~ (Continued) Siwenday, 14th of Prima, 11831 ~
The lord physician monitored how his nephew’s soul twisted and tangled with conflict. For a time, he feared Pierre would not be able to return on his own, but realized the problem did not lie with magical ability. In the Land of the Dead, the most favored suitor of Death was within grasp of more power than on any operating table. In some ways that lure was more the test than the return.
His soul was closer to this world than the next when Mora appeared again. She sat on the edge of Pierre’s bed, flesh and tangible, the bed shifting with her weight. Her dress was opaque, though cut low in the back, and the ghost of great bat wings sprouted from her shoulders.
“You will leave,” she said to the physician, her gaze never wavering from the duc.
“My Lady, he—”
“You believe your presence will make any difference?”
He did not. Pierre, while at first his protégé, was far more skilled in dark magic. Ophion had dared not continue because of what Mora had wanted him to do. Instead, he used his knowledge to heal and keep death away, while Pierre embraced it.
Ophion returned to his seat. The same position that meant he could not stop Mora also meant he could defy her. Maybe he would be of some use to Pierre if only as he had suggested earlier—a tether to the living world. His hands moved in his lap, as if he was tying a string to his finger, and lured his soul.
Death ignored him, tilting Pierre’s head so his unblinking eyes met hers. The body was room temperature now, feeling cool even to her touch. She straightened his collar and cravat, lying down beside him with a smile; he had come to her in his best. The only scent to permeate the room was that of the flowers. Her duc must have fasted in anticipation. Here he lay her perfect corpse.
She stretched up to kiss him, to steal the last breath his closed mouth might still hold. His soul then settled into flesh. She turned away.
Warmth spread throughout his body, becoming heat and then movement—circulation returned to his limbs, muscles contracted, and extremities flexed. His heart beat erratically; she felt his pulse against her cheek where she had hidden her gaze. The duc suddenly gasped for air and moaned in pain. With a spasm, his arms wrapped around the woman atop him and he crushed her to his chest.
A whispered plea turned into a groan before he could form the words. He buried himself in her embrace as another moment of pain seized him, his nails digging into her back. He sought shelter in her arms.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t,” he managed to say. “I wanted to, I…” Aware of how he had thrust himself upon her, he loosened his hold. She pulled back enough to place her hands on either side of his face, her fingers tangling in his hair. The locks she touched whitened.
“No,” she said. There was no warmth in her voice. “You did not.” She vanished.
Pain shot through him. He curled up in a ball, composure failing as all of her favor was revoked. Ophion rushed to him but dared not touch him until the tension left his body.
“I am sorry,” Pierre whispered. He was still curled up, voice strained. Slowly, he sat. “Uncle, forgive me for—” He vomited black bile.
“Shh. Be quiet Pierre. Let me help you.”
He moved Pierre to the cleaner side of the bed, leaving the bile for later. It could not expose them though it would show the duc being far more ill than he wanted known.
“I can move my limbs, feel everything,” Pierre grit out, spitting. “I have not eaten, I do not—”
“I said quiet,” the physician ordered, and the patient obeyed. He began to undress Pierre.
The duc had planned tonight well. Neither eating nor drinking for a day and a half removed the possibility of soiling oneself in death. Aside from the issue of cleanliness, the stench would have raised alarm and inquiry. It was only in the strain of return that he had sweat through his clothes. His trousers were also stained with ejaculate—a Suitor who had undergone all tests by Death was no longer fertile.
The several hindering layers were thrown aside.
Ophion opened the wound in his arm again, making Pierre take a few sips of blood. He coaxed the spirits of death and pain in the room, taking their attention so there could be some reprieve for the duc. He stayed until morning.
~ Iunday, 15th of Prima, 11831 ~
A small crowd gathered before the duc’s chambers. Some were there to wish him well, and others had not even known he had taken ill until seeing the commotion. Two guards stood by the door—merely a presence of power, not a force. No one was allowed entry.
The lord physician came out of the room and raised a hand to gain everyone’s attention. He wore the same clothes as the evening before.
“Ladies, gentlemen, I beg you to be quiet. I understand you are all worried about the principicule, but this was not an uncommon occurrence when he resided at home as a young man. Many of you know others that suffer from similar headaches. Stimuli will aggravate his pain. Now please, a late breakfast is being served for all who stayed up the night before.” The intense headaches were often brought on by the use of necrocræft though it was a common enough symptom among the ill in Clandestina as well. Those who called themselves Suitors of Death were quick to use this as part of their masquerade.
The doctor urged the guards forward, and they began to usher away the guests that did not leave hastily enough. Elizabeth was among them and tried to stay until she could get closer to Ophion to speak with him directly.
A guard placed his hand on her shoulder. “Lady—”
“No, please, I—Uncle!” They were not related by blood, Ophion and she, but his adopted daughter was her sister-in-law and perhaps that was enough.
“Please!” she called as loud as she dared. Her brother had occasionally suffered from similar headaches, and she knew better than to raise her voice.
To her relief, Ophion saw her and nodded to the guard, who let her go and returned to his duties. Elizabeth dashed toward the physician. “Has the duc gotten worse? I know he took ill, but that was last night. We danced; I thought he was only nervous. He should be better by now if it is not serious.”
“Lady Elizabeth. Yes, unfortunately he is still unwell. He will be fine soon, but the pain has not disappeared as of yet, and I would prefer he rests. He did desire I inform you that he will be well soon, should you come asking.”
“It is just the headache?”
“A cough as well and slight dizziness, but everything is under control. Stress from travel woke a dormant illness.”
Only then did she smile, glad Pierre was mostly well, and that he wished her informed so as not to worry.
“Thank you, my lord physician, it is good to know that it is something which can be dealt with.”
“Yes. Now, I shall go and check how he is doing, and perhaps join you at breakfast. You thought Pierre nervous, I wish to hear this. Have a good day, my lady.”
The door opened behind Ophion. “I am feeling quite well. You’ve frightened away those I have no interest in, but certainly Lizzy is allowed entrance.” Pierre leaned heavily against the door, a cane helping keep him up. He was terribly pale, and his hands still shook, but he smiled.
“Oh, monsieur!” Elizabeth forgot herself, embracing him. “I was so worried.”
“My, little Lizzy, there was no need for that.” As if to show his lie, he turned away to cough harshly. “Perhaps that is not entirely true. Ophion?”
The physician gently moved Elizabeth away and helped Pierre back into his room. She waited a moment before walking through the entrance. The guards did not stop her.
“I should be quite well by this evening,” Pierre said to her, now in bed but sitting up. He picked up a damp cloth and pressed it to his forehead. Pluta lay curled in his lap, watching Lizzy.
“The pain comes and goes, as long as I do not strain myself I should be fine.” He said it with a look to his uncle and then put the cloth aside.
“Your Grace—” Ophion began.
“She may stay.” He rubbed his forehead as another wave of pain began. “And you may go have your breakfast, then depart. Sleep on the journey. I am fine now. I am sure the worst has passed. You are needed in Eichel.” The physician had had plans to leave to see to his daughter and son-in-law before Pierre had done worse than merely risk his life.
The duc explained to Lizzy, “Ophion stayed up the whole night making certain I was managing with the pain. He does not believe I am almost well and is forcing me to stay in bed. Would you mind terribly keeping me company?”
“No, monsieur, I would be delighted to.”
Pierre turned to his uncle and smiled. “See? And I promise I will rest. Go on then.”
The physician sighed. “Send Pluta if you worsen.” He pulled out a chair for Elizabeth, placing it next to the bed. “I shall still be here an hour or two.” He shut the door as he left.
As if understanding she had been mentioned, the cat moved over to the edge of the bed.
The young woman reached out and stroked her from head to tail. “She’s gorgeous! Why, hello there.” Pluta purred. “Is she not almost twenty years in age by now? I remember her from when we were young. You said she was a long-time pet even then. Assuming of course it is the same cat…”
“It is the same cat. I could not give her name to another.” To name the living after the dead was full of meaning in several realms. “And she is almost twenty-three,” Pierre continued. “Cats can live into their twenties, though rare. Do you remember the first spring we met? The fée rings we found? Pluta ate some of the mushrooms when I returned there. Time has not affected her since.”
“You went back alone? Did you make a wish?”
“No, actually, I did not. I wanted to see if there were any differences during the night. The moonlight was brighter than usual. Springfinding will be here soon; perhaps we could look for another one to wish in? Leave milk and honey on your windowsill to appease them.”
“It is still too early for the mischievous ones to be venturing so close to human homes. They will only come once their Midspring has passed, and their queen holds court. I think you are just setting this up as a treat for Pluta.” She scratched the cat behind her ears and was patiently still as the animal looked her over and sniffed her. “Do not worry. I will leave enough for you and the fairies.”
“Cats should not actually be given milk,” Pierre said. He spoke as if he often corrected others, especially while only overhearing a conversation. Lizzy wondered if his professors had found it a nuisance. She smiled.
“She is an immortal fay-cat. I do not think a saucer of milk will do her harm.”
“Ah, well…” Pierre struggled for words, as if he were rarely corrected. “When stated that way I believe you are correct.”
She looked up at him. Though smiling, he seemed in more pain. Elizabeth stood and looked to the bowl of ice water that served to re-dampen the cloth. She held up a finger to Pierre for patience. With the other hand, she picked out a cube of ice and wrapped it in the cloth, then pressed this to his temple. He reached up to hold it himself and placed his hand atop hers.
“Thank you, Lizzy.”
“Of course, mon—”
“Pierre, my dear.”
“Of course, Pierre.” She stroked some of his bangs out of the way then quickly retreated to where she had sat with Pluta.
“Is it from the pain?” she asked. “Your hair color, there is quite a lot of grey amongst the black. I have heard fright or pain may cause it to whiten. You have had these headaches since you were young…?”
“It seems to be the case. Even my poor moustache is greying.”
“I fear I am too far away to see that.” He had begun to wear the thin moustache when he had left for school. Now a neat balbo complemented it.
“Were you not paying attention last night?”
“Your eyes held my attention, monsi—Pierre.”
“Perhaps you would wish come closer again?”
She looked down to Pluta and around the room. “Monsieur, the door is closed. I believe it would be improper.” It was enough that they were in this room alone.
“Of course.” The duc was not as pale as he had been at the beginning of their conversation. “Forgive my suggestions, Elizabeth. You were among my thoughts last night.”
“You were in mine,” she confessed, still looking away.
There was a knock on the door. Pierre bid them enter but winced at his own raised voice.
Two servants entered with a small table held between them topped with all manner of breakfast food, sweet and savory. Placing it down, each took a large dish and filled it with an assortment, one plate given to Pierre on a legged tray and the other put down next to Elizabeth on the table.
“Your Grace, do you desire to be fed?” one of the servants asked the duc. “It is an unnecessary strain, given your illness.”
“No, thank you. I am well enough. You are dismissed. Please keep the door ajar.” The two bowed though stayed where they were.
“Comtesse Eichel wishes her daughter know they will be leaving before lunch with the lord physician, to return to Eichel.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth answered. “The information has been heard.”
Elizabeth did not comment about her abruptly scheduled departure, taking a large bite of fruit (something that should not have been in season yet), delighting in its taste. Glancing to Pierre she noticed that while he had refused to be fed, with one hand occupied pressing the cloth to his head, it did not look a very comfortable task.
“May I?” she asked. She stood again and shook a finger at Pluta, who was stretching over to sniff the dish. “This is mine. You may have your own share from the table.” Pluta looked to her master, the two dishes, then jumped to the extra food. She nibbled on a slice of ham.
“Elizabeth,” Pierre protested when she sat at the edge of his bed and took his fork. “I sent away the valets, you are a noble lady—”
“And I too know healing arts. You are in pain. Therefore, monsieur, I am a nurse and you a patient.”
Pierre had no reply to this and was forced to accept the food as it was offered.
Pluta sneezed as if to laugh.
“I am fond of her,” Pierre said. He leaned back and sighed. Elizabeth had left a quarter hour ago, and he already missed her. She had indeed fed him, and he in turn had announced the pain had subsided and surely, as was fair, he would feed her. She had not been able to object. “Not love,” he continued, reflecting. “Not yet. But my heart beats faster in her presence.”
“You are infatuated already?” Pluta replied. She looked up from the food she was nibbling on.
“I believe I have been since we were children. She has taken quite a strong hold on me this time…” His voice drifted off, and he turned to the larkspur around his room. Reaching out, he grasped a stem and pulled one out.
“Look, my familiar.” The cat jumped from the table to the bed and sat dutifully beside her master. He placed a finger in her mouth, and she bit down. Black blood dripped from the wound. He touched the purple flower with it and watched as the bloom shriveled.
Pierre snapped his fingers, smearing blood on his hand, and quite the opposite took place—a flower returned to life. New buds and leaves poked from the stem, and the roots grew long. He leaned over and replanted it.
“It is easier,” he said, letting Pluta lick the wound. It began to heal faster than if he had left it be. “There is a general ease to it. When before the spirits had resisted, if only gently, they now trust my judgment. And while I still feel unwell after last night, I assumed far more pain.”
“You are no longer merely a Suitor of Death, Pierre,” the cat said.
No, he was not. He had returned to life within the hour of his own volition. He would have lost all he had striven for had he taken longer. Perhaps, then, he would have rather stayed dead.
“Mora asked me to stay.” Pluta paused in cleaning the blood from his hand. He stroked her behind the ear. “She asked I stay as her consort in the realms between lives.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I would not be her equal. I would rather a limited life as her equal than forever as her consort.” He sighed. “And there are those who would miss me.”