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In Fields of Flowers

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Nijah looked at herself in the mirror in her bedroom one last time. She brushed the pleats of the a-line black dress her parents had surprised her with, soothing the wrinkles in the soft silk. She absolutely loved it, especially the halter neckline with a deep v-cut through her chest. It was simple, yet elegant, and perfect for the occasion. It was even better than her violin recital dress from a few years ago, which was very near and dear to her heart.

Tonight was the night of the Masquerade, and the final night she would be living in the city of Vesuvia.

Now that she was twenty years old, she was to go off for her first job in her career. She had been studying medicine for a few years, and her first placement will be at the island of Lazaret with Dr. Devorak, who was working to help cure the plague. It was an exciting time, but it was also a stressful one. She was grateful she would be helping the greater good, but…she was distraught at the thought of leaving her family and friends behind.

Speaking of, her best friend Selene appeared in the mirror behind her, dressed in a tight pink gown with lace sleeves and open shoulders. She looked absolutely divine, and Nijah felt a sense of pride in having a friend like her.

“Nijah, you seem glum. What’s wrong?” Selene hugged her from behind, giving her a tight squeeze to the stomach. The two of them had been friends ever since they were children, staying close all throughout school, various side jobs, boy drama…they’ve seen it all.

“I’m…” she gulped. “…I’m just worried I’ll never see you again.”

Her dear friend smiled, the apples of her cheeks flushing a light pink. “Don’t worry, of course we will! That’s what best friends do. Besides, I’ll be writing to you every week. That’s a promise!”

Nijah smiled, watching as Selene fluffed her own dark, curly shoulder-length hair in the mirror. “We look ah-mazing, we’re headed to the most elite birthday party of the year, and we will always have each other! What’s there to lose?”

“Yeah, you’re right.” She was so blessed to have such a wonderful person in her life. “What am I going to do without you?”

“Great things, Nijah, great things.”

“Well, if you say so…”

“Speaking of things that are great, I wouldn’t be surprised if you snagged a man tonight.” She continued, walking to your desk to pick up your masks. “Ugh, it would be sooo romantic! A tall, dark, handsome man, a doctor’s apprentice, miles apart but held together by love. Please make sure I am there for the wedding!” Selene passed the black panther mask to Nijah, waiting to see how it would look on.

Nijah flushed, completely embarrassed. Sure, her blonde hair was curled and her makeup was done, but there was no way any man would find her attractive. She tied on the panther mask, grinning as she saw her complete outfit come together, sealed with a classy red lip.

“My goodness,” Selene gushed as she tied her flamingo mask, “you will be the most beautiful woman at this party. I guarantee it. Even the Countess would be jealous!!!”

Nijah playfully swatted at her dear friend. “Don’t be ridiculous, now. I definitely don’t have time for that in my life at all.” Besides, if any men were to go after either of them, it would definitely be Selene. She had the voluptuous curves, the pouty lips, the sweet laugh and seductive smile. All Nijah had was…plain. Her body was nothing special, and she was more awkward and clumsy than anything. She tried to not compare herself so often, but she couldn’t help it.

She gazed out her window at the sunset, watching the castle light up with festivities. She could feel the aura from miles away, elegant yet mysterious. What events will happen tonight in the castle walls? What adventures will she and Selene get into? Could her life possibly change…forever?

Selene taps her on the shoulder, snapping Nijah out of her daydream. “Are we ready?”

Nijah gulped. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

 

 

 

The Masquerade was absolutely magnificent, quite the sight to behold.

When Nijah and Selene entered through the castle gates, shops upon shops were bustled next to each other, serving the citizens who were looking for last-minute costumes. Hundreds of thousands of people were gathered, rummaging through the clothes in a frenzy to look their best. The two girls can’t help but laugh, silently relieved that they had picked out their outfits months in advance.

They left that scene behind them, and came across the grand entrance of the palace. The guard at the doors bowed to them as they opened the doors. As the ladies took their first steps inside, they were left enchanted by the main ballroom. The lavish decorations made the palace seem even more extravagant, nearly making Nijah dizzy with all the bright, beautiful colors. Many more people were eating, conversing, and dancing to the band in the corner. The two of them walked in further, observing everyone’s costumes. You really could hide your face from the world here, hmm? Nijah thought, unable to recognize a single person in the ballroom.

She wondered who she all knew here, and if anyone could recognize her. Many other citizens were dressed in cat-like masks, so at least she blended in somewhat. Selene, however, stuck out like a sore thumb (in a good way, of course) with her pink mask and dress. In truth, it seemed like she fit right in with the crowd.

Selene plucked a champagne flute off of a waiter’s tray. “Isn’t this grand? I feel just like a queen here!” She smiled as she tipped the glass back, sipping the light liquid with her pinky sticking up.

“Ah, yeah…” Nijah agreed, also picking up a glass. She was never a drinker, but she didn’t mind a glass or two here and there…

“You know, I was reading a book about the royal families in Vesuvia and found out that…”

Nijah tried to listen as she sipped, she really did, but the amount of people moving in between them was far too much for her to handle. The hustle and bustle got to her, and she froze in place, allowing other citizens to pass right through her and Selene. Soon the crowd caught up with her, and she was all alone.

Shit, she thought, what do I do? She shook her head, trying not to seem suspicious. Act natural, I guess…

As she was about to take another drink of champagne, a random figure had backed right into her, causing the champagne to go falling on the floor. Nijah took a wrong step, and found herself instantly falling into the puddle on the marble floor. Oh, great…she thought, realizing that she was humiliating herself in front of the whole city.

But, just as she was about to hit the ground, she found herself hooked by a strong arm curled around her shoulder blades, bringing her body close to theirs. Nijah’s vision was filled with the black fabric of their coat, only inches from her face. Taking deep breaths to settle her heart rate, her eyes trailed up to see who had caught her.

She was surprised to see a man with thick, curly, auburn hair, wearing the mask of…a crow? A black eagle? She couldn’t tell. But she could feel his bright gray eyes fall right on hers, bewitching her enough where she couldn’t pull away.

“Do be careful here, darling. Don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

He spoke to her in a voice so sweet and low, like a baritone singing an aria. The way his lips brushed against her ear made her knees weak, to which he pulled her a little tighter to his side.

“Ah…thank you,” she whispered back, realizing their faces were much closer than she thought they were, the noses of their masks almost brushing. Thank goodness he can’t see this blush…

“Nijah!” Selene called out, grabbing Nijah’s arm and yanking her out of the mystery man’s grip. “There you are. I was worried where you went!”

Selene may have been dragging her away from the scene, but Nijah was still transfixed by the man who rescued her from sure embarrassment in the nick of time. There was just something about him that she couldn’t get over…

His silver gaze caught her own, winking at her from afar, then turned back into the crowd.

“Nijah! What the hell happened back there?” Selene snapped her fingers in front of her face, bringing her back down to Earth. “I turn my back and you got that..that guy all over you!”

She shrugged, looking over her shoulder one more time to see him exit the ballroom. “I tripped over some champagne, and he caught me right before I fell.” She turned back to her friend, a slight scowl on her face.

“Okay, but he seemed like a creep!” Selene explained as she saw Nijah’s sour expression. I thought I was saving you!”

“No, you weren’t. There was…something about him. That makes me want to get to know him more.”

Selene grabbed Nijah’s shoulders, her gaze intensifying. “If you can’t get your mind off of him, then we need to make a game plan. He’s going to be here for the rest of the night, isn’t he?”

Nijah nodded, assumingly.

A delightful grin crosses Selene’s lips. “Somehow, we need to make it a night that neither of you will ever forget.”

 

 

 

Step 1 of Selene’s Plan: Hunt Him Down

Nijah and Selene walked through the spacious halls of the palace, exploring the different rooms decorated and themed for their viewing pleasure. Selene knew that if he just so ‘happened’ to spot Nijah once more, he couldn’t help but come up and speak to her. Once that was set, everything else would fall into place.

The only problem was that there was so many rooms, and so little time before the clock struck midnight and they would have to go home.

Nijah and Selene discovered so many different rooms: the bubble room, the circus room, the topiary room, even a room with food organized by their vibrant color. So many different places they seemed to visit, yet no mystery man in sight.

“Selene, don’t you think we’re trying a bit too hard for this?” Nijah asked. They had been touring the halls of the palace for quite some time now, and her heels were beginning to make her feet ache.

“Relax, I got a real good feeling about this room.” Selene replied. She turned the knob, cracking open the door to reveal a magnificent library.

“Wow…” Nijah muttered under her breath, taking a step in the room and smelling the familiar aroma of parchment and wooden structures. The shelves were stocked up to the ceiling, thousands of titles that she may never read featured along the walls. The fireplace on the far wall was roaring underneath the stain glass window, giving the library a warm, comfortable aura. A few people were reclining on the couches, lying back and chatting with their friends.

There was one figure, however, that was standing off to the side, focusing on the various spines of the books along the shelves in front of him.

There he is! Nijah thought, nearly aloud. She turned to tell Selene, but it seemed that she already knew. Her dear friend was no longer beside her, forcing Nijah to confront him all on her own.

With a deep breath, and some false self-confidence, she made her way to where he was standing, still studying the books. He hears your footsteps and looks at you once more, a smile spreading over his lips as his gloved finger trailed over the fine detailed print of a red book with gold lettering.

“Hello again. Can’t stay away?”

“Erm…kind of.” Nijah said. “I wanted to properly thank you for breaking my fall in the ballroom.” She gave him a small curtsy, bowing her head so she could get a better look at his ensemble. He was essentially dressed in all black, with a bright red scarf tucked in to a white undershirt beneath his coat. Glossy black feathers decorated the bottom of his top, as well as around his collar and the top of his mask. He was definitely a sight to behold, unique, like no other she had seen tonight.

The masked man bowed back, reaching for her hand. “The pleasure is all mine, darling.” His lips touch the back of her fingers reverently, as if he was charming her with his mouth alone.

Once he rose from his bow, Nijah pulled her hand back, still feeling his touch lingering on her skin. Was this man…a magician? Did he just put a spell on her?

“Where did your dear friend go? She seemed so eager to pull us away the last time we spoke, I’m surprised she hasn’t made an appearance.” He curiously raised an eyebrow at her.

“Oh! Um…” Nijah turned around once more, just to see if she was truly gone. “It seems she left me here alone. Maybe I should go find her…”

“Hold on,” the man reached out to grab her wrist, causing Nijah to turn around and face him once more. “Let me go with you. A woman should definitely not be walking around the Masquerade unaccompanied.” He extended his elbow and forearm to her, waiting for her to take it.

Well, what do I have to lose? Nijah thought, accepting his gesture with a smile.

 

 

 

Step 2 of Selene’s Plan: Share A Dance

Nijah and the mysterious man walked through the halls in search of Selene. She had only wished her friend could have told her where she could have been before she left.

The pair cycled through as many rooms as they could, searching for any clues of the flamingo-masked woman. However, their search was running dry, with no trace of her to be found. Although utterly frustrating, Nijah found herself enjoying her time with the auburn haired man.

He shared a few tall tales of his days sailing through the Southern Sea on a spice ship, fending off pirates and discovering many rare treasures that he couldn’t even explain in words. Nijah shared a little bit about her past, growing up in the city and going to school with all different sorts of people. It was easy to talk to him, he was quite the charmer, and Nijah easily felt like she could fall for him quite easily. She silently thanked Selene that she hid herself so well, so she could spend even more time with him.

Finally, the pair ended up in the ballroom once more. Along the walls of the room, Nijah spotted Selene speaking to another man with white hair and an elaborately decorative costume.

“Found her!” Nijah called out, pulling the mystery man along with her.

As soon as the two were about to encounter the woman they had been searching for, the masked man stops at a halt. Nijah’s hand slipped away from him as she notices that the band has started playing a popular folk song, known all throughout Vesuvia. Now is not the best time for confrontations, she thought as she saw the crowd move into the dance floor, taking her friend with it.

The man turned to face her, extending his gloved hand out to her. “My dear, may I have this dance?” He bowed deeply, his mask nearly falling off of his head.

Nijah giggled, covering her mouth cheekily. “I’m not sure if I should accept a dance from a man who hasn’t even told me his name.”

“Oh! Uh, my apologies. You may call me Ilya.” He replied. “And who might you be?”

“You may call me Nijah,” she imitated his formal tone, accepting his hand. “Make sure to catch me if I fall again.”

“My dear, I fully intend to sweep you off your feet.” He winked again, leading her out to the dance floor.

As the band continues to play, Ilya faces Nijah towards him, holding one hand in hers and sliding his other hand down her waist. Her hand rests on his shoulder, challenging him with a single look of her bright green eyes.

He takes a single step backwards, she follows with one forward. When he side steps, she mirrors it perfectly. To his surprise, it seems that Nijah has her share of dancing lessons. He wouldn’t be able to tell with the way she was usually stumbling over herself, but he was rather surprised.

“Seems like you can take a few steps, Nijah.” He said under his breath, meant just for her to hear. It was as if the song was written just for them, with the way their bodies synchronized so well. There were definitely a few pairs of eyes on them as they weaved their way through the other participants.

“We learned how to dance in school,” Nijah answered, “so I’m actually quite good.”

“Oh really?” Ilya questioned. “What if I were to do…this?”

He stood his ground, pulling his arm out gracefully to the side. To his surprise, she followed, twirling on the balls of her heels to end in a dramatic pose.

“Impressive.” He admitted, pulling her close to him once more. The band’s music started to pick up in tempo, making their feet move faster than before. “Try to keep up now.”

His feet moved quicker, adding fancy hops and jigs that she copied in her own fashion. He was grabbing her a little tighter, holding her a little closer, their chests nearly touching as they nearly tangoed through the dance floor.

Nijah smiled. “Your steps are getting boring, Ilya. Give me something new.”

“I hope you don’t regret saying that.”

Abruptly, Nijah felt one arm hook around her waist as he reached for her leg, grabbing it as she extended it and lifting her up. Her hips pressed right over his, she bent her other leg gracefully and pointed her toes as he spun her around. It didn’t take her long to realize their faces were level with each other, studying as much of each other as they could with their masks on. Ilya seemed rather fair skinned, but his eyelids were much darker than his skin tone. When they were half-lidded, she felt something foreign tug at her core, making her crave him more.

Feeling rather frisky, she caressed his face with her hand as she focused on him, letting the rest of the world fade away as she fell deeper into those eyes - mysterious, enchanting, and calming all at once. Through the bottom of the cutouts for his eyes, Nijah could see he was flushed by her touch, as well as by his teeth grazing his bottom lip lusciously.

Ilya let her down on the floor gently, her heels clacking on the floor at the same time. Once she had found her bearings, they picked up the tempo once more, frolicking through the ballroom as he continued to lead her to the beat of the music.

“The song is almost over,” he whispered, “are you ready for the finale?”

“Try me.”

“Then hold on tight, kitten.”

Once the final chord of the song has been struck, Ilya’s hands caressed Nijah as he dipped her down low, her head rolling back to play along with the his fantasy. He leaned in with her, falling very closely to her thin neck. Nijah feels him press his warm lips to the juncture underneath her ear, and the tug in her lower stomach becomes stronger. What kind of witchcraft is this? She thinks, but although it was foreign to her, she didn’t want it to stop.

He pulled her back up, a playful twinkle in his eye. “Well done,” he compliments, “you should be my dancing partner more often.”

The band transitioned to a slower, more romantic song. Ilya’s hands trailed to the small of Nijah’s back, and he lead her off into a new dance. Nijah looked over her shoulder to see where Selene had gone off to, and spied her at the back doors with the man with the white hair. She gave her a big thumbs-up, and then she escaped through the doors with him. Ah, wonderful, Nijah thought, now it’s time for the final step.

 

 

 

Step 3 of Selene’s Plan: Get Him Alone

“Ilya,” Nijah caught his attention as they glided through the dance floor, “would you like to go somewhere a little more…private?” She raised a single eyebrow to further emphasize her question.

He grinned devilishly. “I thought you would never ask. I know the perfect place.”

Well, that was easy enough.

Taking her hand, Ilya led her out of the ballroom, through the grand halls of the palace, and out on to a veranda, looking over a glorious garden.

Nijah’s mouth dropped looking at the bright assortment of colors. Luscious greens grow from the ground and trees, vibrant pinks, blues and purples shine from the flowerbeds, and the hedges of the maze below were trimmed to perfection. She could easily get lost forever here, never wanting to leave.

“It’s so beautiful…”

“Really? I can name a few things more beautiful than this.”

“Oh, like what?”

He leans in to her ear, clutching her shoulders in his large hands and bringing her close. “I’ll tell you…but you have to catch me first.”

She felt him let go as soon as the words left his lips. “Wait a minute, hey!”

As Nijah called out to him, Ilya ran down the set of stairs that led to the garden, the top of his head disappearing as he entered the maze.

She cursed under her breath as she took off her heels, holding them in her hand as she tried to catch up with him, the cobblestone trail feeling rough on her feet.

Her heart was racing with the thrill of the chase. She wanted to catch him so bad, she was so curious as to what could be running through his mind. She entered the maze, allowing her gut to make her decisions for her. Right at the entrance, left at the first available entry, around the topiary…

She kept on running until she had hit a dead end.

Damn! She thought, her grip on her shoes tightening with her frustration.

All of a sudden, she heard the brush of a hedge nearby. She whipped her head at the sound, but only heard silence after.

Curiosity killing her, she silently stalked over on her bare feet, like the panther hunting down her prey. The source of the rustle didn’t dare to move, lest being discovered for what they really were. She stood next to the hedge that made a noise, trying to see through the thick brush. She swore something was there, but she couldn’t make out the shape. Standing on her tiptoes, she was able to find her answer.

The puff of hair sitting just above the hedge was a dead giveaway.

Without wasting another moment, she braced herself and pounced through the thick hedge, jumping right on top of Ilya’s back.

“Gotcha!” She cried triumphantly, her arms wrapping around his neck and her legs squeezing his hips.

“Aww, rats.” He pretended to feel defeated, but in all honesty, he was over the moon that Nijah had found him. He continued to carry her through the maze, until they reached a little clearing. A fountain and a large tree sat in front of them. Ilya gently put her down, giving her time to strap her heels back on.

“I won fair and square, Ilya.” Nijah jeered, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “I think you owe me something.”

“What, you really want to know that bad?” He looked over his shoulder, watching her stand there confidently, as if nothing could knock her down.

“Yes.” Her voice seemed to challenge him, waiting for a response.

“Well,” he grins, sauntering over to her, placing a hand on the small of her back and pulling her close, the other hand caressing her cheek, “the gardens at the palace are some of the most beautiful things in this world. But, I’ve traveled far and wide during my time here, and…”

“And what?”

“And nothing has ever been more beautiful than you, Nijah.”

Her eyes widened, surprised by his genuine compliment. She would have fallen backwards if he didn’t have such a good hold on her.

“Wait…” she shook her head with disbelief. “You haven’t even seen me without my mask. How do you know I’m beautiful?”

“Physical beauty is subjective, my dear.” He explains, releasing her from his grasp, walking over to the bubbling fountain. “While I do find what I’ve seen of you very attractive, it’s what counts in here,” he points to his heart, “that counts. You are the purest heart I have ever known, Nijah. I’m sure I will never forget you.” He sits at the edge of the fountain, patting the space next to him as an invitation.

“Wow…you really mean all that?” She asked, taking a seat at his side.

“Of course, I could never lie to you.” He takes her hand in his, resting his free one on top of the back of her own.

“Thank you…”

She looked down at where they were joined, his thumb now rubbing the top of her wrist. She couldn’t believe that he spoke such words of truth, so honest and raw…it was a switch from her normal life. People were never as authentic as he was.

It made her want to share, too.

“Can I tell you something, Ilya?”

“Anything, my dear.”

Nijah took a shaky breath before she continued. “Tonight is my last night in Vesuvia. Come tomorrow, I’m going away for work. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to the city again.”

“Hmm,” Ilya pondered, hands now moving towards Nijah’s hair, which has lost its curl from before, to brush it out of her mask. “Tonight is my last night, too. For quite some time.”

She sighed, feeling herself open up to him more and more. “It’s a shame,” she said, staring at the bubbling water of the fountain right below her, “to have found someone like you, only to leave them for what could be forever.” Just my luck, she thought, dragging her fingers at the water’s surface. Her touched caused ripples in her reflection, small waves lapping at the side of the fountain. She wished she could be as free as a wave, wandering wherever she pleased. But, of course, that was not her destiny.

“Do you want to make the most out of this last night…together?”

When she looked up, she realized Ilya wasn’t focused on the water. He was focused on her.

“We can do whatever you’d like. We could stay here at the palace, explore Vesuvia under the moonlight, er…” He bit his lip as his voice trailed off, thinking of all the other things they could do, “…ah, I know of a few good places in town we could stop at…”

Nijah was listening to him, truly, but her eyes couldn’t leave his lips. She was curious as to how they tasted on her own, how soft they really were…

But she had never kissed anyone before, let alone had anyone kiss her.

“Um…there is one thing I would like to try.” She said, falsely exuding confidence.

Ilya’s eyebrows raised. “And what would that be?”

Nijah fiddled with her hair - a nervous trait, flipping it over her shoulders over and over again. “Well, uh, there are a lot of things I have yet to experience in my time here. Like…you’re the first man that has ever shown any interest in me.”

“Really?”

“Really. So I’ve never had a boyfriend, never been out on a date…”

“…never been kissed?”

“…right.” She hesitated, breaking eye contact with him out of humiliation. “And it’s pretty shameful of me to ask a man I only just met to take that away from me, but I can’t deny that I-”

Before she could continue, Nijah felt something warm pressed against her lips, giving her a buzz like a tall glass of wine. Her eyes widened as she realized that Ilya had stopped her mouth from moving with his own, his eye closed, lashes brushing the outer rim of the hole in his mask. She froze, unable to form coherent thoughts, as Ilya’s lips pulled away, his face still very close to her own. His gloved hand cupped her cheek, fingers trailing down her jawbone until he had a hold of her chin.

“Did you like that?”

Nijah didn’t hesitate with her answer. “Yes,”

“Do you want to do it again?”

“…yes.”

She saw a grin tug at the side of his mouth before he pulled her in once more.

Nijah closed her eyes this time, letting Ilya take the lead. His kisses started out soft, with feather-like brushes and light lip locks. One of his hands reached around to tangle at the nape of her neck, and she felt his kiss become more powerful, more dominating. She was left grabbing at the front of his coat, trying her best not to fall into the fountain from his kiss alone. The more he kissed her, the more lightheaded she felt, and as he panted in her mouth, she felt her legs nearly give out…

Finally, Ilya came up for air, eyes half-lidded and mouth swollen. He looked absolutely divine, and she felt love drunk as the pull in her stomach tugged once more.

“Nijah…” Ilya’s voiced strained with an underlying ache as he reached for her hand, “…I want you.”

She knew exactly what that meant.

“I…I want you too.” She replied, placing her hand on top of his.

“Are you sure?” He asked her, earnestly. “You don’t even know me, you may never see me again…wouldn’t you want your first time to be more special?”

“You are special, Ilya. No matter if I ever see you again, you’ll always be in my heart.”

Nijah couldn’t hide her giggle when she saw that he was blushing so profusely that it was spreading to his neck. Hells, he’s super cute, she thought, leaning in to press a kiss on the beak of his mask.

“I know of a place we can go. Follow me.” He guides her to stand, leading her out of the gardens and away from the palace.

 

 

 

Ilya takes her to the South Side of Vesuvia, traveling through narrow roads with the water system gently flowing through. There was a light fog in the air, clouding the alleys with mystery. Nijah held on tightly to Ilya’s hand, refusing to let go.

“Step lightly, dear.” He called behind him. “The road gets a bit rocky here.”

She tried her best to tiptoe through the rocks, but she was rather unlucky. As she thought she was safe, she stepped down with full force and the heel of her shoe snapped right off.

“Ack!”

She dropped Ilya’s hand, waving her own around to try and get herself balanced, but she found herself close to toppling in the canal right next to her. Thankfully, he was right by her side, sweeping her up in his arms like a groom carrying his bride through the threshold.

“Don’t worry, I got you.” He chuckled, “You’re pretty clumsy, huh?”

Nijah nuzzled her face into his broad chest. “Terribly so. Good thing I have you around.”

He placed a kiss on the forehead of her mask. “I guess so. Ah look, here we are!”

She peered at the sign above the door of the building. “The Rowdy Raven…”

“One of my all time favorite places. And, if we’re lucky, they might have some empty rooms available for us.”

She flushed as she realized exactly what he meant. Right. We’re still doing that.

He kicked the door in, carrying her through the frame gallantly. She held on tight to him, a bit more nervous than she was before. They had walked right into a tavern, and not just any old one. With the name like The Rowdy Raven, she definitely had her assumptions. A live band was playing folk songs slightly out of tune, the wooden floors seemed to creek under Ilya’s footsteps, and to her surprise, no one seemed interested that she was being carried by a man. They all seemed to be minding their own business, enjoying their own time. She could see herself and Selene having a good time in a place like this.

Her heart ached at the memory of her friend. Looks like I won’t see her for a while…she thought, looking up at Ilya to see his next move.

“Ah look who it is, I’d know your face anywhere.” The bartender laughed, his eyes resting on the man in the crow’s mask. “Who’s this woman you’ve got with you this time?”

“My woman, in fact.” Ilya retorted. Nijah’s heart rate jumped a bit. Did she hear him correctly?

“Alright, I see,” the bartender waved his hand, “so what will it be for you two?”

Ilya looked down at Nijah as he responded, “Your finest room in the inn upstairs. I’ll pay top dollar, as long as she gets the best.” He leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the lips, to which some of the patrons hollered and whistled. They must obviously know him around here, otherwise…that would be rather strange, wouldn’t it?

“Got it. And you’ll pay upfront, right?”

Cradling Nijah in one arm, Ilya reached into his back pocket, pulling out a bag of coins. He tossed them on the bar, returning his hand underneath Nijah’s rear end. The bartender loosened the string around the pouch, taking a peek inside. He nearly gasped when he saw the contents inside. Reaching into his chest pocket, he pulled out a key, holding it out for Nijah to take.

“Top floor, to your left. Have a good night, you two.”

“Oh, we will.” Ilya winked at him, turning around to walk up the stairs near the front of the bar. A few more hoots and hollers from various men, which he responded with a deep, searing kiss on Nijah’s lips. Leaving her dizzy, Ilya began his trek up the stairway.

 

 

 

Once he finished his two story climb and he was in front of the door to their room, he set Nijah down gently, holding her hands until she found her footing. She held out the key, studied it closely, then brought her gaze back up to him. He raises his thick eyebrows, waiting to see what she would do next.

Slowly, she slides the key into the lock, turning it until she heard the telltale click. She turned the knob, opening the door just enough for her to walk in. She turned over her shoulder, winking at Ilya. “Are you coming?”

She heard him audibly gulp, then nod his head. He followed right behind her, shutting the door and turning the lock.

The room was spacious, enough for more than two people to stay for an extended amount of time. A dresser was placed across from the bed, which was fitted with the finest looking sheets in all of Vesuvia. Intricate silks dangled from the ceiling, making the bed look even more ethereal in the sliver of crescent moonlight shining through the window. A single candle sat on the dresser, already lit, and a mirror stood in the back corner.

Ilya draped his arm around Nijah. “It’s not much, but…”

“It’s perfect.” Nijah interrupted, walking towards the window. She felt like she could see the entire city from here, even though the palace was a small dot of light in her vision. The sky was scattered with stars, shining bright in the deep blue sky. She turned to find him gazing at her, the shadows playing along her figure.

“Yeah, you are.” He smiled.

Nijah kicked off her heels and approached him, resting her hands on his chest. His own hands trailed down her waist over the curve of her hip, grabbing the fabric of her dress and pulling her right up against him. “Nijah, don’t get me wrong, I really would love this,” he says while squeezing her body tightly, “but if you get scared, or don’t want to do this anymore, please tell me so we can stop.”

His forehead leaned in to hers, to which she accepted, cupping his cheeks underneath the mask. “Ilya…I want to see you. All of you. I’m ready for you.”

Her hands slid down his neck as he leans over to the side, blowing the candle out. It trails a stream of smoke from its wick, leaving the room smelling a bit rustic. Ilya’s hands travel over Nijah’s panther mask, taking it off gently to reveal her face.

“Ah…” he nearly panted, enamored by her beauty. “You’re the most marvelous thing I’ve ever seen.” Gloved fingers caressed her face, the cool touch of leather contrasting against her heated blush.

“My turn,” Nijah grinned as she lifted off Ilya’s mask, stunned as she took a good look at his face. He looked like a Grecian God, the ones from hundreds of years ago. Is he real? She thought, desiring to see what else he was hiding from her.

Ilya leaned in close to her face, pressing a soft, sweet kiss against her lips. She returned the favor, standing on the tips of her toes so he could reach her better. Nijah buried her fingers in his hair and nibbled at his lip with her teeth, eliciting a soft moan from his mouth. The more their lips moved together, the more she could feel his hardness press against her. It was utterly tempting to the point where she was simply craving it, feeling things she had never even imagined before.

Ilya broke the kiss softly, turning Nijah around to face the mirror. “Let me help you with that.”

With quick fingers, he began to unbutton her black gown. She felt extremely nervous, realizing this is the first time anyone has seen her au naturale. But I trust him, she told herself, I know he will take care of me.

The further his hand moved down, the more her dress was ready to simply fall off, until he popped off the last button, placed right above the dimples at the base of her spine. With a shrug, she watched the gown fall to the floor, revealing her naked form. In the pale light of the slivered moon, her skin nearly glowed, but her arms cautiously raised up to cover her chest, watching Ilya undo the first few buttons of his coat in the reflection. She wasn’t proud of the average size of her mounds, wishing they were a little bit larger so men would want her more. However, Ilya didn’t seem to mind, as he gently pulled her arms away.

“My darling…” He stood behind her in just his billowy white shirt and black pants, looking at their reflection, “you’re absolutely stunning. Don’t hide yourself from me ever again.” He buried his face in her neck as he fondled one of her breasts with a glove-free hand, his fingertips swirling around the sensitive skin of her nipple. She bit her lip as she felt her breasts grow hard from his touch, holding back a light moan. She definitely didn’t mind this one bit.

His kisses on her neck turned into a tiny love bite, teeth nearly breaking her skin as he pinched her hard nipple. She couldn’t hold back now, letting out a strangled cry meant only for Ilya to hear. His lips pull away, and she sees that he has left a deep purple mark, one that she couldn’t only conceal with her hair.

“I wouldn’t mind if you gave me a few of those tonight,” he whispered in her ear.

His fingers trickled from her chest over the curve of her hips, lightly teasing the area between her legs. She begins to feel her lower stomach coil, begging for more. But, as soon as it seems like he was about to rub his hand on her sensitive nub, he pulls away, leaving Nijah to moan in the absence of his touch. Instead, he grabs her hand, leading her to the edge of the bed.

“Lie on your back, dear.” He cooed. “Don’t forget to spread those pretty legs for me.”

She does as he asks, opening herself to him ever so sweetly. The softness of her ass nearly spilling over the edge of the mattress, Nijah lies in waiting for him.

Ilya stood over her, blushing like a bastard in a brothel. His eyes trailed up her body, and back down to the place between her legs. She looked so delicious, so wet for him, he couldn’t hold back any longer.

He got down on his knees, pressing a kiss to the inside of her thighs. She sat up on her arms, her eyebrows twinged in confusion. “What are you doing down there?”

“Just lie back and relax, Nijah,” he whispered huskily, placing a kiss right on her mound. He slid his tongue across her slit, feeling her body shiver around him. He grins, grabbing her legs and pulling her cunt right up to his mouth. He parted her with his fingers, wasting no time diving in to her with his hungry mouth.

He loved the taste of her, leaving his lips wet with her essence. He has performed this act on…a few other people, but no one has been as divine as Nijah. He slid his tongue up and down her soft, pink folds, lapping at her like a cat drinking their milk. He drew patterns in the flesh of her, listening to how she reacted. He paid special attention to the hood of her clit, nibbling and sucking in all the right places.

Ilya left her a moaning mess. He head dug back in the sheets, her cries filling up the entire room. She was sure that people passing by the building could definitely hear her, hell, they were probably listening to her in the bar. But she didn’t care, for the pleasure building up in her felt too good to hide.

Nijah’s fingers intertwined in Ilya’s locks, tugging at them profusely. He panted into her wet cunt, his warm breath on her sensitive nub driving her mad. If there’s one thing he’s skilled at, she thought, her eyes squeezed tight, it’s this. Her cries only egged him further, getting more aggressive with his mouth.

One of his hands left her thigh, allowing it to fall back on the mattress. To her surprise, she felt a lone finger teasing her entrance - long, thin, and hard. Slowly, he inserted his single digit in her, knuckle by knuckle. Her first reaction was to freeze up, realizing that this was the first thing to ever enter inside of her. Nijah’s whole body tensed up, her thighs locking his head with all her strength.

“Sweetheart…” he murmured, his finger still pressing inside of her, “…relax. Do you think I would ever do anything to hurt you?”

Her breath slows and deepens, realizing she was breathing much too fast for her own good. In her nose, out her mouth, and she feels her body melt in the sheets. She exhales a sigh as Ilya fills her up to his last knuckle.

“Feel good, dear?”

She nodded her head, relaxing the grip on his hair in the process.

“Good. Because it’s about to get a whole lot better.”

His finger curled inside of her as his mouth returns to her cunt, feasting on her physically and visually. She was a sight to behold - her spine curving so beautifully towards him, her cries a song that he’ll never be able to listen to again, the hasty rise and fall of her chest bouncing her breasts lusciously. He truly felt lucky to have such a wonderful woman, and the erection in his pants was nearly too much to bear any longer.

Nevertheless, he continued to finger fuck her, sliding in another finger, and another, until she was spent, her fingers clawing at the sheets as he pleasured her. Finally, as his three fingers curled inside of her and he sucked on her pretty little clit…

“Ily-ahhh!”

He felt her orgasm, hard, against his mouth, as he lapped up her excess juices. He hummed as her body twitched against him, and his eyes watched her face contort with the sweetest pleasure known to mankind. She looked absolutely divine, nearly glowing as she came down from her high. He bit his lip, the taste still faintly on his lips as he unbuttoned the rest of his shirt, throwing it off to the side.

“Ah…” Nijah moaned as his lean, muscular body was revealed to him. He was a sight to behold, as she predicted. She wanted to run her hands along his chest, get her fingers tangled in that trail of hair that lead from his navel down to underneath his trousers…

He hooked his thumbs into the band of his pants and pulled them down, watching her reaction as his cock was freed. She was slightly shocked, and a little bit terrified, at the sight of his hard erection. It was a little on the longer side, thick girth and a tip already coated in a layer of precum. The more she looked at it, the wider her mouth opened.

“There’s…no way that can fit.”

“It will, darling, don’t fret.” He stood over her now, casting a shadow on the wall next to them. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”

He grabbed his cock, running the tip through her sensitive folds. He heard her moan so sweetly, it took everything in him not to completely ravish her. As he slowly lined up his tip to her entrance, resting her thighs to the side of his hips, he heard her tenderly call out his name.

“Ilya…”

“Yes?”

“Have you…done this before?”

He paused, eyes glancing over the worried look on her face. He couldn’t lie to her.

“No,” he honestly admitted, “I’ve done many other things, but this will…this will be my first time.”

Her face softened, warmed up with a smile. Her fingers reach out to touch his chest, brushing against the little hairs resting there. “I guess…this will be memorable, for the both of us.”

At the sight of her peaceful face, her fingertips lightly tickling his skin, he couldn’t hold back anymore. He reached to lock his hand in her own, lined himself up one last time, then slowly slid himself inside her.

He instantly saw her face go to one of relaxation to discomfort, eyes growing wide as she released a silent cry. Sinking further and further, her nails dug tight in his hand, leaving small red marks of crescents that would remain for him to look upon the next day. A bead of sweat dripped from Nijah’s brow, the coil wrapping itself tighter and tighter the further he pushed in.

Once he had filled her to the hilt, he bent over, kissing Nijah’s warm forehead. “Are you okay?”

“Yes…” she strained, the weird ache suddenly turning delightful, satisfying the craving she has been feeling all night. This was something she would be missing when she left Vesuvia. No one else would ever dare to make her feel this good.

“Do you want to keep going?” His eyes met hers, his red curls dangling over his eyes. Dammit, he was so hot, yet adorable all at the same time.

“Please,” she moaned, and he instantly pulled his hips back, only to snap right back inside.

She let out a strangled moan as Ilya pulled himself back up, grabbing her hips as he thrust himself back and forth in her sweet heat, feeling her walls tighten against him in the most beautiful way. She loved the way he bit his lip as his hips slammed against her own, the lewd sound of their skin slapping together one of the loudest thing in the room, besides their moans.

“Ah…it feels so, sooo good, Ilya…” she moaned, arching her back ever so slightly, allowing him to hit that spot inside her that drove her wild. Her eyes nearly rolled to the back of her head as he pounded her, over and over again.

Wanting to feel even closer to her, he bent over her, digging his elbows in the mattress. His lips were mere centimeters from her own, to which she took advantage of, kissing him sloppily as she wrapped her legs around his hips. Her nails now dug down his back, leaving angry scars he would be proud to bear. He gritted his teeth at the feeling, relishing in the pain.

“Mark me up, Nijah, claim me as your own.”

“Only if you’ll do the same for me.” She groaned before scraping her teeth along his collarbone, a trail of hot love bites surrounding his neck.

He dug his fingers into her blonde hair, gripping at the strands as if his life depended on it. “Oh darling, you have no idea what you do to me…” He grunted, just as he buried his face on the open side of her neck, biting and suckling at the skin, hoping to scare off any man that laid eyes on her. Hoping that they would know she is taken, no matter how far the distance, he wanted her to be his only.

“Ilya, I’m…ah, I’m about to…”

“Me too, Nijah. Come for me,” he moaned in her ear, running his tongue along the outer shell.

That was just enough to send her rolling over the edge, her walls spazzing against his cock, allowing him his own release, spilling himself deep inside her. Both of them were a sticky, panting mess, their sweat-covered bodies feeling heavy from their orgasms. Slowly, Ilya pulled out of Nijah, pulling himself on to the bed.

“Are you all right?” He asked for what felt like the hundredth time that night. Of course he would, because from the way her hickeys looked on her neck, her first time was on the rougher side.

She scooted up to him, resting her head on his shoulder. His body was like a fire, radiating so much warmth the thought she could be swallowed by it.“I’m doing just fine, how about you?”

“Wonderful.” He took her face in his hands and peppered it with kisses, ending with one final smooch on her lips. “Thank you, my darling. Thank you.”

“No, thank you, Ilya.” Her hand rested on his chest, aimlessly drawing circles around his pectorals. “I just wish…this wasn’t our last night.”

He smiled bittersweetly, pulling her closer with his arm wrapped around her. “We will meet again, I swear it. And it might be sooner than you think.”

Satisfied with his answer, Nijah closed her eyes as Ilya pulled the sheets over their bodies, ready to drift off for the night…

 

 

 

When Nijah woke up the next morning, she finds the side Ilya laid on had gone cold.

But, deep down in her heart, she had already accepted that he was gone forever.

She rubbed her eyes, looking out the window as the sun rose over the city. She knew she didn’t have much time before she was sent off to Lazaret. She threw off the covers, hoping to find some spare clothes in the drawers. To her surprise, she found a long tunic, a pair of flats, and pants on top of the dresser, along with a poorly written note.

Nijah,

Good luck with your travels. I didn’t want you to have to walk home in broken heels, so I made sure you had an outfit to wear home.

You were amazing last night. I will never forget you, my darling.

Until we meet again,

Ilya.

She held the note close to her heart, wishing she could feel him touch her inhale his scent, hear him say her name one last time. But, this was not the time to dwell in the past. Now was the time to take action and look towards the future.

Without wasting another moment, she began to dress in the new clothes, collecting her items from last night’s encounter in a bag laid out by the door, and began her long journey home.

 

 

 

The clock had struck noon by the time she had made it to Lazaret. She quickly had to finish packing her nurse’s clothes in a travel bag large enough to put on the tiny boat that brought her to this infested island, as well as her violin case. She was able to say one last goodbye to her parents before they took her away, thankfully.

(Funny how they had no idea their daughter lost her virginity to a stranger the night before.)

Now that she was here, she was very nervous about the potential dangers that lay about. For starters, she could get the plague - which definitely wasn’t a relaxing way to die, and never get the chance to go to Vesuvia again. She could hurt herself in the laboratory, whether it was with a scalpel, a needle, or another medical utensil, it was definitely risky to be working in the medical field. As she and her guide walked to the medical facility, she breathed in deeply through her plague mask. The dried rose petals did their best at concealing the foul smell that covered Lazaret, but it surely wasn’t the best method.

Her guide led her inside the main building where she would be working and living, pointing her to a small room filled with chairs and desks, one large one standing in front of all the others. A chalkboard was placed behind the main desk, as if this was a room used for teaching. A few other apprentices sat in the desks, waiting for their futures to begin.

Nijah took a seat in the front row, her travel bag and violin case placed next to her chair. No one looked at her. At least, as far as she could tell. Everyone still had their plague masks on.

At the other side of the room, a door opened. “Hello, apprentices.” A muffled voice came from another plague mask. This must be Dr. Devorak, she thought. Finally.

But as he came out from behind the door, Nijah found herself in quite a shock…

She knew that curly auburn hair from anywhere.

“I hope you all had enjoyed your time out in the real world,” he continued, “because a good portion of you might never leave.”

The other apprentices murmur amongst each other, but Nijah is still frozen. Seven hells, I hope he doesn’t notice me…

He pulls out a scroll from his doctor’s coat, studying it’s contents. “Before we begin with the tour of the facility, I want to make sure everyone who is supposed to be here is. When I call your name, please say ‘present,’ understood?”

“Yes, Dr. Devorak,” the apprentices said in unison.

Well, shit.

“Daria Alamar.”

“Present!” A female voice speaks, raising her hand high in the air.

Oh no, she thought, what’s going to happen when he realizes I’m here? I can’t run or hide now, or I’ll definitely be caught. Maybe I can slide under the radar…

“Ni-” He stopped. Clearing his voice, he continued, “Nijah…Horvat.”

She swore she felt a million eyes on her, all at once. She was thankful she still had her mask on, otherwise it would all be a dead giveaway. Giving one final gulp, she answers:

“Present, Dr. Devorak.”

 

Chapter Text

Nijah’s nerves had never been so strained.

Just the night before, she had lost her virginity, a very intimate act, to the Dr. Julian Devorak? The man that she would be training under to help cure the plague?

If she wasn’t still wearing her plague doctor’s mask, she would have covered her face in her hands by now.

But Dr. Devorak seemingly kept his composure, continuing to read off the list of names.

“Katja Kuznetsov.”

“Present.”

The voice comes from the desk next to Nijah. She glances over to see the wavy hair of the girl who spoke pinned back in a loose ponytail. She seems nice, she thinks, as Dr. Devorak’s voice pulls her back to reality.

“Luka Pavlov.”

“Present.”

Wait a moment. I know that voice, she thought, turning around her shoulder to see where the sound came from. Luka slid off his mask, sending a wink in her direction.

She remembers him well. Luka was her first crush in primary school. He was also the first boy to ever reject her.

“Well, it seems that everyone has arrived safely.” Dr. Devorak concluded. “Now, if you all get in a single file line, I will take you through the Lazaret. Leave your personal belongings behind, they will get picked up and placed in your new rooms.”

Everyone else follows his command, as if he’s put everyone under an eerie spell. Nijah follows suit, finding herself standing right behind Katja. It looks a little strange, Nijah thought, to have all of us in a line wearing the exact same thing, huh. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought it was a funeral march.

Katja turns her head a little bit and whispers just so she can hear.

“Are you nervous?”

Boy, if she really knew.

“A little bit.”

“You’re Nijah, right?”

“Mhmm.”

“Okay, we should stick with each ot-”

“I did not ask you to speak.” Dr. Devorak glares at Nijah and Katja through his mask. Silence echoes through the room as no one dares to make a sound.

“Then, follow me.” The doctor demands as he takes the lead, opening up the door to the rest of the Lazaret. The apprentices follow behind, accepting their new fate.

 

 

 

The tour through Lazaret was…frightening, to say the least.

The walls, though made of brick, seemed colorless and void of anything but darkness. The patient’s wing was rather depressing, seeing so many citizens of Vesuvia essentially sentenced to their deaths with no way of escaping. They were to die in the darkness, away from their families, their loved ones…it nearly broke Nijah’s heart, wishing that she was with her family right now.

She did get a little excited when she saw the medical lab. Various tools and tables were set out in the space, letting Nijah’s imagination run wild. She wondered what sort of tests and examinations she would be conducting in this room, and if she could potentially find a link to help cure the plague.

“My office is right next door, here.” Dr. Devorak continued, pointing to the door with his name written on a large sign. “Dr. Satrinava and Dr. Valdemar’s offices are further down, but they are not always here. If you need assistance or have any questions, please feel free to ask me.”

Oh, believe me, I have questions, Nijah thought as she rolled her eyes, thankful that they were still wearing their plague masks so her sarcasm could not be detected.

Torches lit their way up the stairwell the doctor was leading them to. “And up here is the apprentice wing. This is the only space that you are guaranteed not to catch the plague.” With that said, he unfastened his plague mask, letting his curls fall in front of his face. “You may take your masks off now.”

One by one, every apprentice began to take their mask off. Nijah felt the stale air hit her face as she blinked to adjust her eyes to the dim lighting. She began to take in the faces of her fellow comrades, and tried her best to not focus on the man she found between her legs the night prior.

Katja turns around to see everyone else around her, and Nijah is nearly struck at her natural beauty. Her skin is the color of deep honey, her eyes shining a deep hazel. Her wavy ponytail frames her face perfectly. A simple golden nose ring hung from her septum. She looks like she would be a character in a storybook.

“Strange to see the masks off, hmm?” Katja commented.

“Yeah…” Nijah trailed off, eyes lingering on Dr. Devorak for a moment too long. Her new friend notices.

“Seems you’re a little shocked with the looks of the good doctor.” Katja winks, nudging Nijah in the ribs with her elbow.

The group continues up the stairs until Dr. Devorak reaches a tall, wooden door.

“This is as far as I am taking you,” he states, “for this is the apprentice dormitory. You will all share this space together, which is why it is imperative that no one brings the plague up here. This is the end of the tour. I expect all of you to be seen in the dining hall at sundown for dinner, which is on the floor beneath you. Do not be late.”

With that, he opens the door, the apprentices filing in one by one. Nijah thought that possibly, for one second, she would catch his gaze as she walked by, or possibly a smile…

But she saw nothing, not even a passing glance.

Disappointed, she stepped into the apprentice’s wing, eyes widening at the sight of the windows streaming sunlight in the room. A smile crept over her face as she stepped towards one, the city of Vesuvia far away from her now. Even though it was terribly far, it gave her hope. Hope that she would one day return.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Katja placed a hand on Nijah’s shoulder. “I swore we would be locked in a dungeon the entire time.”

“Me too.” Nijah turned her head to see Katja’s profile, illuminated by the light. She was glad to have gained a friend today.

“Well, we don’t have much time to dwell.” Katja said, sitting on the bed next to her. “Looks like we’ll be right next to each other!”

Nijah looked at the foot of the bed, noticing her bags and violin case were placed there carefully. She sits on the mattress, immediately feeling the stiffness in her spine.

“Oof…” she mutters. “They never said it would be the most lavish way of living…”

As the two women conversed, a figure that Nijah remembered all too well approached them. He looked almost the same, except his facial hair had grown in, trimmed perfectly for a gentleman, and his hair no longer sat on his forehead, but was styled upwards. On top of that, he had definitely grown and spent some time working on his…physique.

“Nijah,” Luka chuckled, extending his hand for her to shake, “It’s been some time, huh?”

She accepted it, giving it a strong shake. “It has. I’m not the little girl with the crush on you anymore.”

“Really? Aw, that’s too bad.” He smiled playfully, sitting on the mattress next to her. Katja shot Nijah a confused look, watching over Luka skeptically.

“Katja,” Nijah explained, “Luka and I were in primary school together. He moved after we had met, so I hadn’t seen him since.”

“How old were we then…around eight? Nine?” Luke pondered, running his fingers over his beard. “That seems like forever ago.”

“Yes, so it seems,” Katja replied, rather coldly. It was clear to Nijah that she did not like him.

“So, what do you guys have planned for the next few hours?” Luka asked, running his hands along the wrinkles of his doctor’s coat. “Anyone up for a little exploration?”

“Pass.” Katja spat, pulling a book out of a bright yellow bag and burying her nose into it.

“Okay, how about you, Nijah? For old time’s sake?”

Nijah pondered his proposal. She definitely would not mind spending time with him (as a friend, of course), and reminisce on their old times. But, she knew no one would be bothering Dr. Devorak right now, and there were some questions that she desperately needed answers for.

“Sorry, Luka, I have a few medical questions to ask the doctor.”

His shoulders slumped as a small frown crossed his features. “I understand. I’ll catch you at dinner, okay?” He patted Nijah on the back as he left her alone with her thoughts.

I have to do this now, or else I never will, Nijah told herself as she stood up from the mattress, sneaking out of the apprentice’s wing without a sound.

 

 

 

Nijah approached the office of Dr. Devorak quietly, anxious to see him once again. She was worried that she wasn’t going to get the answers she wanted. She rehearsed what she wanted to say to him over and over again, but knew that it would never be perfect.

She raises her hand, allowing her knuckles to rap among the door.

Knock, knock, knock.

A disgruntled sigh.

“Enter.”

Nijah opened the door to see Dr. Devorak sitting in a chair over his desk, facing away from the door. A lone candle was the only source of light in the room, leaving a warm glow around his sihoulette. A cot laid on the side of his desk, complete with a pillow and two blankets. Does he sleep down here?

Dr. Devorak turned over his shoulder, his expression one of surprise. “Nijah. Shut the door behind you, please.”

She listened, letting the door slam with a dull thud behind her. “Ilya, I-”

“Don’t call me that here.” He interrupted her, his voice growing menacingly low. “No one ever calls me that, ever.”

“Oh, sorry…” Nijah twirled a strand of her hair in her fingers. This already isn’t going well, she thought. “Uh, Dr. Devorak, I can’t help but ask you a few things.”

“If you are going to ask of the status of our relationship, don’t even bother.” He turns back around, scribbling something rather quickly. “You are my apprentice, and I am your teacher. There is nothing else.”

Nijah’s brows furrow as she crosses her arms. “How can you just hide everything like this? It’s not natural, Dr. Devorak.”

“Not only am I a skilled doctor, but I also spent some time in the theatre,” he responded, “I can be whoever I need to be.”

His confession broke Nijah’s heart in two. “Does this mean you were acting last night? Was everything you told me a lie?”

“If that is what you need to believe to get rid of your obvious feelings for me, then yes.”

“You…” her lip was quivering, her whole body shaking, “…you’re a monster! What kind of man do you think you are?”

“You’re right,” he stood quickly from his chair, moving fast enough to corner her in the small office. His fist banged on the wall next to Nijah’s head, making her nearly jump out of her shoes. “I am a terrible man. I have done things that you will never know, that you could never comprehend. If you stay with me, there’s no guarantee that I won’t hurt you, too. So, for your sake,” he stared intensely into her baby blue eyes, watching them fill with tears, “forget everything. Forget what I may have said, what I may have done. I’ll only bring you more pain.”

He backed away from her slowly, his expression laced with pure anger. Nijah could barely breathe, she was so frightened. He was nothing like the man she thought he was.

And he saw it in her eyes that she could never trust him again.

“…you are dismissed.”

Nijah wasted no time in leaving, her hand practically on the handle before he uttered his last phrase. As the door shut behind her, she pressed her body to the wall, letting it slide down to the floor. As she crouched with her knees to her chin, she let her tears fall silently. This was the last place she wanted to be. All she wanted to do was to go home and forget that everything had ever happened.

 

 

 

Julian Devorak sighed as he sat in his chair.

What were you thinking, scaring that poor girl like that? He thought, diving back into his work. His mind went to war, going back and forth with the different possibilities of how he could have made the situation better. His quill scribbled quicker the more he fought with himself, dipping it back in the ink more frequently than earlier.

She needed to hear that from you. She has no right trying to romance you as an apprentice.

But she has no ill will towards you. She just wants to see the good in you.

There is no good in you! There are still some things you refuse to forgive yourself over.

She would find it in her heart to love you.

There’s no way she would love a monster like you.

But it seems there’s a way for a monster like you to fall in love with her.

The tip of his quill broke, and he realized just how tightly he was gripping the writing utensil. He released another heavy sigh as he ran his fingers through his hair.

“What…what am I going to do?”

 

 

 

Learning about the different procedures in the medical lab was something Nijah found to enjoy. Dr. Valdemar, Dr. Satrinava, and Dr. Devorak were extremely knowledgeable in their content, and taught the apprentices thoroughly. Even though they were a little…strange, at times, she was definitely getting better at her craft.

“Make sure the incision in the patient doesn’t get too deep, keep it in a fine, straight line.” Dr. Satrinava demonstrated, making sure everyone was paying attention.

“If you cut it too deep, bring it to me so I can…ah, clean it up for you.” Dr. Valdemar insisted, licking their lips.

The whole room went silent. Nijah could hear Dr. Devorak swallowing heavily.

Dr. Satrinava rolled their eyes. “Ignore Dr. Valdemar…”

The apprentices spent the first few days testing out their new knowledge in the lab. Since the doctors didn’t want to risk losing more patient’s lives (and to the disappointment of Dr. Valdemar), they all used cloth dummies to practice their procedures. They were also assigned to work in groups and take turns performing on the dummy. Katja and Nijah teamed up together and, of course, Luka joined them.

“All right! Let’s get going!” He said, holding the scalpel in the air. Katja took a small step away from him.

As the apprentices began to practice their incisions, the doctors walked around the groups, observing their work. Whenever they may have noticed something was going wrong, they would step in and correct their work. However, Nijah and the rest of her group noticed that Dr. Devorak was being very careful to stay as far away from them as possible.

“Is it just me,” Katja muttered, “or is Dr. Devorak watching us?” Her snarky tone was aimed right at him, as he observed her motions from across the room.

“I’m sure he means nothing by it.” Nijah said, wondering why the hell she was defending him.

“With the mask on, it just seems more creepy.” Luka added. “Don’t you think?”

Up until this moment, Nijah had even refused to give him a passing glance. Now, as she saw him for the first time since the incident, her entire body trembled in fear. Her blood ran cold as his eyes flashed on her through his plague mask, remembering how those eyes were when he had cornered her in his office. Angry, fiery, wanting nothing but to get rid of her entirely…

“Hey, you’re up, Nijah.” Luka elbowed her in the ribs, trying to snap her back in to reality.

“Oh. Thank you…” She took the scalpel, angling it just so perfectly to cut a thin line. Dr. Satrinava walked by, observing her every move.

“Not bad, apprentice! You have some really nice skills.” They sounded rather cheerful, yet Nijah wasn’t able to read their expression. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a little warm inside.

At least one of the doctors thought she was good enough.

 

 

 

A little over a week has passed since the new apprentices first came to Lazaret. None of them had died yet, and everyone was starting to get used to each other’s company. Some, like Nijah and Katja, had become fast friends, spending time together quite a bit. Others cast themselves out, labelling themselves as loners. If people don’t bother them, they won’t bother you kinda deal.

Then, there were the small group of people trying to get together with others.

As time went by, Katja could see that Luka was trying to ask Nijah to spend a night with him. She could see it in the way he looked at her, the way he was always trying to butt into their conversations, his little touches going unnoticed to those who might not suspect anything.

Katja didn’t like it one bit.

Still, she kept her mouth quiet as she watched Luka ask Nijah to spend some time with him, one on one, as they all finished up their project in the medical lab before it was time to leave. “We could walk along the beach, see what lies in the forest…” he was nervous, running his hands through his hair as he asked this of her.

“I wouldn’t mind that.” She nodded. Katja was curious to see her expression through that mask of hers.

He took a step back in shock. “Really? Uh, great! So…I’ll see you after dinner?”

“See you then.”

He walked off, a pep in his step as he left the two women alone. The doctors still lingered, cleaning up the last bits of mess. They ignored the two apprentices, busying themselves in their work.

“Nijah, you really think that hanging out with him is a good idea?” Katja questioned her.

“I don’t think he means any harm.” Nijah answered. “I mean, he was my crush over ten years ago. It’s not like I have any feelings for him now.”

Katja crossed her arms at her chest. “All right. But please do be careful. I just can’t trust him.”

“I mean, if you’re that concerned…”

“No no no, I don’t want to stop you! Just please…” Katja took Nijah’s hand in hers. “…I want you to make it back okay. Holler if you need anything, okay?”

“Of course. Thanks for being such a great friend.” Nijah knew Katja couldn’t see through her mask, but anyone could tell by the look on her face that she was telling the truth.

 

 

 

After Nijah finished her dinner, she snuck off into the main hallway of the Lazaret. Holding her plague mask close to her pounding chest, she waited for Luka to show up. I know Katja said to be cautious, but…what’s a little harm in spending time with him?

She knew he was coming from the telltale clack of his shoes. Soon, he came into her vision, a huge smile slapped onto his face. He was much taller than she remembered, probably towering over 6’0 at this point. With the shoes, she bet he was even taller.

“Hello, Nijah.” He said, wrapping his arms around her shoulder and bringing her close to his body, embracing her tightly. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment all day.”

“Hello, Luka.” She patted his shoulder blade, not expecting him to be holding her so tightly. He let her go, hands still snaking around her body.

“What would you like to do tonight?”

“I don’t know. There’s so much to do, yet so little time.”

“Ah,” he grinned, “then I guess I can lead the way?”

He opened the door, allowing Nijah to slide through to the outside. Luka looked over the foyer, making sure no one was following, then shut the door behind him.

Nijah felt much more refreshed outside, the cool breeze kissing her skin. The sun had set, and the only light to guide them was from the moon, now half present. Crickets chirped, owls hooted, and the hum of the city could still be heard on Lazaret. The city might be busy during the day, but it can really come alive at night. This seemed true of the Lazaret…at least, the wildlife on the island.

Luka led Nijah around the perimeter of the Lazaret. The further they walked from the entrance, the darker it seemed to get. The torches that decorated the front were just specks in the darkness, unable to provide any further guidance. Nijah’s fingers trailed along the wall for assistance, straining her eyes to follow Luka. Something about him really felt off, as if he had something up his sleeve. In her gut, she just knew that something terrible was going to happen. But she shook it off, thinking that the island was giving her the creeps.

As she and Luka turned the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks, turning around to face her. “You know why I wanted you to come out here?”

“Uhh…so we could hang out?” Nijah let her back press up against the wall, waiting to hear Luka’s response.

“Hmm…yes, but I want a little more than that.” Luka’s hands rested by her shoulders on the brick, fingers splayed out like the legs of spiders. He was getting a little too close for Nijah’s taste, feeling his breath on her neck as he inched closer and closer.

“Um,” she said, turning to face away from him, “what do you want?”

He grabbed her jaw with his hand, forcing her to face him. “I want you, Nijah.”

He took her lips in his own, moaning at their first contact. His other hand wrapped around her body, pulling her right up to his chest. His hand trailed from her jaw to her hair, trapping her in his clutches. It was the most uncomfortable she had ever felt, and every nerve in her body was telling her to get out.

“Ngh…” he moaned, his lips barely brushing hers, “I’m gonna make sweet, sweet love to you. Take it as an apology for denying you so many years ago.”

Nijah pushes herself off of his chest, trying her best to get away from him. “I-I would really rather you not, Luka…”

“You have no say in this.” Luka growled. “You should be thankful someone wants to stick it in you.”

Nijah gasped, surprised that Luka could be so goddamn rude. She took a fistful of his hair to steady herself, and shoved her knee right in Luka’s crotch. As he kneeled over, crying out in pain, she made a run for it.

Damn, Katja was right, she thought as her feet started to go quicker and quicker. I should never have been so stupid…

Suddenly, Nijah felt herself falling in the grass rather abruptly. No sooner had she hit the ground, she felt some force pulling her ankle, back the way she came. 

“No, stop!”

She tried to grab onto the grass blades, dig her fingers in the dirt, but it was no use. Whatever was pulling her back was much stronger than she ever could be. As she turned over her shoulder to see what was pulling her back, her face nearly went white.

Luka was using his magic to literally pull her back.

“Told you that you had no choice, Nijah.” His magic continued to pull her until she was lying at his feet, her doctor’s outfit covered in dirt. “Guess I forgot to tell you that my parents were traveling magicians?”

“You…you won’t get away with this!” She shouted, trying her best to set herself upright.

He just laughed. “Oh, but I already have.”

As he held his hand out, slowly closing it into a fist, Nijah felt him choke her out.

Her eyes went wide as she tried to pull them away, but it was no use. She had no magic powers, could never fend him off. She felt utterly helpless against him.

“If you give me your body, then I won’t have to kill you. Seems fair, Nijah?”

Either way, she would feel dead after he was done with her.

“Never,” she spat, nearly snarling at him like an animal as he shook his head.

“That’s quite a shame,” he said, “I quite enjoyed getting to know you.”

His magic propelled her to the brick wall, hanging her up as if he was pushing his hand up to her throat. Nijah struggled, fingers still clawing at her neck. Her feet were dangling over the ground, like a rag doll being carried like a child.

“Let…ack, me go!” Nijah kicked and shouted, trying to get help from someone, anyone, for her to get away from Luka.

He stepped closer to her, his face level with her own. A sinister smile grew over his face, making Nijah’s blood nearly turn to ice. He squeezed his fist even tighter, and she felt more lightheaded than before, the edges of her vision starting to grow black.

“Goodbye, Nijah. It’s not like you’ll be missed, anyway.”

Nijah shut her eyes, accepting that this would be her last moment. This is how she would remember the world - dark, cold, and unwelcoming.

But just as she thought she was about to slip under, she felt herself falling to the ground, the imaginary hand around her neck gone completely. She took a few deep breaths as she laid in the dirt, her eyes slowly opening to see how she was set free.

She couldn’t see much in front of her. A dark cloak was covering her vision.

“What business do you have here, Dr. Devorak?” Luka’s voice hit her ears, echoing against the brick walls.

Wait, that’s…Dr. Devorak?

“Mr. Pavlov, I hope you remember that apprentices using magic at the Lazaret is strictly prohibited, correct?” Her gaze trailed up the cloak to find the signature tuft of curly auburn hair. He really did come to save her.

“So? It’s not like I was harming a patient!”

“Are you saying hurting another apprentice isn’t a crime?” He scoffed at him. Nijah imagined his silver eyes piercing right through Luka’s skin. “And that’s another thing, Mr. Pavlov. I hope you feel disgusted with the way you treated Nijah. What kind of man do you think you are?”

“I…ah…” Luka started, but this was clearly not his battle to win.

“Go, pack up your things. You will leave when the first boat arrives at the Lazaret. I hope you learned your lesson. And Mr. Pavlov?”

“Y…yes, doctor?”

“I have eyes and ears all over Vesuvia. If I hear that you try to hurt another woman the same way you did to her…it’ll be more than a rock thrown at your head.”

Nijah heard Luka gasp audibly, then the scramble of his feet as he ran off.

Once he was gone, Dr. Devorak turned around and bent down on his knees. His cloak uncovered her vision, revealing that he was wearing a dark colored coat, one that she had never seen before. “Nijah…” his voice softened, the edge completely gone, “are you all right?”

She was speechless, unable to form words. He held his hand out to her, and she backed herself up on the wall, eyes spilling over with worry. When she looked in his eyes, she saw the man that threatened that he would hurt her, that he was a terrible person who did terrible things. She was afraid of him, literally cowering below him, anticipating his next move.

Julian saw this. And he was ashamed in himself.

“Nijah…” His fisted hand dropped in the dirt, knowing how much he hurt her, “I’m so sorry. I never should have yelled at you, or pushed you away.” He sighed, running a free hand through his hair. “I will hurting you for the rest of my life. I hope you will someday find it in your heart to forgive me.”

She couldn’t bear herself to look at him yet. But she knew his words were pure.

Cautiously, Nijah reached her hand out to his, eyes still gazing on the ground. Her throat hurt too much to speak, but he saw it all in the small smile tickling her lips, all in the warmth of her fingers brushing on his gloved skin. It’s okay, everything will be okay.

Julian let out a sigh of relief, thankful that she felt something, whether it was love or forgiveness, for him. He gazed over her dirty figure, only one thing on his mind:

“May…may I hold you?” Julian asked.

Nijah nodded, finally facing him as she extending her arms out to him. He accepted her willingly, pulling her to his chest as her legs splayed out on the ground. His heartbeat quickened as he felt her body against his again, this time in an act that felt even more intimate than their last. As her face nuzzled against his doctor’s coat, he felt happy. Happy that she was here, happy that he had found her before it was too late.

It was then that he realized that Luka will still be staying in the dormitory before he goes off the next morning.

“Nijah, are you comfortable sleeping in your bed tonight?”

He felt her shake her head on his chest, a solid “no.”

“Would you…want to stay in my room? It’s not the room with the cot, I promise.”

This time, it’s a frantic “yes,” a nod that makes him chuckle lightly.

“Ah, let’s go then. Upsy-daisy…”

He hooked his arms under her legs, much the same way he carried her not too long ago, and escorted her to his bed chambers. As he carried her through the Lazaret, long after everyone had fallen asleep, she was thankful that he had rescued her. She felt safer in his arms than anywhere else.

 

 

 

He carried her all the way to his office, and when the door behind them had been shut, she found her footing on the solid ground. He lifted the cot from its place to reveal a trap door. As he opened it, a staircase consumed with darkness opened itself up to them.

“Follow me,” Julian whispered, one hand holding a lit candle and the other snaking its way between Nijah’s fingers. Her head was much clearer now, and she accepted it, allowing him to lead her wherever he wanted to go.

He guided her down the dark stairwell, leading into a small room with a large bed occupying the space. The blankets and pillows smelled like they had just been cleaned. The scent relaxed Nijah as Julian guided her to sit on the edge.

“I hope you enjoy your rest.” He says before taking one of the pillows. “If you need me, I’ll be down here.” Without another word, he plopped down onto the cobblestone floor and laid his head down to rest, blowing the candle out to envelope them in complete darkness.

Um…okay, Nijah’s eyebrows twisted in confusion. He still must have some physical boundaries with me. Letting Julian off to do his own thing, she climbed to the top of the bed and snuggled herself under the covers.

She closed her eyes to sleep, but the frightening memories of Luka still haunted her mind. She could vividly remember how his lips hungered like a bloodthirsty animal on hers, how his deep voice shook her to the bone, how she felt like there was no way to escape. And his eyes, oh hells, his eyes. He stared at her like she was nothing more but prey. And how his grin turned devilish as he tightened the grip around her neck, watching her take her last few breaths before…

“Ah!” Nijah gasped as she shot up in bed. She hadn’t been sleeping for long, but she already felt a warm rush fill her cheeks and a cold sweat on her brow. She did not like the things he was doing to her. Secretly, she wondered if it was his magic still at work…

“Nijah?” A voice called out in the darkness. A flick of a wrist, and the candle was burning brightly again.

“…yes?” she squeaked timidly.

“Can’t sleep?”

“Not really.”

“How can I help you?”

Nijah looked down and realized she was still wearing her dirty doctor’s clothes. Slowly, she began unbuttoning them and discarding them to the side of the bed. As her feverish skin met the chilly air of the underground bedroom, she knew exactly what she needed.

“Julian…can you come sleep up here?”

On the floor, Julian made a startled noise.

“Ah, I don’t…are you…do you…” he cleared his throat, popping his head up so Nijah could see his gleaming eyes. “Are you sure thahhhhhhh…”

His eyes lingered over her bare skin. She was wearing the shirt that he gave to her less than a fortnight ago, the plunging neckline bringing back his memories from that night. It clung on to her womanly form, just sliding off of her left shoulder. Julian couldn’t see what was hiding underneath the covers, but he wanted to find out. If, of course, she would be willing.

“Oh! Ah…” she pulled the covers a little higher, slightly embarrassed that he had seen her in such a state. “I don’t need you to touch me that way…I just need you to hold me.”

Nijah swore he heard him sigh in relief, but she would never be able to tell. “That…that I can do.” Julian smiled as he stood up from his place, making his way next to her on the covers. He blew out the candle as he was next to her, placing it on the floor as he tucked himself in, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close to his chest.

“Is this what you wanted?” Julian whispered, his lips resting at the crown of her head as his fingers intertwined with hers, resting near her chest.

Nijah took in a deep breath, filling her senses with his presence. His musky, yet charming scent filled her lungs and relaxed her. His cooling touch made her feel like herself again. Hearing his voice comforted her when it once frightened her. Her relationship with Dr. Julian Devorak might be quite the roller coaster, but right now, she had never been happier.

“Yes. Thank you.”

 

 

 

In her dreams, she was in a much happier place. There was not a cloud in sight, only sunshine fell through the trees of the forest she was running through. A happier tune played through her head as her bare feet touched the ground. She was running towards something, but what?

Finally, she stopped in front of a field of flowers, spreading as far as the eye could see. Many colors filled her vision - pinks, purples, blues, and the many meanings of the flowers resounded through her mind. Some of them her favorites, some of them she had never seen before, that must hail from a different world. Although it was a wondrous place, a beautiful place, she couldn’t help but wonder…

Why am I here?

But soon, she knew her answer.

She was running toward a man she had grown to become quite fond of. As he turned around to see her, his auburn curls blew in the wind, making him out to be the most gorgeous man Nijah had ever seen. He was wearing his white, billowy shirt and his black pants, definitely her favorite outfit he had ever worn. He opened his arms to catch her, to hold her close to him and spin her around in his embrace. When she held him, she felt like she was home at last.

Julian set her down gently, smiling as if he had a surprise for her. She felt a wave of excitement flood her body as he reached into his chest pocket and pulled out a simple flower, blowing gently in the breeze.

A pink camellia, she whispered to him.

One by one, he began to pick off the petals, letting them take flight in the air. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not… He sang, his eyes never leaving her own.

As he played his little game, Nijah saw the sky become dark with storm clouds, cutting off any possible light from the sun. A frosty gust of wind blew through the field, and all the flowers around her fell to the ground, brown and withered. Still, Julian pursued, even though the world was falling apart around them.

The angry clouds turned red, thunder crackling through the sky. Nijah had never felt more terrified in her life.

Julian, stop! Let’s get out of here! She screamed, but her cries fell to deaf ears.

Then, the last petal was pulled, and a creepy grin stretched over his face.

She loves me.

 

Chapter Text

Once again, Nijah woke up with a scream in her throat and her blonde hair sticking to her forehead.

What…what was that dream? She wondered. Those beautiful flowers dying, the red sky, and Julian…does he actually love me? Her head was reeling with all the meanings her dream could possibly hold.

She was greeted by darkness consuming everything in the room. The damp air made it feel warmer than it actually was, for Nijah could remember almost seeing her breath last night as Julian escorted her back inside. It must be really early, she thought as she turned her body over to see the man she had spent the night with.

She could feel his warmth radiating from his body, as he laid shirtless next to her. His arm was loosely thrown around her waist, his fingertips gripping the fabric of the shirt she was wearing. The gentle sounds of his breathing relaxed her, nearly putting her in a trance. Although she couldn’t see him, she imagined him sleeping with a little grin on his face.

She left a feather-like kiss on his nose, hoping if it would be enough to wake him up. Almost immediately, she could sense his eyelids fluttering open. He let out a soft groan as he stretched his limbs, pulling her closer to his half-naked body than before.

“Good morning, Nijah.” He mumbled, his voice groggy and low from sleep.

“Mmm,” she hummed, “good morning, Ilya.” She rested her hands on his cheeks and could feel the heat intensifying as his named rolled off her tongue. “Did you sleep well?”

“Better than usual, I suppose.” He whispered, leaning in to her so their noses were touching.

With their bodies pressed up against each other, Nijah could feel nearly every part of Julian’s body on hers. His rising and falling chest, his muscles on his arms, the shifting of his legs. She could even feel his hard, straining erection he was hiding in his pants.

“Oh? Seems like you woke up really happy…” she nearly chuckled, rubbing her thigh against his own. The moan that he let out of his throat as he felt her leg on his cock was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard, making her feel instantly wet between her legs.

Nearly whining in pleasure, his hands flew to her hips as he discovered that she was wearing only the shirt, and nothing else below. He rolled from his side onto his back, placing Nijah right on top of him.

“I think you can make my morning much better.”

Nijah’s lips found his as she felt his hands frantically reach down between her legs to undo his pants, and she could feel her cunt throbbing with need as his knuckles brushed against it. His kisses were heavy and passionate, seeking out everything he could take from her, making Nijah already see stars in her vision. She heard him shift his pants off of his thighs and felt his fingers plunge inside of her, already begging for more as she dug her face into the crook of his neck.

It seemed like a lifetime since they’ve last been together, even though it was only over a week ago. She never dreamed she would ever be feeling his massive cock rubbing against her dripping folds once more, but here she was, grinding against his shaft like her life depended on it. She bit her lip as she felt her clit rub against Julian’s swollen head, not wanting to make a sound that could be deemed suspicious to passerbys.

Julian, on the other hand, was having a harder time being quiet.

“Ahhh…mmmmuhhhh,” he whined, “fuck, Nijah…”

His head was pressed back into his pillow, his eyes squeezed shut and his lips barely apart. Nijah couldn’t see him in the darkness, but she knew he looked absolutely stunning right now. And she wanted to make him feel as good as he had made her feel.

She lifted her ass up in the air, just enough for her hand to slide underneath and hold his cock upright. She lined him up to her entrance, spreading his beading precum all over her wet, slick folds. Slowly, so slowly, she sunk down on him, feeling his girth sweetly stretch her in such a way that made her gasp, and made him nearly cry.

“Ohhhh…” he moaned as he filled her with every part of him. She felt so good, so tight around him, and he truly felt like this was his slice of heaven. “Ride me, Nijah. Fuck, I can’t take it anymore.”

His hands groped her ass and he gripped them as if it was the last time he would ever touch her. With all his strength, he pulled her up and down his length, grunting every time she got down to the hilt. His hands guided her as her hips finally found a rhythm that he loved. Pressing her hands into his chest and throwing her head back, Nijah bounced on his cock as if she was hypnotized by it. And, in a way, she was. She would never forget how euphoric it felt to feel his length hit her in the same orgasmic spot every time, making her legs shake.

As Nijah continued to fuck Julian, his fingers trailed up her sides and under the shirt, taking their time once they reached her nipples. He ran his fingers over them until they were hard, then pinched them between his thumb and forefinger. She tried her best not to yelp, but when he lifted her shirt and leaned up to take it in his mouth…

“Nngh!” She squealed, nearly jumping off of him in surprise.

He chuckled as his teeth scraped her sensitive skin. “Don’t stop, darling…” He almost growled, taking her hips and pulling her forward and backwards, his cock still deep inside her as her cunt spread his juices all over his groin. Her swollen clit rubbed against his skin, making her whole body shiver in pleasure. She wrapped her arms around him, her nails digging into his back, making him groan as his hips began to work against hers.

As a little bit of light spilled in from the upstairs workroom, the two continued to make love to each other. Neither of them could no longer hide their moans, refusing to hold back as Nijah continued to work herself on Julian. He had her bouncing in his lap now, her legs wrapped around his hips. He could feel his release coming closer, biting his lip as his spiraled higher and higher.

“Nijah…” He whispered, his voice strained.

“Yes, Julian?” She replied, adjusting her hips to bounce on his cock once more.

“I’m…about to…ahh…”

She slowed herself on him, but that only made him whine more. “Don’t stop, please don’t…” His eyebrows knit together as he grabbed her, moving her on him like he never had before. It was too much for Nijah, nearly making her come on the spot.

“Fuck, Julian, mmmmm…” She leaned in and bit his lip, which made his hips buck rapidly and finally orgasmed like his life depended on it.

His hips slowed within her as he released, his body slick with sweat and Nijah’s juices. She could feel him twitch inside her, spilling the last little bit of him in her heat. Julian wrapped himself around her and sunk backwards into the bed, rolling onto his side so she could be lying right next to him.

“Th…thank you, Nijah. That’s the best wake up call I’ve had yet.” He smirked, his thick eyebrows raising playfully as his hand cupped her cheek.

She rolled her eyes, trying to roll away. But Julian was much quicker, grabbing her and pulling her close before she could get too far from him.

“Hey, now!” They both laughed together as he buried his nose into her hair. “I mean it. You…ack,” Nijah could feel his warm breath on her scalp. “You’ve made my time much better here at the Lazaret. It’s more bearable with you around.”

“So are you saying that I need to stop avoiding you and quit pretending there’s something between us?” The edges of Nijah’s lips curled in a cat-like smile.

Her comment caught him off guard, making him blush more than he ever had. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind if we did.”

“Good. Me neither.”

 

 

 

Nijah changed into her doctor’s uniform and made it to the dining hall just in time. Breakfast had just been served, and there was no sign of Luka in sight. Letting out a relieved sigh, she fell in line with the other apprentices, who were chatting away about who knows what. Nijah could really only think of two things: where Katja was located and if others could tell she had a new wobble to her walk.

She had her first question answered quickly. Katja was already at a table, finishing a chapter of one of her books before her food got cold.

“You’ve been gone for a while.” Katja says flatly as Nijah sits next to her with a plate full of food. “Been getting into trouble?”

“Umm, you could say that.” Nijah teased, picking up her apple and taking a bite out of it.

“Seems like your old friend Luka is nowhere in sight.”

“That asshole is no friend of mine.”

“Really?” Katja raised her eyebrow. “What happened last night?”

Oh, crap, Nijah thought. I can’t tell her everything. At least, not where others can hear.

“Ah, turned out you were right. He had ulterior motives. Really bad ones. But…Dr. Devorak stopped him.”

She nearly dropped her book in her bowl of porridge.

“Dr…Devorak?” Her eyes went wild with surprise.

“Uh…is there something bad about him?”

“No, not really…” Katja seemed lost in thought, “I just never pinned you as someone who would be into redheads, that’s all.”

“Hey, now. It’s not what your thinking, honest.” Nijah assured her, putting her hands up as to declare innocence. “He just happened to be taking a stroll around the castle when he saw Luka…uh, hurting me.” She shivered at the memory, which was still very fresh in her mind. “He said if he ever hurt another young woman again, he would end him.”

“And where did you go after that?”

“He took me to a private bedroom so I wouldn’t have to stay in the same chambers as Luka. But we…slept in different rooms.”

A grin had crept over Katja’s features, probably from the blush that Nijah had trouble hiding.

“You totally like him.”

“So what?”

“What if he likes you back? Ah, that would be the start of the most beautiful romance!” She giggled a bit, stomping her feet in excitement.

Nijah shushed her quickly, and she could feel Julian’s eyes on her as he walked into the room. “Do you want the other apprentices to hear? They would be talking about me for weeks!”

“But can you just imagine?” Katja began fantasizing a little quieter. “You two are both so attractive, I bet you two would be oozing with chemistry and passion!” She whispered, her eyes flickering back and forth between the doctor and his apprentice.

“Katja…”

“I can’t help it! I bet the romance would start quickly, but you two would have to hide it so no one could find out. Ooh! You two could escape the Lazaret and start a new life together back in the city! You could open a clinic and help everyone in the city, not just those with the plague. Then you could get married, have tons of little babies…”

As she continued to ramble on, Nijah’s eyes trailed over to Julian, sitting with the two other doctors. He looked so handsome, even when he was just listening to the others talk. There was just something about him that she couldn’t deny. But, there were doubts in her head. Would Julian want a life away from the Lazaret? Would Julian want a life with me?

His eyes caught hers for an instant, and his face instantly lit up. He winked swiftly, turning back to the other doctors before they could suspect a thing.

She smiled back at him, hoping he gave her the answer she was looking for.

 

 

 

That day forward officially marked the beginning of Nijah and Julian’s secret romance.

Julian was much more comfortable helping Nijah and Katja out in the lab, and even the other apprentices. He spent time observing their motions and giving pointers on how he has treated patients before, sometimes telling stories of his younger days.

“I got close a few times after I used my favorite leeches. Would you like to tr-”

“Enough of that, Devorak,” Satrinava patted him on the back. “I’ll take it from here.”

And whenever the apprentices had their free time after dinner, Nijah would usually find herself knocking at the door of the doctor. He would always let her in, of course, just so he could spend some time with her. Whether it was doing work together in the small space, or cuddling on his cot, or a quick fuck in the bedroom, Julian and Nijah began to cherish the little moments they spent together every evening. It hurt her the most when she knew she had to leave him every night, for she wished she never had to leave his side again.

The more time they spent together, the more Nijah found herself falling in love with Julian. It was on the tip of her tongue now, every time she saw him she wanted to declare it from the rooftops. She loved how he looked, how he smiled, how he treated her like she was the only woman in the world, how kind and generous he was for wanting to help others, just like she had always dreamed. But, as her apprenticeship was soon to transition and she would begin to help patients, she kept on wondering if there was a way for her and Julian to start a new life together in Vesuvia.

Katja kept a tight lip whenever the others asked where Nijah went, knowing that it was none of her business to spill. Besides, she truthfully hoped that her friend and the doctor could find their way out of the Lazaret. She wished they were characters in one of her books, one that always ended in a happily ever after.

But something in her mind told her that if they stayed at the Lazaret, things would end in a disaster.

 

 

 

Finally, after four weeks spent in the medical facility, all the apprentices had finished their training. They began seeing patients and, using their skills learned in the medical lab, tried their best to help them get better.

Only, with no cure, none of them would get out alive.

Nijah’s first patient was an older man, one who had lived a good life. A kind farmer who lived just on the outskirts of Vesuvia. Spent one day in the city to pick up some food for his family, then he looked in the mirror the next day and noticed that his sclera had turned crimson, and knew that it was his time. He was immediately sent to the facility, quarantined in a singular room as Nijah began to try her best to treat him.

She tried everything to save him. She spent nearly every waking moment with him, even skipping out on hours of sleep just to try and make him better. Herbal medicines, never tested concoctions, even one of Dr. Devorak’s leeches. Even through all the pain he encountered from her methods, he still laid there with a smile on his face. But, nothing helped him, and he had passed in his sleep overnight.

Nijah unlocked the door to his room the next morning, walking in with a hot plate of breakfast. “Good morning, sir.” She greeted him. “I managed to convince the chefs to cook your favorite!”

But she wasn’t greeted with his usual smile. He laid there motionless, like a ragdoll.

“Hello? Sir?”

She couldn’t believe her eyes.

She dropped his plate and it shattered into tiny pieces as the tears began to fall, rolling down the inside of her plague doctor’s mask. The tears turned into waterfalls, her sniffles becoming sobs, as she fell to her knees at the foot of the man’s cot. She had tried everything she could, why couldn’t she save this one life?

She ignored the sound of the door opening behind her. Whoever walked in would think she’s pathetic, helpless, one not able to stay at the Lazaret.

“N…Nijah?”

She turned around, surprised to see Katja’s figure in her doctor’s clothes.

“Is everything all right?”

Nijah couldn’t answer with her voice, but she turned her head to the body of her patient lying in the cot.

“Oh, I see.” Katja got down to her friend’s level, placing a hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay.”

“It’s not going to be okay!” Nijah nearly shouted. “I let this man die! I let a poor, innocent man die! I’ll never be able to get over myself!”

“It’s not your fault, dear.” Katja pulled Nijah close to her body, embracing her as she rubbed a hand on her head. “It’s not your fault he contracted the plague. It’s not your fault the plague exists. It’s not your fault that there’s no cure. Our job right now is to make sure these people at least feel better during their time here. That’s all.”

“But…but, if I can’t save him, then how will I ever be able to save anyone?” Nijah nearly wailed, her breath fogging up her view from the mask.

“It will take time. We can’t save everyone. But there will come a time where you will be able to save everyone. You just have to try and get better every time. Okay?” Katja pulled away, pulling her mask up slightly so Nijah could see her face. “I believe in you. But now it’s time for you to believe in yourself.”

Nijah nodded at Katja pulled her mask back over her face. “I guess you’re right.” She concluded. “I just don’t know how it’s going to get any easier here.”

“That’s what we have each other for.” Katja squeezed her friend’s hand. “We’ve got each other, don’t forget it. And you have Dr. Devorak, too.” She got up to stand, helping Nijah up to her feet. “Come on, you need a little bit of rest.”

She wasn’t wrong. Her sleeping habits of late have become quite awful. Nijah allowed Katja to lead her out of the man’s room, taking one last glance at his body before she shut the door on his existence forever.

 

 

 

After Nijah awoke from her nap, she found her way to Julian’s office. She needed a little more consolation after the events that happened this morning.

“Ah, Nijah.” Julian said, rather startled that she was at his door earlier than normal. “Please, do come in.”

She took off her plague mask as she entered his office. Her face had been washed of all the tears from the day, but he could tell something was wrong.

“Darling…is everything okay? What happened?” He took her in his arms, holding her close to his chest. She could feel his heartbeat on her cheek as he ran his fingers through her hair.

“I…I lost my first patient today.” She admitted, wrapping her arms around his waist. “Katja said we can’t save everyone, but…I can’t help but feel like a failure.”

“Oh, dear…” He whispered, placing a kiss on her forehead. “You’re everything but a failure. You’re kind, good-hearted, smart, gorgeous, and a wonderful person.” He gently rocked her back and forth in his arms. “Everybody loses a patient. Everybody loses multiple. But it’s not because of anything you’ve done. You’re doing exactly what you need to do. And I’m proud of you.”

“Really?”

“Really. And I have to tell myself the same thing, day in and day out. You have no idea how many people’s lives I lost ever since I began working here.”

As Nijah imagined how many patients he could have lost as sadness flickers in his eyes, Katja’s voice returns to her mind once again: You two could get away from here and start a new life in the city…

“Julian?” Her head turned from his chest to face him.

“Yes, dear?”

“What if we left the Lazaret? Got away from all the terrible things here, begin living together and start a new life?”

His laugh was a little more melancholy than she would have liked. “Ah, Nijah, if only it were so simple.” He patted her head, releasing her as he went to go sit down at his desk.

“Wh…what do you mean?” Nijah asked.

“People like me don’t deserve to live happy lives. We’re meant to stay in the shadows until we pass away.” He lamented. “The count and countess may trust my medical skills, but they would never let me open a clinic in the city. I’ve done too much wrong, hurt too many other people…” He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he rested his arms on the desk.

“But you’re not a bad man.” Nijah rested her hands on his shoulders. “You’ve done so much good for Vesuvia, for the apprentices, for me. You never know what you have done for others until long after.” She kneaded her fingers into his shoulders, feeling just how tense he really was. “So please…at least consider it. Not now, but maybe someday.”

Julian raised his head, turning around so he could meet Nijah’s eyes. “Yes…maybe someday.”

He scooted his chair out and patted his lap, suggesting for her to sit there. She obliged, sitting on the thickest part of his thigh as she ran her fingers over his chiseled cheekbone.

“It’s not all bad here, you know.” He admitted. “Just like you, I came here to help others. Although I have not been successful yet…I still have hope. Hope that we can cure this plague once and for all. Hope that Vesuvia will be back to normal. And…” He paused, nuzzling into her outstretched hand.

“And what, Julian?”

“And…I do hope for a future. With you.”

“Really?” Nijah could feel the tip of her ears turning pink.

“Yes, Nijah. But knowing my luck, I’ll probably lose you before then.”

“Nonsense. There’s no way I going to leave you.” Nijah comforted him, both hands cradling his cheeks as her thumbs rubbed his temples.

“Good.” Julian said. “Because if you did, I would travel the world just to find you.”

He kissed her then, his lips finding refuge in hers. She returned the favor, allowing his hands to move her legs so she could straddle his hips, feeling her hot core pressing against his. Nijah’s fingers ran through his curls as he held on to her waist, pulling her down so she could feel every part of his hard member. She gasped as he rutted against her, his mind growing fuzzy with pleasure.

Sooner than later, their clothes were piled up in the corner, Nijah lying on the cold, stone floor as Julian completely ravished her.

Nijah tried her best not to cry out as Julian pounded relentlessly inside her, but it felt so good to be fucked by him that it was a challenge not to. She held the back of her hand up to her lips, eyes nearly rolling to the back of her head as his tip ran itself along the delicate spot against her walls, making her orgasm come closer and closer.

Julian’s knees rested close to her hips as he picked up the pace, body shaking as she wrapped her legs around him. She felt so good every time, but this time, he felt much more connected to her than before. He couldn’t put his finger on it yet, but it was close to rolling off the tip of his tongue. Panting, he felt his loins tighten as he continued to take her, her walls beginning to tremble.

“Julian…” Nijah whispered into his ear.

“Yes, darling?” He asked, the sweat beading at his brow.

“I…I…ahhh!”

Before she could speak any further, her orgasm ripped through her body, shaking her down to her core. In turn, Julian found his release, burying himself deep within her, concealing his whines of pleasure by placing a searing kiss on Nijah’s lips. He rode himself out before pulling out of her, the loss of him making her tremble.

“Are you okay, Nijah? Are you hurt?” He checked over her body to see if there were any cuts or bruises. Maybe fucking on the stone floor wasn’t the best idea, he thought as his hands searched for any injuries.

“I’m fine, Julian.” Her smile was filled with warmth. “But I need to tell you something.”

“Tell me what?” His eyebrows raised and he internally braced himself for the worst.

She put her hands on his broad shoulders, looking at him affectionately. “I love you, Ilya.”

He nearly gasped, taken aback at her confession. He could feel the tears filling his eyes as he buried his face in the crook of her neck, leaving kisses all the way down to her collar bone. He returned her gaze, and Nijah reached up to swipe away a stray tear falling down his cheek.

And finally, he knew exactly what he felt for her.

“I love you too, Nijah.”

She reached up to delicately kiss him, as if he was a fragile artifact that would shatter into hundreds of pieces if not handled correctly. Luckily for her, she knew just how to touch him, where to caress him, when to let him take the lead. Julian was a magnificent piece of work, and although his mind might be twisted, she loved everything that he was and ever will be.

She was so thankful he felt the same way.

He held her tight, feeling her soft skin against his hard, taut body. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone…or anything.” He confessed. “I want nothing else but to spend my life by your side.”

“Me too.” Nijah agreed. “There’s not another man who could make me as happy as you do, Julian.”

“You really mean that?”

“Of course. I would never lie to you.”

“Wonderful.” He sat back up, bringing Nijah’s body with him. “We need to get you dressed, everyone is going to worry about you.”

Julian helped Nijah get back into her uniform, doing all the buttons and ties in just the right places. Even though the uniform was bland and old, he still thought she looked stunning whenever she wore it. As she slid on her shoes, Julian began to dress himself.

“Remember,” he said as he buttoned up his shirt, “You are doing the right thing here. And I grow more proud of you every single day. Don’t ever forget it, okay?”

“Okay. I love you, Julian, I really do.”

“I love you too, darling. I’ll see you at dinner.”

 

 

 

Two weeks passed, and Nijah began to fall ill.

“Hmm…” Julian thought, observing her on the patient’s table in the lab. “You don’t seem to have the plague. Tell me, what are your symptoms again?”

“I wake up every morning more tired than I was the night before, and after I make that realization I usually throw up, Dr. Devorak.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“Okay, Dr…Jules.” She winked as she stuck her tongue out, allowing him to examine the inside of her throat.

He gave her a curious look at first, but it melted into a smile. “Dr. Jules…I kinda like that.”

The further he tested her for different illnesses, the more confused he became. All his years in the medical field did not prepare him for something like this. She wasn’t running a fever, no new pains, just fatigue and nausea. He was stumped.

“Well, I think you should get a little bit of rest.” He concluded. “I am prescribing one day in bed…with me, of course.”

He had a point. Nijah had been treating patient after patient to try and find a cure for what seemed like forever, she probably just needed a bit more sleep. “But I can’t just stay here with you, Dr. Jules. Everyone will be wondering where I am.”

He rubbed his chin in thought. “Good point. I suppose you can rest in the apprentice chambers, but please, do not take any time to work with a patient. If you’re sick now, you could catch the plague, even wearing the mask.” His hands reached for hers, rubbing her palms with his thumbs. “You have to promise me, okay?”

“Okay, I promise.” She looked up at him with a gleam in her eye. He always knew just what she needed, and she trusted him to keep her safe from the plague.

She rested until dinner time, where she found Katja sitting with a new book in her hands.

“Did you bring a whole library with you?” Nijah joked as she took her seat.

“I tried to!” Katja replied excitedly. “This one is a fantasy story, and probably the longest one I’ve read so far!”

But before Katja could explain the story so far, Dr. Valdemar approached the front of their table. The two women looked at each other, obviously nervous. They had never had to speak with them outside of the medical lab…what did they need right now?

“Good evening, Nijah. A new patient has arrived at the Lazaret that you will be treating. I know that Dr. Devorak told you to take some time off, but we currently have no other doctors to assist the patient.”

Katja’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. Nijah tried to get a glance from Julian, but he was nowhere to be found in the entire dining hall.

“Please introduce yourself to them tonight, as you will start treatment with them tomorrow.” They gave a knowing grin, and Nijah swore she saw jagged, razor sharp teeth in Valdemar’s mouth.

“Thank you, Dr. Valdemar. I will visit them shortly.”

“Perfect.” And on their heel, they turned around and made their way to the back of the food line.

“That…was weird.” Katja stated the obvious. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I think so.” Nijah said. “Dr. Ju-ah, Dr. Devorak said I need to rest, but I guess the other doctors have different plans for me.”

“Are you going to see your new patient now?”

“Yeah, might as well.” Nijah replied. “I’m not feeling too hungry tonight. I’ll see you back in the wing.” And with that, she threw away her plate, threw on her plague mask, and made the descend into the patient’s wing.

The hallway felt much darker and damper than usual. There were a few less torches lit, the sun was going down in the stairwell behind her, making the air feel much chillier. The tapping of her boots was all she heard as she stopped in front of her door. Room number 187 - her doctor number. She pulled her key ring out of her pocket, taking her time to undo the lock as she gently swung the door open.

She took a deep breath as she began her speech, the one she had said so many times now. “Hello, I am Doctor 187, I hope you are…”

She froze, her heart beating faster than it ever has before. She wasn’t sure if Valdemar had planned this out, or how, but she was shocked to see who was sitting in the cot, one hand extended out to greet her.

“Nice to meet ya, doc. I’m Selene.”

Chapter Text

Nijah had a million thoughts running through her mind, and yet, there was not one she could pin down.

It was no doubt that it was Selene sitting in front of her. The dark, curly shoulder-length hair bounced as she tilted her head and smiled. Her womanly figure could not be hidden underneath her shapeless potato sack like dress, given to all patients at the Lazaret. She even had the birthmark on the inside of her elbow that all the boys in elementary school would make fun of her for. If it wasn’t Selene, then someone must be a very good magician.

So Nijah’s best friend had the plague. She didn’t know exactly how, but she was here now. But there was no cure to the plague, so she would be dead in a matter of days. And there was nothing Nijah could do about it.

Should I tell her who I am? She wondered, then immediately shook the idea away. No, I can’t. 

She would never forgive me if she learned I couldn’t save her.

Finally, Nijah reached out her own hand to meet Selene’s. “It’s nice to meet you, Selene.” She replied, hoping the mask was able to muffle her voice a little bit, hiding her identity even further. “So, do you know exactly how you got the plague?” She took out a scroll of paper and a quill already coated in ink.

“Well, I can’t say I know for sure.” She confessed. “I’ve been traveling all over the place with this new guy of mine, but once we get back to Vesuvia, of course I catch this stupid bug.” She rubbed her inflamed eyes, the intensified redness pulling on Nijah’s heartstrings.

“I see. And how long had you been in Vesuvia before you noticed the symptoms?”

“About a day. We had just returned from visiting Nevivion. And when I noticed them, it was almost like the whole town already knew. I was quarantined and sent away to this island. I didn’t even get to say goodbye…”

“I’m sure he is missing you quite a bit.” Nijah finished her notes and stuffed the paper back in her jacket. “Well, we will begin treatment tomorrow morning, Miss Selene. I hope you get a good night’s sleep…” She began walking away towards the door.

“Wait!”

Nijah stopped in her tracks, turning only her head around. “Yes?”

“Do you know if a girl named Nijah Horvat works as an apprentice here?”

She paused, biting her lip so she could hold back the truth. “She has been moved to another facility.” She lied, nearly gritting her teeth as a wave of sadness overflowed her senses. She got the feeling this wouldn’t be the only time she would lie to her.

“Aw, that’s too bad. Have a good night, doc!”

“You too, Miss Selene.” And with that, Nijah shut the door behind her.

 

 

 

As Nijah was preparing for bed, she felt Katja’s arm around her upper back. It was strangely comforting, yet unexpected.

“Hey there, feeling any better?” She squeezed her tight, cracking something in Nijah’s back.

“Oof!” Nijah called out, reaching up to rub her shoulder. “Ah…not really. We’ll just have to see how it goes again in the morning.”

“Okay, how was your new patient?”

“Umm…she’s nice.” Nijah said. “I think she won’t cause me many problems.”

“That’s good!” Katja smiled. “I just got this older man, and he is the worst. Already asking when he can leave! And we haven’t even started treatment yet!”

Nijah tried to listen to Katja ramble on about her new patient, but the fact that her best friend would be dying under her hands kept her unable to focus on anything else. All their memories came flooding over her as she smiled and nodded her head, pretending she was all there in the conversation. But really, her heart was breaking and she felt like she wanted to do nothing but run and hide from the Lazaret, from the world, from everything and everyone.

Unfortunately for her, that wasn’t about to happen.

 

 

 

Nijah unlocked the door to room 187, carting a warm plate of breakfast and multiple medical devices. She picked up a few extra medicines from Julian as well, new ones that he had discovered only recently. She was willing to try them, as long as she had a chance of survival.

“Good morning, miss. I brought you your breakfast.” She squinted inside the room, the only light source being a small window near the ceiling. Selene was already up and waiting.

“How did you know this was my favorite? Thank you!” She took the plate graciously, savoring the food as if it was her last meal. As she ate, Nijah prepared the materials necessary for her first treatment.

She took a glance over at her friend and realized the plague has already taken its toll on her body. She looked a little skinnier than she did the night before, the bags under her eyes a little more prominent. She looked malnourished, but by the way she was eating her food, anyone could be fooled that she was fine and healthy.

“We’re going to try multiple different methods to cure your plague,” Nijah began to explain, “First, I need you to keep this bag next to you at all times.” She dropped the tiny bag next to Selene’s spot on the cot. With graceful fingers, she picked up the bag and took a whiff.

“Mmm, these smell wonderful! I feel like I’m lying in a flower bed.” Selene complimented the mixture of petals. What kinds of flowers did you use?”

“Magnolias, freesias, violets, gardenias…” Nijah went on, remembering the exact flowers Dr. Satrinava had told her to use. Most of the other apprentices thought it was a dumb lesson, but Nijah imagined that it could be very useful to her someday.

“You know, my friend Nijah loves flowers. It’s not something she tells a lot of people, but she used to read books about gardening as a kid. She really was passionate about the meanings of different flowers. Sometimes she would drop off some at my house and wait for me to figure out what they meant. But her parents wanted her to study the violin, so she didn’t ever find the time…oh, silly me.” She waved her hand, pushing away her commentary like it was nothing. “I know you don’t care as much. I apologize for boring you.”

Behind her mask, Nijah smiled bitterly as she mixed an herbal concoction. She was surprised that Selene remembered that far back. She must have been nine years old at that time. “No, it’s okay. You can tell me whatever you like. I don’t mind.”

She saw a wave of relief cross over her face. “Oh, thank goodness. I just miss her a lot, is all…it’s been nearly two months since I’ve seen her. Asra and I have tried to write to her, but every time we do, our letter gets sent back to us.”

“And who is Asra?”

“Oh, probably the most wonderful man I have ever met, doctor.” She swooned, fanning herself with the bag of flower petals. “I met him at the masquerade. Have you ever been?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“It was such a grand time! The whole castle was open and decorated in the most beautiful things. I was setting up Nijah with another man at the time…but I turned the corner in the ballroom and accidentally bumped into him. It was the most embarrassing thing!”

“I bet.” Nijah interjected. “Before you go on, can you drink this for me?” She held a cup of a thick, odd smelling liquid in front of Selene. She took it and looked at it skeptically.

“What’s this supposed to do?”

“Get rid of any aches and pains you might have.”

Shrugging, Selene threw the drink back, gulping the fluids back rather loudly as she finished it off. As she swallowed the last bit, a shiver ran through her body, but it passed as quickly as it came.

“Disgusting…but I think it helped. Thank you, doc!” She smiled, handing back the cup to Nijah.

Nijah knew that smile well. It was the fake smile, when she was trying to deceive others into believing everything was okay. It was a clear fact that she didn’t like it, but maybe she didn’t think it would actually help her. Either way, Nijah was happy that she was at least trying to stay positive for her sake.

“Anyways,” Selene continued, “I ran into him as I walked into the ballroom. But he played it off so well, pretending that I was an old friend or something like that. His masquerade costume was so beautiful, but when he took the mask off, he was even more gorgeous. He has the most beautiful shade of lavender eyes, stark white hair…”

Nijah briefly remembered seeing him at the masquerade, right before Julian and her were about to approach the two. So that’s who she’s run off with…

“…but one of the coolest things about him is that he’s a magician! He showed me so many cool tricks, read my tarot cards…”

Suddenly, something in Nijah’s stomach pulled. Hard.

“Oh, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment, miss…” She ran out into the hallway as she slid her mask off, hoping to make it to the bathroom before whatever was churning in her stomach made its way out. Unfortunately, it decided it had to come out in the middle of the hallway, directly in front of Dr. Satrinava.

“Doctor 187! Are you all right?!” Nijah was bent over on the floor, her hands resting over her stomach. Dr. Satrinava took their glove off and rested their hand on her forehead. “You don’t feel like you have the plague…”

Nijah wiped the ends of her mouth and stood to her feet. “I’m fine, I promise. I’m sorry about this…mess.”

Satrinava looked at her through their mask suspiciously, resting their hands on their hips. “Wait a moment. Didn’t Dr. Devorak tell you to get some rest?”

“Yes, but Valdemar vetoed that decision because we have so many patients.” Nijah shook her head, making her best attempt to stand up like nothing happened. “If you will excuse me, I have to return to mine right now.”

“All right…but if you need someone to take over for you, let me know. I don’t want to risk you getting infected.” Satrinava squeezed her shoulder. “And don’t worry about this mess. I’ll get Valdemar to clean it up.”

Nijah laughed a little bit, thinking of the odd doctor with a dirty rag and a bucket of water, trying their best to scrape every part of her puke off the floor. “Thanks, Doctor.”

The two part ways, and Nijah makes her way back into her patient’s room, securing her mask as she turned into the doorway. “Sorry about that, Selene, you may go on.”

“What happened out there? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, just a little nausea…”

“That didn’t sound like normal nausea, hun.”

Nijah’s eyebrows raised as she faces Selene…not that she would be able to tell, of course. “What do you mean?”

“Do you have any other symptoms? Are you tired more often?”

“…yes.”

“Cramping down there?”

“A little bit, why do you ask?”

“Doc, you’re totally pregnant.”

At first, Nijah didn’t move. As the wave of realization hit her, she took a small step back. “There’s no way…”

“Trust me, I know. My mother had her youngest a few years ago. I was with her every step of the way.”

She’s right, Nijah remembered. Selene’s youngest brother was her mother’s most complicated pregnancy her mother had ever had, so of course Selene had to been around to help with the family as her mother dealt with her symptoms. Selene had grown up rather early, doing the household chores, cooking meals, and helping her other brothers with their studies beginning at the age of eleven.

But how could Selene tell? Every pregnancy was different, so it might just be a coincidence.

Then she realized that her cycle had come late. Too late.

Nijah cleared her throat and grabbed onto the cart. “Uhm…if you’ll excuse me…”

And without another word, Nijah rushed out of the room, holding back tears of sorrow.

 

 

 

I’m pregnant. I’m pregnant. I’m pregnant, Nijah thought over and over again.

She was standing in the bathroom of the apprentice’s wing, all alone. She looked in the full length mirror at her body as she chanted the mantra in her mind.

It would explain a lot. Her illness, how tired she had been feeling, even the mood swings she had begun to felt. She wasn’t ill at all, she just happened to be growing another human being inside of her.

Julian’s child.

Oh, hells, what will he do? What will he say? Will…will he still love me? She asked herself as her hands moved up to caress her stomach. She had no idea how far along she was. Was she one week? Two weeks? Eight weeks? Did their first time they ever had sex actually get her pregnant? She swore she felt a small bump, but that could also be her mind playing tricks on her.

There was no way she could support another life while living in the Lazaret. She would have to leave if they both were to survive.

If I don’t tell Julian now, then I never will, she told herself. Putting her plague mask on, she left the bathroom, mentally preparing herself for what could be the most heart breaking conversation she will ever have in her life.

 

 

 

“Dr. Devorak,” Nijah called out, banging on the door frantically. “Are you in?” She could feel herself sweating from nervousness from the inside of her uniform. She just hoped she didn’t smell too bad.

He opened the door quickly. “There you are, come in.” He ushered her in, showing her to a seat on the cot. As he sat down he ran his fingers through his hair, his other hand jotting down something unreadable. “You came just in time. I need to tell you something very important.”

“Me too…”

“Oh? By all means, you can share first.”

“No, I think it would be better if you were to tell me first.”

“If you insist…” Julian trailed off, setting down the quill in his hand as his head hung low to the floor. “Nijah, I’m being sent back to Vesuvia.”

“What?!” Nijah nearly jumped out of her seat in shock.

“Please, keep it down.” Julian shushed her as his eyes met hers for the first time, pressing his hand into her thigh to keep her steady. “Count Lucio wants me and Valdemar to go to the palace to work together on a cure for the plague. He apparently has another man who is knowledgeable about its origins, and if we combine forces, we could end the plague for good and cure the city.”

“That…that’s great, dear!” Nijah beamed. She took his hand in hers, squeezing it affectionately. “I’m glad they’re seeing how well you are as a doctor. I’m really happy for you.” She hoped he could see how excited she was for him.

“Thank you. I never knew that my hard work could get me to where I am…along with a little inspiration from you, Nijah.”

She was taken back a little bit by his compliment. “Me?”

“Yes, you.” He reiterated, getting down off of his seat and on his knees, in front of Nijah. “The biggest regret I will have about going to the castle is that I will be leaving you behind.” He brings her hands to his lips, kissing every individual finger.

“When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” Julian said dejectedly, as if he wished he had more time. “Nijah…I want to make the most out of every moment I have with you. Please, can you spent one more night with me? I promise I will make it worthwhile.”

“I’ll do my best, Julian.” She replied, caressing his face in the palms of her hands, rubbing her thumbs across his cheekbones.

“Thank you, darling.” He kissed her hand, running his gloved fingers over her arms. “Did you still need to tell me something?”

Oh hells, if I told him now, she thought, then he might have more regrets than just leaving me behind. He might never want to leave the Lazaret, then we will both be stuck here forever…there’s no way he can know.

At least, not now.

“Oh, never mind, it wasn’t as important as I thought.” Nijah shook it off, leaning her forehead in to touch his own.

“If you say so…you’d never hide anything from me, right?” Julian looked into her eyes, trying to search her soul for her truth. She hoped and prayed he couldn’t find it this time.

“Of course not.” She lied. “I love you too much for that, Jules.”

He’ll forgive you when he learns you were only trying to help, she told herself as he leaned in for a tender kiss, letting all her dark thoughts fly out the window. Julian was hers, she was his, and at least they could enjoy the rest of their time together.

 

 

 

“Ugh, you’re going to give me that stuff again?”

Selene did not seem too enthusiastic that she had to drink the same thick liquid she consumed earlier that morning. Made with the top quality herbs in the lab, as well as a few extra chemicals, it was supposed to help patients reduce their pain, but Nijah took that claim with a grain of salt.

“Just take it, miss. It’ll do the body good.” She tried to convince her, but Selene was more stubborn than that.

“If it’s so good, then why don’t you taste it?”

Nijah sighed, already frustrated from her mood swings. “If you won’t comply, then we will have to forcibly administer the medicine to you. So it can either be the easy way or the hard way.”

“Fine, fine, I guess I can’t argue with a pregnant woman.” Selene took the cup with a sly grin, drinking the mixture in one gulp.

“Could we not be so loud when discussing that matter?”

“Not wanting the others to know?”

“Precisely.” She answered. “They will know when I feel it is appropriate to tell the others.”

Selene placed the cup on the tray, careful to not let the glass shatter on the metal. “I see how it is. Is the baby’s father here, too?”

“You’re making very bold statements that I don’t think you should be, miss.” Nijah crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I suggest you stop, otherwise I will have to move you to a different room with a different doctor.”

“Okay, okay, jeez!” Selene held her hands up in regret. “I’m sorry. You just remind me a lot of my friend Nijah. She was sometimes a stick in the mud with some things, so I always teased her to get her to loosen up, that’s all.”

“Please do not feel like you need to treat me in such a way.” Nijah retorted. It’ll hurt me more that way.

“Hmm…did Nijah ever tell you how she met me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’ll have to tell it to ya someday. Maybe when you’re not so crabby!” She laughed, slapping her thigh in the process.

Ah, at least her personality hasn’t changed from the plague, Nijah thought as she began to roll the cart out of the room. Always willing to call people out.

“Well, I hope you have a good night, miss. I will see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, doc! Sleep well!”

As she left room 187, she just hoped that Selene would live through the night.

 

 

 

That night, Nijah snuck out of the apprentice’s wing after the moon had risen and everyone else had fallen asleep. She heard the coo of an owl as she descended down the stairwell, her bare fingers trailing across the stone walls as she walked on her tiptoes. Julian had instructed her that she didn’t need to knock, that his door would be unlocked and ready for her arrival. He also instructed that he would give her a new, clean doctor’s uniform, so she could come in her everyday clothes she normally wore. Her long skirt brushed the floor as she shivered in her sleeveless top, finally arriving at the doctor’s office.

When she opened the door, she was surprised to see the trap door already open, her trail decorated with flower petals.

“Jules, what is all of this?” Nijah muttered to herself as she walked down the stairs. As she entered the bedroom, she saw two candles placed on the floor, illuminating the petal path. Her eyes gazed up at the bed, where Julian lay with a grin on his face.

“Oh, my darling,” he smiled, “I’m so glad you are here.” Even the bedspread had petals on it, and…was that a bottle of wine on a tray? “Come, please join me.”

Stunned, Nijah got up on the bed, sitting across from her lover. “Jules, what is all this for?”

“I told you it would be worth it, didn’t I?” Julian answered, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “You deserve it all. Wine, flowers, all the finest things…” He popped open the bottle, pouring a glass for himself. “Want some?”

Nijah wasn’t sure what it was, but something in her stomach told her it wasn’t the best time to try it. “I’ll pass for now, thank you.”

“If you insist.” Julian took a sip of his glass, feeling the warm liquid drip down his throat. Nijah took a moment to look over how handsome he was in the moment. Sure, he looked good all the time, but she never got to see him like this. His classic white shirt was unbuttoned further than normal, so she could see his entire chest and torso, the auburn curls making her want to run her fingers over his skin. His black pants rode a bit lower than usual, showing off the line of hair that ran from his navel right down to his…

“Nijah?” She felt his bare hand on hers, his eyes completely captivated by her.

“Yes, Julian?”

“I want to make things right for you. For us.” He sat his glass down on the tray and moved it to the floor, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. The tips of their noses brushed as he gently squeezed her. “I want to give you the life you wanted for us. I…I want to marry you, Nijah.”

She could feel her cheeks burning in surprise. This is not what she expected tonight to be like at all.

“I want to spend my life with you, give you everything you deserve. I just need time.” His hands squeezed her biceps, his nose brushing against hers. “Once we have the cure to the plague, I can take you out of this place. We can live in Vesuvia, or wherever else you may like. I would love to meet your family. And you can meet my sister.” His hand trailed to the back of her neck, playing with the stands of hair. “We can get married at a church, or by the sea, whatever you want. We can work together and help bring many people back to health. I…I want children with you, if you want them too. It doesn’t matter what we do for the rest of our lives, as long as you’re by my side.”

Nijah could feel the warm tears falling from her eyes as her heart overfilled with love. “Julian…”

“You don’t have to give me an answer yet, bu-”

“Julian, are you crazy? Of course I want that with you!” She leaned in, pressing a wet, salty kiss to his lips. He kissed her back, smiling as his hand slid further through her hair, wanting to feel every single strand brush on his fingers.

He pulled away for a moment, reaching into the pocket of his pants. He revealed a tiny golden ring, plain at sight, but with a deeper meaning only known between the two of them.

“It isn’t much, but I wanted to give you something to remember my promise…”

He took her left hand, sliding the band around her ring finger. It fit like a glove, resting perfectly above her knuckle. Nijah’s eyes sparked as she gazed at the jewelry, a symbol of their eternal love.

“It’s beautiful, Julian. Thank you…”

Julian led into the kiss this time, grabbing the back of Nijah’s shirt and pulling her to his lips quickly. She immediately felt swallowed by his passion, letting it consume every part of her being.

As the kiss escalated further, Nijah felt a cramp hit her at full force, forcing her to pull away. “Agh…I’m sorry Jules, I just…”

He pressed a hand down at her lower stomach, rubbing it with little pressure. “Is…everything alright?” He questioned.

“Yes. I think it’s just having a moment.” She made up on the spot.

“Well, you know you have one of the best doctors in Vesuvia right here with you.” He said pridefully, with a wink. “And I think I know exactly what you need.”

That night, Julian made the sweetest love that Nijah could ever receive, touching her in every spot that made her sigh with pleasure and scream with delight. He made her feel like they were the last two people on Earth, with the way his hands fluttered against her skin and the way his hips moved against hers. Nijah had never known sex could be so romantic, so loving, so intimate in this way. Every kiss made her feel closer to him, every stroke made her feel like she knew him for years. She had no idea where he began and she ended as they tangled the sheets together, only for him to find himself deep inside of her.

As they lay together for the last time for a long time, she allowed him to press his chest into her back, feeling the most vulnerable she ever had with a man. She trusted him, knew he would keep his promise, already longed for the day he would return so he could take her away from this place.

His thumb pressed into her hips as he watched her sleep. He chuckled lightly tom himself, wondering how he never deserved such an amazing woman like herself. It broke his heart to leave her, but he knew he would give her a better life as long as he had time.

In that moment, he swore on his life he would do anything to protect her. Even if it meant sacrificing himself.

 

 

 

When Nijah awoke the next morning, Julian already had all his belongings packed and ready to go. She found the new uniform waiting for her at the foot of the bed. She put it on hastily, hoping that he had not left her yet.

As she walked up the stairs, she twirled the ring on her finger with her thumb. She still couldn’t believe it was still on her hand, let alone that it was a symbol of the promise Julian had made to her. In his office, she saw Julian writing a letter to someone he must have cared about. She didn’t want to startle him, the tranquil scene of the rising sun and a single flame calming to her. But, this would be the last time they would see each other in a while.

“Good morning, Julian.”

He jumped in his chair slightly, then turned around to see her. “Good morning, darling. Slept well?”

“Better than before.” She sat the cot down and took a seat, watching him as he wrote. “Who is that for?”

“It’s…for you.” He admitted, scribbling his signature frantically on the paper. “But you can’t read it until I’m gone, got it?”

“Yes, Dr. Jules.” She teased. 

Julian waited for the ink to dry, then folded it up and place it in Nijah’s breast pocket, patting it for security.

“There. Now I’ll be with you wherever you go…again.” He blushed, his fingers trailing over her left hand and brushing against the gold band.

Nijah was usually able to read every emotion he had on his face, and this morning was no different. Julian’s face was overwhelmed with bittersweet happiness. He was excited about his new adventure, ready to save the city, but his heart was torn with even the idea of leaving her behind.

She initiated the embrace, hugging him tightly and hoping she would never need to let go. Julian followed suit, his warmth enveloping her like a warm blanket on a chilly day. He rocked her back and forth in his arms, his lips pressed against the crown of her head. He inhaled her sweet scent, his favorite smell in the entire world. She exhaled as her head rested against his chest, listening to his heart beat.

“Wait for me, Nijah. I promise it will be worth it.”

She looked up at him, knowing that his words were true.

“I’ll wait a thousand years for you, Julian.”

He leaned in for one last kiss, his lips burning a longing feeling throughout Nijah’s entire body. She didn’t want him to go, she wished that she never had to go another day without seeing him.

But, she knew he was helping the city. He could be saving the world.

“Goodbye, Nijah.” He whispered as he pulled away from her, taking his cloak and tying it around his neck. “I’ll be counting down the moments until I see you again.” He took her hand and kissed it reverently.

“I love you, Jules.”

“I love you too, Nijah.”

And, just as quickly as he came into her life, he was gone.

 

 

 

Nijah went about her normal duties, doing her best to pretend everything was fine. Nobody but Katja even knew that she had feelings for Julian, and her friend has barely scratched the surface of their relationship. But, she stood with confidence, chin up and spirits high, just like he would want her to be.

But, as she brought the cart with Selene’s meal and the medical tools she needed for today’s procedure into room 187, she knew that the patient would be able to see right through her facade. She was good at picking up on these things. Thank goodness she was wearing gloves so she couldn’t see her ring.

“Good morning, doc!” She exclaimed, standing to her feet to welcome her. “Is everything okay?”

Nijah took a glance at her dear friend and was taken aback. This would be her third day with the plague, so it would most likely take her life tonight, but…she was shocked at how terrible Selene looked. Her eye sockets made her look like she was a zombie, she had a bright flush over her cheeks, her body looked as frail as a fingernail. She could barely smile without wincing in pain.

“Please, miss, I suggest that you stay seated today…” Nijah rushed over to her friend’s side, helping her sit in the cot. Selene let her lead her, taking a blanket and wrapping it around her shoulders as she sat.

“How ya feeling today, doc?” She asked.

“I’m fine, miss.” She replied quickly, handing her a hot plate of food. “What I want to know is how you’re feeling.”

“Terrible.” Selene admitted, picking the food up with her fingers and eating it carefully. “I feel like I’m being eaten alive. I’ve never been in any more pain.”

Nodding her head, Nijah added the commentary to her notes. “Well hopefully I can give you some relief today.”

From a box on the cart, she pulled out a small vile, holding a small leech. It was one of Julian’s favorite parasites, for it apparently gave patients the most relief. She had her doubts in the tiny little parasite, but for Selene, she would do just about anything.

“Hey, woah there…” Selene set her plate down next to her. “You’re not gonna put that thing on me, right?”

“Of course I am.” Nijah answered, plucking the tiny creature out of the vile. “Trust me, it’s pretty painless.”

Selene stared at the leech squirming around in Nijah’s hand, narrowing her eyes. Her body language said it all - she didn’t trust like that. Eventually, she sighed, accepting her blood-letting fate.

“Well, it could be worse. Where are you gonna put him?”

“Just on your arm right here…”

Nijah wiped down her upper bicep with an alcohol and water solution, and quickly attached the leech onto her skin. Selene initially shouted from the pain as she felt the teeth dig into her skin. But, after a moment passed, her voice went quiet as she watched it sucking her blood.

“Hey, it actually kinda tickles!”

Feeling slightly more relieved, Nijah watched as the leech grew bigger and bigger, taking more of Selene’s bad blood out of her body. Maybe Julian was on to something…she thought as she watched the scene play in front of her.

 

 

 

That night at dinner, Nijah felt completely miserable. She knew the fate of her dearest friend would be coming soon, Julian had been gone for quite some time, and her cramps and mood swings were not getting any better. The only saving grace was that the chefs made pumpkin bread as a special.

Nijah sat next to Katja, and she immediately knew something was wrong. “Nijah, you’re hiding something from me. What’s wrong?” She placed her book down on the table, giving her full attention to her friend.

“You know how when I lost my first patient, I felt worthless and like I was a bad doctor?”

“Yes…”

“Well now I feel worse because…” Nijah took a deep breath, “my current patient is my best friend from home.”

Katja placed a hand over her heart, feeling it break for her dear friend. “Oh no…does she know it’s you?”

“Of course not.” She tore a piece of the pumpkin bread and placed it in her mouth. It tasted delicious, but it was far from fresh. “If she knew it was me, she would never forgive me for not knowing how to keep her alive.”

“I don’t think it would be like that…” Katja trailed off. “She knows that you tried everything you could, right? Or you at least tried?”

“I did essentially everything we were taught to do,” Nijah recalled. “I even visited her multiple times a day to do all the different treatments we learned. Nothing has helped.”

“Could Dr. Devorak help you?” She looked around the room, confused as to why he hadn’t arrived.

“He’s gone. Off to work on the cure at the palace.”

Katja nodded in understanding, a frown crossing over her face. “How far along is your friend?”

“This is day three. She could pass away at any moment.”

Katja closed her eyes and shook her head. “Nijah…go to her. Even if she doesn’t know it’s you…she needs you now more than ever.”

She’s right. I’ll never forgive myself if I let her die alone.

“All right, then I should get going. See you later tonight…” Nijah trailed off, making her way to the patient’s wing.

Strapping on her mask, she felt her heart racing and a feeling of dread drench her entire body. She expected to lose patients, but she never expected to lose a dear friend.

 

 

 

“Hey, doc…” Nijah heard Selene croak weakly.

“Good evening, miss. How are you holding up?” She could see that the plague has nearly taken Selene away completely. She was lying face up in the cot, the blanket wrapped around her like a baby in a swaddle. She managed to pull an arm out and wave her hand to greet the doctor. Nijah could see that she was all skin and bones, that it was nearly her time.

“I don’t think…” Selene coughed, covering her mouth with her fist. Nijah swore she saw blood fall from her lips, but she wiped it away too fast for her to see. “I’m not going to make it, am I?”

Nijah shook her head, unable to verbalize the truth.

“That’s too bad…” Selene closed her eyes. “I really thought I could start a life with Asra. He’s so sweet and charming, treats me just right. I wanted him to meet Nijah. And we all could have got along with that one guy…what was his name? Hah, I never learned it. But she also met some guy at the masquerade. Very alluring…”

“Sounds like you and Nijah have a great relationship,” she smiled, happy that at least in times like this, Selene wished she was around.

Selene was able to prop herself up on her free arm, grunting on the way up. “Hey, I know this is odd, but y’know how some people have like, last requests before they die?”

“Sure.”

“I know this is weird…but Nijah would always let me lay her head in her lap whenever I was stressed. Do you mind if I…”

Nijah nodded her head. “Not a problem.”

She made her way to the cot, helping Selene sit up so she could settle in just the right spot. Her body felt light as a feather, compared to the womanly figure she once knew so well. Slowly, gently, she laid her head down across her legs, allowing her hair to fan out just the perfect way.

“Thanks. I feel much more at ease now.” Selene smiled up at the plague doctor’s mask, getting used to the feeling of someone lying across her once more.

“No problem.”

“Hey, have you ever had a best friend?”

“I’d like to think I have.”

“Good. And if not…you can always say that I was.” Selene nuzzled into her lap. “Y’know, just in case.”

Oh, I do…Nijah’s heart split in half, holding back the tears she could already feel coming.

“Oh! I need to tell you the story of how Nijah and I met!” Selene said excitedly.

Nijah smiled behind the mask. “Please, tell me…and don’t leave out a single detail.” All the while, she was remembering the story with her, so long ago…

 

She could remember how much she was crying. Some of the other students were bullying her because of her flower obsession. They thought it was stupid and that she needs to focus on the more important subjects they were learning in school. She was seven.

After school let out, she ran off into the forest. She didn’t tell her parents where she was going. She just knew that she had to get away.

She ran as far and fast as she could, hopping over gnarly tree roots and sticks, scaring off the wild animals that lived there with her wails. Not even the crow, which flew high above with its menacing caws, could scare her off. It was almost like she was being led somewhere by magic.

Not long after, her feet stopped in front of a row of bushes. Hidden behind them lay a large field of flowers, filled with beautiful colors as far as the eye could see. Nijah could name them all - carnations, violets, orchids, hyacinths…and she knew all their meanings, too.

She took a step into the flower field, letting the fresh scents be her guide through the wilderness. Here was where she felt safe. Not back in the city of Vesuvia. Not in her schools. Not even the front step of her home. As she meandered through the floral maze, she began singing a song that her mother had taught her a few years back”

“Flower, grow and grow,

“Bloom when the sun shines,

“And when the rains come,

“Still you will shine your light…”

As Nijah walked through the field, she paused. She heard someone else’s voice echoing with hers. Curious about the sound, she continued her song…

“Bloom to show us all,

“That you are divine,

“When the sun goes down,

“Show me what once was mine…”

In the middle of the flowers, she saw another girl, about her age, singing along with her. She had recognized her from school. She was a loner, much like Nijah seemed to be. The girl turned around as she walked over to her, dark curls blowing in the breeze.

“Oh!” She exclaimed. “Was that you singing?”

Nijah nodded, a little shy to be meeting her so suddenly.

“Your voice is so pretty! Let’s be friends!” she held her hand out to shake on their new acquaintanceship.

Nijah accepted, surprised at how enthusiastic this new person was. Just how excited was she to have a new friend, especially her of all people?

“My name is Selene. What’s yours?”

“N…ni…nijah.” She stuttered anxiously.

“Nice to meet you! I can tell that we’re going to be friends forever.” Selene pulled Nijah into a tight hug, nearly squeezing her to death. Nijah wasn’t used to this form of affection, but she knew something that could be just as good…

Nijah peeked over Selene’s shoulder and saw just what she needed. As her new friend put her down, Nijah trotted over to the edge of a rosebush. Trying her best to avoid the pricklies, she managed to pull out a single yellow rose. She presented it to her new friend with a cautious smile.

“For friendship.”

Selene gushed, a light blush dusting over her face. “For me? Thank you!” She carefully took the flower from Nijah’s fingers, smelling the lovely aroma.

Nijah felt a wave of relief. Having a friend felt good.

“This is the nicest thing anyone has ever given me. I promise.” Selene grabbed Nijah by the hand. “Come on, let’s go back home. I want you to meet my momma!”

 

“…and from that day forward, we were inseparable. We would go to that field every year to celebrate another year as friends. It seems like we’ll be missing this year, though…”

Nijah’s eyes welled with tears from her memories. They were so precious to her, and she never thought she would be looking back on them like this. So tragic, to have her friend dying in her arms this way.

“I…I think you two will find each other again. In another life.” Nijah rambled.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, the world works in mysterious ways.”

For a moment, they were silent. Nijah tried her best to dry her eyes, batting them quickly so her tears would go back to where they came from. Selene seemed to be thinking deeply about something, letting her face frown as she concentrated.

“Doc, I have to thank you. For trying to save me. You…you made me feel like I was more than a patient.”

Nijah refused to say anything. She would lose herself if she did.

“I never imagined dying this way. I imagined living my life, with my friends and a lover, having a family of my own…but hey, maybe in another life, right?”

“Maybe so.”

“I wish you well doctor. I hope that maybe, we can meet again.” Selene reached up to caress the doctor’s mask tenderly, like she was saying goodbye. “Th…thank you…”

And, in that moment, Selene took her last breath.

Nijah closed her eyes with her fingers and rested her hand back on her body. She took her mask off, letting it fall to the ground as she could no longer hold back the tears, holding Selene’s body close to her own.

“Goodbye, my friend…”

She wasn’t sure how long she stayed in the room where she died. All she knew was that she cried until her body was completely dry, unable to feel anything anymore.

 

 

 

The next morning, Nijah still felt completely empty. But she didn’t know how else she could feel. She had lost one of the people that meant the world to her.

Selene had requested that after her body was cremated, that Doctor 187 would bury her by the sea, so she could find herself with Nijah someday. For the sake of her deceased friend, Nijah rolled out of bed, fiddling with the ring to help her not feel so depressed. Julian would want me to do this, she thought as she stretched her body out from her sleepless night.

As she made her way to the bathrooms, she kept on getting frightened stares from the other doctors. They backed away from her, had her name on their lips, even ran out of her way as she trudged forward. Even Katja looked at her in fear. But she didn’t care. They don’t know what she’s going through. 

She assumed that she looked rough because she didn’t sleep a wink. A cruel way to go about it, she thought as she opened the door to the bathroom.

Nijah took a bucket and threw some cold water over her body to wake herself up. The freezing temperature jolted her body, feeling her senses go into overdrive.

As she patted her body dry with a towel, she walked over to the mirror instinctively to fix her hair. But when she saw her reflection, she dropped her towel in horror.

The whites of her eyes had turned bright red.

Chapter Text

The first day was not as bad as she anticipated.

Sure, her body ached a little bit, but without noticing the red sclera, she would have never known she was sick.

She was quarantined right away, in the same room she has been in ever since she started treating other patients. Funny how the tables have turned, she thought as Dr. Satrinava came in to run tests on her. Her thumb rubbed against the ring that sat on her finger, twirling the band round and round in anticipation.

“You too, Nijah?”

“Seems so.”

The doctor tisked and shook their head, looking over their notes. “So it says that you saw it this morning right after you woke up. Was there something you may have done to cause the spread of the plague?”

“I took off my mask right after my last patient died.”

“Ah, I see.” Satrinava answered, scribbling frantically in their notes. Nijah knew they were silently judging her, for that was something they had taught all the apprentices not to do a long time ago. “It spreads much quicker than we anticipated…” Muttering a few key notes to themselves, they folded the paper and placed it in their pocket.

The doctor began a series of tests and treatments - some that were quick and practically painless, and some that felt horrible and lasted all day. She was forced to lather herself in animal bile, dance until her feet nearly bled, drink an herbal mixture that tasted nothing like she had imagined, and a few other things that truly made her feel even worse than before.

“Dr. Satrinava…do you think that all of this will work?” Nijah asked as she inhaled the scent of a dead rat through her nostrils. She silently applauded herself from not gagging.

“It wouldn’t hurt to try…” They said before packing up their medicinal cart. “I will be coming back with your dinner soon. Thank you for being cooperative with me today.”

“No problem…as long as the cure is found soon.”

“By the way,” they added, “as you were changing into your patient’s gown, I noticed that there was a document left in here for you.” They handed you a piece of paper, folded ever so perfectly. She knew exactly what this was.

As Dr. Satrinava exited the room, she curled up in the corner of her cot, opening the delicate piece of paper slowly. The way the ink traveled across the paper made her feel a sense of relief, and she swore his scent was embedded in the paper itself. It was as if she was in his arms all over again as her fingers trailed over every single word he had written for her eyes only.

 

My darling Nijah,

It pains me so much to leave your side. I would even be upset if I was only gone for a day. However, I do not know how long I will be away from you, which breaks my heart the most.

If you are reading this, it means that I am already at the palace in Vesuvia. Funny, isn’t it, that the castle was what brought us together and now it is tearing us apart? It’s a bittersweet irony that I cannot stop thinking about.

But although I cannot be with you now, I want you to know that my heart only longs for you. You’re the one I want to come home to every night, to wake up next to every morning, to spend every waking moment of every day. I can’t stop thinking about it, a life with you is the only thing I want.

One might think how I fell for you so quickly. Call it fate, call it destiny…when I first saw you in the ballroom, I knew I had found the one. You’ve been so kind, so sweet, so caring and loving to a man who doesn’t deserve anything at all…when I’m with you, Nijah, I’m home.

I promise I will marry you. I have another ring picked out so I may properly propose to you. We can take our time or we can rush things…whatever you want. I’m going to give you the life you’ve always wanted.

Wait for me. Please.

I love you,

Dr. Julian Devorak

 

Nijah held the paper close to her heart and clutched her swollen stomach with the other hand, the tears overflowing from her eyes. She realized she could never give him the future that he deserved.

And that made her feel worse than the plague ever could.




By the second day, her spirits were already low.

When she fell asleep the night before, she felt nothing but emptiness. She missed having Julian by her side, let alone anyone around her, and she tossed and turned in the cot until she finally drifted off to sleep. However, her mind was only filled with nightmares, waking her up after what felt like a few moments of sleep. She could feel the eye bags bulging as she woke up, not even able to be cured by a fresh breeze.

She knew that her body was aching and trembling, so much that even Dr. Satrinava was concerned. They ceased to do too many treatments that day for her sake, but still made their best attempt to give her some relief. But even the leeches weren’t enough.

“Does it hurt?”

“Not really.” Nijah eyes the parasite sucking her blood out of her. This probably isn’t good for the baby, isn’t it? “It just makes me feel a little more…drained.”

The doctor chuckled under her breath, eyes twinkling a bit as she carefully peeled off the creature. “Even at your worst, you’re still trying your best. I respect that, Nijah.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

They placed the leech back in it’s jar and prepared to leave until tomorrow. “I will have someone else bring your dinner momentarily. I think it might make you feel better than the leeches.”

As if right on cue, there was a knock on the door to the room. The door creaked as another plague mask with a plate of warm food came into view.

“Hello?”

Nijah knew that voice right away, her entire face lighting up. “Katja!” She sprung up out of her seat a little too quickly, making her knees wobble as she fell right back into her spot.

Katja rushed over to her side. “Hey, don’t hurt yourself!” She laughed as she helped Nijah get settled in. She placed a soft blanket over her legs and placed the plate in her lap.

Dr. Satrinava nodded at the two friends, a smile crossing over their features. “Then I will leave you to it, Doctor 193.” And with one last wave, she was gone for the evening.

“Nijah, Nijah…what am I going to do with you?” Katja crossed her arms over her chest. “How in all the seven hells did you catch the plague?”

“I’m not the smartest, you see,” Nijah said with a mouth full of potatoes, “and I took off my mask after my last patient died.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t want to fill it with my tears.”

“Oh, that’s right…” Katja remembered their conversation previously in the dining hall, and how Nijah’s best friend from home had to die under her care. “I guess that is valid. Didn’t think the plague would spread so quickly, huh?”

“Definitely not.” Nijah moved on to the meat, chewing it roughly. It was more tender than she was used to.

“Have you heard from Dr. Devorak since you left?” Katja wiggled her eyebrows and gave her a smug grin.

“No, but…” Nijah sighed. “He wrote me a letter that I read yesterday. And he wanted me to stay here until he came back from Vesuvia, but it seems like that will be impossible now.”

Katja’s eyebrows knit sadly, her gloved hand rubbing against Nijah’s leg. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“He wants to marry me, Katja.” She confessed, holding out her ring finger for her friend to see. “He wants to spend the rest of his life with me. And I can’t even give him that.”

Katja’s gaze trailed over to the golden band, shining in the dim light of the room. “It’s beautiful, Nijah…”

“Want to know the worst part?” She choked up, her right hand pressing her stomach. “I’m…I’m pregnant, Katja.” She squeezed her eyes shut, the vulnerability of revealing such a huge secret frightening her.

Katja’s jaw nearly came unhinged from her skull. “Nijah…when were you going to tell me?” She shuffled closer to her friend, holding her ear next to her friend’s stomach. “How far along are you?”

“I have no idea. Jul-I mean, Dr. Devorak and I have…done it many times.”

Her friend’s face twisted in confusion. “Wait a minute. Just howmany times are we talking about here?”

“Well…”

And so Nijah told her the whole story, how she met Dr. Devorak as a stranger at the masquerade, how he quite figuratively (and literally) swept her off her feet. From the enchanting first night they spent together to the time he cornered her in his office, telling her to forget that there was anything even between them. How Luka had tried to kill her if she didn’t let him have her body for the night, and how Dr. Devorak saved her life. She didn’t leave out any details, any moments, any words that he may have said. She wanted Katja to know everything.

A huge weight lifted off her shoulders as she finished the story. “And then he had to leave. Just like that. And he still doesn’t know…”

“Nijah…” Katja shook her head and let her gaze cross across the floor.

“And there’s no way he’ll ever know. He’ll never be back in time…to give me the cure…”

Nijah’s eyes overflowed with tears once more, a sensation she has become quite familiar with. She was hopeless by this point. She would never see Dr. Devorak again. She would never tell him that she had been carrying his child for months. She would never get to marry him. She would never spend the rest of her life with him.

In fact, she would be lucky if she even got to take a step outside of the walls of her cell, holding her back as if she was a prisoner. Nothing could save her from this terrible fate.

Katja knew her words couldn’t help her friend this time. As Nijah cried, she held her friend close to her chest, at least trying to give her one last bit of comfort before she was gone forever.





The third day was the worst of them all.

Nijah could barely feel anything but fire burning through her body. It hurt to move, to blink, hell, it even hurt to breathe. The ring and the rest of the clothes made it feel like something was holding her underwater, not giving her any room to catch her breath. Every time she coughed, it was like she was being stabbed in her chest. The blood splatters on the floor and on her hand made it more believable, as well.

She curled up on her side in the cot, not wanting to move a muscle any longer. She was ready to leave this world.

Katja came and saw her one more time. She was surprised to see her dear friend in such a terrible state. It looked like she hadn’t eaten in days, her body was nearly skin and bones, and she looked much paler than normal. The red dots on the ground were what worried her the most

“Wh…what happened here?” She asked with a worried tone, getting down on her knees to examine the spots left all over her side of the room. “You didn’t try to…” she continued, looking at her friend’s wrists.

As if on cue, another cough racked Nijah’s body, blood spurting out of her mouth and landing right at Katja’s feet. She fell deeper into the cot, feeling defeated. She was essentially hopeless.

“Nijah…” Katja muttered, a gloved finger rubbing through the droplets, “This…we’ve never seen something like this in a patient before. Have you?”

Nijah shook her head to the best of her ability. She thought she saw Selene cough up blood, but she couldn’t remember in her state.

“This…this is the biggest breakthrough we’ve made yet!” Katja jumped up, immediately jotting down as many notes as she could. “We can take samples of your blood and run tests on them. Valdemar and Satrinava could send the data results to Dr. Devorak and it could get him closer to the cure for…for…”

Her eyes fell on her dying friend. She had never seen someone she cared for looking so malnourished, so horribly fucked over in this way. A wave of sadness crashed over her mind as she came to sit next to her on the cot. 

“Ah, Nijah…I have a lot to thank you for. Not just for this. But I think you’ve made me better.” Katja took her clean gloved hand and patted her on the back. Nijah winced a bit, taking a gasp of air (that, of course, made her feel much worse).

“Ah, probably not the best thing to do right now.” Katja placed her hand in her lap, interlacing it with her other fingers. “…I mean it, though. Your kindness to me has helped me not be so bitter. Involving me in your life has made me feel like a part of something bigger than myself. I will cherish this friendship forever and ever. I’ll…” she sniffed, holding back tears. “…I’ll never forget you, Nijah.”

As she stood to leave, she opened her coat pocket and pulled out an iris. “I saw this while I was walking the grounds last night…and I think you would want it more than me.”  She placed the flower in front of Nijah’s hands, giving her friend one last smile before she left her forever.

“Goodbye, Nijah. Sweet dreams.”

As she shut the door behind her, Nijah decided to follow her orders, closing her eyes as her fingers gripped the frail flower stem, hoping her dreams would be better than reality.

 

 

I’ve been in this place before, she thought.

It was the same flower field from her first time meeting Selene. The same one she saw when she spent her first night with Julian. This was her favorite place. This time, there was no cloudy red skies or thunderstorms. The flowers bloomed gracefully, the sweet fragrances flowing from their buds, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The only thing she could see was life.

And she could feel the life inside of her, Julian’s child. She looked down and saw that her belly had swollen to twice its size underneath her cropped shirt and long pink skirt. She held it tenderly, rubbing it and wondering what her baby would look like when it was finally born. Had she and Julian talked about baby names yet? She kept on imagining that she would name him Azrael, but only time would tell who they will become.

Suddenly, she heard a voice come from behind her. She was surprised to see that Selene had reincarnated herself, wearing a flowing white dress, much different than her usual attire.

“Nijah! You’re here!” She shouted, hopping through the flowers to embrace her friend. She took great care to hold the baby bump, too. For Selene, the child would be like family to her.

As Nijah squeezed her friend around the shoulders, she felt someone else’s presence behind her. “Good to see you’re okay, hun.” That voice had to be Katja, she thought as her own arms held them all together, as if they were three peas inside of a pod. Their feminine scents overwhelmed Nijah’s nose to the point where she was almost dizzy.

“It’s so good to have you all here.” Nijah smiled as her friends released her, joining hands with each of them. These women meant so much to her, and she would be forever thankful for their roles in their lives. She just hoped they knew that.

Before long, a tall figure made their way through the flower beds. Nijah, of course, knew who they were right away.

“Dr. Jules!” She shouted, joined by the giggles of the women right beside her.

As he came even closer, she could see the happiness on his face. Finally, she thought, we can have the life we have wanted for so long. He leaned in and kissed her forehead, his hands cupping her face so perfectly.

“Ah, darling. You look as beautiful as ever.” He crooned, his hands moving down to the bump in her stomach. “And Odine is looking nearly as good as her mother.”

Nijah rolled her eyes. “How are you so sure it will be a girl?”

“I’m a doctor, my dear. I know these things.”

Her knees felt weak as he flashed his signature grin. She couldn’t resist it. He had a hold on her that she could never break free from, and she was just fine with that.

He turned around on his heel, looking back at her over his shoulder.  “Are you ready for your next journey to begin?”

Without hesitation, she answered, “Yes.” And together, they all moved forward through the flowers, off into the setting sun.

And in that moment, her hurting soul finally left the world.




Julian was very busy at the palace, doing his best to find a cure. It turned out that Count Lucio had contracted it himself, although unlike the rest of the city, he had managed to have it for weeks and not die. It was a medical mystery to the doctor, but a pain in the ass for his coworker.

“Sometimes, I wish he would just die already.” Asra muttered under his breath as his fingers brushed against the book spines on the shelves in the library. 

Julian rolled his eyes, diving back into his work. For some reason, the magician rubbed him the wrong way. It was something about his cat-like smile making him think he was a suspicious person. His flat-out disdain for the Count was nothing but offensive to him, let alone the entire city. And the way his white hair bounced as he walked…Julian wished he could tame his curls to not have a mind on their own. He was completely jealous.

But, his mind trailed back to the woman who held his affections. He thought of her blonde, flowing hair, the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled, the freckles dotting her cheeks and shoulders that he secretly loved, reminding him of the stars in the sky. He thought of her voice saying his name, her laugh directed at something witty he may have said or that he may have ran into a door frame. He thought of her fingers, touching him delicately across his face, making him feel at peace once again…

A knock on the door jolted Julian’s thoughts. A servant entered the room, a scroll rolled up in his hand.

“Dr. Devorak. This was sent for you.”

“For…me?” He asked, his cheeks feeling warm. He’s never received any sort of letters before, even when he was just beginning his practice.

He thanked the servant and unrolled it right where he stood. But, as he began to read it, he slowly sunk back into his chair, similar to his smile turning into a frown.

 

Dear Dr. Devorak,

I hope this letter finds you well. Unfortunately, I am writing this letter to bring you terrible news. Nijah has died of the plague.

She contacted it while taking care of her best friend, Selene, who passed after you left for the palace. Nijah may not have told you…she tended to keep her burdens to herself, didn’t she? Anyways, she caught it quickly after making a fatal mistake after her friend died. Although her mistake was tragic, her symptoms have given us further research to test and send to you in hopes that it will help you find the cure.

She is in a much better place now, Dr. Devorak. She spoke of you so highly, and she is so proud of your accomplishments. She loved you so much. Her final wish was to be buried with the ring you gifted her.

I hope that you continue to work hard so we can find a cure to the plague. We will be sending more research we have found once we have finished our tests. We are all looking forward to your discoveries, Dr. Devorak.

From,

Dr. 193, Katja Kuznetsov

 

Julian read the letter over and over again. He wished it wasn’t true, it couldn’t be true. He had been at the palace for less than a week…

And he already lost the one thing that would make this task seem worth it.

Feeling defeated, he slumped over his desk, crumpling the letter in his hands. He felt the tears soaking into the sleeves around his forearms as his shoulders quivered from his emotions. He didn’t care if his sobs were audible or not. He didn’t care what Asra or Count Lucio or anyone thought of him.

His heart had broken completely. The love of his life was gone, because he couldn’t find the cure quickly enough. He had lost the woman who had given his life meaning. And there was no way to get her back.

Unless…

A candle flame went off in his mind. His lifted his head up to face the other man in the room, eyes and face red from his tears. “Asra.” He shouted desperately.

“Dr. De…Julian, are you okay?” Asra arrived to his side, placing a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“You are a magician, are you not?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I…” Julian hesitated, his voice trembling. “…I just lost someone very near and dear to me. Is there…a way to bring them back?” His vision was filled with sadness, but Asra could see a small glimmer of hope deep in the doctor’s grey eyes.

“Hmm,” Asra contemplated. “There is one way I know how. But it will take a lot of work on my end.” The magician’s hand trailed from Julian’s shoulder to his cheek bones. “What would be in it for me?”

“Oh, please! I’ll do anything you wish. Just please…save her.” Julian got down on his knees, folding his hands together and shaking them pleadingly. He was a man that wasn’t afraid to beg. Especially for the one thing he truly needed in this world.

Asra chuckled under his breath, his hand moving up to the auburn hair and pulling against it roughly, jerking the doctor’s head back. He got down on his knees, pressing a searing kiss right underneath his jawline. Julian squiremed, his face flushing. This felt so wrong, but as Asra’s teeth nipped his skin, he moaned rather loudly. It was definitely feeling so right.

The magician’s mouth drew away, curled in his signature smile. “Meet me at my shop after sunset. There are a few things we need to discuss first.”

Julian’s fingers ghosted over the mark Asra left on his skin. Did that just happen? He thought as he felt the magician’s fingers untangle from his hair. His mind was in a daze. Never before has anyone touched him in such a way. His eyes glazed over as he watched the magician stand to his feet and begin walking out the library. He shook his head, bringing him back to his senses.

“D-do you…want me to walk you home?”



Three years later…

 

 

“Wow. What a strange night.” Nijah mutters to herself as she looked out into the dark streets of Vesuvia.

First, her magical master Asra has suddenly left on a journey to another unknown world, one that he was keeping a secret from her. These trips were not unusual to her, but the fact that he was keeping it so secretive made her more suspicious than usual. She knew he was hiding something from her, but what could it be?

Then, the Countess has visited not long after he left, then requested that she move into the castle to assist with some sort of grand plan after she had read her tarot cards. She didn’t mind the countess too much, but knew that Asra would not be happy if she were to up and leave the shop for such a long time. Then again, she was the widow of the wicked Count Lucio, so she may have some evil scheme up her sleeve as well. She wasn’t sure if she could trust her.

What could happen next? She thought as she released the door, her attention turned back into the shop. It had been her home for so long. She didn’t remember how she got it, all she knew was that it was her and Asra’s home. It felt strange to her, though. She never thought she would own a magic store, let alone learn any magic from Asra. The past few years had really been an experience for her, and she felt like in a past life, she would have a calling doing something else.

Oh, dear, she thought. With all this trouble, I completely forgot to feed Gris. I must go bring her the cabbage I promised her. The thought of her manatee familiar all alone made her heart wrench. She started to make her way towards the kitchen to make her animal’s favorite snack.

Then, as the candle in her shop blew out, she froze.

The door had taken much longer for it to shut than normal.

“Strange hours for a shop to keep.”

What the…

She turns her head around, trying to see where the sound is coming from in the dark, only the light of the stars guiding her.

“…Behind you.”

Sure enough, when she turns, she sees a tall, dark figure looming against the door. He continues to speak, his voice muffled by his plague mask:

“Now, sources say that this is the witch’s lair…so who might you be?”

Nijah feels her heart racing in her chest as the masked figure comes closer and closer. What does this doctor want? She furrows her brows, concentrating on conjuring her magical powers. She twirls her fingers as she mutters a spell, a ball of water forming between her hands. She intended it to hit him right in the chest, a defense spell Asra had taught her a long time ago.

“Oh?” He laughs as he grabs her wrist with his gloves, the water between her fingers dissipating into thin air. He has her body trapped against the wall and his towering frame.

Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

What the hell is she supposed to do now?

“He’s been teaching you all his tricks? Unfortunately for you, I’ve seen them all befo-”

Reaching behind her, fingers grazing along the windowsill, she grabbed a glass bottle and smashed it on his forehead.

“Ack!”

Knocked loose by the blow, the stranger’s mask clatters to the floor. He’s bent over on the stones by her feet, trying to regain his composure. Nijah points the what’s left of the broken bottle in his direction, waiting for the moment she needed to strike again.

Nijah didn’t realize until it was too late that the bottle had been full, the water soaking his hair and the single globe amaranth lying on the floor around him. Bracing herself for the worse, she tightened her grip on the bottle as he slowly brought his head back up

Her racing heart stops cold when he lifts his bloodied gaze to hers, nearly dropping what’s left of the bottle.

“You do have guts.” He stated, his eyebrows furrowed.

She knew this man once. Everyone did. But she felt like she knew him a bit better than others might. She couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but she assumed she must have known him a long time ago, before her memories were lost. Maybe they were friends? Curly auburn hair, strong nose, pale skin, and those eyes…even though one of them was covered in an eyepatch, she still knew.

The band she felt on her ring finger felt much heavier than it normally did.

“Do…Doctor Jules?”

He gets to his feet once again, brushing the glass off of his coat.

“Haven’t heard that name in years…Nijah.”