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The Blood of Sinners

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Prologue

        It was a quiet winter morning. While most of the people of Vesuvia were still tucked into their beds, the shopkeepers of the heart district were beginning to stir. There was always plenty of work to be done, and it was best to get it done early.

        In a well-traversed alley, one such shopkeep rolled out of bed. He was a young man; made to look even younger by his slim build. His fluffy white-hair stuck up every which-way. He yawned and rubbed the salt from his eyes. They were bright violet.

        He thumped the bed next to him, finding his new partner was gone. She was often missing in the mornings. Sometimes he’d find her downstairs, sometimes she would disappear for a week. She didn’t always share where she went, and she never left notes. He suspected she couldn't read.

        He rolled out of bed and padded downstairs, not bothering to put any proper clothes on. It was cold, but he was feeling lazy.

        Asra the Magician had been in Vesuvia as long as he could remember. As soon as he was old enough to make some money, he would leave town to wander the continent. He almost always traveled north, where it was warm and the people were friendly. It was on his first trip to the cold south that he met Eleanor.

        Eleanor hadn’t been to Vesuvia since she was a little girl, despite that her aunt had passed away. Eleanor, as her only living relative, had inherited the place. She’d been planning to leave the old shop to the city, but she felt meeting Asra was a sign. That was a little over a year ago.

        Asra and Eleanor fit together as naturally as the ocean fits the shore. One moment they were strangers who happened to be going the same way, and in the next they were deeply, deeply obsessed with each other. There had been no in between.

        Asra stepped into the kitchen, and there she was. Eleanor was strong, broad-hipped and broad-shouldered. Her golden hair was long and wild. She was a few years older and few millimeters taller than the magician.

        There was a spread of papers on the kitchen table; maps and drawings. The bones that Eleanor divined with, all of similar size from various animals, were tossed across the counter. Eleanor was examining the tarot cards Asra left sitting out. She prodded them with one finger, like she was worried they would bite.

        “It’s too early for fortune telling,” Asra said with a yawn.

        As he covered his mouth, he bumped into a chair and stumbled. Eleanor flew to his side and caught his arm.

        “Careful love,” she said, placing a steady hand on his back. She had a deep, soothing voice. Her accent had a mushy quality, distinctive of those from the rainy southwest.

        “What are you up to?” he asked as he wrapped his arm around her waist. He studied her spread. The maps depicted the great south, as well as some places he didn’t recognize.

        “Nothing important,” she said. She pressed a hello kiss to his cheek.

        Asra shivered. Eleanor pressed more of her warm body to his and lit the fireplace with a blink. The cold never bothered Eleanor, which one might not expect from someone with such a talent for fire magic.

        Eleanor once tried to teach Asra, but he wasn’t the best at it. She’d also taught him healing magic, which he quickly surpassed her in. Eleanor complained of it being too “wet” for her liking. It made no sense and yet perfect sense to Asra.

        “Want me to read the cards for you?” he asked.

        Eleanor looked at the cards. Her eyes were dark grey-blue, framed with long, but light-colored lashes. She was tan from the time she spent outside, but still much lighter than Asra.

        “I don’t trust those things,” Eleanor said.

        Her wary tone gave Asra pause, but he dismissed it with a laugh.

        “Lots of people don’t,” he said. “What do the bones tell you?”

        Eleanor eased away, standing over the bones on the table. Some were bare, others were carved with runes.

        “They’re warning me,” Eleanor said, touching each piece one at a time. “My past coming back to haunt me. Stagnation. Confusion of the heart. Nothing will change or improve if I…”

        “If you what?” Asra pressed.

        Eleanor touched the largest bone in the mix; perhaps a toe or tailbone from something large. There was a faraway look in her eye.

        “You don’t have to tell me,” Asra said.

        “It’s true whether or not I tell you,” Eleanor replied. Her face was blank of any feeling.

        She was stoic, but Asra was beginning to understand the little signals she gave when she was sad. The more unreadable she seemed, the sadder she was. He didn’t want to know whatever dark truths were making her so miserable, but he did want to cheer her up.

        “Those things are unreliable,” Asra said. “You can never take what they say too seriously.”

        Eleanor lowered her hand to her side. “You’re right. They’re basically toys.”

        She gathered the bones into their wooden box, latched it shut, and put it on the highest shelf. She pushed it all the way back, behind a wooden statuette of a bull that Asra had carved.

        “You know, there’s a big parade tomorrow,” Asra said. “Lot’s of food and drink.”

        “Sounds fun,” Eleanor replied, slowly warming up. She stood beside Asra and they each tossed and arm around the other. It was like putting on a security blanket.

        “I hate the Count more than anyone,” Asra said, “but he knows how to throw a party.”

        It pained Asra to admit it. Eleanor knew why; Asra’s parents had mysteriously disappeared after designing the Count’s famous alchemical arm. It was beautiful; truly a wonder of magic. It was Asra’s understanding that the Count had them killed so they couldn’t share the design.

        “Maybe afterwards we can visit Muriel,” he went on, “bring him some lunch.”

        Muriel had known Asra longer than anyone, since they were orphans sleeping beneath the city docks. A few years ago, Muriel had started working for Lucio as the heel character in the colosseum. The man certainly had the right look for it.

        Muriel was too good at the job for his own sake. He was undefeated, slaughtering war prisoners and beloved heroes alike. The entire city hated him. Asra could only tempt him to go out at night, and never to a place frequented by the townspeople. They spent a lot of time stargazing in the fields outside the city.

        Eleanor and Muriel had only met once. They were both quiet the entire time, wary of anyone who looked so menacing. He was Asra’s best friend, and Eleanor was his partner. He desperately wanted them to get along. The cards had told him they would both benefit, if only they became friends.

        “You said it was tomorrow?” asked Eleanor.

        Asra nodded. He reached around to tuck some hair behind her ear.

        “I can’t. I’m leaving in the morning.”

        “Oh,” Asra said. “You only just got back.”

        “I know, but it can’t be helped.”

        Asra didn’t ask where. He never did.

        “I’ll bring back a gift,” Eleanor said. “But listen, I need your help with something.”

        Asra was surprised. She didn’t ask for help very often.

        “Anything,” he said.

        Eleanor ran her fingers through her own hair, tearing a gentle curl into a mess of frizzy waves.

        “I need you to help me cut my hair,” she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter One: New Pains, New Joys

Five Years Later

        It was late summer in Vesuvia. The days were finally beginning to cool. On mornings like this, when the world was at its quietest, Muriel would open the windows of his tower. He’d leave them open until the smells of the palace kitchen reached his room, then he would close up and go back to sleep.

        The gentle giant sat beside the window with his knitting. The dawn breeze tousled his long, dark hair. Beyond the palace gardens, beyond the wall, was the forest. Muriel often reminisced about his hut in the forest, wishing he could go back. Alas, he was bound to the Count’s service and he was only allowed to leave the palace with permission. He didn’t want to leave the palace anyways- people would stare when he went by.

        No matter how he hunched or covered himself, he caught everyone’s eyes. The worst was when people recognized him from his role in the Colosseum. He played the villain in most of the Count’s fanciful shows. He acted as executioner sometimes. That role had earned him more than a few enemies among the people of Vesuvia. He knew that he struck fear into the hearts of others. That was fine. He didn’t like people anyways.

        The sky began turning pink. Muriel was about to shut his window when there was a knock at the door. He wondered if it was Asra or a messenger from the Count. Asra was Muriel’s dearest and only friend. They'd been together ever since they were both lonesome orphans living on the streets. The knocker couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

        But it was someone else. When he opened his door, he laid eyes on a statuesque woman. She was wearing a gray cloak over sturdy, black clothes, with the hood drawn over her golden hair. She held a staff made of gnarled wood, topped with a giant, unfinished fire opal. She lowered her hood, and he saw loss in her stormy eyes.

        “He took the ship,” Muriel inferred.

        “He did,” the stranger replied. Her voice was deep for a woman, but still melodic.

        Muriel stood aside, and the woman entered.

        She began untying her cloak, showing the sleeveless shirt underneath. She was tall and heavy for a woman. Muriel still dwarfed her, of course. His bicep was about as big as her head.

        “I know you don’t like visitors,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure where else to go.”

        “Not home?” Muriel asked.

        She shook her head. “It still…” she hesitated, looking up at the giant.

        “You can tell me,” he said.

        “I can’t go home without him yet,” she went on. “Are you sure I’m not bothering you?”

        “I’d tell you if you were.”

        “You would, wouldn’t you?” she muttered.

        They were quiet for a moment. Muriel could tell she was very distressed, but trying to keep it in. She tapped her foot and fiddled with her neck-length hair. It was almost disturbing to see her in such a way; she was normally quite stoic.

        Eleanor had been helping Muriel train for the past few weeks. She used to be the crown jewel of the Count’s crew of mercenaries, so she was a skilled fighter. Apparently she and Count Lucio were lovers during that time, but that was years ago. Eleanor and Asra loved each other dearly, sometimes too much. Muriel was often the third wheel.

        “Eleanor,” Muriel began.

        “Muriel,” she replied.

        “Will you be okay?”

        She looked at the floor and nodded. Her eyes were glassy with tears, but she did not cry. “I knew it was coming,” she said. “Did he tell you about me?”

        “He did, but I already noticed,” Muriel replied. Eleanor had been with Asra for six years. She was a little older than Muriel when they first met, but now she was younger.

        “Did he tell you why?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “Good,” Eleanor said. “I didn’t tell him much anyways.”

        “You kept a lot of secrets,” Muriel said, blunt.

        Eleanor looked up at him, eyes wide with surprise. “I did,” she said slowly. “We both did.”

        “He deserved to know the kind of person you are.”

        “You mean, a person like you?” She raised one brow- the one with a scar through it- and snorted. “There’s a difference between you and me. You do bad things because someone makes you. Nobody made me.”

        “He should have known.”

        “He knew everything he needed to know,” Eleanor snapped. “What good would it have done? I’m not that person anymore.”

        “What about you being ageless?”

        “I... didn’t think it would go on like it did.” Her voice was soft again. “I should have told him. I took so much time from him. I was selfish.”

        “You both were.”

        Eleanor sat on the floor in front of the window, resting her arms across bent knees. “He was the best thing I ever had. He made me want to be better.”

        “You didn’t deserve him.”

        All the tears were gone from her piercing eyes. Her gaze was unforgiving. “And you did?”

        “No,” he said.

        "Well, now he's gone," said Eleanor. "He left both of us."

        Muriel looked at the ground. Asra didn't even tell him goodbye.

        She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, resting it against the wall. Muriel hesitated for a moment, then sat on the wall beside her. Eleanor was intimidating to most, but not so much to Muriel. He was well aware that she could be monstrous, but he still admired her.

        He looked at the tattoos on her bare arms, recognizing some as sealing spells. Many were almost completely faded; exhausted from use. “Asra told me you specialize in protections and barriers,” Eleanor said, noticing his observation.

        Muriel nodded.

        She held out her arms and turned them, showing runes and symbols from many cultures. “Some of these help me. This one helps me see at night. This one makes me harder to track.”

        “Most of them are barriers,” he said. The seals looked off to him, like they were flipped the wrong way. They were comparable to some of the more ancient runes he knew. Such old magic used a lot of energy, often with nasty side effects.

        “Yeah,” she replied. “Those ones need a special ink. Asra used to make it for me, but now that he’s gone I’ll have to find some other way to get it.”

        “Must be complicated.”

        “It is,” she said, then nothing else. Muriel wouldn’t pressure her to tell him.

        They were both quiet. Eleanor closed her eyes again. She took long, deliberate breaths. She and Muriel were little more than acquaintances. He still trusted her deeply, second only to Asra. He knew that Eleanor would never hurt someone she loved, and Muriel fell under Asra’s umbrella.

        Beyond that, Eleanor didn’t fear Muriel like everyone else did. It was probably only because she could take him in a fight, but that didn't matter. He didn’t have to make himself smaller for the sake of her comfort.

        “Muriel,” she piped up, without opening her eyes. “If you tell me a secret, I’ll tell you one.”

        He was more interested than he wanted to admit. “What kind of secret?”

        “Something I could never tell Asra.”

        “Tell me.”

        She opened her eyes and cast a wry smile at him. “You first.”

        He thought for a moment. “The things that Lucio makes me do give me nightmares.”

        “I have those too.”

        “Now tell me.”

        She was looking at him sideways, watching his reaction. “I don’t feel guilty for a single soldier or bandit that I’ve killed, and I’ve killed a lot. I’ve killed dozens in an instant.”

        “Not at all?”

        She shrugged, tilted her head back again. “That’s just the cost of war. They all knew what they were signing up for.”

        “You think you’re a bad person?” Muriel asked. He wasn’t sure if he believed she didn’t feel guilty at all.

        Eleanor shrugged. “Asra thought I was good.”

        “Why tell me that?”

        “Because you can understand how I feel,” she said, “And you won’t judge me for it.”

        She was right. He couldn’t judge her for it. He was a killer as well. If he had her powers, his body count would be just as high. Perhaps he had a more righteous reason, but bodies are bodies. “You’re right,” he said.

        She said nothing, so he didn’t either. The two murderers sat against the wall in contemplative silence. Outside, the sun broke over the horizon. Summer was nearly over.

        Eleanor sighed. “I shouldn’t be bugging you with all this.”

        “It’s fine.”

        “No, it’s not, but I appreciate it.”

        “Eleanor, it’s fine.”

        She tilted her head like she didn’t believe him. He felt compelled to speak.

        “I’d listen to you all day, even if all you did is complain,” he said, then caught himself. “Not that you complain all day. I just… what I mean is…”

        She touched his arm, silencing him. His heart soared at the contact. “I understand,” she said.

        She did?

        “You’re a kind person,” Eleanor continued.

        “No I’m not.”

        “You are though,” she insisted. “Take the compliment.”

        He looked away, trying to block her from seeing the blush on his cheeks. “Thanks.”

        “You’re welcome. Is it really okay for me to loiter here a while?”

        “Stay as long as you want,” he told her.

        They sat beside each other for a long time, until Eleanor fell asleep against the wall. Eleanor spoke and walked like her true age, but her sleeping face seemed younger. Sometimes her brows would move a little, reacting to whatever she saw in her dreams.

        As gently as he could, Muriel lifted her from the floor and laid her in his bed, then pulled his blankets over her. She curled up like a cat, still completely out. Asra had told him that she was a heavy sleeper. He supposed he would find out.

        While she caught up on much needed sleep, he sat in his rocking chair and took out his knitting. He felt a little less lonely than usual.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Drawing Connections

        Julian was already on his third cup of coffee when Eleanor arrived at the clinic. He was in his private quarters, which was really just a room with a desk, a futon, and a coffee pot. The space was clean, but crowded and untidy. Julian listened to Eleanor shuffle across the room, trying to reach him.

        He didn’t look up from the paperwork. “No knock?”

        Eleanor finally navigated to the desk. “You and I are beyond knocking.”

        Julian was a tall man with a long, handsome face and broad shoulders. His hair was unruly waves of auburn, and his skin was quite fair. Dr. Devorak and Eleanor had known each other for a long time, since they were teenagers on the Count’s old crew of mercenaries. Now, they worked together closely.

        There was a plague that swept across Vesuvia every other year or so, usually claiming it’s first victims in the first days of the new year. Julian had been studying and treating the plague for some time now, and Eleanor had only recently lent him her steady hands. They had encountered some promising developments, including a serum that dramatically extended the lives of the patients. However, they were no closer to a true cure than they ever were.

        “Paperwork?” Eleanor asked.

        “Death Certificates,” he said grimly. “Fortunately, it seems that the wave has passed.”

        “This place must get pretty slow,” she said.

        “It does, but that’s all fine,” he said. “It gives me time to make up for all the money we lose. And I can do some research.”

        “I guess I’ll be able to run the shop again,” Eleanor said.

        “Don’t trust Asra to handle it?” Asra, as Julian recalled, was the slim young man that Eleanor was living with. Julian was a little jealous- Asra was quite handsome. Eleanor was too.

        He chastised himself silently. He’d been too busy for the past several months to even think of that kind of companionship. Now he felt so pent up that he might explode, and he was thinking unclean thoughts about his old friend.

        Eleanor looked at the ground. “He left town.”

        Julian rose from his desk and placed a kind hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry darling, I know you loved him.”

        She shrugged, still looking away. “It was just time.”

        “Do you want to talk about it?”

        “Not really.”

        “Well, I have two ears if you do,” Julian said. He was trying to gauge her feelings by her expression, but she seemed emotionless.

        He was shocked when she pulled him into an embrace, pressing her face against his chest. Julian wrapped his long arms around her, and they swayed a little in place. She must’ve of really been hurting to make such an outward display.

        It felt good to hold Eleanor so close. Julian cursed himself again. He needed to hurry up and get laid so he’d stop having thoughts about his very dear friend, who just happened to radiate sexuality. It’s wasn’t her fault that she was built like a roman bath house.

        Eleanor let him go and began tying up her hair. “Well Doc, what’s on the agenda today? Use me while you can, I’m opening the shop tomorrow.”

        Julian counted on his fingers as he listed all the chores that needed to be done, and Eleanor set out to do them. In the early afternoon, having finished everything with the help of the nurses, she bid Julian farewell and set out for the palace. She had urgent business to discuss with Count Lucio and Countess Nadia.

        Nadia was a dark, stately woman, with eyes like twin garnets. She was seated at her vanity while a pair of attendants fixed her long, thick hair. She held a glass of expensive white wine from a harvest twenty years ago. A chamberlain stepped into the room, politely averting his eyes from the undressed Countess. “My lady, Miss Eleanor is at the door,” the portly man announced.

        “Send her in,” Nadia replied. Her voice was silky.

        Eleanor entered the room. She was still wearing her apron from the clinic and her hair was even messier than usual. Nadia made eye-contact through the mirror. “It seems like you had a long night,” she said.

        “I did,” Eleanor replied as she stood several respectful feet to Nadia’s side. “Asra’s decided to leave the city, so I won’t be around here as often.”

        “What a shame, I quite liked the lad. How is progress on your serum?”

        Julian and Eleanor had been perfecting a health draught. It wasn’t a cure, but it did help the victims live longer. “It’s made a big difference,” the sorceress said. “When the next wave comes, we can give the sick a lot more time. At least they’ll be able to make arrangements before they die.”

        “That’s good news.”

        Nadia and Eleanor didn’t have the relationship one might expect, given how their lives were related. Eleanor and the Count were once lovers. From what Nadia had gathered, the relationship ended badly. She was well aware that things wasn’t quite as dead as Eleanor made them out to be, but she wasn’t jealous. Nadia liked her husband even less than most. The more time he spent stewing over other women, the less time he’d spend bothering her.

        Nadia noticed that Eleanor’s face was a little pink, and that she was trying not to look at the Countess in her sheer dressing gown. The Countess smiled wistfully, wishing she was only a little younger. She didn’t know Eleanor well, but she saw right through her rough exterior. Not to mention the adorable accent.

        “What is it you needed?” Nadia asked. “Someone, please give my friend a glass of wine.”

        “A few things. I wanted to ask you before I tried Lucio.”

        Nadia snickered. “So you can avoid talking to him?”

        “Things between us get worse every time I do.” An attendant gave her a glass. “Thank you.”

        “So it seems,” Nadia said, taking a sip of her morning wine. “Very well, what did you want to ask me?”

        “How do I enter the gladiator tournament?”

        The Countess coughed, nearly choking on her wine. “I seem to have misheard you.”

        “You heard me loud and clear.”

        Nadia leaned forward to place her wineglass on the vanity. “Why on earth would you want to?”

        “I heard that the winner can expunge his legal record.”

        “That’s true, but gladiators are usually criminals or prisoners of war. Why would you want it?”

        “I have my reasons.”

        Nadia looked down, then sideways, searching her thoughts. “You can keep or give the prize away. Some will trade it for whatever else their heart desires. The odds are stacked against you. There are many hopefuls, and nearly all of them die.”

        “But magic can be used, can’t it?”

        Nadia narrowed her eyes. “El, what are you planning?”

        Eleanor shrugged. “I like to fight. I could use a distraction.”

        The Countess considered the younger woman for a moment. Eleanor was a skilled fighter, and she would stand a good chance of winning. Nadia had only attended a handful of matches, always at Lucio’s request. The whole thing was barbaric.

        “You know, I have a sister who loves fighting as well,” Nadia said. “She travels the world, studying different techniques. If you enjoy combat, there’s no need to put yourself in harm’s away.”

        “It’s not the same without any risk,” Eleanor replied. “Will you help me or not?”

        Nadia reached forward, took her glass, and drained the rest of her wine. An attendant immediately refilled it, and she drank all of that one too. “Tryouts are already over, so you’d have to speak with the game master, and pass some trials to prove you’re worthy. They don’t just want you to fight well, they want people who will put on a show.”

        “That’s no problem for me.”

        “Lucio definitely won’t like this,” Nadia went on.

        Eleanor snorted. “I don’t give a damn about what he likes.”

        Nadia raised her glass. “Well said.”

        Eleanor clinked her glass against Nadia’s. “Cheers.”

        The women drank.

        “Remind me where you’re from,” Nadia said.

        “The south, Countess.”

        “How many times must I tell you, call me Nadia. You and Lucio are of the same people?”

        “Largely. My tribe was based out of a village northwest of his, on the coast.”

        “The fishing village?”

        “Fishing and whaling, yes.”

        “Then how are earth did you become such an accomplished fighter?”

        Eleanor’s eyes roamed the room. Nadia sensed that she was choosing her words carefully. “All southerners learn to fight. It’s our way, and I was always a natural. Lucio probably trained me more than anyone else.”

        Nadia nodded, pensive. She had been trained in the ways of the blade, but her home country of Prakra was a pristine, peaceful nation. Combat training wasn’t standard for youths. “I’ve never been to the south,” Nadia said. “Would you indulge me?”

        Eleanor looked down, thoughtful, as she sat on a stool beside the vanity. “Well,” she began, “Lucio lived further south than me, where it’s icy half the year. My tribe lived deep in the forest, where the trees are older than human memory. Everything is green. Greener than you could ever imagine.”

        Eleanor leaned against the vanity, a dreamy look coming over her face. The Countess closed her eyes, listening to the poetry that spilled from the sorceress's mouth. “The rivers are wider than any in Vesuvia,” Eleanor went on, “and they’re always full of big fish. The village was in a valley surrounded by mountains. Those mountains are so huge and powerful, they make your heart soar. My grandfather was from Vesuvia. He always said the forest was the country of the gods.”

        “I’d like to see it sometime,” Nadia said.

        “You should, Nadia,” Eleanor replied, rolling the name around slowly. “It’s the most beautiful place on earth.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Distractions 

        It was early autumn, and the days were finally beginning to cool. As he went to training that morning, Muriel wondered if Eleanor would even be there. He hadn’t seen much of her since he’d fallen asleep in his chair and woke to see she was gone. If he was in her place, he wouldn’t want to go anywhere that Asra used to be. Training wouldn’t be the same without his jovial presence.

When Muriel arrived, Eleanor was sitting in the middle of the practice mat, legs crossed and eyes closed. She was meditating.

        “Is it working?” Muriel asked.

        Eleanor opened her eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept much. “No,” she replied. “Lucio used to make me do it all the time, but it’s never helped much.”

        “Then you’re doing it wrong.” He offered her his hand.

        “Probably.” She took his hand and bounced to her feet. “I’m sorry again about the other day, I don’t know what came over me.”

        “It’s fine, you needed your rest.”

        “I suppose I did.”

        “We don’t have to do this today.”

        “I could use the distraction. Let’s get warmed up, then we’ll get started.”

        Muriel followed Eleanor through a series of stretches. When she bent over, legs straight, she could put the palms of her hands flat against the ground. He could hardly touch his toes.

        “Then warrior pose,” she said, leaning forward on a bent knee, arms extended. “Keep your breathing even.”

        She was twisted so her back was towards Muriel. Her cropped shirt showed the elegant curve of her spine, and the pinch of her narrow waist. Asra was gone, but Muriel knew that didn’t mean she was available. He couldn’t fathom her being interested in him. Surely she would want someone prettier, or someone less broken, like Asra or Dr. Devorak.

        There was also the little issue of her apparent immortality. He tore his eyes away from Eleanor and looked straight down his extended arm. There was no way a relationship between them could ever solidify. He needed to hurry up and get over his silly crush.

        “You’re doing it wrong,” Eleanor said, her touch catching him by surprise. She placed both of her hands under his elbows and pushed his arms straighter. Her chest was nearly touching his. Her face was only inches away. It was all he could do to keep his eyes forward. He felt himself getting warm and hoped she wouldn’t notice.

        She placed a hand on his bare back and pushed between his shoulders. “Straighten up,” she told him. “We should work more on your posture.”

        Muriel nodded, still looking forward. Eleanor raised her eyes to his face. They were almond shaped, set against sharp cheekbones. This close, he could see that her lashes were light, but still long. “You seem nervous,” she said.

        His heart stopped.

        She smiled weakly. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hurt you just because Asra’s not watching.”

        Muriel snickered a little. “I’m not worried about you hurting me.”

        She raised a brow and a twinkle appeared in her dark eyes. “Don’t think I could?”

        “I know you could, but you won’t.”

        “You think so, huh?”

        He finally turned to look at her. “I know you hold your punches.”

        She looked away quickly Was she blushing?

        “And that you let me hit you sometimes,” he went on.

        “Yeah well, I have a lot more training than you,” she said, “and I know you hold back, too.”

        Muriel lowered his arms and raised himself to his full, impressive height; back straight as she had said. “You’d get hurt if I didn’t.”

        “You must be the only person in the world who’s worried about hurting me.”

        “I might be the only person who can.”

        She nodded, lips pursed. “Fair enough, but don’t let that interfere with your training. Let’s talk more about your posture.”

        “What about it?”

        She stepped back from him, letting her eyes run up and down his form. “A guy who looks confident is scarier than a guy who doesn’t.”

        “I don’t want to look scarier.”

        “I’m talking about in the arena. If people in the real world think you look scary, that’s their problem. Hold your shoulders back more.”

        He did as she told him, but he’d been hunched over his entire life. It felt unnatural to him.

        “That’s better,” Eleanor said. “It’ll be sore at first, but it’s better for your back. Stay like that.”

        She crossed to the weapon rack and stood before it with arms crossed and one hip cocked out. “What do you feel like doing today? You use an ax, but you still haven’t fought me with one.”

        “I don’t want to fight you with an ax.”

        She shrugged. “We could practice hand to hand, but we do that a lot.”

        “We could use staffs.”

        Eleanor twisted at the waist to look at Muriel. One arm was crossed over her chest, and she held her chin with the other. “I don’t want to fight you with a staff,” she said.

        “Why not?”

        “The same reason you don’t want to fight me with an ax.”

        Muriel nodded. The autumn tournament was starting in a few weeks and Muriel needed to be sure he was ready. He didn’t compete with the gladiators, but he did have a role to play. Lucio would send him out to battle any contestants he didn’t like, or anytime the show got boring. Muriel was the wild card; making the show more interesting.

        He’d been told there were nearly a hundred competitors this year. By his math, he would kill at least six of them.

        Eleanor turned to the weapon rack again, then back to Muriel. “Have you ever been on a horse?”

        “I’m too big.”

        Eleanor laughed. “No you aren’t. You just need a big horse.”

        She smiled at him. She had that twinkle in her eye again, like she was up to something tricky. “You don’t have anything else planned today, right?”

        Muriel shook his head. Training with Eleanor was the most interesting thing he did with his free time.

        Eleanor looked between Muriel and the weapon rack several times, eventually selecting a wooden bow. “I know what we’re doing today,” she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Material Commitments

        “Really Noddy, you don’t have to come,” the Count told his wife as they walked briskly through the palace halls.

        “I insist,” Nadia replied. “This project is mine as much as yours.”

        Count Lucio and his wife were both middle-aged, but still in possession of dignified beauty. Lucio was as fair as his wife was dark; he had platinum hair and light, narrow eyes surrounded with dark, dramatic makeup. He wore his full finery for the occasion; his favorite white suit, and a red sash covered in golden metals. Some of them he’d been awarded many years ago during his days as a mercenary.

        They were on their way to a meeting with the chief engineer, who was overseeing the building of a massive crematorium out on the harbor. Ideally, it would be complete by the next plague outbreak. It was intended to separate the victims from the healthy before they died, since the bodies were carriers for the disease. The Count and Countess had taken to calling it the Lazaret.

        “If you say so,” Lucio replied. His money was funding the place. It didn’t matter who came up the idea.

        “Eleanor deserves credit as well,” Nadia said.

        Lucio grit his teeth and said nothing. Eleanor and Nadia had conspired against him, assaulting him separately with their plans. He hated to give Eleanor any kind of win, but he still struggled to her no. Besides that, she was right. It was the best thing for his city.

        They met with the chief engineer in the parlor. She was a dark, petite, woman. Her white hair said she should could be retired, but her dark eyes glittered with intellect. They greeted each other and the engineer presented them with the plans. The smoke stack would be so huge that it would be visible on Vesuvia’s skyline.

        “And what of the dormitories?” Nadia asked.

        The engineer presented another set of blueprints, detailing a drab, rectangular building. “We designed them to be as cleanly as possible. This is the nurses station. No bunk beds, small partitioned spaces, shoots for corpse removal on upper floors.”

        Lucio was critical. “Can we really expect the sick to maintain order? What’s to stop them from killing each other?”

        “Have some faith in your people,” Nadia said, but she was also skeptical.

        “That brings me to this,” said the chief engineer, summoning the last pile of blueprints. “The lookout tower, stationed by one or two healthy people, inaccessible by the sick. They’ll keep an eye on the place and be able to send status reports to the palace.”

        “What can be done to make the place friendlier?” Nadia asked. “Perhaps some gardens, some artwork.”

        Lucio snorted. “Why would I pay to have artwork for people who’ll die in a few days?”

        “To make passing more peaceful, of course. They deserve as much.”

        Lucio looked pointedly at the chief engineer. “No finery needed. It’s a waste of resources.”

        “You’re barbaric,” Nadia said.

        “You’re superficial,” he replied.

        “Quite rich, coming from you. How many of those medals did you give yourself?”

        “Please,” the chief engineer prodded. “I need your approval to begin construction.”

        “Approved,” said Lucio. “Send copies of those plans, for my records.” He wanted to show them to Eleanor.

        “Approved,” said Nadia.

        “It doesn’t need your approval, Countess,” Lucio sneered. While the couple began arguing, the chief engineer rolled up her plans and left. It was always a pain dealing with the sovereignty.

        Meanwhile, Muriel and Eleanor were riding through the fields. Eleanor had chosen a beautiful black stallion for herself, while Muriel’s mare was a massive draft horse, with long, shaggy hair. It had a yellow mane, and a coat with white and brown spots. Muriel had been hesitant to sit on it, but Eleanor assured him that the horse had carried heavier.

        Muriel wasn’t familiar with riding, but it was simple enough to guide the gentle beast. Muriel felt connected to his mare; she too was large and intimidating, but peaceful at heart. “You’re looking good!” Eleanor called to him.

        She looked completely at home astride the stallion. It was magnificent animal; glossy and strong. Eleanor, steady as stone, might've been the queen of horses. “Not as good as you,” he blurted.

        She smiled, apparently glowing in the sun. Muriel cursed himself.

        “There are some old targets out here,” she said. “We could try shooting, if you feel comfortable enough.”

        That explained why she brought the bow and arrows. Muriel looked at the reigns in his hands, which he held so tight that his knuckles were turning colors. He felt unsteady.

        “Let’s just keep riding for now,” Eleanor said. “Follow me.”

        It was a beautiful day to be outside. The blue sky was dotted with perfect clouds, the mountains were blue and purple, and the tall grass was golden as Eleanor's hair. They were far enough from the city that they couldn’t hear the noisy going-ons. Out here, he could almost forget about the Colosseum.

        “Let’s pick it up a little,” Eleanor called back to him. “Try to keep up!”

        She flicked the reigns, and away the stallion galloped, mane rippling in the wind. Eleanor leaned forward, hips raised above the saddle. Muriel mimicked her, and his horse began to run. It felt like the beast’s back was rolling beneath him. He could feel each heavy strike of her massive hooves.

        Muriel held his body low to the horse, heart hammering in his chest. She tossed her massive head, giving Muriel a faceful of coarse hair. He sputtered and straightened up. The ground was rushing beneath him, and the wind felt good in his long hair. He was exhilarated.

        Far ahead of him, Eleanor had stopped. The stallion raised his front hooves from the ground, balancing on his hind legs. Eleanor threw one arm in the air and whooped before the horse dropped back down, just as Muriel passed her.

        “Atta boy!” he heard her say from behind him.

        She winked as she passed him, the stallion’s muscles rowing with every movement. Muriel watched her pass with a rare smile. He was fully in the moment.

        “We’re almost there,” Eleanor shouted as they crested a hill.

        They were now along the edge of the forest, far west of Vesuvia. Eleanor lead him to a stream, it’s banks dotted with cattails and trees. She stopped beside an old, lopsided willow and dropped from her horse’s back. She lead it to the stream’s edge, and it dropped it’s obsidian head to drink.

        “What do you think?” she asked as Muriel joined her. She stood beside the stallion, stroking its neck.

        “It was fun,” he confessed as he dismounted. His legs felt shaky beneath him.

        “That was really your first time?”

        Muriel nodded.

        “You’re a natural,” she said, then shook her head. “And you thought you were too big.”

        “Have you been riding a long time?”

        Eleanor nodded. “I had a horse when I met Asra. She was a beautiful mare, grey dappled with white. She was always calm. She rode into a lot of battles with me.”

        “What happened to her?”

        “She died a few years ago,” Eleanor said, watching the water tumble.

        “I’m sorry.”

        "It’s alright, she was old. She had about the best life a war horse could hope to have.” Eleanor looked up, thoughtful. “You know, I think I was with that horse longer than I’ve been with anyone else.”

        “Really?”

        “Not since my family died. Did Asra ever tell you about that?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “My village burnt down when I was twelve. I’m the only one who lived, as far as I know.”

        “I’m sorry.”

        “What about your family?”

        “Lucio’s tribe did,” Muriel said as Eleanor sat beneath the willow. “My parents sent me away because they stole our food. They couldn't feed me.”

        “How old were you?”

        “I don't know. Maybe six.”

        “Do you ever get homesick?” Eleanor asked.

        “No,” he replied, still petting the mare with gentle hands. “It wasn’t a good place. Do you?”

        “All the time,” she said. “I still dream about it.”

        The horses were each tied to a branch of the willow. Muriel sat beside Eleanor, their backs against the wide trunk. He left room between them, but Eleanor scooted closer, so their shoulders brushed. They watched the steam gurgle away. A large, orange dragonfly landed on a nearby reed.

        “I’d live out here if I could,” Eleanor said.

        Muriel nodded in agreement.

        “Why do you work for Lucio, if you hate it so much?”

        “I took a deal so he’d leave Asra alone,” Muriel said.

        “Is everyone in this city trying to protect Asra? How long do you have left?”

        “Ten years.”

        “Yeesh, I’m sorry,” Eleanor said. “Genuinely. You’re definitely not the fighting type.”

        “What does that mean?”

        “You obviously don’t want to hurt people,” Eleanor said. “I used to not care at all. Lucio, too, but I guess we kinda deviated.”

        “And Asra?”

        “Gentler than me, not as much as you. He would never throw the first punch.”

        Muriel hummed in agreement. Asra was more likely to use his words.

        “Can I ask you something?”

        Muriel didn’t say anything, knowing she would ask anyways.

        “Why don’t you run away?” she asked. “Asra’s not here. You could just… run.”

        Muriel shook his head. “I’d never get away.”

        Muriel didn’t miss it when Eleanor glanced at the iron collar he wore around his neck. He couldn’t bear the way Eleanor looked at him sometimes, as if she pitied him. No one else looked at him like that.

        They fell silent again. Eleanor closed her eyes and raised her chin. She was trying to act like everything was normal, but he saw the dark circles under her eyes. He knew that she missed Asra. However, Muriel could imagine how she might be relieved. She kept a lot of herself hidden, for Asra’s sake.

        He felt calm when he was with Eleanor. It was like the tranquility he usually felt when he was alone, but warmer.

        Her face looked serene, and her cheeks were just flushed from the excitement of the day. Her pink lips were such a perfect pout, he half thought to kiss her, but was immediately mortified with himself. Asra had left only a week ago. They’d been together for nearly six years.

        Muriel missed Asra. He was hurt that he’d leave without a proper goodbye. Still, he didn’t feel as lonely as he thought he would. There was even a tiny part of him that was glad he was gone. Now he had Eleanor to himself.

        He startled when Eleanor shifted beside him. She had fallen against his shoulder, sound asleep in an instant. He wondered if he should wake her, or if he should just let her nap. She hadn’t been sleeping well.

        Muriel, as carefully as he could, snaked his arm behind her and rested his closed fist politely against her hip. She sank into his broad chest. Her breathing was deep and even. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against hers. He hadn’t felt so content in a long time.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: Round One

        “Ellie, pardon the language, but you must be the craziest bitch I know,” Julian said to Eleanor.

        Eleanor was wrapping her hands in bandages. She wore bracers around each forearm, a massive guard on one shoulder, and a cape on the other. Polished steel plates were strapped to the sides of her thighs above black, knee-length boots. She had so many knives belted to herself it was borderline ridiculous.

        She eased a circlet through her hair, with a sharp point that went down her nose. “This is gonna be so fun. Will you make sure my breast plate is tight?”

        Julian stood behind her and tugged the lacing. They were beneath the arena, getting ready for the first round of battles. Part of Julian was excited to watch Eleanor go fight. He hadn’t seen it in years, and she always did it with the grace of a dancer.

        Julian’s eyes fell over a mark on her back. It was mottled yellow and green, distinctly shaped like a bite mark. It must’ve been a couple weeks old.

        “What the hell is that?” he asked her, though he already had an idea.

        “What’s what?”

        “This bruise that looks an awful lot like teeth.”

        Eleanor went tense. Her eyes were wide, focused straight ahead. She didn’t answer.

        “Just tell me it wasn’t Lucio,” Julian said.

        Eleanor shrugged. “It wasn’t Lucio.”

        He knew she was lying. She would’ve told him all about it if she’d had an encounter with a new lover. “Ellie,” he pressed.

        “Listen, it’s nothing serious,” she explained. “Last last time we argued things got… heated. But clothes stayed on. It was a couple weeks ago and nothing’s happened since, I swear.”

        “Lucio can’t let anything go. He’s not over you.”

        “That’s his problem.”

        “It’s cruel and you know it.”

        Eleanor rolled her eyes and stood. “Look, I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was like old times. I just… I don’t know. Can you blame me for being a little nostalgic?”

        “It’s a bad idea. It’s only going to get messy.”

        “I know. I know. Nothing else is gonna happen.”

        Eleanor said it like she was laying down law, but it seemed to Julian like she was trying to convince herself. He didn’t believe her one bit. Self control had never been a strength of hers.

        “I won’t lecture you Ellie, it’s your life.”

        “Thanks Dad,” she said with a snort.

        Eleanor pulled a cloth mask over her mouth and nose, so only her stormy eyes could be seen. “How do I look?”

        “Like a goddess of war.”

        Julian couldn’t see her mouth, but the corners of her eyes wrinkled when she smiled. “I’ll take it. You better go get your seat.”

        “I’ll be in the box,” he told her, then left the gladiator’s pit. He traveled through a maze of stairs until he entered the back of Lucio’s box. The box was like a stage, jutting out above the arena. Lucio sat in a gilded throne towards the front, surrounded by his courtiers and nobles. The seat beside him was empty.

        “Jules, take Noddy’s seat,” Lucio said. “She won’t be here anyways.”

        Lucio had donned his gauntlet for the occasion. It covered his prosthetic arm in gold-plated steel, and turned his fingers into fearsome claws. In his other hand, he held a large glass of red wine.

        “Do you know who’s competing?” Julian asked as he took Nadia’s seat.

        “Does it matter?”

        So Lucio didn’t know Eleanor was competing. “I suppose not,” Julian said.

        In the arena before, the first fight was announced. This year’s tournament was huge, expected to take place over several weeks. The current fight was between two women; one small and quick, the other huge and strong.

        “Who are you rooting for? My money’s on the big one,” Lucio said.

        “I’m thinking the little one,” Julian replied. “What was her name?”

        “Yanbia,” Lucio replied. “The big one is Iron Saratov.”

        Julian wondered how Lucio would react to seeing Eleanor; if he would even recognize her right away. She had a distinct fighting style and carried her own staff, but her face was mostly covered and they were far enough away to miss it. She’d be given away quickly if she used any fire.

        “Is there anything sexier than a woman who can fight?” Lucio asked. “Where I’m from, everybody fought. But here people teach women to be so weak.”

        “You think so?”

        “That’s Noddy’s problem. She never took any hits.”

        “You know, her mother is the Queen of Prakra. Her father is only the consort.”

        “But I bet you she was never on the battlefield. This is how it should be Jules. A ruler should fight alongside their people.”

        “I’d agree with that,” Julian replied with a nod.

        On the arena below, Yanbia caught the Iron Saratov with a long knife. The big woman fell and did not move.

        Julian looked at Lucio, a smug grin on his face. Lucio pursed his lips. “She got lucky,” he said.

        “Sure she did.”

        The announcer declared the next fight. “I’ll put gold on the guy with the ax,” said Lucio.

        “I’d take those odds,” Julian replied.

        “Count Lucio,” came a high drawl. It was Consul Valerius, swirling a glass of red wine. Valerius was thin and fair, wearing his noble upbringing on his sleeve. Julian had never cared much for the Consul.

        “Valerius, glad you could make it,” Lucio said.

        “A shame about dinner last night,” Valerius said. “I was looking forward to it.”

        Julian glanced between Lucio and the consul. He didn’t seem like Lucio’s usual type.

        “Yes, you know how it is with the wife sometimes,” Lucio said with a cough. He gave Julian a side-eye.

        “Perhaps we should reschedule for next week,” Valerius said. When he looked away, Lucio mouthed something at Julian.

        “Lucio, that reminds me, it’s about time for your annual check-up,” said Julian.

        “You’re right. And that procedure, too. The lengthy one.”

        “Right, right. You’ll be bed bound for a day or three afterwards.”

        “What a shame, Consul, it seems I’m booked up this week.”

        Valerius rolled his eyes. “Not to worry Count, you can just come over whenever you’re feeling bored.”

        “Aw Valerius, no need to be like that,” Lucio called as Valerius walked away, then he turned to Julian. “Thank you.”

        “No problem,” Julian said. “But you and Valerius? I wouldn’t have guessed it.”

        Lucio sighed. “I was feeling a little… frustrated a couple weeks ago. Valerius was available.”

        Julian could imagine why, thinking back on what Eleanor told him. “Here I was thinking you and Eleanor were an item,” he said.

        Lucio choked on his wine. “Did she tell you that?”

        “Not by choice. Hickies, Lucio? How tacky.”

        Below, the ax flashed silver. Julian hissed at the sight of someone’s head flying off their shoulders.

        “Careful, you’ll start to sound jealous,” Lucio teased. He extended an open hand.

        Julian gave him a gold coin. “I just hope you’ll be careful,” Julian said.

        “Don’t worry about it. I’m not interested in Ellie.”

        Julian gave a dissatisfied “hm.” His friends were in denial, it seemed. Knowing his old friends, things would get messy. Julian could only hope it would be salvageable.

        “Up next,” said the announcer, “The Eastern Bushman!”

        On one side of the arena, a dark-skinned man entered. He carried a spear and a machete.

        “And on the other end,” the announcer went on, “The Western Blaze.”

        “Western blaze,” Lucio muttered. His ran his finger around the lip of his glass.

        Julian leaned forward in anticipation. That could only be Eleanor.

        Sure enough, Eleanor entered opposite her opponent. Her steel armor shined in the sunlight and her cape billowed around her. She was all sharp silver and inky black. Julian looked at Lucio, who hadn’t seemed to notice yet.

        “Contestants ready?” The announcer boomed. “Begin!”

        The Bushman hurled his spear across the area. Eleanor side stepped. She walked towards him, staff held behind herself, pointed downwards. Her icy eyes seemed to cut across the field, and her hips and shoulders rocked as she moved.

        Lucio whistled. “I’d like to take her home.”

        Julian almost laughed out loud. He noticed the consul giving Lucio a dirty look.

        In the arena below, Eleanor and her competitor finally met. She swung her staff forward, but the Bushman was quick. He dodged each of Eleanor’s strikes, then bolted for his spear. Eleanor ran after him, dropped to her side, and slid straight into him, heavy boots crashing into his ankles. He went down. Eleanor jumped up.

        Julian wondered why Eleanor wasn’t using her magic. She could easily incinerate the man, but that wouldn’t be much fun to watch. Eleanor knew the value of putting on a good show.

        “Wait a minute,” Lucio murmured, leaning forward.

        The Bushman was up again, swinging his machete. They exchanged several blows. Eleanor swung at his legs, but he jumped clear over the staff. Eleanor conked him in the side of the head. He was stunned for an instant. It was just long enough from Eleanor the twist the machete from his grip.

        Lucio’s eyes narrowed, then he hurled his wineglass on the ground, cursing. “Who the hell let her enter!”

        Eleanor made several quick jabs, but the bushman dodged each one. He finally caught her by the arms. She dug her feet into the ground, but made no move to shake him. Instead, she fixed him with an icy glare and tilted her head.

        The bushman released her with a yelp. Her steel bracers were glowing red; hot enough to permanently damage his hands. He stumbled away, hands clutched to his chest, eyes wide with terror. She jabbed him once in the gut. He doubled over,. Her staff cracked against his side and he was down, rolling on the ground. The crowd was roaring their excitement.

        Julian glanced at Lucio. The Count was watching intently, completely transfixed on the fight below. He hadn’t watched Eleanor fight in a long time. It was like watching a ballerina twirl, or a blacksmith hammering iron. Her body was tool. She used it to make art.

        The Bushman crawled backwards, away from Eleanor, then got to his feet and took off at a run. Eleanor dropped her staff and chose a short knife from her belt. She tossed it high in the air and caught it by the handle. With the other hand she waved at the spectators, egging them on. “Blood! Blood! Blood!” they chanted, stomping their feet.

        What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. She stepped forward on her left leg, bent at the knee and elbow. She paused for an instant, fixing her aim. Then her arm uncurled in one fluid motion, releasing the knife with a flick of her wrist. It spun through the air and sank perfectly between the bushman’s shoulder blades. He went down and did not move.

        Eleanor picked up her staff and approached. She planted one heavy boot against his back, then bent and retrieved her knife. It happened so quickly the Julian almost missed it, but she ran her hand over the wound in his back. She wiped the knife on his clothing and put it back in it’s sleeve. The bushman had stopped bleeding.

        She raised her staff in the air, triumphant. Flames several feet high burst from the end of the staff and rose into the sky above. The crowd was wild with excitement.

        Lucio grit his teeth, both enraged and excited. She looked strong in the arena, but Lucio had seen her at her weakest. He remembered how he used to toy with her until she begged, how he alone could make her whimper and cry, how his mouth had left more marks on her body than any weapon.

        Julian relaxed into his seat, a smile on his face. Eleanor said she wanted to live peacefully, but the battlefield would always be her realm. There was no escaping the talents we’re given.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: Familiar Territory

        It was nighttime on a weeknight. The air was crisp with autumn chill, and the vendors and shopkeepers were all closing up for the night. Lucio wore a hooded cloak in place of his makeup and finery. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was headed, so he was going undercover. Besides, he knew Eleanor wasn’t much impressed with regalia.

       He was nearly to the shop when it started raining. The few people out on the street all turned in. He paused at the door for a moment, unsure if he really wanted to go in. What was his real motivation? Did he want to brag about the Lazaret, and show off the impressive progress his team had made? Did he really need her approval? He wanted to see her, but he also never wanted to see her again. He didn’t know how she’d react to his intrusion.

       He steadied himself with a deep breath then pushed the door open. A bell chimed as he entered.

       “We’re already closed,” Eleanor said from behind the counter. She didn’t even look up. She was counting the day’s earnings.

       Her hair was in a large knot on the back of her skull, stay tendrils curling against her neck. Her shirt was black and long sleeved, with a deep V into her cleavage. She was as ravishing as ever.

       Lucio swallowed before he spoke. “You could’ve told me you were in the tournament.”

       If she was surprised to hear him there, she didn’t show it. She didn’t look up from the money. “Would you have cared?”

       “Of course not.”

       “Julian saw that bite you gave me.”

       “So? You love it when I bite you.”

       “Loved. Past tense. And it’s not the same if it’s during an argument.”

       “Was it really an argument, though?”

       She finally met his eyes, still stacking coins with her hands. “Why are you here?”

       He removed his messenger bag and held it aloft. “I have things to show you.”

       She waved him closer and pushed her coin aside. He stood across the counter from her and produced the plans for the Lazaret. “We started construction last week. It’s coming along nicely.”

       Eleanor examined the plans before her, flipping through the pages. “It’s exactly how I pictured it.”

       “Yes well, I didn’t build it for you.” He snapped.

       She looked at him through her lashes. Those stormy eyes always had a way of making Lucio feel small. “Of course not,” she replied.

       One corner of her mouth was downturned. She looked Lucio up and down, then sighed. “Take off your cloak. I’ll make some tea.”

       While she went into the kitchen, Lucio went into the sitting area. He hung his cloak over the back of a chair. His white shirt, transparent with water, stuck to his chest. He had a hard, powerful physique. It was a soldier’s build, and it had only been refined with age.

       The fireplace crackled merrily. The furniture was sparse. He supposed that Eleanor’s business wasn’t the most lucrative. He knelt on the rug in front of the fireplace, warming his hands.

       “Here,” Eleanor said, passing him a cup and a saucer. “Black tea.”

       “Is there-”

       “Cream and sugar, yes.”

       “You remember.”

       “I’d love to clear the space for something more useful,” Eleanor said, sitting beside him, “but yes, I remember.”

       He sipped his tea. It was perfect.

       He noticed the generous space Eleanor had left between them. The last time they were alone together, things had heated up quickly. They’d gotten physical, and might’ve gone all the way if Eleanor wasn’t with Asra. But, Lucio noticed, the little magician wasn’t around.

       “Your pet not around?”

       “He’s not my pet,” Eleanor said. “No, he had to leave town.”

       “He left town, or he left you?”

       Eleanor rose. “You’re a terrible guest.”

       Lucio caught her wrist before she was all the way up. “Come on Ellie, sit back down.”

       She didn’t move for a moment. The soft skin of her inner wrist felt electrified, like he was touching a live wire. Lucio wanted to let go, but he wanted to feel more. He wanted to beg for her attention, but he wanted her to beg him. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

       She finally sank back onto the rug, tucking her legs beneath herself. She seemed ill at ease. “Why are you here, Lucio?” she asked.

       Lucio thought of an argument they had last month. “You said you wanted to win my forgiveness.”

       “That was before you made a cheater of me.”

       “I’d hardly call that cheating.”

       “There’s more to cheating than having sex. I shouldn’t have even been alone with you.”

       “Because you can’t control yourself?”

       “Because we fight every time. Why are you here?” She wasn’t going to let it go, clearly. It was like talking to a statue.

       “I saw your fight,” he said. “I also saw you heal your opponent.”

       “Is that against the rules?” She tilted her head, feigning innocence.

       “It’s fight until someone can’t fight anymore. If you heal him, he isn’t really out.”

       “All I did was stop the bleeding. He still had blood loss and broken ribs.” She was looking into the fire, a tiny smile on her lips.

       Lucio regarded her for a moment. The firelight flickered orange on her fair skin. He still didn’t know why she wasn’t aging, but he didn’t care. All he knew was that it made him bitter. He was a little older when they met, but now he was old enough to be her father.

       “When’s the last time you really fought someone like that?”

       Eleanor was wistful. Her eyes were glossy, like she was dreaming. “Years.”

       “I bet it felt good.”

       “It felt really good,” she replied, curling and uncurling her arm. He watched the muscles move underneath her shirt.

       “You looked good, too. You’re as strong as ever. I would’ve liked to see more fire.”

       “That wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

       He snorted. “It’s never a fair fight against you.”

       She gave him a quick glance. It was just long enough for Lucio to see something greedy glittering in her eyes.

       “I’m glad Asra wasn’t here to see it,” she said.

       “Then it’s a good thing that he’s gone, Ellie. You were pretending to be something you’re not.”

       “You’re right,” Eleanor said, to Lucio’s surprise. “I hid that part of myself, but I still miss him.”

       “You never had to hide it from me,” Lucio said.

       She glanced at him again, slower this time.

       “I tell you Ellie, watching you fight today? It reminded me why I was first attracted to you.”

       “You liked it too much. It was destructive.”

       “But gods above, wasn’t it fun? We had a lot of adventures. So many stories to tell.”

       Eleanor snorted. “None you can share with gentle folk.”

       Lucio laughed. “Who wants to hang out with gentle folk anyways? They’re stuffy as hell. I tell you, Nadia can’t take a joke to save her life.”

       “I respect Nadia deeply. She’s a fine lady.”

       “She is, but?”

       “I guess she can be a snob sometimes.”

       “She and Asra both.”

       Eleanor bristled. “Don’t talk about him like that.”

       “The little runt? I don’t know what you saw in him.”

       “He’s a better person than you’ll ever be.” Eleanor’s voice was harsh.

       “Oh really?” Lucio prodded. “I bet Asra doesn’t even know how to throw a punch. Asra’s the most boring person on the planet.”

       “Keep his name out of your filthy mouth.” Her upper lip curled and her nostrils flared.

       “Or what? Asra, Asra, Asra.”

       She stood, snatching Lucio’s tea from him. He could feel heat coming from her body. “You should leave.” Her voice rumbled. She was fighting to keep it steady.

       Lucio followed her into the kitchen. “I mean, that’s really what you left me for? He’s so skinny.”

       “I didn’t leave you for him. I waited eight years.”

       “Well I waited ten.”

       “And got married to a woman who can’t stand you.”

       “It’s a political marriage.”

       She slammed the saucer and cup in the wash bin. When she turned, Lucio was directly behind her. “And how’s that working out for you? You seem so happy.”

       “You’re the last person who gets to criticize my relationship!”

       “And you get to criticize mine?” She snarled each word, voice raising.

       “You’re the one who walked out on me!”

       “How many times are you gonna bring it up?”

       “I get to bring it up as much as I want!”

       “You can’t let anything go!”

       “You left in the middle of the fucking night Ellie!” He clapped his hands together with each syllable.

       “I said I was sorry!”

       “Sorry doesn’t fix a broken heart!”

       “You’re being dramatic.”

       “Dramatic!” Lucio shouted, gesturing wildly. “I have a right to be angry!”

       “You always do this!” Now she was shouting too.

       “Do what?”

       “Make everything about you! Can’t one day be about me?” She jabbed her finger into his chest.

       He seized her by the wrist. “Everyday is about you, Ellie! Every single fucking day of my life.”

       “It’s not my fault you can’t let go!”

       “I was doing fine until you came waltzing in-”

       “I wanted to help you!”

       “You wanted to torture me. Oh look, I’m Eleanor-”

       “Stop it!”

       “-and I’m still young and perfect! Rubbing it in my face!”

       “I said stop it you son of a bitch!” She banged her other fist against his chest. He grabbed that one too. She made no move to pull away.

       “Or what, Ellie?”

       “I’ll make you regret it!”

       “I already regret meeting you!” He released her wrists, but held her by the arm. Her skin was almost hot enough to burn.

       She pushed one hand flat against his chest. “Why are you even here, Lucio?”

       “Because you're driving me crazy!”

       “Then do something about it you asshole!”

       He jerked her against him and they crashed into each other. His mouth caught hers, their lips crushing each other. He pushed her until she stumbled backwards into the counter. He shoved his hand up her shirt and around her back, sinking his fingers into the small of her back. She twisted his hair in her fingers and pulled him against her, desperate to feel him.

       They broke apart, gasping, and his mouth found her neck. She moaned at the press of his lips and tongue then hissed when he bit her. Lucio wanted to leave marks all over her body, like a mountaineer planting his flag.

       Her fingers shook while she undid the first button of his shirt, but then she lost her patience. She ripped his shirt open, flinging buttons across the kitchen. Her hands wandered over the familiar muscles, tracing the prominent veins in his good arm. Lucio had been dying to feel her touch. He pushed up her skirt and sank his fingers into the flesh of her strong thigh. She caught her breath when he smacked it, leaving a red hand-print.

       Both hands under her ass, he pushed her onto the counter. She raised her arms, letting him lift away her shirt. She was wearing a short, quilted corset that ended above her waist. He sucked on the bare skin above the hem, grazing her with his teeth. As he fumbled with the lacing in the back, Eleanor wrapped her legs around his hips. She had to keep her hands on the counter to support herself.

       Finally the lacing was undone. Lucio tore the garment away and twisted her nipples roughly in his fingers while he kissed her again. She moaned against his mouth. Her thighs tightened around him. He’d forgotten how good her body felt, how she was soft and strong at the same time.

       He wanted her right now, but he wanted to make her beg for it. He ran his fingers over her panties, still kissing her. Her breath was picking up. Her could already feel the wetness on his fingers.

       He ran his tongue along her jaw and nibbled her ear. “I’m going to fuck you until you can’t walk straight,” he rasped against her cheek.

       She leaned forward as he straightened up, craning her neck to kiss his throat. Her lips were soft and plush as a pillow. “That’s big talk, old man,” she teased.

       He growled and pushed her back by the base of her throat. She coughed, then whimpered when his fingers slid inside her panties. His thumb moved in circles against her swollen clit. He remembered exactly how she liked it. She threw her head back as he sucked on her nipple and nipped her with his teeth. She was breathing faster, nearing a climax.

       Then he pulled his hand away. When she looked at him, her face was flushed pink, and her eyes were glassy. Those eyes, usually so unforgiving, were completely soft. He pressed his damp fingers to her lips and watched her suck them clean. She was wrapped around his finger, exactly how he wanted her to be.

       He grabbed the waist of her skirt and she raised her hips. In one movement he pulled the rest of her clothes away. She was completely naked, completely at his mercy. He kissed her neck and ran his mouth down her torso, tasting the salt of her skin. He felt her legs resting on his shoulders

       Finally, he knelt on the ground before her. She ran the fingers of one hand through his hair. Her smell was intoxicating. She sighed when he pressed a gentle kiss to her thigh, then twitched and yelped when he bit her. He swiped his tongue over the spot, moved closer to her sex, and bit her again. She flinched. “Fucker,” she spat.

       Chuckling, Lucio moved to other side. He gave her one last bite, hard enough to break the skin. She jerked violently, but he had her locked in place. He tasted blood as he sucked on the spot, leaving the best hickey he could. She would be covered in them by the time he was done.

       She moaned when his mouth finally wandered to her cunt. Her fingers tightened through his hair. Lucio closed his eyes, zig-zagging his tongue up and down. He could feel Eleanor tremble with pleasure. She was practically singing to him, voice raising in pitch as she came closer to finishing.

       He traced tiny circles around her clit. Her legs snapped shut around his head as she came against him, grinding on his mouth. He kept drawing patterns with his tongue, and almost immediately she came for a second time. As she neared her third, he pulled away, replacing his tongue with his hand.

       She wrapped her hand around his neck as he kissed her, his tongue dipping into his mouth. She came again on his experienced fingers. Her lips quivered as she moaned into him. He pulled his face down, kissing her jaw, her neck, signing his name along her shoulder.

       “Lucio,” she gasped, “I can’t… I can’t… oh gods!”

       He sank his teeth into the top of her breast as she came yet again. His pants tented against his erection, but he wanted to keep tormenting her. There was no way anyone else could please her like this. No one else could give like she needed, least of all that scrawny magician.

       He kept his hand moving steadily, letting his fingers curl inside her. He drew circles around her nipple with his tongue and sucked. It would be another nice bruise.

       Her nails scraped against her back. Her voice was husky. “Lucio, please,” she tried again. “I want… I need… oh fuck!”

       He laughed while she suffered her fifth orgasm, thighs clenched around his hand. She sputtered syllables, but couldn’t form any distinct words. He imagined she was trying to curse at him. He pulled his hand away and pressed his torso against hers while they kissed. Her entire body shook.

       “You want me to fuck you?” he whispered in her ear.

       She nodded, whimpering. Her claws were still digging into his back.

       “Remind me who you belong to.”

       “You, Lucio,” she breathed, “you.”

       “Get on your knees.” He kissed her cheek and pulled away.

       He watched her ease herself from the countertop, slow and cautious, still shaking. She sank to her knees in front of him and looked up. Her eyes were nearly black in the dim light. He brushed the stray hairs from her face and ran his thumb over her lower lip. “Let’s put that mouth to good use,” he said.

       She refocused on what was in front her. Her hands were too unsteady, so Lucio undid his own belt. She pulled his pants down, and his hard-on sprang forward. There was a wicked curve to it, exactly as she remembered. She stroked him slowly, glanced up at him again, then wrapped her lips around him.

       Lucio sighed as she sucked. Her warm mouth moved up and down his shaft, tongue pressed against the underside. She sank all the way to the base, and flicked her tongue against the head when she went back up. He held the back her head with one hand, guiding her.

       He’d almost forgotten the way her mouth felt. He felt her throat clench when she went all the way down, gagging on his cock. Her held her head in both hands, forcing her to suck faster. She sputtered and choked, but didn’t stop.

       He felt her throat vibrate when she moaned and looked down to see she was playing with herself. He pulled her away by the hair. She wiped the spit from her chin and he seized her elbow, holding her arm aloft.

       “You just couldn’t wait, could you?”

       She shook her head.

       “You need me to fuck you that bad.”

       She nodded.

       He sank to the ground in front her and crept forward, forcing her to lean back until her back was on the floor. Lucio was on his hands and knees above her. He balanced himself on one hand and pushed her arms aside. “Who do you belong to?” he asked again.

       “You,” she whispered.

       Lucio gathered her wrists in one hand and held them together above her head, pinning her against the ground. He let his eyes travel her body, savoring the sight of her squirming on the ground. He used his legs to push her clenched thighs apart. “Now beg,” he commanded.

       “Please, please fuck me Lucio,” she pleaded, stumbling over her words. “I need you to fuck me.”

       He put his weight entirely on her forearms so he could guide his cock. He ran the head up and down her slit. She strained against him, raising her hips off the ground.

       She cried out when he shoved himself inside her. She was soaking wet, and his cock pumped in and out with ease. “Fuck you feel good,” he grunted.

       She wrapped her legs around his waist, as if trying to pull him deeper. Lucio sucked on her neck, choosing each spot deliberately. He was struggling to maintain his control, to keep a steady pace. What he really wanted was to ravish her like an animal, then do it again, and again.

       He pressed his free hand against her throat, barely applying pressure. Her back arched off the ground, her thighs tightened around him. She could barely manage to whine as he sped up.

       She gasped for breath when he released her throat and arms. She seized him by the hair and pulled him down to her, kissing him hard. His hands were rough against her hips. He slid his hands under her legs and pushed them up until they folded against her chest, tilting her pelvis upwards.

       He pushed deeper, ramming against her cervix, and growl in his throat. She cried out, her brows knit together. “Hurts?” he asked, slowing his pace.

       She nodded.

       “Do you want me to stop?”

       In answer, she reached up for another kiss. He beat into her, hard and fast, her cries muffled against his mouth. Her entire body convulsed. Her walls squeezed Lucio as she came. She covered her own mouth to stifle her scream of pleasure.

       Lucio was close. He thrust faster and faster, and deep as her could reach. Eleanor sat up on her hands and sank her teeth into his shoulder. Lucio grunted in pain. He couldn’t hold off any longer.

       He tore himself away just before he came, shooting ropes of white across her belly. He sat back and they watched each other, both trying to catch their breath. Eleanor’s face was euphoric, as if she hadn’t noticed that it was over yet. Lucio stretched his legs across the cold floor. He watched, a smug grin on his face, as she picked herself up. Her legs shook beneath her as she gathered her clothes and left the room. Lucio got up to follow.

       He followed her into the sitting room, where she had already wiped herself off. She crawled onto the couch and cast her dreamy eyes up at him, inviting. He crept beside her, and she curled against his chest.

       Lucio was certain that she’d be furious with herself once her afterglow wore off, but all was well for the moment. She tossed her leg around his and pressed little kisses to his neck. This was the part he remembered clearly; her warm body pressed against his, and the contented sleepiness that she moved with. Lucio liked to live fast and loud, but she could always make him slow down.

       He wished he knew what she was thinking; whether she missed him, or she was just lonely. He wanted her to miss him.

       “Oh!” He said aloud when she grabbed his cock. She began working it back to firmness, still kissing his neck.

       “Haven’t had enough punishment for one night?” he asked.

       “Never,” she replied. “Get off your ass and fuck me again.”

       “As you wish,” he said as he rose. He was already hard again.

       She looked up him with greedy eyes and let out a small “Oof!” when he shoved her into the face-down into the cushions. He didn’t bother warming her up; she was still soaking wet. His cock entered with ease. He yanked her head back by the hair, forcing her back to curve.

       The view of her back was beautiful. He bent over to bite her, intended to leave more bruises on the perfect landscape. She jerked and cried out with each bite, but she was only getting wetter. He needed to remind her that he was the only one that could please her.

       He bent low over her and kissed he neck, the whispered against her jaw. “Who else fucks you like this?”

       “No one,” she whimpered. He released her hair and she dropped her golden head. Her grip on the edge of the couch was white-knuckled.

       “That’s right,” he said. He held her by the throat as he pounded against her. “You’re mine.”

       “Yours,” she gasped. He felt her pulse flutter like a bird. Gods, she was sexy.

       He pressed his forearm into the back of her shoulders, crushing her beneath his weight. She squirmed and cried beneath him. He pushed into her as hard as he could and finished inside her. “Fuck!” she called as he filled her.

       He kissed her cheek and chuckled. “Don’t go to sleep yet, Ellie. There’s more where that came from.”

       She twisted her neck to look at him. His half-smile spread arcs into his cheek, turning up the ends of his silver eyes. 

       “I’m counting on it,” she purred.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: Stargazing

        It was a beautiful day to be out on the fields. The late afternoon was hot, the sky was clear, and a cool wind blew down from the Mountain, rustling the grass.

        Muriel might have enjoyed it if he wasn’t sweating like a cold glass of water.

        “Come on,” Eleanor said, breathless, “One more time.”

        When Eleanor suggested that they go outside for the day’s training, Muriel had thought they would be riding horses or swimming in the river at some point. He didn’t think Eleanor was going to pull out staffs and run drill after drill, all through the morning and into the day.

        Muriel couldn’t say why Eleanor suddenly wanted to train so intensely. He wondered if it was because the tournament started. That morning she claimed that she was “going to beat him into the best shape of his life.”

        Either way, she looked about as haggard as Muriel felt. Half of her hair had fallen from it’s braid and stuck to her sweating face. Sweat sat on her brow. Her cheeks and shoulders were pink, probably from both the work and the sun.

        “You’re completely sunburnt,” he said.

        “I am not,” she said. “I feel great. Come on.”

        She twirled the staff. It was the first time they’d trained with such a weapon, but Eleanor had decided it was time to turn up the pressure, he supposed. She wasn’t lying when she said it was her best weapon. Muriel had several sore spots that promised to become massive bruises.

        Muriel realized that she was insane, and that she would probably get herself killed before giving it a rest.

        “We’re done,” Muriel said, straightening up. He planted the staff in the ground and leaned on it.

        “Aw, come on. Just one more.”

        "You said that six times already.” Muriel had a hard time telling her “no,” even when she was demolishing him.

        Eleanor growled and pouted.

        Muriel, for the first time, stood his ground.

        The witch sighed, lowered her staff, and slouched. “Fine. Ten minute break.”

        They walked back to the willow tree and propped their staffs against the grey bark. Eleanor had packed food and water, not that they’re taken any time to eat. Muriel sat beneath the willow and took a long drink.

        Eleanor did stretches beside the stream.

        “El,” he called, “you need the shade.”

        “You’re so bossy today,” she teased without looking back at him.

        Muriel blushed and drank some more water. Eleanor came and sat beside him, leaning back on her hands. She was less sweaty, but her face was still red.

        “You’re sunburnt,” he said.

        “I don’t burn so easily.”

        “We’ve been outside for hours.”

        Eleanor touched her face and was quiet for a moment.

        “Okay, maybe I’m a little sunburnt.”

        Muriel shook his head. They both drank.

        “We should call it a day, huh?” Eleanor asked.

        “You can’t walk home, you’ll get sunstroke.”

        Eleanor gave Muriel a wry grin. “You sound awful worried about your dear old teacher.”

        Muriel pressed his lips together and avoided her ocean eyes. “I don’t wanna carry you back.”

        “You do care,” she laughed.

        “Just drink your water.”

        They were both quiet for a moment. The sun was just starting to sink low. Muriel stole a side-long glance at Eleanor. He’d never found a woman so beautiful before, but then again, he’d never spent so much time with one. Or anyone, for that matter.

        Eleanor caught him staring. She didn’t seem surprised, offering a kind smile.

        Muriel looked down, heat on his face. Eleanor gave his knee a good-natured pat, then offered him her hand.

        He stared at the hand. Muriel couldn’t say what her intentions were, though he had some idea of what he’d like them to be. She could very well just be acting friendly.

        Muriel would rather remain friends then have nothing. It was probably the best he could hope for.

        He took her hand carefully, worried he might crush her soft fingers. They sat in companionable silence and watched the sunset. He hoped that she didn’t notice how much he was sweating.

        Blue twilight fell over the fields. The crickets sang. The stream babbled.

        “Ten minutes is up,” Eleanor finally said.

        “It was up an hour ago,” he said, noticing the earliest evening stars.

        “That long already?” she asked, eyes still on the horizon.

        “Should we go back?”

        She shook her head, tossing her wild curls.

        “It’s a clear night,” Muriel said. “We could stay out and stargaze.”

        Eleanor slid her hand from his and sat forward, leaning on her knees. She stared blankly into space and fidgeted with her ring. He wondered if he’d done something wrong.

        “Only if you want,” he added. “We don’t have to do it together.”

        Eleanor gave him an appraising look. Muriel wondered what she was thinking.

        “Do you think it’s a good idea for us to hang out so much?” she asked.

        Muriel shrugged.

        “I like spending time with you,” she said, looking back to the horizon.

        He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling his face heat up. He still had no idea what she was talking about.

        “Let’s stay out,” she decided with a firm slap to her knees. “Beats being alone.”

        “Yeah,” Muriel agreed, surprised by the truth of it. He liked being alone.

        He knew that if they laid down to look at the stars, Eleanor would probably fall asleep on him. She’d already done it more than once.

        “I’m still not carrying you back,” he said.

        Eleanor snorted. “Even you couldn’t carry me that far. Just wake me up.”

        He could. Easily.

        “I’m not falling asleep anyways,” Eleanor said. “So don’t even worry about it.”

        He did not believe her.

        Nighttime came. The air cooled. The moon and stars cast silvery light over the fields. Muriel tried to pass Eleanor his cloak, but she wouldn’t take it. Instead, they spread it over the ground and laid down, looking up at the night sky. It was a good night for stargazing.

        Sometimes a distant rustle would set Muriel’s alarms off, but Eleanor would pat his shoulder and tell him not to worry.

        “I’ll protect you,” she’d say with a wink. Muriel was fairly certain that she was only half-joking.

        “I don’t know the Vesuvian names of any of these,” Eleanor said. Her arm brushed Muriel when she pointed. “What’s that one called?”

        “I can’t see where you’re pointing.”

        “It’s the brightest one.”

        Muriel found where she was pointing. He reached up to draw it with his finger.

        “Canis Major,” he said, “Those are the dog stars.”

        “Dog stars,” she murmured, then she leaned over him, took his hand, and used it to trace a V. “Those are my dog stars. Ulf’s Kleptr. The wolf’s mouth.”

        Eleanor’s side pressed against his as she indicated the constellation. Her eyes were dark and twinkling, just like the sky above. Her body felt soft and warm. Muriel caught himself wanting to curl up with her, as he’d seen her curl up with Asra, to feel as much of her as he could.

        “We call that Taurus,” he said, fighting not to let his voice crack. “The Bull.”

        The feeling in his chest was powerful and new. He told himself that such impulses weren’t meant for him, and he should feel ashamed of himself. Even if it was an option, someone like Eleanor would never want someone like him. He ought to feel grateful just to be friends.

        They dropped their hands back on Muriel’s cloak without letting go, in the friendliest way possible. He didn’t hold her hand so much as he let it rest in his grip.

        Eleanor pointed to another constellation with her free hand.

        “What are these ones next to it?” she asked.

        Muriel followed the curve of horns with his finger. “Aries. The Ram.”

        “Oh,” she said softly.

        “What?”

        “That’s my sign,” she said.

        He felt like he could’ve guessed as much, but it was best not to put too much stock in those things.

        “Where’s yours?” Eleanor asked.

        “It’s a spring constellation,” he said. “Virgo.”

        “Oh, the Virgin. Of course you’re an earth sign.”

        He heard the word “virgin” and changed the topic. “Your birthday is soon.”

        “I don’t know what day,” she said. “My tribe celebrated by the moon. Mine’s the first new moon of autumn.”

        Muriel glanced at the moon. It was the thinnest sliver of a waxing crescent.

        “Happy belated birthday,” he said.

        “Thanks,” Eleanor said, her voice quiet. She squeezed his fingers. Muriel wondered if he should ask if something was wrong, then decided that she’d tell him if she wanted to.

        They were silent for a moment, and then Eleanor pointed to another constellation and demanded its name.

        When they woke up at dawn, covered in morning dew, they were facing each other with a few comfortable inches between them. Both swore that other fell asleep first, but Muriel knew it was really Eleanor.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Round Two

       Before fully dressing for battle, Eleanor always made sure she was warmed up. She ran through a set of stretches. She’d done her best to heal the visible hickies, but more were hidden under her clothes. Healing magic didn’t come naturally to Eleanor. Even little things could exhaust her.

       The past week was slow. Except for when she and Muriel trained, her mind was almost constantly on the tournament. As she helped customers in the shop, she visualized take-down techniques she could use on them. On the evenings that she tried to research in the library or the secret lab, her mind wandered to the opponents she might face. Eleanor wanted to win with a rabid desperation she hadn't felt since she worked as a mercenary.

       Eleanor would win. When the witch set her mind to something, there was no stopping her.

       She closed her eyes and reached as high as she could, feeling her spine pull. It was her favorite stretch. It made her feel like she could breath better. Being in enclosed spaces made her jittery, especially the dark stone of the colosseum's cells. The air was completely still.

       Her romp with Lucio had been fun, but she knew it wasn’t the wisest thing to do. It was completely selfish- Lucio desperately needed to move on. He never had trouble separating sex and love, but Eleanor certainly wasn’t helping. She could only help the he felt like she did, which was nothing. Nothing at all.

       Then again, she’d felt so proud that he enjoyed her show. When she was younger, she’s always been so keen to earn his praise. Eleanor dismissed the thought. She did not love Lucio like that anymore.

       When she relaxed and opened her eyes, she saw a pair of emerald greens glowing from the shadows. She wasn’t wearing much, but she had no sense of shame. “Muriel,” she said. “Did you come to wish me luck?”

       “Why didn’t you tell me you were entering?” he asked, stepping closer to her.

       She pointed one elbow towards the ceiling and pulled it back with her other hand. “I wanted to surprise you,” she said. It was the truth.

       “Lucio could send me out to fight you,” Muriel warned. His voice was low and gravelly.

       Eleanor took in Muriel’s clothing. He was dressed in his gladiator costume, which barely counted as clothing. He wore a shoulder guard on the same arm as Lucio’s gauntlet, the leather straps crossing his massive chest. He also wore a collar on his neck and shackles on each arm, hung with chains that rattled when he moved.

       “Lucio wouldn’t do that,” she dismissed.

       “He’d not the guy you remember, El,” Muriel argued.

       “Well, then we’ll finally have a real fight,” Eleanor replied. She went to her pile of fittings, choosing the steel breastplate. “Can you help with this?”

       She pulled it over her head as Muriel moved behind her. He tugged on the leather lacing. “I can’t protect you if he puts us in the ring together.”

       “I don’t need you to protect me,” she replied. “Pull it tighter.”

       “I know you don’t,” he said, “but I want to.”

       Eleanor was careful not to show it, but she was moved. No one had ever been concerned with keeping her safe. She was always the protector. “Tighter, please,” she told him.

       “You won’t be able to breathe.”

       “I’ll tell you if it gets to that point,” she replied.

       “Why did you sign up?”

       “I haven’t been in combat since I met Asra,” she said with a shrug. “I missed it. A lot.”

       “So you became a gladiator?”

       She shrugged. “Why not?”

       “You must have a better reason.”

       Eleanor turned to him and put her hands on her hips, considering how much to tell Muriel. Something about him made her want to spill every secret she had, but that was lot to lay on anyone. “Do you know why I don’t age?” she asked.

       He shook his head.

       Eleanor sat on the bench and belted her thigh guards in place. “I did some bad things when I was younger, even before I met Lucio. After I left him, I met Judgement.”

       “The arcana.”

       “Yes.” She pulled on a boot. “She gave me a deal. She offered to make me stop aging, so I can’t die until I’ve been forgiven. Unless I die in an act of service.”

       “You think dying in the colosseum will redeem you?”

       “Stars, no,” Eleanor said. She stood, lifting her shoulder guard. “But Mur, I’ve been going about it all wrong. I’ve been chasing fate in circles all these years. I thought I had to give up fighting, but that’s what I’m good at. Maybe this is how I’ll figure out what I’m supposed to do.”

       “How do you know you’re supposed to do something specific?”

       “I just know,” she replied. “I’ll either die this way, or I’ll be free. At this point, I don’t care which happens.”

       “Don’t say that.”

       “It’s the truth! I’ve been stagnant for years. Death is the natural end of every living thing. Life has no meaning without it.”

       “You don’t fear death?”

       Eleanor stopped moving, thoughtful. “No. I have never in my life been afraid to die.”

       “Then what do you fear?”

       Eleanor glanced at the stone walls around her. Having Muriel made it better, but she still felt like they were crushing the air out of lungs. “A cage,” she said. “To have my freedom stolen from me.”

       She looked at Muriel. He was a huge man, with a body made for working and a heart capable of tender care. He should’ve been out in the open air, tending animals or a garden, reaping the bounty that nature offered. She pitied him in this state. Even more than she pitied Lucio.

       “If that’s what you believe,” he said. “I should go back before the guards know I’m gone.”

       She stopped him with a hand against his chest and looked up into his brilliant eyes. “I’m glad you came to see me, Mur.”

       “Good luck,” he told her, then he disappeared as quickly as he came.

       Eleanor finished getting ready, then pulled her mask up over her nose and went to join the other competitors. She chose a spot on the bench. The young man she sat beside scooted away, like he was scared to touch her. He tilted his head so that red hair hid his face. Eleanor paid no mind. She spread her legs and sat forward, balancing her forearms on her knees.

       “Red Lion, Tidal Wave, you’re up,” an attendant said. The man who moved away from her stood, a white-knuckled grip on his sword. Eleanor felt her lip twitch. There was no room for such nervousness in the colosseum. The kid was in over his head.

       Eleanor looked up as a petite woman took the empty place beside her. Her hair was glossy black, and her skin a warm beige.

       “I saw you fight yesterday,” she said to Eleanor. “When I was in the winner’s box.”

       Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “Have some criticism for me?”

       The little woman laughed. She too had an accent as slight as Eleanor's, like plucking the strings of a guitar. “No no, I thought you put on a good show. You’re intimidating.”

       “Thanks,” Eleanor replied, pulling her mask down from her face. “What do they call you?”

       “Yanbia.” She offered her hand. Her eyes were deep blue. She’d drawn swirls of green around them.

       “One of the eastern spice kingdoms,” Eleanor said, shaking her hand. “I thought I knew the accent.”

       “And you’re Western Blaze. From The Grey Sea?”

       “The very same.” Eleanor kept her voice and face neutral.

       “Why are you fighting?”

       “Just for fun.”

       Yanbia laughed. “For fun? That’s crazy.”

       “What about you?”

       “I’m came here as an indentured servant. I’m going to win my freedom.”

       “Freedom or death. Words to live by.”

       Yanbia shrugged. “I only have a few months left, but if I’m here I’m not working.”

       Eleanor smiled at the little woman. “Well, I hope we meet in the finals.”

       Yanbia’s dark eyes twinkled like sapphires. “We should get a drink if we don’t kill each other.”

       “I’d like that.”

       “What’s your real name?”

       Yanbia was certainly pretty, but Eleanor trusted her about as far as she could throw her. Then again, she could probably throw the smaller woman quite far.

       “If you live, I’ll tell you,” Eleanor said.

       “Clever. I like that in a woman.”

       Eleanor gave a casual half-smile, then the attendant called Yanbia to action.

       “Your scar is cute, by the way,” Yanbia said as she rose.

       Eleanor didn’t reply, watching Yanbia leave with a devious look in her eye. She was very attractive woman. Eleanor was flattered.

       That match seemed to drag on forever. Eleanor pulled her mask back up and fidgeted with one of her throwing knives. She was acutely aware of the remaining competitors watching her. It seemed that she’d already been targeted as the one to beat.

       Finally, she was called up. Her opponent was a slim, androgynous person called Desert Rose. They passed each other on the way to their gates, both examining the other closely. Desert Rose was the same height as Eleanor, bearing most of their bronze skin. Their long hair was dark pink, and worn proudly in a high ponytail. They had a graceful way of moving.

       As Eleanor waited behind her gate, she thought of strategy. Her opponent looked like they could be fast, but like they couldn’t take a hit. Their barbed whip would be easy to dodge, but very painful and likely binding. Eleanor would be able to take them down easily if she could only get close to them.

       She tightening her grip on her staff. It would be so easy to incinerate the opponent, but that would be a cop-out. She’d promised herself that she’d use minimal magic. Not to mention how her tattoos burned when she used anything more than a tiny trickle of magic.

       The gate began to crank open. Eleanor was announced, and she stepped into the arena.

       The first moments of brilliant sunlight were blinding, and the roaring crowd was agitating. One had to adjust themselves to the stimulation quickly, or their nerves would be their undoing. Eleanor could tune everything out, just like when she was out on the battlefield. She and Desert Rose were the only people in the world, and their battle was the only conflict.

       Eleanor twirled her staff and stood with her feet spread, ready to lunge or dodge. Desert Rose stood with a cocky hand on their hip. Eleanor made brazen eye-contact; a glare fierce enough to make most men tremble. Desert Rose tried to appear indifferent, but Eleanor could see how their fingers shifted ever-so-slightly on the handle of their whip.

       “Begin!”

       Eleanor dashed forward, but the opponent was fast. Eleanor didn’t even see the whip move, but she still jumped back just in time. It bounced harmlessly off of her chest plate with a resounding crack.

       Eleanor charged again, staff ready to swing. She rolled aside to dodge the first crack, then bolted forward again. She saw Rose’s hand move, but this time she wasn’t quick enough. She stepped aside and the whip snapped against her upper leg. Eleanor grunted in pain but kept moving closer; her thigh guard had blocked most of it.

       Rose danced further away, swinging the whip in a large circle. Eleanor ducked. Rose changed direction. Before Eleanor could move, the whip wrapped around her upper arm, thorns biting into her skin. Rose pulled the whip back, flinging Eleanor into the ground and shredding her flesh like ribbons. The crowd hissed and gasped.

       Eleanor bounced to her feet and moved back, putting distance between herself and Desert Rose. She paid no mind to the blood gushing down her arm, giving no indication that she felt any pain. She needed to think. She hadn’t even gotten a chance to hit them. How could she get closer?

       Rose was waiting like an ambush predator, counting on Eleanor to charge recklessly. They didn’t know that she was holding back.

       In a flash, Eleanor hurled one her knives. Rose dodged. Eleanor charged forth in the moment of distraction. Rose brought the whip down. Eleanor raised her arm to block. The whip wrapped around her forearm, protected by a steel bracer.

       Eleanor had expected this. She seized the whip with her wrapped hands and swung with all the strength she could muster. Desert Rose flew aside, the whip leaving their hand. They landed on their feet. Eleanor dashed forward, bringing the staff down over her head.

       Desert Rose dove to the ground, avoiding the blow. She scrambled for her whip. Eleanor jumped after them. Just as their fingers found the whip’s handle, Eleanor’s bloody hand closely around their ankle.

       She stomped on the length of the whip and dragged Rose away, who shrieked in frustration. Eleanor dropped the ankle, grabbed their arms and yanked them violently backwards. Rose screamed as both of their shoulders left their sockets.

       Eleanor dropped them and picked up her staff, expecting Rose to stay down. When she was bent over, Desert Rose tackled her legs. Eleanor, always solid, hardly stumbled. She tutted and kicked Rose aside.

       Rose rolled in the dirt then leapt to their feet. One shoulder had popped back into place. “We’re not done yet, bitch,” they spat.

       Eleanor regarded them coldly. They swayed in place, barely standing. She raised her free hand and waved Rose forward.

       As Rose stepped forward, Eleanor jabbed them in directly in the throat. They choked and grabbed their neck, shuffling back. Eleanor swung her staff from the side. It collided with the side of Rose’s skull, and they went down.

       Eleanor knelt before Desert Rose’s motionless form, checking that they were really down. Their pulse fluttered against her finger, and she breathed a sigh of relief. As she straightened up, the announcer declared her victory.

       Eleanor shook her staff in the air, egging on the crowd. Her body was pumping with adrenaline. She looked to the box and saw Julian and Lucio. Julian gave her a thumbs up. Lucio, on the other hand, seemed disappointed. He snapped his fingers at her, like trying to spark a flame.

       So he wanted more fire, did he? Eleanor raised her staff towards the sky and fireworks shot from the end. The crowd “ooed” and “awed” over the red and purple starbursts, booming like thunder above them.

       Eleanor lowered her staff, arms stinging with pain. The fireworks were too big. They used too much magic, stretching the constricted channels. She cursed under her breath and looked at the seals on her arms. They needed to be refreshed soon. She hoped that she had enough ink left.

       In the moment, the noise of the crowd ascended her to a god-like status, even as blood ran down her fingers and her arms burned. Her heart soared with pride at the sight of Lucio’s wide grin. She hadn’t felt so alive in a long time.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Healing Heart and Flesh

       Muriel knew when Eleanor’s fight was over by boom of fireworks. He slipped quietly from his cell to go find her, worry tugging at his heart. He had no reason to be concerned; she had obviously won, and she probably wasn’t too banged up. If she was, she could still heal herself.

       He was still in his combat outfit; one arm fully armored, a red sash tucked beneath a large belt, long hair hanging freely down his shoulders. The collar was heavy around his neck, attached to a chain that he’d tossed over his shoulder. He had pulled it out of the wall to come and find Eleanor.

       When he came across a trail of blood, he started walking faster and faster, until he was running through the halls. He went into her cell, grabbing the wall to stop himself. Eleanor, seated on the bench, was startled. She was covered in blood. It ran down her arms and legs in gory streaks.

       Muriel’s green eyes were big with fright, and his chest heaved from his brief sprint.

       “El, what happened?” he demanded, rushing to her side.

       “Nothing, I’m fine,” she said, but she let him take her hands.

       Kneeling before her, he unwrapped her shredded bandages to see that her fingers and palms were covered in cuts and tears, some of which needed stitches. She flinched at his touch.

       “I’m sorry,” he said quickly.

       “It’s not you,” she said. “I used more magic than I should’ve. It… fries my nerves a little.”

       Muriel waited for her to explain, but she said nothing more. He’d never heard of a magician with such a problem before. He wouldn’t pressure Eleanor for me details than she wanted to give.

       Without releasing Eleanor’s hands, he examined the rest of her, too worried to be embarrassed. Her face seemed especially pale. She still had all of her armor on, so he could see where hits had been blocked. There was a shallow but angry cut on her thigh, and her opposite bicep was covered in deep, jagged wounds that bleed freely.

       He met her steady gaze with horrified eyes. “I’m fine, really,” she insisted.

       “You’re shaking,” he said.

       “I’ve had worse.” The quaver in her voice was not lost on him.

       “Why haven’t you healed yourself?” Her hands were still laying in his massive palms.

       “I have to let my magic build up again,” she said, nodding towards her faded tattoos. “I need to redo these seals before the next match.”

       “Healing takes that much out of you?”

       “Everything except fire does.”

       He finally thought to release her hands. She laid them on her lap and begin fiddling with her armor. He ached every time she winced in pain, fighting with the buckles and straps. She was struggling to bend her fingers.

       “Let me,” he said, the softness in his voice surprising her. She drew her hands away as he reached for one of her thigh guards, undoing the buckles in the back by feeling alone. He was trying not to notice how silky her skin was. He worried that his hands felt rough.

       Once he pulled the first away, he undid the other, pulling it away from the wound. It was the least severe of her injuries, and the easiest to treat.

       He looked back to her face, and saw she had squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head aside, brows furrowed. “Hurts?” he asked.

       She nodded, chewing her lower lip.

       “Is there water in here?”

       Again she nodded, tilted her head towards a rotting dresser. Muriel retrieved the bucket and knelt before her again, tearing a strip of cloth from his sash. She hissed and flinched when the damp cloth touched the wound.

       His heart sank. “Sorry,” he rumbled.

       “It’s fine,” she replied, though her voice was higher.

       He finished cleaning her leg and looked up at her again. Her grey eyes, usually so hard, were misty with pain. Her shaking hands were pressed to her chest.

       “I can heal it, but it’ll hurt,” he warned, “and I’m not as good as Asra.”

       “I trust you,” she said.

       The words chimed like bells in his head. He was honored.

       He pressed his hand flat against the slice, letting energy flow from himself, into Eleanor. He could hear her grind her teeth. When he pulled away, the wound was puckered and pink, like it was several days old.

       “Let me do your hands,” he said.

       She shook her head, still misty. “No I… I’m claustrophobic. Help me take this armor off first.”

       “But your hands-”

       “Just… please. I feel like there’s no air.” Her voice was wobbling and her breath rasped. It was unsettling.

       She squeezed her eyes shut and took jagged breaths as Muriel rose. He first removed her shoulder guard and she rolled her shoulder, as if testing it. She twisted and stretched her neck when he unfastened the cape, then he set to the lacing of her breast plate. With all cords pulled away, he pushed it further open, then moved to her front to pull it off. Stilling holding her hands close to herself, Eleanor took a deep breath and stretched her back upwards, chest straining against the wide bandeau she wore.

       She held out her arms, and he wordlessly removed her bracers, then he pulled away her boots. She relaxed more with every piece of restrictive clothing that was removed. Muriel stepped away. Though she was almost completely exposed, she seemed less vulnerable than she did before.

       She straightened up. “Thank you, Mur, that’s a lot better.”

       He was stunned at the sudden change in persona. Eleanor's voice was low and level again. Her hands were still held close to her, but her eyes were clear and her demeanor was calm.

       “No problem," he said.

       “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

       “No problem,” he said again. He was proud that she felt she could ask him for help.

       “Give me your hands,” he ordered.

       She gave him her hands, which shook less. She didn’t flinch or hiss anymore, only allowing her eyes to flutter a little. He cleaned and healed one hand, than the other. She flexed her fingers and examined the pink scars.

       “They’ll be stiff until they finish healing,” he said, guilty that he couldn’t do better.

       She nodded. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

       He sat on the bench beside her to take care of her arm.

       “You’re so gentle,” she said.

       Muriel didn’t look up, but he felt himself blushing. Now that his worry was easing, he was keenly aware that he was alone with a stunning, nearly-naked woman. He reminded himself how deadly she was, but that did little to help his nerves.

       “Are you this nice to all the girls, or just me?” Eleanor asked.

       Muriel felt his face exploding with warmth. He thought he might die. “No, I…” he began, then he realized that she was joking. He lowered his hands and fixed her playful face with a glare. “Do you want me to heal you or not?”

       “Sorry Mur,” Eleanor said, though she didn’t seem to mean it. “You’re fun to tease.”

       Muriel shook his head and held her arm again. He let his magic flow, heavy and swirling, into her open wounds. The skin began to knit together. He didn’t mind her teasing, if he was being honest with himself. It was just surprising that she’d think he was the one to tease.

       “Can you do the runes on your own?” he asked.

       She nodded. “I’ll sleep for an entire day afterwards, but yeah.”

       “If you tell me what they’re for, I could do them,” he offered.

       “They are easy for you, aren’t they,” she muttered, looking into the distance.

       He pulled his hands away from her healed arm and thought to move away, but he didn’t. He wanted to remain close. He waited quietly while she thought.

       Eleanor turned to him. “Alright Muriel, I’ll tell you what they are,” she began. “They…”

       She trailed off when Dr. Devorak entered the room.

       “Ellie!" the long doctor said, "and… Oh! Hello, Mr. Scourge.”

       “Jules!” Eleanor said, her face lighting up in a way that made Muriel jealous. “What’s up?”

       Muriel knew had no right to Eleanor, but he still felt defensive in Julian’s presence. Julian was bold, dashing, and much less likely to ever hurt Eleanor or hold her back. Muriel had been kidding himself. Sure Eleanor trusted him, but that didn’t mean she saw him in the same way he saw her.

       “Am I interrupting?” the doctor asked, eyes darting nervously to and from Muriel.

       “Actually-” Eleanor began.

       “I need to go,” Muriel cut in.

       “Oh, okay,” Eleanor said. “I’ll see you later.”

       “Later,” Muriel said, moving quickly past Julian and through the door. He wondered which unfortunate soul would have to fight him today.

       Julian watched Muriel leave, then turned back to Eleanor. “Ellie dear, I think a celebration is in order.” His eyes wandered down. “Where are your clothes?”

       “In a better place now,” Eleanor said with a snap of her fingers. A tiny spark fluttered from her hand. “What’d you have in mind?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: Dance Practice

       Julian and Eleanor entered the pub, both feeling at home in the noise of the crowd. There was a group of musicians playing, wielding instruments from every family. The pair chose a spot at the bar and Julian ordered two beers.

       Eleanor had traded her combat gear for a calf-length skirt, made with layers of red fabric. Her blouse exposed her neck and shoulders. She showed her new scars proudly. Julian wore a simple white shirt, tucked into black pants.

       “Only one or two Julian, I don’t drink like I used to,” Eleanor said to him, voice raised over the music. Her lips were painted bright red; a departure from her usually blank face.

       “Not a problem,” he replied. “That’s not the real reason why we’re here.”

       Eleanor propped her elbow on the table and rested her head on her hand. The match was yesterday, but she was still sore. She looked at Julian with half-lidded eyes. “Then why have you brought me here, Doctor?”

       Julian beamed at his old friend. “What was alreadys your favorite thing to do in the good old days, after the fighting was done?”

       “Riding,” she answered without hesitation.

       Julian scoffed. “I mean what we used to do together. When we all went out.”

       “Hm. Probably dancing.”

       “And when’s the last time you went dancing?”

       “Well…”

       “Really dancing, I mean. How you and I used to dance.”

       Eleanor's eyes moved from side to side as she thought. “You mean, like when we made Lucio so jealous he broke a plate? Years.”

       Julian chugged his beer and offered Eleanor his hand. “Shall we?”

       Eleanor straightened up, finished her drink, and accepted his hand. They made their way to the dance floor, mingling with the other couples.

       “Remember how we used to tango?” he asked her.

       “How could I forget? You were always so suave,” she replied, a fire lighting in her eyes.

       “Let’s see how good your memory is.”

Eleanor chose a golden coin from her pocket and tossed it into the musicians’ jar. “Play us something sexy,” she told them.

       The deep pluck of up upright bass set the rhythm. Then came the melody of a breathy accordion and the warm harmony of a guitar. Julian’s hand found her waist, and hers, his shoulder. They joined hands, their opposite hips pressed together.

       “Shall I lead?” He asked.

       In time with the bass, he took a bold step forward, and she stepped back.

       “The tallest usually does,” she replied, turning her face to the side. Every muscle in her body was held at attention, ready to the answer his.

       A pair of violins joined in, layering the melody of the accordion with their staccato. Guiding her with his hands, they twirled around.

       “You liked to mix it up sometimes,” he said.

       Following the notes of the violins, they moved sideways in a wide circle, Julian pushing her hip along with his. They stopped on the beat. Julian pulled her hand up and she spun on her toe, red skirt flaring around her. She fell back into his arms and he dipped her low. Balanced on one foot, she extended one graceful arm behind herself.

       “I think it usually went better when you lead,” she said.

       Julian pulled her up and they were hip to hip again, stepping in sync to the music, faces turned from each other.

       “You could be a little aggressive,” he admitted.

       Others were watching them move together, much to their own delight. They were both strong and confident, moving with easy grace. Her feet half-slid along the floor, skirts rippling hypnotically with the sway of her hips. She had to trust him to carry part of her weight.

       “Me? Aggressive?” She snapped him against her, and the dynamic was changed. Where he had pulled her, she pushed him. The tempo picked up. The melody was dark and heavy.

       “You like to be in charge,” he said as she pushed him several sharp steps back, hand to his chest, still moving as one.

       They held each other again and spun tightly. More were watching them.

       “It take the right partner to make me loosen up,” she replied. She went to spin away and he caught her arm. She leaned dangerously forward, one leg bent. He pulled her back and she twirled into him, her back pressed to his chest. Their arms were crossed over each other. The music returned to the original melody.

       They took several steps to the right. “I’m deeply honored to be such a partner,” Julian said.

       They spun in place, then soared back to the left. “You’re my best friend, Jules.”

       He pulled her arms up, and she twisted around. They were hip-to-hip again, joined hands extended. She was ravishing in his arms, but he’d seen her at her cruelest. The graceful feet that danced with his had crushed many skulls. “I’d have it no other way,” he replied.

       Their bodies were in tune with each other. Sexuality radiated from them, delighting the audience. The attraction ran deep. Julian did love Eleanor. He did find her beautiful. He even had a suspicion that they would have fantastic sex. He did not, however, want to date her.

       Muriel was out for an evening walk when he heard the music. He felt compelled to follow the sound. He’d actually been on his way to Eleanor’s shop; he wanted to ask her about her runes. He was fairly certain that his seals would be better than hers, but his nerves wreaked havoc on his confidence. What if she changed her mind, and didn’t trust him? What if she didn’t want him to touch her?

       When he approached the bar his height allowed him to see over the crowd. There were two dancers, pressed to each other, practically making love on the dance floor. He had never seen two people moving in such a way. It was gruesome and elegant. He couldn’t look away.

       The dancers spun towards him, and he was shocked to recognize Eleanor and Julian. They were a vision of adult beauty, moving like perfect halves of one whole. They fight together like puzzle pieces. He burned with jealousy, but he was still rooted in place.

       The music crescendoed. Julian pulled Eleanor into one last spin. The final two notes echoed through the night and she was in his arms, the back of her hand to his face. The crowd clapped and murmured their approval. The dancers faced each other, breathless, and smiled.

       The spell was finally lifted. Muriel started to leave, thinking he hadn’t been seen.

       “Muriel, wait up!” came his favorite sound.

       He turned and there was Eleanor, golden waves framing her face. She was still out of breath. “What brings you out tonight?”

       His thoughts were all tripping over each other. He couldn’t lie to Eleanor. “I was coming to find you,” he said.

       “You hate being in crowds,” Eleanor said, “but you came out for me?”

       “I… um…”

       She tilted her head, red lips a playful curl. He’d never seen her so done-up, showing off the stunning hourglass of her figure. Muriel wondered if she knew what a spell she cast.

       “So you were headed to my shop?” she asked.

       “Yeah, then I heard the music,” he could feel his face heating up. “And I followed it, then I saw you and the doctor…”

       “Did the crowd scare you?” She was inquisitive, her face a little looser than usual. Perhaps she’d just become that comfortable with him.

       “Maybe. But the two of you... I didn’t know it was like that. I’m sorry.”

       He turned to leave, so embarrassed he couldn’t bear it. He should’ve never seeked her out. He should’ve never made any assumptions. It hadn’t even been two months since Asra left.

       Eleanor stepped forward and gripped his arm. She used no strength, but it still stopped him is his tracks. She guided him back around to face her. “Muriel, have you ever seen a tango before?”

       He shook his head.

       “It’s from the North, from Arspania. It’s a kind of dance. It’s famous because it’s very… intimate.”

       He was even more embarrassed. “So it doesn’t mean anything?”

       “Gods, no. Julian is my best friend. When we dance like that, it’s like acting.”

       “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed…” he trailed off when a new song started inside the bar. It was slower, presumably to help the masses cool off from the tango.

       Eleanor stood with her hands behind her back. She lowered her head, listening for a moment, then looked up at Muriel. “Can you dance?”

       “I don’t know how.”

       “Let me show you,” she said. “Give me your hands.”

       He hesitated. “I might step on your feet.”

       “You won’t. Trust me,” she said, hand held aloft. Her dark eyes were wide and inviting.

       Muriel slid his hand into hers. Eleanor guided his hand to her waist, then moved the chain he wore over his shoulder. He spread his fingers against her lower back, afraid to use any pressure. She was initially soft, but muscular underneath. “We’ll start slow,” she said. “This is really simple. All we do is sway in place, and move in a circle.”

       She tugged him along, and they moved slowly, barely shifting their feet.

       “Just like that,” she said. Her voice was quieter than usual, perhaps because they were so close. “Now, you try to lead me. It always feels most natural if the tallest leads.”

       Her arms relaxed, and Muriel pulled ever so gently, swaying their joined hands up and down in time to the music. He found that it did feel natural. He stole a glance at Eleanor face, her eyes glittering beneath her lashes. She met his gaze and her lips curled into a playful smile.

       “Don’t look at me,” she said. “You’ll get dizzy.”

       Muriel turned his face away, heat on his cheeks. It was hard not to look at her.

       “See? Not so bad,” she said.

       Muriel was careful to maintain a respectful distance. The last thing he wanted to do was make Eleanor uncomfortable. Why she was so nice to him, he didn’t understand.

       “You know,” Eleanor said, “being a good dancer can help you be better fighter.”

       “How’s that?”

       “It’s all about the sense of rhythm,” Eleanor said. “Listening to the music, feeling how your partner moves, and acting accordingly.”

       Muriel listened. The violins rose over the crowd, sweet and clear.

       “Let’s do a box step,” she said. “You step, I’ll follow you. Right foot forward…”

       Muriel followed Eleanor’s instructions exactly, though he felt he was doing the art of dancing a disservice. His shuffling feet seemed too big to do anything graceful with. He could feel his face burning.

       “This is great,” Eleanor said as he found the rhythm. “Now, you’re the lead, so you have to use your body to tell mine what to do.”

       Muriel’s face was even hotter. “What?”

       Eleanor gave him a half smile, mischief in her eyes. “What you mean ‘what’? Where’s your mind at?”

       Muriel feigned like he was stepping away. “Actually, I think I’ll go.”

       Eleanor tugged him back, laughing. “No, no, come back. I won’t tease.”

       Muriel righted himself and they were stepping in a square again.

       “Alright, so when you take the last step,” Eleanor said, “We’re going to do a simple turn. Use your hand, you’re going to push me in a circle around you, and then we’ll go back to doing a box step. Okay? Whenever you’re ready.”

       Muriel took a breath. It took everything in his power not to watch Eleanor’s face. His pressed his left hand firmer into her waist, and they spun in place. He nearly tripped on the next step, but they didn’t stop.

       “That was good,” she praised. “Let’s try it again.”

       Muriel and Eleanor went around several times, until finally Muriel landed the turn properly. “You got it,” she said, delighted.

       Muriel glanced at Eleanor’s face. Her cheeks were curled into apples, her mouth a pert little grin. He hardly dared to believe it, but she seemed happy to be there. Happy to be with him. Muriel felt happy, too.

       Then his foot found a rock.

       “Oh!” Eleanor exclaimed as he stumbled. Out of instinct, Muriel jerked Eleanor against him. She spread her feet to brace herself, steadying them both.

       “Are you okay?” she asked.

       Muriel looked at Eleanor, then at the ground, then back at Eleanor. One of her legs was between his, their chests pressed together. Her face turned pink before his very eyes. He could smell lavender in her hair. He might’ve been fooling himself, but he thought the air around them was suddenly warmer.

       “Get a room,” came a drunken slur.

       Eleanor stiffened.

       “Is that who I think it is?” another drunkard asked.

       “That’s the Scourge!”

       Muriel sighed as he and Eleanor straightened up. He should’ve expected as much. He couldn’t have anything nice.

       “Oi! Scourge! Over here.”

       “I should go,” he said as he released Eleanor.

       She stopped him with a hand to his chest. Her head was lowered so that shadows hid her face. All the obvious tension in her body made Muriel so nervous, he almost felt sick.

       “You have as much right to be here as them,” Eleanor said, then she turned and stepped away from him. “Does someone have a problem with my friend?”

       There were three of them. Two of them avoided Eleanor’s gaze, but the ringleader was either too drunk or too stupid.

       “Yeah I got a fuckin’ problem,” he said.

       “Taz, don’t,” said one of his friends; a woman with blue hair.

       Taz ignored her, stepping closer to Eleanor. “Your buddy here is a murderer.”

       “Gonna do something about it?” Eleanor prodded. “Or are you just gonna talk shit like a bitch?”

       Muriel started forward. He had to put himself between Eleanor and the drunk.

       “I-” the drunk began.

       Eleanor’s fist landed square in his face. The drunk dropped straight to the floor. Muriel sucked in a reflexive breath.

       The other two came running in to help their friend. Eleanor seized the woman by the hair and twisted around, forcing the woman to bend backwards as she cried out. The man rushed in, swinging his fists. Eleanor yanked the woman in front herself, using her body as a human shield.

       The man hit his friend once by mistake, threw his hands up in guilt, then Eleanor shoved the woman into him. They both fell and scrambled to get back up. Eleanor seized the man by the back of his head and drove her knee into his face, then pushed him away. He fell to his side and stayed down.

       The woman was running. Eleanor started to go after her.

       “El!” Muriel shouted, grabbing her by the arm.

       Eleanor whirled around to face him, eyes wide. She looked embarrassed, like she’d been caught sneaking extra desert. There was blood on her skirt, but her hair wasn’t even disheveled. The men on the ground groaned and crawled away. Eleanor’s eyes flickered to them with the same disdain one might have for some pest.

       “Sorry,” she said, though she obviously didn’t mean it. “Old habits.”

       Eleanor had just fought three people by herself, like she was swatting flies. She’d fought them on Muriel’s behalf. He couldn’t think of anything to say.

       She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have started a fight.”

       “He was gunning for me, El.”

       “I didn’t mean to-”

       “You protected me,” he said.

       Eleanor’s brow furrowed like she was confused. “Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”

       Muriel looked at her, looked at the crawling drunkards, and cracked a smile.

       “Are you actually smiling right now? What’s so funny?”

       “You think I need protection?”

       Eleanor put a hand on her hip. “‘Thank you’ is the usual response.”

       “Thank you for protecting me from drunk civilians.”

       She snorted and looked aside. “I could do without the sarcasm, but I’ll take it.”

       “El,” he said.

       She looked up at him.

       “Thank you.”

       The witch smiled. “It’s my pleasure. Now come on, we were in the middle of a lesson.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Late Night at the Library

       Eleanor had not been sleeping well.

       On nights that she fought at the arena, she slept like a baby. The few times she’d been alone with Muriel, she couldn’t stop herself from falling asleep. Every other night, however, she had been restless. Eleanor was plagued with nightmares, and had been for many years; long before she’d even come to Vesuvia.

       Eleanor often woke in a cold sweat, swinging her fists at an imagined enemy. The smell of smoke would still be burning in her nose. If she was desperate enough she would stay awake for days at a time, until she couldn’t go on. The visions were always worse afterwards, but at least she’d be free for a while. Eleanor told herself it wasn’t real, but it still felt real.

       When she was with Asra, she used to sleep better. He always knew how to distract her whatever issue that was on her mind. Now that he was gone, she would lay alone in the bed they used to share and think about him. She missed him, and she was riddled with guilt for all the time she’d stolen from him. It was the guilt, she figured, that made sleeping so hard. Sometimes it was Asra, and sometimes it was any number of her previous crimes.

       After closing up her shop a few nights before the third round, Eleanor packed up some supplies and headed for the palace. She hadn’t had much time to work on the medicine she and Julian had developed. There were no more plague victims so there was no way to test it, but she still had time to do some research in the library. She hoped to develop several versions before the next wave arrived.

       It was the beginning of the harvest season. The Vesuvians were beginning to call it chilly, but it felt warm to Eleanor. She’d been in Vesuvia for six years, and she still found it too hot to be comfortable for most of the time.

       The setting sun cast the palace in an orange glow. As Eleanor approached, she found herself searching for Muriel’s tower. It was situated in the back, not far from the library. She thought to pay him a visit, but wondered if it was a good idea.

       Muriel was always unfailingly gentle. He knew how monstrous Eleanor could be, but he still spoke to her so softly. Eleanor had never imagined that such a tender person could know about her past and still find her beautiful. She supposed it was because his past was rife with violence, too.

       She reminded herself that he didn’t really know everything. She still hadn’t told him exactly why she was cursed. Besides that, he was a regular man who could still have a normal, satisfying life. Eleanor would never be able to have such a life. Not until the curse was broken.

       The palace guards recognized Eleanor and let her pass the gates. She was one of four people with access to the palace’s magnificent library. She remembered the way through the maze of corridors. An attendant undid the complicated locks. Eleanor went through the ornate doors and into the library.

       The library was several stories tall, with a glass ceiling open to the sky above. The shelves were dark and wooden, bearing dozen of artifacts and artworks alongside thousands of books and scrolls. The sight of it all never failed to amaze Eleanor. She had always treasured books, even though she couldn’t read until she was in her twenties.

       Eleanor spread books and scrolls across her chosen desk. The setting sun cast colors through the stained-glass windows. The words were both in Vesuvian and Suomean, though Eleanor had a difficult time reading in her own native language. In the deep south where Suomean was spoken, the wasn’t much use for books. Only the tribal shamans, like her father, read frequently.

       As night fell, Eleanor conjured a ball of light and cast it into the center of the room, where it sat like a miniature moon.

       She’d been listing ingredients and their effects for several hours when the library doors opened. She didn’t look up- she recognized the gait of the person who entered.

       “Ellie, you could’ve told me you were coming to visit,” the Count said as he approached her desk. The scroll she wrote on ran over the edge of the desk and onto the floor.

       “I’m not visiting, I’m working,” she replied, eyes running back and forth across a page. She scribbled something on her scroll with the heavy hand of an inexperienced writer.

       “What are you doing?” he asked.

       “I’m researching ingredients,” she replied. “Things that might make my treatment work better.”

       “Sounds boring.”

       “It’s complicated,” she said, still looking at her book. “You have to know your chemistry; what would react with what, what’s acidic and what’s basic, things like that.”

       “It seems like only yesterday you were completely illiterate. All you knew were the three F’s: fire, fighting, and fucking.”

       While Lucio laughed at his own joke, Eleanor ignored him. She didn’t have time for his games. This research was the entire reason that she and Asra parted ways.

       “You know, Pontifax Vulgora is such a riot,” Lucio said. “Fantastic drinking partner. Great fighter. Terrible commander. Did you hear that we lost one of our outposts last week?”

       “So replace them.”

       “It’s not so easy,” Lucio said. “Vulgora’s wealthy and powerful. I owe them a great deal.”

       “Never thought you’d be wining and dining nobles.” Eleanor’s lip curled. Nobles were slimy, cowardly, and out of touch. No one born into money had any business governing the poor.

       “It’s part of running a city,” said Lucio. “Now, if I had you there to reign them in-”

       “Those days are behind me.”

       “Yes, that must be why you became a gladiator.”

       Eleanor growled, bending lower into her book. Lucio was very distracting. As much as she would’ve loved to be back in action, this was were she belonged, at least for now. There would be nothing to defend if everyone in the city was dead.

       The symptoms of the disease were slightly different every time the disease came back. Julian was convinced that the disease was bloodborne, while Eleanor suspected parasites. Either way, it seemed to be the fever that usually killed victims. They were also always consumed with hunger. No matter how much they ate, the patients withered as if they starved. Eventually they were too weak to move, living their last moments in motionless pain.

       “Ellie, you’re so stressed,” Lucio said, his hands working her shoulders.

       At first Eleanor tensed at his touch, then she relaxed. She was sore from being hunched over. “And I suppose you want to help me relax,” she guessed.

       “It’d be fun for both of us.”

       Eleanor scoffed and pushed his hands away. When they were together, even before they were lovers, Lucio would do kind things for Eleanor for no particular reason. He had always been egotistical and selfish, but these days it seemed to consume him.

       Lucio leaned against the desk and crossed his arms, placing himself in her peripheral vision.

       “Do you know why the ceiling is glass?” he asked Eleanor.

       She was focused on her work again. “No,” she said.

       “I remembered how enclosed spaces could make you nervous,” he said. “I did build this place for you, afterall.”

       She looked up, touched. “You remembered that?”

       “Of course I did. It was damn inconvenient sometimes. Even building that ceiling was inconvenient. And expensive.”

       “Hmm,” Eleanor replied, turning back to her book.

       “Like when we had to escape through the ventilation shaft in Igatha, do you remember that?”

       “I remember."

       “You told us just to leave you behind while the chamber filled with sand. Wouldn't admit you were scared. I tried to drag you out by the arm.”

       Eleanor laughed. “And burned the shit out of your hand.”

       “That’s how I learned not to touch you when you were upset.”

       “Sorry again about that.”

       Lucio puffed out his lip and held his good hand limply by the wrist. “You know, it really hurt. I swear I can still feel it. ”

       Eleanor rolled her eyes. She’d seen that trick many times. “You’re crazy,” she said.

       “Crazy good looking,” Lucio replied with a wink.

       “Did you have a point?” Eleanor pressed, rolling her eyes.

       “Patience star, I’m getting there. Do you remember what you did?”

       “I turned all of the sand to glass.”

       “It was amazing, Ellie. I’d never seen anything like it.”

       Eleanor, smiled at him, nostalgic, then remembered where they were. She buried her nose in her book. “You’re just trying to get me to sleep with you,” she said.

       Lucio snorted. “You always assume the worst.”

       “Am I wrong?”

       “Well, no, but it really was amazing, and you really should get some rest.”

       Eleanor rubbed her blood-shot eyes. Her eyelids felt like sandpaper. “Is it that obvious?”

       “It is, my star.” He bent to kiss her cheek. “I’ll leave you alone, but you know where my bed is.”

       Eleanor touched her cheek, surprised and delighted at the gesture. As Lucio left, she considered following him. She couldn’t be sure whether he was actually being nice to her or if he was trying to manipulate her. She want it to be the former, but it would be better for them both if it was the latter.

       She closed her book with a thud. Either way, Lucio was right. She was too tired to focus properly. She wasn’t sure where she should go. She could go home, but then she wouldn’t sleep well. She could go to Lucio’s chambers, but he would keep her up all night. They couldn’t keep sleeping together, or things would get very messy.

       She shoved her things in her bag and pulled her cloak over her shoulders. She knew where to go.

       Eleanor navigated through the halls and stairs until she came to his door. She hesitated a moment before knocking, wondering if he was asleep. It was late, afterall. Even if he was awake, it might not be the smartest decision.

       Making her choice, she knocked on the chamber door. She heard footsteps approach, then the door opened.

       “I wasn’t sure you were up,” she said.

       Muriel's body filled the entire doorframe. In the gloom of the night, his eyes seemed to glow. He was shirtless, showing that his chest was covered in dark hair, with a trail running down his naval and into his pants. His torso was crossed with battle scars.

       He moved aside, allowing Eleanor to enter.

       “It’s cold in here, that doesn’t bother you?” she asked.

       Muriel shrugged.

       She looked at his bed, which had a few raggedy blankets and one pillow. He must’ve been freezing at night.

       “What do you want?” he asked.

       “It’s a weird request,” Eleanor said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Is it okay if I sleep in here?”

       Muriel raised his eyebrows. “And not in a guest room?”

       “I’ll be honest with you,” she said, looking at the ground. “I’ve slept soundly about three times in the past couple months.”

       She looked back at Muriel, who still stood beside the door. His face was turned away, like he was afraid to look her in the eye. “When you were with me?” he asked.

       “Yes,” Eleanor replied. "I'm um... more relaxed when you're around."

        Muriel looked at her as if she was crazy. She hadn’t taken off her cloak or bag. She didn’t want to be presumptuous. Muriel liked his space.

       “You can have the bed,” he said, nodded towards the mattress that sat on the floor.

       “No way,” Eleanor said with a wave of her arms. “I’m not kicking you out of your bed.”

       “I’ve slept on the floor before.”

       “So have I, just as much as you.” She planted her fists against her hips.

       “I have blankets.”

       “Not enough. I’m from the south, I’m used to it.”

       “I’m from the south, too.”

       “Well, I have my cloak.” She held up the edge of her grey, floor-length cloak. It was a warm garment.

       “I can’t let you sleep on the floor.”

       “Why not? You’re already doing me a favor.”

       “I just can’t.”

       “Well, neither can I.”

       She stood firmly in place with her feet spread, ready to wrestle him for the floor. Muriel sighed and jerked his broad shoulders. He wore a pout on his face. As adorable as it was, Eleanor could tell he was annoyed.

       Eleanor pursed her lips and looked from Muriel, to the bed, then back the Muriel. She had an idea, but she wasn’t sure he would like it. “We could share,” she suggested.

       She watched as a blush bloomed on Muriel’s face. The magician secretly swooned. She certainly wouldn’t mind sharing with him, since it was cold and the man was a living furnace. He seemed conflicted.

       “Unless that makes you uncomfortable,” she added. “I’m not taking all my clothes off, or anything.”

       “No, it’s alright,” he said, finally looking down at her. “We can share.”

       “If you’re sure.”

       Muriel nodded.

       “Well, great,” she said, unfastening her cloak.

       Eleanor removed her boots and overclothes, crawling into the bed in a sleeveless undershirt and her shorts. She settled under the blankets, still warm from Muriel’s body, and cast her eyes up at him. He still lingered near the door with a concerned look on his face.

       Eleanor pat the empty space next to her and Muriel approached slowly. He raised the blankets and laid on the very edge of the mattress, like he was trying to leave room.

       “Mur, I’m an old mercenary,” Eleanor said. “I’ve shared cramped quarters with my fair share of big, scary men.”

       “I don’t want to crush you.” His voice was lowered, rumbling like distant thunder.

       “You won’t,” she soothed.

       Muriel eased fully into bed, until his shoulder bumped against Eleanor’s. Beneath the blankets it was already several degrees warmer. Eleanor was struck by how small she felt beside him, though she wasn't small by any standard. She fought the urge to cuddle against him, longing to be wrapped in those big, strong arms. Her body suddenly felt so heavy, dragging her further into the mattress,

       “Do you have enough room?” Muriel asked, looking over to her.

       Eleanor didn’t reply because she had fallen asleep almost immediately. She laid on her stomach, head resting in her crossed arms, face turned towards Muriel. One of her legs was bent so it just brushed against his.

       Muriel settled on his side and closed his eyes, following Eleanor into sleep. Neither had any dreams that night.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: Basic Impulse

        Eleanor was warm. Delightfully warm. In all her life, she’d never felt so snug.

        Muriel’s strong arms were wrapped tightly around her, his chin resting against the top of her head. Her face was pressed between his neck and shoulder, just below his iron collar. Her breath swirled against his olive skin. When she shifted, his whiskers scratched her forehead. He held her with the gentle tenacity of child handling a delicate treasure, afraid that it would fall.

        Eleanor could’ve gotten high on the smell of Muriel’s skin. There was the earthy scent of whatever he bathed with, but something beneath was distinctly masculine. Her lips were so close to his neck; close enough to cover his jaw in kisses. As she laid in his embrace, pretending she was still asleep, she felt a heat between her legs. Her stomach fluttered with longing.

        It would’ve been so easy to slide a hand down that muscular torso, to press her wanting mouth to the tender part of his neck. She couldn’t imagine he’d tell her no; she knew he’d felt similar desires.

        Eleanor let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Muriel cared deeply for her, and she for him. It would be wrong to use him in that way, no matter how much they wanted it. He would get hurt, inevitably.

        Eleanor wanted to draw the morning out as long as she could, but her will power was crumbling before her eyes. If she lingered, she might do something stupid.

        She eased herself away, despite the part of her brain that screamed at her. Muriel’s arms were firm around her; she had to pry herself free as gently as she could. As she sat up, she took in his sleeping form. His face was quite handsome when his brows weren’t furrowed with worry. She wondered if she should say goodbye, but she’d hate to wake him.

        A small voice in the back of her head told her that it wasn’t too late; Eleanor could still crawl back into bed and press her body against his. She rubbed her temples, trying to will her urges away. Had she always been such a slave to her impulses? She supposed she didn’t tell herself “no” often enough.

        She redressed in her overclothes, then leaned against the wall to pull on her boots. The flutter in her stomach persisted; it was going to bother her all day. She’d be miserable.

        She froze in place, standing on one foot, as a thought closed her mind. The feeling would go away if someone else satisfied it.

        With purpose, Eleanor tossed her cloak over her shoulders made a beeline for Lucio’s wing. She was careful to avoid anyone’s eye. When she approached his chamber door, she spotted Lucio’s dogs. They laid together in front of his door, raising their elegant, white heads as Eleanor drew nearer. They were identical at first glance, but the older one had a torn ear. She had seen them on Lucio’s heels a few times, but had never interacted with them.

        “I’m here to visit your master,” Eleanor said. “Will you let me past?”

        Both dogs tilted their heads and pricked up their ears, but they did not move.

        Eleanor sighed as she knelt in front of them, offering her hand. “I suppose you’re right, it’s not a great idea,” she said as they sniffed her extended hand.

        The dogs seemed to accept her presence. She pet the older one’s silky neck. The other, jealous, pushed herself between to two. Eleanor laughed, giving the younger dog some attention. “No need to fuss, I have two hands.”

        She sat on the floor and both animals sprawled before her, laying their heads in her lap. The older one sighed and closed his eyes while the other looked up at her face, as if in love. She murmured praise to them as she stroked their luxurious fur, forgetting what she’d come there for.

        The door opened, and all three startled and looked up. Lucio looked down at Eleanor with a raised eyebrow. “I see you met my guard dogs,” he said.

        Once he spoke both dogs leapt to their feet and approached him, tongues hanging and tails wagging. Their whole bodies wiggled with joy as Lucio greeted them. “Now sit,” he instructed, and they both sat obediently.

        He offered Eleanor his hand and she accepted. “They’re not great at their job, are they?” she asked.

        “They’re usually more aggressive,” he replied, looking at his dogs sternly. They lowered their ears.

        “I’m good with animals,” Eleanor said.

        Lucio caved and began petting the dogs, murmuring sweet nothings in Suomean. Their tails thumped against the floor.

        Lucio was already dressed for the day. He wore a white suit with a fur-topped cloak. His platinum hair was slicked back, and he’d drawn jagged markings beneath his eyes. Eleanor’s gaze lingered on his exposed chest, but she looked away before he could notice.

        “I wonder, Count, if I could have a moment of your time,” she said, keeping her face neutral.

        “Oh?” Lucio straightened up and stepped closer to her. His eyelids lowered suggestively as he searched her face.

        “I’m a busy man, you know,” he said.

        “Just a moment,” she stressed, still showing no emotion.

        Lucio cracked a wolfish half-smile and reached backwards to push the door open. “I suppose I have some time to spare.”

        Eleanor entered with her chin raised. As she passed Lucio, she felt electrified. He entered after her, pulling the door closed behind him.

        Eleanor looked around Lucio’s bed chamber. She’d never been inside it before. The decorations were as lavish as she expected; heavy red and gold. The four-poster bed and windows were draped with the same sheer, red fabric, casting a seductive glow through the room. He’d made his own bed. The cover was white fur.

        She turned back the door, where Lucio was watching her with a sly smile. “Do you have any morning meetings?” she asked.

        “I do, actually,” he said as she crossed the room. “I have to discuss war business with the Pontifax this morning.”

        Eleanor feigned picking fuzz from his coat. Lucio’s coat was impeccable. “Is that all?” she asked, pursing her lips.

        “There’s also meetings with the Questor and the Praetor.” He held still as she pretended to fuss over him.

        She seized the collar of his jacket, leaving mere inches between their chests. She tugged at the collar, pretending to adjust it, than looked up at him. “Cancel them,” she told him, then yanked him against her for a kiss.

        Lucio didn’t hesitate. The claws of his gauntlet were stabbing into her back. Eleanor was desperate to feel something, anything, no matter how much it hurt or what marks it left behind. Every bruise and caress fed the fire within.

        Pushing him against the door, she ran her mouth down his jaw, leaving her name on his neck. “I knew you’d be back for more,” Lucio said, unbearably smug.

        Eleanor growled, pushed him harder against the wall. “Shut the fuck up,” she said against his lips. “For once in your life, just shut up.”

        He nipped her lower lip as she pulled away, a chuckle in his throat. She tore her own shirt off, then undid his jacket and pushed it away. She kissed him again. This time Lucio pushed her back, metal claws cutting into her waist to keep her from falling. He pushed until she stumbled backwards into the bed. She let him climb on top of her. The fur cover was soft against her back.

        His torso pressed into her as they kissed, her hands holding him against her by the hair. Eleanor was angry; angry that he wasn’t Muriel, angry that he wasn’t Asra, angry at her body for how it betrayed her intentions, angry at herself for how much she still wanted Lucio.

        “Ellie,” Lucio said between kisses. “Too hot.”

        “Ah, sorry,” Eleanor said, drawing her magic back into her core. She’d gotten carried away.

        “I’ll make it even.” He chomped on her breast and she yelped, grasping his arms with iron knuckles.

        “Prick,” she spat, eyes watering. He laughed then ran his tongue over the spot.

        Eleanor closed her eyes as his mouth explored. She sighed her pleasure as Lucio sucked on her neck, leaving a trail of hickies. The tension in her body left with the rest of her clothes. When he stopped she opened her eyes, impatient.

        “Why’d you stop?” she demanded, propping herself up on her arms.

        Lucio held himself above her. The veins on his good arm were prominent against the muscles. His makeup was already smudged on his sharp face. His pale eyes ran up and down Eleanor’s form with unusual precision, making her blush against the white fur.

        “I’ve been picturing you in this bed for ages,” he told her. His gaze lingered on her lips

        “How many others have been where I am now?” she asked, cocking one brow.

        “Oh, the list is epic,” he said, bowing his head to kiss her upper jaw. His breath was hot against her cheek.

        “But?” Eleanor pressed, sensing he had more to say.

        “But you’re by far the loveliest thing to ever grace this mattress,” he murmured into her ear. “Or to ever set foot in this palace.”

        “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

        He chuckled into her neck, his mouth moving down. He kissed the space between her breasts and rolled one nipple between his finger and thumb. Her blush crept further down her chest. She pushed her hips into the mattress and ground her thighs together.

        “Lucio,” she whined. “Stop teasing.”

        “Or what?”

        “Or I’ll make you stop.”

        “Oh?” He slid one hand up her thigh. “How do you plan to do that?” His fingers drew cheeky circles on her silky skin, an inch away from her sex. The sensations were driving her crazy.

        Eleanor locked her arms around his back and rolled, wrestling him into the mattress. Lucio held his hands up in surrender, a pleased look on his face. She looked down on him from where she sat, straddling his stomach. “You look so good underneath me,” she said, then bent down for a kiss.

        She broke away and kissed his neck and jaw. Lucio’s sigh of pleasure fueled her fire and stifled her guilt. Her mouth trailed down his chest, towards his stiffening cock. She paused to undo his belt. Lucio raised his hips and she pulled his pants the rest of the way down. Eleanor gave the head of his cock a teasing kiss, eyes set on his face.

        Lucio closed his eyes and tipped his crown back, lips slightly parted. His pale chest rose and fell with his quickening breath. He moaned as she slid her mouth down his shaft, struggling not to gag on the sharp curve.

        Eleanor found a rhythm, running her tongue up and down the base and she bobbed her head, occasionally flicking it against the tip. Lucio’s moan was more like a growl, deep in his throat. He held her hair back from her face as she worked, her mouth a tight O around his prick.

        His breath escalated, and Eleanor knew it was time to pull away. She wiped her mouth and crawled forward, intense eyes fixed on his. Lucio leaned back into the pillows as she placed her knees on either side his head. He wrapped both hands around her thighs, the claws of his gauntlet digging into the flesh.

        She sighed as his tongue pushed her slit open, moving in one long, straight stroke. She reached backwards to pump him while he ate her out, and his grip around her thighs tightened. Eleanor moaned and closed her eyes, forgetting the rest of the world.

        Lucio traced tight, firm circles around her clit. Eleanor’s voice rose higher and higher until her her breath caught in her throat. Her thighs tensed around his head. He held her shaking body so tightly in place that his claws started to break the skin. Her entire being was alive with sensation as she came against his mouth.

        Eleanor was too dazed to respond when Lucio shoved her aside and leapt on top of her, pinning her legs back with his torso. She hardly knew what was happening as he pushed his prick all the way into her wet pussy. She gasped and wrapped her hands around the back of his neck.

        Eleanor thought of nothing except the way he felt inside her, pounding so fast and deep that tremors went across her flesh. She writhed in place, grabbing fistfuls of his sheets, her loud cries filling the room. Her eyes rolled upwards in ecstasy.

        Only with the greatest effort could Eleanor focus on Lucio’s face. His sharp eyeliner was smudged down his pale skin. He kissed her, shoving his tongue down her throat. She tasted herself on his lips.

        Eleanor whimpered into his mouth as she came. Her legs seized up and her walls convulsed around the invading prick. Gasping, she arched her back and grabbed his shoulder. Her nails dug into his skin.

        “You should see yourself Ellie,” he hissed into her ear, still pounding. “You look like a bitch in heat.”

        Eleanor couldn’t think of the words to respond. When she opened her mouth all that came out were grunts and moans.

        “Soon to be a Champion Gladiator, still my fuck-toy,” he said.

        “I-I…” she stammered. Her head was a mess. She needed to collect herself.

        Lucio chuckled at her expense. “Come on Ellie, where’s the warrior in you?”

        A coherent sentence finally formed in her head. She leveled him with her icy gaze. “I’ll show you warrior,” she growled.

        She pushed him away with her strong legs and rose to her knees. He seized her by the arms and tried to push her back down, but she wouldn’t be moved. They wrestled together, rolling across the bed until they fell on the floor. Eleanor landed on top. She straddled his pelvis and slid down on his with a delicious sigh.

        Lucio cursed under his breath and placed his hands on her hips. She rocked back on forth on her shins and knees, stimulating herself with the friction. She wrapped her hand around the back of his skull, guiding him up. Mouth parted, he leaned forward until their lips caught each other. His teeth were rough against her lower lip.

        Eleanor pushed Lucio’s head down, and his mouth found her breast. He sucked and nibbled while she rode him, fingers knotted in his hair.

        Her legs froze up as she came again, moaning into Lucio’s crown. While she was paused, he shoved her aside and wrestled her to the floor, pinning her flat on her stomach. He held both wrists above her head, strong enough to hold both of her arms with one. The floor was cold against her sensitive skin. She wriggled in place, but he had her completely trapped.

        Eleanor raised her hips and Lucio entered her from behind, pumping in and out with ease. She felt dizzy with pleasure, finally resigned to letting him take control. His torso was low over hers. She felt the heat from his body.

        His clawed hand was breaking the skin on his waist. She yelped when he bit her shoulder, cutting into her. “You’re so fucking wet,” he said from behind her. “Always a whore for me.”

        As Lucio murmured filth against her neck, Eleanor could only moan in reply. He yanked her up by the hair. He made deep, strong thrusts as he slid his good hand around her leg and played with her swollen clit. She wiggled her hips as her next organism came close.

        He stopped all movement, still deep inside her pussy. “You’re my slut, you understand?”

        She whimpered and nodded. She’d say anything, do anything Lucio wanted if only he’d keep fucking her. He began pumping again, slowly.

        “Say my name,” he commanded. “Say who you belong to.”

        “Lucio,” she gasped. “Lucio. I belong to Lucio.”

        He shoved her back into the ground and fucked her hard and fast. He bent to leave more marks on her back and shoulders, knowing that she liked how it hurt. She screamed his name over and over as she came again and again, until she felt like her body was going to collapse beneath her.

        Lucio’s claws cut into her waist as he came inside her, filling her battered cunt with his seed. The pressure made her cum yet again, pulling every last drop from him. Her body couldn’t take any more punishment. Breathless and hot, she relaxed into the floor.

        Lucio left her there and rose, seeking out his clothes. Eleanor’s mind was completely blank. She watched him wash his face and dress.

        “No time to cuddle, I’m afraid,” he said as he slicked his hair back into place.

        “I think I’ll survive,” Eleanor mumbled, still laying on the floor. It felt good against her sore body.

        “I missed my first meeting, but I can still make the second,” he said. “I think it was worth the time.”

        “I’m glad.” Her voice was flat.

        “Ah, you left a hickey on my neck.”

        “You gave me about a hundred.”

        “But you can heal yours,” Lucio said. “Don’t worry Ellie, I’ll wear it proudly.”

        “Don’t tell anyone where you got it.”

        “Not a soul. I’ll fuck you again if you’re still here when I get back. You’re mine and mine alone, don’t forget.”

        He left the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Eleanor picked herself up and landed in his bed, where she took several minutes to collect herself. She thought about his last comment, hoping he was just being dirty. He’d hadn’t kissed her goodbye, which went with her hope. Then again, Lucio had never been crazy about after care.

        As Eleanor laid in his bed, surrounded by the smell of him, she felt a pang of longing. She almost wished Lucio was there, but that was ridiculous. She was only caught-up in her afterglow.

        The sorceress raised her arms to examine the runes. She could very well fix them up and sleep in Lucio’s bed all day, then have a nice lay again later. She could always sneak into the stables to feed the horses, but she didn’t especially feel like terrorizing the stable hands today. What she really wanted to do was go crawling back to Muriel’s room, where he might still be laying in bed.

        Eleanor sighed and went hunting for her torn clothing. She would return to her shop, alone, and deal with her guilt like an adult. She had used Lucio as a distraction in the past, and it hurt them both.

        Tomorrow was the third round of the tournament. It was best if she made sure to prepare.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: Round Three

        Lucio settled into his throne above the colosseum. A servant brought him a glass of wine. He scanned the crowd of nobles and officials, spotting the ones he had bedded over the the years. The consul turned red and pointedly looked away, but Lucio found it amusing.

        “Jules,” Lucio said, “anything to drink?”

        “I’m always happy to have some coffee,” Julian replied. He was seated in Nadia’s chair, certain that she wouldn’t show up.

        “Coffee for the good doctor,” Lucio said, and the servants scrambled to get some brewed.

        Lucio had never been in the ring himself, but combat was his favorite sport. He always loved the blood and grit, the displays of raw strength in men and women alike. He had plucked more than a few lovers from the arena. Still, the stakes had never felt higher now that Eleanor was involved. He wasn’t in the slightest concerned for her safety, but she certainly knew how to put on a show.

        “I think Ellie has a good chance at winning,” Julian said as a servant brought him coffee.

        “Oh, she’s going to win,” Lucio said. “She hasn’t killed anyone yet. I wonder how long she can keep that up.”

        “I don’t think that’ll happen.”

        “It will,” Lucio said. “Ellie’s a beast. She can’t keep it in forever.”

        In the arena below there were chariot races ongoing. Only eight fights were slotted, so extra entertainment was needed to fill the proper timeslot. Lucio loved keeping his people entertained. That was how he remained popular amongst the citizens.

        “Dr. Devorak, you’re in my seat.”

        Both men looked up. It was the Countess, resplendent in her flowing gown. “Quite sorry,” said Julian, jumping from the seat.

        “Another chair, please,” Nadia said as she sat. The servant drew up another chair, though it wasn’t nearly as nice as the thrones.

        “Noddy, I’m surprised you’re here,” Lucio said. “Come to spend some time with your husband?”

        Nadia’s lip curled. “Not in the slightest. I came to watch El.”

        “El? Her name is Ellie,” said Lucio.

        “That’s what I call her,” Julian added.

        “Well, she asked me to call her El. Perhaps the nickname she liked as a teenager doesn’t suit her anymore.”

        “She’s still my Ellie,” Lucio said. He wondered if Nadia knew about him and Eleanor, not that he really cared. He didn’t think Nadia would care either.

        “Ellie’s been cleaning up,” Julian said. “The crowd likes her, too. She throws up fireworks after every fight.”

        “I never imagined she’d be such a performer,” Nadia said.

        “Ellie loves putting on a show,” Lucio said. “Always has.”

        “Everyone loves a beautiful person who can throw a punch,” said Julian.

        Lucio winked at Julian. Julian rolled his eyes and snorted.

        “I suppose it’s a cultural difference.” Nadia winced when a chariot smashed into a wall, the horse bucking wildly. The crowd jeered at the hunched driver and he crawled from the wreckage.

        The announcer declared the winner. Julian cursed and retrieved a pouch of coins from his pocket.

        Lucio was feeling mischievous. “I know you’re pinched Jules,” he said. “I’ll take a kiss instead.”

        Lucio closed his eyes and pursed his thin lips. Julian stuck a gold coin in his mouth. “I’m not that broke.”

        Nadia snickered while Lucio sputtered and spat the coin over the railing. “Tough luck,” Julian said.

        Lucio wiped his mouth. Money was no concern of his, he just liked to win. Julian would find an extra coin in his office tomorrow.

        “When is Eleanor coming out?” Nadia asked.

        “She came out years ago,” Julian replied.

        “She was never really ‘in’ in first place,” Lucio said, leaning towards Julian.

        The men laughed. Nadia rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean,” she said. “She’s the only reason I came here.”

        “You have to save the best for last,” Lucio said. “Ellie’s the fan favorite.”

        In the arena below the next round had begun. The fighters were both swordsmen in spartan helmets. It was classic look, but cliche. The spectators had seen a million fighters just like them. Lucio didn’t like to put on a boring show.

        “I think whoever wins this match will be fighting The Scourge in the next round,” said Lucio. “Somebody make a note of that.”

        Papers fluttered as servants scrambled. It never failed to tickle Lucio that so many were always so eager to do whatever he asked. Nadia always made a point of doing the opposite. Was it so terrible to take his side once in a while? They were supposed to be a team.

        Eleanor, on the other hand, seemed to love to indulge him. However, she didn’t hesitate to put him in his place. She was never afraid of a fight; easily the most fearless person he’d ever met. He supposed that was why he loved her.

        Yes, he did still love her. Part of him always would. He wished that he knew how she felt. Perhaps it was foolish, but he hoped that she felt the same.

        As the matches went on, the men made wagers and traded coins. Nadia discussed wine with the consul, who Lucio had also bedded. He wasn’t very proud of that one- the consul was scrawny and they were both drunk.

        Yanbia, the easterner, won the second to last fight. Lucio cursed and gave Julian money. Lucio would’ve never guessed that such a small person could be so lethal. He still doubted that she’d make it to the semi finals. Even if she did, there was no way she stood a chance against Eleanor.

        “On this end,” said the announcer, “the returning champion from the Artic sea, the Whaler.”

        The crowd cheered as Whaler entered. He was a large man, weilding a quiver of harpoons and a net on his hip. His red beard was impressive.

        “Lots of southerners in the tournament this year,” said Julian. Lucio nodded.

        “And the one you’ve been waiting for,” the announcer said, “from the ever-raining forest, Western Blaze.”

        The crowd went wild as Eleanor entered. She thumped her staff on the ground, sending up a modest shower of sparks. Julian whooped. Nadia turned her attention to the arena.

        The gladiators were tense, eyes fixed on eachother

        “Begin!” the announcer boomed.

        Eleanor moved first. She hurled a throwing knife, so fast that the whaler didn’t see it or dodge. It grazed his ear. He touched the trickle of blood and looked at Eleanor. She raised her chin and threw her arms open, inviting him to make a move. Her mask covered her mouth, but Lucio knew she was smiling.

        “She missed,” said Nadia.

        Julian shook his head. “She never misses. She’d taunting him.”

        Lucio chuckled. “That’s my girl.”

        The Whaler was bigger than Eleanor, and probably stronger. That meant the she needed to be smarter and faster if she was going to beat him. Lucio wondered what she planned to do.

        Whaler drew one of his harpoons and charged, wielding it like a spear. Eleanor danced around him, bopping the top of his head with her staff. A murmur of laughter went through the crowd.
Whaler whirled around to face her, his face turning beat red.

        “She’s getting cocky,” Julian laughed. Lucio was delighted.

        Whaler drew a knife, still wielding the harpoon in his other hand. Eleanor twirled her staff and drew back, her feet spread wide. She was ready to take it seriously.

        Whaler charged, thrusting towards her face. Eleanor’s staff knocked the harpoon away. He slashed with the knife and she twisted aside. She swung at his feet. He stopped it with the spear and stabbed forwards. Eleanor spun her staff forward, catching him on the wrist.

        Lucio couldn’t hear Eleanor from up his box, but he could tell she was talking to her opponent. His face was getting redder and redder. His movements were becoming more aggressive, more reckless. A fight was as psychological as it was physical.

        The barbs of his harpoon caught on her staff, and she yanked it out of his hand. He stabbed her at the same time. She jumped back, but not fast enough. The tip barely caught her abdomen, right where her breast plate ended.

        Eleanor didn’t even seem to feel it. She charged him. The whaler drew another harpoon and parried her thrust. She spun the staff the other way, hitting him hard in the side of the neck. He coughed and tried to step away.

        Lucio narrowed his eyes. Such a blow should’ve killed him.

        Eleanor pursued, relentless, staff flying in every direction. He blocked and dodged every blow, but she gave him no openings. Eleanor reared back for a stronger blow, and he shoved her with the side of the harpoon. She stumbled back.

        Lucio leaned forward, completely fixated. Eleanor was on the defensive now, waiting for an opening as Whaler swung and stabbed. He was very strong; Eleanor had to use all of her strength to block each blow. She would exhaust herself if it kept up.

        Eleanor dipped low, dodging a blow, and hit him in the hip. She sprange back to her feet right in front of him, clotheslining him in the jaw. She dashed backwards as he swung, then jabbed him in the gut with the butt of the staff. She smacked him on the hand, forcing him to drop the knife.

        He stabbed with his harpoon. She blocked the blow and dashed away again.

        Lucio was getting worried. She was going to run out of stamina if she kept dancing around. It was only a matter of time before she was too slow to dodge something.

        The Whaler took the net from his belt. He and Eleanor circled each other, plotting their next move.

        She jabbed with the staff. He threw the net. Eleanor avoided it but her staff was tangled. She let it go and drew a knife in each hand. She jumped forward, slashing with one than the other, catching his chest with both times.

        Lucio growled. “What the hell if she doing? She could’ve killed him right there!”

        “She’d trying to get him down without killing him,” Julian murmured, eyes still on the fight.

        “How noble,” Nadia said.

        “That’s fine and dandy,” Lucio spat. “Do you think the whaler is giving her the same courtesy? He wants to kill her.”

        “Oh no!” Julian gasped.

        Lucio looked back to the ring. Eleanor was on the ground; caught in the net. The whaler walked towards her, harpoon drawn back. She jumped up and kicked him to the ground then fell back down, tripping over the net.

        “Damn it, Ellie!” Lucio shouted.

        She furiously worked to untangle herself, but her knife couldn’t cut the netting. The Whaler was slow to get back to his feet. His face and bare chest were smeared with blood. He looked at Eleanor, raised the harpoon again, pulled back to strike-

        With a fantastic whoosh the net burst into towering flames. The crowds gasped and whooped. The Whaler stumbled away from the heat, his arms in front of his face.

        Eleanor rose from the net’s ashes like a phoenix, the cape hanging from her shoulder still in flames. One of her thigh guards fell away, the strap burnt to a crisp.

        “Yeah Ellie!” cheered Lucio and Julian. Nadia was silent, riveted by the show.

        Eleanor dove for the nearest weapon; a discarded harpoon. The Whaler was hot on her heels, but the heat of her burning cape made him hesitate. Eleanor seized the weapon and somersaulted back to her feet. Her cape extinguished against the ground.

        The Whaler lunged forward. Eleanor dropped to one knee and thrust the Harpoon upwards. His weapon passed harmlessly over her head. Hers went under his ribs.

        He froze, looking down in shock. Eleanor didn’t move. The head of the harpoon wasn’t all the way in his chest. She was giving him one last chance to walk out, alive. His blood trickled onto her fists. The crowd was silent

        His arm jerked back. The harpoon went forward. The Whaler fell sideways.

        Lucio jumped out of his seat and cheered. Julian breathed a sigh of relief. The announcer shouted her victory as the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

        Eleanor bent over her opponent, who was drowning in his own blood. It sprayed out of his mouth as he gasped for air. She was too fast for Lucio to see it, but when she straightened back up the Whaler’s throat was slit. It was a more merciful way to die.

        “She was trying to spare him, perhaps we should see if she’s alright,” Nadia said.

        “She’s fine,” Lucio dismissed. “It was a fair fight. She won’t dwell on it.”

        “Even if she was upset,” said Julian, “She prefers to be left alone.”

        “Regardless, would you invite her to dinner tomorrow on my behalf?” Nadia asked as she rose. “You’re invited as well, of course.”

        “I’ll be out of town,” Lucio said.

        Nadia gave an obviously false sigh. “I know, what a shame. Tomorrow night then, Doctor.”

        Nadia left. Julian grinned at Lucio. “Your wife likes me better than you.”

        Lucio scoffed. “Oh, shut up.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: Salmon and Strychnine

        “Sorry I’m late,” Julian said as he entered the dining room.

       Nadia and Eleanor looked up from their conversation. Both women offered him a smile. One was welcoming, the other was amused.

       “Not to worry Doctor,” said the Countess. “Please, take a seat.”

       “Your shirt’s untucked,” said Eleanor.

       “Mercy,” Julian mumbled, hastily tucking his white shirt into his pants. He sat at the table.

       “So messy in front of the Countess,” Eleanor teased. “You should be ashamed.”

       Julian felt his face heat up. He cleared his dry throat.

       Nadia raised a perfectly-arched eyebrow at the magician. “You should talk, shop-keep.”

       Eleanor looked down at her dark clothes, which were anything but formal. She hadn't bothered to take off her apron. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

       Julian stifled a laughed.

       “Nothing at all,” Nadia said with a wink. “It certainly suits you.”

       “Somebody, get El some ointment,” Julian joked.

       Eleanor’s steel eyes widened for an instant. No doubt she had noticed that Julian called her by a different nickname. If she preferred El, he would do his best to go with it. She wasn’t a young girl anymore, after all.

       “I believe we’re ready,” Nadia said, ringing a dinner bell. The kitchen doors opened and servants streamed into the room, carrying plates full of steaming food. There was a massive array of seafood. Each diner was started with a bowl of clam chowder and tomato salad.

       “Amazing,” Julian said, spotting the lobster claws. “You ordered my favorite.”

       “Mine too,” Eleanor said, indicating the pine-smoked salmon. Julian could tell from Eleanor’s tone that she was suspicious.

       Nadia must’ve noticed it too. “No need to worry, I haven’t been spying,” she said as she laid a violet napkin over her lap.

       “Then how did you know?” Eleanor asked.

       “You should know that my dear husband never shuts up about either of you,” Nadia replied. “Please, dig in. Don’t let it go to waste.”

       The three tucked into their appetizers and passed the time with chit-chat. Nadia asked both of the ex-mercenaries about their homelands and shared some updates about the distant military skirmishes. It was perhaps the best clam chowder Julian had tasted outside of Nevion, his home town. The tomato salad was sharp and sweet. He and Nadia drank the same sweet wine, perfectly paired with the ocean feast. Eleanor drank beer.

       Finally, Nadia asked Julian about his time with the pirates.

       “Countess, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Julian said. “When they captured my team, they only kept me alive because I’m a doctor. We sailed across-”

       “Across the eastern sea,” Eleanor cut in. “To do trade our goods from Vesuvia with merchants in the spice kingdoms. We had to take great pains to avoid the imperial fleet, as you know they punish smugglers without mercy. The stakes were always high, and the voyages always long.”

       Nadia and Julian both stared. “How rude,” said Julian.

       “Were you also a pirate?” Nadia asked.

       “No, I’ve just heard the speech so many times,” Eleanor said. “I’m sorry Jules, don’t let me steal your thunder.”

       Julian pouted. “I’m not sure I want to anymore.”

       “Come on Jules, they’re such a good stories.”

       “I’d love to hear them, Doctor.”

       Julian rolled his eyes, unable to stop the satisfied smile from spreading on his face. “Well alright ladies. Countess, have you ever heard tales of the Nubanese Sea Serpent?”

       As Julian launched into his story, servants cleared the appetizers and brought them all fresh drinks, removing the old ones. The women both tucked in as Julian talked. He waved his butter knife like a sword, fully submerged in his storytelling.

       “And then we… we…” he trailed off when he caught sight of the Countess, who was watching Eleanor with furrowed brows. Eleanor was paled, looking into her pint.

       “What is it?” Julian asked.

       “El, is something wrong?” Nadia asked.

       Eleanor looked straight forward, eyes huge. All of the color had drained from her rosy cheeks.

       “I’ve been poisoned,” she stated. She dropped the pint and collapsed out of her chair, shaking violently on the ground.

       “Oh my God!” Nadia shrieked, jumping from her chair.

       A switch changed in Julian’s head. “Put a cushion under her head,” he told Nadia as he seized Eleanor’s pint and gave it a sniff. There was no discernable stench, but he noticed undissolved crystals in the bottom of the pint. It was Strychnine.

       “Aren’t you a doctor? Do something!”

       Julian knelt before Eleanor, whose eyes were squeezed shut. Her back and neck arched above the ground. Her fists clenched and unclenched, her nails digging into the skin. She clenched her jaws, grunting in pain.

       “She might stop breathing, she can’t control her muscles,” Julian told Nadia. “Get me charcoal, the least dense piece you can find.”

       Nadia flew past her stupefied servants to the dining room fireplace. Beneath him, Eleanor gasped for air, her face turning red. “Hold her down!” Julian barked at the servants.

       The servants descended on Eleanor, pinning her against the ground. Julian took a deep breath and sealed his mouth over Eleanor’s, forcing air into her lungs.

       “I have it!” Nadia said.

       “Grind it up in the wine you’ve been drinking,” Julian ordered. “As fine as you can.”

       He bent over Eleanor again. She was so strong, it took four servants to keep her contorting body against the floor. Tears ran from her bloodshot eyes, brushing against Julian’s face.

       “Here!” Nadia said.

       Julian took the glass and forced Eleanor’s mouth open, dumping in as much of the solution as he could. Some spilled over her cheeks and into her hair, drawing black trails over the ruddy skin.

       “Get her onto the couch,” Julian told Nadia. “There’s tannic acid in my office downstairs. Don’t let her out of your sight; someone wants her dead.”

       Julian sprinted out of the dining room and through the palace, skidding around corners. He leapt over stair rails as he descended into the dungeons. When he crashed into the elevator, he jerked the lever down. Waiting for the elevator to move was the worst part. He couldn’t make it move any faster.

       If anyone else was in the laboratory, Julian didn’t notice. He burst into his office and flung the cabinets open, throwing vials on the floor as he searched for the right ones. Finally he found them, and took the elevator back up.

       His lungs and legs burned with exertion, but he knew it was nothing compared to what Eleanor felt.

       When he made it back to the dining room, Nadia and several servants were restraining the still spasming Eleanor on the couch. Julian landed on her knees in from of her. He pushed her mouth open and poured in what he estimated was the correct dose of tannic acid. That would prevent more poison from entering her blood stream.

       He dumped the second bottle, chloroform, onto a cloth napkin and pressed it to Eleanor’s face. Her kept the rag against her face for several minutes, until her twisting body began to relax.

       “Now what?” Nadia demanded, her falling into her face.

       Julian was gasping for breath, shaking with fear for his friend. “Nothing. There’s no antidote. All we can do is hope she didn’t drink too much.”

       “Will she live?”

       Julian shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: The Long Night

        Muriel usually ate late at night, when he could get himself something from the kitchen without anyone around to bother him. He was surprised to see all of the commotion as he passed the dining room. He would’ve ignored it if he hadn’t heard a certain name drifting from the doors.

        It was Countess Nadia. She’d said something about Eleanor.

        Muriel slowed his step, listening carefully as he passed. “The odds aren’t good, Nadia,” said Julian. “Even if she survives, she could have permanent damage.”

        Muriel slowed, heart hammering in his chest.

        “Is she not cured from what you gave her?” the Countess asked.

        “The chloroform helps the muscle spasms a little, and helps her feel less pain. The spasms are what’ll kill her, either by asphyxiation or exhaustion.”

        Muriel peeked through the doorway, terrified of what he might see. Eleanor laid on a couch beneath the window. She was unconscious but twisting and jerking in place. The Doctor and the Countess knelt in front of her while the servants lined the walls.

        “Now all we can do is wait, and pray,” said the Doctor. “We need to take her somewhere to minimize stimuli. It can trigger more seizures.”

        “I’ll order a stretcher,” said Nadia.

        “I can carry her,” Muriel announced.

        The Countess and Doctor startled and turned, surprise on their faces. Muriel was a little surprised himself.

        “Are you sure you can keep a hold on her?” Nadia asked.

        Muriel nodded. He wasn’t worried about his ability, but he was worried about everyone else’s.

        “Alright Mr. Scourge,” said Julian. “Be very, very delicate. She’s extremely reactive.”

        As Muriel approached Eleanor, he felt sick to his stomach. Her face was streaked with black, and her back rose and fell against the couch. He swallowed the lump in his throat. “What happened?” he asked.

        “She was poisoned with strychnine,” Julian said. “But she may not have been the target.”

        “But she was,” Nadia insisted. “I always have white wine. You usually have coffee. Eleanor is the one who always drinks beer. It was absolutely intentional.”

        “All the more reason to get her put up,” Julian said, then he turned to Muriel. “If you would.”

        As gently as he could, Muriel eased his massive arms under Eleanor and lifted her from the couch. Her contorsions seemed stronger once he lifted her, but he held her tight. Her head bumped against his chest and her eyes fluttered. Her entire body strained against his, like she was trying to escape.

        “This way,” said Nadia.

        Muriel and Julian followed on her heel. Nadia took them to a guest room in an isolated corner of the palace. She opened the door and ushered the others instead, where Muriel laid Eleanor on the bed.

        “Some light please,” Julian said. Nadia lit a candle on the dresser.

        "First things first,” said Julian. “I need to get these restrictive clothes off of her.”

        Muriel glared. Julian spoke with a waver in his voice. “Come now, I’m a doctor, and she’s my best friend.”

        “I’ll get her a dressing gown,” said Nadia, and she stepped out to give the servants orders.

        Muriel relented, turning away while Julian removed Eleanor’s clothing. It was a fight to undress the jerking body, but Julian was a professional. One her clothes were removed, Nadia helped Julian redress her in a white gown, more like an oversized undershirt.

        “Now, we can’t all stay in here,” said Julian. “Both of you, out.”

        Muriel didn’t want to leave Eleanor, but he was prepared to do as Julian asked. Nadia spoke up.

        “Muriel should stay,” said the Countless. “He could be useful.”

        Muriel didn’t dare look at Nadia. He couldn’t imagine he’d be any use.

        “What on earth for?” Julian asked.

        “Protection,” Nadia said. “My guards are obviously incompetant.”

        Julian didn’t look convinced.

        “You know how she feels about nobles and palaces” Nadia went on. “It would do well if she was surrounded with people she trusts.”

        Julian pursed his lips. “Well, alright. Scourge, listen very carefully. The odds are that Eleanor isn’t going to live. Do you understand?”

        Muriel nodded.

        “Keep the lights very low. Don’t make any loud noises, don’t try to touch her or talk to her. Any kind of stimuli can make the spasms worse. Even if she seems still, she can still have another seizure. Do you understand?”

        “Yes,” Muriel rumbled.

        “Very well,” Julian said. “I’ll return very shortly. Countess, after you.”

        Nadia and Julian left the room, and Muriel was alone with Eleanor. She was horrific to watch, and now that it was quiet he could hear the noises caught in her throat; the tiniest groans and whimpers. He chewed his lip and turned away, stomach twisting.

        The minutes crawled by. Muriel counted the seconds to the nearest hour. Eleanor’s spasms didn’t seem to lessen, but they weren’t getting any worse. Muriel’s heart stopped every time her body made some new contortion. He fervently checked to see she was breathing whenever she relaxed again.

        He rose when the door opened, ready to attack any assailant that entered. Julian caught sight of Muriel and stumbled backwards, hand pressed to his chest. “God, you’re even scarier than Eleanor,” he said.

        Muriel remained standing as Julian sat on the edge of her bed. He pulled a stethoscope from her bed and checked her heart and lungs. Muriel waited in silence.

        Finally, the doctor straightened, shaking his head.

        “What’s wrong?” Muriel demanded.

        “Her heart and lungs sound weak,” Julian said. “She’s fighting like you wouldn’t believe, but her organs are ready to give out.”

        “She’ll make it,” Muriel replied.

        Julian tried to shoo Muriel towards the door. “Well, you’re free to go. Thanks for staying.”

        “I’m not leaving.” Muriel was resolute.

        “I’m sorry, I can’t trust her care to anyone else,” Julian said. “It’s what’s best for Eleanor.”

        “If somebody comes to finish the job, I’ll be able to protect her.”

        “I’m more than capable.”

        Muriel looked Julian up and down. He talked big, but Muriel doubted he was much good in a fight.

        He thought of Nadia’s advice. “She needs me.”

        Julian snorted. “Don’t be preposterous. What would she need you for?”

        Muriel looked at Eleanor, who seemed so small and frail against the mattress. She was always dozing off when he was around, since she struggled to sleep otherwise. After all the help she’d give him, the least Muriel could do was keep her company.

        “Because,” Muriel said, “I make her feel safe.”

        “I’m sorry, but I simply don’t know you well enough,” Julian said.

        Both men froze when Eleanor made a sound, high and soft like a newborn kitten. They flew to either side of the bed. Her lips shook and her eyelids fluttered as she tried to speak.

        “El,” Julian said gently, “don’t try to speak. You’ll exhaust yourself even more.”

        Eleanor persisted. “Mur,” she said, “stays.”

        The men looked at each other as a stronger spasm overcame Eleanor. She said nothing more. “It’s a good sign that she could speak,” Julian said. “But it’s still early.”

        “Has she been conscious this whole time?” Muriel asked, horrified on her behalf.

        Julian nodded. “Ever since the chloroform wore off, yes. Complete clarity.”

        “She’s in pain.”

        “Yes, ” Julian replied, his eyes beginning to water. “Worse than anything you or I have felt, probably.”

        “Can’t you give her something?”

        The doctor shook his head. “Chloroform is toxic. Long term exposure will hurt her chances of pulling through.”

        Muriel turned back to Eleanor, chest tight with stress.

        “What about magic?” Muriel said.

        Julian snorted. “Got a spell for strychnine, do you?”

        “I can make her sleep.”

        “Being asleep won’t change anything,” Julian said. “A valiant attempt, though.”

        Eleanor knocked a pillow from the bed. Her gown was semi-transparent with fever sweat.

        “You’d better get comfortable,” Julian said. “We’re in for a long night.”

        The night wore on. Eleanor drifted in and out of consciousness; a tug of war between exhaustion and the waking pains of seizures. Muriel could tell when she was awake because she’d try to speak, rarely making noises that sounded even remotely comprehensible.

        “Don’t try to talk,” Muriel would say, and she’d fall silent.

        Julian paced and tugged on his hair, constantly deep in thought. He checked Eleanor’s vitals more often than was probably necessary. Just watching him was making Muriel feel more stressed.

        Occasionally Nadia and a nurse would stop by. They’d shoo both men away so they could help Eleanor with whatever private matters she wouldn’t want the men to see. Nadia seemed frazzled, as she’d already begun investigating the staff.

        Four hours in, around midnight, Muriel was alone with Eleanor. He stood in the corner of the room, worried that being closer might make her worse, somehow. There were raised voices from outside.

        “Damn it, let me see her!” came the first voice. It could only be Lucio. So he had returned from whatever his evening plans were.

        “She’s very reactive,” Julian said. “Even a loud noise could make her seizures worse.”

        “It’s my palace! I’m the Count for fuck’s sake.”

        “Doctor’s orders.”

        “Jules, please, just let me see her,” Lucio pleaded. “It’s Ellie. Our Ellie. My girl.”

        There was a moment of silence, then the doors opened.

        Lucio took two steps inside and froze, his gaze locked on Eleanor. His eyes were wide with horror at the sight of her, sweaty and shaking like something inhuman. He turned his face away.

        It was then that Lucio finally noticed Muriel. His lip curled. “What is he doing here?” Lucio demanded.

        “Lucio, keep your voice down,” Julian hissed.

        Lucio glanced at Eleanor, then back to Muriel. “What’s going on?” he said, quieter.

        “He’s playing security,” Julian said.

        “That beast shouldn’t be alone with her.”

        Muriel only glowered in reply.

        “Honestly Lucio, think for a second,” Julian scolded. “Someone in this palace tried to kill Ellie. Can you think of a better body guard?”

        “Me, of course,” Lucio said, looking at Eleanor again. He seemed frightened.

        “Wouldn’t you be helping her more if you were investigating?” Julian asked. “Nadia’s working on it, but we used to take jobs like this, remember? You were good at it.”

        Lucio took a deep breath, relief floating on his face. Muriel couldn’t stand how smug his giant mouth was. “I was pretty good, wasn’t I? I always got my man.”

        “Attaboy.”

        “I’ll be going.” Lucio started to leave, then turned towards Eleanor again. His demeanor was different. Those pale eyes wore an icy violence, merciless and hard as the wastelands he came from. It was the same look Muriel had seen in Eleanor.

        Muriel had never found Lucio to have a scary presence, but that look gave him a chill.

        “Whoever did this,” Lucio said, “is going to wish they were never born.”

        Muriel believed him.

        Julian gave Muriel a sympathetic look before following Lucio from the room.

        Muriel closed his eyes and shook his head. Lucio seemed awfully concerned about Eleanor, more than one might expect from a former lover. If the old mercenaries were closer than they were letting on, Muriel worried for Eleanor’s safety. It might be just as dangerous to be loved by the Count as it was to be hated by him.

        Muriel looked out the window. He didn’t want to think about it.

        Time went by. Every shuddering gasp Eleanor gave was a terror and a blessing. Muriel was angry and wanted vengeance, but the feeling of worry was much stronger. He paced and picked at his nails.

        In the earliest hours of the morning, just before sunrise, Muriel was still solemnly at his post. Eleanor was no longer having full seizures, only minor bouts of twitching.

        “Mur,” she said in a voice so weak that it broke his heart.

        He flew to her side, falling to his knees beside the bed. “I’m here.”

        Her eyes were fixed on him, the most physical control she’d yet to exhibit. Even then, Muriel didn’t detect any fear in her face. She only seemed tired. So, so tired.

        “It hurts,” she whimpered.

        “I know. Try to rest.”

        Her hand twitched towards him. Muriel thought is was involuntary until he noticed how she watched him. He took her hand and she closed her eyes, relaxing into the mattress.

        Muriel examined her face in the earliest rays of daylight. She was so deathly pale that the purple and blue veins were obvious under her skin. She shivered. As much as Muriel wanted to give her a blanket, Julian had instructed him not too.

        It felt like the longest night of Muriel’s life. Sometimes Eleanor would twitch and squeeze his hand so hard that he thought his fingers would break. It was hard to watch her brow furrowed with pain, but he didn’t want to be anywhere else while she was like this.

        By breakfast time, the spasms stopped. She fell into an undisturbed sleep, though the softness of her breath worried Muriel. Eleanor was still asleep when Julian stopped by. He gave the gladiators’ joined hands a lingering glance, but said nothing about it.

        Muriel stayed where he was as Julian pulled out his stethoscope. Eleanor came around when he pressed to cold metal to her chest.

        “El, you’re the toughest person I know,” Julian said. “Congratulations on surviving one of the deadliest poisons known to man. You’re going to be fine.”

        Eleanor was so weak she could barely manage to twitch her lips at him. Muriel sighed in relief.

        “You’ll be up and moving like normal in a couple days,” Julian went on. “Until you’re strong enough to defend yourself we should move you somewhere they won’t find you.”

        Muriel thought for a moment. “I know a place,” he said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: Recovery

        Eleanor pushed herself out of the nest of blankets on the floor, bending her knees to draw in her feet. Her entire body ached, but it was nothing compared to the other night in the palace. She eased forward, trying to find her footing.

        A chair scraped on the floor. “Let me help you,” Muriel said.

        “No, I need to do it by myself,” Eleanor replied, shaking her head.

        Yesterday morning, Muriel had carried Eleanor to a little hut in the forest, where she slept all through the day and following night. She didn’t remember the way, as she was drifting in and out of consciousness. She was distraught not to know where she was, and even more upset that she had to rely on someone else’s help. She got tired of leaning on even Muriel, eventually.

        Muriel stood aside and watched. Eleanor noticed and rolled her eyes. “Honestly Mur, I’m not helpless.”

        She started to pick herself up, limbs trembling beneath her. Maybe she was a little helpless, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to sit around without even trying.

        She got her feet underneath herself, knees bent in an awkward squat. Her legs shook violently with effort, burning with pain. She closed her eyes and pushed with all her strength.

        Eleanor scarcely raised herself a few inches before her legs gave out and she fell sideways. Muriel dropped to break the fall. She landed against his legs, the back of her head bumping his firm abdomen.

        She felt her face heating up. She was mortified that he’d witnessed her failure. “I’m sorry,” she said.

        Muriel said nothing and didn’t move. She relaxed into his lap with a sigh. “I know it’s not fun to see me like this.”

        “Stop apologizing,” he said.

        She tilted her head back. His face was upside down in her vision, the longest strands of his black hair touched her cheeks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

        “It’s not your fault.”

        “Well no, but I should be stronger. I should be up and walking by know. I should-”

        “El,” he interrupted, his voice low and level. “Stop.”

        “I keep letting you see me like this,” Eleanor said, turning away from those intense eyes. “You must think I’m a weakling.”

        “I don’t think that.”

        Eleanor couldn’t keep in the babble of words. “Even now, I’m just whining like a kid. I should be-”

        “El.”

        She fell silent, looking back to his face.

        “Stop.”

        She sighed. “I’m sorry.”

        “Don’t apologize for being human.”

        Eleanor felt tears prickling in her eyes. She’d never felt so helpless. She was mortified when a tear ran down her cheek. She went to wipe it away, but all of her movements were slow. Muriel got to it first, brushing it away with his thumb. Eleanor was surprised at the tenderness of his touch, like he was petting a bird.

        “I don’t want anyone to see me like this,” she said. “Ever.”

        “I know.”

        She draped her arm across her eyes, unable to stop the tears from flowing. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

        “It’s okay,” Muriel said.

        Her voice was thick. “But it’s not.”

        “It is. You’re in pain.”

        “I guess it’d be weird if that didn’t make someone hysterical.”

        “It’s not hysterical. It’s normal.”

        Eleanor still felt terrible. However, she supposed that if she had to choose someone to take care of her in her weakest moments, it would probably be Muriel.

        Her nose was running. Eleanor managed to keep from sobbing, but she just couldn't seem to stop leaking. She thought of the whaler, who she tried so hard not to kill. She thought of all the soldiers she executed like ants. She thought of her long-dead family and the charred village she could never return to.

        Yet here she was, with the nerve to be crying because she felt a little vulnerable. She could only imagine what Muriel thought of her now, sniveling against his pants like a baby.

        “Have you ever cried because you killed someone?” Eleanor asked.

        “Yes,” he admitted.

        “Have you ever cried because you didn’t feel guilty enough for it?”

        Again, he agreed.

        That made her feel a little better about being a crying mess, if he could admit to it too. Still, his body count was nowhere near hers, and he was a kind soul who didn’t like fighting. Eleanor loved it with all the fire that burned in her soul.

        “I’m a monster,” she said out loud, “and a hypocrite.”

        Muriel said nothing, instead brushing her hair away from her face. What had she ever done to deserve such kindness? She could spend centuries trying to redeem herself, and she would never close to earning any kind of tenderness.

        Still, it was easier to accept from someone else with blood on their ledger. Eleanor wanted him to keep touching her, to feel those gentle hands against her skin. She wanted to bury her wet face against his shoulder and sob until she ran out of tears. The sorceress was struck by that realization. She wanted to cry. She needed to, and she wanted Muriel to hold her while she did. 

        “Mur,” she said with a hiccup.

        “I’m here.”

        “Can you…” she trailed off, unable to finish the question for the ridiculousness of it. She raised her arms.

        Wordlessly, Muriel help her sit up. Once Eleanor was upright, she twisted around to face him, then turned away. It was a stupid idea. She couldn’t ask Muriel to be some kind of emotional crutch. She wiped her cheeks, but it was pointless. The flow kept coming.

        “I can’t stop,” she said, hunching her shoulders. She wished he wouldn't look at her with kind eyes of his.

        Eleanor startled when Muriel put a sympathetic hand on her back. They looked at each other and a long moment passed. He left his hand on her back. She was still crying.

        Before she knew what was happening, they were in each other's arms. Muriel pulled her fully into his lap as she wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder. He was so strong that she could completely relax her aching body, trusting him to hold her in place. His arms felt so good around her, she almost forgot how much she was hurting. The tears finally stopped. At least she'd managed not to fall apart completely.

        He rested his cheek against the top of her head. Eleanor breathed in the smell of him, earthy and so distinctly male. Even in pain, her body filled with longing for his. As Eleanor learned, one way to chase away sadness was horniness. She released him and scooted away, perhaps a little too quickly, before he could notice.

        The arousal was almost immediately replaced by discomfort. An arrow dodged.

        “El, listen,” Muriel said.

        She looked at him, at attention.

        “Do your tattoos have strychnine in them?”

        She was floored, her mouth falling open. Her instinct was to lie, but she couldn’t. Not to him. “They do,” she said. “How’d you know?”

        “Julian said you must have a tolerance,” Muriel explained. “And you told me once that you were sore because you used too much magic.”

        “That’s it?”

        “And your tattoos aren’t right,” he said. “They’re mirror images. They aren’t protecting you. They’re protecting everyone else from you.”

        Eleanor stared at the floor, reasoning how much to tell him. “They keep me from losing control of my magic,” she said. “The ink works by… damming my magic channels. If I push too hard, the current breaks the ink down faster, and the poison gets released. That’s why it hurts.”

        “That’s dangerous magic,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s a good trade-off.”

        “Well I am,” she snapped, then felt guilty.

        “I’m sorry,” she sighed. “You’re that last person I should be snapping at. All you do is help me. I don’t know why.”

        Muriel shrugged. “You aren’t scared of me.”

        “Only because I could take you in a fight.”

        Muriel smirked. Eleanor felt like a champion for making him smile.

        Eleanor eased herself into the blanket nest. Muriel rose. “I’ll make lunch.”

        “Or we could have a late lunch,” Eleanor suggested, “and you could take a nap with me.”

        He looked down at her, eyes soft, and shook his head. “You need to eat.”

        “All I do is sleep and eat.”

        “To get your strength back. How else are you going to protect me from the monsters in the woods?”

        “Are there really monsters out here?”

        “Yes, just waiting for you to fight them.”

        “I do like fighting monsters.”

        “So relax until then.”

        Eleanor sank further into her nest with a playful huff. Perhaps it wasn’t so terrible, letting Muriel take care of her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: Concerning Gladiators

        It was a cool morning. Lucio sipped a cup of coffee and examined his notes. He hadn’t slept much that week, as he was investigating the poisoning case on top of all the battlefront business. He had just ordered his troops into the mountains. So far, the fighting was harder than expected.

        They were fighting another city state in the west, Sumern, for control over the Revali River. The mountain river would have made a good source of the clean water that Nadia was always going on about. Lucio didn’t feel too guilty about the fighting. Sumern practiced human sacrifice, after all.

        The Count had to trust that business to the Pontifax for now. He had to protect his own. Whoever hurt Eleanor was going to pay dearly.

        The true identities of the gladiators were supposed to be anonymous, but Lucio had his sources. He knew which palace workers were associated with any gladiators, and who would have access to the dining halls and kitchens.

        “Do you suspect me, mi’ lord?” asked the old man sitting across from Lucio.

        “Of course not,” Lucio replied. “Your years of service haven’t gone unnoticed. But, you work in the kitchen. Just wondering if you’ve seen anything.”

        The old man was a small and walked with a hunch. His name was Marlo, and his son was a competitor in the tournament. Lucio had paid passage for them both, given them a place to live and food to eat, in exchange for a number of years of service.

        “Nothing I can think of,” said Marlo.

        “It’s been mentioned that there was strange woman in the kitchen that night. Would you know anything about that?”

        “Now that you mention it,” Marlo replied, “There was woman a I didn’t know in the kitchen. I thought she was a new employee.”

        “Did she have dark hair?”

        “Oh, yes. Pure black.”

        “And blue eyes? Small frame?”

        “That’s her exactly.”

        Lucio nodded. “That’s all I need, Marlo. Thank you for your time.”

        “My pleasure, mi’ lord.”

        “Have them send in the next guest.”

        “Yes mi’lord.”

        The servant exited, then the next interviewee entered. It was a petite woman, with raven hair and deep, blue eyes like sapphires. She’d drawn long, sharp wings from her slender eyes, and wore a simple smock.

        “Count Lucio, what an unexpected honor,” said the woman. She spoke with a high-eastern accent.

        “Have a seat,” Lucio said, indicating the chair across from him.

        “What can I do for you?”

        Lucio considered the little woman. She worked in Valerius’s estate as a maid, an indentured servant if Lucio recalled correctly. Her contract was up in a few months, but she was described as a lazy worker. As she sat before him now, she crossed her legs and hung her arm across the back of the chair, making herself comfortable.

        “Your name for my record,” said Lucio.

        “Hae-Ju Song,” she replied.

        “Otherwise known as Yanbia,” said Lucio, “One of the remaining competitors. Congrats on your success so far.”

        “Thank you,” she replied. Hae-Ju didn’t seem phased that her knew her secret identity.

        “How are you liking your odds?”

        Hae-Ju curled her arm, as if to show off the muscle. Lucio was doubtful that such a small person could be so fierce, but he saw that she was strong.

        “I like them a lot,” she said. “I think it’ll be me and Western Blaze in the finals.”

        So she either didn’t know Eleanor had been poisoned, or she was an excellent liar. Lucio didn’t trust her.

        “She’s the fan-favorite this year,” Lucio said.

        Hae-Ju raised a fine eyebrow. “Is she your favorite?”

        “I like her chances.”

        Hae-Ju laughed. “She’s my favorite, too. I think we’d have a good fight.”

        “Let’s get down to business,” Lucio said. “Where were you last night around eight?”

        “I was in bed, my lord. I get up before dawn.”

        “Can anyone confirm that story?”

        Hae-Ju leaned forward, putting her hands in her lap. “Am I under some kind of investigation?”

        Lucio didn’t answer.

        She leaned back into her chair. “Hm. I suppose I don’t have any way to prove it. What am I under investigation for?”

        “Poisoning,” Lucio replied. “You treat your weapons with poison. What kind is it?”

        “It’s a sort of tea I make,” she replied. “From the blossoms and seeds of the poison-nut tree.”

        Lucio consulted his notes. “The nux vomica?”

        “Yes Lord.”

        “So, with strychnine.”

        “I think so. I’ve always called it the poison-nut.”

        Lucio pulled out his notebook and scribbled some notes. He had a good idea of who the culprit was, but he knew he needed to be thorough in these things. “Can you think of anyone who might want to hurt Western Blaze?”

        “Outside of the ring? She’s the one to beat. Half of the competitors are terrified of facing her. I mean, we’ve seen her get stabbed and not even flinch. And she’s not even putting her full strength into it. She’s playing around.”

        Hae-Ju spoke fast, with eyes wide and smile on her face. She seemed like she was delighted, then her brows furrowed. “Did someone poison Blaze?”

        “But you aren’t scared of her?” he asked, not answering the question.

        “No, I hope I get to fight her.” She seemed to mean it.

        “Well, that’s all I need,” Lucio said. “Don’t try to run. I’ll find you if you do.”

        “Understood,” Hae-Ju replied, through she wasn’t acting very concerned.

        Hae-Ju left and a guard stepped in. “Count Lucio, Miss Eleanor has returned to her shop.”

        “Have someone ready my horse,” Lucio said as he stood, adjusting his jacket. Even with so much going on, he liked to look polished.

        Lucio was accompanied by four guards as he rode to Eleanor’s shop, all riding white stallions. It was early in the day, but the streets were quite busy. People jumped out of Lucio’s way as he went. They pointed and whispered, asking each other why the Count was in such a hurry.

        At the shop, Lucio dismounted, passing the reins off to a guard. “Don’t let anyone in,” Lucio said. “It could be a while.”

        Eleanor was standing in the doorway with crossed arms, the silver in her ears catching the sunlight. One leg showed through the blue and purple layers of her asymmetric skirt. “Ellie,” Lucio called, throwing his arms open. “You knew I was coming!”

        “Yes well, you made such a racket.” She looked about as tired as usual, but otherwise well. Her posture was confident and cool.

        “We have things to talk about,” Lucio said. Eleanor moved aside to let him past, then pulled the door closed behind them.

        Lucio’s eyes immediately fell the the glass showcase under the counter, which housed all sorts of magical knick-knacks. They were made of various shining metals, with tiny components finely crafted. Lucio crouched in front of the case, pondering their various purposes. He wanted to test every single one. “Ellie,” he began.

        “No, you can’t play with the alchemical trinkets.”

        Lucio chuckled as he straightened up. “You’re no fun.”

        “What do you need? Your guards are scaring away my business.” She stood with a stern fist on her hip, but the grin on her face said she was pleased to see him.

        “I need to take your statement,” Lucio said, crossing the room. He put his metal arm against the wall behind Eleanor, who continued to looked amused. Lucio wasn’t much taller than Eleanor, but his shoes exaggerated the difference.

        Lucio touched her neck and she closed her eyes with a sigh. “Are you feeling my pulse?” she asked.

        “No,” he said, but that was exactly what he was doing. He wanted to see how strong it felt.

        Lucio ran his hand down her neck and over her shoulder, resting it on her waist. “How do you feel?” he asked, meeting her eyes.

        “Not my hottest,” she admitted, “but I’m fine. Jules said I shouldn’t have any long-term effects.”

        “Ellie, seeing you like that,” Lucio said, shaking his head,“it was terrifying.”

        “I know,” she said, reached up to run her hand over his chin. “I heard you couldn’t wait to leave.”

        “I needed to start investigating.”

        “Mm-hmm.” She didn’t seem convinced. He felt his face warming up.

        “Did that brute do anything to you?” he asked.

        “No. Muriel’s a perfect gentleman.”

        Lucio snorted. “Yeah, right.”

        “Jealous, Count?”

        There was a playful look flashing in those dark eyes. She was practically challenging him.

        “I can’t stand the idea of anyone else having you,” he said, drawing closer. He could feel the heat coming from her.

        “And the investigation is going well? Don’t you need to interview me?” She tugged on his jacket, her lower lip puffed out.

        “Oh no, I’ve already found who I’m looking for.”

        “Who are they?”

        “She’s a very dangerous woman,” he said, pulling her against him by the hip. “Quite the temptress. Yet to meet her match.”

        “Sounds like someone needs to put her in her place,” she purred, a hand rested on his chest.

        “I intend to do just that,” he said.

        Lucio bowed and kissed her. She rolled flush against him, from her hips to her chest. Her strong fingers were tight on the back of his neck, hanging her weight from him.

        “I have to run the shop,” she gasped as he kissed her ear. He slid his hand down her skirt. She was already soaking.

        “And I have interviews to conduct,” he replied. She raised her leg, pushing her boot against the counter.

        “You still have to interview me,” she said as she fidgeted with his pants. Her voice was a high and sweet with lust.

        “I can make this fast.”

        “No you can’t.”

        “No I can’t.”

        His pants came undone and Eleanor pushed them down. His cock was freed, already hard. Eleanor stroked him as he ran his tongue along the inside of her lip. She made a high whimper when his middle finger slid inside her. Her breath escalated. She pushed her face against his neck and twisted his collar in her free hand. Her teeth grazed the tender skin and he growled, sending a shiver down her legs.

        Her cum was running down his hand. He slid another finger inside and pressed his thumb against her clit. “Did you notice anything strange on the night of the poisoning?”

        “No. Everything seemed N...n-oh gods!” Her cunt squeezed his hand as she came. She hooked an arm around him and relaxed her leg, hanging her weight from him.

        “No gods? Such a pessimist.”

        “Just fuck me already you asshole!”

        She yelled in surprise when he put his metal hand under her upper thigh, lifting her up and against the wall. She braced herself against the counter with one leg. Eleanor was heavy, but Lucio couldn’t wait any longer. He wanted her now.

        He bent at the knee for a better angle, then pushed inside her cunt with a sigh. Eleanor held him by the hips as he began pumping. He bowed his head and ran his tongue along his jaw, then bit her ear. She sucked in her breath. He felt a shiver go through her.

        “Pull your shirt up,” he ordered, hips grinding against hers.

        She yanked up her shirt and bra, pink nipples at attention. Lucio twisted one between two fingers. Eleanor moaned as she craned to kiss his jaw.

        His arm was already getting tired. They’d picked an inconvenient position. Lucio slid his free hand under her other thigh and pushed her harder against the wall. It shook as he pounded harder into her.

        “Play with them for me. That’s it.” He watched as she pinched and fondled her own breast, getting wetter by the moment. He felt her hand working against his chest as he leaned more into her. Her lips hummed against his neck.

        “Do you think anyone would want to hurt you?” he asked, grunting the words.

        “Everyone does,” she gasped, one hand a claw around his shoulder. “We’re gladiators.”

        “Don’t get smart with me.” He pulled her from the wall and practically threw her on top of the counter, still deep in her wet cunt. He shoved her back by the throat, giving it the lightest squeeze. Her back arched and her legs tensed. She strained against his grip as she came again, a glassy look coming over her eyes. Her cheeks and chest were flushed.

        “How’s your relationship with Yanbia?” he asked, slowing his pace so she could answer.

        “She’s the only one who isn't scared of me,” Eleanor said between breathes. “And she’s cute.”

        He’d show her cute. Eleanor yelped when Lucio dropped and bit her breast. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him against her and pushing him away at the same time. He sometimes forgot how strong she was.

        He fucked her faster, harder, holding her body in place with his metal hand on her hip. With the other he held her throat, feeling each rasping breath she took. He was getting close.

        “Cum for me one more time,” he whispered in her ear. “Can you do that?”

        She nodded. “Good girl,” he said, then her wrapped his lips around her nipple and sucked it against his teeth.

        She clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling a cry. Her hips strained against his grip. The walls of her cunt clenched around him. It was enough to send him over the edge. Lucio held her tight and burst inside her, pleasure rushing through his veins at the sweet release.

        Lucio straightened up enough to brush some hair from her flushed face. Eleanor reached to touch his cheek, wiping his eyeliner with her thumb. He felt a wave of affection rush over him. She tugged him down for another kiss, sweet and slow. He lingered for a moment after their lips parted, their foreheads bowed together. Then he kissed her cheek and pulled away.

        He fixed his pants as Eleanor hopped from the counter. “Gross,” she said, looking at the mess they’d left on the glass.

        “Do I have any spots?” Lucio asked.

        “On your skin or your clothes?”

        “Clothes.” He was less worried about his skin.

        Eleanor stepped around him, dragging her hand on his hip. “No, you’re fine.”

        Lucio straightened his jacket and gave her a curt nod. “Thanks for your cooperation, citizen.”

        Eleanor curtsied. “Always a pleasure, my Lord.”

        Lucio snickered as he let himself out. He was glad that Eleanor was better. He never wanted to see her in such a state again. He also felt that his investigation was nearly complete. All he needed was a solid confession, and that case would be wrapped up tight.

        The Count couldn’t wait to catch the suspect. He was going to make them hurt.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: Round Four

        It was a sunny day, but distant clouds promised rain. It was cool outside. This was the time of year that leaves changed in the west, but Vesuvia’s climate didn’t afford such obvious seasons. Lucio had been organizing the storage of autumn crops for winter, when even he would tighten his waist belt. In the meantime, everyone had food, the plague was gone, and the city’s spirits were high.

        Lucio was quite pleased with himself as he settled into his chair above the colosseum. He was good at investigating this kind of thing. The assailant would be putting on quite the show in the arena today.

        “Count Lucio, it’s so generous of you invite me up to watch my boy,” Marlo said. Marlo worked in the palace and his son was in Lucio’s army.

        Generous was an understatement. Lucio was far kinder to his servants than he was required to be, but he’d always believed well-cared-for servants were a sign of a successful ruler. Still, not everyone appreciated how nice he was. They sometimes forgot how replaceable they were.

        Julian was in Nadia’s chair, viewing Lucio with wary eyes. The look wasn’t lost on Lucio, but he chose to ignore it.

        They settled into place as the tournament began. Lucio hardly paid attention to the first few fights, eager as he was to get to the end. Eleanor went second to last, facing a magician with levitating knives.

        She blocked every single blow, not taking a single hit. She toyed with the magician like a cat, batting him harmlessly around. The crowd roared with laughter when she set his shoe on fire. He ripped it off and hurled it away.

        Julian laughed. “That’s so wrong,” he said, wiping a tear of laughter from his eye.

        “But so good,” Lucio said.

        Lucio never failed to notice when the terror set in, when a gladiator realized they were going to lose. They always started making reckless moves, consumed with panic. The magician used all his knives, unthinking. Eleanor put herself between him and his discarded weapons. He was defenseless.

        She swung her staff. He foolishly tried to block with his bare arm. He screamed when Eleanor shattered his wrist. Lucio laughed at the blunder.

        Eleanor finally subdued the magician, managing to get him down without killing him. She planted her boot on his motionless body and bowed before the cheering crowd, tossing sparks into the air.

        She was such a performer. Lucio was proud.

        “Is my son next, my Lord?” Marlo asked.

        Lucio winked at Marlo, then approached the front of his box. When he stood in the right spot, his voice was magically amplified.

        “People of Vesuvia,” Lucio boomed. “Have you been entertained by this year’s tournament?”

        Thunderous cheers in reply. Lucio never tired of the sound.

        “Tell me now,” Lucio shouted, “Who’s going to win it all?”

        The crowd shouted a jumbled of names, but “Western Blaze” was by far the most obvious, though he could recognize some calling for Yanbia. Even Julian shouted from the Count’s box. Lucio stole a glance at Marlo, who was beginning to squirm.

        “The tournament is a proud tradition,” Lucio went on. “A competition of strength, for the glory of battle!”

        He paused while Vesuvia cheered their agreement, clapping and whooping. Once they settled down, he carried on. “Do we show any mercy to those who violate the rules of the tournament?”

        “No!” came the deafening reply.

        “What do we demand from them?”

        “Blood! Blood! Blood!” the crowd chanted, stomping in time.

        “The one you love to hate,” Lucio called, “The Scourge of the South!”

        There was a mixture of boos and hurrahs as Lucio’s champion entered the arena. He carried a massive ax and kept his eyes on the ground, black hair hiding most of his face.

        “And this year’s cheater, the Red Lion!”

        The crowd jeered and cursed as Red Lion entered the arena. His eyes went huge with fear when he laid eyes on Muriel.

        “My Lord, please,” Marlo said, falling to Lucio’s feet. “He had nothing to do with it. Have mercy!”

        Lucio ignored him. “Begin!” he called.

        Muriel charged, ax held aloft. Red Lion drew his sword and countered. The gladiators danced around each other. Muriel was easily much bigger. Easily much stronger. Easily bound to win. The crowd was ravenous for blood.

        Red lion went to block a swing of the ax. There was a resounding snap all throughout the arena. His sword was shattered into pieces.

        “But what about the woman I saw?” Marlo asked, desperate. “She must've been the poisoner!”

        “There was no woman, Marlo,” Lucio said, yanking his cape from Marlo’s grabbing fingers. “Why would anyone lie about such a thing? Protecting yourself? Or perhaps your son?”

        “B-but… mi’ lord…” Marlo stammered.

        Red Lion tried to run, but Muriel was fast. He seized the cheater by the collar and hurled him across the ring. Muriel strolled closer. Red Lion went to get up and Muriel kicked him in the ribs, sending him rolling through the dirt.

        “Kill him now!” Lucio shrieked.

        Muriel stood over Red Lion and raised his ax over his head. Red Lion held his hands in front of him as if he could stop The Scourge. He begged for his life.

        “He had nothing to do with it My Lord,” Marlo said. “It was me. It was all me. I just wanted to save my son from the witch.”

        “STOP!” Lucio bellowed.

        Muriel froze, ax still over his head, looking up at the box. Lucio dismissed him with a wave. Red Lion was left alone in the arena. He picked himself up. Confused murmurs ran through the stands.

        “People of Vesuvia!” Lucio called. “I’ve had a change of heart.”

        “Oh bless you. Bless you,” Marlo groveled.

        “RELEASE THE LIONS!” Lucio exclaimed.

        The crowd went wild. “No!” Marlo cried.

        The gates flew open. Pure white lions and tigers, rescued from poachers, streamed into the arena. Red Lion seized the hilt of his broken sword in a last attempt to defend himself. The big cats circled him with bared teeth, snarling. Their tails twitched with agitation.

        “Take me! Take me instead!” Marlo said.

        “If you insist,” Lucio said. He grabbed Marlo by the shirt and threw him over the railing and into the arena.

        “Fresh meat for my darlings!” Lucio exclaimed. The crowd was rabid.

        He glanced at Julian, who had leveled him with a cold glare. Lucio paid him no mind.

        Eleanor would probably scold him now that she was on some kind of path to righteousness. Back in the day, she used to love watching Lucio fight people who offended her. She did the exact same thing for him. Certainly the venue was bigger and the stakes were more skewed, but Lucio thought it was more or less than same. Either way, he saw no reason to bring it up. This was for his rage as much as it was for her vengeance.

        Red Lion flew to his father’s side. Marlo was barely moving. He touched his son’s face and mouthed an apology. They embraced each other.

        The cats pounced. The victims screamed. Julian turned away. Lucio settled into his throne and watched the violence unfold.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: Clear and Subtle Warnings

        Julian left Lucio’s box before the games were over. He needed to find Eleanor. He needed to warn her that things were more serious than she knew.

        She was already leaving when Julian spotted her in the dark tunnels. All of her gladiator gear had been replaced with loose day-clothes. She held her staff like a walking stick. A large satchel was tossed over her shoulder, the armor clanging as she walked.

        “Jules,” she greeted, giving him a smile. The smile fell when she got a good look at his expression. “What’s up?”

        “Your man caught the guy who poisoned you,” Julian said.

        “My man,” Eleanor said with a snort. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

        “Is it a good thing that he and his son are being mauled to death by lions?”

        “His son?”

        “Red Lion. He was scared to fight you.”

        “Everyone is scared to fight me.” Eleanor said, rolling her eyes. “I’m surprised he didn’t send Muriel out.”

        “Well he did at first.”

        “Then everything worked out,” Eleanor said. “Someone was slated to fight Muriel anyways. His father knew the risks. You try to mess with the tournament, you join the tournament.”

        Julian was flabbergasted. “Stars, how you be so cool about this?”

        “I’m not saying it wasn’t cruel,” Eleanor argued, “Or even that it was fair, but he made his choice knowing what would happen if it went wrong.”

        “I’ll tell you what usually happens when someone tries to cheat,” Julian said, voice shaking with anger. “They get a weapon. They fight The Scourge or some lions or whoever else. They get the chance to defend themselves. Lucio threw just an old man into the ring without any warning or any preparation.”

        “Oh.”

        “Yeah, ‘oh’. Tell me Ellie, why do you think he would do that? Why would he take it so personally?”

        She didn’t answer, looking at the ground with a set jaw. Julian half thought she might hit him.

        “I told you it would get messy,” he went on.

        “It’s none of your business,” she replied, hitting him with that glare like cold fire. He shivered.

        “It has to end, before it gets worse,” he said, braving through his nerves. “You’re my best friend, but Lucio is my friend too. You’re going to hurt him. He’s already hurting others.”

        “It’s not my fault if he can’t control himself. I made things clear.”

        “Did you though?”

        She looked away again. Julian could see she was getting mad.

        “Forget Lucio, since you obviously don’t care about him at all.”

        She bristled, but stayed quiet.

        “What would Asra think?”

        Eleanor’s head jerked up. Julian felt a gust of heat coming from her. Her hair fluttered on the rising air. She was beyond furious.

        Her voice was low and clear. “Don’t bring him into this.”

        “Then what about The Scourge?”

        Her glare faltered. The heat died down.

        “I saw you dancing at the bar,” Julian said. “And how he was by your side the entire time when you were poisoned. He’s love-sick for you.”

        Eleanor looked away, sadness on her face. She muttered something about it being impossible.

        “You know it’s true,” Julian said, “and you love him too. You would’ve slept with him by now if you didn’t.”

        She chewed her lip. He knew he’d caught her.

        “How do you think he’d feel if he knew you were shacking up with the guy who basically owns him?”

        “He’d blame himself,” Eleanor said. “He would think it’s because he’s not good enough.”

        “So what will you do?”

        She nodded to herself. “You’re right. I’ll stop sleeping with Lucio.”

        “You will?” Julian asked, surprised. He cleared his throat. “I mean, of course you will.”

        She gave him a half-hearted grin, though she still seemed sad.

        “You put on a good show today,” Julian said. “It was funny. The crowd loved it.”

        “Yeah well, to be honest I still feel bad that I killed the Whaler.”

        “It’s like you said Ellie, he knew the risks. He was trying to kill you, too.”

        “I know.” She shrugged. “Anyways I have to go, but thanks for trying to talk some sense into me.”

        “I’ll do it whenever you need,” the doctor replied.

        Back at the palace, Nadia had returned from a morning ride. She wanted to get one in before the autumn rains arrived. Once they started, it would be practically non-stop for weeks.

        She dismounted and passed the reigns of her horse to a servant. “Water for this one, please.”

        The Countess straightened her pink riding jacket and glanced around the stables. There were Lucio’s favorite white horses, but most were hers. They came in a wide variety of colors and shapes, every coat kept glossy by Nadia’s stable-hands. She had always loved riding, ever since she was a little girl.

        A flutter of movement caught her eye. The wave of a grey cloak from behind the open doors. “Come out now,” she ordered. “I’ve already seen you.”

        Eleanor stepped around the doorway, hands held up in surrender. “You caught me, Countess.”

        “Here to steal my horses again?” Nadia asked.

        “How’d you know?”

        “I know everything that happens in this palace.” She gave Eleanor a pointed look. She was well aware of what was going on with Lucio, but she wasn’t about to stick her nose in it. Rather, the Countess was a bit jealous that she hadn’t gotten to Eleanor first.

        “I also know you keep sneaking in here to feed them treats,” Nadia went on. “You’re a manipulator and a thief.”

        Eleanor looked away, cheeks turning pink. “Borrowed, not stolen. I brought them back, didn’t I?”

        “I don’t believe it counts if you don’t ask for permission.”

        The sorceress perked up. “Sorry. Can I have permission?”

        “Of course not!”

        Eleanor looked at the ground, lips pursed. “Well, this is awkward.”

        “I’m joking, you’re welcome to borrow my horses. They can always use the exercise.”

        “Oh,” Eleanor said with a laugh. “Great! Thank you.”

        “Perhaps you should apologize to my stable boy when you get the chance. The poor thing was traumatized.”

        Eleanor didn’t answer. She made a beeline for a young stallion, built for speed. She stood directly in front of it’s stall, arms down, letting the horse give her an affection nuzzle. Then she produced a carrot from her pocket, feeding it to the stallion with a flat hand. Eleanor murmured to the horse in Suomean, apparently unaware that Nadia spoke it.

        “I know, poor thing,” Eleanor said. “Cooped up all day.

        “I assure you, they get the best of care,” Nadia told her.

        The girl startled, then laughed. “Of course you speak Suomean. You know everything.”

        Nadia was intrigued that Eleanor would take to that horse over the others. The young stallion was especially stubborn, more like a mule than a horse.

        As she watched Eleanor pat the horse, Nadia noticed something strange. Something from inside Eleanor seemed to glow, peeping through glass-like cracks. Nadia’s intuition warned her of impending doom, but when she blinked the vision was gone.

        “What did you name him?” Nadia asked. There was no way Eleanor would know what Nadia named him. She must’ve chosen one herself. One couldn’t love a nameless horse.

        “Skadi,” Eleanor replied, scratching his neck.

        Nadia almost laughed. Of course Eleanor, fearsome warrior, would name a black horse something as basic as “shadow.”

        “What drew you to this one?” Nadia asked as she came to stand beside Eleanor. “The hands have a hard time with him.”

        "He’s like me. He likes action,” Eleanor said. “He’d make a good war horse.”

        “I hope you aren’t planning on taking my horses into battle.”

        Eleanor laughed. “No, don’t worry about that.”

        Nadia looked down at the magician, fondness glittering on her features. Eleanor looked up, eyes of steel meeting ruby. They held eye contact for a moment before Eleanor turned back to the horse, blush on her cheeks.

        “I was going to go riding with Muriel,” Eleanor said. “If you don’t mind.”

        “Tell him hello for me,” Nadia said.

        As the Countess left, she toyed with the idea of snatching Eleanor out from under Lucio. She was sure that she could, if only she tried. She’d love to dress her like a doll, wrapping her in silks of grey and blue. Nadia could picture the girl in her golden bath beneath sweet-smelling bubbles, skin pink with the heat. She’d be all silver and gold by the time Nadia was through with her.

        Then again, she didn’t want to get between her and Muriel. They seemed like a good match. Nadia was a bit old for her, afterall.

        She thought of that vision again. It troubled her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: Autumn Rain

        It was cloudy and grey outside. The afternoon sun kissed the horizon, an orange and pink smear behind the lavender clouds. There was an earthy smell in the air, a combination of approaching rain and autumn decay. The cool air felt good on Muriel’s skin. The chains hanging from his neck and wrists rattled with the horse’s movements. His hair was tied away from his face, granting him a clear view of the target ahead.

        Muriel rocked at the mare galloped, his legs tights around her massive body. The target was in his sight, hanging from the bough of a large oak tree. He drew the bowstring back, eyes fixed on the target. He felt like he was shaking.

        “Trust the horse,” Eleanor called to him. “Focus on the target. Trust her to run true.”

        Muriel took a deep breath. He released the string.

        The arrow soared towards the target, but was low by several feet. Muriel lowered his bow, mouth twisted to the side. He’d yet to hit a single target.

        “That was closer,” Eleanor encouraged.

        From behind him, Eleanor’s bow string twanged. Her arrow hit low on the bulls-eye, sticking in the lowest ring. She cheered when the arrow struck wood. She wasn’t the best shot either.

        They stopped at the same willow tree they did last time, leading the horses to drink beside the stream. Muriel didn’t get train with Eleanor as often as he used to, since she was kept so busy with the shop and the tournament. The fresh air seemed even fresher when they were together.

        “I wish I could just keep riding forever,” Eleanor said, looking off into the horizon. Her hair fluttered in the breeze, catching the last orange rays of sunlight. Her eyes seemed black as the sky grew darker.

        “You could,” Muriel said.

        She shook her head. “I’d get bored, eventually.”

        Bored? Muriel couldn’t imagine. He’d like nothing better than to live alone, away from all the crowds and unwanted attention.

        “I think I’m power hungry,” Eleanor said. “Do you think so?”

        Muriel thought for a moment, then nodded.

        “I thought I could forget about it, after being with Asra so long, but I guess it’s part of me.” She had a dreamy look in her eye. “I don’t really care for city life, but being in the arena, everyone cheering for me, the power. I forgot how good it feels.”

        Muriel raised his brows at her. She looked at him sideways. “Ah, I guess that makes me sound crazy.”

        Muriel shook his head. He stroked his horse’s spotted neck as she drank.

        “I miss feeling like somebody important, I guess. Back when I was a mercenary, everybody listened to me, but the past six years I’ve been so…”

        “Anonymous.” Muriel was a little jealous. He wished that he was anonymous.

        She nodded in agreement. “Sorry, I’m talking about myself a lot.”

        “I like listening to you.”

        She gave him a sideways glance again, this time with a gentle look in her eye. “That’s good, because when we’re together I can’t seem to shut up.”

        “Unless you’re falling asleep.”

        “Unless I’m falling asleep,” she repeated, laughter on her voice.

        Eleanor reached into the bag on her hip, producing an apple and a large knife. “Take this,” she said as she carved a slice for Muriel. “Hold it flat in your hand.”

        “Do you always carry a knife with you?”

        “What kind of silly question is that? Here.”

        Muriel did as she said, though he was nervous the horse would take his fingers off. The mare’s ear flickered with interest at the offering. She lifted her shaggy head.

        “Don’t be scared,” Eleanor said. “This will help her like you more.”

        The horse’s lips flapped against Muriel’s huge palm. She took the apple in one bite, crunching it with powerful teeth. Delighted, Muriel turned to Eleanor.

        Still with that gentle look, she met his gaze. He couldn’t believe she was the same woman who was crying in his lap a few days ago. He wondered if anyone else had ever seen her at such a low. Even the strongest people had their moments of weakness, he supposed.

        What Muriel really wanted was to ask her what was going on with Lucio. He seemed awfully concerned about Eleanor, beyond being angry that some tried to cheat the tournament. Muriel’s stomach twisted to think about what might exist between them.

        He supposed he wouldn’t be surprised if Eleanor would choose Lucio over him. Lucio had everything. Muriel had nothing; not even his own freedom.

        “Does it seem cold all of a sudden?” Eleanor asked.

        It did. Muriel looked up just as a fine raindrop fell on his face. “We should get out of the rain,” he said.

        Eleanor didn’t answer. She closed her eyes and tilted her face upwards. The rain came down harder. Muriel drew up his hood, but Eleanor remained still, trails of water running down her face and neck. Her mouth and brows were relaxed, completely serene.

        Eleanor startled when Muriel reached around to pull her hood up. She gave him a wide-eyed look from beneath the grey hood, like she forgot he was there.

        “You’ll catch a cold,” he said.

        “You’ll take care of me if I do.”

        He looked away quickly. She wasn’t wrong.

        “Well, let’s hurry back before it’s too dark.”

        They climbed back on their horses and headed straight for the palace. All the while the rain poured, soaking through Muriel’s clothes. He would’ve felt miserable if it wasn’t so obvious how much Eleanor loved it, sometimes riding with her arms wide open, letting the rain fall on the bare part of her chest.

        Once they reached the stables, Eleanor guided Muriel through undressing the horse and putting up the equipment. “They worked hard for us,” she told him. “It’s important for us to take good care of them.”

        They gave each horse an allowance of oats. Muriel looked away while Eleanor murmured Suomean baby-talk to her horse. Suomean was only spoken in the deepest part of the southwest, where the people lived in isolated villages. Muriel could understand only a few bits and pieces.

        Eleanor glanced at Muriel, still speaking to the horse. “Hän on melko komea, eikö olekin?

        Muriel caught a few words. He’s handsome? Surely she was talking about the horse.

        Eleanor went on, “ja niin hellävarainen. Muriel muistuttaa minua metsästä.

        He heard his name. She was definitely talking about him.

        “Luulen, että hän voi minusta huolta, mutta haluan myös hänet murskata minua noilla vahvoille käsivarsilleen.

        There was something about strong arms. Muriel’s face felt hot. He thought he might die of embarrassment.

        “Haluaisin myös huolehtia hänestä.

        She was looking at him pointedly now. Muriel didn’t know what she said to the horse, but he knew she was teasing him. “We should let them rest,” Muriel said.

        “You’re right,” Eleanor said. “It’s still raining so hard, though.”

        Muriel scratched his scruffy chin. He actually had a surprise for Eleanor, if he could somehow convince her to come back to his tower with him. “And it’s supposed to rain all night,” he said.

        “I’d be soaked by the time I got home.”

        “I can’t let you go out there.” Even without the surprise, he didn’t want her to leave yet.

        “Where will I go?” She came closer to him, like a snake drawn to a warm stone.

        Muriel looked down at her, seeing the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Her wet hair stuck to the elegant curves of her face. The perfect cupid’s bow of her lips was inviting. He felt something monstrous stir within himself. “You can come stay with me,” he offered.

        “Only if you’re sure.”

        “I’m sure.”

        “Just until the rain stops.”

        “Until the rain stops,” Muriel agreed, knowing it wouldn’t stop any time soon. He hoped that it never did.

        Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. He looked towards the source, but there were only horses.

        “See something?” Eleanor asked, twisting to follow his gaze.

        Muriel shook his head. “Imagining things.”

        “Let’s go get warmed up.”

        Without thinking, he placed a guiding hand on her back, then snatched it away. Eleanor didn’t act like she noticed, but surely she did.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One: Shelter from the Storm

        “It’s always so cold in here,” Eleanor said as she and Muriel entered his room in the tower. “I can’t believe they didn’t give you a room with a fireplace.”

        Muriel shrugged. He didn’t mind it so much. He pulled the tie out of his hair, shaking the raven locks free like an animal.

        It was nighttime. The full moon gave weak light from behind the rain clouds. The rain fell in sheets against Muriel’s window and pattered on the roof. Muriel didn’t much care for being out in the rain, but he’s always found the sound of it soothing.

        He glanced at Eleanor, who stood beside the window with her cloak draped over her arms. Her hair was plastered to her face with water, and her pants and shirt were soaked through. Her eyes were black in the darkness, looking out over the gloomy palace grounds.

        Eleanor glanced at the lone candle on the dresser. It ignited when she blinked, throwing low light across the room. She looked back out the window, as if searching for something.

        She must’ve been freezing. He dug through his dresser and produced a white shirt. “Put this on,” he said, tossing it to her.

        Eleanor caught it. She held it away from herself, like she was examining a dress in a shop. “You know, I can dry my clothes with magic,” she said, giving him a raised eyebrow.

        “Right,” he said. He reached for the shirt, but she held it away.

        “No take-backs,” she teased. “Turn around.”

        Muriel turned, fixing his gaze firmly on the opposite wall. Fabric rustled from behind him. He was sorely tempted to sneak a glance, but he didn’t dare. “All clear,” Eleanor said.

        He turned back around. She’d stripped all the way down to her underthings, Muriel’s huge shirt fit her like a dress. He swallowed a lump in his throat at the sight of her thighs. “Aren’t you going to change?” she asked him, glancing up through her lashes as she rolled up the sleeves.

        “Right,” he said, looking back to his dresser.

        He hung his cloak on the back of a chair and pulled away his shirt. Feeling a prickle in his neck, he turned back around to see that Eleanor was watching him.

        She jumped and looked away, face turning pink. “I was just looking at your scars,” she said. “You have even more than L… than I do.”

        He looked down in shame. “Mine are ugly.”

        “Do you think mine are?”

        He met her eyes. She tilted her head, raising her scarred brow at him. Looking closer, he could see finer lines on the backs of her hands.

        “No,” he said.

        “What about these?” She turned and pulled the back of her shirt and brazier up, showing several jagged scars that he hadn’t seen before. Some were arrow wounds, at least half a dozen of them across her upper back. Others were the harsh lines of lashes, whether or not she deserved them, Muriel didn’t know.

        His gaze drifted over the curve of her spine, then followed the flare of her hips into her close-fitting drawers. Stretch marks like tiger stripes climbed her lower back. The scars she revealed were shaped like flowers or stars. She was anything but ugly.

        “No,” he said again.

        She dropped her shirt and turned around. “Well, neither are yours. Nobody who’s done anything worthwhile walks away without a scar or two.”

        He supposed that was true.

        While Eleanor went to examine the plants on the window, arms wrapped around herself, Muriel tossed his dirty shirt into the proper pile. His eyes drifted to the package on top of his dresser. He didn’t often buy things, but he couldn’t resist the green ribbon when he laid eyes on it. It was tied around the little box with the most precision he could muster. Even now, he was unsure if he wanted to give it to her. He worried that it would be presumptuous.

        He picked the box up. It sat within the palm of his hand, waiting to be given.

        “El,” he said, still staring down at the box.

        “Yes?”

        Muriel turned towards Eleanor. She watched him, waiting. He wished that he’d chosen an uglier shirt to give her. Or perhaps a nicer one, to do her more justice. He supposed it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

        “I um… this is for you.” He extended the box, looking down.

        Her hands brushed his as she accepted the box. She felt the silky ribbon between her finger and thumb. His face grew hot while hers grew delighted. “You got me a gift?”

        “It’s okay if you don’t like it,” he said.

        “I already love it,” she replied as she pulled the ribbon undone.

        Eleanor stopped, studying the contents of her hands. She looked up at Muriel, than down at the ribbon, then back up at Muriel. “Kneel down,” she said, tucking the box into her shirt pocket.

        Muriel fell to one knee slowly, watching her face as he did. The top of his head was level with her shoulder. “I can’t believe he makes you sleep in these things,” she said and she reached around his neck, feeling for the keyhole of his collar.

        In truth, Lucio didn’t make Muriel wear the chains all day. Muriel just didn’t want to track him down to unlock them, or bother using magic to unlock them himself. Perhaps it was fitting for all the violence he’d committed.

        Eleanor’s leg touched the inside of his. The collar grew warm against his neck. The lock clicked. Eleanor pulled it away from him. She rubbed the indentations it left on his skin, her fingers raising goosebumps. “Give me your arms,” she said.

        Eleanor held the iron cuff on his right forearm with both hands. Warmth radiated from her as she used her magic. It was a pleasant, healing warmth, like that of a hearth. After she removed both cuffs it seemed like there was more color in her face. She looked healthier, like she just had a good night’s sleep.

        She tucked his hair behind his ears. He closed his eyes, unable to remember the last time he’d been touched so gently. He felt the silk of the ribbon around his neck. It tugged when she tied it in a bow.

        “There,” she said. “That must feel better.”

        He opened his eyes. Eleanor stood over him, hands resting on his bare shoulders. If she’d used enough magic to cause herself pain, she didn’t show it. “Thank you,” he said, hushed and intimate.

        They remained still for a moment, looking at each other. Muriel wasn’t sure which of them was moving, only that she was getting closer. He cleared his throat. “You still have to open it.”

        “Right!”

        She pulled the parcel from her pocket and unfolding the brown paper, revealing a latched, wooden box. Muriel didn’t think to get up. He watched for any trace of disappointment as she opened the lid.

        “Oh, Mur,” she sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

        Eleanor pulled the necklace from the box. It was a wooden pendant, shaped like a drop of water and no larger than a daisy. She ran her fingers over the smooth, dark surface. The rune glowed green with magic at her touch. It was similar to the runes on her arms. Muriel had done his research, consulting the spell books hidden in the bottom of his dresser.

        “It’s a barrier spell,” Eleanor said.

        “It works like your ink does,” he said. “But it won’t wear out as fast or hurt to use.”

        “This is so…”

        “Is it too much?”

        She shook her head fiercely. “No, it’s… it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. You made this yourself?”

        He nodded.

        “Amazing.” Her eyes glittered as she glanced between Muriel and the necklace. They seemed to glow in the candlelight.

        “You like it?”

        “Of course I do! Help me put it on.”

        Muriel rose to his feet, taking the necklace by the leather cord. Eleanor still gave off that comfortable warmth. She held her hair up as he clasped it behind her neck. She shuddered when his thick fingers brushed the side of her neck.

        “Sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to touch you.”

        “You can touch me whenever you want,” she said, then she clapped a hand over her mouth. The warmth vanished. The room was darker. Muriel’s jaw hung open. His face was so hot he felt like he would burst.

        “W-what I meant to say is,” she said, “is that you… I… Gods, I am so sorry. That was wildly inappropriate.”

        Eleanor was flustered. She released her hair and fidgeted, twisting a ring on her finger.

        “Did you mean it?” he asked.

        “Did I- what?”

        “Did you mean it?”

        She was quiet for a moment, as if considering what to say. She looked at the ground, still faced away from him. “Well… yes. I did.”

        Muriel couldn’t think of what to say. He wasn’t sure that he believed her. What would a powerful, immortal warrior want with an enslaved executioner?

        “I’m sorry. I’ll leave.” She started to step away.

        That wasn’t what Muriel wanted. He wasn’t thinking. He reached forward and took her arm.

        “Oh!” she said, then looked down at his grip.

        He released her. “I’m sorry.”

        “Don’t apologize,” she said, turning back to him. “You won’t break me that easy.”

        “But I could.”

        “But you won’t.”

        Muriel did want to touch her. Even since they danced in front the Rowdy Raven, he felt like she was missing from his embrace. He wanted to feel her so badly that he felt an ache in his stomach, but he was scared. He wasn’t sure his hands could give anything but violence. Eleanor should’ve been with someone who could take care of her.

        “Mur,” she said. “I’m not dumb. I know you have feelings.”

        He looked away, mortified.

        “But- hey, look at me.”

        He forced himself to look back at her.

        “If you don’t want anything to happen, I need you to tell me. I won’t hold it against you.”

        Muriel wasn’t sure what to say. It didn’t seem fair that she demanded to know his feelings without actually sharing hers. He didn’t want to hurt their friendship with unreciprocated feelings.

        “El,” he began. “I… uh…”

        Eleanor’s eyes were locked on his face. She was still twisting the ring. He couldn’t quite place her emotion. It might’ve been hope, but it was just as likely concern.

        “I feel… things.”

        “Things?”

        “Many things.” This was terrible. He getting nowhere.

        Eleanor rolled back and forth on her heels, chewing her lip. “I’m sorry, I’m putting you on the spot.”

        She certainly was. Muriel wanted to run and hide.

        “You don’t have to say anything,” she said. “It’s okay. I’ll go home, and things will go back to normal. Okay?”

        He couldn't bear to look at her. He cursed himself for not having the courage. He needed to say something. Anything.

        Eleanor stepped away from him, picking her pants up from the back of the chair.

        “You aren’t scared of me,” he blurted.

        She stopped. When she spoke, she said each word with care. “No. I’m not.”

        “And when I’m with you, I don’t feel like…”

        “Like such a monster?” She came closer.

        He nodded.

        “And like you can be yourself,” she said. “Like I know the real you, but I still see the good inside.”

        Again, he nodded. She was exactly right.

        Eleanor was right in front on him. The warmth was coming back. The candle on the dresser burned brighter. On her necklace, the rune glowed. His heart pounded in his chest.

        “How did you know?” he asked.

        “Because I feel the exact same way.”

        She reached down for his hand and guided it to her waist. He spread his fingers against the curve, so warm in the cool night. He closed his eyes as she cupped his face, leaning into her touch.

        “You won’t break me,” she said again. “You won’t. I promise.”

        Muriel opened his eyes. She was so close now. Her eyes flickered to his lips. He stooped down. She rose to her tiptoes, a hand tight on his arm for balance. There was something beastly inside him, trying to claw its way out.

        Muriel closed his eyes.

        Her lips were silky against his. As soon as they made contact, he felt the breathless blaze of her magic. Orange and yellow danced underneath his eyelids. It swirled violently around him, reaching for his own, milder energy.

        Something wasn’t right. Her magic waved and danced, but it didn’t make contact. All of the barriers Eleanor wore kept it trapped away. It paced around Muriel like a caged animal, not quite able to touch him.

        Her hands reached around the back of his neck. The beast within him reared its ugly head, demanding more, more. Muriel wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her tighter against him. He was ready to tear her clothes away, to feel that soft skin, to find every scar that kissed her strong body.

        Eleanor pulled away and he opened his eyes. She tugged him by the hand towards the bed. He could see the fire all around her, pushing against its walls. It promised heat and power, if only it could get free.

        He wanted nothing more than to take her to bed, but he couldn’t, no matter how much his body urged him. There was still voice in the back of his head warning that he would hurt her or scare her.

        Muriel blinked several times and her fire was gone, but he still felt the longing and terror. He followed Eleanor along, letting her drag him down into the mattress. They kissed again, fiercer now, her arms wrapped around his neck. He ran one hand up her leg, resting at the top of her thigh. The skin there was snowy white, never seen by the sun.

        “I’ve wanted you for so long,” she said, her lips moving against his jaw.

        Muriel said nothing. He didn’t want to talk, he only wanted to feel. Her body was so soft underneath his. He heard her heart racing as he kissed her collar. His hands wandered up her shirt, over the dip of her waist. Her skin was warm. It trembled under his touch.

        Muriel felt his self control slipping away. Everything was happening so fast. His hands were surely too rough. Her skin was so delicate. He wouldn't be able to stop. He was going to hurt her.

        He pulled away, holding himself over her on his arms. Both of their chests rose and fell in excitement. Eleanor’s hair spread on the pillow under her head. Her cheeks were flushed in the candlelight.

        “What’s wrong?” she asked. He watched her lips move as she spoke.

        “I…” he began, then shook his head at himself. “This is fast.”

        “That’s okay,” she replied, touching his cheek. She was trying to be kind, but Muriel saw she was disappointed.

        “Sorry.”

        “Don’t apologize,” Eleanor told him. “I’m happy just being with you.”

        He rolled onto his back, shame haunting his mind. Eleanor was freed from beneath him. She lifted his arm and curled up against his chest, sliding one leg between his. “This is just as good,” she murmured.

        But it wasn’t as good, Muriel knew. Her body was cooler to the touch. He wanted to do a lot more than wrap his arm around her back, but even then he worried he would squeeze her too hard, or roll over and crush her. It would have to be enough, for now.

        Muriel could feel her chest shift as she breathed. He would never know if she planned on trying again later, because she was already asleep. Perhaps all of this was an elaborate ruse just so she could get more sleep.

        Still, he wouldn’t have dreamed he’d be holding her now. The curve of her side fit perfectly against him. He gazed into her peaceful face and felt peaceful himself.

        The sleepiness was infectious. It overtook Muriel like a boat on Eleanor’s tossing ocean. He sank right through it and drifted away.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two: Told You So

        Eleanor had a spring in her step as she prepared to open up her shop. It was the first clear-skied morning in several days. The air was brisk. She threw open every curtain to let in the sunlight, bathing in it’s glow.

        She stopped in front window, glaring at the extra guards posted outside. Lucio insisted that she had extra protection ever since the incident with the poisoning. Eleanor was the last person in the world that needed protection, but Lucio couldn’t be convinced.

        Eleanor tied up her hair and threw on an apron, intending to spend the day brewing potions. Warming potions were all the rage these days, and like anything else to do with heat or light, they were Eleanor’s specialty. She lit the fire under the cauldron with a snap of her fingers.

        A bell chimed as the door opened. “Just a minute,” Eleanor called as she searched her recipe book.

        “Say witch, do you have a spell to turn me into a raven?”

        Eleanor smiled at the sound of that voice. She stepped out of the kitchen and saw Julian, auburn curls falling in his face. “Why a Raven?” she asked.

        “Why not? It’s rude to keep your customers waiting, you know.”

        Eleanor rolled her eyes, shifting her weight to one hip. “You’re awfully far from South End, bird boy. What brings you up here?”

        “Ingredient shopping,” Julian replied, producing a list. “I thought I’d say hello.”

        “Well met. Did you notice all the guards? Lucio’s given me an entourage.” Eleanor jerked her head towards the window.

        “He’s protecting you.”

        “Spying, more like. He knows I don’t need them. They should be fighting with their brothers in the west.”

        “You’re the one who decided to shack up with him over anyone else in this city.”

        Eleanor said nothing, fighting to keep her face plain. The shacking-up would have to stop now that things were happening with Muriel. As fun a lay as Lucio was, she would much rather be curled up with the gentle giant.

        It was going to hurt she and Lucio both, but it couldn’t be helped. It would be well worth the pain.

        “Why so smiley?”

        Her face must’ve betrayed her. Eleanor looked at the ceiling. “None of your business.”

        “Does it have something to do with a certain terrifying gladiator?”

        She smoothed the front of her apron. “It might.”

        Julian sighed as he leaned against the wall, throwing a melodramatic arm over his face. “Oh, to taste sweet wine after crossing a desert so wide.”

        “Nothing happened, if you must know.”

        Julian straightened up, eyes wide with surprise. “Really? How unlike you.”

        She tsked. “Don’t be rude.”

        “Only joking. Partly.”

        “He’s actually the one who wanted to wait,” Eleanor said, lifting a box from the counter.

        Julian followed her into the pantry. “Really? Somebody actually had to courage to tell you no?”

        She grimaced as she began stacking jars. “It sounds awful when you say it like that.”

        “Of course, you’d never threaten violence.”

        “Stars, Jules! Never! What do you think of me?”

        “You’re right, of course.”

        “Muriel’s not scared of me, anyways. That’s why we got so close in the first place.” She passed Julian a vial of dubious liquid. “Make yourself useful, string-bean. Top shelf.”

        “He must be very special if you would actually wait for him,” Julian said, reaching above Eleanor.

        “He is,” she replied.

        Julian looked down at her. There was something melancholic in his calm, grey eyes. “He’s a lucky man,” he said.

        Eleanor felt a sharp pain shooting through the middle of her chest. She gasped and bowed her head, laying her hand over her ribs.

        “Are you alright?” Julian asked.

        “Heartburn,” Eleanor dismissed. The stabbing feeling was gone, but she still felt it radiating throughout her chest. It seemed to be coming from her lungs.

        The bell rang. “Coming!” Eleanor barked, shoving past Julian. “Gods, you’re lengthy. Move over.”

        The pair stumbled over each other as they exited the pantry. Eleanor straightened up, tugged her apron straight, and put on the friendliest face she could muster.

        The friendliness fell when she saw Lucio, dressed luxurious red and white. She felt a weight sinking in her stomach. This was it. She was going to have to tell him it was over.

        “Ellie, you really should be more attentive to your customers,” Lucio said.

        “So I’ve been told,” she replied.

        Julian came stumbling out of the kitchen. “Oh, hello Lucio. Funny seeing you here.”

        Lucio didn’t seem like he was in a funny mood. Eleanor knew that cold look; she’d seen it many times in her mercenary days, whenever Lucio was angry and looking for a fight. She couldn’t be sure which of them he was upset with, but it was most likely herself. She put herself in front of Julian, keeping her eyes fixed on the Count.

        “Why so cold, Ellie?” Lucio asked.

        “I could say the same,” she replied. “You look like business.”

        “I mean business.”

        Eleanor noticed movement through the windows. People were peering into the shop, trying to get a look at what the Count was up to. He’d arrived in a carriage drawn by dazzling white horses, with a few soldiers in tow. No finery or pomp was spared for the occasion.

        “You’re in the right place if you need a spell,” she said.

        “That’s not what I’m after today,” he replied, stepping closer.

        Eleanor didn’t move. She glared right back as he came to stand over her, his boots giving him extra height.

        “I’m not scared of you,” she said.

        “No?” he asked, his voice almost a laugh. “Well, maybe not, but other people are.”

        “What do you want?”

        Lucio glanced at Julian.

        “He’s staying,” Eleanor said.

        Lucio shrugged. “Suit yourself. You’re forbidden from seeing The Scourge anymore.”

        “What?” Eleanor barked. “What the hell are you talking about?”

        “My servants have been talking to me about the two of you. It’s gone on long enough.”

        “My personal life is none of your business,” she growled, getting into his face. “You’d do well to stay out of it.”

        “Oh? Threatening me?” Lucio asked. “In front of all my guards?”

        Eleanor let her magic slip out, flooding the room with heat. She saw orange around the edges of her vision. Her hair tickled her face as it drifted on the heat wave. “I can fry them like fish.”

        “But you can’t, can you?” Lucio asked.

        Eleanor didn’t back down, instead turning up the heat. It was like an oven in her shop. Her ink stung as she maintained the temperature over such a large space. “Want to find out?”

        “You can drop the act,” Lucio said, glancing at her tattoos. “I know what those are. You can’t use your full powers.”

        “El,” Julian warned from behind her.

        Eleanor kept the heat on. Lucio wiped some sweat from his brow. “You got weak, Ellie,” he said. “I finally see it now.”

        “You’re just jealous,” Eleanor said, “that my life doesn’t revolve around you.”

        “Jealous?” Lucio shrieked, than he regained his composure. “Of course not.”

        “You can’t win me over with force displays.”

        “I’m not jealous! I don’t give a damn about you.”

        “Is that why you wore your most impressive clothes?”

        “Ellie,” Julian warned again. “You’ll make it worse.”

        “Listen to Jules,” Lucio said. “It’s my city, afterall. I’m only concerned.”

        She snorted. “Yeah, right.”

        “Seems like you forgot, so I’ll remind you,” Lucio said. “You’re a violent, immortal beast of a woman who can’t control her own magic. All you do is cause pain.”

        “And you’re the only one who can take the heat, right?”

        He threw his arms open. “If you’re offering.”

        “You’re sick.”

        “And you are not to see The Scourge anymore.”

        Eleanor got in his face again. His hand flew to the sword on his hip, ready to draw. Her lip twitched into a snarl as she spoke. “You don’t own me.”

        “But I do own him, and I can make his life hard.”

        Against her will, her glower flickered. “Got you,” Lucio sang. “He’s such a gentle soul, isn’t he? It really hurts his feelings every time I make him murder someone. What a weakling.”

        “You’re selfish and a coward-” she said. Lucio bristled when she said coward.

        “For God’s sake, El!” said Julian

        “-and he’s stronger than you’ll ever be.”

        Lucio’s jaw was set. He spoke through clenched teeth. “We’ll see about that.”

        Lucio kept his eyes on her as he exited. As soon as he was gone, she relaxed. All of the heat in the room floated away. She caught passersby glancing through her windows.

        “What are you looking at?” she snarled. They startled and hurried away.

        Lucio might’ve been a jealous coward, but he never made empty threats. She couldn’t see Muriel anymore, at least not until the tournament was over.

        “You can’t leave well enough alone, can you?” Julian scolded.

        “You’re the opposite of helpful. I thought you had my back!”

        “You seemed to have it handled quite well on your own.” He made a show of wiping sweat from his face. She rolled her eyes.

        Eleanor crossed her arms and leaned against the counter, calm despite the pain in her chest. She had to figure something out.

        Julian stood beside her, looking like he had something to say. He waggled his eyebrows at her. Eleanor threw her arms up and slapped her own thighs. “What, Julian?”

        “I told you s-”

        “Is that really the most helpful thing you can say right now?”

        Julian gave her an infuriating smirk. Eleanor looked through the window as the Count’s carriage retreated. Lucio was gone, but several of his guards remained. Lucio was a liar if he insisted he didn’t care for her.

        Eleanor knew Lucio was just jealous, but he hadn’t been completely wrong. She was violent. She knew she had no self control. She’d let Muriel get so close, fully knowing it was just as doomed as her relationship with Asra.

        Perhaps it was best for him if she kept her distance.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three: Round Five

        The bracket on the wall was badly attached; the nail-holes were too big. When Muriel was chained beneath the colosseum, it was easy for him to pull himself loose and wander the tunnels and dungeons. He’d already completed his fight for the day. Blood was splattered on his boots.

        By now he had memorized the routes that the guards took. He avoided each with ease, his footsteps muffled by the soft boots he wore. When he arrived at the cell Eleanor always set up in, he found her standing with one foot on the bench, lacing up her boot.

        “Muriel,” she said without looking up.

        That was strange. She hadn’t called him anything but Mur in two months.

        “How’re you feeling?” he asked, lingering in the entrance.

        “I’m fine,” she replied.

        He looked over her armor. The black cord around her neck might’ve been the necklace, but he couldn’t tell. Her cape was tossed over her shoulders in a way that covered the pendent.

        She finished lacing up her boot and put her foot down. The thud was shockingly loud, as if she was angry. Had he done something wrong?

        When Eleanor looked up at him, her eyes were different. Muriel was accustomed to seeing warmth and friendliness, but now she was as hard and cold as steel. There was no traceable emotion on her face, only a threatening tension in her posture. She hadn’t acted in such a way around him since they first met, several years ago.

        “We need to talk,” she said.

        Muriel swallowed. His chest felt tight. He knew what was coming. It had only been a matter of time.

        “We can’t see each other anymore,” she went on.

        Muriel was frozen in place. He felt like he might be sick.

        She glanced up and down his form, cool as a butcher appraising an underweight pig. She stuck out her chin like she was annoyed.

        “Is that it?” he asked.

        Eleanor stood, pulling her mask up over her nose. She kicked her staff into the air and caught it. “That’s it,” she said. “Move or be moved.”

        Muriel stepped aside. He didn’t think to do anything else.

        She faced straight forward as she walked past. He wanted to reach out and stop her, to demand to know what was going on, to insist that he didn’t believe her, but he was rooted in place. He watched her leave with the same resignation as a soldier shot by a second arrow. It was over.

        Why? Why? Why? his brain demanded as he stomped back to his cell. Certainly there were any number of reasons, but why now? Why such a sudden change?

        He racked his memory of the last time they were together. He couldn’t think of what went wrong. It seemed like a fairly nice, comfortable night.

        Then he remembered how physical things had been. She’d invited him to sleep with her, but he told her no. That must’ve been it.

        Muriel wasn’t surprised, of course. His body was the only thing he had to offer. He owned nothing, made nothing, and said nothing important. He couldn’t blame her. He would abandon himself if he could, too.

        Muriel found his way back to his cell and pushed the bracket back into its hole. When it was time for him to leave, the guards would come to collect him. Until then, he was alone with his tumultuous thoughts.

        He startled when the cell door slammed, iron clashing against iron.

        “Count’s orders,” said a guard as she locked the door.

        Muriel closed his eyes. How foolish he’d been to think that any happiness would last.

        In the colosseum above, Julian moved from his seat so the Countess could take his place. She’d arrived halfway through the fights, intending only to watch Eleanor.

        “Thank you, Doctor,” Nadia said as she sat.

        She glared at Lucio. He pretended not to notice, but his face turned red.

        “Have you nothing to say for yourself?” Nadia demanded.

        “I don’t owe you an explanation,” Lucio replied, squaring his shoulders.

        “If it’s a battle of wills, you’re no match for her,” Nadia replied. “She doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

        “Then she’ll face the consequences.”

        Nadia waved an attendant over. “Please send a message to Miss Eleanor. Invite her to go riding with me tomorrow morning.”

        “Right away mi’ lady.”

        Lucio bristled. “I forbid you to bring her that message.”

        “I insist,” said Nadia.

        “Do it and I’ll set your house on fire with you inside it.”

        “You’ll do no such thing.”

        “I’m the head of this city, I can do whatever the hell I want.”

        The attendant looked helplessly between Nadia and Lucio. Nadia growled. Lucio wasn’t technically wrong.

        “That’s harsh, Luce,” Julian said. “Isn’t El allowed to have friends?”

        Nadia tipped her head at Julian, appreciative, then fixed her gaze on Lucio.

        Lucio pressed his lips together. His face turned red. “Fine,” he spat. “What do I care?”

        Lucio raised his chin and looked out over the arena. Nadia and Julian exchanged a glance. It was obvious he cared quite a lot.

        In the colosseum, the announcer's voice carried over the noise of the crowd. “-and in this end, the Western Blaze.”

        Eleanor entered the arena the thunderous applause. She still wore a partially burnt cape, resultant from her last battle. On the other end of the arena was a dark-haired man called the Woodsman. He carried a one-handed ax and had a shield strapped to his forearm.

        “Is it just me, or does that guy look a lot like the Scourge,” Julian said.

        Lucio’s jaw clenched. He said nothing.

        “I see it,” Nadia agreed. He wasn’t quite as large and he wore blue rather than red, but the resemblance was there.

        “Begin!” said the announcer.

        The head of Eleanor’s staff burst into flames. She flew forward, swinging her staff around herself. The ax-weilder ducked just in time. He didn’t get the chance to retaliate. Eleanor seized him by the hair and drove his face into her knee.

        He leapt to his feet, stumbling back with blood running down his face. Eleanor twirled her staff in the air, making a dazzling ring of fire. The crowd oo-ed at the displayed. The anger in her face was unmistakable. Nadia suspected Lucio was the cause.

        “She’s not holding back,” Julian remarked, rubbing his chin with creased brows.

        Nadia glanced at Lucio. His face was despicably smug.

        Eleanor and her the Woodsman traded blows. She fainted to the left. He raised his shield to block. She changed directions, drew a knife, and sliced his forearm open. He stumbled backwards, shield loose in his grip.

        Eleanor had severed the straps of his shield. Nadia was appalled at the brutality of the move, but she had to admit it was clever.

        The Woodsman swung his ax at Eleanor’s side. She went to dodge, but the ax grazed her hip. A red gash opened through the dark fabric of her shorts.

        Eleanor danced away. He swung again, only for her to avoid him once more. He chased her around the ring. She never moved to hit him back.

        “She’s waiting for an opening,” said Julian.

        “Still has her head on straight,” Lucio replied as Eleanor maneuvered her staff around the shield. She held her staff with both hands, locking the shield against her body. They were locked in a tug of war, Eleanor barely avoiding wonky attacks as she clung on.

        The woodsman aimed for her legs. She dropped to the ground, yanking the shield away with her body weight. The ax passed right over her face.

        Eleanor grabbed the woodsman’s belt and hauled herself up, coming nose-to-nose with the enemy. The crowd laughed. He shoved her away and she stumbled backwards, but didn’t fall.

        The ax went down. Her staff went up. “No!” Lucio shouted.

        The staff snapped in two, hanging on by a shred of wood. Eleanor tossed it aside and drew a knife in either hand.

        “I can’t watch,” Nadia said, covering her eyes with her hands.

        Nadia peeped through her fingers just in time to see Eleanor’s knife flash across his torso. Eleanor leapt aside as he charged forward, narrowly avoiding him. Nadia covered her eyes again.

        “Oh my god, oh my god,” Julian said from her left.

        A gasp went through the crowd. “Ellie!” Both men shouted, jumping to their feet.

        Nadia opened her eyes, squeezing beside Julian at the edge of the box. The corner of the ax was buried in the back of Eleanor’s shoulder. She had one hand wrapped around the handle, her arm shaking with exertion. The other hand held a knife, buried in the woodsman’s heart.

        He fell to the ground, hands slipping from his ax. Eleanor threw it away, stumbling from the motion. The crowd was silent as Eleanor swayed, waiting for her to fall to the ground. Nadia held her breath.

        Eleanor dropped to her knees.

        “Oh no,” said Julian.

        She slumped forward, hands pushing through the blood-muddied dirt. Her fingers touched her broken staff. Blood fell down her back and arm like a sheet.

        “Come on, come on,” Lucio muttered.

        Her fists closed around the wood. She started to straighten back up. The crowd began to murmur encouragement. “Get up!” they called. “Get up!”

        Eleanor rose from the ground, head hanging low. Her shoulders rose as she took a deep breath.

        She held the broken staff aloft. The crowd exploded with joy. Nadia and the men beside her cheered, throwing their hands upwards is celebration.

        “Winner, Western Blaze!” The announcer boomed.

        Eleanor lowered the staff, still fighting to stay on her feet. Lucio seized Julian by the arm. “Get down there right now,” he ordered.

        “Ay Captain,” Julian said, dashing away.

        Nadia raised one eyebrow at Lucio. “Don’t care at all, do you?” she pressed.

        “Course not,” The Count.

        Nadia rolled her eyes and scoffed. She rose, pat Valerius on the shoulder, then left. She had better things to do than babysit Lucio.

        Lucio grimaced after her, straightened his jacket, then turned back to the ring below. His hands were tight around the top of the railing.

        Eleanor looked back up at him. The shadows beneath her eyes were so large and dark that Lucio could see them from up in the box. Her face was hard with cold fury, a promise of violence. If Lucio wasn’t so sure she had feelings for him, he would’ve been afraid. Eleanor would never hurt him, he told himself.

        Something else tugged at the back of Lucio’s mind, a heavy and blurry sort of feeling. It almost felt like guilt. Eleanor looked miserable. Perhaps Lucio had only made her troubles worse.

        No. The Count did what was best for himself and for Eleanor. There could be no question.

        Lucio met Eleanor’s glare. She turned away.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four: Whispered Apologies

        Eleanor stumbled off the field, clutching her broken staff. Her head felt light. The world spun around her, but she couldn’t show any weakness. Not with the entire crowd watching.

        He was dead. She knew the man she fought was dead, but she didn’t really care. If she hadn’t reacted defensively, she would be dead, too.

        Eleanor made it into the shadow of the entrance. She put one hand against the wall for support as she shuffled along. Her boots were heavier with each step. She needed to clean and wrap her wound, if only she could get somewhere out of sight. The world was spinning around her. The walls stretched up and up, into infinity.

        Just when she thought she might finally collapse, a familiar arm hooked around her waist. “I’ve got you,” Julian said. “Lean on me, now. That’s it.”

        Julian helped Eleanor stay upright as she made her way back to her bench, where she’d stashed all of her things. Lucky for Julian, she always brought her own emergency kit to the tournament.

        “Jules,” she said while she sat, still dizzy. “Blood loss.”

        “Obviously,” Julian replied as he undid her cape. “You really need a new one of these.”

        “You think so, huh?”

        “You have supplies in here?”

        She nodded to her bag. “There’s a red pouch in there. There should be some stuff.”

        Eleanor hissed as Julian poured alcohol over the wound. The room seemed like it was shrinking around her. Her chest plate felt so tight. She fought to keep her breathing even.

        “Do you want me to stitch this up or are you going to heal it?” Julian asked as he wiped the blood away.

        She had to get him out of there. He couldn’t see her having a panic attack.

        “I’ll heal it,” Eleanor said, holding her voice as level as she could. “I’m fine. You go, I’ll get it cleaned up.”

        “Are you sure?”

        She nodded. “Yeah, I need to change.”

        “If you say so. I’ll see you around.”

        Julian left. Eleanor reached around herself and fumbled for the lacing of her breastplate. Her heart hammered in hair chest. She thought it might break out of her ribs.

        Wincing with pain, she tore the plate away her herself. She gasped at the air as she stretched and twisted her back. The pain in her shoulder was splitting, but she had to move. It was how she reclaimed her body again.

        Eleanor leaned forward, holding her head between her knees. She closed her eyes and saw Muriel’s face. The image was ingrained in her memories; those emerald eyes dropping to the floor, his lips pressed into a hard line. He thought it was his own fault, surely. All she wanted to do was reach out and hold him. It would’ve been easier if he was angry.

        Now Eleanor was alone, with no-one to see her at her lowest. It was how it was meant to be.

        Eleanor sat back up and laid her hand over the back of her shoulder, letting her warm magic drip into the wound. It was quite deep. The blood-loss made it harder to focus.

        She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed the magic through her veins. In her mind’s eye it glowed orange as it moved, spreading down and out like the roots of a tree.

        At first she felt the strain of using healing magic. Eleanor had never been good at it. She had to force the energy to move, instead of letting it flow as she did with fire.

        Then she felt the pain. Initially a tickle, it deepened and spread. Shocking pain spread from the runes like lightning, stabbing into her bones. Eleanor could see the veins mending, feel the torn tissues reach for each other. She kept pushing as hard as she could. Her raised arm shook with electric pain and sweat broke on her forehead.

        She opened her eyes, letting the magic retreat into her lungs with her breath. Her shaky hand felt for the wound, finding the beginnings of a rough scab. It was perhaps two days worth of healing, but it was all she needed.

        Eleanor removed the rest of her armor with unsteady hands. Using magic made her hungry and exhausted. Life was so much easier when she could use her magic without any hindrance. Even as child, her energy wells had been huge. She’d use magic for any little thing. Her parents had always nagged her about using magic out of laziness.

        Both of her parents were magic users when they were alive. Her father was the village shaman, whose magic was deep and highly mystical. Her mother, the chief's daughter, wasn’t as powerful or skilled, but she was handy with fire spells. Eleanor supposed that it was inevitable they would have such a terrifying witch of a child. Her sister and both of her brothers could use magic as well, but none could hold a candle to Eleanor.

        Eleanor shook her head and finished packing her things. Her long-dead family was the last thing she needed to think about. What would they say if they saw her like this, bloody and fresh from a kill?

        She held the staff in her hands before tucking the pieces into her belt. Eleanor knew it was unwise for people like her to get too attached to material things, but she’d wielded the staff through many battles. It was a gift from Lucio. The first gift she’d received since she was a small child. Her runes would prevent her from using enough magic to repair it.

        A spell of wooziness came over her, forcing her to pause. She missed Muriel.

        A few cells away, Muriel was lead out by an entourage of guards. They held him by the chains, as if transporting an unpredictable animal. He walked with his head hanging low, eyes fixed on the ground. The sooner he was back in his tower, the better.

        The parade rounded a corner and Muriel felt his heart stop. Eleanor was several feet ahead of them, her grey cloak wrapped across her back. Her shoulders and hips rocked as she went. The wild waves of her hair bounced.

        Muriel thought to call out to her. Perhaps this was his chance to make it right. He could apologize, explain himself, promise never to tell her “no” again.

        He knew he could never change her mind. There was no point. She deserved someone better anyways. He resigned himself to watching her walk away, as torturous as it was.

        They went around the last corner. Brillight light slanted from the exit ahead. The blue sky was shocking opposed to the shadows of the colosseum's innards. Eleanor pulled her hood up with a flick of her wrists. Muriel watched a dark stain appear on her shoulder.

        Just as she stepped into the U of sunlight, she stopped. She wobbled on her feet, putting an arm against the wall to brace herself. The movement shifted her cloak, revealing her bare shoulder. Muriel saw a nasty gash there, poorly healed. It had once been scabbed over, but now it was reopened and bleeding freely. She must’ve tried to mend it herself.

        Eleanor bowed her head. The guards leading Muriel exchanged a glance. “Should would see if she’s okay?” one whispered to the other.

        She took a shuddering breath before stepping forward, keeping her arm up for balance. Her boot landed crookedly. She stumbled and fell hip-first into the wall, feet skidding on the dirt floor.

        "Miss, are you alright?” asked a guard, rushing to her side. He reached down to grip her shoulder.

        She swatted his hand away. “Touch me again and you’ll lose that arm.”

        “What?”

        Muriel went forward, shackles jangling. “El,”

        Her eyes went big with surprise. He might’ve imagined it, but he thought he saw a ghost of a smile. “Mur,” she sighed, then she was cold again. “Muriel.”

        She was wearing the necklace. Maybe there was hope.

        “Let me heal you,” he said.

        Eleanor glanced between him and the guards, brows lowered, like she was waiting for an attack. “I don’t need your help.”

        “I know,” Muriel said. “You don’t need help. You don’t want to see me, but let me heal you. Please.”

        She shook her head. “Out of the question. Leave me here.”

        “Please, El.”

        “I’m fine.”

        “But-”

        “I said, leave!” Her necklace flashed green and a burst of heat came from her. The guards startled. It was a dry, scathing heat, nothing like the comfortable warmth Muriel felt when they were alone together.

        It was slight, but he caught it. She winced when she used magic. The skin around her tattoos was angry and red. She was hurting.

        “Let me help.”

        “I don’t want your help.” Her gaze fell on him like hail. There was no convincing her. Would she really rather sit in the dirt than accept his offer?

        “You heard the lady,” a guard said. “The cart’s waiting.”

        The guard tugged on Muriel’s chain like he was an unruly dog, stopped to sniff a bush. Eleanor pulled her hood back up and turned her face aside. He could hardly tear his gaze away from her.

        “I'm sorry,” he said as he was led into the daylight. It was all he could think to say.

        In the shadow or her hood, her jaw tightened. Her lips moved but no sound came out, like she didn't intend him to hear it. Muriel recognized the shapes her mouth made.

        “I'm sorry,” she echoed.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five: Noble Duties

        “Why so glum?” Nadia asked from astride her horse, a chestnut mare. “You’re usually quite happy to go for a ride.”

        “Just tired, I guess,” Eleanor replied. She did indeed look tired, but Nadia sensed there was more going on. She suspected it had to do with Muriel.

        The Countess and the sorceress were crossing the fields on horseback. It was a gloomy day; grey without any promise of rain. The clouds in front of the sun were silvery.

        Eleanor and Nadia stopped on a hill to look back at the city, their hair waving in the breeze. Eleanor’s eyes were lifeless and cold. Nadia wanted to do something to help Eleanor, as she’d become quite fond of the girl.

        Eleanor’s horse kicked at the ground and tossed it’s head, ready to move. Skadi, as Eleanor had named him, was one of Nadia’s more troubled horses. Part of the reason Nadia invited Eleanor out was to see how she handled the unruly stallion.

        The other part was that she needed to get out of the palace, away from her husband. What Lucio did to Eleanor and Muriel was unspeakably cruel. Everything he did was unspeakably cruel. Nadia was constantly appalled at the decisions he made. If Vesuvia was her city, things would be run very differently.

        “It’s about time for us to return,” Nadia told Eleanor. “Come along.”

        Eleanor was acting so sad and bland that Nadia almost regretted inviting her out. They were mostly silent as they rode back to the palace, each lost in her own thoughts. Nadia considered who she would replace if the Count were to leave his post.

        The Consul could keep his position, he seemed reliable enough in the right hands. Dr. Devorak or any of the other plague doctors would easily be better than the Questor. Volta, the Procurator, would be fine as long as Nadia kept a close eye one her. The Praetor absolutely had to go. So did the Pontifax. Nadia wasn’t sure what the Pontifax’s job even was, only that it was somehow involved with the military. Nadia didn’t have any ties with people experienced in the military, yet she knew it was necessary for any state.

        The Countess knew little about the ongoing war in the west. Lucio refused to share any details or let her attend any meetings, insisting that she knew nothing about war. Nadia didn’t even know why Lucio sent troops out west to begin with. Lucio ought to have been focused on infrastructure improvements, like repairing the city's old aqueducts. They desperating needed a better, cleaner water source.

        Lucio wasn’t entirely wrong. Nadia had studied many battles and war tactics, but Prakra hadn’t been to war in many decades. As she recalled, her mother’s Lord Generals had almost always been foreigners from southern nations.

        Perhaps a former mercenary and military consultant would have the correct experience for such a role.

        Nadia side-eyed Eleanor. She was bent low over the horse's neck, whispering conspiratorially. His ears flickered, as if he understood what she was saying. Eleanor seemed a bit more cheerful.

        “I take it you’ve owned a horse before,” Nadia said as they dismounted at the stables.

        “Yes,” Eleanor replied as she pulled a carrot from her pocket. “Closest thing I’ve ever had to a familiar.”

        “So then, your shop has the proper facilities to care for one,” Nadia inferred. She watched Eleanor feed Skadi the carrot then give his neck a proper scratch.

        “It hasn’t been used in a few years, but we have a couple boxes.” Eleanor dropped the reins to fish for something else in her pockets. The horse stayed put.

        “If you tell anyone about this, I’ll deny it,” Eleanor told Nadia.

        “Of course,” the Countess said.

        Eleanor produced and length of orange ribbon and reached for Skadi’s mane. He stood still as she braided the ribbon with the hair on his forehead, pulling it out of his face.

        “Eleanor, how whimsical of you.”

        “Not a soul, Countess.”

        “Of course. You have your reputation.”

        Eleanor put her hands on her hips, admiring her handiwork. The horse bobbed its head as if in appreciation.

        “El,” Nadia began.

        Eleanor looked at the Countess.

        “Would you like to take him home?”

        The sorceress's eyes went wide. “Come again?”

        “Would you like to take him home?”

        Eleanor looked between Nadia and the horse several times. “Are you… are you offering?”

        “If you have the means to care for him, yes.”

        “You’re giving me a horse?”

        “Not just any horse. He was a gift from my family in Prakra. He’s a very fine breed, if you hadn’t noticed.”

        “I had. He’s beautiful.”

        “Yet, you’re the only one who's ever made a connection with him. I love my horses, I want them to be happy and cared for. Skadi has certainly been happier since you started spending time with him.”

        “You’re really serious? He’s mine?”

        “He’s yours. You were poisoned in my home, so consider it an apology gift.”

        Eleanor broke into a huge smile, turning up the corners of her eyes. She looked like a girl in that moment, every past trauma temporarily gone from her shoulders. “You’re mine!” she told Skadi, throwing her arms around his neck.

        “Thank you, Nadia, how can I ever thank you enough?” Eleanor hugged Nadia with full force, lifting the taller woman off the ground.

        “Just take good care of him,” Nadia said as Eleanor set her back on the ground. “You still have a saddle and things?”

        Nadia was moved. Eleanor had never hugged her before. She didn’t seem the touchy-feely type.

        “Yeah, yeah I have everything. I… wow. I’m so happy.”

        “You said you hadn’t been sleeping well?”

        “Ah, yeah. The shop, you know. Makes me think of all the people missing from it.”

        “Why don’t you take Skadi out to the hut in the woods, where you went after you were poisoned. Perhaps the fresh air would do you good.”

        “I don’t know. It’s Muriel’s hut.”

        “He doesn’t own it. The owners died without passing it down. It’s technically government property.”

        “Ah.” Eleanor looked at the horse and chewed her lip, considering the proposal. “Maybe tomorrow. I need to do some research today.”

        “I’ll leave you to it then,” Nadia said, passing her horse’s reins on to a stable boy.

        “Thank you again,” Eleanor said. “I’ll take good care of him.”

        Nadia waved over her shoulder as she walked away. “I know you will.”

        At the same time, Lucio was walking to dinner with Valerius, the Consul. Valerius was handsome, if a bit bookish and thin for Lucio’s tastes. Still, sometimes one needed some affection.

        “I heard the Lazaret is complete,” Valerius was saying to the Count. “I’m glad. The sick make the streets so unsightly, don’t you think?”

        “Yeah, sure,” Lucio said. He wasn’t really listening.

        Valerius prattled on. His voice was a posh drawl that Lucio could easily tune out. Lucio had nearly forgotten about the Lazaret. He needed to begin organizing staff, or he could leave it to Valerius or Nadia. Nadia would probably be glad to have some say in the matter. She was always bullying Lucio for more responsibilities. He couldn’t imagine what she wanted them for.

        Then there was the problem of Eleanor. Lucio knew Eleanor wasn’t one to follow orders. She would never bend if she didn’t have a tangible reason. It was only a matter of time before she fell in with The Scourge again. What Lucio needed was leverage.

        He knew Eleanor better than any living soul, but he still knew so little. All he had to go on was her long-abandoned surname.

        His thread of thought was cut when he saw Eleanor walking towards him. Her cloak covered her shape in a way that made her look broader. Her face hadn’t changed since the last time he saw her; she still looked exhausted, still had that stormy look in her eye. They both slowed when they saw each other, unable to look away.

        Lucio’s guilt was nagging him. He looked for any sign of distress in her and was soothed to find none. Then again, Eleanor never showed her emotions to the enemy. Was he the enemy, now? Had he done that to himself?

        Lucio forgot Valerius was there until he piped up. “Good afternoon,” he said to Eleanor. Lucio nearly shoved him away, so Eleanor wouldn’t think they were together.

        That was a ridiculous notion. Lucio needed to show Eleanor that he wasn’t waiting around for her. He linked his arm through Valerius’s and pretended not to notice her.

        Eleanor said nothing back to Valerius. She looked straight ahead and kept walking, her shoulder bumping hard into Valerius as she went past. “Excuse me!” Valerius exclaimed.

        Valerius and Lucio slowed, both turning to watch her go. “How rude,” Valerius said, loud enough to let her hear.

        Eleanor stopped in her tracks and squared her shoulders. Lucio felt Valerius stiffen. The Count would love nothing more than to watch Eleanor wipe the floor with the Consul. Certainly, he hadn’t been in enough fights as a child.

        Eleanor tilted her head to the side, still facing away. She took an audibly deep breath, shook her head, then continued walking.

        Lucio let go of Valerius as they kept going. He wondered if Eleanor was jealous. It was more likely that she saw right through him and thought he was a fool.

        Even if Lucio had by some coward’s measure been too cruel, it was too late now. He would rather face Eleanor’s wrath than admit he’d been wrong.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six: Dreams of Memories

        Eleanor woke up when she fell flat on her back. Her eyes flew open. The room around her, the room that was supposed to be fireproof, was in flames. The blaze roared. Eleanor swallowed. She’d had this exact dream many times.

        The sorceress picked herself out of the ruins of the smoldering bed. Just as she got to her feet the thatched roof fell in, showering her with ash and fire. They sky above was cloudy with grey smoke. Rain pattered on her face, yet the fire burned on.

        Eleanor coughed on the smoke, but it didn’t really bother her. Neither did the fire.

        “It’s not real,” she told herself. “It’s not real.”

        Her voice rose higher against her will. The walls grew taller. She was her twelve-year-old self. “It’s not real,” she said again. “It’s not real.”

        Eleanor repeated herself over and over as she approached the door. She began speaking in Suomean. She knew it wasn’t real, but it still felt real. When she reached for the handle, the wall collapsed, kicking up sparks.

        The rest of the house was already almost gone. Every window was shattered. The roof was missing. Rain beat against the fire, but the fire could not be defeated.

        “Mama!” Eleanor screamed over the smoke. “Papa!

        Her lip wobbled as she cried, stumbling through the wreckage. Eleanor shrieked when she tripped, landing flat on her face. She felt blood rushing out of her nose, cool compared to the air around her.

        “Mama!” she called again as she rose up. “Where are you?

        Eleanor looked down, seeing what she tripped on. It was a tall, thin figure, barely recognizable as a man. Flames ate chunks from his blackened body.

        Eleanor screamed, scrambling backwards so fast that she fell again. For several beats she was frozen in place.

        “Papa,” she whispered, crawling towards the man. “Papa, say something. It’s a nightmare. Tell me it’s not real.

        She shook him by the arm, but he was long dead. When she pulled her hands away, they were covered in something black and sticky. She cried so hard that she could barely see. She went to wipe her hands on her dress, but touched her bare legs. Her clothes had burned away.

        Eleanor took labored, gasping breaths, fighting the rhythm of her own sobbing. She picked herself up and went for the house’s door, but it was already gone. She stepped through the doorway and looked out over the village.

        The entire village was in flames. If anyone was alive, they were long-gone. Eleanor looked at her hands.

        “Why are we here,” someone asked.

        Eleanor whirled around. Judgement had the head of an elephant and wore long, navy robes. Her tusks were decorated with shining chains and beads. When she spoke, her voice was deep and soothing.

        “You tell me,” Eleanor said. She was an adult again.

        Judgement shrugged. “We’re in your mind.”

        “How long are you going to keep bringing me here?”

        “As long as you dwell on it.”

        Eleanor gave a dissatisfied hum. “What do you want me to do? I’m sick of living this way, having these dreams. I don’t know how to fix it.”

        “That’s for you to figure out,” Judgement said. “Your patron could help you.”

        “I haven’t seen him in years.”

        “He is lost to you because you lost yourself, but the fog is clearing, isn’t it?”

        Eleanor looked down at her hands, as if they held the answer to her problem. She hadn’t had such a clear conversation with Judgement since before she met Asra. Her life felt fuller with each passing day. She even felt happy to be alive sometimes.

        “Is it because I found Julian again?” Eleanor asked. “Or is it because I’m back to fighting?”

        “What do you feel?”

        “I feel like I’m supposed to win this tournament,” Eleanor said. “I don’t know why. It feels like if I do, things will start making sense again.”

        “Perhaps.”

        “Is it him?” Eleanor asked. “Is he trying to guide me?”

        “I don’t know. It’s not as if we all have meetings.”

        Eleanor rolled her eyes.

        “Remember what brought you to where you are now,” Judgement said. “It is easy to forget what we’ve done, but that won’t redeem you or break the spell. I cannot pass judgement on crimes you don’t remember. Only true forgiveness can save you.”

        “Forgiveness from who?” Eleanor demanded. “Everyone I’ve ever wronged is dead!”

        “Not everyone.”

        Eleanor ran forward. “Someone lived? Who was it? Tell me!”

        “They cannot resolve your guilt,” The Elephant replied. “Only you can do that.”

        “But I don’t know how! I can’t figure it out. Can’t you just show me who lived?”

        “I cannot. You must reach out to them yourself with a clear mind. Think of what Asra taught you.”

        “Was it all a trick?” Eleanor asked. “Is this my punishment? I’d understand if it was.”

        “It is not a punishment. It is a chance. A pause.”

        Eleanor ran frustrated hands through her hair. “A pause? From what?”

        “To give you more time, since you obviously must agonize over it as long as you possibly can.”

        A new voice came over the wind. “What was that?” Eleanor asked, looking around wildly.

        Judgement didn’t answer. She only offered a shrug.

        “It sounded like… my name.”

        “Will you follow it? Do you wish to see him?”

        “Asra,” Eleanor said. “Yes. I think I’ll go.”

        The fire went out. Eleanor was looking into the glassy surface of a pond. No. She was in the pond.

        One the other side was a petite young man, with bronze skin and fluffy, white hair. His eyes were large and shockingly violet. Eleanor’s heart ached for how much she wanted to touch him.

        “I miss her too,” he said to the snake that coiled around his arm.

        “Asra,” Eleanor sighed.

        Asra’s eyes flickered to the water. He leaned over it, peering into its depths. “Did you see that?” he asked the snake.

        Eleanor started to call out to him again, but then she stopped. Surely it would feel good to her, but was it what was best for Asra?

        She took a breath and dove forward, and she was standing on the surface of the pond. Asra was still craning his neck to look through the dark water.

        Eleanor could have reached out to him. Asra’s clairvoyance would allow them to speak, if she only called his name. She missed the soft feeling of his hair, the sound of his gentle voice. When they were together, Eleanor forgot about the entire world. It was only her and Asra, hidden away from all her past crimes and cares.

        That wasn’t what Eleanor needed. She needed to face her mistakes. It wasn’t what Asra needed, either.

        “Must’ve imagined it,” Asra murmured.

        He laid beneath a tree, looking up at the twilight sky. Asra was beautiful; as beautiful as anyone Eleanor had ever laid eyes on. He was also clumsy, clever, and curious. He deserved far better than what Eleanor could give him.

        This was her chance to make everything up to him, somehow. Eleanor thought fast, knowing the spell would run out eventually. She closed her eyes, envisioning their auras. She reached out for his, slow and careful so he would not notice. Once they touched, she opened her eyes.

        Asra’s aura fell on him like a cloud of blue and green. Where Eleanor’s intense, fiery magic met his, it turned purple.

        “Little magician,” Eleanor said, “With all my power, I give you this blessing.”

        Asra’s brows lowered, like he felt something. Eleanor had to be quick.

        “In your time of greatest need, my power will become yours. It will protect you from temptation and illusion. It will guide through whatever darkness you might encounter. It will give you strength, if only you are brave enough to wield it.”

        Asra tugged on his ear, like he felt a tickle. “Do you hear something?” he asked Faust.

        The runes on Eleanor’s arms began to tingle. She was beginning to push how much magic she could use. “The power to protect what you love,” Eleanor said, “is my final gift to you. A piece of my heart will be yours forever. It’s only right that you should carry it with you.”

        Eleanor felt weight lifting from her chest. Asra clutched his. Her arms burned.

        “Goodbye, my love,” Eleanor said.

        Asra was gone. Eleanor was back in her village, but the fire was gone. It was a ruin, dusted with winter snow. Judgement was gone as well. It was deadly quiet.

        Eleanor glanced around, shoving her hands into the pockets of her coat. Her feet crunched in the snow as she looked for whatever she was supposed to find. There was always something.

        “Yes,” came a familiar sneer. “She played us both, didn’t she?”

        Eleanor whipped around. Two figures were turned away from her, speaking with each other. One was huge and dark. The other was lean and fair.

        “Mur, Luce,” Eleanor said, jogging forward.

        She crashed into a pane of glass, forcing her to stumble back. Whatever was going to happen, she was powerless to change it.

        “She’s a monster anyways,” Muriel said.

        “An absolute terror. Do you know what she did?”

        “It was terrible. Unforgivable.”

        “How could anybody love someone like that,” Lucio said. “She used me. She never loved me.”

        “Lucio, that’s not true,” Eleanor called out. “I did love you. Part of me always will.”

        “I’m unlovable,” Lucio said, hanging his head.

        “So am I,” Muriel replied. “She used me, knowing nothing would happen. She never loved me.”

        “I’m sorry,” Eleanor said. “I’m so sorry.”

        “She used us both,” Lucio said. “It’s for the best that we forget about her.”

        “For the best,” Muriel agreed.

        “It is for the best,” Eleanor sighed. “You deserve better than me.”

        The pressure in the air changed. Eleanor looked around, seeing sunlight glint off of the clear glass. It was above her and all around her, moving closer. She bit her tongue, her words catching in her throat. How could she ask them for help?

        Her breathing was panicked. She could feel the pressure rising around her. Was there some sort of lesson, or was it a nightmare like any other?

        She could see the glass drawing closer. Her heart ran like an engine in her chest. Eleanor banged on the glass. “Muriel, Lucio,” she finally called. “Get me out of here!”

        The men both turned, cold indifference in their eyes. “Even now,” Lucio said, “She’s only talking to us when she wants something.”

        “I need help,” Eleanor begged, her breath frantic. “Please help me!”

        “But you don’t need anyone’s help,” Lucio sneered. “You can handle everything all by yourself.”

        Eleanor felt the glass pushing against her. It forced her to her knees. “Muriel,” she tried. “Please, Mur. You can break me out.”

        Muriel said nothing, only looking on with pity.

        “After everything, you’re still so weak,” said Lucio. “You can’t even break glass by yourself.”

        The glass pushed up against her back and sides and squeezed. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breath. “Please let me out, please,” she gasped. Her throat burned.

        The men were gone, replaced with a red-haired woman. She had angular features and cold, cold eyes. Eleanor’s eyes.

        “I’m sorry little gold,” her mother said. “I can’t let you out if you can’t control yourself.

        “Mama,” Eleanor wailed. “I’m sorry, Mama. Please let me out. I didn’t mean to.

        Her lungs were crushed. Stars danced in her vision. This was how it was always doomed to end.

        “Ellie. Ellie!”

        Eleanor sat up with a gasp. Her heart felt like it was in her neck. A hand was on her shoulder.

        “Breathe, Ellie,” said Lucio. “Look at me. Deep breaths.”

        Eleanor looked at Lucio, trying to breathe in time with him. It always felt so real.

        “Atta girl,” he said. “It was just a dream.”

        Eleanor, acting on impulse, threw her arms around his neck, holding him tight. Needles of pain shot into her wounded shoulder, but she ignored it. “It’s alright,” he told her. “You’re alright.”

        “It was so real,” she whispered.

        “It always is.”

        Eleanor let Lucio hold her while she caught her breath. The weight his embrace was grounding. She felt like she could melt right into him. Eventually the panic slipped away and Eleanor was back into the present. She remembered everything that happened.

        “Oh you bastard,” she hissed, shoving Lucio away again.

        “She’s back,” Lucio said. “Still having nightmares, huh?”

        “None of your business.”

        “It became my business when the servants came to get me. You were yelling so loud they could hear it outside.”

        Eleanor looked away from him, feeling her cheeks heating up.

        “Just be glad they got me instead of Nadia. At least I’ve already seen it happen.”

        He was right about that. Eleanor sat up straight and cleared her throat. It was late at night and she was in the library, books and parchment spread on the desk before her. She’d come to research ingredients.

        “A thank you is in order,” Lucio said.

        Eleanor glared at him. “For what? For banning me from seeing my friend?”

        “Touche,” he said. “It’s what’s best for you both and you know it.”

        Eleanor scoffed. “Is that really what motivated you? You don’t give a damn about Muriel.”

        “Maybe not, but I do give a damn about you.”

        Eleanor made a note of him. He was wearing a red, silken robe. The neckline hung open down to his navel, showing that he’d thrown it on hastily. His face was clean of any makeup. One sleeve of his robe was cut short and tied off. It was the first time she’d seen him without his arm, yet it was the most he’d looked like himself in a long time.

        She stood up, unable to look away.

        “What? What are you looking at?” His eyes flickered between her and his missing arm. “Oh, that. It’s not polite to stare.”

        “When did it happen?” she asked. “We’ve never talked about it.”

        “Maybe I don’t want to talk about it.”

        Eleanor stayed quiet. There was no way Lucio didn’t want to talk about his problems.

        “Alright,” he sighed. “I hurt my hand in a battle and it got infected. Jules cut the whole thing off right after we rescued him.”

        “So what, a month after I left?”

        “About, yeah.”

        “I’m sorry. I should’ve been there.”

        Lucio shrugged, looking away. Eleanor felt the strangest compulsion to reach out and hold him. She wanted to comfort him, especially now that he wasn’t trying to manipulate it out of her. She needed some comfort, too.

        “Well don’t look at me like that,” Lucio said. “It was years ago. I’m used to it now.”

        Eleanor twisted her mouth up. Perhaps that loss was where everything started for him. She knew quite well how trauma could make you a crueler person.

        It was no excuse. He was still a sadist and coward, even if he was a handsome one.

        “Come to bed with me,” he said. “You’ll sleep better.”

        She raised her eyebrow at him.

        “I won’t try anything, I promise. You need some good rest.”

        He seemed sincere, but Eleanor knew if she went to bed with him something would happen. She lacked the will to tell herself no, and he lacked the will to tell her no. Besides, she already felt guilty enough for sleeping with Muriel’s master.

        “That’s not a good idea,” she said.

        “Ellie-”

        She held up her hand, stopping him. “Thank you for waking me up. I’m going home now.”

        “Come on,” he groaned as she packed her things. “This is about The Scourge, isn’t it?”

        “Goodnight, Luce.”

        “You can’t give me the cold shoulder forever!” he called while she left the room.

        “Just watch me,” she murmured.

        Once she was out in the hallway, she stopped. Eleanor didn’t really want to go home. She wouldn’t get any sleep at all. She slept best when Muriel was around, but she couldn’t go to him now.

        Perhaps she had the next best thing.

        Eleanor left the palace. She saddled up Skadi and made for the forest, disappearing into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven: To Heal the Heart and Body

        It was raining by the time Eleanor arrived at the forest hut. The woodsy smell was soothing. She lead Skadi to the shed behind the hut and tied him up there, removing his saddle for comfort’s sake. She spread the blanket over his back and fed him a carrot.

        “Wonderful work today,” she told him in Suomean. “It seems we’re partners now. The more time we spend together, the better we’ll understand each other.

        Skadi tossed his head, almost like a nod.

        Eleanor ran her fingers through his dark mane. “I’m going to put so many flowers in your hair. It’ll be beautiful. Just you wait.

        Whether Skadi cared for flowers, she didn’t know. She was going to find out.

        Eleanor pulled a knife from her bag and carved a heating spell into the wall of the shed. Her lines weren’t nearly as fine and elegant as Asra’s, but they worked just as well. She left her hand over the symbol to charge it, just enough to keep Skadi comfortable through the cool night.

        She bid Skadi goodnight and went into the hut. Embers glowed in the fireplace, breaking the complete darkness. Someone had been there recently, but it could’ve been hours ago.

        Eleanor entered cautiously, ready for anything. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw she was alone. Now relaxed, she tossed a log on the fire and ignited it with a snap of her fingers. The room filled with light.

        A little magic use always made Eleanor feel a bit lighter, like a weight lifted from her chest. She took off her boots and relaxed into the nest of blankets. They smelled like Muriel, setting her mind at ease. It was such a familiar, comforting smell. She almost fell asleep right then, but she had to change her bandages. Eleanor picked herself up, pulled off her shirt and necklace, then found the edge of the wrappings.

        The door slammed open. Eleanor whipped around with her fists up. There was Muriel, a wood axe in hand, ready to attack.

        “Mur!” Eleanor said.

        “El,” he replied, lowering the ax and stepping inside. “What are you doing here?”

        His eyes fell to her exposed torso, then he looked away, blushing. The wrappings went around her arm and chest so she was covered, but not well. She noticed that he was wearing the collar again.

        Eleanor dashed behind him and pushed the door closed. This could’ve been Nadia’s plan all along.

        “Did anyone follow you?” she demanded, putting on her mercenary face.

        “No.”

        “Does anyone know you’re here?”

        “No, El. I snuck out.”

        Eleanor groaned, not entirely convinced. She looked at Muriel, who seemed surprised to see her, yet sad. If she was nice to him, it would only lead him on. She had to be cold, for his sake.

        “I’ll leave,” Muriel said.

        She crossed the room to retrieve her shirt. “No, I’ll go. It’s your house.”

        “Wait,” he said.

        She paused, her back to him.

        “What did I do?”

        Eleanor chewed her lip. There was heartache in his voice. “You didn’t do anything,” Eleanor relented.

        “Is that it? Is it because that night, I… I didn’t-”

        “Stars, no,” she said as she reached towards him, then stopped herself. “Of course not. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

        Muriel looked down, unconvinced.

        Eleanor searched herself for what to do. She thought it would be best if she was mean, but that didn’t seem to be what was best for him. Was she to tell him that it was because of Lucio? She didn’t want Muriel to feel like even more of a prisoner.

        “I don’t age, Mur,” she said. “I won’t until my curse is broken. That could be years. It could be never. I can’t be with anyone. They’ll only distract me from what I’m supposed to be doing.”

        “Don’t I get to decide for myself?” he demanded.

        Eleanor raised her eyebrows, surprised by the anger in his tone. She closed her eyes and lowered her head. She hurt him; used him. It was all she was capable of.

        “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to shout.”

        “Don’t apologize. You’re allowed to be angry. I should be apologizing.”

        Eleanor looked upwards, rubbing her arms as she went on. “I’m sorry, Mur. I shouldn’t have let it go on like it did. I was lonely and I used you.”

        “Don’t say that,” he said. “You didn’t use me.”

        “But I did!”

        “So I mean nothing to you?”

        “You mean everything to me!” she confessed.

        “Then let me help you!”

        Eleanor didn’t reply. She could think of nothing to say.

        “You don’t have to do it alone,” Muriel said. “I don’t have anything to give you, but I can support you. Even if you have a death wish.”

        “Muriel,” she began, then trailed off, shaking her head.

        “I won’t try to change your mind,” he said. “At least let me fix your shoulder.”

        Eleanor twisted her neck to look at the bandaged wound. She knew that beneath the bandages it was swollen and angry red, tearing open again every time she moved her arm too much. It would still be tender by the next round of the tournament.

        She was hesitant. She didn’t want to take anything else from Muriel, least of all his time and energy. However, if it made him feel better, she didn’t have a good reason not to.

        Eleanor nodded. “Okay,” she said.

        Muriel hung his cloak near the fire. “Straddle the bench,” he told her.

        Eleanor did as he asked, feeling the strangest butterflies manifest in her stomach. People rarely told her what to do so bluntly. Muriel set a bucket on the table and sat behind her. She could feel the warmth from his chest, but he didn’t move.

        “You’re not gonna hurt me,” she sighed.

        “If I take these off, you’ll be… um….”

        “It’s okay,” she said, realizing that she meant it. She’d be hesitant to turn her naked back to anyone else.

        Muriel’s hands, huge and steady, searched her sides for edge of the bandage.

        “It’s in front,” she said, raising her arms. The pain of the movement made her wince.

        She swallowed when his hand brushed her breast, finding the pin in the middle of her sternum.

        “Sorry,” he said.

        “It’s fine.” She could smell him from this close. The heat in her groin was unbearable and embarrassing.

        She kept her arms raised as he undid the wrappings. Muriel was as unfailingly gentle as ever. It stung when the last of it peeled away from the wound, sticking to the rough scab. She felt herself trembling. She could only hope it came off as nerves.

        “You’ve been walking around like this?”

        “Is it bad?”

        “A child could do a better job.”

        Eleanor snickered. At least he was comfortable enough to tease.

        “This is gonna hurt,” he said. “A lot.”

        “I can take it.”

        “I know you can,” he said, laying one hand over the wound. He rested the other on her side, at the bottom of her ribs. Eleanor closed her eyes.

        She could feel his magic rolling in like fog on a lake. It was slow, heavy, and impenetrable. The feeling set Eleanor at ease.

        Then she felt the power seeping into her wound. She stiffened, stifling a grunt of pain as the torn tissues reached for each other. Her own magic flared up in response. It felt like she was receiving the wound all over again.

        After several agonizing minutes, it was over. Eleanor slumped forward and stretched, reaching her arms as far along the bench as she could. It felt good.

        “It’ll be a bad scar,” Muriel said as she sat up.

        She reached behind herself, feeling the new skin. His magic still tingled beneath her skin. “Thank you,” she said, twisting at the neck to look at him. “Let me make it even.”

        “But your shirt-”

        “Then close your eyes.”

        Muriel shut his eyes so tight that it creased his face. Eleanor spun around. Even as winter came nearer, he still ran around without a shirt under his ratty cloak. She had to sit on her knees to get a proper angle. His back stiffened when she touched his shoulders, and so did something else, she noticed.

        Now wasn’t the time. Eleanor held one of his shackles and closed her eyes, searching through the locking mechanism with her magic. It would’ve been easier for her just to melt the little pieces inside, but Muriel might’ve gotten in trouble for breaking his shackles.

        Eleanor freed one hand, then the other. The tan lines left behind were almost comical, but the angry marks they pressed into his skin were heartbreaking. She wanted to kiss each mark until they faded away. When she set to work on his collar, she saw that he was looking at her.

        Muriel wasn’t looking at her exposed chest. There was something like reverence in his hooded, stunningly emerald eyes. When she caught his gaze, he turned away, blushing. Eleanor thought she had to be mistaken. There was no way he could think so highly of her after how she’d treated him.

        Eleanor focused on the collar, feeling delighted heat creep into her cheeks and chest. She found the keyhole between the spikes and pressed her finger there. The lock clicked. When she pulled the collar away, she knocked his cloak from his shoulders.

        “Sorry,” Eleanor said. Without thinking, she reached over his back to retrieve the cloak, leaving one hand on his shoulder for balance. She gripped the cloak then she froze, realizing the awkwardness. She apologized again as she started to move backwards.

        A hand on her back made her freeze. “Don’t apologize,” Muriel said, his voice husky and low.

        Eleanor released the cloak, squeezed his shoulder, and swallowed. His bare torso was warm against hers. The muscles in his broad back were mean and slashed with scars. She wanted to study every single one, documenting them like rivers and mountains.

        Eleanor lowered herself back into place, still holding onto him for balance. She bowed her head, afraid to meet his eyes. He smelled so good. His hand was so steady and sure. Her heart hammered in her chest. When was the last time anyone had made her nervous? Perhaps never.

        His body felt about as tense as she did, like he was waiting to see what she would do. Eleanor closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against his shoulder. Even now, she felt like she could fall asleep right there.

        Slow and testing, his arms wrapped around her, pulling her against him. He always made her feel so small and safe, like he could tuck her into his pocket. Eleanor hadn’t realized how much she missed him in the two weeks they’d been separated. Her heart slowed as she relaxed into his embrace, pressing her face into his neck.

        “I’m sorry Mur,” she told him. “I should’ve talked to you.”

        He squeezed her tighter.

        She hesitated to explain, but she didn’t want to keep things from him anymore. “Lucio told me he’d hurt you if I kept seeing you.”

        “Don’t worry about me,” he said.

        Eleanor ran her hand down his chest, half-opening her eyes. His skin was several shades darker than hers. It was such a lovely color; warm and balanced. She traced a large scar on his chest, wondering what its story was.

        “I can’t promise you anything,” she said.

        “I know.”

        “No time. No future. They might not even exist.”

        “I know,” he said again.

        “I mean it. I don’t know if this can ever go anywhere.”

        “I know, El.” She admired his patience.

        “They why would you ever want to be with me?”

        Muriel was quiet. She took his hand and ran her thumb over the back, following the fine scars. He tensed at the movement, but didn’t pull away. His hands were rough and peppered with dark hair.

        “I don’t know,” he said. “When you’re around, my whole life feels better.”

        “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Eleanor murmured.

        “Don’t get used to it.”

        She closed her eyes again and sighed, her breath swirling against his chest. If anything happened to Muriel because of her, she would never forgive herself. “I’m scared you’ll get hurt,” she confessed.

        “I can protect myself.”

        Could he protect himself from someone with Lucio’s influence? From someone as volatile as Eleanor? She didn’t know. Surely Eleanor was strong enough to keep him safe, but she couldn’t be with him at all times. As long as they were together, he was in danger.

        Eleanor would have to trust Muriel’s own ability. His strong heartbeat was reassuring.

        “We’ll take it slow,” Eleanor said. “No guarantees.”

        “I didn’t expect any.”

        “And we have to be as careful as possible, so we don’t get caught.”

        She felt the movement of his nod. They were in business.

        Eleanor smiled against his shoulder and kissed his collarbone. Muriel made a satisfied growl deep in his chest. She felt the vibration of the sound, as enticing as that masculine smell of his. She would never get enough of either.

        She felt Muriel moving and heard the rustle of fabric. He was passing her shirt back to her. She pulled it on then leaned against him again. Muriel held her, his grip more sure around her now.

        Two very different physical forces were at ends inside of Eleanor. Something about Muriel’s aura always made her keenly aware of how exhausted she was. At the same time she was fabulously turned on by how strong his arms were. Her body felt heavy. She leaned more into him, her grip loosening.

        “Are you falling asleep?” he asked.

        Her voice was a sleepy murmur. “No,” she said.

        “Bed,” Muriel said, pulling her with him as he rose.

        “I’m not tired,” she protested as he shuffled her backwards.

        “You’re not fooling anyone.”

        Muriel deposited Eleanor into bed then straightened. He made for the other side of the room and settled in the corner.

        “What are you doing?” Eleanor asked, sitting straight.

        Muriel pulled his hood up and sat against the wall. He crossed his arms.

        “I’ll sleep over here,” he said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

        “Get over here, you aren’t bothering me.”

        His face turned pink. “But your shoulder-”

        “Doesn’t hurt anymore, thanks to you.” She raised the blankets and jerked her head sideways.

        Muriel sighed and stood back up.

        “Don’t forget your boots.”

        He removed his boots and crawled in beside her. She practically had to drag him under the covers, reassuring him that he wouldn’t crush her, that she was comfortable, and that she would sleep just as well with him beside her. She would never get used someone fussing over her so much.

        As he finally relaxed, Eleanor felt guilty. Perhaps if she were a better person, she would’ve stayed away. He deserved more stability than Eleanor could provide.

        She supposed she would just have to hurry up and break her curse.

        That night, Eleanor had a good dream for the first time in many years. It was a dream of hope.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight: A Weekend Away

        There was red, so much red. It flew past Muriel. His hair tangled in front of his face. He could hear the roaring crowd all around him, so loud that he couldn’t think. It was louder and louder as he fell further and further.

        Grunting with effort, Muriel twisted himself around to see what lay underneath him. He was falling into the colosseum, and it was full of bodies, piled on top of each other. Muriel could recognize their faces. Their empty eyes were all fixed on Muriel as he hurtled towards them.

        He covered his eyes, landing with a sickening crunch. Clothes and cold skin were touching him all over, he scrambled to get free, too terrified to open his eyes. Blood thumped in his ears.

        A hand closed around his arm. He jerked away, then something else grabbed his ankle, then his knee, then his neck. They pulled on his clothes and hair, dragging him down into the pile. He couldn’t breath.

        When he woke, chest heaving, he turned his face wildly. Everything was moving around him, too blurry for him to comprehend it’s form.

        “Mur, look at me,” someone said. “Look at me.”

        He followed the firm voice and a lovely face came into his view. Their dark eyes were wide open, wisps of light hair curled around their cheeks. “You’re safe,” the face said, their voice settling like snow around him. “It wasn’t real. Just a nightmare.”

        Muriel knew that face. It was Eleanor, her face still puffy with sleep. He was in the hut. The fireplace was out, but it was still warm. It was dark outside, pale moonbeams casting through the windows. It must’ve been very early in the morning.

        Muriel caught his breath. Eleanor’s hands were on his chest and shoulder, but it wasn’t just to comfort him. She was pressing down on him with her full weight; restraining him. Now he understood why she had that wide-eyed look. He’d scared her.

        “I’m sorry,” he said, sitting up. Eleanor released him, sitting beside him on her knees.

        “What for?” she asked with furrowed brows.

        “For scaring you,” he said. He wanted to touch her face in apology, but he didn’t dare. His guilt was gnawing at him.

        Eleanor didn’t respond right away. It seemed like she was deciding whether or not to tell him the truth. “Yes well,” she began, “who wouldn’t be a little panicked if they woke up to a huge person thrashing around?”

        “I’m sorry,” he said again. Even Eleanor, it seemed, could find him frightening.

        “Mur, you startled me,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I’m scared of you.”

        Muriel lowered his head, ashamed. She reached forward and tucked his hair behind his ears. He looked up her, moving only his eyes, but she wasn’t having that. She held him by the chin and tilted his face upwards. “I have nightmares too. Wanna hear a story?”

        He nodded. She released his face.

        “A few months ago, I was sleeping in the palace. I kept a knife under my pillow because it didn’t feel safe there,” she said. “I was in the middle of a bad dream and someone came to fetch me. When they woke me up, I attacked them and held a knife to their throat. Pure instinct.”

        “How’d they take that?”

        “They were a lot more gracious than they needed to be,” Eleanor said. “Have you ever done that?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “Then you don’t have to worry about scaring me,” she said.

        “It’s still not okay.”

        “Well, you can make it up to me by being forgiving whenever I wake you up with some weapon to your neck. It’ll happen eventually.”

        Muriel swallowed. The way she said it, one wouldn’t think it was an unusual habit. “Do you have a knife in the bed now?”

        “Of course not,” she said, settling back into the blankets. “I only keep one around in strange places.”

        “This is a strange place.”

        “Maybe, but you’re with me,” Eleanor said. “Let’s go back to bed. Lay your head here.”

        She was indicating her chest. The fair skin was blue in the faint light. Her eyes were half-closed and sleepy.

        “I’ll crush you,” he said.

        “No you won’t.”

        “But I could.”

        “Maybe if you caught me off guard,” she said, “but you won’t. Come on, I’ll rub your head.”

        Muriel relented. Eleanor pulled him against herself, one leg tucking between his as he curled around her. He rested the side of his face against the center of her chest, but he couldn’t quite relax. He pressed most of his weight into his arm.

        His forehead brushed her neck as he shifted his head. Eleanor wrapped one arm around his broad back and she combed his long hair with her fingers. He could smell her skin, this close. Her torso was as soft as pillow, but reassuringly solid.

        Her touch was so gentle. Muriel felt a wave of pleasure with every stroke of her fingers, turning his hair to silk. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched his hair, or touched him much at all. Not with such tenderness, at least.

        Against his will, he eased more into her. Muriel wondered if she was hypnotizing or bewitching him, somehow. All of his tension was leaving him like magic.

        “El,” he murmured, his mouth moving against her chest,

        She shushed him. “It’s alright. Go back to sleep.”

        Muriel felt heavy. Everything around him was slipping. Eleanor’s heartbeat was a calling drum. He closed his eyes, lost in the rhythm.

        When he opened them again, it was morning. He felt Eleanor’s chest move in time with her steady breathing. The room was cool, but it was warm beneath the blankets. Their legs were knit together. She’d tossed her pants aside at some point in the night.

        Without thinking, he shifted just enough to press a kiss to the exposed skin above her collar. He closed his eyes, intending to drift back to sleep, but then she made a sound.

        It was a sweet and soft sound, not like anything he’d heard from her before. He felt warmer, and hungry, somehow. Something deep within him twisted and rose.

        Muriel looked up at her face as he kissed the spot again, a little slower. She made that sound again, a weak hum, and began to stir beneath him. He felt her hips and legs move, rubbing against his manhood through his pants. It was already getting stiff. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever been this close to someone.

        “El,” he said, lifting himself from her chest.

        “Hmm?” she groaned. She stretched, then her eyes flew open. “Oh! Good morning.”

        Muriel looked away, embarrassed. Eleanor reached for him, trailing her fingers up his jaw and around the back of his head. She was still sleepy-eyed.        

        “Sorry,” he muttered.

        “Don’t be,” she said. She tugged him against her for a kiss.

        Her mouth was soft, then she frowned against him. “Have you ever…”

        “No,” Muriel replied. His face was burning.

        “Oh!”

        There was a pause.

        “That’s alright,” she said. “Come closer, I can show you.”

        She kissed him again. Their lips slid together in time. Her tongue brushed his. Muriel climbed over her and she ran one hand up his spine, making him shiver. Her skin was getting warmer against him.

        Eleanor’s magic appeared in his mind’s eye, just like the last time they were this entwined. It seemed angrier now. It jerked and pulled, but stayed restrained against her chest. Orange and red swirled in a violent fury, reaching out, but unable to make contact.

        Muriel felt his nerves creep up. Eleanor’s magic was practically a bomb, ready to explode. It didn’t feel right. The magic should’ve been free to move and dance. Then again, the feeling of it gave Muriel such a sense of rage and violence. If it was free, her magic could easily overpower his.

        Muriel blinked several times, pushing the visions away, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness.

        He broke the kiss and opened his eyes. Eleanor stared back at him. He thought he saw the smallest flicker of orange in those stormy blues.

        “What’s wrong?” she asked.

        Eleanor still felt warm, but he didn’t see the magic anymore. Muriel was wide awake now. All of his usual worries came creeping up on him. Eleanor might’ve been strong, but she was still so much smaller than him.

        “Nothing,” he said, bowing to kiss her again. Now wasn’t the time to let his fears get the best of him.

        Eleanor stopped him with a firm hand to his chest. “Mur,” she said, “you feel tense.”

        Muriel looked away. She’d caught on.

        “It’s okay if you aren’t ready,” she said.

        “But I want to,” he replied.

        “That’s not how it feels.” She touched his arm, the muscles rock-solid from his nerves.

        “You don’t want to wait.”

        “What matters most is that you’re comfortable. It really is okay.”

        “But I-”

        “Even if you try, I’m going to keep telling you ‘no’ until it feels right.”

        Muriel rolled onto his back with a sigh. He stared up at the tree roots crossing the high ceiling. Eleanor made a pained noise. Muriel sat up and saw her eyes were lowered, her fist pressed to the center of her chest.

        “What’s wrong?”

        “Just heartburn,” El said, her face relaxing.

        Muriel eased back down. Eleanor folded her arms over his chest and rested her head on top, looking down at him. “Does intimacy scare you?”

        Muriel scoffed. What a ridiculous question. Of course it did.

        “Do I scare you?” Eleanor raised her eyebrows, a tiny smile on her lips. She was being playful.

        The magic-bomb she carried around was frightening, but she wasn’t. Not anymore, at least. “It’s… the opposite.”

        He watched her eyes move around as she thought, her lips pursed. “I’m… not scary enough?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “Then, you think you’re scary?”

        “I am scary.”

        Eleanor craned her neck to kiss his scruffy chin. “Not to me, you’re not.”

        “You don’t fear death, so maybe you aren’t the best judge.”

        Eleanor snickered. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

        Muriel sighed. His chest pushed Eleanor up and down. He still couldn’t believe that she was laying there with him, no fear detectable on her face. It felt too good to be true.

        Eleanor closed her eyes. Muriel raised his arm, hesitated, then wrapped it around her waist. “Is this okay?” he asked.

        “It’s more than okay,” she murmured, “but I need to get back to the shop soon. I have to open.”

        She sighed, her warm breath swirling against his chest. Muriel drummed his fingers on her side. Eleanor opened her eyes halfway, looking off into space. She made no movement to get up.

        “We could come here next weekend, maybe,” Muriel said. “If you want.”

        “I’d like that,” Eleanor said as she sat up. “But you have to be careful. Make sure no one follows you.”

        “I will.”

        “Seriously. Promise me you’ll be as careful as possible.”

        “I promise.”

        “Then okay, next weekend.”

        Eleanor climbed out of bed. She lifted the necklace from the table and put it on. The pendent fell beneath her shirt, resting against her skin. As she moved, Muriel could see how stiff she was. There were ugly bruises all up and down her legs. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would subject themselves to that.

        “El,” he said.

        “Hm?” She pulled her pants on, not looking up.

        “Why are you still fighting?”

        Eleanor buttoned her pants slowly as she stared into the distance. She nibbled her lip.

        Muriel waited.

        “I don’t really know,” Eleanor said. “Have you ever felt like there’s something you just… have to do?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “I’m not sure if I can explain it. Everytime I win a round, I feel more like myself. Do you know what I mean?”

        Muriel shook his head again. Fighting only made him feel dissociated.

        “Well, it’s like…” She trailed off, sighed, then started again. “The version of myself that bargained with Judgement, that fell in love with Asra, isn’t the version of myself who’ll break the curse. If I win, I think it’ll help me become the Eleanor who can.”

        Muriel still didn’t understand. He would feel much, much better if Eleanor gave up fighting and became a normal shopkeep. Then again, that wouldn’t really be Eleanor. If she knew what she needed to do, Muriel wouldn’t get in her way.

        “Why do you fight?” Eleanor asked.

        Muriel was startled from his thoughts. Eleanor sat on the edge of the bed, watching him with interest.

        “I have to,” he replied.

        “Even though Asra’s not around to protect anymore?”

        “The only way out of the contract is dying,” Muriel replied. “I’m not doing that anytime soon.”

        “It must be lonely up in that tower,” Eleanor said.

        Muriel shrugged. It was lonely, but at least working for Lucio gave him some kind of use. As much as he hated fighting, he was skilled. He couldn’t imagine he was good for much else.

        “I miss you when you’re up there,” Eleanor said. “You’re way too handsome to be hidden away.”

        Muriel felt his face burst with heat. “Don’t say stupid things,” he grumbled.

        Eleanor gave a light laugh, then turned her face sideways. She glanced at him and tapped her cheek. Blushing furiously, Muriel leaned forward and gave her a peck.

        Eleanor stood. “Next weekend,” she said. “Don’t forget.”

        “I won’t.” How could he ever?

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Round Six

        Late Autumn was the rainy season in Vesuvia. The morning rain turned the dirt of the Coliseum to mud. The gladiators slipped and slid all over the ground, the bold colors and shining metals of their costumes slicked with mud. Some of the competitors used it to their advantage.

        Julian, Nadia, and Lucio all sat above the colosseum. Lucio was unusually quiet. Jealous like a school boy, Julian figured. The Count had complained in earnest about Eleanor. Normally Julian thought it was funny to listen to Lucio complain, but even he was starting to get annoyed. Lucio’s strange brand of possessiveness was beginning to seem a little obsessive, from Julian’s point of view.

        Valerius mingled with the Courtiers, sometimes giving Lucio a glance that wasn’t lost on the doctor. Julian felt bad for Valerius. Lucio was notorious for going through lovers like water.

        “Three gold on Yanbia,” Julian said to Lucio.

        Yanbia was fighting a much larger swordsman. With her size, Yanbia relied on speed and skill to win. The mud was making things difficult for her, but Julian still thought she could prevail.

        “I’ll take it,” Lucio replied, turning away from the pontifax he was speaking with. “I’m feeling lucky.”

        “Why’s that?” Julian asked.

        “I just got good news,” Lucio replied. “We finally had some success in battle.”

        “I’ll toast to that,” said Julian, raising his mug of coffee. He had now treated several soldiers from Lucio’s legions, with injuries that would impair them for life.

        Nadia snorted. “We retook an outpost we lost because of your Pontifax’s incompetence.”

        Julian checked that Vulgora wasn’t listening. Lucio bristled.

        “What do you know about military operations?” the Count demanded.

        “I’ll have you know,” Nadia began.

        Julian turned his attention to the ring while Nadia and Lucio bickered. Yanbia slipped in the mud. She wobbled, but didn’t fall. Her opponent shoved her to the ground. She rolled away and scrambled back to her feet.

        “You know,” Julian said, cutting into their argument, “I heard there’s a shortage of doctors on the warfront.”

        Lucio and Nadia both stared at Julian, then glanced at each other.

        “Don’t even think about it,” said Lucio.

        “Absolutely not,” Nadia said at the same time.

        “I think I have a right to decide that for myself,” Julian said, bitter. “Lucio, I used to be your battle medic.”

        “You’re one of the few experts in the world on the red plague,” Nadia said. “You’ll save far more lives by staying here.”

        “For once we agree,” Lucio said. “We need you here.”

        “I don’t like sitting around like this,” Julian said, staring into his coffee. “I hear things. I know what’s going on over there.”

        Nadia and Lucio exchanged another glance. They both looked guilty for a split second, then Nadia sat back in her chair and Lucio shrugged. “Can’t be helped,” Lucio said. “I know what I’m doing.”

        Julian knew he did. He simply wondered if it was all worth it.

        The swordsman swung down. Yanbia seized the opening and dashed sideways, driving a knife into his side. Lucio turned his attention to the front at the announcement of a victor, then cursed as he passed Julian money.

        “When will you learn not to always bet on the strongest?” Julian asked as he pocketed the coin.

        “When the strongest stops being the one who usually wins,” Lucio replied.

        “Fair enough,” Julian replied.

        “And now,” called the announcer, “the Scourge of the South!”

        The crowd jeered as Muriel entered the arena, black lockes covering half his face. Julian watched a trio of fighters enter, captured soldiers from another city in the west. One had his eyes taped over, another her ears, and the third his mouth.

        Muriel’s eyes flitted over his enemies, taking each one in. Someone in the crowd threw a rotten peach into the ring, missing Muriel by several feet.

        “Let’s see if our guests can beat The Scourge,” Lucio said, a wry smile on his face.

        “Eleanor is going last, then?” asked Nadia.

        Lucio bristled at the name. Julian rolled his eyes, expecting the Count to start complaining again.

        “The game master’s orders, not mine,” said Lucio.

        “I suppose you have to save the best for last, as you’ve said,” Nadia said.

        Lucio mumbled when he spoke. “She’s not the best.”

        “Oh?” Nadia prodded, raising her fine brows. “Who is, then?”

        Lucio pressed his lips together and drummed his fingers.

        “Yanbia,” he decided after a moment’s thought. “Easily the best.”

        “You were just betting against her,” Julian said.

        “Just to let you win,” Lucio replied.

        The crowd booed and cheered as Muriel seized the blinded prisoner by the head. Julian winced when he snapped their neck like a toothpick. Their body fell into the dirt. The deaf prisoner shrieked.

        “You’re still bitter about Eleanor,” Nadia said. She gave Julian a pointed glance. She was planning something.

        “I am not. I don’t care about her.”

        “Is that why you have extra guards posted all over her shop?” Julian asked.

        “And why you’ve banned her from seeing her lover, I presume.”

        “He’s not her lover!” Lucio said in a shrill voice. The courtiers were now silent, watching him.

        “Then why can’t they see each other?” Nadia pressed.

        “Surely that’s not fair to Eleanor,” Julian said.

        Lucio slammed his fist into his chair, rearing on Julian with a bright-red face. “You wanna talk to me about what’s fair?” he shouted. “After everything that witch has done to me?”

        Julian drew backwards. Lucio, breathing hard, sank back into his chair. He glanced at the courtiers and servants, who had to sense to pretend they hadn’t noticed his outburst. They were all overly fixated on the arena, where the deaf prisoner was cut almost in half. Her blood was shocking crimson on the muddy ground.

        “Lucio,” Julian said, “as your physician, I’m worried about your mental health.”

        “Mental health,” Lucio scoffed.

        “You’re still dwelling on a woman who hurt you years ago,” Julian said, “and you’re taking that pain out on others.”

        Lucio glanced at Julian. Whether his pale eyes were watery with anger or sadness, Julian couldn’t tell.

        Lucio turned towards Nadia, though he didn’t look at her. “Get everyone out of here,” he ordered.

        Nadia’s eyes flickered to Julian, than she rose. “Everyone here is invited to lunch at the palace,” she told the courtiers. “Servants as well. Come along.”

        Nadia ushered everyone out, giving Julian one last glance before she left.

        “And the Scourge dominates again!” came the announcer's voice. The crowd booed, throwing more trash at Muriel. His gaze was still fixed on the last prisoner, whose face was sideways in the mud. Muriel had struck him in the back when he turned to flee. The soldier looked like a teenager to Julian.

        The battle was done. Eleanor was next. Julian and Lucio both watched as she stepped into the ring, walking with a confident, deadly saunter. She was an angel of death, at home among the bodies of fallen warriors.

        “She’s still so beautiful,” Lucio murmured. “Hasn’t aged a day. It’s not fair, after everything she’s done. To others. To me.”

        Julian was quiet. Lucio watched Eleanor with tremendous sadness in his eyes. The longing he felt was obvious.

        “It’s not fair,” the Count repeated.

        “Eleanor tries to do the right thing, usually,” Julian said. “She’s not very good at knowing what that is, and she doesn’t always get it right, but she tries.”

        “The fuck she does,” Lucio spat. “Eleanor does whatever the fuck she wants. She doesn’t care about the collateral damage.”

        “I don’t think she wanted to hurt you.”

        “But she did, didn’t she? And I let her do it again.” Lucio dropped his face into his hands. “Gods, she’s had me wrapped around her finger this whole damn time. I’m an idiot.”

        “Just another fool in love. Aren’t we all?”

        “It’s not fair,” Lucio said again. “After everything, everything we’ve been through, she wants to run off with some nobody.”

        Lucio jumped from his seat and began pacing, running his hands through his hair. “It was me and Ellie, Jules! Me and Ellie, against the world, forever. We’re meant to be together.”

        “Nothing is meant to be.”

        “But we are!” Lucio exclaimed, waving his hands as he spoke. “And she wants to throw it out! Like it’s nothing! I don’t understand. What happened, Jules?”

        “I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”

        “Gods. We belong together. She’ll realize it eventually. She has to.”

        Julian shook his head. “You have to let her go.”

        “I can’t, Jules! I just can’t.”

        "If you don’t, you’ll be miserable forever.”

        “That’s her fault, then.”

        “It’s not!” Julian exclaimed. “I know she hurt you, but-”

        “But nothing!” Lucio cut in. “She hurt me, why shouldn’t she have to feel it too? Why should she get to be happy?”

        “Listen to yourself!” Julian shouted. “You sound like a mad man.”

        Lucio swallowed, his jaw set. He looked at Eleanor in the arena, locked in combat. Julian followed his gaze. Eleanor was covered in mud, her muscles tense as she wrestled the smaller woman. She wrangled her opponent to the ground.

        “Do you really want her to be unhappy?” Julian asked. “Because that’s not love.”

        “No,” Lucio sighed, slumping back into his chair. “I don’t want that.”

        “It’s natural to lash out sometimes, but what you did wasn’t okay. You don’t even know if they’re together. Ellie’s always been a flirt.”

        “I hate that about her.”

        Julian almost rolled his eyes. Lucio only hated it when she wasn’t focused on him.

        “I do love her, Jules. Thinking about her with someone else…” Lucio shook his head, closing his eyes.

        “It’s hard,” Julian said, “but if you love her, you’ll let her go.”

        Lucio’s eyes were watery as he watched Eleanor. She pinned the opponent down with her knees, straddling her stomach. The sorceress's hair and face were covered in blood. She gripped the opponent by the collar and punched her, nearly knocking herself down with the momentum.

        The Count closed his eyes, his brows knitting together. He sniffled as he wiped the wetness from his eyes. It was strange watching someone with such an angry face cry.

        Julian passed the Count a handkerchief. If it was anyone other than Lucio crying over a woman who looked half his age, Julian would’ve thought it was ridiculous. Yet, Lucio and Eleanor were his only friends. He knew them as well as he knew himself. The rotten bastards certainly deserved each other, but enough was enough.

        Julian rubbed Lucio’s back. The Count shriveled at his touch. His face, now defeated, seemed years older.

        “I’ve watched you two dance around and around for years,” Julian said. “You really bring the worst out in each other.”

        Lucio was still watching Eleanor. She rose and stumbled away from her subdued opponent, broad shoulders heaving with her labor.

        “I love her best when she’s at her worst,” the Count said. “I could spend my whole life chasing her.”

        “Lucio,” Julian ordered, calling his attention. “Enough is enough.”

        Lucio finally tore his eyes away from Eleanor. The Count and the Doctor looked at each other for a long moment, then finally Lucio sighed.

        “The Scourge isn’t supposed to be seeing anyone,” Lucio said, running a tired hand over his face. “And he’s not supposed to just go sneaking out without telling anyone.”

        Julian rolled his eyes. “Because he’s a slave?”

        “Because,” Lucio replied as he rose, “he’s under my protection. Ellie will chew him up and spit him out. Tribesmen protect tribesmen.”

        Julian snorted. That was a likely story.

        Lucio glanced to the arena as the announcer declared Eleanor the winner. She didn’t look up at the box, probably well aware that Lucio was watching her.

        “I’ll talk to Ellie,” Lucio went on. “Maybe she’ll understand if I explain. I’ll… I’ll remove the extra guards. I guess it is weird to be keeping eyes on her.”

        “Very good.”

        “But,” Lucio said, his voice warming. “I mean what I said. We’re meant to be together. However long it takes her to realize it, I’ll keep waiting. I can be patient.”

        “No, no, no,” Julian rushed out. “That’s not what I meant.”

        Lucio straightened his jacket and headed for the door. “We can’t help how we feel, Jules.”

        “Dammit Lucio, you need to leave her alone.”

        “And I will!” Lucio was in the doorway, holding the beaded curtains aside for himself. “But when she comes around, I’ll be ready for her.”

        Lucio left. Julian groaned and smacked his hands over his face. Lucio had never been one to let things go, but this was ridiculous. He had even worse self control than Eleanor. Was this how all southerners were?

        “Tribesmen,” Julian grumbled.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty: The Waterfall

        Eleanor stepped under the archway and out of the arena. Her heart was still pounding with the exhilaration of the fight. She paused and leaned backwards against the wall, smiling down at her muddied boots.

        The witch wiped her face then looked at the mud on her blistered hands, laughing at the sight and the feeling of her well-used muscles. She felt alive. Alive.

        Eleanor took one last deep breath, then straightened and headed back to her cell. It was hard to keep herself from bursting with excitement. There were five competitors left. The next match was the semi finals. She was going to face Yanbia for the championship, surely.

        After removing her dirty armor, Eleanor slipped to the stables and left on Skadi’s back. She was heading straight to the hut in the forest, eager to visit with Muriel. If she stopped at home first, it was all the more likely that a guard would follow her right to Muriel’s door.

        It was already dark when she arrived at the hut. Eleanor brought Skadi around to the shed in the back.

        “I’m going to build you a proper stable here, someday,” she told him in Suomean. “It’ll be nice.”

        Nice!

        Eleanor looked around wildly, searching for the source of the whisper. Her first thought was that someone had spoken Suomean, but the word seemed to transcend language. She looked at Skadi, who watched her with intelligent eyes.

        “Was that you?” she asked. “Have you finally found some words for me?

        Skadi snorted and bobbed his head.

        Eleanor’s face split into a huge grin. She threw her arms around the horses neck. “Oh, you clever boy! I knew we’d figure eachother out!

        Eleanor could feel pride and contentment radiating from him. She stepped away.

        “Well, I suppose I don’t need to tie you up, then. Wait here, I’ll get you a rug. And we can take that bit out.

        After Eleanor got Skadi settled in with a warming spell, she ducked inside. She didn’t imagine Muriel would be along until much later. Eleanor built up a fire and curled up in front of it, pulling a blanket around her shoulders. She recognized his smell.

        She didn’t realize she’d fallen asleep until Muriel was shaking her awake.

        “El,” he said, voice soft and deep.

        “Hmm?” She asked, blinking up at his blurry face. He was knelt over her, emerald eyes glowing in the light of the dying fire. His heavy hand rested on her shoulder.

        “It’s you,” she mused, still groggy as she sat up.

        Muriel came into better focus. She was glad to see his rugged face.

        “It’s me,” he said. “You need a bath.”

        “Do I smell?”

        “You have mud on your face. And blood.”

        Eleanor rubbed her cheek and felt grittiness. “So I do,” she said. “I fell asleep as soon as I got here.”

        “I can tell.”

        “Nothing wrong with a little nap.”

        “It’s sunrise.”

        “What?” Eleanor exclaimed, running a hand through her tangled, matted hair. “That’s not right.”

        Muriel raised his shaggy eyebrows.

        “How long have you been here?”

        “A few hours,” he replied. “I let you sleep.”

        Eleanor dropped her face in her hands. “Gods, I feel gross. How do you wash up around here?”

        “There’s a waterfall.”

        Eleanor perked up, intrigued. “A waterfall.”

        “It’s cold,” he warned.

        Eleanor bounced to her feet. She was still in her boots. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

        Muriel led Eleanor through the woods, hiking further up the mountain. The air was cool, but it was warm in the dapples of sunlight. Eleanor had bathed in all sorts of water formations in the past, including waterfalls. They’d always been her favorite.

        Eventually they came to a creek and followed it upstream. The waterfall was taller than Muriel and heavy with the seasonal rain. It poured from the crevices of an overhanging boulder into a pool. The water was so clear, Eleanor could make out the stones on the bottom.

        “This is it,” Muriel said.

        Eleanor barely heard him. In an instant she shucked her boots and leapt, fully clothed, into the pool. She rolled along the floor, skin tingling with the freezing water. Her soaking clothes were heavy, but Eleanor had grown up swimming in the cold ocean. They couldn’t weigh her down.

        She gasped for air when she stood, the water rising to the bottom of her chest. She laughed at the surprise on Muriel’s face. “Come on in, the water’s fine,” she called.

        “B- But your clothes!” Muriel stammered. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

        “Mur, baby,” Eleanor purred, drawing closer to the falls, “I’ve been swimming in frozen lakes before. It’s fine.”

        Muriel seemed unconvinced. Eleanor stepped out of the pool. He watched silently as she kicked some damp branches and twigs into a pile beside a flat rock. She waved her hands, and a fire came to life.

        Keeping her eyes on him, she undid her cloak and draped it over the rock. Then she peeled off her socks.

        “What are you doing?” Muriel asked. His ears turned red.

        “Taking my clothes off,” she replied as she undid the knife strapped around her thigh. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

        “I… uhh…”

        Eleanor pulled off her over-shirt and reached for the buckle of her belt. Muriel looked away, face flushed red.

        “I’ll uh, step away then.”

        “I don’t care if you don’t,” Eleanor told him, struggling to pull off her tight, water-logged pants. “These clothes could use a rinse anyways. I’m pretty dirty.”

        She paused, noting the even deeper blush on his face. “Not like that,” she went on.

        Muriel slapped a hand over his face. Eleanor stripped down to her underwear and her bandeau, then leapt back into the water. She stood beneath the falls and bowed her head, letting the water hit her back.

        Eleanor closed her eyes and listened. Beyond the rush of the water, she could hear the other sounds of the autumn forest. She heard Muriel’s chains rattle as he moved, and the rustle of fabric. When she opened her eyes again, Muriel was wading into the pool, bare chested.

        At the sight of him, Eleanor pressed her fist to her mouth. She wished she could tear him apart. She wished he would tear her apart.

        “What?” he asked, looking aside and puffing his lip out.

        Eleanor had ideas about what she’d like him to do with that pout of his. She only shook her head. “Nothing.”

        Eleanor turned her back to him and tilted her head up. She scrubbed at her scalp, rinsing the dirt from her tangled hair.

        She stole a peek at Muriel beside her. He was mimicking her actions, eyes closed, combing his hair with his fingers. The water steamed down his broad back, following along the curve of his spine. Eleanor sucked in her breath.

        “Murder me,” she murmured to herself.

        “Huh?” Muriel asked, looking down at her with brilliantly green eyes.

        She felt herself blushing. “Nothing, nothing,” she said, turning away.

        Muriel chuckled.

        “What are you laughing at?”

        “The water’s warm,” Muriel said. “You’ll cause a climate disaster.”

        Eleanor glanced down at the necklace, the rune glowing green. Her magic was leaking out and she hadn’t even noticed. When she focused, she could feel it spilling, like a flooding river over the top of a dam. Perhaps she’d been blocking too much of her magic for too long.

        “Sorry,” she mumbled, feeling her chest ache as she tried to draw her magic back in. Her arms stung.

        Muriel closed his eyes and sank into the pool, swimming out from underneath the falls. He drifted into a deeper area, where the water went all the way up to his neck. Eleanor followed after him. She had to tread water to keep her head up.

        “Isn’t it too deep?” he asked.

        “Mur, I can swim,” she replied, but he was already pulling him against him.

        Muriel hooked his hands beneath her legs, lifting her a little higher in the water. Her face was level with his. “Don’t want you to get tired,” he mumbled, looking aside.

        Eleanor smiled at him. “Of course not,” she said, hanging her arms around his shoulders.

        His huge hands felt strong and sure against her bare thighs. His wide shoulders were firm with careful tension. Muriel always moved with such care; a level of self control that Eleanor lacked. She wondered if she could make him lose it.

        The witch ran her hands down and up his chest then over his arms. Her experienced fingers recognized hair, veins, and scars. Muriel began to pull her closer and slide his hands further up, then paused to give her a questioning look. His cheeks were still flushed.

        “It’s okay,” she assured him. “It feels good, being close to you.”

        His hands shifted under her seat. Eleanor wrapped her legs around his waist as she kissed him beneath his jaw. He tilted his head up with a sigh, humming deep in his chest. The noise filled Eleanor with fire, calling to her like a siren song. She was going to make him feel so good.

        Eleanor held his face and kissed him, finding his tongue with hers. They held each other tighter. She shifted her hips against his abdomen, already feeling the rhythm. His skin, his perfect skin, felt divine against hers. She was dizzy with how much she needed him.

        Muriel groaned, then shifted, then threw Eleanor through the air. She crashed through the surface of the water and emerged with a gasp, her face full of wet hair.

        “What the hell?” she demanded, looking around for whatever spooked him.

        Then she saw his face. His eyes were wide with fright, chest heaving as he breathed.

        He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then looked aside. “I’m sorry,” he said.

        “Mur, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Did I do something?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “You can tell me.”

        “You’re too hot,” he said. “You burned.”

        Eleanor, kicking to stay afloat, looked at her hands above the water. Steam rose from them for only a moment before she took a breath. She shoved her magic back down with all the will she had. She grit her teeth at the stabbing feeling in her chest, but otherwise didn’t show her pain. It wasn’t Muriel’s concern.

        “I’m so sorry,” she said, swimming closer but keeping her distance. “I must’ve lost control.”

        “It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s your magic. I can see it, it’s so potent. Even now, I see it in your eyes.”

        “My eyes?”

        Muriel peered at her. “It’s gone now. They were orange.”

        Eleanor swallowed. “How can you see that?” she asked. “Asra never…”

        Muriel shrugged. “I’ve always been able to.”

        “I’m sorry. My control isn’t-”

        “It’s your runes,” he cut in. “You’ve had them for too long. Your magic is building up. It’ll poison you if it doesn’t blow up first.”

        “That makes no sense,” Eleanor dismissed, turning away. Her lungs ached as she breathed.

        “I’ve been reading about it,” Muriel went on. “Magic needs to be able to flow. As strong as you are, all the build-up will-”

        “Let me take care of myself,” Eleanor snapped. “I think I know my own magic.”

        Muriel cast his gaze aside. “Sorry.”

        Eleanor sighed. “No, don’t be. I shouldn’t have snapped, I’m sorry.”

        Muriel said nothing.

        She thought to reach for him, but gave it a second thought. She didn’t imagine he felt like being touched at the moment. “I’ll figure it out, okay? I promise.”

        Muriel didn’t seem to believe her.

        Eleanor chewed her lip. “Did I hurt you?”

        Muriel shook his head.

        “Mur, don’t try to protect my feelings.”

        He raised his hands.

        Eleanor flew over to examine them, careful to keep her magic controlled. He laid his palms in her hands. They were irritated pink; the most minor of burns.

        “I’m so sorry,” Eleanor said. “I… you’re right. I have to figure something out. I’m sorry.”

        “It’s fine,” he said.

        Eleanor slid her hands over his palms. The injury was as insignificant as it got; even Eleanor could heal it without straining.

        “It’s absolutely not fine,” she said, letting the tiniest rays of magic radiate from her hands, into his. “I hurt you. What if I do it again?”

        Muriel said nothing. He wouldn’t look at her.

        Eleanor released his hands. “I won’t touch you,” she decided. “Not until I figure it out.”

        "El, you don’t have to do that.”

        Eleanor was resolute. “But I do. Just for a while.”

        Muriel sighed. Eleanor drew away and wrung her hands. Lucio was right. She was a monster. She was only going to hurt the people she cared about.

        “We’ll think of something,” Muriel said. “Together.”

        Together. Eleanor offered him a sad smile, but worry still sat on her mind. How long would it be before she hurt him irreparably?

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One: Dangerous Creatures

        It was Sunday night. Muriel watched sadly as Eleanor gathered her weekend things and prepared to return to her shop. Even if she refused to touch him or sleep beside him, Muriel still wished she could stay longer.

        "Just stay until the storm stops," he said.

        As if to prove his point, there was a clap of thunder. His held up his hand and raised his eyebrows.

        Eleanor rolled her eyes and pulled on a boot. "I need to get some things done before I open up tomorrow morning," she said. “The storm will give me cover.”

        “Be careful,” he warned.

        “I will.”

        “Start a fire as soon as you get back,” he went on. “And don’t keep your wet clothes on. And maybe talk to someone about your chest pains.”

        Eleanor pulled on her other boot and straightened up with a grin. “Are you fussing over me?”

        “I worry about you,” Muriel said. “You get into trouble.”

        “Start trouble, more like,” Eleanor said as she stepped closer. She pulled Muriel’s cloak closer about his wide shoulders, then tucked some hair behind his ear. Muriel closed his eyes and sighed at the touch of her fingers. He caught her hand and held it against his cheek. It was the most she’d touched him all weekend.

        “Worry more about yourself,” Eleanor said. “You’re the one who needs it.”

        Muriel was, in fact, deeply worried for his own sake. There was no telling what Lucio would do to him if he was caught with Eleanor. He might kill him, or at least punish him in some horrible, public way. Perhaps Lucio would let the Vesuvian people pay to give him lashes in the colosseum. He was creative like that. He might be tired of dealing with Muriel all together, and send him to fight on the front lines in the west. If the enemy soldiers didn’t kill him, the Vesuvians probably would.

        “Not that worried,” Eleanor said, as if reading his mind. She reached up and his shoulders a reassuring squeeze. Muriel stared at the ground, embarrassed with himself.

        Eleanor pulled her hands away with a sigh. Her eyes trailed up and down his form, then she cleared her throat and stepped back.

        She moved to pick her bag up from the table, then stopped with her hands on the back of a chair. She hummed in pain and doubled over.

        Muriel flew to her side, laying an easy hand on her back. “Is it your chest?” he asked.

        He expected her to dismiss him and brush his hand aside, but instead she nodded. She took deep, shaky breaths.

        “It’s getting worse,” Muriel said.

        Again, she nodded. “It is,” she said. “I’ll talk to Julian first thing tomorrow.”

        “Stay here, I’ll get him.”

        Eleanor stood straight up like a razor, laying her hand flat on his chest. “Absolutely not,” she said, eyes fierce. “If a guard sees you, you’re in a world of trouble.”

        “I can be stealthy.”

        Her eyes softened. “Baby, you’re seven feet tall.”

        That was the second time she called him that. Just like the first, Muriel felt weak in the knees. He wondered if she could tell.

        Eleanor’s gaze flickered down, like she was just realizing their closeness. Muriel felt his heart beating around his ears. He placed one hand over hers and laid the other on her waist. Eleanor drew a little closer, sliding her free hand around his hip. She already felt warm.

        “I’m going to hurt you,” she whispered.

        Muriel almost laughed. He’d been so scared of hurting Eleanor, he’d never considered that she was the dangerous one.

        “You won’t break me,” he said.

        “Where have I heard that before?”

        Eleanor slipped her thumb beneath the hem of his shirt. He sucked in a breath. She raised herself to her tiptoes and craned her neck upwards. He felt her lean against him, keeping her balance.

        Muriel slid a daring hand up the back of her shirt. Her soft skin was feverishly warm now, but he didn’t care. He wanted to take all of her clothes off. The strange feeling sat in his stomach like a rock, but he was too desperate to care.

        Eleanor froze, her hand tight on his hip.

        “What is it?” he asked.

        “I think Skadi is…” she trailed off, her brow furrowed.

        They both startled at Skadi’s scream from outside. The walls rattled. There was a yelp. Before Muriel processed what was happening, the door slammed open. Eleanor had already vanished into the rain.

        Muriel ran after her and around back. Eleanor stood between Skadi and another creature; something scrawny and growling. The witch brandished her knife, wearing the same snarl as the beast that threatened Skadi.

        The beast was a wolf; not quite old enough to be away from it’s mother. It was half-starved, it’s fur thinning with malnutrition. Muriel recognized desperation in it’s yellow, unfathomable eyes.

        “Come at me you mutt,” Eleanor said.

        “Don’t hurt her!” Muriel exclaimed, putting himself between them.

        Eleanor’s stormy gaze flickered between Muriel and the wolf. She kept her knife raised.

        “She’s young,” Muriel said, wrapping his cloak around his arm, “and hungry.”

        “Careful Mur,” Eleanor said as Muriel approached the wolf. He held his wrapped arm in front of himself. The wolf stepped backwards, it’s thin haunches raised. It curled its lips and growled.

        Muriel watched the creature as he moved forward. It was limping; perhaps kicked by the horse. Muriel crouched.

        “Easy, easy,” he soothed.

        The wolf lunged. Eleanor dashed forward, but Muriel blocked her with an extended arm. The wolf sunk its teeth into his wrapped arm. Muriel went down, wrestling the beast into the muddy ground. Eleanor watched with panicked eyes.

        Muriel locked his arms around the thrashing creature. He didn’t know many spells, but he was good at some.

        Sleep, he willed the wolf. Sleep. Sleep.

        The wolf was already weak. Its struggles became slower and slower until it stopped, unconscious in Muriel’s arms.

        “You’re amazing,” Eleanor said as she stroked Skadi’s neck. “That was so brave. I would’ve… Anyways, Skadi is fine. Just spooked.”

        Muriel hauled the wolf up with him, wrapping her in his cloak. He knew exactly what Eleanor would’ve done.

        “Your horse kicked her,” he said.

        “He was defending himself,” Eleanor replied. “Look how thin she is. She was probably desperate.”

        Muriel grunted. He didn’t have the power to heal broken bones and he was sure Eleanor didn’t either. What he needed to do was splint the wolf’s leg and give her some food.

        Eleanor frowned at Muriel as he carried the wolf inside. “Don’t get too attached,” Eleanor said. “We have to let her go as soon as she’s strong enough.”

        Muriel laid the wolf in front of the fire. He glanced at Eleanor, who was still frowning.

        She sighed. “Okay, I’ll fix her leg. You get some food.”

        He dug up food while Eleanor gave the wolf the quickest, sturdiest splint he’d ever seen. Skadi had kicked her hind leg. Muriel had no doubt that the bone was fully snapped.

        “Did you set the bone?” he asked as he laid a bowl of meat down.

        “Yes,” Eleanor replied as she rose, examining her handiwork

        “Did you-”

        “Yes, I checked for broken skin.”

        “What about-”

        “Mur,” Eleanor said, “I got it.”

        They stood beside each other, looking down at the wolf pup with crossed arms. “I guess I am staying tonight,” Eleanor said.

        Muriel met her gaze with a raised eyebrow.

        “Not because of the dog,” she said. “You know. The storm.”

        “Right.”

        “I’m putting on a kettle. You should wash up.”

        “I will.” Muriel was still watching the wolf.

        Eleanor spoke from the counter. “Strange seeing a wolf this far north, isn’t it?”

        It was strange. Wolves didn’t usually roam outside of the cold south, especially not without the protection of the pack. As far as he could tell, this one was alone. She slept hard in front of the crackling fire, curled on top of Muriel’s cloak.

        “I’ll be right back,” he said.

        Muriel stepped outside to wash off in the pouring rain. As he wiped his face, he couldn’t help but think of Eleanor’s hands. He was glad she was staying, but nothing was going to happen as long as the wolf was in the single-roomed hut.

        When Muriel reentered, hair dripping on the floor, Eleanor was sitting cross-legged in front of the fire. The wolf’s head was in her lap, letting Eleanor stroke its fur. It perked up when Muriel entered, letting out a warning growl.

        “Hey now,” Eleanor said, “he’s the reason you’re not dead.”

        The wolf lowered her head back into Eleanor’s lap, but kept her yellow eyes trained on Muriel. How Eleanor won her trust so fast, Muriel couldn’t say. It seemed that Eleanor was fond of dangerous creatures.

        “I’m calling her Inanna,” Eleanor said.

        “What happened to not getting too attached?”

        “How could you not get attached to this sweet face? Look at her.”

        Muriel was looking at her. He wasn’t sure if he’d describe her as sweet.

        The wolf closed her eyes again. The firelight flickered orange on Eleanor’s hair and skin. He couldn’t be sure if the warmth was from the magician or the fire. Muriel sat beside her, giving the wolf plenty of space.

        “You can pet her,” Eleanor said. “Offer your hand and move slow.”

        Muriel did as Eleanor said. Inanna raised her nose to Muriel’s hand, her breath snuffling against him. She huffed and laid her head back down. Muriel scratched her ears.

        “You have to take her with you,” Eleanor said. “A shop is no place for a wolf.”

        “The Count wouldn’t let me keep her.”

        “Lucio loves animals,” Eleanor said. “If he caught her, he wouldn’t have it in him to toss out a wounded animal. Tell him you found her in the street.”

        “Are you sure?”

        “I’m sure.”

        Thunder sounded and Inanna gave a pitiful whine. “I know baby,” Eleanor soothed. “I know.”

        As Eleanor spoke sweetly and pet their guest, Muriel felt the smallest pang of jealousy. It seemed like he and Eleanor never quite got the timing right.

        He would have to be patient. They’d already made it this long.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two: The Check-Up

        “What’s the prognosis, doc?” Eleanor asked.

        Julian scratched his head, shuffling the auburn curls. “I’m not sure. You’re a little warm, but it is you we’re talking about.”

        Eleanor sat on a bed in Julian’s clinic. It was early in the morning, and things were slow enough that he had time to see her right away.

        “Let me hear your lungs again,” Julian said, sliding his stethoscope up the back of her shirt. “Deep breath in, and back out. Yes, they sound quite good.”

        “You’ve got nothing?”

        “Are you sure you don’t have any shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, anything at all?”

        “No, nothing.”

        “Hmm.” Julian looked at the page on his clipboard. Pyre, Eleanor, it read. Physically she was still twenty-four, but he’d made a note of her true age in the margins. All of her other vitals were quite good; she was about as healthy as a person got.

        “Well, I suppose you could eat less red meat,” Julian said.

        “Will that help?”

        “Just some general advice. You should also sleep more.”

        Eleanor rolled her eyes.

        “I suppose it could be something magic-related,” Julian went on, rubbing his chin as he stared at her chart. Perhaps an answer would manifest on the page.

        “You know who would know about that?” Eleanor asked.

        “Asra,” they both said.

        They were quiet for a moment.

        “Well, I’m glad you came in,” Julian said. “You’re long overdue for a checkup.”

        “I don’t think I’ve had one since I first joined Lucio’s crew.”

        “I remember giving you that. You were like a wild animal.”

        Eleanor hopped off the bed and pulled her cloak on. “Times change.”

        “Indeed they do. I can’t believe you asked for help.”

        “Muriel insisted.”

        Julian pursed his lips. It was good of Muriel to ask Eleanor to see a doctor, but Julian still wasn’t convinced they ought to be together. All he knew about the man was that he brutally murdered people for a living. Eleanor was impulsive. There was a lot at stake.

        “Has Lucio talked to you yet?” Julian asked.

        Eleanor gave Julian a suspicious side-eye. “No, why?”

        “Ah. Well, it’s only Monday. I suppose he’ll stop by later.”

        “Should I be worried?”

        “Not at all,” Julian said. “He… Well, I’ll let him talk to you. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more.”

        “It’s okay Jules, it’s over both our heads.” Eleanor pulled out her coin purse. “What do I owe you?”

        Julian sputtered, “P-Put that away! Your money’s no good here, witch.”

        Eleanor glared at him, still holding her purse open.

        The Doctor sighed. “Well, perhaps if you wanted to make a charitable donation-”

        Eleanor shoved gold into Julian’s hands. It was several times what he would normally charge for such a brief visit.

        “Ellie!” Julian protested.

        “Just take it. I know you put it to good use.”

        Before Julian could get a word in edgewise, Eleanor dashed out the door.

        “Keep an eye on your temperature!” he shouted after her. There was a distant response.

        Julian pinched the bridge of his nose as he glanced over her chart again. Perhaps he would spend the night in the library. If something was bothering Eleanor enough that she told others about it, it was quite serious.

        Besides the fact, what sort of doctor would he be if he couldn’t help his patients?

        Eleanor rode back to the shop on Skadi’s back. She rarely went anywhere without him these days. If the weather was good, she’d leave the stable unlocked so he could go wondering. He’d already figured out how to open it.

        As she approached the shop, Eleanor noticed something. There was a white horse outside, equipped with a flashy, golden saddle. If it was Lucio, he hadn’t brought any extra guards. In fact, it seemed like there were fewer throughout the square.

        Eleanor lead Skadi into the stable and removed his saddle. She entered the shop through the back door, knife drawn. Lucio had never raised a hand to Eleanor before, but it could just as well be someone else.

        It could be Asra.

        Eleanor swallowed at the thought. She missed his soothing presence sometimes, but it would be quite the mess if he ever showed up again.

        “You can put the knife down, Ellie,” Lucio called from the other room. “It’s just me.”

        Eleanor sheathed her blade, but kept her hold on the handle. One could never be too sure.

        “How the hell did you get in here?” Eleanor demanded as she entered the sitting room. Lucio was sprawled across the couch, reading one of Eleanor’s books.

        “I have a key,” he replied, tossing it to Eleanor.

        Eleanor caught the key, examined it, then tucked in into her pocket. “I’m keeping it.”

        “I’ll just steal it again if need be,” Lucio said as he sat up.

        Lucio looked slightly less polished than usual. His fine clothes were as impeccable as ever, but his hair and makeup were slightly out of place. Eleanor wondered if he was sleeping enough. Not that she cared.

        “It’s too early for this,” Eleanor grumbled, marching into the front. She needed to open the store, even if Lucio was hanging around.

        “Now Ellie, it’s bad form to leave your shop unattended for so long,” Lucio said as he followed after her. “I’ve been waiting for ages. Places to be, you know.”

        “Yeah, yeah,” she dismissed as she flipped the open sign. “What do you want?”

        “I’m sure you already noticed there are fewer guards,” he said.

        “I did.”

        Eleanor was trying not to look at him, instead finding vials to rearrange. It’d been a long time since she’d gone this long without sleeping with anyone, and all the time she and Muriel spent together wasn’t making it any better. She worried she wouldn’t be able to tell herself no if Lucio got the chance to seduce her. He’d never passed it up before.

        “Well, I’ve decided to lighten security.”

        Eleanor walked into the kitchen to fetch a broom. “You mean, you aren’t having guards tail me anymore.”

        Lucio followed. “Well, yes. I won’t ask them to report on you anymore.”

        “They couldn’t keep up with me anyways.”

        Eleanor looped around Lucio and went back into the front. Lucio turned on his heel and trailed behind.

        “That’s not really it,” Lucio said. “Besides, it’s highly suspect that you disappear for days at a time. Most people don’t do that.”

        “I’m not most people. I don’t need that kind of security.”

        She paused to adjust a crooked painting. Lucio nearly ran into her, he was so close behind.

        “I know you don’t,” Lucio said. “I tried to come here after the tournament, but you were gone. Feel like sharing where you went? Perhaps you know why my Champion showed up with a damned wolf last night?”

        Eleanor shot him a glare, then continued into the sitting room.

        “Didn’t think so,” Lucio said. “Gods Ellie, would you hold still for a minute? This is important.”

        Eleanor stopped, grumbled, then turned to face him. “You think everything to do with you is important.”

        “That’s how it is when you’re the Count.”

        She rolled her eyes. “In case you forgot, we are not friends. We’re not even on good terms. You can’t just waltz in whenever the fuck you want.”

        “Would you just-” Lucio shouted, then took a breath and lowered his voice. “Listen, please.”

        Eleanor put a hand on her hip and waited for him to go on. She didn’t detect any malice from him, but that didn’t do much to set her at ease.

        “Like I said,” he went on, “I won’t have the guards follow you anymore. I won’t have anyone reporting on you. I can’t…” he sighed. “I won’t even stop you from hanging around The Scourge.”

        Eleanor hadn’t expected that. “Oh,” she said.

        “You can be friends with whoever you want. If you want me to leave you alone, I will.” He grit his teeth. Eleanor could see how pained he was to say it.

        She narrowed her eyes. “Are you messing with me?”

        “No.”

        “I can hang out with Muriel?”

        “I can’t stop you.”

        “Well, thanks, I guess.”

        Lucio looked up at the ceiling. Eleanor felt compelled to reach out and comfort him, as if he was the one who’d been wronged. She stopped herself.

        Lucio kept looking up. “Are you sleeping together?” he asked, so soft she almost didn’t hear him.

        “Not that it’s your business,” Eleanor said, “but no.”

        “Do you love him?”

        Lucio still wasn’t looking at her. Eleanor wasn’t sure how she felt. She didn’t want to think about it; it made her feel guilty. However, she knew what Lucio wanted to hear.

        “No,” she said.

        It was the second time she’d lied to him. The first was many years ago, on the night she left him. She had told him that she’d stay.

        Lucio sighed and looked back at her. He seemed relieved.

        “Ellie, listen,” Lucio said. “You can’t ever be together… like that… with him.”

        She raised her eyebrows. “Like what?”

        “You know what I mean,” he growled. “No one can. Least of all you.”

        Eleanor squared her shoulders and planted her fists on her hips. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

        “Muriel is a part of my household,” Lucio said. “He’s under my protection.”

        Eleanor scoffed. “You’re doing a pretty shit job at that.”

        “Gods’ sake, let me finish,” Lucio said, moving his hands as he spoke. “Muriel has been pursued by others before, and it’s always gone horribly wrong for him.”

        “Please don’t act like you care about him,” Eleanor said.

        Lucio stopped, a glare fixed on Eleanor.

        “Fine, fine,” she said. “Finish your damn speech.”

        “He is my champion,” Lucio said. “I need my champion. I can’t suffer anything that compromises his ability to do his job, including you. What happens if he gets hurt in the ring because he was out late the night before? What if he has to fight someone who looks like you? What if you make him even softer?”

        Eleanor kicked at the ground. “Nobody is that sensitive.”

        “But he is, you know he is,” Lucio said. “And what about you?”

        “What about me?”

        “When was the last time you did research on the plague? Weren’t you working on a cure?”

        “I still am,” she mumbled.

        “And what happened to trying to solve your immortality ‘problem’,” he said, making air quotes. “Did you forget? Did you forget you’re going to outlive everyone you love if you don’t figure it out?”

        Eleanor swallowed, feeling guilt gnawing at her. Lucio was right on both counts, as much as it pained her to admit it. She hadn’t spent much time training, studying, or trying to reach out to the survivors Judgement had mentioned. She hadn’t wanted to think about it.

        “Ellie, I can’t stop you from... screwing with whoever,” Lucio spat the last part. “But you can’t be with Muriel. You shouldn’t be seeing anyone, anyways.”

        “The way you treat him isn’t right,” Eleanor said.

        Lucio shrugged. “I’m perfectly nice. He can come and go as he pleases. It’s the townspeople that make his life hard.”

        Eleanor should’ve guessed that Lucio wouldn’t see his own fault in Muriel’s situation.

        Lucio rubbed his chin. “He probably shouldn’t be allowed to go out by himself,” he mumbled. “He’s been attacked more than once.”

        Eleanor cleared her throat.

        “Point being,” Lucio said. “It’s not safe, smart, or wise for Scourge to have any romantic entanglements. It’s in his contract.”

        If Lucio was lying about that, Eleanor couldn’t tell.

        “I’m putting my trust in you. You have to promise not to… romance him.”

        “You are such a child-”

        “Ellie, promise me,” Lucio said. “Promise that, and I’ll leave the both of you alone.”

        The tribesmen glared at each other. Eleanor tapped her foot. She was about ready to throw hands with the Count.

        “I know you’re a woman of your word,” Lucio said, leaning towards her.

        Eleanor groaned. “Fine, I promise.”

        Lucio straightened up with a sigh. “Okay. That’s all I wanted.”

        The Count tugged his jacket, gave Eleanor a curt nod, then headed for the door.

        The words were out of Eleanor’s mouth before she could process them. “Is it really, Luce?”

        Lucio paused, turned his head like he was about to answer. Eleanor thought she saw the tiniest shake of his head before he caught himself. He left without saying anything more.

        Eleanor twisted the broom around in her hands. Was he trying to manipulate her, somehow? It was working much better than Eleanor wanted to admit. She felt terrible. Life was so much less complicated when she was on her own, even if she was miserable.

        The magician took a deep breath, then started sweeping. She’d already been so cruel to Muriel. He was unfailingly kind as she dealt with her own problems. She almost wished he was less forgiving, for his own sake.

        Lucio wouldn’t dissuade her. Muriel made Eleanor feel safer, more understood than she’d ever been. It seemed that he felt the same. Muriel deserved good things. Eleanor wanted to give them to him, or at least to try.

        She wouldn’t give that up. Not this time.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three: Relief for the Troubled Mind

        It was late at night. Countess Nadia strolled through the halls of the palace, unable to sleep. Her evening gown, shimmering white, billowed like a ghost about her slender frame as she went. She kept her face downturned, crimson eyes on the floor. She hardly noticed when patrolling guards gave her a bow, too lost in her own thoughts.

        Her mind had been troubled lately; perhaps due to her supernatural intuition. She couldn’t shake the feeling that terrible things were coming. It made her too anxious to keep still. By now, the various servants were used to the behavior.

        She paused when she heard whispering and tongue clicking, then ducked behind a statue.

        “Come on, the coast is clear,” said a deep voice.

        From around the corner came a huge, dark figure. Nadia’s first thought was that this was it. This was the source of her foreboding premonitions. This stranger was going to put her out of her misery.

        Nadia was, for once, wrong. It was Muriel, hood drawn over his head as if it would make him less detectable. There was a scrawny canine at his heels. Both froze when they saw the Countess. The animal growled. Nadia took a wise step back.

        “Countess,” Muriel said, “I-I can explain.”

        “I’m sure you could,” Nadia replied, crossing her arms.

        Muriel pat the animal’s head and she lowered her ears with a whine.

        “Pray tell, who is this?” Nadia asked.

        “This is my… dog. I found her in the streets.”

        Nadia raised her eyebrows, but couldn’t fight the tiniest of smiles. He was obviously lying.

        “You’re quite sure she’s a dog?” she pressed. “Looks more like a young wolf to me. Not very safe to keep indoors.”

        The creature watched Nadia with intense, yellow eyes. She had one leg wrapped in a splint, but still seemed to hobble around just fine. She was pressed to Muriel’s leg, ready to defend.

        Muriel didn’t look Nadia in the eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Definitely just a dog.”

        Nadia glanced between Muriel and the wolf. “What’s your dog’s name?” she asked.

        Muriel visibly relaxed. “Inanna,” he said.

        “Very well. I’ll tell the servants to prepare some extra dog food for you. I’ll instruct the guards not to bother our new guest.”

        Muriel kicked at the ground, looking sheepish. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

        “Perhaps you should find another home for her in a month or so,” Nadia went on. “She seems like she might get too big for this palace rather soon.”

        “Yes Countess,” Muriel mumbled. “I’ll um… get out of your way then.”

        Muriel dashed past Nadia.

        “Not so fast!” she said.

        Muriel froze. Nadia looked over her shoulder to see how tense he was. The wolf watched her warily.

        “If you can’t lie properly,” Nadia said, “tell a half-truth instead. Just some advice.”

        Muriel’s shoulders sank. “Yes, milady. Thank you.”

        “Off you go then.”

        Muriel dashed through the hall and around the corner. Nadia shook her head and laughed softly. He had committed the one offence Lucio would never be able to say ‘no’ to.

        Nadia continued walking, her mind eased for only a while. Perhaps her lack of control was the cause of the sense of doom. Lucio let her meddle in some things, but he drew a hard line when it came to any military affairs. Even with domestic duties, it was exhausting to constantly argue with him.

        No one ever sided with Nadia. The Vesuvians adored their Count. Nadia was an outsider; completely without a friend. She needed allies.

        Her wandering brought her past the library. She paused to touch the ornate door. Nadia had designed it herself, crafting each complicated lock with her own hands. People were always shocked when she said there was no magic involved. Even Lucio had praised her handiwork, though the style wasn’t to his taste. It was one of her finest creations.

        She searched the boughs of the hand-carved tree for imperfections. As her fingers ran across one of the branches, the door opened just a hair. Was there a fault in her lock’s mechanism?

        No, someone was inside. She heard a murmur of male and female voices, speaking suomean. The female was fluent. The male was obviously lacking practice.

        Nadia pushed the doors open.

        Can’t we speak Vesuvian?” asked the male voice. It was Dr. Devorak, his shirt hanging half open as he leaned over his desk. His chest was snowy white, just dusted with auburn hair. The desk was piled with tomes in old languages, all of them Nadia recognized.

        The books were all on runes, magical remedies, and fire magic. Perhaps they had something to do with Eleanor.

        Of course not,” Eleanor replied. “You sound terrible. Completely out of practice.”

        Nadia found it interesting that Eleanor spoke a low form of Vesuvian, but quite a high form of Suomean. It was the likes of that Nadia heard from only the most educated southerners; shamans and the wealthy.

        Eleanor looked up from her work. “Oh, hi Nadia.”

        Julian leapt to his feet and bowed. “My lady!”

        “No need for all that, Doctor,” Nadia said. She let her eyes wander over his chosen reading. “Interesting volumes you have there. Cure research?”

        Julian glanced at Eleanor, so quick that the witch didn’t notice. “Yes, milady,” he said. He was much better liar than Muriel.

        “I can’t read those languages,” Eleanor said, “So Julian has to look through those ones.”

        Julian gave Nadia a pointed look. So his research had something to do with Eleanor, and he didn’t want her to know about. Nadia sensed only good intentions, so she let it slide.

        “I’m glad to have both of your minds,” Nadia said as Julian scrambled to find her a chair. “You seem to make a good team.”

        They looked at each other warmly. “Yeah well, we know each other pretty well,” Eleanor said.

        “Too well,” Julian said. Eleanor threw a balled up paper at him.

        “Thank you, Doctor,” Nadia said as she settled into her chair. She locked eyes with Eleanor, and her feeling of doom was several times stronger. She couldn’t be sure if was just her, but Nadia thought she saw orange flicker in Eleanor’s eyes. Webs of white cracks appeared all over her skin.

        “Something wrong?” Eleanor asked.

        Nadia shook her head. The visions were gone. It seemed that Nadia’s premonition had little to do with herself, and everything to do with Eleanor.

        Julian leaned on Eleanor’s desk.

        “How do you distract yourselves when your mind is troubled?” Nadia asked the pair.

        “I usually just keep it in,” Eleanor replied. “Or I start a bar fight. Or-”

        “Don’t listen to her,” Julian cut in. “She has terrible coping mechanisms.” He glared at Eleanor. “Which her doctor has repeatedly warned her about.”

        Eleanor shrugged.

        “Then what do you do?” Nadia asked.

        “Me? Mercy,” Julian said, leaning against Eleanor’s desk. “If there’s work to do, I usually dive into it.”

        “So much that he forgets to sleep,” Eleanor said. “Or he drinks.”

        “You skip sleep too,” Julian accused.

        “Not on purpose!”

        Nadia laughed. “Have I come to the wrong place for advice?”

        Julian and Eleanor both looked pensive.

        “I like riding,” Eleanor said. “It helps me think clearly.”

        “That’s more like it,” Nadia said.

        “If you need a break from thinking all together,” Julian said, “Might I suggest a good book? Late night reading never did much harm.”

        “A splendid idea,” Nadia said.

        “You’re welcome to hole up with us,” Eleanor said. “Having you around might help us focus.”

        “If it’s no trouble,” Nadia said.

        “Not at all,” Julian said.

        Nadia chose an old favorite from the shelf and settled into a couch. Eleanor and Julian put their noses back to their books. Overhead, clouds blocked out the stars. The faded glow of the moon was just visible through the haze. Nadia had to admit, Lucio had designed a beautiful library.

        Nadia was fairly sure that Eleanor would ignore any warning she gave. The Countess would only have to keep her eyes open until she was more certain of the dangers to come.

        The Countess glanced from Eleanor to Julian. They both looked quite haggard. Eleanor’s brows were furrowed with focus, pert lips barely mouthing the words. Her face was so low that her hair brushed the page, and her fingers moved along the lines as she read.

        Julian was more relaxed, one long leg kicked up on an empty chair. He held a quill in one hand and scribbled notes without looking up. Sometimes he would scratch his head of curls or squint at a particular passage.

        Nadia settled into her seat and turned her attention to her book. Even with such a sense of foreboding, it was nice to feel welcome for once.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four: Up all Night

        Muriel woke up to a horrible, retching sound.

        It was in the evening. He had just drifted to sleep when he heard the noise, coming from the bed he’d made Inanna. He lit the candle beside his bed and searched the floor.

        Inanna lowered her ears and whined, laying in her bed. There was a pile of orange vomit nearby. Muriel studied it closely. He saw brown streaks, like old blood.

        He looked at Inanna, panicked. Was she vomiting blood? What was he to do?

        He slid from bed and pulled his clothes on, running through a hair-brained list of options. Had Inanna swallowed something sharp when he wasn’t looking? Was she sick? Who could he go to for help?

        There was only one person Muriel could trust. Eleanor.

        He wrapped Inanna in blankets and took off at a run. He couldn’t help but notice how small and frail she was. He had to hold her just so to keep from budging her broken leg. She didn’t seem too happy to be picked up, but she held still.

        Muriel barely paused to check for guards as he departed the palace. If he wasn’t fast enough, Inanna might not make it.

        He barreled down the wet streets, almost unoccupied on a weeknight. He hadn’t been to the shop in a few years, not since before Asra left town. Still, he remembered the way.

        He went around back, though the stable. Skadi snorted and stomped at the sight of Muriel, but there was no time to say hello. He went to knock, but the door had already swung open.

        “Muriel!” Eleanor exclaimed. She didn’t look pleased.

        “How did-”

        “Skadi told me. Get inside.”

        Eleanor closed the door behind him. Muriel deposited Inanna on the kitchen table. She gave a single bark, then settled with a whine.

        “What the hell is going on?” Eleanor demanded.

        “Inanna,” Muriel said, out of breath. “Threw up blood.”

        “Are you sure?” Eleanor asked, approaching the dog. “What color was it?”

        “Brown streaks.”

        Eleanor pet Inanna and twisted her lips together. She didn’t seem worried. She seemed angry. He could feel the heat rising from her. It had a flickering, irritated feeling.

        “Has she been eating meat?” she asked.

        Muriel nodded.

        “Raw?”

        Muriel nodded again.

        “It’s just her food, Mur,” Eleanor said. “If it was red, that would be a problem. But if it’s brown, it’s old.”

        “But she still threw up!” Muriel was louder than he meant to be.

        “She’s not used to her food. That can be irritating to an animal.” Eleanor ran her hands over Inanna’s belly, feeling her torso. Inanna thumped her tail against the table.

        “So, she’s fine?”

        “She’s fine.” The witch kept her cold eyes on the animal, opposing the obvious heat in the room.

        Muriel looked at Eleanor, then Inanna, then slapped his hands over his face.

        Eleanor pressed her lips to a thin line. Her brows low with worry.

        “You shouldn’t have come here,” she said, her voice quiet. “Even if she was sick, Lucio knows more than I do. What if you blew our cover? Wouldn’t Nadia help you?”

        “But Lucio-”

        “Lucio would never hurt a dog,” Eleanor said, a little louder. “He loves dogs. I promise you he wouldn’t do anything to her.”

        Muriel looked at his feet. He’d messed up.

        “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I panicked.”

        Eleanor took a breath, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples. The agitated heat faded, then disappeared. She touched his arm, offering him a weak smile. “It’s okay. You’re here now. It doesn’t seem like anyone followed you.”

        Muriel nodded, eyes still on the ground.

        “I’ll start a kettle,” Eleanor said. “Do you drink coffee?”

        “Yes.”

        “Okay. I’ll make coffee. Can you take Inanna to the sitting room?”

        Muriel lifted Inanna from the table and set her on the floor. He went to lead her to the sitting room, then paused.

        He glanced back at Eleanor. Half of her hair was gathered in a messy bun. Her under-eyes were puffy and dark. She had a baggy shirt on, but no pants. Her thighs jiggled when she stepped.

        “Is that my shirt?” Muriel asked.

        Eleanor looked down, feigning surprise. She held the kettle in one hand. “Oh, I guess it is.”

        Muriel came towards her. Unthinking, he reached up and cupped her cheek. Eleanor closed her eyes and laid her hand over his, brows furrowed like she was concentrating. She was exhausted, even more than usual.

        “Did I wake you?”

        She gave the smallest shake of her head.

        “You haven’t been sleeping.”

        “You know I don’t sleep much,” she said. Her eyes flickered up at him.

        “This is worse,” he said. “Late nights at the library?”

        She nodded. He slid his hands down her arms, holding her at the shoulders. Her skin was warm.

        “It won’t do your research much good if you’re too tired to focus.”

        “I know. Can’t be helped.” She leaned heavier against his arms, like she might topple over.

        “Did you see Julian?”

        Another nod. She closed her eyes again.

        “And?”

        “Nothing. He doesn’t know anything about magic.”

        “Chest pains?”

        “Getting worse.”

        Muriel grunted. Eleanor seemed too tired to act tough.

        “Go sit,” he said, “I’ll start the kettle.”

        Eleanor sighed, then relented. She must’ve felt terrible if she wasn’t putting up any fuss. Muriel was more worried about her than he was for himself.

        After he started the kettle, Muriel went into the sitting room. Inanna and Eleanor were both seated beside the fire. Eleanor was surrounded by piles of books, notes, and scrolls. There was a quill tucked behind her ear. She read with a squint as she scratched Inanna’s head.

        Even now, messy as she was, Muriel needed to feel her against him. He supposed it was best if he let her focus. It was bad enough that he’d interrupted her once.

        Muriel chose a book on runes from her stack and cracked it. Eleanor was too focused to notice. Perhaps he could do some research of his own. He needed to figure out what was wrong with Eleanor’s magic.

        Someone had scrawled illegibly in the margins. He didn’t think it was Eleanor.

        Muriel flipped through the pages. When he went to replace it on the stack, there was another that caught his eye. He read the title and hissed.

        “What’s your deal?” Eleanor asked, still looking at her reading.

        “El, are you trying to solve this with dark magic?”

        Eleanor looked up, following his gaze.

        “Stars, no!” she said. “It’s just for the tournament. You never know what you might encounter.”

        Muriel could think of one contender, from the little he’d seen, that might use such a form of magic. He had sensed it, just as he could sense Eleanor’s. It was oily and dank; mildew in magic form.

        “Destroyer might use it,” he said.

        “Destroyer? He’s just a swordsman. He’s never used magic.”

        “Just because he doesn’t use it, doesn’t mean he can’t.”

        “Okay,” she said, patting his knee. “I’ll keep my wits about me. Thank you for worrying.”

        She didn’t quite believe him. Muriel could tell. He supposed it was only a hunch, afterall.

        They returned to their reading. Eleanor yawned. The kettle whistled. Muriel made coffee the way Eleanor showed him.

        “Sugar’s in that tin on the counter,” she called from the sitting room.

        He gave himself a generous scoop of sugar and plenty of cream. Eleanor took only a splash of cream, as he recalled.

        “Put that up,” Muriel said, passing her a piping mug.

        Muriel, Eleanor, and Inanna all sat beside the fire. None made a noise; delighting in the comfortable crackle of the fire.

        Eleanor broke the silence. “Lucio showed up the other day,” she said.

        Muriel almost choked on his coffee. “What? What did he do?” He leaned over Eleanor, eyes wide. “Did he hurt you?”

        Eleanor snickered. “No, he told me he was ordering the guards not to follow me.”

        “Oh. That’s good.”

        “And that we can hang out,” she went on.

        “Really?”

        “As friends. He made that clear. You sneaking over here in the middle of the night still doesn’t look good.”

        “Hm.” Muriel took a sip of his coffee. What could’ve prompted the Count to lift his restrictions? Muriel couldn’t believe he didn’t have some kind of plan.

        Eleanor’s eyes were half lidded as she gazed into the fire. “Do you want that?” Muriel asked.

        She startled like she’d forgotten he was there. “Huh?”

        “Do you want to just be friends?”

        She shook her head. “Do you? Could you?”

        Muriel set the cup down, meeting Eleanor’s eyes. Every time there were together, he wanted her more and more. It made him bolder.

        He shifted closer to her, laying a testing hand on her knee. She stiffened at his touch and sucked a breath in through her teeth. He thought he felt her shiver.

        “No,” Muriel said. “I couldn’t.”

        Eleanor glanced as his hand, then back to his face. He could see it in her eyes; she felt it as much as he did. She laid her hand over his, guiding it further up her thigh. She shivered again; Muriel couldn’t miss it this time.

        “Mur,” she said, her voice a sigh of longing. He loved the way she purred his name. His hand was still moving upwards. Her skin felt warmer. Her eyes fluttered like she was fighting to keep them open. He knew from the heat she radiated that she wasn’t the one who would break. She never was. It was Muriel.

        Somehow, it made him want her all the more.

        Inanna huffed. Muriel nearly forgot she was there.

        The spell was broken. Eleanor sighed and pulled away.

        “We can’t,” she said.

        Muriel lowered his hand and cleared his throat, red shame creeping into his face. He must’ve seemed so desperate. He supposed he was that desperate.

        “Because of Lucio?” Muriel asked.

        “Because of this,” Eleanor said. She poured her piping hot coffee straight on her arm. It hissed on contact, steam rising from her skin.

        “Do you know how much will-power I’m using right now?” Eleanor asked. “Everytime I get excited or angry, I lose more control. It gets-” she trailed off with a groan, doubling over at the waist.

        Muriel sat on his knees, a soothing hand on her back. Even though the shirt, she almost felt hot enough to burn. She took shaky breaths, and the heat faded.

        His instinct was to panic, but Eleanor needed him to be steady. “Staying up every night can’t be helping,” he said. “You need all your strength. You need rest.”

        Eleanor shook her head, her face pinched with effort. “I can’t go to sleep.” She swallowed. “I could do something without even realizing it.”

        “You’ll have to eventually,” Muriel told her. “I’ll lay with you. If something happens, I can wake you up.”

        She met his gaze with glassy eyes. Orange and yellow swirled in her grey irises, so bright they almost glowed.

        “I’m scared,” she whispered.

        “You have to use your magic, before it uses you. Doesn’t it feel good when you do?”

        Her voice was thick. “I can’t, okay? I just can’t. I can never use all that power again. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.” She glanced at the runes on her arms. They were irritated red.

        “Let’s leave tomorrow,” Muriel said. “We’ll get a boat. Go way out to sea. When you’re spent, we can come back”

        Eleanor gave a harsh laugh. “I used to do that when I was a kid. It didn’t change anything.”

        “What do you mean?”

        She bounced to her feet. The color was gone. “Nothing,” she said. “Nothing. You should go.”

        “I’m staying,” Muriel said, raising beside her. “I’ll make sure nothing happens.”

        “Mur-”

        “It’s my choice,” he said. If Eleanor didn’t get some sleep, she would definitely lose her control.

        Eleanor wouldn’t look him in the eye, trying to be strong like always. He’d seen Eleanor hurt, sad, worried, and angry. He’d even seen her at her physical weakest. He’d never seen her look this scared.

        “When are you going to realize,” he said, “that you can let people help you. Let me help you.”

        “You’ve already done too much.”

        He took her hands in his and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. They felt cool again.

        “I’ll keep watch all night,” he said. “Come on.”

        He tugged her towards the stairs. At first she kept her feet planted, an array of emotions crossing her lovely face. Finally, she let him pull her along.

        “But the dog,” she protested as he lead her upstairs.

        “She’ll be fine.”

        “A wild animal loose in my shop, full of bottles and trinkets-”

        “I’ll listen for her,” Muriel said. “All night.”

        He pulled her into the bed after himself, pulling the blanket over the both of them.

        “Mur,” she warned.

        “I’ll feel it first if you lose your cool,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.

        “Don’t fall asleep,” she mumbled, easing into his embrace. “All night.”

        “All night,” he vowed.

        She gave a contented sigh. Her torso molded against his like a clay. She was a lid finally finding it’s bottle; a perfect fit. Muriel could’ve laid there forever.

        “I don’t deserve you,” she said against his neck.

        He thought to correct her, but said nothing. There was no denying that she was quite the mess-maker, but Muriel sort of liked the mess. He liked it much more than he wanted to admit.

        Muriel glanced around the room. It was small and filled with plants and weapons. There was an umbrella stand near the bed, but it held no umbrellas. It housed two halves of a broken staff and a sword without a scabbard. Eleanor was never at peace without a weapon nearby.

        Inanna leapt onto the bed, curling up and the couple’s feet. At least with her there, Muriel and Eleanor couldn’t try any funny business. Even then, the temptation still hung in front of Muriel like ripe fruit.

        Eleanor didn’t stir as Inanna made herself comfortable. The witch was already out like a light, her skin cool to the touch. Muriel knew she never had nightmares when he was there, so he doubted anything would happen. Still, he promised he would stay up all night.

        Tonight, Muriel was the guardian. He would protect her from anything, even from herself.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five: Intruders

        It was the wee hours of the morning, just before the break of dawn. The city was still asleep. In the little magic shop in the heart district, a gladiator had eschewed sleep altogether.

        Muriel’s eyes stung with exhaustion and Eleanor’s comforting weight made it hard to keep conscious, but he’d promised that he would stay up all night. He read in the light of a lone candle, seeking answers in an ancient text on the storage of magical energy.

        There were many different wells in the body, as the book told him. Every person carried their magic differently. Muriel, whose magic was always slow, sure, and grounded, likely drew most of his power from the root of his spine. Such magic was versatile and dependable, but slow to regenerate and unsuited for more complicated magic. It was better connected to the physical realm, rather than the spiritual.

        Eleanor’s magic, based on her strong aptitude for fire, was entirely rooted in the lungs. Such magic was well documented as being rare, powerful, and hard to manage. Control was directly tied to one’s breath. It made sense that excitement made Eleanor’s magic flare up, and that she was having chest pains.

        It was interesting to read, but it was bittersweet. The book offered Muriel no answers on how he could help Eleanor or alleviate her pain. There was no telling what might happen if she didn’t start using her magic properly.

        He turned the page, reading about magic drawn from the heart. It was versatile and related to water; usually closely tied to the spiritual. That sounded like Asra.

        Muriel looked down at Eleanor. She was nestled beneath his arm, undisturbed through the entire night. He drew circles on her arm with his thumb, feeling the fine hairs. Muriel wished she could know such peace when she was awake.

        Inanna perked up, focused on the distance. Her ears twitched.

        “Inanna,” Muriel hissed. “Settle down.”

        She glanced at Muriel, then started barking.

        “No!” Muriel said. “Shush!”

        “Hmm?” came Eleanor’s voice, high and sweet. She blinked slowly as she shifted in place.

        “Go back to sleep,” Muriel told her.

        Inanna gave one last bark, then she settled back into the bed.

        “I’m wasting time,” Eleanor murmured as she raised her head. “So much to do.”

        “You can do them in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

        Eleanor propped herself up on his chest and gave him was he suspected was meant to be a glare. Her face was too mushy for it to be effective.

        Muriel pulled her back down with as little force as possible. She groaned but didn’t resist. As her body relaxed against his, Muriel ran his thumb over her cheek. She was asleep in an instant. They’d laid together like this many times, but it still didn’t feel real. She was more like a dream.

        He loved her sleeping face as much as he loved her laugh, her voice, her confidence, her spunk, and her strange, terrifying sort of charm. He even loved her temper, her irrational fears, her impulsive nature.

        Muriel loved her. He would do anything for her. He would even stay up all night to watch her sleep.

        Muriel raised his book back to his face. The third eye, or the mind, was the most intuitive of the wells of magic. Magicians who relied on this made excellent fortune tellers, or even mind readers. They were rarely skilled with practical spells.

        Inanna perked up again. She bounced to her feet and growled. Something was wrong.

        Eleanor sat straight up, knocking the book from Muriel’s hand.

        “Skadi,” she said. “He’s trying to… he’s warning me.”

        The stairs creaked.

        “Intruders,” Muriel said.

        Eleanor leaned across Muriel, drawing the old sword from the umbrella stand. “We have to leave. Now.”

        It was too late. The door flung open. Out of instinct, Muriel threw his arm up in front of Eleanor.

        Guards came streaming into the room. Eleanor shoved past Muriel and stood on the bed, raising her blade.

        “You get one warning,” she said, dark eyes surveying the guards. “Leave now, or die.”

        There were half a dozen in the room, and surely there were more downstairs.

        “No need for a fight,” said the captain, marked with a red blaze on his chest. “Scourge, come quietly.”

        “He’s not going anywhere,” Eleanor growled. “Prepare yourself.”

        Eleanor dashed forward. All six guards converged on her.

        “El!” Muriel exclaimed. He dove into the fray.

        The captain fell at Eleanor’s feet. His blood flecked Eleanor’s shirt. It sizzled where it touch her skin.

        Muriel shoved a guard aside. He had to get to Eleanor, before she lost her cool.

        “Grab a weapon,” she ordered Muriel as she blocked a swing of silver. “Now’s the time to fight for your freedom.”

        Muriel dodged a swift rapier. He shoved the guard to the ground and took their blade. More were streaming into the room, all focused on Eleanor. He shoved between them, throwing elbows to their ribs.

        “El!” he shouted. “El, don’t!”

        There were already several bodies at her feet. He didn’t know if they were dead. The floor was covered in blood. An oppressive heat filled the room, dry and intense. They had come for Muriel. This was all at his expense.

        “Fall back,” came a familiar sneer.

        Eleanor and all of the guards froze. There was Lucio, standing in the doorway with his sword drawn. His cape drifted on the heat; as red as the blood Eleanor had spilled. The guards parted as he approached.

        “Ellie, I asked you for one thing,” he said as he drew nearer. “You gave your word.”

        “You don’t get to control anyone like that,” Eleanor said, standing her ground. “Not me. Not Muriel.”

        It was almost too hot to bear in the cramped space. Eleanor’s eyes swirled with yellow and white, glowing through the early daylight. The runes on her arms were blistering. Blood ran from a cut on her side. It was Muriel’s fault.

        “No need for things to get messy,” Lucio said. “You didn’t break any laws. The Scourge comes with me, and I’ll leave you alone.”

        Eleanor slashed her blade through the air. “You’ll die before you lay a finger on him.”

        Lucio stepped back in surprise. Muriel got a look at Eleanor’s face. Her jaw was set. Her eyes furious. There was no trace of hesitation. She meant every word she said.

        “You’ve got no magic,” Lucio said, though Muriel could hear the nervousness in his voice. “You can’t take all of us. No way.”

        He was right.

        Eleanor held steady. “Try me, then.”

        This was wrong. Eleanor still cared about Lucio, despite everything. She shouldn’t have to fight him. Muriel wasn’t worth it.

        “I’ll go,” Muriel announced.

        Eleanor’s face fell. “Mur, no!”

        “Fantastic!” Lucio said. “See Ellie, it doesn’t always have to be a big fight.”

        Muriel held still as guards rushed him.

        “No!” Eleanor cried out. “Mur, you can’t just give in!”

        She threw herself between Muriel and the guards and slashed at the air. They stayed several feet back, weapons at the ready.

        “El!” Muriel shouted.

        She froze. Muriel had never yelled at her before.

        “Let me go,” he said.

        The room was cooler. Eleanor’s shoulders moved with labored breathing. She said nothing.

        “Please,” Muriel pleaded. “I don’t want any more fighting.”

        The fire in her eyes dimmed. The room grew ever cooler.

        “I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to you,” Muriel said.

        “How tragic,” Lucio said with a snort. “It seems- Yeeouch!”

        Inanna had sank her teeth into the back of Lucio’s thigh. He seized her by the scruff of her neck and tore her away. Red blossomed on his white pants.

        “So it is your dog!” The Count exclaimed, keeping a tight grip on the half-grown wolf. She wasn’t big enough to take him on.

        “You have to take care of her,” Muriel said, touching Eleanor’s shoulder. “You have to continue your research. People depend on you.”

        “Just let me protect you,” she replied, weapon still aloft.

        A guard stepped forward. Eleanor slashed at them. They drew back just in time.

        “It’s my choice,” he said. “Let me have it.”

        The temperature returned to normal. Eleanor lowered her blade. Lucio released Inanna and she went running for Eleanor and Muriel.

        Muriel picked up the animal and shoved her into Eleanor’s arms, rendering the witch immobile. All she could do was watch as Muriel surrendered himself.

        “It’s okay,” he told her as they clapped shackles over his wrists. “It’ll be okay.”

        She said nothing, but he could see the betrayal on her face. Inanna whined.

        “It’s for the best Ellie,” Lucio said. “You’ll see.”

        Maybe it was for the best. Muriel belonged in chains. Once a slave, always a slave.

        “If you hurt him,” Eleanor said, “I’ll make you wish you were never born.”

        Lucio shrugged, trying his hardest to act nonchalant. “Oh, I won’t hurt him. See you in the colosseum.”

        Lucio exited with a flourish. As the guards dragged Muriel away, all the emotion left Eleanor’s face. She was already plotting something. Muriel could only hope she wouldn’t get herself hurt.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Break-In

        “And you’re quite sure?” Julian asked Eleanor as they approached the palace. “You feel that strongly about this plan?”

        “What other choice is there?” Eleanor replied. “I don’t think Lucio would seriously hurt Muriel, but he’ll figure something out. You know Lucio’s good at getting under your skin.”

        Yesterday Eleanor had arrived at Julian’s house without warning and asked for his help. She didn’t ask so much as she told, but it was hard to tell Eleanor no when she had a plan. He didn’t know how he would cope if she was disappointed in him.

        It was late at night, right after Lucio’s usual bedtime. Julian found it strange that Eleanor was so certain of when he went to bed, but he didn’t ask any questions. At her request, he’d spent the morning with Nadia to gather information. The Countess had a tendency to make Julian flustered, but he supposed it helped hide his real intentions.

        Julian and Eleanor paused behind some crates. They leaned casually against the wall, pretending to be a couple of loiterers. The gate was in their view.

        “Are you quite sure Muriel wants to be rescued?” Julian asked. “He did hand himself over.”

        Eleanor curled her lip. “He was just trying to protect me. Stupid.”

        “Yes, only an idiot would think you couldn’t take on the entire city guard with no magic,” he said.

        Eleanor glowered.

        “Perhaps he doesn’t want to be freed.”

        Eleanor drew back, face scrunched up. “Who wouldn’t?”

        “If it were me, I wouldn’t want you to put yourself at risk.”

        Eleanor cooed. “That’s sweet of you, but I would save you anyways.”

        “I’m touched.”

        “Jules, I need to be able to count on you. Are you really with me?” Eleanor asked, touching Julian’s shoulder. The movement moved her heavy cloak aside, revealing the handle of an old sword on one hip and several knives on the other.

        “Of course,” he said.

        “You could get in a lot of trouble for this,” Eleanor said. “You could lose Lucio’s funding.”

        Julian met her steel gaze. A tendril of hair was loose from her warrior’s braids, falling across her sharp cheekbone. There was dark makeup smudged around her eyes, making them brighter. There was no trace of uncertainty on her face. Eleanor had complete faith in her ability and her plan. She’d go with or without him.

        “I’d follow you anywhere,” he said.

        She seemed pleased. “Right, let’s go over the plan one more time,” Eleanor said.

        “We walk in like we’re going to the library,” Julian said, “Then we take the east stairs.”

        “We know the guards were warned about me, so you need to walk in front of me,” Eleanor said. “We avoid them at all costs. If impossible, remember to act natural.”

        “Nadia said there are guards outside Muriel’s room and at the bottom of his stairs,” Julian said. “No avoiding them.”

        “So we have to take them down fast, before they can make any noise.”

        “No killing.”

        Eleanor nodded. “Muriel would never forgive me.”

        Julian still wasn’t sure about this Muriel character or whether he was worth all the trouble. Eleanor believed he was, and Julian could never convince her otherwise.

        “It’s just like the old days, isn’t it?” Julian asked. “Us sneaking about.”

        Eleanor jerked her chin towards the guards, and they started walking.

        “We weren’t very good at it,” she said.

        Julian laughed. “No, I suppose we usually made a ruckus.”

        They paused at the gate.

        “We’re going to the library,” Eleanor told the guards.

        The guards looked at each other. By now, they must’ve known who Eleanor was.

        “Miss Pyre,” one said, “We’ve been instructed not to let you in without an escort.”

        “What?” Eleanor demanded, planting her hands on her hips. “What for?”

        “Easy Ellie,” Julian said. “It won’t keep us from doing our research.”

        Eleanor grimaced. “Fine,” she finally said.

        The guards pointed between each other, debating which had to follow to scary gladiator into the palace.

        “Flip a coin or something,” Eleanor snapped.

        They jumped at her outburst. She crossed her arms over her chest, eyebrows low with irritation. Julian gave her a tired glance. She sighed and eased up a little.

        The guards pat their pockets, looking flustered. “I don’t have... um,” one began.

        Julian retrieved a doubloon from his pocket and pressed it to the guard’s hand. Eleanor drummed her fingers on her arm.

        The guards flipped the coin. The escort was chosen. They opened the gates and went inside. Julian was quite sorry for the poor lad.

        Most of the lights in the palace were extinguished for the night. The occasional candelabra gave the trio several long shadows, layered like petals behind them. Julian glanced at Eleanor, who was no more threatening than usual. Her strides were long enough to match his.

        “So,” Julian said as they went. “How are we going to… choose our books today.”

        “Our books?”

        “You know,” Julian went on. “Lucio gave us that unexpected shipment.”

        “Oh! Those books! The surprise books.”

        “Yes, the surprise books.”

        The guard didn’t seem to have caught on. He was too busy maintaining a healthy distance from Eleanor.

        “Well, we’ll handle it like we always do,” Eleanor said. “I’ll pick out the books. Don’t worry about it.”

        The duo, with the guard trailing behind, rounded a corner. Eleanor stopped so suddenly that the guard walked right into her.

        “Oh, so sorry,” Eleanor said, grabbing the guard by the shoulders. She feigned a stumble and dropped, dragging the guard down with her.

        It was so quick that Julian almost missed it. Eleanor knocked the helmet from the guard’s head just before they hit the ground. His head cracked against the tile. He didn’t stir as Eleanor picked herself up. She and Julian knelt before the fallen guard, inspecting his head.

        “He’ll be out for a few minutes at most,” Julian said.

        “Which is why you’ll stay here,” she replied, dusting off her hands. “When he wakes up, just tell him that he fell and I went ahead to get started.”

        “We shouldn’t split up,” Julian said. “What if you get hurt?”

        “We don’t have a choice. It’s a risk we’ll have to take.”

        “Then what about you?” Julian asked.

        “Well, when he wakes up you can catch up to me,” Eleanor replied. “I’ll take care of all the guards in the tower. Keep your mask on so no one can recognize you.”

        “What’s all this about?”

        The pair turned with huge eyes and jumped to their feet. It was Countess Nadia, taking a stroll. Her green nightclothes were as elegant as her daywear. Even so dressed down, she was a vision of grace.

        “Countess!” Julian said. “We were just on our way to the library.”

        “The guard hit his head,” Eleanor said.

        Nadia raised an eyebrow at their story. Her scathing, crimson gaze passed over Eleanor’s face and settled on Julian. He had to force himself not to look away.

        “Stealth is neither of your strong suits,” Nadia told them, stepping a bit closer.

        “What’s that supposed to mean?” Eleanor asked. Julian couldn’t tell whether she was pretending to be offended.

        The Countess turned to Julian. She brushed lint from his shoulder with the clever hands of a surgeon. The Doctor shuddered and felt his face heating up.

        “Dr. Devorak,” she said, “did you really think you had me fooled this morning?”

        Julian’s mouth fell open. Nadia only seemed slightly amused.

        Eleanor said nothing, firmly focused on Nadia. She gave Julian a quick glare, which he understood to mean, “Dammit, Julian!”

        “I presume you’ve come to rescue your gladiator,” Nadia said, taking notice of the guard on the floor. “I’ll stay with the guard. I shall tell him I sent the both of you off to your studies.”

        Eleanor raised her eyebrows. “You’re helping us? Why?”

        “If only to cure your mistrust of nobles,” the Countess said.

        Eleanor snorted. “That’s impossible.”

        “Won’t you get in trouble?” Julian asked.

        “Trust me to handle myself,” Nadia replied with a confident hand to her chest. “Hurry along.”

        “Nadia, if this works,” Eleanor said, “You might never see me again.”

        Nadia looked at Eleanor with such fondness that Julian felt jealous.

        “I don’t believe that’ll be the case,” the Countess said. “Go on then, another patrol will be along slowly. You only have fifteen minutes before the guards change shift. Lucio warned them to watch out for you.”

        “Thank you,” Eleanor said, already walking away. “Jules, stop leering. Let’s go.”

        Julian realized he’d been staring at Nadia. She raised her eyebrows at him. His face felt even hotter.

        “I’m not leering,” he whined, following after Eleanor.

        The witch paused, looking back at the Countess. “Nadia?”

        “Hmm?”

        “I suppose there are some exceptions,” Eleanor said. “Nobles, I mean.”

        “Hurry along, El,” Nadia said.

        “Come on,” Eleanor told Julian.

        Eleanor pulled her mask and hood up, obscuring most of her face. Julian tied a scarf around his head, hiding his mouth and distinctive hair. They headed for the eastern stairs, moving fast and quiet. They would sometimes stop each other with a wordless gesture or an extended arm, wary of every shuffle they heard.

        Hearing voices, they stopped against one wall. There were guards approaching from around the corner. Julian glanced up and down the hall. There was nowhere to hide. The guards were nearly upon them.

        Julian looked down at Eleanor. She pulled her mask down.

        He tore the scarf from his face and grabbed Eleanor’s. She leaned into him, pulling him against her by the hips. He pushed her into the wall, hiding her body from view, and found her mouth with his.

        Eleanor raised her shoulders, making herself smaller. Julian’s overcoat fell around her body as he leaned over her. She was warmer than Julian expected. Her lips were soft. He felt something like fire in his chest.

        “Oy, get a room,” a guard snickered.

        Julian broke away, still holding Eleanor against him. She bowed her head in faux-embarrassment, keeping her face hidden.

        “Terribly sorry,” Julian said.

        The pair of guards passed by. Eleanor raised her face slowly, eyes trained on the guards. Julian felt desire all the way up in throat.

        Bad idea, bad idea, he told himself. There was a reason why he and Eleanor never dated when they were young together.

        “This really is just like the old days,” Eleanor said. “Let’s go.”

        They fixed their masks and continued down the hall. They stopped at the end and looked around the corner. There were two guards positioned at the foot of the stairs leading to Muriel’s tower. The pair fell back against the wall.

        Eleanor made eye contact with Julian, then glanced down. Her hand was on her sword. Julian nodded and drew his cutlass. She turned towards the open hall, showing Julian three fingers, then two, then one.

        They rushed around the corner, blades aloft. They each took one guard.

        Julian parried a blow and pushed into the guard, making her stumble. He elbowed her in the throat then seized her helmet. She slashed forward, holding her shield close to herself. Julian danced aside.

        There was a metallic clang as Eleanor’s guard hit the ground and stayed there. The remainder raised her blade to strike Julian. Eleanor grabbed the shield and yanked the guard off-balance. Her footing faltered. Julian dashed forward and struck her in the head with his hilt. She swayed in place for a moment before she fell.

        It was over fast. Eleanor stepped into the stairway and waved for Julian to follow. If Nadia was correct, there would be two more guards at the top of the stairs. The high ground would give them a distinct advantage.

        When Eleanor was in the lead, Julian wasn’t too worried about it.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Thwarted

        Muriel stared out the tower window. It’d been over a day since he was captured and brought back to the palace. He was no longer allowed to leave his room. Guards were posted outside his door at all times. His meals were brought to him on wooden trays. He didn’t feel much like eating.

        He leaned out the window, resting his arms on the ledge. It was cold, but the fresh air felt good. It was the first clear night in several days. The stars spun about the sky. Muriel envied their freedom.

        It wasn’t that Muriel didn’t want to be free. It simply wasn’t worth all the trouble. There was no point in trying to run from Lucio, anyways. The Count would always find him. The years would go on. Muriel would destroy in the tournament, endure humiliation at the Warrior's Festival, train through the spring and summer, then it would all begin again. It was Muriel’s fate and he was resigned to it. He’d been foolish to believe otherwise.

        If Muriel wasn’t the Scourge, Lucio would simply choose someone else. They would be someone younger than Muriel, with more to live for, with dreams and aspirations and potential. All Muriel had was Eleanor and Asra, and they were both long gone now. Eleanor deserved more, needed more than Muriel could give her. It was only a matter of time before she realized it.

        Gods above, that didn’t make him miss her any less.

        A lot had happened in only a few short months. He’d fallen for her hard and fast, despite all his reservations. It was difficult not to- she could be quite charming when she was relaxed.

        Just last weekend, Muriel had woken to the smell of burning.

        He sat straight up, looking around the hut in a panic. It smelled like something was on fire, but there was no fire. It was only Eleanor, holding a plate of blackened eggs. Her hair was disheveled with sleep, but she seemed to have slept well. Her ocean eyes were brighter.

        “What is that?” Muriel asked.

        Eleanor looked away, her face turning pink. “Well, I was trying to make you breakfast, but I got a little impatient and… uh…”

        She pressed her lips together, looking anywhere but Muriel. She rubbed the back of her neck.

        “Did you try to use magic?” Muriel asked.

        “Just a little,” she rushed out. “It just seemed like it was taking so long, so I figured a little couldn’t hurt, but you know I’m having issues controlling it lately so more came out than I meant to and-”

        She fell silent when Muriel took the plate from her. The eggs were burnt, but he’d eaten worse things.

        “Do not eat that,” she ordered, reaching for the plate. “I’ll try again.”

        Muriel stood and held the eggs away. Eleanor bounced on her tiptoes, straining her arm as high as she could. She couldn’t hope to reach them.

        “Mur, no,” she pleaded, laughter on her voice. “Give it back! You’ll regret it!”

        Muriel far outmatched Eleanor in terms of brute strength. He kept her away with one arm. Her cheeks turned colors as she stretched across him. Her chest pressed against him. Muriel smiled down at her, feeling laughter tickle his throat.

        Eleanor stopped, looking up at him with huge eyes.

        “What?” Muriel asked.

        “Nothing,” she said, her lips curling into a pert little grin. “You’re just so handsome when you’re happy.”

        Muriel almost coughed. He had to look away, his face turning red hot. He could feel Eleanor’s hungry eyes on him.

        Then he started shoveling eggs in his mouth.

        “No!” Eleanor exclaimed. She tried to jump forward, but he caught her about her diaphragm.

        “You heathen!” she laughed. “You stop that!”

        He could feel her chest shake as she laughed. The eggs were, indeed, very burnt. It was worth it to hear her wild laughter.

        As Muriel looked at the window, thinking about Eleanor made him feel warm. It was bittersweet. The hut barely qualified at housing, but it felt like home when Eleanor was there.

        He was haunted by the look of betrayal on her face when he turned himself over to the guards. She must’ve thought he was a coward. She wouldn't be wrong.

        He wouldn’t be surprised if Eleanor was already moving on with her life. He could only imagine that she was in the library, buried in books of research. Perhaps she was in the lab in the dungeons, testing a new recipe. She might’ve even been out with Julian, scouting for someone less broken to replace Muriel with.

        He just hoped she was okay.

        Muriel startled at a commotion outside. There was subdued scuffling, then silence. The lock clicked. The door swung open.

        “Mur,” she sighed.

        Her knew that soothing voice. He knew that beautiful face, even half-covered with a mask.

        Muriel stood straight up. “El,” he said.

        Eleanor flew across the room, throwing her arms around him. He held her tight, resting his cheek against her golden head.

        She broke away and pulled down her mask. Her grip was tight on his arms.

        “Are you okay?” she asked. “Did he hurt you?”

        Eleanor’s hair was braided back. Dark markings were painted around her eyes. Beneath her heavy cloak, he could feel the handle of a sword.

        “No,” Muriel said. “Are you-”

        “I’m fine. Come on. We’re getting you out of here.”

        Muriel looked up. Julian stood in the doorway, watching the hall.

        “How’d you get up here?” Muriel asked.

        “Nadia,” Eleanor replied. “She pulled some strings for us. I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”

        Eleanor pulled the mask over her nose. She turned for the door, pulling Muriel by the wrist.

        He stayed in place. She twisted back to him, brows furrowed, then pulled down her mask.

        “You were in on this?” Muriel asked Julian.

        Julian looked over his shoulder. “There’s no stopping her when she sets her mind to something,” he said.

        Some friend.

        “Mur, whatever you’re thinking,” Eleanor said, “it’s not right. We came this far, we have this chance. Here. Now.”

        The moonlight cast shadows through the window. It threw dark lines over her face. Muriel touched her cheek. It was as soft and warm as ever.

        “What about Nadia?” he asked. “Lucio will find out.”

        “Nadia’s a big girl, she knows what she’s doing,” Eleanor said.

        “And what about us?”

        “We’ll run away, obviously,” Eleanor said.

        “Where?”

        “Anywhere. Anywhere is better than being a slave, isn’t it?” Eleanor said. “It doesn’t matter where. We’ll be together. You’ll be free.”

        “Lucio will find us.”

        “Not if I’m with you,” Eleanor said. “I can keep us safe.”

        Muriel ran his thumb over her cheek. She laid her hand on his. He could see the urgency in her face. He didn’t doubt that she could keep them both safe, if she really wanted to. It seemed like Eleanor could muscle her way through anything.

        But this wasn’t right. Vesuvia had the best medical resources outside of Prakra. Here, Eleanor had access to everything she needed to research a cure. Here was the only place Eleanor could achieve her goals.

        She had once believed so strongly that her fated ending, where she would find her destiny, was in Vesuvia. Muriel couldn’t let her throw that away for his sake.

        “What about your curse?” he asked.

        Eleanor looked away.

        “You’re immortal,” Muriel said. “I’ll get old.”

        She looked back at him, eyes fierce. “I’ll take care of you.”

        “And then I’ll die,” he said. “And you’ll be right where you started.”

        “Mur…”

        “You can’t throw everything away for me,” he said.

        “But Mur, ten more years of this,” she threw her arms open. “You’ll die in the arena before it ends.”

        “Or I’ll be free in ten years.”

        “Ten. Whole. Years.”

        “It’s nothing compared to eternity,” he said.

        “I love you, Mur,” she said. “I can figure the rest out later.”

        Her eyes were watery, but she didn’t cry. True warriors never cry.

        “I know,” he whispered, “but I have to stay.”

        “No way,” Eleanor said. “We have to leave, right now. Come on!”

        She reached to pull on Muriel again, but he ducked aside.

        “Mur,” she said, voice low.

        He seized her arms and twisted her around, carefully not to bend her too far.

        “Muriel!” she protested. “Let me go!”

        She struggled against him, stomped her feet, tried to drop her weight, but after all, he was much stronger, and he’d caught her by surprise. He steered her through the doorway, keeping her arms pinned behind her back.

        “Mur, don’t,” she said, her voice faltering. “Don’t shut me out.”

        He shoved her away and dashed back inside, slamming the door behind him.

        Eleanor pounded on the door. “Please, Mur, this is our chance!” she shouted. “It’s okay to be scared. I can protect you. I’m strong enough.”

        Muriel leaned against the door with his full weight and she beat against it. He nearly fell over when she rammed into the door with her shoulder.

        “I swear to Gods, I’ll burn this place down,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

        She wouldn’t. Muriel knew she wouldn’t.

        “Ellie, we have to go,” Julian said.

        “I can’t,” she said. “Muriel, please, isn’t freedom worth fighting for? Isn’t it worth the risk?”

        He closed his eyes and said nothing.

        “Muriel,” she said, so soft he almost didn’t hear it.

        “We have to go,” Julian insisted. “You’ll call all the guards in Vesuvia to us.”

        Muriel felt her weight lift from the door. He wondered if Eleanor had ever faced defeat before. Her scars said she’d lost battles, but her spirit said she’d never lost a war. Muriel had.

        After several moments, Muriel cracked the door and peered into the stairwell. He could hear boots rushing away. Two guards laid on either side of the door. Muriel stooped to check that they were alive.

        When he straightened back up, sure they would live, all was silent again. Eleanor was gone.

        For good, this time.