kieran cuts in.

“Vivien Grant,” Zed replies, raising his head and squaring his shoulders like a soldier at his superior’s command. “We trailed her. She sought haven with relatives in the southern forests.”

“Vivien lives?” I yelp and spring up to my feet.

“She does,” Zed says. “But she’s so traumatized she can’t speak.”

“What?” I start walking to Zed, as if that can make things clearer. The man doesn’t move an inch, keeping as stiff and cold as a robot. “What she went through left her with a trauma. She’s shaky and mute and seemingly not in her own body.”

“I have to see her. Right away.”

“That’s impossible. We let her stay with her relatives and left guards behind, since bringing her here would put her life in danger. Her presence would attract Basarab and help our cause indeed, but I doubt you want your friend used as bait.”

Kieran clasps my shoulders and turns me to face him.

“Listen, Saphira. The men made sure Vivien is safe, but for the moment this is all we can do for her.” He turns to Zed. “We’ll discuss the details later. Now escort Saphira to the chamber – my chamber. It’s more comfortable.” He addresses me again. “I’d accompany you myself, but I have to prepare the plan.”

“Plan?” I frown in confusion.

“Zed will explain.” Kieran squares his shoulders, his hands dropping off me.

The head of security steps aside and motions me to walk before him. “I’ll tell you all about it, Milady. Saphira.”

Kieran is already on his way back to his desk. I stand in place and watch him until he faces me again.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I whisper. Our eyes lock, and emotion flows between us. I want to run into his arms and kiss him, but I remember my dirty skin, my crazy hair and the stained ripped dress I’m wearing. And the plan. I turn and let Zed close the doors behind me.

Two other men wait outside the study and lead Zed and me up the grand stairs, past the huge pointed arch on the first landing to what turns out to be Kieran’s majestic bedroom on the first floor. A huge arched window reveals a view of the rocky fields where serpents crawled and squirmed last night in the terrible fight that I survived only thanks to Kieran. There’s a king size bed, a fireplace and all the decorum of a palace, but it barely looks inhabited.

“He’s rarely here,” Zed says, as if reading my mind. The door is still open behind him. He avoids being alone with me, and I can understand that. I can only hope he’ll talk freely nonetheless.

“How come?”

“He mostly spends his nights as a serpent. But things might change now, since you and him . . .” He clears his throat and changes the subject. “Please, get ready. You and Kieran are going to the lunatic asylum today to talk to your friend’s mother.”

I’m baffled. “Why the asylum?”

“That’s where Mrs Grant has been since the events with her daughter and the burning of her house.”

The news strikes me like a punch. “Excuse me?”

“She was hysterical, impossible to control, they said.”

“They, who’s they?”

“The police, led by your friend Jeremy Simmons. They had to restrain her and turn her in for special care at the asylum.”

 

***

A young butler brings in clothes. I take a bath and put on an elegant cream-colored two-piece suit and glossy high heels that he provides. My hair finds structure in a wound golden tail, but the make-up fails me. Last night took its toll, and no matter what I do, the eerie effect of the golden eyes reflecting in the mirror won’t lessen.

Zed and Joyous escort me to the curb, the latter holding the door as I get in the back of the car by Kieran’s side. He looks fresh in his suit, his marble face flawless and his smile dashing, his attitude very different from the man’s who used to drive icy fear into my bones with a mere glance. The knowledge that he still has that power, that he can hypnotize me into obedience or dread anytime, unsettles me.

“Is everything all right?” He takes my hand his. I look down at it, my heart beating in the rhythm of my crush.

“I’m still wary of you, Kieran.”

“Please, don’t. I’ll never hurt you again, I’ll die before I do.” He squeezes my hand, and I look up into his black eyes that show pain.

“Maybe you won’t hurt me by doing what you did before, but how can I be sure that you’ll never use your hypnotic powers on me again?”

“I promise that I’ll never influence you. Not anymore, not like that.”

I narrow my eyes. “What do you mean ‘not like that’?”

His gaze catches a shade of wisdom. I realize just how old he actually is. “I hope you’ll still allow me to try and convince you, just like any other person.”

“You’re not ‘Any Other Person.’ It’s unfair to demand Any Other Person’s privileges.”

“I’ve said it before, and I can’t resist saying it again – you’re a very special woman, Saphira.”

I’m not so sure, but I’m flattered nonetheless. I nestle at his chest, breathing in his bittersweet scent that stirs me in my crush. I try to get a grip on my feelings and keep a cool head.

“Kieran –” I lick my lips, searching for the right words to put this. “You say you’ll never hurt me again. But you came to Northville with the iron purpose of hurting my father. You planned an ‘epic revenge.’ Is that still your plan?”

Kieran holds my chin up and looks me in the face.

“Would you consider that I hurt you if I took revenge on your father? Even though I’d keep you very far from that revenge?”

I gulp down the knot in my throat. “I don’t know. How far can I be kept from it, considering that he’s my father.”

“He raped and killed women, Saphira. He tortured Catherine.”

My skin creases. “What do you intend to do with him?”

“First answer me this: Don’t you believe your father should pay for what he’s done?”

“I believe that’s better left in Providence’s hands. No evil deed has ever gone unpunished one or way or another.”

“Well, it’s been decades since Catherine, and your Providence hasn’t yet seen fit to punish your father.”

“No, not yet. But are you sure you want his blood on your hands? Blood is heavy, Kieran, no matter if it belongs to the just or the evil.”

He laughs a bad laugh, and it seems the dangerous Marquis is back. “Who are you telling about it? I have so much of that weight on my hands, Saphira, it should’ve pulled me to the core of the Earth until now. You know this.”

“I do. And it’s the very reason I’m worried and unsure. You and I, our connection . . . It’s happening fast, it’s relentless, and I want it badly, but I can’t live with the idea that you take lives.”

His gaze freezes on mine, and for a moment I fear this last point brought us to a dead end.

“You’re asking me to relinquish revenge on your father in exchange or for the sake of this closeness?”

“For the sake of it, of course. Listen, Kieran.” I squeeze his hand in both of mine and hold his gaze. “My father and his group committed terrible crimes, not only against Catherine for sure. We have the opportunity to unmask these monsters. You’re rich and powerful, I’m sure your means can beat theirs if they try to corrupt the press and the police. We can bring it all to light and nail them the right way.”

“Saphira, I survived being engineered into a monster and used as a killer only for the sake of this revenge. It’s what kept me going. You’re asking me to throw away my reason for breath.”

I caress his cheek. “want to be your reason for breath. But I’m realistic, and I know such fantasies are childish. But I’m asking you to relinquish revenge is because I believe you and I can have a fresh start. The past is the past, but we cannot be together if the poison of vengeance seeps into our present, continuing to shed blood and tears. I want to live out my love for you freely, smoothly, without hacks and hatches. I want to lose my head for you, and feel good about it too.”

Kieran stares at me as if I’m turning into gold with every word. When he kisses me, he’s thirsty and deep and passionate. I’m dizzy when he breaks the kiss and joins his forehead to mine, both his hands on my face.

“For this favour, dear Saphira, I’ll not only consider dropping revenge, but I’ll turn that childish fantasy into reality. I’ll make you my reason for breath.”

My heart jumps, but I don’t want to be stupid. “I’m not asking –”

“No, you’re not,” he interrupts. “Because you’re wild and idealistic, but also mature and reasonable, and I love that about you. But fantasy, Saphira, is not only for children. Fantasy wouldn’t be imaginable if it weren’t possible.”

I smile and stroke the back of his hands. “And you’re the living proof.”

 

***

The two policemen lead us down a tiled corridor lined by security men to Ronald Lord Barkley’s office. By the moment the door opens to his secretary’s narrow antechamber I’ve got goose skin for all the bad reasons – the screams from the upper levels which probably come from people being subjected to electroshocks, the occasional door ajar allowing glimpses into greenish rooms with iron beds and chipped bathtubs. This is a place of shudder and gloom despite all the money that flows into it, and I can’t help increasing pace. I thank God with all I have that Kieran didn’t let me enter alone. His reliable presence and the warmth of his body help me act halfway decent, but when Lord Barkley’s full-moon-faced and red-lipped secretary opens the door to his office I’m about to lose composure.

The man sits at his desk, his livid cheeks slack and his mouth a hatched curve with the ends downward. He has drooping eyes and thinning hair, and his frame is long and skinny. He holds a cigarette between his knotty fingers that scream out his arthritis, and when the Marquis enters the room behind me, his face seems to draw even longer. But what strikes me most is something else.

Two people sit on either side of his desk. One of them – to his right – is my mother, also long and skinny, her face gaunt and haunted, her greying hair up in her usual bun. She too has a cigarette between her fingers, and tears well in her eyes as she sees me. She puts out the cigarette and stands up. My eyes fly to the other side of the desk.

Inspector Jeremy Simmons fixes me with his small dark eyes, but nothing in his expression betrays surprise. I realize immediately he’s here because he expected me. Or us. His bulky muscles fill the armchair he sits sprawled in, and his square jaw is covered by a three-day-beard that adds to his bad-boy demeanour. Tension is heavy in the room, the silence oppressive. Jeremy is the first to break it and speak.

“Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” he says, making himself even broader by putting a big hand on the desk and resting an ankle over his knee. “Miss Saphira Lothar and Monsieur le Marquis de Vandenesse.”

Jealousy lurks in his words. My eyes fly from one person to the other. The Marquis is close behind me, but I can’t bring myself to look at him, as if taking my eyes off the three characters before me would somehow trigger their doing something terrible to us.

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to leave you alone,” the Marquis tells me loud enough for everybody else to hear it.

Jeremy stands up as if electroshocked himself and stomps to us. “Take your hands off her, you bastard!”

“Back off.” Kieran grows menacing, and I can’t help turning to look into his face. He resembles a marble statue, but the life in his black eyes is searing. I place a hand on his arm.

“Kieran, we’re here for approval to see Mrs Grant, that’s the only reason for our visit.” I bend to the side to look at Lord Barkley past Jeremy. “Lord Barkley, please. Allow us just a few minutes with Mrs Grant, it’s urgent.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Saphira,” the man croaks.

“But, Lord Barkley –”

“Save it, Saphira,” the Marquis stops me. My head snaps to him, and I find his eyes still fixed on Jeremy. They watch each other like hawks. “Any information Mrs Grant had to give, these three people here already have it. And they surely don’t want us to know it too, otherwise they wouldn’t take all this trouble to block access to her.”

Mum steps forward, crying. “That’s not true! Lynn Grant refused to talk to anybody, even the police. We’re here because we expected Saphira would want to see Lynn, and you wouldn’t by any means let her come alone. You’ve been keeping Saphira locked in for weeks, and you didn’t allow her to see even us, her family. You sequestrated her, you’re sick!”

“That’s not the reason I didn’t come to see you,” I step in. “I didn’t return home because I don’t want to have anything to do with that monster you call my father anymore.”

Mum blinks as if slapped. She babbles until she finds back to herself and her words. “Where did that come from, Saphira?”

I walk towards my mother, pointing a finger at her. “Enough you’ve pretended, a whole lifetime. You always knew something was wrong with him, which is why you abandoned yourself to booze and cigarettes. You thought substances would numb you, but all they did was throw you deeper into depression. And that man I used to call ‘Father’ is not the only criminal. This town crawls with sick bastards like him, so don’t take out your frustration and fury on the Marquis, because he’s not the one you truly want to choke.”

“What on Earth do you mean?” Mum whispers, her hands shaking.

***

“That’s enough, Saphira,” Jeremy cuts in. He walks to me and extends a hand, but the Marquis grabs and twists it behind his back. As big and muscular as Inspector Jeremy Simmons is, he groans and bares his teeth as he leans backwards into the Marquis’ clasp.

“If you ever try to touch her again, I’ll break every bone in your body,” the Marquis threatens. He’s taller and leaner than Jeremy, therefore more agile even without his engineered powers, but he’s also so much stronger. His ivory features are locked, and his black eyes angry coals.

“Please, Kieran, don’t hurt him,” I plead. “He’s innocent.”

The Marquis keeps his glare on Jeremy, his sweet lips drawing in a hiss. “I’m not so sure.”

“Better tell him the truth. That he should be on our side.”

“What the hell is this?” Jeremy groans and tries to struggle from the Marquis’ grip, but without success.

“Please, just listen to him, Jeremy.”

“Saphira, what is happening?” Mum is puzzled, her hand gently touching mine.

I look straight into her eyes and tell her the story in a few short sentences – that Catherine Lancaster, Lord Lancaster’s daughter, had been raped by a group of men from this town, and that my father, Gunnar Lothar, killed her in the end. Mum gasps and takes a few steps back, gripping the rest of the chair where she sat as we walked in.

“Your father was one of them too, Inspector Boy,” the Marquis hisses in Jeremy’s ear. “The lucky bastard died before I got my hands on him, so don’t give me reason to take it out on you, his son.”

Jeremy struggles like a wounded animal, kicking the air in front of him, but unable to release himself from the Marquis’ hold. “You fucking bastard!”

The Marquis is inhumanly strong, and Jeremy’s struggles don’t move him an inch. He turns his vicious black glare to Lord Barkley.

“What about you, filth bag? Could it be, that you were one of them as well?”

Lord Barkley is still sitting in his chair, the cigarette burning his fingers but he doesn’t seem aware of that. He looks stunned at Kieran, unable to utter one word.

Mum presses her fingers on her temples, shaking her head. “This can’t be. This can’t be happening.”

I approach her carefully, searching her gaze but she looks down, then sideways, then upwards, avoiding my gaze.

“It is, Mum,” I say gently. “If you’re honest to yourself, you’ve always known. But you’ve tried to silence your sixth sense.” As I did through compulsive painting, but this is not about me, so I keep the remark to myself. The Marquis’ voice cuts in, making me look at him and Jeremy again.

“And you, stupid shit,” he addresses Jeremy, “you find out all sorts of stuff but not the essential. You spoiled, superficial and incompetent brat. Didn’t you ever at least suspect of all the bastards in this cursed place? Or, what, are you covering their arses?”

“Wait a second,” Mum says, her voice faint, her eyes wide on the Marquis. “What happened with Catherine Lancaster was decades ago. What have you got to do with it?”

I clear my voice and hold her shoulders as I speak, so I can support her if she falls. “Kieran was Lord Lancaster’s stable boy, Mum. He and Catherine were secretly in love, and the night she was raped he was beaten almost to death by Vladimir Pukov’s people – Pukov was part of the group as well, and Dad wanted me to marry him even though he knew this.”

Mum looks stunned from me to the Marquis, then to Lord Barkley, who sits silent in his chair.

“But,” she whispers, “I knew Catherine. We were friends. We grew up together, just like you and Vivien, Lauren and Jeanie. Lord Lancaster said she had run away with the stable boy. It came as a shock to the rest of us, we knew nothing, I . . .”

“Lord Lancaster couldn’t take the pain, Mum,” I say. “He spread a story he could at least try to live with.”

Mum slumps into the chair behind her, and I support her by the shoulders as she does. Her eyes are fixed in awe on the Marquis. “But that means . . . How old are you?”

The Marquis looks at her, but doesn’t answer.

“My God,” she whispers. “And Saphira? What role did she play in your plot?”

Pain cuts through my chest, and I sink my head.

“At first I wanted to use her in my revenge on Catherine’s tormentors,” the Marquis explains. “I wanted to have her lure them to places where I could kill them right before her eyes, torment her mind and soul in the process, and in the end have her father find her mad from everything she’s witnessed in the same place Catherine was found. I considered it an act of kindness – to her, not Gunnar – not having her sleep with all those men too. I took the decision to go easier on her than initially planned after I got to know her. She made a painting of me, and she . . . I fell in love with your daughter, Mrs Lothar. It sounds impossible, coming from a monster like me, whose soul has been frozen for decades, but it’s the pure truth. I don’t expect you to give us your blessing, but I’d like you to know that for her sake I decided to drop all thoughts of revenge. But unfortunately, this town’s troubles won’t end with that.”

Jeremy has another fit of struggling, and this time he makes it out of the Marquis’ arms – or the Marquis let him go, since he doesn’t look surprised. He and Jeremy now face each other. The Marquis arranges the collar of his suit jacket, while Jeremy flexes and glares.

“This town’s biggest problem is you, devil,” Jeremy growls. The Marquis smiles at him like a prince at a powerless angry peasant.

“I’m not the one who set the Grants’ house on fire and tried to kill Vivien. That was Ivan Basarab – the Slayer – whose true name you should be busy finding out. He’s one of this town’s honourable citizens, killers, filth bags that you now have no more excuse to ignore.”

“You need proof for all these allegations, de Vandenesse and, right now, all I truly got is proof that you’re a killer. Guards!” Jeremy calls.

Quick steps stomp closer and louder from the corridor, and policemen burst in. They take out their guns and focus on Kieran as if they’ve been waiting for this command all along. I scream and want to run to Kieran, but one of the policemen stops me and keeps me away from the scene as more men pour in. This is indeed a trap they set up for Kieran.

Kieran looks left, right and relaxes. A smile pulls one corner of his sweet mouth, and that is the last sight I get of his human self before his skin starts losing it’s opaque consistence, turning into something jelly-like and transparent, then into increasingly metallic scales. His eyes spring into slits, and his serpent tongue shoots out of his mouth as he gives out a piping hiss that sends an unbearable buzz through all our ears.

I squeeze my eyes shut and press my hands to my ears, but the buzz still pierces through. Only when it stops I dare look up again to see all policemen scrambling up from the floor, the terrified looks in their eyes and the confusion as they grope around testimony that the Marquis had been right – nothing of the security here has anything on him.

The door is open, with no trace of the Marquis, while Jeremy is the only person standing, however stunned with a gun in his hand in the middle of his sprawled men.

Someone breathes hoarsely behind me. I turn to see Ronald Lord Barkley, and realize his knotty hands are clamped around my shoulders. He shakes and can’t take his eyes off the door.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he whispers.

“Excuse me?” I try to get away from him, but his fingers sink into my shoulders, keeping me in place as a human shield.

“I didn’t have anything to do with their dark practices. I was part of their group of friends all those years ago, but I never participated in the terrible things they did.”

I shake myself from his grip and hurry to help my Mum up from the floor.

“What in all Saints’ names was that?” She exclaims, looking desperate and brushing invisible cockroaches off her body. She’s horrified, hysterical, making it hard to help her up. “He’s a monster! A monster!”

I struggle with her to help her calm down, and it’s a real fight until she manages to get a grip.

 

To be continued on Friday.

***

 

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part 5 on Friday!

Previously

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 4.

This is a compilation of The Marquis’ and Saphira’s moments together from the entire story.

Read Part I of the ENTIRE story („Saphira“) here, and Part 2 of the ENTIRE story (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

 

Pic source.

 

 

 

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 4

The Marquis shields me from the other serpents. I can’t bring myself to stand, tasting mud in my mouth, my fingers clawing the pasty earth, the rain battering my back.

I try to tell myself this isn’t real, but every bit of my body feels the reality. Serpents squirm, some tangling with each other and building a slimy circle around the Marquis and me. They look like him, the torsos of men with monster faces, and serpent tails.

Suddenly, one of them launches toward the Marquis, whose long claws shoot out from his fingertips and slash the creature while it’s still in the air. It falls to the ground, writhing and whistling, but only a second later another one swings forward.

The Marquis’ tail coils around my body, his dragon scales wet and slippery as it slides on my skin, tightening until it immobilizes my arms along my torso. He lifts me in the air, away from the snakes. I close my eyes tightly to reduce the vertigo as the tail’s jerks scramble my brains.

When I manage to open them again the Marquis is high on the curve of his tail, holding me even higher. I panic as I watch his claws slash at incoming offensives. Snakes fall left and right, and the ground begins to spin away from me as the Marquis pirouettes and drives me higher up in the air. Gravity seems to pull at my stomach, it feels like a falling rock.

The Marquis turns his face to me from beneath, his blister-like eyes apparently bleeding, as well as his black lips. One of the attackers takes advantage of this break in the Marquis’ focus and jumps at him, thrusting its teeth in the muscle between his neck and his shoulder.

His whistle stabs my eardrums, but even though his pain is obvious his tail doesn’t slacken off me. His sways are jerky as he retreats with me towards the manor that I’ve tried so hard to escape, while his torso dashes forward. He bites the snakes again and again, swift like a huge cobra. He’s stronger and faster than them, so fast that his attacks add to my vertigo.

Once we’re inside the chilly manor, the doors thud closed. The Marquis sets me gently on the cold floor, his tail unwinding from my body, but my skin still crawls after its touch. I remain lying on my back on the granite, my eyes open and my head spinning with the vaulted ceiling above.

“Why, Saphira?” The Marquis heaves. “Why did you do something so reckless?”

I roll on the side to look at him. He’s on the floor too, supporting his weight on his palms, his flesh now transparent and his veins visible through it. He’s becoming a man again, his body gaining heat, and his face morphing from a monster to a beautiful human.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” I murmur. The sight of him transforming fascinates me, and my mouth remains open after I’ve spoken.

“Temptation?” He looks at me with a frown, blood dripping from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt.”

“No, don’t change the subject.” He shakes his head slowly, strands of damp hair falling over his forehead. “What were you tempted by?”

“Freedom.”

He bends his head and hunches, baring his teeth in pain while his tail begins to split like a snake tongue. With a cry he throws his head back and spans like a bow. My breath catches. His tail splits into legs, ripping and bleeding until human sinews replace the serpent muscle. In a matter of seconds, the wounds close as thighs and calves take shape.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, staring in awe.

Panting hard, the Marquis drops naked on the floor, looking like a marble sculpture. His flawless skin, his lean muscles and his youthful profile stand in contrast with the monster from only moments before, but they also prove he’s not a simple man. No human can be this beautiful. The wound between his head and his shoulder now yawns wider, bloody, looking painful. My heart clenches.

“We need to get that cleaned up ASAP,” I say. “And drain the venom out.”

“The venom won’t do anything to me.” He breathes with difficulty and tries to stand, but he drops right back on his palms. He spits blood, and I panic.

“It doesn’t look like it. It looks like you’re going to die.”

“If I died, would you care?” With his head still hanging he turns his face to me, revealing the ghost of a grin. His pitch black eyes show exhaustion and pain.

I scramble up, grab his arm and swing it around my neck, winding my other arm around his waist. He puts a foot down, the muscles in his thigh flexing strong as he stands, which is great help, because he seems to weigh a ton. But that’s the last display of strength the Marquis can offer.

Blood drips on the floor as we begin to move down the hall. The Marquis limps, and I notice a wound in his hip. The corridor turns darker with every step, and a glance through the windows lining the outer wall shows heavy clouds placing the moon in shadow. The storm roars outside, and for a moment I visualize all those snakes from before flooding the manor.

“They’ll eventually crawl their way inside.” Panic’s sharp in my words.

“My study,” the Marquis mutters. “We’ll be safe there, no cracks, no openings. We’ll start the fire to block the chimney.”

We increase our pace toward the high double doors as the slimy sound of serpent slither begins to close in on us.

***

We make it to the study, the Marquis leaning on the pillar by the entrance as I push the doors shut. I help him to the couch, and hurry to the outline of the fireplace.

“Where’s the firewood?” I spin in place, the semi-obscurity making it hard on my eyes.

“No wood. A lever in the centre of the mantelpiece, it looks like a candle. Feels like one too if you can’t see well.”

I grope, find it and pull. What must be wood logs rolls into the fireplace from somewhere inside it, the sound followed by a splash and a sizzle. Fire bounces to life, making me take a few steps back. I’m amazed the Marquis should use technology in so vintage a place as this study. The warmth hits my numb cheeks, making blood prickle through them again.

I turn to look at the Marquis’ naked figure, his arms spread on the rest of the leather couch, displaying the marble beauty of his body. He resembles a work of art in the firelight, marred by trails of blood that trickle from his shoulder down his chest and from his hip down his sculpted thigh.

I rip my eyes from him and scan the place for anything I can use for his wounds. I identify the corner liquor cabinet, grab the vodka and soak a starched white napkin with it. I hurry to the couch with the napkin in one hand and the bottle in the other, and curl one leg under me as I sit facing the Marquis and pressing the napkin on the wound on his shoulder. He winces and squeezes his eyelids.

My gaze glides over his profile. His eyes are hooded as he relaxes his head back on the rest of the couch, now that the sting of alcohol is more bearable.

“You saved me,” I whisper.

He squints at me, as if he only just remembered. “Why did you run, Saphira?”

My eyes wandering all over his face, I realize the pain he goes through in his transformation. A revelation hits me – The Marquis may be a monster, but Kieran Slate is a victim. Emotion swells in my chest as my gaze lingers on his white, bloodless lips, then on his tormented black eyes.

“You weren’t exactly nice to me,” I whisper.

He looks sad at me, maybe hurt. “But why try to elope with Inspector Boy?”

“I . . .”

I move the soaked napkin to the wound on his hip. He winces and hisses, the sinews in his body tightening.

“I wasn’t eloping with him. He offered an alternative. But I’d like you to leave him alone, please,” I dare.

“You still have feelings for him?” He grimaces again at the touch of more alcohol on his wound.

“No, not like that, not anymore. He and I go way back though, he’s . . . say a childhood friend to me.”

Uncomfortable silence settles between us. The fire rustle fills the room, but I’m not sure the burn in my cheeks is because of the heat or because of the awkwardness.

I walk to the corner liquor cabinet again and grab more starched napkins and a bottle of water. My ears perk up, scanning the silence for serpent slither outside. My skin crawls at the memory of it, sending a shudder all through me.

“Are you sure they can’t get in?” I inquire after I’ve returned by the Marquis. Despite his exhaustion, this spot right by his side feels safe.

“Positive. This room is as good as a vault. But returning to the subject of Jeremy Simmons. How come you trusted him, Saphira? He cheated on you in the past, and you’re not one to forgive easily, as far as I know.”

“Uhm, er –” I busy myself soaking another napkin – with water this time – as a pretext to keep my eyes down to what I’m doing and not look into the Marquis’ face. “My situation was desperate, and I’ve known Jeremy all my life. I needed someone, and he was the next best thing.”

“Next best thing to what? Or to whom?”

My heart clenches as I remember that my father, the man I should trust most, is a deranged killer, and my mother a poor soul who keeps her intuition numb with liquor and too many cigarettes.

I force my mind away from the subject and shrug. “Jeanie and Vivien, my best friends, I guess. But I didn’t want to drag them into this horror. Jeremy was already in it.”

“How about your mother? Why isn’t she the one who enjoys your trust most?” The Marquis asks softly. My eyes shoot up at his, and the truth stumbles out of my mouth.

“She’s distant. She always did what she thought was best for me, but somehow she was actually never . . . there.” I look down again to hide the tears that start to well in my eyes. “I now understand why. She always sensed something was mighty off with Dad, and it consumed her emotionally. It still does.”

This is hardly the time for confessions, and thoughts of the serpents remind me of that. I fire a glance to the door. “Are you sure they can’t come in here? It seems so still out there it gives me the creeps.”

“Relax, this room is completely safe. Besides, it’s past midnight. The effect of the moon on the inner serpent is lessening, we’re more controlled now.”

The kindness in his voice sends warmth through me, and I’m wondering if he’s using his powers on me again. If he is, he does it in a wholly different way than before. We search each other’s faces for moments until I kick the conversation back on track, starting to dab the blood off his chest.

“How come this place is crawling with serpent-men? I thought you were the only one.”

“They are my staff.”

My hand freezes mid-dab. “Say what?”

“When I decided to stop working as a hit man for my makers, many of my peers decided to follow,” he explains. “I couldn’t trust people who didn’t share my curse or my secret, I’m sure you understand. As for tonight, full moon lends unbound power to the serpent inside the man. It’s next to impossible to fight the inner monster under the shine of full moon, and we can’t resist transformation.”

Now I understand why Zed left the door to my tower chamber unlocked – the inner demon tormented him, and he needed to get out fast, which unbalanced his otherwise steely focus.

“But they are your men. How come they attacked you?”

“I protected what would’ve been their prey – you –, so I stood their enemy. Tonight they’re slaves to their instincts and don’t acknowledge any other master.”

He protected me. At the risk of his own life. Gratitude fills my heart.

“Thank you so much, Kieran. So much.” I squeeze his hand, searching his beautiful face and hoping to convey the feeling that overwhelms me. A tired smile draws the corner of his sweet mouth, his eyes closing as if to let him take in a pleasant sensation.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. I cherish it, you know? It’s my only bridge to the human I once was.”

“I cherish it too,” I whisper. “And I won’t use it without your permission.”

“Oh, you have all permission in the world. I like the way it sounds from your mouth.”

He sets his dark eyes on me, soft and kind and intimate. He was cold and even cruel to me before, but somehow I always sensed the good in him. The way he looks at me fills me with affection, and my heart beats in my throat.

***

The study is warm and cosy, the firelight casting a beautiful glow on Kieran’s face. We sit facing each other on the couch.

“But still, I wouldn’t thank me,” he says. “It’s my fault the serpent-men are here in the first place.”

I shake my head. “No, that’s not true. This place was a nest of vipers all along, with my father and his group having raped and killed Catherine. It’s their fault you are here.” I grab his hand with both of mine. “Kieran, this town was a place of morbid mystery until you came along and brought that crime to light. My mother and I, we always sensed something was wrong. To silence that nagging inner voice, she lost herself to liquor, and I – to avoid the same fate – turned to watercolours, oil and canvas. Through painting I searched for something I sensed but couldn’t identify no matter how hard I tried.”

“Is that what you did?” He probes softly.

I bite my lower lip, searching for an example that would best help him understand.

“Remember the painting of the Dark Castle? The one you walked straight to when you first entered my parents’ attic? You said it mirrored my soul. You were right. I’ve been digging in it, portraying it in detail hoping to find something that I now realize didn’t even lie within but without. I was trying to uncover what it was that I sensed.”

“You do have special insight into souls,” he says, his voice low and creamy. “That’s why I had the portrait you made of me brought here and locked in the tower. It made me feel bared.”

I search the depths of his eyes. “You said that portrait was a confession.”

“And that it was. A confession that there was a battered stable boy behind the powerful Marquis. That I wasn’t invincible.”

Scenes of him in his huge serpent form slashing and biting his attackers fill my mind’s eye.

“Not invincible, but incredibly strong. You fought all those creatures by yourself.”

He makes a bitter grimace. “The reason why my makers held me in special regard. And why the mighty Slayer avoids direct confrontation.”

“Speaking of the Slayer,” I latch on the topic, trying to mask the shudder that goes through me as I realize how powerful he actually is. “Ivan Basarab. My best bet is Ronald Lord Barkley, especially since he and Vivien used to meet around the asylum. Vivien’s mother knows for a fact who it is – she told me, but an explosion muffled the sound. All we have to do is ask her to get confirmation. I would’ve told you before, when you came to my room, but I was too scared.”

He smiles a gentle smile, putting his hand over mine. “You’re not scared anymore, I hope. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

I smile back. My cheeks prickle with emotion, which I identify as infatuation and a trace of fear. “It’s getting better.”

“Good, because I want us to become real, Saphira. I want . . . I want a true relationship.”

I drop my gaze like a maiden from the past century, embarrassed by my blush. I fight the girlish stupidity with all I have. “You’ve hurt me, Kieran, badly. You used me in terrible ways.”

The couch dips as he changes position and bends to me. My heart races, and I watch my own chest rising and falling as I try to control my breathing. He touches my chin with a soft finger, lifting my gaze to meet his again.

“Is that a no?”

“It is.”

His face draws. Desolation falls over his features, giving me an impulse to allow hope.

“At least for now,” I add quickly. “I need time.”

“And will time help?” He slurs.

I desperately need to change the subject. I take to washing the blood off his muscular thigh, the rhythm of my heart alert. He’s completely naked right in front of me. “What do you think about Ronald Lord Barkley being the true Ivan Basarab? Ivan Basarab sounds East European to me, and I remember he used to help couples adopt children from that area, so this speaks in favour of this theory too.”

“Hm.”

I look up at him. “You don’t think so?”

“If Vivien had anything going with Lord Barkley, she wouldn’t have needed to sneak at night into the lunatic asylum, would she? Basarab wanted access to the sewers so he could get to this manor underground. So it can’t be Barkley, he has access to the sewers anytime. But another person who’s manifested interest in the asylum and its sewers was your father, Gunnar Lothar, right after I bought the manor from him – he argued to Lord Barkley that the place needed expensive restorations anyway, and maybe it would be better to sell. He said that the old building had historical value, and the sewers could be turned into a tourist attraction. He wanted to explore the catacombs, allegedly to assess their potential, but Barkley hated the idea, and the relationship with Gunnar turned cold. So Basarab must’ve turned to threats to force Vivien Grant to help him, especially since she seemed to be on to him.”

I swallow hard. “You’re saying your suspect is my father?”

“He’s my best bet.”

I’m stunned, and I don’t even know what to feel. I look around, gathering my memories of my conversation with Mrs Grant. “Vivien’s mother said the mysterious man had everyone fooled except Vivien. That Vivien ‘discovered his true rot.’ These were her exact words. But my father, we know already how rotten he is.”

“I know, his so-called ‘friends’ know, and now you, but not the rest of Northville. To them, he’s the respectable family and business man.” He lies down on the couch with a grimace of pain, one leg curled in front of me, the other one on the floor.

I can’t help admiring the marble sinews of his naked body. His wounds are now disinfected and clean, but they still need tending to. The sight of them makes me cringe.

“Is there anywhere I can get bandages?” I ask.

“Not in this room, and you can’t go out. The serpents are calmer, but still. They’re wounded and furious.”

“Then we’ll have to improvise.”

I get up from the couch, walk to his desk and open drawers until one object builds team with my imagination – duct tape. I grab a few clean starched napkins from the liquor cabinet and go back to Kieran, who watches me with an amused expression.

“What’s so funny?” I inquire, drawing tape from the roll. It makes a pitchy sound that rips through the rustle of the fire.

“You’re inventive,” he says. “A life-saver in hardship.”

But the moment I bend to place a folded napkin on his shoulder wound, I notice it’s closing. Slowly like a snail, but visibly. I shriek and jump back. When I look into Kieran’s face, he’s smiling.

“There’s something about my kind of reptile,” he says. “Unless you cut off our head, we tend to regenerate.”

***

“Then why –”

“Why I let you take care of me?” His black gaze takes on a special glint in the firelight. “I wanted to feel your hands on me, of your own will. But my wounds didn’t need care. They’ll hurt for another few hours while they’re closing, but by morning I’ll be as good as new.”

“Kieran, you scared the life out of me.” I slap the napkins on the coffee table to mark my discontent at having been fooled. I stay soft-spoken though, not wanting to come across a drama queen jumping at the first opportunity to act hysterical.

“I scared the life out of you many times before, and for that please accept my apologies.” He props himself on his elbow with some difficulty, stretching out his other hand in an invitation.

“Come, lay here with me.”

The sound of his voice, dark and soft, seems to seep in through my pores. I square my shoulders, fighting the urge to obey.

“This needs to stop. You can’t go on numbing my will and playing with my head. If we’re to ever have a chance at a relationship, you’ll want me as myself.”

The haze of hypnotic obedience that made my lids heavy starts retreating, but Kieran’s intense black eyes still dazzle me without the input from his powers. The firelight sends a golden glow on his youthful features. He has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. I busy myself with arranging objects on the coffee table in an attempt to hide my weakness and hold my ground.

“Very well then,” he says and sets his other elbow on the couch, now sustaining his weight on both of them and displaying his naked body. He’s most certainly aware of his beauty.

“Shame must be a foreign word to you,” I whisper.

“If the sight offends you, feel free to cover me. There’s a long coat hanging on the peg by the door.”

He may be regenerating, but he’s exhausted, and so am I. I walk to the peg and take the coat. It’s so heavy it disturbs my balance, exhaustion rendering my limbs weak. When I reach the couch Kieran’s eyes are closed. The last thing he expects is what I’m going to do, I’m sure.

I sit by his side. “Will you make room for me, please?”

His eyes snap open in surprise. He draws to the rest of the couch, moving onto his side so that half the couch becomes available and enough for me if I lie on my side as well. I lower myself slowly and nestle my head at his chest, pulling the coat over us both. My heart races as my cheek touches him, his skin like silk over a hard-muscled body.

“I thought you said –” he whispers.

“I asked you to stop influencing me, determining my actions,” I interrupt softly. The heat grows between us. “I asked you to let me exercise my free will. And this is what I do with my free will.”

He kisses my temple, his lips dry and warm. “You were always resilient to my influence.”

“Really? It didn’t feel that way to me.”

“How did it feel then?”

“You often made a zombie out of me.”

“And yet you always retained the ability of defying me.”

“It was a struggle, like moving my legs out of quicksand. But sometimes I chose to sink in, because that way it was easier to put up with the things you did with me.” My voice breaks on the last words.

Kieran pushes one arm under my body, the other one curling around me from above. He presses me to him in a tight embrace and kisses the top of my head.

“I’m so sorry, Saphira. I deserve all snakes’ bites and much more for what I did to you. I beg for your forgiveness, and I’ll do anything to get it.”

“It’s not easy, Kieran. It will take time.”

“As long as you need. I have centuries, and I place them at your feet.”

A sad smile pulls the corner of my mouth. It’s fascinating how exhaustion makes you feel accepting of anything. “A terrible waste, all those centuries scattered by my grave. Unlike you, I’m fully human, my time is limited.”

The fire rustles in the silence as Kieran’s first tear drips on my temple.

***

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part III on Monday!

Previously

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

This is a compilation of The Marquis’ and Saphira’s moments together from the entire story.

Read Part I of the ENTIRE story („Saphira“) here, and Part 2 of the ENTIRE story (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

Witch Hunt – Ep. 30 of “The Marquis”

Gunnar Lothar was a rapist, a sadist and a murderer. But he was also my father. He paid for my clothes and food for as long as I can remember. Always goal-oriented, words were never wasted on anything “soulful,” but we could’ve never talked enough about my physical appearance and how that could prove exceptionally useful in coming about a rich husband. Gunnar – at least his social persona – was all about good business.

I don’t know by what miracle I escaped abuse – probably because he used the family-man image to cover his true monstrous inclinations, and that image had to be perfect. For and despite all this, deep down I may be grieving. What I know for sure is that I’m very, very angry.

I tap into that anger and imagine him before me. I mentally make my surroundings fade into the background and talk to him. I let out my wrath and spit my disdain at him while the inquisition-like gathering yells and accuses me. They point fingers. Mum cries with her face in her palms, while Pretty Lauren grins like Maleficent with arms across her chest. Jeremy runs from one bastard to another to persuade them of something – I imagine he’s still holding on to his plan of using me as bait for Kieran.

“Saphira, pull yourself together,” Billy the Notary says in a panicked voice. His smoker-grey narrow face with the thick round spectacles and the thin mousy nose is close to mine.

“Take her to the lunatic asylum, that’s where she belongs,” the angry old man with the cane urges. Men and women agree with him in a surge of voices.

I may have gone too far. Gunnar’s “ghost” pulled me in. Now I can’t stop anymore. Turns out I am grieving, terribly so. I feel betrayed, furious and mad, and I’m acting as if possessed.

Mum howls in pain, and my heart breaks for her, but I can’t stop. I’ve lost control over myself. People grab and drag me out in the rain, once again displaying me like a witch deserving of the stake on the road to the lunatic asylum. I realize it, but can’t bring myself to fight it. I can’t stop “talking” to Gunnar Lothar.

The elite is out in the street, while the “plebs” peek from behind their curtains, scared and practically bullied to stay inside their homes. Little do they know that the old houses are no protection. Our town is now cut off from the rest of the world, the wasteland around it crawling with cops manoeuvred by a bitter and ambitious Inspector, mercenaries hired by the elite, and Ivan Basarab’s Black Monks – creatures that are clearly not normal.

They’re many and dangerous to Kieran and his few loyal men. We’re all doomed, every last one of us. As I realize this the last drop of energy leaves me, and I give in to the arms that feel like cuffs around mine. My feet soon no longer touch the ground, I’m being carried like an offering of heathen sacrifice.

The spiked black gates to the lunatic asylum open to receive me as my carriers’ feet make their way through the mud, the heavy rain battering my face and body that’s still covered only with the soaked corset and the torn fishnet stockings. I’m a certain victim of pneumonia, and I don’t even care.

The asylum doors close behind us. Calls instigating to my being locked up in here resonate against the walls, mixing with the cries of agony from electroshocked patients. The ceiling – greenish in the sickly lighting – spins around as they rotate me and put me back on my feet, only to drag me further into the depths of this prison that I may never leave again except maybe in a plastic bag. But, to my surprise, not everybody who’s accompanied me here is a foe.

Jeanie and Billy the Notary run alongside the group, desperate to get me out of these people’s hands. Pretty Lauren is right behind Jeanie, but all she wants is to take full delight in what she witnesses happening to me. Jeremy is close by with a bad frown and a mad look in his eyes, and soon Ronald Lord Barkley, head of the lunatic asylum, greets us. We don’t stop, he simply joins the group as they take me to what must be my cell, but as we advance the screams turn louder, as if someone’s being tortured. The voice seems familiar, and as we draw closer my heart beats in my throat.

We pass by a half-open door that reveals part of a sorry tiled room with a woman lying on the metal table like cattle for slaughter. With devices at her head, she screams under electroshocks. I recognize her and my steps freeze. She seems to feel my presence, and her bloodshot, terrified eyes dart to the side like a killer puppet’s in a horror movie. This is a living nightmare.

A shockingly emaciated and desolate version of my beloved friend Virgin Vivien fixes me for a second before she starts screaming again. Only that this time it’s not voltage that drives her – the doctors are busy looking at us as well, they’re not operating the devices. I understand immediately – Ivan Basarab is among us, and Vivien just recognized him.

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

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Beauty and the Beast – Ep. 29 of “The Marquis”

Jeremy’s fingers clench around my upper arm. He practically drags me down the stairs and out of the inn into the nightly rain. I’m scared and calling his name, begging him to release me, but he doesn’t stop even as I stumble and lose my shoes. He treats me like a worthless criminal, and I sense his jealousy, frustration and broken pride at having lost so much to Kieran. Hatred is driving him mad.

His men follow, and Jeanie calls after us from the rear of the flock, but Jeremy’s way too deep in his wrath to mind even his sister. He drags me down the street, taking the middle of the road and displaying me like a Salem witch, his policemen sloshing behind. I’m scared as heck to see the Black Monks so close, but they keep quiet on the sidewalks, their faces only black gaps under the hoods.

Lights go on here and there, and prying faces with tousled hair appear behind windows with lamps in their hands. But soon fear wins over curiosity and they close even the shutters, leaving the decaying historical buildings only shadows in the heavy rain. I’m soaked and freezing, my cheeks hurt from the cold, and I feel catapulted back into the darkest times of the Middle Ages.

Little by little the town goes silent like a graveyard, only our precession’s rhythmic slosh down the road cutting through it. I scramble and limp awkwardly as my foot soles go bloody, but the pain is insignificant. Thoughts of Kieran fill my head. These cratures are too many. Kieran and his men are at their mercy, and it’s all my fault.

As we reach the grey mausoleum that my parental home looks like my heartache for Kieran is almost unbearable. I’d give my life to be able to take back what I asked of him. I’m driving myself crazy and only let it go a bit as Jeremy throws me into the big armchair by the fireplace.

One side of my face is suddenly burning from the heat, but the other one feels like needles as it defrosts. I try to get up and talk to Jeremy, but he pushes me back into the now drenched – and ruined – cushioned antique. Someone tries to put a blanket around me, but he doesn’t let them. I go instantly angry, and I’m determined to say something, but people – most with white hair and reprimanding expressions, some even with expensive canes – trickle into the room, making me stop with my mouth open. They seem so well synchronized in their arrival timing, that I’m sure the gathering must’ve been prepared in advance. A meeting of the elite circle, of which Jeremy has been holding ever since Gunnar died.

My mother comes too, but she stops by the entrance, clutching her hands before her mouth, eyes swollen from crying. She looks at me like she’s doing something terrible that she’s yet convinced she must for my sake. Soon more women follow, some much younger than their male companions.

“The beast has managed to escape,” Jeremy begins like a master of ceremonies – or sectarian leader by the way he opens his arms and raises his voice. “But don’t be dismayed! We got Saphira back, and she’ll help us bait him to us.”

I’m beginning to see where this is going and jump up from my seat. “What? No!”

“Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis of Vandenesse is a killer and a monster.” He tries to cup my face in his hands. I slap them and jerk back, but it doesn’t throw him off balance at all.

“It’s safe for you to speak out the truth, Saphira,” he says. “The doors are closed and sealed, we’re among the most trustworthy friends of your father. They know all about Kieran Slate and his story, they know he’s an engineered serpent-man, and that he forced you to be with him.”

“His story, yes. I wonder how much the people here contributed to that story,” I spew angrily, my eyes sweeping over their affected, arrogant, despicable faces. I wonder how many of them had their way with Catherine before Gunnar finished her, and I shudder as the atrocity of that crime courses through me once again.

“Saphira, the Marquis killed important men from Northville,” Mum intervenes with a step forward. “He has the power to hypnotize people, and this is how he got you on his side, but –”

“No one got me on their side, mother,” I cut her off. “And I can’t believe you speak of important men as if Catherine Lancaster or any one of these monsters’ victims were something less.”

She shakes her head like someone trying to get rid of a too painful truth. “The Marquis kills in a horrendous way.”

“More horrendous than gang rape and torture? Do you have to feel it in your flesh to understand the gravity of that?” Blood floods my veins in a rush, my face must be on fire and I can’t believe what I just said to my mother. I go mute in a second.

“This is preposterous,” a male phony-face with nasal voice intervenes. “She’s on the beast’s side!”

“We can’t use her,” another guy cuts in. “She was engaged to the monster.”

“Against her will,” Mum exclaims. “He wanted to use her in his revenge, and he blackmailed her. He manipulated her mind, look what he turned her into!”

“Manipulated or not, she’s clearly in love with him,” a woman with huge implants and super pumped lips chimes in. Once again being good with faces comes in handy – I recognize her from the Night of Venice, when her attitude was very different. She drooled over Kieran and looked daggers at me as he said I was his girlfriend.

“She’s the devil’s mistress!” An angry old man shakes his cane.

“And she must enjoy his bed since she defends him with such force. She’s as rotten as he is.” – Pretty Lauren with an evil grin. She stands with her arms crossed in a corner.

Voices rise over each other, and once again I feel like one of Salem’s witches. Jeremy moves around energetically – things clearly aren’t going according to his plan. These people are more interested in exorcizing me than using me as bait or whatever else. But this is not about me or these bastards’ inquisition-worthy trial, it’s about Kieran Slate, the man I’ve fallen in love with madly, stronger than I ever thought possible. I look the truth in the face – I’d do anything for him. It’s now or never. I squeeze my eyes shut, pray, and as my eyelids snap open again I make the first move.

***

To be continued on Friday.

Next episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

 

 

Black Angels – Ep. 28 of “The Marquis”

“You were here with him,“ Jeremy growls through his teeth.

“Let us explain,” Jeanie steps in, but he shoves her to the side and stomps to me. He doesn’t even mind her yelp and the thud as she hits the floor. He scares the crap out of me, and I make to get up, but his big hand pushes me back in my chair, his other fist clenched on the table by the gas lamp.

“You thought you could fool me. Didn’t you imagine that my men would report immediately once they lost you?”

My pulse is high with fright, and my eyes must bulge like potatoes out of my face. I look around at his men devastating the room. Two of them climb out the window, following Kieran and Joyous’ route to the roof. Jeremy squeezes my shoulder, causing me a shriek of pain and forcing my full attention back to him. I can’t believe Jeremy Simmons is actually doing this to me.

“Don’t waste my time, woman, tell me the truth!” He’s beside himself with rage, and I’m even afraid he might hit me.

“Leave her alone, Jeremy, you’ll give her another seizure, and one of those almost killed her tonight,” Jeanie says, forcing herself back on her feet and trying to separate us. I cling to her arm, wanting nothing more than to take distance from her brother. I’m so grateful for Jeanie right now, for her presence of mind. I was right to trust her.

Jeremy retreats a couple of steps, looking at Jeanie and me as if he’s trying to see the big picture.

“What seizure, Jean? Saphira’s been seen with the Marquis of Vandenesse at the pub, technically doing it on the table, and in my book, that’s called fervour, not seizure.” He sounds crazy with jealousy.

“If you heard that, then you must’ve heard as well that as the Marquis tried to take her with him she started twitching and shrugging uncontrollably.”

Jeremy’s eyes fall on me again, slightly calmer. “Is that so? He tried to kidnap you?”

I clear my throat and gather my courage to start with my plan, but one of Jeremy’s men storms in breathlessly, his face alight with urgency. He’s dressed as a civilian, but I recognize him from the house. I’m good with faces.

“Inspector Simmons,” he stammers, “they’re here!”

“Who’s here?” Jeremy barks at him.

“The Black Angels. The Contractor’s fighters. But, Inspector, they’re many, and they’re not, they’re not . . . normal.” He looks terrified and he’s shaking, his fleshy round face glistening with sweat.

Jeremy obviously understands what the man means without further words. He strides to the window and looks out. When he turns to me, a wicked grin stretches on his square, unshaven face. As good looking as women find him for his muscles and testosterone-squared features, right now to me he’s downright ugly.

“Please, Saphira, have a look.”

Curiosity and worry compel me to the window. Under the street lamps and the rain black hooded figures flood the street from side-alleys, and I know on the spot they’re the back-up Ivan Basarab sent to Jeremy. Black Angels. The Contractor.

The one who seems their leader has stopped across from the entrance to the inn, and he apparently senses my staring at him. He lowers his hood and looks up, revealing a face which, even though it’s too far away to see in detail, is clearly disfigured by some terrible disease, covered in red and white blisters full of puss that makes me think of leprosy. I gasp in horror and draw backwards only to bump into Jeremy’s burly chest. His huge palms clasp my upper arms.

“Now the Marquis must face opponents his own size – monsters, like him.” He sounds mad, whether with hatred or sick ambition, I don’t know. Nor does it matter. I jerk away and turn to face him, looking straight into his face. His eyes are wild, like a madman’s.

“You’ve made a pact with the devil, Jeremy! These creatures came to finish the Marquis, but they won’t leave again, not without having finished you as well, and everybody who knows of their existence. They won’t risk their secret leaving Northville.”

He grabs me above my elbow and pulls me to a corner, whispering close to my face. “The borders of Northville have already been sealed. The rocky wasteland all around is now infested with these creatures. No one gets in or out of this cursed town. These creatures will help me end your lover the Marquis once and for all, and for that I’ll pay any price.”

 

To be continued on Tuesday.

***

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STAY TUNED for Quiz 4 – What kind of lover are You? tomorrow evening. I’m looking forward to your choices and interpretations:)

 

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Run away with me – Ep. 26 of “The Marquis”

“He’s got my bag,” a girl calls. “Someone get the police!”

The commotion in the entrance foyer of the pub becomes crushing, people pushing elbows into my ribs and my back, shoving me right into the witch-costumed hostess’ arms. One of the policemen makes it right behind me, but Jeanie gets a brilliant idea.

These guys are officers,” she calls out, ripping my “escort’s” jacket open. He cusses under his breath as his police-blue shirt and his gun become visible to the public.

People grab and steer him towards the screaming girl, and Jeanie rips open the other guy’s jacket while the hostess pulls me to her and talks so close to my ear that her spittle lands on it.

I staged the theft.” With that she pushes a mask in my hands, grabs my nape and hauls me inside the pub. Her cloaked back topped by a pointy hat shifts to cover the entrance and thereby shield me from being followed.

I gather myself quickly and make my way through the crowd to the heart of the pub. I manage to hustle through the line to the ladies’ room, but the girls I elbow in the process have been waiting for quite a while, and they’re irritable. They lose their manners too, shaking fists and cursing like wantons from the cheapest brothel.

“I just need to talk to someone who’s inside, I’m no competition for the toilet,” I try to defend myself.

It doesn’t help, they’re still aggressive. I’m scared, but I have to go through with it. In the end, I’ll get out of here dressed differently and wearing a mask, so I stand a good chance of getting away without a beating.

It’s full inside the ladies’ room, and I must take my clothes off right here, among giggling girls by the mirrors. They go “Oh,” and “WTF” as I proceed with my business like an exhibitionist. I’m embarrassed, but there’s no time for pudency.

The leather pants are sticky on my sweaty legs, and losing them doesn’t go as fast as I planned at home. I’m not as graceful as I imagined I’d be as I step out of them. I stumble and catch myself by holding on to one of the girls, who’s enthusiastic that under the pants I’m wearing torn fishnet stockings just like hers.

With a friendly “Hot,” she helps me back into my high heels and watches with an impressed grin as I tie the black sheen scarf around my hips. I shuffle off the silk shirt and reveal the pink corset with black lace above the breasts, and pin my hair up in a bun, which I cover with a black sheen cap. It’s not like I’m the only blonde in here, but better take too many precautions against being recognized than too few.

I can’t believe the exhilarating feeling I get as I fling the door open and hold up my mask in front of my face, walking out of there like Catwoman on Jimmy Choos. With every step I pray I don’t sprain my ankle and spill myself on the floor before all the open mouths that shook fists at me only minutes ago. If that happens, and my disguise is compromised, I’m pretty sure my own mother would have difficulty identifying me under all the bruises from the beating I’d get. But God hears my prayers.

I make it past the waiting line and work my way slowly among the masks, the back-slapping men and laughing women, but soon I attract more attention than I can use. The costume is too sexy. I chose it because it was easy to conceal from Jeremy, but now I realize it’s practically “begging” for attention.

The thought worries me, but before I can dwell on it I see him. The man in the Zorro mask strolling his way towards me. My heart drums as he gets closer.

I’d never fail to recognize the Marquis’ marble-like skin and defined features, they’re so handsome and youthful. I sigh as his arm goes around my middle and his bittersweet scent slithers through my nostrils. For a moment there I think he’s using his powers on me again, but then I admit to myself I’m just drunk-in-love with him, and I let go.

He gently leads me to sit at a corner table that seems reserved for us. He keeps his arm on the wall at the level of my head, trapping me in the small space, his other hand caressing its way up my thigh, his fingers sinking hungry into my flesh, tearing the stockings. I keep back the sounds of pleasure that threaten to leave my throat, since people stand crammed together close to the table, shielding us like a human curtain.

“It wasn’t me, Saphira,” Kieran’s voice ripples. It feels like chocolate to my senses. “I didn’t kill your – Gunnar.”

“I never doubted that.” I keep it low too, making sure my words drown in the chatter. “But Jeremy has the whole town instigated against you. You have to get out of Northville.”

“I can’t. Not without you.”

“As soon as all this calms down I’ll move to London, and I’m sure you have your ways of finding me there. We’ll just let things cool for a while.”

“It hurt like hell to be away from you even for a few days. You want me to put up with that torture for another while that might be months?”

Emotion swells inside me. Our surroundings seem to fade away. His dark shirt is open at the neck and down to the upper part of his chest, revealing the smooth skin beneath it that I long to explore. My fingers tremble at the silky feel of it, the feel of a creature half human, half serpent.

“I missed you so much, Kieran,” I whisper.

My words set him on fire. He kisses me with those beautiful lips that make me vibrate down to my core, a rich, full kiss. His tongue fills my mouth, and I give in under his tight embrace.

“I don’t want to be separated from you another minute,” I let out among heated pecks, my hands sinking in his glossy hair.

Kieran rests his forehead against mine, looking down at his hand that still kneads my thigh.

“Run away with me, Saphira,” he lures. “We’ll leave everything behind us, the past, the revenge, and till the end of time I’ll work on making it up to you for all the pain I’ve caused you.”

“You’d do that? You’d give up the very purpose that kept you going all these years for me?”

He looks straight into my eyes. “I’d do anything for you, Saphira. As for revenge – even if not by my hand, Gunnar Lothar is dead, and his circle of monsters broken. They’re running in all directions, scared. The arms of the law should take it from here. My job is done.”

I caress his face, wanting to take in the feel of him through the fine ridges in my palms. “There’s nothing I want more than to run away with you, Kieran, leave everything behind and start anew, start clean, just you and me. But that would fuel Jeremy’s hatred against you, he’d hunt you down with even more bile and determination.”

“I’m not afraid of Jeremy Simmons.” He cups my face with both his hands. “Come with me. I promise you the dark times are over. I promise you’ll be able to love me and feel good about it too – your words, your wish.”

His eyes search mine full of hope, and I understand that this is his tormented soul’s only chance at redemption. I either accept, or Kieran Slate will succumb to the serpent Marquis forever. I make a firm decision and take the hand he offers me as he stands.

I’ve never felt more certain of anything. It’s for the first time when I’m completely sure that I’m doing the right thing. I’m madly in love with this man, and I’m well aware that eloping with him through the back door means surrendering myself to him entirely. I make the choice full-heartedly. He grabs a short leather jacket from the pegs by the exit, flings it over my shoulders, and we plunge out into the night.

The streets are narrow, dark and chilly, only here and there an orange light flickering at a window, but Kieran’s arm around me and the warm proximity of his body is all the “safe” I need. I mentally say farewell to the buildings that stand dark and timeless on each side of the cobbled street like a tunnel – this is the old part of Northville, which miraculously escaped bombardment during the war. These houses are almost as old as the line of Kings and Queens, and their walls witnessed many of the Middle Ages’ terrors and horrors, including the black plague. There are still basements where community graves were found.

Just a few months ago I thought I could never leave this place, even though its mystery chilled me to the bones, but somehow I couldn’t stop probing it. Today I know the town was always a cruel place, and that all through my life it’s been an anonymous retreat for rich twisted devils and their dark practices. I’m glad it’s going down.

Rain begins to fall from the laden skies, the drops big and hard like gravel on my face. I put the jacket over my head, but my legs are wet and freezing. The rain shortly soaks Kieran’s shirt too, making it cling to his sinewy body, but he doesn’t seem bothered in the least.

“Don’t you –”

“I’ve been through far worse than a little angry water, Saphira,” he interrupts, increasing pace as we slosh through the puddles. “It’s you we need to get to warmth fast.” My feet practically swim in the cold water in my shoes.

“Where are we going?” My teeth clatter, and Kieran’s hold tightens.

“An inn. Joyous awaits us there with a car.”

But at the next street Kieran suddenly halts. He pulls me back behind the last corner we passed, and he does it so fast I get dizzy. I come to myself and follow his gaze around the gutter to realize that we’re looking at Virgin Vivien’s house – what’s left of it after the fire. Two figures in monk-like cloaks – one tall and broad, the other small and thin – go separate ways from it. They’ve obviously been in there together, but it turns out one of them – the one that heads our way – is a woman. I can’t see that far, especially through the heavy rain, but Kieran’s eyes turn to serpent slits, and he identifies her.

“You won’t believe this. It’s Pretty Lauren.”

Surprise kicks out my manners and language. “You gotta be shitting me.”

 

To be continued on Tuesday.

***

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