This is Issue #41 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
“Friend,” he growled, spitting the word with venom. “You don’t even try to hide what you’re doing. What kind of woman speaks the way she does to me–” He could feel the bile in his throat, the pounding behind his eyes. His hand burned, and he felt like he could tear a hole in the very fabric of the world with his teeth.
“You don’t even know half of what she’s saying,” Lucida said, rolling her eyes, already looking away.
“I know her tone,” he said angrily.
“Do you?” Lucida snapped. “Do you know your own?”
“I have every right to be angry!” he shouted, red creeping around the edges of his vision as he advanced upon her, turning to look at her, baring his teeth. “You are a liar! You versate, you fucking manipulate everything and everyone! And you let your scorta–”
The slap knocked him two steps back. He could taste his own blood on his tongue, and he put a hand to his mouth. It came away red as he bent double, panting, his head pounding as though she’d slapped him with a hammer, and not her hand.
“Shut your mouth, saprus,” she hissed. “Your loose tongue may insult me all it likes; it is like a castrato’s cock — too soft to do anything to me, but don’t you ever, ever speak of her that way.”
The shock of it seemed to disperse the fury, and it was gone as quickly as it had come. “Please,” Jet said, his voice breaking, feeling his stomach churn, his head pound. It had been over two months since he’d gotten drunk on aetheris and Immanis had cut them both, had put their hands together, but Jet’s hand had not yet healed, and now it burned as though he were pouring fresh aetheris into the wound. “Lucy,” he begged. “Forgive me — my head. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Whatever it was, pray it never comes over you again,” she hisses.
“I’m sorry,” Jet whispered, truly meaning it.
“She is no scorta.”
“No. No she isn’t. I take it back,” he pled, pressing his fingers to his temples, closing his eyes. “Fuck, my head, Lucy, please–”
“Please what, Jet,” and when she said his name that way, it sounded like a curse. “What is it you are asking of me?” she said, and the anger had faded from her voice, replaced with something guarded.
“Please,” he asked. “I’m only asking you to please be …proper. Your brother — he’s still talking of going ahead with his plans.”
“Well of course he is,” Lucida snorted. “Look at me.”
Jet opened his eyes, but did not lift them; he only looked at her bare feet, watched the painted toes as they stood on the marble.
“Up. Look up at me,” she sighed.
His eyes snapped up to a point just above her head, so even his peripheral vision would not encounter her naked body.
She lunged, then, and he was once again startled at how fast she was, how she could move with a viper’s speed. She put a palm on other side of his face and turned his gaze until it rested on hers. “Look. At. Me,” she insisted. “All of me.”
Shivering, Jet looked at Lucida, sliding his eyes from hers, down to her lips, which had grown full from being bitten and kissed, to her throat, where rested a thick collar of jewels, to her bare breasts, which glistened bronze and golden, shimmering from the oil her companion had rubbed into her skin. His eyes traveled lower; she wore the oil down over her belly, and lower — it shimmered from her navel, and glistened in the curls between her legs.
He tore his gaze away, flushed red as he realized he was staring, and when his eyes returned to hers, she was watching him, thoughtful. His head ached, and his hand throbbed, and he felt his knees weaken, as all the blood in his body drained away from his expression, and he reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, and steady himself.
“What is this you are doing, tonight?” Lucy laughed, shaking her head and pulling away to walk over to her dressing table. “You’re not going to get my brother to cancel the wedding by acting like some fainting fool,” she chuckled. She sat down and moved to run a delicate comb through her hair. She preened, watching herself, and used paints on her eyes, her face, deepening the blush of her cheeks, the kohl at her eyes.
“You think there’s any chance he’ll cancel?” Jet asked, sounding not at all hopeful.
“No,” Lucida said bluntly, looking at Jet in the mirror. “Let me ask you something,” she said, turning around and narrowing her newly-made up eyes.
He watched her in the mirror, but when she turned herself toward him, he looked to her, sighing lowly, feeling himself steeled as he looked at her, the longer he looked at her. She was but a person, not a goddess; he would not quail. “Ask.”
“Am I beautiful?” she whispered, getting up, walking to him.
“Very,” he answered, staring straight ahead, swallowing roughly.
“Smart?” she asked.
“Dangerously so,” he answered, the ghost of a smile touching his lips.
She laughed, nodding, amused at his answer. “Wealthy and powerful?” she continued, leaning in close, laying a hand to his bare chest, and sliding it down over his skin, to the sash slung over his hips, the crimson of it a bright slash against the pale silk of his trews, which was most of what he wore, these days, as was the fashion.
When in Ilona…
“Yes; you know this,” he said aloud, his voice trembling.
“Am I not… everything… a man might want in a wife?” she purred, leaning in, and as she said the word ‘everything’, she laid her hand between his legs, and as she said ‘want’ she squeezed hard enough to make Jet groan quietly, shifting how he stood.
“Yes,” he winced. “You are, Lucida.”
“Then… why do you not want me?” she said, and her voice sounded almost as though she were pouting, but her eyes were hard, calculating and curious. She pulled back just enough that when he opened his eyes, he didn’t have to struggle to keep his gaze level, rather than wandering.
“It isn’t that I don’t want you, Lucida,” he said, flushed. “It’s that I don’t love you.”
“I don’t love you, either, but we could make quite a match,” she said easily enough, laying her cheek to his and moving her hand slowly, urging.
His breath caught, and he moved his hand to close over hers, stilling it. He said nothing, but kept her hand from its movement.
She didn’t pull away.
Neither did he.
After a long while, he whispered “I love someone else. Someone far away. Someone I can’t love.”
“As do I, my husband-to-be. I love someone else, but I am not allowed that love. I am the princess of Ilona, and I must one day bear Ilona heirs to rule its golden sands and marble towers,” she said, and though he had heard her sound shrewd, calculating, joyous, amused, feigning terror, and truly angry, this was the first moment he’d heard her sound bitter.
He thought of the woman who had been with her today, the anger on her face, the longing look in Lucy’s eyes as she sent the woman away.
He turned to look at her, and there were unshed tears in her eyes; in that moment, in her vulnerability, he found her more beautiful than in her perfect jewels, with her perfectly painted face.
She saw it, perhaps, because she leaned in, then, and moved to kiss his mouth, saying, “If we cannot have the ones we love, why not love the ones we can have?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but his words were silenced with her lips.
The kiss was dizzying — perhaps it was the lingering aetheris smoke; perhaps it was the headache from which he could not escape — and he dropped to his knees, falling away from her embrace, from her kiss, from the sound of her voice calling his name.
The slash across his palm burned, and he had time for a single, delirious thought —
It is a gift of my blood
— and then all was darkness.
* * *