5. The Loup
“Why Master Rian, I would not have thought you were an impatient man.” Rian’s hands didn’t slow in their quest to raise my skirts.
“Only with you.” He buried his face in the crook of my neck and scraped his teeth along my skin. “I’ve been waiting years for you.”
“You exaggerate. We’ve been apart for less than four weeks.”
“Mmm.” He lifted me against the cookshed wall and entered me in one smooth, divine stroke. “I don’t care what the calendar says. It has been too long.”
I agreed with him, but I didn’t want to admit it. I’d been fond of my previous lovers, but not like this. I missed Rian when we were apart. And I missed him for more than just the skill of his hands and the size of his cock.
I missed him.
I missed his sly humor and the deep rumble of his voice. I missed the smell of his skin and the comforting warmth of his body beside mine in the night. I missed the gentle whispers he used to quiet horses, and the confident way he put his arm around me when we walked down the street.
He paid no special attention my witchery. He didn’t act as though he had been brave to bed me, and he didn’t strut about like he’d some special magic in his cock that let him please a witch. To him, my witchery was just another feminine skill, like tatting or midwifery, which had little to do with him. He never asked me for spells or charms, even when I offered. He was never afraid to anger me.
In fact, he liked to make me angry. He would say some outrageous thing and smile as I argued with him. He would pile absurdity upon absurdity until I was yelling and calling him names, and then he would kiss me, inhaling my heated breaths, running his hands over my struggling muscles.
I wanted to stay angry with him, but there is only one good way to put aroused passions to rest. When he would push me to the bed, or pull me into a shadowed doorway as we walked down a moonlit street, I took my vengeance on his body, licking him or riding him until he shuddered and shouted my name. He was not the only one of our pairing who liked to make their lover lose control.
“Do you think about me?” he asked me when we had taken our pleasures from each other. “Do you think of me when I’m not with you?”
I did not answer, but snuggled deeper into his arms.
“I think of you,” he whispered. “I wake in the night with my cock so hard I hurt. I wake with your name on my lips.”
“I wake wanting you, as well.” It was not a lie, only an edited version of the truth. At times I did writhe in my sleep, dreaming of a lover’s touch upon my skin. Such dreams had haunted me since the day I saw the prince. They haunted me still.
At times, the prince wore Rian’s face, but his kisses were wooing and gentle. The hands I dreamed I felt upon my body had the work-roughened feel of Rian’s. But the scaly caress of the prince’s curse trailed in the wake of Rian’s touch.
Sometimes I came to pleasure from those dreams. I shuddered in my sleep with the hot, damp taste of the prince’s magic in my mouth and the feel of Rian’s cock stretching my cunt. I felt like a traitor when I woke, and I wept with hatred for the prince. I wept with hatred for myself.
“I want to spend every night with you, Ember.” Rian’s words startled me from my dark ruminations.
“Does that mean you will quit work at the palace, and come live here with me?”
“No. I don’t fancy life in a cookshed. You should come to the palace and live with me.”
“Because the palace provides such spacious accommodations for its stablemen, and eagerly welcomes their families and wives?”
“They will make room for you. I shall make sure of it.”
“It does not matter what concessions you think you can wring from your employer. I have duties here.”
“What duties?” Rian asked. “I’ve never seen you enter the main house. I’ve never seen any other servant come to you with a task. It is almost as if they don’t see you at all.”
“Witchery is complicated.”
He shook his head, as though he could shake thoughts of my witchery from his mind. “You talk too much of witchery. It is ever on your mind. You explain your every action with the words, ‘I am a witch,’ as though it is the whole of you. Just once, I want to hear you say you are mine!”
I had not seen him so possessive before. Of a sudden, I recalled all the times he’d put his arm around my shoulders as we walked on the street. I had always thought he meant to show he was not afraid to love a witch. But his message was more basic. He meant to tell me I was his; he meant to tell the world, She is mine.
He took my hands and looked into my eyes. “I love you and I want to marry you. Don’t you love me?”
His talk of marriage panicked me. I imagined standing before the civil justice vowing to love and honor Rian until I died. I would make a liar of myself on the first day of our life together, for I knew I would only honor him so long as I kept away from the prince.
The prince’s curse pulled at me constantly. Even with my missing finger and my vial of moonlight, it was a struggle to resist him. It was a struggle to keep my composure at the sound of his name. I could not touch a silver coin without wanting to run my tongue along his profile.
“Of course I love you,” I told Rian. “In my way.”
“In your way?” He almost shouted the words. “What do you mean, ‘in your way?’ You either love or you do not. And if you love, you love me only. There is no other way!”
He grabbed my shoulders and locked his gaze to mine. “Love is a fire, Ember. Tend it, or it will burn you. Feed it, or it will die and leave you cold.”
I didn’t like the anger in his eyes. It was not a rage I could cure with soothing words or a fevered fuck against the wall. I feared he would leave me, and I couldn’t bear to let him go. “I’m overwhelmed—confused! I never planned on marriage. There are few enough men who would dare to wed a witch. Your proposal is something I could not have imagined.”
“Where did you think we were headed? Did you think I’d be content to see you three nights every month, six on the blue moon? I want you every night, Ember. In my bed and in my life. I will not settle for anything less.”
“I need time to accustom myself to it, Rian.” I pleaded, thinking frantically as I spoke. “Give me until next month. Come to me then, and you will be coming to your betrothed.”
It was a desperate ploy based on an impossible goal. How would I find the key to breaking the prince’s hold on me in a month, when I’d spent the better part of five years searching for just such a cure? I was only delaying the inevitable.
As I’d expected, I had no luck in my frantic, month-long search for a cure to the prince’s curse. I spent hours every day Working at the hearth. I scoured every book and scroll I could find. I ate little and slept less. But the days passed. The moon waned and waxed, and still I found nothing of use.
Witches are like snowflakes, cold and quite unlike each other. No two witches cast the same spell in the same manner. What works for one will not work for another. And what Work one does, no other can undo.
I could find no solution that would guarantee immunity to the curse Gaetane had laid on the prince, and if I could not be certain I would be able to resist the prince, I could not promise myself to Rian.
The Old Wives say the promise of a witch is as sharp as a sword, and as sure as an iron chain. They do not lie, but I did not strive to keep my oaths to Rian for fear of the fate awaiting a witch who breaks her promises. The simple truth is, I would rather have died than to betray him.
“No offense to you,” Sylvie told me as she gulped down her monthly potion. “But I miss Ember.”
“None taken,” I said, smiling behind the Cinder Girl’s face. “I’m sure she misses you as well.”
“Blech!” Sylvie gulped down the last of it. “And her recipe for this potion doesn’t taste so foul as your does.”
I almost laughed. The potion was the same one I’d always made for Sylvie; the same one she’d always complained about. The difference between the two was only in her mind. It is as the Old Wives say, “Memory makes everything sweeter.”
“Your sister never told me,” I said to Sylvie, “where you bear your scar.” In truth, Sylvie had never told me, and I’d always been curious. Everyone stricken with the loup carries a scar from the bite that infected him. Any injury those poor souls sustain after infection will heal as though it never was, but the loup’s victims will always wear the mark of the bite that doomed them.
“My scar?” Sylvie drew her brows together in a look of confusion I knew from experience to be utterly false. “I don’t think I know.”
“Come now,” I prodded, emboldened by the stranger’s face I wore. “Everyone with the loup has a mark. If you tell me where yours is, and what it looks like, I may be able to dispense with some of the more unpalatable ingredients in your monthly potion.”
Sylvie hesitated as her hatred of the potion warred with her natural bent for secrecy. She rubbed her left hand on her thigh.
“It’s here.” She touched the inside of her upper thigh through her skirts.
“That is an odd place. Most marks are on the hands, arms or lower legs. Sometimes the neck. What does it look like?”
“Uh. Like teeth marks. Two sets of angry red curved indentations.”
“The loup was in human form when he bit you on your upper thigh.”
Sylvie shook her head. “I know what you are thinking, but I loved him! Then he told me he was a monster, and I hated him for deceiving me. He swore it wasn’t so bad, and bit me to prove it.
“But I did not want to turn into a beast. I went to the Priest for a blessing to heal me. The Priest told me the loup was my punishment for being a whore. He said the only cure for it was the pyre. He locked me in a cellar while he went to fetch the constable.”
“That is when you fled Ville des Rois?”
Sylvie looked down at her folded hands, and I hated my cold curiosity for making her miserable. “I allowed Minette and Dulcie to think it was Raoul, my lover, who betrayed me instead of my own stupidity. I could have fled with him and let Minette and Dulcie keep their lives in Ville des Rois, but I could not forgive him for what he did.
“And when we arrived here, I was frightened to tell Ember. She has such a sharp tongue and she knows how to read. Though she has ever been kind to us, and she always holds her tongue where we are concerned, I did not want to look into her eyes and see she thought me a fool to have fallen in love with a man I barely knew. I think it might be worse than if she said it aloud.”
Awkwardly, I embraced Sylvie and patted her back. “There, there. Ember would not have thought you foolish. Every woman knows decisions are complicated when it comes to the heart.”
My words were a lie. Before meeting Rian, I might have thought Sylvie foolish. Now, I thought her brave.
“I miss Ember,” Sylvie muttered as she wiped her tears. “When do you think she will return?”
“I would imagine she’ll be back when the prince tires of you and your sisters’ services.”
“Oh, if only that were true. He tired of our services early on. He hasn’t touched a woman under this roof since his first night with Dulcie.”
“But he’s here almost every night the moon isn’t full. What does he do?”
“He lives like monk! He doesn’t gamble or fuck. He just sits in our best set of rooms staring out the window at the rear yard. I swear he must have memorized the view by now. There’s nothing but the kitchen garden, the stables, and the cookshed.”
I shivered at the thought of all the times I’d met Rian out there in the moonlight. My only protection was the fact that the prince always locked himself in the palace on the nights of the full moon. I’d no need to fear he’d seen us, but the knowledge he was so often in residence made me uneasy.
“He is becoming a hermit.” Sylvie mused. “His courtiers and cronies are worried for him. His cousin, the Grand Duke, plans to throw a ball in his honor, to cheer him.”
“I’ve heard the noblemen and merchants who frequent this house complain about the balls and soirees their wives drag them to. I did not think men went to them willingly.”
“This will be a Harlots’ Ball,” Sylvie confided. “His Grace means to invite every courtesan and lady of dubious virtue in the land so the prince may choose a mistress.”
“Are you worried? If the prince chooses a mistress, you might lose his custom.”
“Pfft! We never wanted his custom in the first place. Refusing him might have lost us other business. It’s strange, but I don’t think I like the prince. When I’m near him, I can only think how handsome and perfect he is, and how I would do anything to please him. But once he leaves, I remember he’s sullen and moody. He orders but never asks. He seems to despise us for adoring him, though we cannot help ourselves.”
I thought of the time I’d gone into the prince’s chamber to light the fire. I remembered the way his hand had yearned toward me when he’d asked me not to leave. I remembered the gentle, tentative touch of his lips upon mine. He’d not seemed sullen and despising. Beneath the despicable pull of his curse he’d seemed…lonely.
I quashed the thought immediately. I did not want to have sympathy for the prince. I did not want to wonder why he’d made our house his hermitage. But the questions lingered in my mind as I crossed the rear yard to the cookshed.
I turned to look up at the windows of the prince’s suite. Light poured from every one. The curtains of the third window parted, and I detected the shadowed shape of a man watching from behind the wavering leaded-glass panes.
An idea occurred to me. Later I would come to regret it as I’d never regretted any idea in my life save the one that had bade me disobey my mother and watch the prince ride down the Avenida Delpalacio. But at the time, the idea represented the hope of freedom from my susceptibility to the prince’s curse.
What if the key to breaking his curse’s hold on me lay with the prince, himself? What if he wore some magic gewgaw I might steal to break his power? What if I used a strand of his hair in an anti-curse invocation? What if hope for my future freedom and happiness with Rian lay not in avoiding the prince, but in braving his den and discovering his secrets?
I’d exhausted my other options. I decided to take the risk. Thus, with the best of intentions, I sealed my fate.