Love hurts, they say.
Still, I find it an impractical tool. In all my years, I’ve never extracted a traitor’s confession with the threat of a broken heart—for the simple reason that on the subject of love, imagination fails us. We cannot conceive before the fact how excruciating its loss can be.
Whereas any torturing scoundrel will tell you that the instinctive human dread of physical pain—a dagger pressed into the eye socket, for example—is often more persuasive than the pain itself.
I poke my blade in a little harder. “Give me a name, monsieur, or by Jupiter, I’ll slice your eye in two.”
“Don’t know what you mean.” The boy’s in shirtsleeves, and sweat darkens his white linen. The pleasure den’s warm gaslights slant my shadow across his face. He’s bleeding all over his waistcoat, poor lad, his cupid’s-bow lips split and swollen, and it isn’t making my job any easier.
A few feet from us, behind the half-drawn curtain, the dance whirls on, oblivious, a riot of silk and brocade, paste jewelry, painted faces, dusty relics of the bad old days. When he approached me at these revels—me, a lady wearing a gentlemen’s swallow-tailed coat and breeches, rapier and dirk at her belt, glossy brown curls twisted in a red ribbon—he had more erotic recreation in mind.
Perhaps, so did I. He’s handsome, this minion of evil. Delicious. The eye I’m threatening to pierce is ocean blue, bright with belladonna, and the smell of his skin maddens me. Absinthe and fear and a succulent boy’s sweat, a toxic reminder of days long gone, when truth and liberty were more important than tomorrow, and my blood raced wild and free.
But I’m a different woman now. A married woman. And though I worship my lord husband with my entire heart, on evenings such as this—with the prey trembling in my grip, warm night air sparkling on my skin, the scent of satisfaction inches from my reach—the interminable emptiness of that tomorrow stretches ahead of me, terrifying.
“Your coven master’s name, villain.” I slide my dirk under his chin. “Or perhaps you can do without the eyeball. Should I instead slice your throat asunder?”
“Please, don’t hurt me. He’ll kill me if I tell you.” He’s sobbing now, begging in the fashion I once enjoyed so ruthlessly, and sweat trickles between my breasts. I’m burning. Eager. Parched inside, as if my soul wastes away for want.
“Yet so shall I, if you remain silent. What a dilemma.” I twist his hair in my damp fist. My mouth is dry. I want to lick his swollen lips, taste that shimmering moisture. “Give me his name, minion, or you’ll know sorrow.”
The boy’s eyes harden, the besotted glitter of the Possessed. “His name is master,” he rasps. “But he signs himself Charlot.“
The syllables echo backwards in time.
I taste them. Mysterious, slightly bitter, like an old wine. Enticing. Just as he tasted, long ago in those restless days of revolution, when he and I were drunk on power and fury and the sheer brilliant bliss of being alive.
My heart beats faster. Fear or excitement? I ought to feel nothing.
I must feel nothing.
“Where?” Urgency spills a growl into my voice, and the boy trembles.
“The Hall of Mirrors. You’ll never get close t—ughhh.” His breath eases out, a damp sigh of hopelessness.
I yank my dagger from his heart, frustrated. I’m unsated, squirming inside, as if a lover has left me unfinished. I long to ravage, deface, devour.
But I ease the boy mercifully to the floor. It isn’t his fault, after all. “Hush,” I whisper. “Not as painful as you feared. See?”
Bright blood spills from his mouth, down his shirt front, a froth of crimson lace. The expression in his wet blue eyes is pure shock and disbelief.
No one—not a man, not a city, not an empire—truly believes their time is over. Not until the end.
And I stalk out, wiping my dirk on my breeches, and leave his ripe body to bleed.
Midnight supper on the terrace, the salty ocean breeze lifting my curls. Oil lamps flicker, shadows stretching, and above us the arches and tiled roofs of our white villa vanish into darkness. Sprinkled stars glitter to the horizon. The cry of a solo violin drifts up from the beach, something wild and intricate by Liszt or Paganini.
My golden silk gown is too warm. The bodice is too tight, and my breasts hurt as I breathe. The jewels at my throat make me perspire, and when I reach a lace-gloved hand for my champagne, the fine crystal stem all but slips from my fingers. In my mind, it shatters over the tiles, glittering edges tipped in blood.
Philippe just smiles politely at me, and swallows a tiny smoked shellfish.
That curl of his granite lips catches in my throat. Even after all the years we’ve been wedded, he still has power over me. His magnificence still makes my flesh tingle, my blood course harder. Sometimes, I wish it would not. Sometimes, I wish…
He sips his Chablis—lips teasing the rim, hand tilting, throat bobbing—and I swallow, hard. My husband’s every movement is art. His crisp blond curls, his golden lashes, the perfect folds of his white tie are of infinite depth. His eyes are green and gold, in different measure depending on his mood. Whether he’s dressed for evening, or wielding his pistols in breeches and shirtsleeves, or wearing nothing but a rumpled sheet and a grin, he’s still the most beautiful thing in my world.
The silence between us, like the sting of a poisoned rapier, is exquisite and painful.
I sit straighter. Take a strawberry, force it between my lips, chew, swallow. It’s delicious, nutritious, the sweet fruit cool in my mouth. I don’t care. It isn’t food that I want.
“Are you working tonight?” My voice strains, like overused wire. Philippe knows I hunt the Possessed, that it takes me to unsavory places to mix with creatures most would rather forget. It’s what I’ve done since we wedded, and Philippe has his own hunting to do, miscreants to chase down, traitors and criminals and enemies of the new regime. There are men under his command who must be led.
The lie is in what I don’t say. The name I don’t mention. The yearning inside that I don’t dare face.
“Perhaps.” His voice is warm chocolate, rich. He cleans his lips—they aren’t dirty—with a white napkin. “You look flushed, my love. Are you well?”
Another lie. He knows what plagues me. He knows how I struggle. When we lie together, he tends my fire, with his body and his mouth and the love I feel for him. He quenches my thirst, and then I go and sin no more. That was the promise we made.
The servants clear away our supper. I barely hear them. How I need him tonight. How I want him. To be made pure by his touch, lured in by the hallowed flame of his love.
“Only a little tired.” I try a smile, and I know it shows but faintly, a washed-out watercolor smile. Daring, I reach across the table. “Philippe…”
He takes my hand, and kisses it. My wedding ring winks cruelly at me through the lace. “Good night, my love.”
And in a sweep of herbal scent, he’s gone. His footsteps echo along the terrace, and fade into the dark.
I sit alone, under stars that glare and accuse. My eyes ache and scorch. My mouth crumples, and I cover it with the back of my hand.
My husband will not lie with me. He knows how I suffer, yet he chooses not to give me peace.
A dark fire catches alight in my soul, and I burn. He knows whom you seek, it whispers. Harlot. Whore. Adulteress…
“No,” I burst out, too loud in the silence. I’ve done nothing. I know I’ve done nothing. But even as unrequited desire boils like an evil potion in my blood, my heart shrivels cold and bereft. With what whim of mine have I displeased him? How have I so sadly disappointed the man I adore?
Down on the beach, that violin shrieks higher, faster. People said Paganini must be in league with Tartarus, to offer up such fantastical, heartrending melody. A desolate splendor that claws at the soul. That grasps and yearns and begs, yet is never satisfied.
But I know that music, and it isn’t Tartarus.
It’s the wild, forlorn howl of my hunger. The hunger Philippe has abandoned me to face alone.
And as I tremble in the flickering gaslight, a thought strikes me, so dark and terrible that for a moment I refuse even to acknowledge it.
What if my lord no longer loves me?
And hot on the trail of that blasphemy, another, bleaker horror.
What if he wants me to have an affair?