‘There’s nothing so savage as time, dear Anabelle,’ Imalia purrs, running a slender finger around the curve of Anabelle’s cheekbone, digging her nail in to draw a line of blood. Tiny droplets spill, like tears, across Anabelle’s milk white flesh.
Anabelle cries out, tries to move her head away, but Imalia grasps her chin in a cruel grip and holds it still. She leans down; the folds of her veil fall about Anabelle’s face, soft and somehow deplorably heavy.
Anabelle gasps, afraid of drowning in those dense, perfumed billows of fabric.
Imalia giggles in her ear. ‘Of course, I’m lying you know. There is something more savage than time.’ She pulls away, sitting straight once more and primping her veil till it falls how she likes it best, but she doesn’t move. She stays exactly as she is, perched like a vulture upon Anabelle’s heaving chest, her knees pinioning Anabelle’s shoulders to the floor. She grinds those shoulders hard into the flagstones, leaning into her knees.
‘Ask me, Anabelle,’ she says, playful and peevish all at once. ‘Ask me what is more savage than time.’
Anabelle trembles, whimpers, and breathes out, ‘What is more savage than time, Your Majesty?’
Imalia drives her knees down again, drawing a breathless shriek from her captive. ‘Louder, you wretch.’
‘What is more savage than time, Your Majesty?’ Anabelle shouts, eyes wide and wild with terror.
Imalia sniffs. ‘No need to shout. I’m not deaf.’ She tips her head coquettishly to the side. ‘Me. I am more savage than time. Would you like to know why?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ Anabelle replies, a sob caught in her throat.
‘Because I am the only thing time has never beaten.’ She pinches Anabelle’s cheek, hard. ‘Ask me how.’
‘How, Your Majesty?’ asks Anabelle, her chin quivering as she begins to weep, unable to hold back on her tears any longer.
‘I sent my hourglass somewhere it can never be found,’ Imalia croons. ‘Time hunts me with its hounds, it hunts me with the thousand ships of night, it hunts me on the backs of flying horses, it hunts me with the hundred eyes of the demon Sung of Hool’s Deep, it hunts me through the darkness and the dawn and between the very stars themselves, but it will never find me.’ From beyond the window comes the clop of many hooves and the scrape of carriage wheels against the drive. Imalia leaps up, light and effortless and rushes to the window. ‘My guests begin to arrive. Delightful! Go now. Have Emmaline draw me a bath and bring my red gown.’ She sighs as Anabelle scrambles from the floor and races out the room, sobbing. ‘So easily upset, the dreadful creature is. What on earth would she do if I were not merely playing?’
Humming to herself, Imalia wanders to her jewellery box to contemplate the correct accompaniment to her red gown. Entertainment is such a bore, but tonight is not about entertainment, it’s about the planning of war, and she likes war. She likes it very well indeed.
Lucian throws himself into the window seat, groaning profound exhaustion. One thousand Sleathe slain, a vast number, and yet so many more populate the darkened nooks of Moldav, they could gather again, so easily. He lost ten of his men, he can ill afford to lose more. He feels dead within his bones, in the fabric of his being. A deep, driving tiredness and desolation that sleep will do nothing to diminish. Reports of the armies advancing even now toward the shores of Britannia have crushed his spirit.
Their victory against the Sleathe, so great only hours ago despite the egregious loss of men, now feels diminutive, of little importance. They have no time to make their way home. No time to regroup. No time, even by way of Volitare, to reach the shores of their homeland before their enemies march upon Londinium. They must regain their strength here as swiftly as possible, and be part of an attack to the rear with the allied forces from Moldav and Lemsk-Skarov.
What troubles him most is how the enemy were ever freed to approach their shores. Someone has been dabbling in the footprints of their armies, shifting them around subtly, allowing their enemies time and space to form alliances, plying them with funds fit to buy new machines of war, new weapons and deadly war-beasts. His men, their allies, are badly outnumbered. Outmanned. Outgunned. And sorely tried for morale. But so they were with the Sleathe, and still triumphed, he must strive to remember that.
Endymion Fox-Bellingfry strolls into the room in his breeches and bare feet, dripping water. Several large wounds, roughly stitched, mar the tanned, muscular breadth of his chest, injuries still raw and bleeding, but he’s paying them little mind. His brow is creased with bemusement and his mouth set to form the most endearing sulk imaginable.
‘I say, Luce,’ he says. ‘Have you seen that pretty little serving girl, the one with the wavy brown hair and the big blue eyes? I come back from my bath only to find her gone from the tavern bar. You haven’t stolen her for herself, have you?’
Lucian raises a brow. ‘Dear Dimmi, I couldn’t find the energy for a serving girl, even if I could muster up the wherewithal to steal one.’
‘I wonder who’s snaffled her then?’ whines the fellow. ‘Devilish unsporting. I’m certain she only had eyes for me at supper, she could scarce keep her wits about her every time I glanced in her direction.’
‘Nonsense,’ snaps the unmistakeable drawl of Archibald Coddlington, the son of Coddlington of Heath by virtue of a tryst with Coddlington’s youngest brother’s wife: a bastard by birth, a soldier by choice. ‘I saw her only moments ago with Fezzy, drooping all over his handlebar. Really, Dimmi, if you want to snag the ladies, you need to grow some form of facial foliage or other. It works wonders. Why Fezzy only twitched it at her the once and she was putty in his hands.’
‘The swine!’ cries Endymion. ‘I shall call him out.’
Lucian sighs. ‘My dear boy, he’d spear you flat and cold through one of those three rather fetching targets on your chest. Might I encourage you to toddle off to wherever it is dear Coddy here is taking his oats? The man has the most extraordinary nose for fillies of a more accommodating nature.’
Endymion produces the promised sulk. ‘But I wanted the serving girl.’
‘And she wanted Fezzy’s handlebar,’ Lucian replies, trying not to laugh. ‘Go on, go with Coddy, and quit your sulking. The wind will change, and you’ll land up ugly as your sister.’
Archibald snorts with laughter and drags a protesting Endymion from the room. ‘Come now, sweetheart,’ he says as he pulls him down the corridor, ‘I’m pretty sure I can rustle up something interesting for you at the local farm. A willing swine perhaps?’
‘Now you’ve done it,’ drawls Alex from the door across the hallway. ‘Come morning Coddy will be married to a light skirt and Dimmi will have contracted swine fever. At this rate it’ll be just you and I on the battlefield.’
Lucian smiles, his heart beginning to race. ‘As if I’d complain about that,’ he says softly.
He hasn’t been able to get his mind off Alex’s talk of unfinished business between them. Since they finished the march back from the forest to this little hamlet in Erest on the Western border of Moldav he’s been wondering what will happen between them. He’s realised he can’t expect Alex, even if he is by some miracle attracted to him, to put aside years of one behaviour for another. But he can hope. Oh he most certainly can hope.
Alex crosses the hall and wanders into Lucian’s room, his hands in his pockets. Much like Endymion, he’s in his breeches and bare feet. His ebony hair is damp and mussed from a bath and the wounds he received during battle, across the shoulders and some on his abdomen, are stitched and look rather sore. Lucian has his own wounds but, watching Alex wander about his room, he no longer feels them.
‘I didn’t see you at supper,’ he says. ‘Were you not hungry?’
Alex looks up, his blue eyes troubled. ‘Not much. I was busy trying to work out a strategy wherein the small army we’re taking to the rear of those enemy forces at our border will end in anything but wholesale slaughter of our ranks.’
‘I’ll admit,’ Lucian says. ‘It has me somewhat concerned. But what choice do we have? There’s no time to get to Londinium. They’ll have to deal with the spearhead themselves. We’ll do whatever we can from behind.’
Alex reaches Lucian’s window seat, and collapses down beside him, his legs stretched out. ‘That sounds like something you’d be rather good at,’ he says, grinning.
Lucian blinks. Stares. ‘Did you just make a sodomy joke?’
‘I think I may have done.’ Alex collapses over, laughing, then clutches at his abdomen with a groan of pain.
Lucian tuts. ‘Serves you right.’
Those blue eyes raise, a wicked grin beneath. ‘It doesn’t hurt that much,’ he says, and leans in, pinning Lucian against the side of the window. ‘It barely hurts at all.’ He drags his eyes down Lucian from face to groin, then looks back up at him, those blue eyes of his so brim full of intent Lucian can barely find the air to draw a breath. He thinks his heart may have quit beating. Alex trails one hand up Lucian’s thigh, making him gasp, smoothes his palm up across his groin and chest to cup Lucian’s cheek. ‘I believe I mentioned something about unfinished business,’ he murmurs, drawing in close, his lips millimetres from Lucian’s.
Lucian, being somewhat of a predator, isn’t quite used to having the tables turned. His heart starts to hammer, and his breath comes in short, harsh pants. ‘If you’re joking now,’ he manages to say. ‘I’m going to kill you.’
Alex leans forward and licks Lucian’s lower lip, completely unravelling him. ‘No need for that,’ he says. ‘I’ve never been more serious.’ And he catches Lucian’s mouth in a savage kiss than burns everything within him to smouldering lumps of char.
© Ren Warom 2012