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the path of thorns

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All she feels is a surge of relief by the time they are meant to say their goodbyes. The gardens have been long blackened by night, leaving them under the guidance of twinkling stars and flickering lamps. As the king retreats to his chambers, Erec takes her hand and squeezes it in his.

This time, his voice is almost gentle.

“You look tired,” he murmurs. “Shall I bring you to your quarters? Or perhaps to mine?”

There’s a protest already forming on the tip of her tongue. Fighting Erec is as easy as breathing. But the ruby pendant burns the surface of her throat, reminding her of the path she’s chosen.

And oddly enough, Rachelle can’t hate him too much. Not now, after all her exhaustion. Not now, after she’s seen him in front of the king—a mere child chasing some ghost of paternal affection. Not now, considering he loves her—and would shout it to the world.

But what is love, and what does it matter to the damned?

For once, she doesn’t slip her hand out of his.

“Which one has fewer chances of your valets entering unannounced?” she asks instead. Erec chuckles.

“It’s not my fault you sleep like the dead,” he says.

“It’s not my fault you keep forgetting to warn me.”

His hand finds the small of her back. Rachelle’s spine melts underneath his touch—even if she hates herself for it. She has to unlearn this: unlearn how to hate all that she desires, especially when she gets it.

“I’ll allow us some privacy,” he promises. “Because you are adorably grumpy when you wake in the morning. But tomorrow, I have to present you to the salon.”

All these politics and flairs, Rachelle thinks, while the world is about to end.

She swallows.

She wishes Amelie was still here.

She doesn’t reply, and Erec takes it for a quiet acquiescence. They walk through the halls of the chateau with their arms linked and their footsteps falling to the same tune. Nobody else appears this late at night, and it feels like a secret between the two of them—one more secret that nobody else would understand.

Armand betrayed us. I am a killer. I am damned. The Devourer is coming.

When Erec guides her into his chambers, she holds her head high, ready for battle. He smiles at her then, his hands drifting from her arm to her shoulder. She shivers at the caress of his fingers against her bare skin, against the bump of her clavicle. And when he lifts her chin, she yields; freely revealing the column of her throat with that crimson star and its matching jewel.

“Beautiful,” he says, and she hates it when his eyes glimmer with honest admiration.

It feels like a double betrayal, the way she stands here in Erec’s arms instead of finding Joyeuse. The way she enjoys it when he bends down to kiss her mouth, his lips soft against hers. The way she grips his sleeves in her fists, twisting the fabric and bringing him closer to her. The way she shivers, her belly pooling with familiar warmth, when his mouth moves to the edge of her jaw, to her collarbone, to her neck.

He isn’t saying anything, but he doesn’t have to. He’s making up for the three years she missed.

Last night had been a whirlwind of nails and teeth. They had torn the clothes from each other’s bodies, almost daring to draw blood. But tonight they move so achingly slow, so gentle, that Rachelle wonders if it’s more for her sake or his. If he’s doing this on purpose just to rile her up, just to see her demand more. When she finally unbuttons his jacket, he laughs, a mere puff of air against her lips.

Of course he looks more handsome under moonlight. Of course nothing about Erec d’Anjou is fair. He’s not fair even when he pins her to his mattress, pressing against her, skin to skin. Not even when she finally finds it in herself to answer with defiance—to bite his lip so hard he bleeds. He only laughs, of course, answering with one more kiss and then the next, his hands skimming the tops of her thighs. Rachelle tries to kick him but he dodges that too, choosing to roll his hips against hers in retaliation. She doesn’t want to whimper but she does, and he only laughs again, laughs so hard she yanks him into another violent kiss just so he’ll shut up.

Thinking, thinking, she’s still doing too much thinking.

That must be remedied.

“Hurry up,” she commands him, most especially after he presses his lips to the mark on her throat. His touch skims the golden chain of her necklace. She moves to yank it off, only for him to stop her.

“Keep it on,” he says.

“You arrogant prat.”

“Maybe.” His teeth graze the swell of her breast, and goose bumps rise on her limbs. She freezes. “I like seeing you wear it. It’s proof that you’re mine.”

“You need to learn how to talk less,” Rachelle growls, grabbing his hand to guide it between her legs. “And act more.”

She should be ashamed that she’s so slick. His smile is feral in the moonlight. She only stares back, her jaw clenched, her legs spread. When he slides a finger inside of her, it takes all of her self-control not to buck against his palm.

“As my lady commands,” he says, and finally takes her words to heart.

The rest of the night, he still speaks, but she’s too distracted to feel any ire.

 

 

“Good morning,” says a hoarse voice in her ear.

Everything is soft and warm. She has never slept on sheets more silky, or on a pillow more tender. Even the weight flung over her hips is more comforting than stifling. Gentle fingertips caress the hair covering her spine, pinpricks of warmth blooming across her back and prodding her awake.

But of course it’s the sunlight that finally does it. When she opens her eyes, she groans, only to shut them again. They had forgotten to draw the curtains last night, and now the summer sun blinds her with its intensity.

Wait.

Something isn’t right.

Rachelle’s eyes snap open. Her nose brushes against a solid chest. Her blood runs cold until she remembers where she is, what she did. And then she lifts her head to meet Erec’s amused gaze.

That smile on his lips shouldn’t be as predatory as it is.

She grumbles and tries to pull away. But she can’t. His arms are wrapped around her securely—so those are his fingers rubbing her back—and more embarrassingly, their legs are intertwined like vines. It’s only at the end that she realizes she’s clutching him too, that she’s embraced his torso like a child’s toy or a pillow.

Her face burns with heat.

Rachelle forcefully untangles herself from his embrace, only to scoot over as far as she can. This bed is ridiculously large, so now there’s ample space between them. But it’s not enough. They’re both naked. The wind reminds her of that, and she wraps her arms around herself, looking left and right to discover where she left her clothes—

Erec embraces her from behind and she elbows him at once. He grunts, her arm colliding with his abdomen. She smiles once, fleetingly, upon feeling him wince.

And then he returns to leave a peck on her bare shoulder. By the time she’s tried to jab him again, he’s long escaped to the floors.

His kiss stings. When she rubs her shoulder, she’s reminded of the soreness between her legs. Her cheeks must be crimson again.

“Still so shy in daylight,” Erec teases. He’s pulled his wardrobe open. Their eyes meet in his mirror. “But I suppose you are a creature of the dark.”

She growls at him, and he only laughs as he pulls on his breeches.

So you do know how to dress yourself, Rachelle wants to tease. She’s glad that he’s fulfilled that promise to keep his valets away this morning. She can’t imagine an eternity of that shame, of waking up in Erec’s bed every day surrounded by his servants. He would tell her it’s an honor, not a shame—she’s being treated like his lady.

But Rachelle never wanted to be a lady.

The floors are cool beneath her bare feet. Her gown is rumpled over a chair, and her various petticoats are littered across the wooden floorboards. Her corset too is propped against the chair, but she doesn’t want to wear that today.

Though she’s not sure she has a choice. All her real clothes are still in her room.

When she swallows, she’s reminded of the necklace hanging from her neck. She brushes it absentmindedly, clutching the ruby between her thumb and forefinger. She’d forgotten that she was even wearing it.

“Is there a problem?” Erec asks.

She spins around to face him. Her cheeks still flush with heat upon being reminded that she’s naked and he’s not. Even as he’s lacing up his shirt, he’s looking her up and down, not bothering to hide his gaze. Rachelle crosses her arms over her chest but it doesn’t hide anything. If ever, it just makes him raise a single brow.

It’s always a game with him. So she’ll play along. If she shows enough boredom on her face, if she shows him that she doesn’t care, then she will win.

Since when has love been about winning? Since she accepted d’Anjou’s heart, she supposes.

(It hangs from her throat)

“You know, if my valets had come here, then I would have asked them to fetch your clothes for you.” His handsome grin is infuriating. She wants to strangle him with the laces of his shirt. “Do you want me to call them?”

“That’s unnecessary,” she replies. He tilts his head to the side.

“So you’d rather walk out naked? You know I’d love the idea of you staying here to wait for me, but we need breakfast and we’re meeting La Fontaine for lunch—”

Rachelle clears her throat.

“May I borrow some clothes?” she asks. On anyone else, it would have sounded sweet. On her, it sounds like she’s suffering. Erec blinks.

“You don’t need to ask my permission, my lady. Those clothes are yours.” He gestures to her crumpled gown, even though he knows what she means.

“I meant your clothes.” She nods at his golden doublet. It’s an ugly, garish thing, so of course Erec is wearing it. “Just so I don’t have to enter my chambers naked.” She inhales sharply. “Please.”

Erec’s lips part. She actually said please. The shock on his face is swiftly replaced by a smug preen. He lifts his chin and crooks a finger, gesturing for her to come near. She does, only to stand five inches away and clench her jaw.

Erec meets her iron stare.

“Are you going to wear my clothes and my ruby to breakfast?” he asks. “I like the sound of that.”

“Perhaps.” Absolutely not.

He taps her jaw with a thumb before spinning away to grab clothes from his wardrobe. Rachelle sighs as he dumps a mountain of fabric into her arms. At least they aren’t hideous—although the vest and trousers are black as night.

“Do you still need help?” he asks, leaning a single arm against his wardrobe. Rachelle steps away before he can put the clothes on her by himself.

“No thank you,” she says and retreats to the other end of the room to get dressed.

 

 

She escapes with only a soft kiss and an excuse that she has to get her boots. The pink satin heels she wears clash terribly against his black clothes, and she’s sick of wobbling every other step. Erec makes some comment about interrogating more prisoners so off he goes, leaving Rachelle free and at peace—if she ignores the guilt rumbling in her chest.

After she gets dressed in her real clothes, then she can probably sneak off for a few minutes. But the only way to find Joyeuse is to interrogate Armand, and she’s sure that Erec is in the dungeons too. She growls.

There has to be another way. Another plan.

She might be terrible and cruel and heartless and damned. But she will not let everyone die under Endless Night.

Thankfully, Erec’s room is not too far from hers. Everyone else should be busy at the banquet for breakfast. The halls are as deserted as they were last night, and for that Rachelle is glad. But she can’t run so swiftly in these shoes. When a door swings open she skids to a stop, almost colliding with the woman that emerges.

The woman gasps in apology. And then their eyes meet. A familiar stare cuts her down, taking in her disheveled appearance and her mismatched clothes. Of course Rachelle normally wears men’s attire, but this ensemble is too loose, too fancy despite its ebony theme. Only one duke would wear an outfit this deadly and superfluous.

Rachelle clears her throat just as La Fontaine covers her smile with a fan.

“Good morning, Melusine,” La Fontaine greets, her eyes sparkling. Rachelle’s skin prickles with ire. “I saw neither you nor Fleur-du-Mal at the banquet hall this morning. Or perhaps you’ve already had an early breakfast?”

“I’m simply running late,” Rachelle replies, keeping her voice low. “If you’ll excuse me—”

She walks around La Fontaine’s figure, only for the woman to finally spot the ruby tucked beneath her collar. When La Fontaine’s eyes widen, Rachelle swallows and bolts away, unwilling to handle any more of her jabs.

Even as she finally enters her chambers, she slams the door shut behind her. She cannot do this.

And yet Erec wants to present her to the rest of salon this afternoon.

She groans.

 

 

Thankfully, Erec is neither at the banquet hall nor at the kitchens. Rachelle finally changes into her own hunting attire before grabbing a quick breakfast. She finds one of Erec’s loyal valets and asks about his whereabouts, only to receive no answer.

Where could he be?

She decides to risk it and creep into the dungeons. The king hasn’t announced Armand’s betrayal just yet, but she hasn’t seen him around the chateau in two days either. She’s glad to be freed of bodyguard duty, but it’s useless if it means she can’t use the time to find Joyeuse.

The guards block her way as soon as she enters. She steels herself and raises her chin.

“I need to interrogate the prisoner, Monsieur Vareilles,” she declares. The guards wilt under her gaze, but they don’t move. “King’s orders.”

“He’s been moved,” the first guard says. He clears his throat. “Just this morning, mademoiselle.”

She raises a brow. “Where?”

“Duke D’anjou did not tell us.”

“I see.”

She growls and spins on her heel. What a nuisance.

 

 

The wind is cool against her cheeks, each gust as tender as a caress. Rachelle steps into the woods and clutches her sword tight, ready for the slightest provocation.

The trees have grown so thick that darkness descends upon them, even in the height of day. Everything is too loud in the great forest: leaves rustling, animals shifting, the noise of her own beating heart.

She senses her forestborn even before she sees him. He is a shadow of blackness—a man with no discernible face. They stand across the verdant field, their eyes glued to each other: dark against dark.

Rachelle raises her blade.

“I’m going to kill you,” she says.

The forestborn laughs.

“I’d love to see you try, my lady.”

She roars and charges towards him, her sword raised above her head. Suddenly, the forestborn matches her stance. He holds a sword too; one made of black, twining vines and branches. When their blades clash, she expects his to break—surely wood cannot hold its own against steel. But she is proven wrong. The aftershocks of his blow shake her entire body.

Time isn’t real in the Great Forest. Some leaves are sun-dappled, but light is meaningless, because it doesn’t matter how long they fight. Their grunts and growls fill the empty space between them. There is the thud of steel against wood. The steady, breathless rhythm of Rachelle’s panting.

And all throughout... the forestborn’s dark eyes stare at her, refusing to leave her gaze.

“Still so clumsy,” he croons, blocking another blow. “Still so impulsive. You have the strength, my lady. You should know how to use it.”

“Shut up,” Rachelle snarls. She tries to stab him, but of course he dodges. “Shut up!”

“Am I riling you up? You always get sloppy when you’re upset.”

She knows he means to do this. She knows she mustn’t give in. But giving in is always, always so easy. All she needs to do is sacrifice herself to the rising fury that fills her skin. Allow the tide to carry her through. Allow the forest to fill her heart.

Rachelle swings her sword at the forestborn’s head. He catches it with his wooden blade—only for his sword to shatter into a million pieces. It explodes with a deafening crack. The entire forest grows quiet. Still. As if every single creature has held their breaths.

Rachelle’s eyes are wide. She could kill him now. She has a single second to drive the point of her blade between this demon’s ribs.

But she doesn’t.

Instead, he flings his broken weapon aside and speeds towards her. She only sees the wooden splinters scattering on the grass. She only feels his solid weight against her. The painful sensation of her back hitting a tree trunk. His arms caging her in. The darkness descending upon her vision.

He pins her to a tree. A forestborn has no face—but she just knows he’s grinning.

“Let me go,” Rachelle hisses. She moves to punch him but he traps both of her wrists above her head. She tries to kick him in the groin but he pins her thighs with his own. She struggles with all her might—wiggling and screaming until her throat is raw. He only stands there, pinning her down, waiting patiently for her to stop.

He’s warm. He’s solid. She hates it. She hates him. She hates how he doesn’t move. Hates how he doesn’t attack her. Hates how he just stands there, staring at her in amusement, watching her like she’s mere entertainment.

Finally, she spits in his face. The forestborn’s eyes darken. She raises her chin, glad to finally have an effect on him.

“Let me go,” she repeats.

He doesn’t reply. He just surges forward and kisses her roughly, trapping her in place with all of his body. Rachelle snarls and snaps and bites but his mouth is surprisingly soft and warm—soothing and familiar. A shiver runs down her spine. He doesn’t bite back. He just kisses her, and kisses her, and kisses her until the anger in her belly is replaced by warmth. Her body reacts traitorously. It relaxes.

But is this really so bad? She hears herself think. When the forestborn releases her wrists, she finds that her own hands are drawn to the strong, masculine lines of his shoulders. Instead of pushing him away, she pulls him closer, desperate for another taste. Another flicker. He smiles against her mouth, those lips plush and human. Delicate.

His hips are hard against hers. His hand skims the flesh of her waist. Warmth blooms where he touches. She kisses back because it’s the easiest, most instinctive thing in the world.

Because this forestborn is hers—and she is his.

“Rachelle, Rachelle,” the forestborn sings against her neck. His voice emerges as a breathy gasp. She curls against him, her knees bucking, but he catches her with steady hands. Her collarbone burns where his lips brush. Since when had he opened her jacket? She can’t find it in herself to care. She’s stretched so thin that she’s lightheaded. She is hyperaware of his mouth on her skin, of his fingers grazing her hip, of her own hands descending across his back—lower and lower until—

The noise of loud, incessant knocking prods her awake. Rachelle sits up with a gasp, her heart still galloping in her chest. She swallows thickly and scrambles off the bed, her head still dizzying from that forestborn’s kiss.

It was just a dream, she tells herself. It was just a dream.

And yet it felt so real.

She can’t believe she fell asleep.

Rachelle clears her throat as she swings the door open. Sevigne greets her with a curtsy and Rachelle allows her inside. The woman is maternal and kind, but even her gentle ministrations can’t replace Amelie’s care.

Rachelle remains silent as Sevigne gets her dressed for the salon. She doesn’t have it in herself to protest. The tight corset, the layers of petticoats, the make-up on her face—she accepts wearily.

She wishes Amelie were here. But she also wonders what the girl would think if she saw her now as Erec d’Anjou’s mistress.

Of course it’s better that she’s gone home, that she can’t see Rachelle like this.

By the time she’s finished, she leaves the room only to find Erec standing outside, his hands tucked into his pockets and his back against the wall. He’s dressed in an elaborate velvet jacket again, fine and purple, so decadent that she’s tempted to reach out and touch it. But his eyes burn brighter than a forge, freezing her in place just as she opens her mouth.

No more words emerge.

He takes two steps towards her. Tiny steps, silent and sure-footed. His eyes never leave hers. She stands her ground, opening her mouth to speak again—to offer an insult or a jab, to joke about his terrible sense of style. But once his fingers skim the surface of her wrist, she realizes that there is nothing else left to be said.

They’ve always spoken through their bodies, the two of them. And when Erec kneels down to kiss her hand, when a shiver runs down her spine, she realizes she’s lost.

He smirks at her as he rises, cocking that arrogant head to the side. The way his hair frames his face makes his jaw look sharper, more deadly. She wonders what would happen if she reached out and caressed his face. Would she prick or finger? Or would he simply bite?

His eyes darken, and she realizes she’s been staring at him for too long. Rachelle blushes—but she hides it by raising her chin in defiance.

“Red is a beautiful color on you,” he says. He transfers her hand to the crook of his arm as they walk down the corridor. It’s true—the velvet on his sleeves is sinfully smooth. She grips his arm. “You will be the star of today’s salon.”

“And upset the goddess La Fontaine?” she snorts. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“You are blameless. It’s not your fault you outshine her.”

“You can’t get my favor by insulting another woman, Erec.”

“I already have your favor.” His grin is wolfish. Rachelle knocks him on the shoulder but he only laughs.

She is hyperaware of it again, the ruby on her throat. When she swallows, he leans down to kiss the side of her neck.

Arrogant prick.

“And I am grateful,” he murmurs against her skin. Rachelle shuts her eyes tight as another shiver wracks her nerves. Her nails dig into his arm but he does not flinch. He only steps in closer, his nose brushing the sensitive skin of her jaw. A puff of breath tickles her cheek. Her back is stiff as she fights another angry blush. They’re in public. Two court ladies titter beneath their fans.

But of course Erec doesn’t care. He only has eyes for her, after all.

She jerks away from another kiss.

“You’ve grown modest,” he says, laughing. She drags her claws down his arm but he only grins wider, a dangerous glint forming in his eye.

“Kissing in public is vulgar,” she only repeats, desperate to get out of the crowd. The court ladies are still staring at them, their bright eyes tracking her every move. “Don’t be an animal.”

“Oh, I’m not an animal.” He continues walking and she follows. Their footsteps ring through the hall. “Though you forget we are both feral creatures.”

“Feral creatures still have the choice to remain civilized.”

“Civilized, yes.” He chuckles. “My darling lady, if I were not civilized, then we wouldn’t be standing here at all—fully clothed.”

She winces. “You really are disgusting.”

He winks at her as he pushes the salon doors open.

Before, the salon had been a decadent garden, some exaggerated imitation of pastoral life. Now, the fruit trees and shrubs have been replaced by candles and ornate rugs. Roses and vines still hang by the walls, odd and out of place with the imperial theme. But the carpet is soft beneath their feet, and various courtiers lounge around chaises and couches. Rachelle can’t help but gasp at the food piled high on the central table. The spices smell delicious, and—

“Good afternoon, La Fontaine,” Erec greets. The hostess approaches them with wide arms and a gleam in her eye that Rachelle already despises. Today, the woman is dressed in a crimson kaftan. The long, flowing fabric doesn’t hide the elegance of her gait. She looks like she’s floating.

La Fontaine and Erec exchange kisses on the cheek. When she dives towards Rachelle, the girl merely pulls away. La Fontaine’s smile strains. Erec only laughs.

“Fleur-du-Mal,” La Fontaine greets. “And his darling Melusine.”

She pauses, just daring Rachelle to defy her. Rachelle doesn’t.

“I’ve given it some more thought,” the woman adds. “I think Melusine really does fit her.”

Rachelle’s grip on Erec’s arm tightens.

“You’ve hidden her away long enough,” La Fontaine preens. She stares unabashed at Rachelle’s pendant. “When did she say yes? How did you finally convince her to agree?”

She’s really talking as if Rachelle isn’t standing right in front of her. Erec raises a palm.

“It was only two nights ago. I can be very persuasive.” He offers a lecherous grin and Rachelle rolls her eyes. La Fontaine snickers. “My lady prefers privacy—”

“I do.” Rachelle’s voice is icy.

“But I think it’s about time I introduced her to everyone.”

He pats her hand gently. When Rachelle glances at him, she’s surprised to find that his smile has melted away into pride. Her heart twitches in her chest—a traitorous little thing.

As arrogant and vexing as he is—Erec has never been ashamed of her.

Erec, with his handsome face and his bloodstained sword. With his five hundred women and his status as the king’s right hand.

Erec d’Anjou chose her.

Anyone else would think it’s something worth celebrating.

“Attention, everyone,” La Fontaine calls out. She waves her arm until the chatter dies down. When before, only a few eyes had been on her, now the entire room stares them down. Rachelle stiffens. “Today is a happy occasion! These two saved us several days ago—do you not remember? Dear Fleur-du-Mal and his beloved mistress Melusine.”

Beloved mistress.

The entire room erupts into applause. As La Fontaine leaves, she is replaced by a line of guests, each one vying to greet the couple. Thankfully, Erec knows what to do, and Rachelle contents herself with nodding tersely.

She doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention. Everyone looks at her differently now. She is no longer the taboo bloodbound. She is no longer just Armand’s bodyguard.

Some girls glare at her, the jealousy harsh in their mouths. Some other men regard her carefully—even if they had flirted with her before. The other faces are polite but curious. She knows what they must be thinking.

Who is she? What has she done? What does this mean?

Even a feral creature can be caged in lace and string.

She glances away from the harsh stares. Erec’s hand moves to the small of her back, gently urging her to breathe. She’s surprised at how much his touch comforts her. His palm is warm, the heat from his skin seeping through the silk of her clothes. It’s a steady presence even against the stiff fabric of her corset.

When his fingers curl around her waist, she realizes that she likes it.

But she would rather be alone much more.

“I’m going to sit down,” she declares. Erec leads her to the nearest ottoman couch, ever the gentleman. She allows him to rest beside her, her giant skirts grazing the edge of his thigh.

Now that the wonder has died down, everyone returns back to their previous conversations. Rachelle doesn’t realize Erec has taken her hand until he starts stroking her palm with his thumb. She almost jumps.

“You’re tense,” he says.

“Forgive me. I don’t enjoy being paraded around like a doll.”

He ignores the venom in her voice. “You aren’t just a doll,” he says quietly.

She glares at him. Erec only stares at her, her hand in his lap. He manages a smile.

“I know you hate the court,” he continues. “You think that you don’t belong. But if that’s true, it’s only because you are better.

She swallows thickly. He believes that, he really does. But it’s only because they’re both bloodbound.

“You think you’re better than them too,” she murmurs. “So why do you try to so hard to play along?”

“Because I enjoy it. Do I need another reason?”

No, he doesn’t. Without his bloodbound status, he’s just another landless bastard. A weak man—not even an heir. The court can give him more than he could ever ask for.

And Erec demands a lot.

“They fear you,” he says. “And now they’re in awe of you. There is power in that.”

“I don’t want to be feared. I just want to be left alone.”

“Why? So that you can live the life of a common foot soldier and punish yourself?”

His grip on her hand now burns. Rachelle works her jaw.

“Not everyone wants a life of meaningless decadence.”

“You’re mine. That means you can have anything you want; you just have to ask. That means that you have a place in this court. They finally understand your power. That isn’t meaningless.”

“I wasn’t aware that I only gained power after I fucked you.”

He doesn’t even flinch. Instead, a cruel smile fills his mouth.

“You know that’s not what I mean, my lady.”

His grip on her hand tightens considerably. Her nails dig into his palm. It’s a threat dancing on both sides.

“Then what did you mean?” she asks.

“You have always been better.” His voice darkens. “Always, always, even before you put on that pretty dress and wore my ruby. But they’ve been too blind to see it. Now I want them to know, with full certainty, what you are and what you mean to me.”

“If that’s meant to make me swoon, then it’s failing.”

“It’s not meant to make you swoon. I’m just speaking my true feelings.”

“I didn’t know this day would come.”

He raises a single, poised brow. “I have never lied to you about my feelings, Rachelle. You just think the worst of me.”

“And for good reason.”

He traps her chin between his thumb and forefinger. Rachelle clenches her jaw, forced to stare at him straight in the eyes. Erec’s gaze is steel.

She tries her hardest to keep her stare on his eyes—and not drift towards his mouth.

“It can’t be avoided.” He leans in closer. His strong thighs press against hers. Rachelle tries not to whimper. “I know you never liked it when I was with—with other women. But I would like to make it up to you. Tonight, let me prove it to you again, how much I meant—”

“I don’t blame her for being wary, Fleur-du-Mal,” La Fontaine interrupts. Erec drops his hand from Rachelle’s chin. The two of them swerve to face the hostess. “With your terrible record and all. How many hearts have you broken by now?”

Erec’s grin is vicious. “Dear La Fontaine, I thought you had other guests to attend to.”

“Fleur-du-Mal, you cannot just introduce your mistress to us and then hide her away for the rest of the day.” La Fontaine gathers her skirts and takes a seat on Rachelle’s other side. The girl presses her lips together in a tight line. “So, Melusine, do tell me. Will you drive a sword through his heart if you see him touching another woman again? Because I would love to see it.”

Rachelle’s spine tenses.

“There is no other woman for me,” Erec says, breezy. “Not anymore.”

“You’re so sickeningly sweet.”

“I speak the truth.” He links his fingers with Rachelle’s. She has no more strength in her to pull away, not when La Fontaine stares her down like a cat playing with a mouse.

For once Erec is a lesser evil. She shudders.

“But I’m still curious about your romance.” La Fontaine rests her chin on her hand. “Melusine, you said he wasn’t your beloved.”

“He wasn’t,” Rachelle says.

“She’s just shy with her affections,” Erec adds.

“Is she?”

“She’s not wrong. A week ago, I wasn’t her beloved.” Erec grins. “And she was a maiden.”

He smirks. Rachelle freezes, her entire body solid as ice. And then the shame burns her skin, bright and crimson even beneath those layers of make-up and powder. She swings a fist towards Erec’s face but of course he dodges it with a light laugh. He catches her fist in his hand so easily.

La Fontaine’s smile is positively scandalized. She coughs.

“You truly are a devil, Fleur-du-Mal,” she preens.

“He’s—”

Rachelle stands swiftly, now sick of their teasing. She gets ready to storm out of the salon, everyone’s approval be damned. But the moment she raises her head, she meets a familiar pair of eyes.

Rachelle’s entire world teeters for a brief second.

Armand Vareilles stands stiffly across the room. There are dark circles beneath his eyes. His face is pale and gaunt. Even his posture is drooping—and he looks the farthest thing from a saint. But as soon as he sees her he freezes, his mouth tightening with something that might be pain... or despair?

She feels the way he stares at her ruby. The weight of it chokes her now. It’s so heavy she can’t breathe. Suddenly, she wants to yank it off her neck—

Why? Why should she care what a traitor thinks?

Erec’s arm slides around her waist. She swallows, and suddenly La Fontaine is speeding towards her cousin. The woman guides Armand towards them, tutting over him and smoothing down his hair.

“Armand,” Rachelle murmurs.

The worst part is that he refuses to look at her.

“Armand,” she repeats, louder this time. She doesn’t care that Erec can hear. She doesn’t care that La Fontaine won’t let him go. She just wants to speak to him, wants to ask him why, why?

Why did he do it?

“I want to sit down,” Armand murmurs. He tries to bat La Fontaine’s hands away, but she insists on guiding him across the room. He does look like he’s about to vomit.

Erec’s grip only tightens around her waist.

Armand won’t look at either of them.

He won’t look at her.

“What is it?” La Fontaine asks him. All the women coo over him, the precious dear.

“It seems our saint is ill,” Erec adds, his voice dripping with venomous honey. “Pray for him, will you?”

He laughs.

“Pray for the saint,” Erec taunts. Nobody else hears it for what it is. “Pray for Monsieur Vareilles.”

“Erec,” Rachelle whispers harshly. “Stop it. Shut up.”

He raises a brow. “No.”

She spins around to face him. She bares all her teeth.

“Stop it,” she insists.

He only grins at her, his eyes wide and piercing. “Never.”

Never. She’ll never win with him like this. This time, she has no more patience to even try.

Rachelle storms out of the salon without another word. The guests mutter their complaints, but she doesn’t care. She tries to yank off her wig but pain shoots across her scalp. She swears instead, keeping it on as she rushes to her chambers. Erec’s footsteps echo through the hallways behind her, and so she speeds up, desperate to outrun him.

She should’ve known it was impossible.

Erec grabs her arm and spins her around. She lashes out with a yell—her clawed nails narrowly avoiding the smooth skin of his cheek. For a moment, he stands there, blinking in shock. But then the confidence is back in his gaze, and he stares her down like he expected her to almost blind him.

He raises a single, condescending brow.

“Well, you’re in a mood today, aren’t you, my lady?”

And that tips her over the edge. That makes her vision glow hotter than crimson.

She shoves a finger against his chest.

“How can you go on like this?” she asks, her voice rising.

“What do you mean?”

She glares at him. “Pretending like everything is fine. Like there wasn’t a coup attempt two days ago. Have you forgotten that Arm—that Monsieur Vareilles almost had us killed? That he almost overthrew the king? Have you gotten any information from your interrogations? Or are you too busy attending salons and parties—”

She doesn’t even realize that he’s held her wrist until he squeezes it tighter. Her pulse is loud in her ears.

“Is that really what this is about?” Erec asks, his voice lowering.

“Yes.” She tries to yank her hand away, but he refuses to budge. His grip is stronger than steel. “Yes.”

“You’re so worried about the coup that you can’t relax for a few days?” He smiles at her, soft and sweet. She hates it. “You know this is part of politics, my lady. We can only strike when the time is right.”

“I wonder if you’re striking at all. I wonder why you’ve set him free. I wonder whose side you’re on, Erec.”

“I see now.” He tilts his head to the side. “You’re upset about seeing him. You’re still raw. Still hurt.”

She blinks.

“What? No, I—”

“He betrayed you,” Erec continues. He traps her chin between two fingers and leans down to level their stares. “You thought he was your friend. I understand why you’re so upset, my lady. But I told you, didn’t I? You shouldn’t have trusted him.”

She pulls away from his grip.

“He was never my friend,” she insists. It’s a lie. It really is. But if Erec knows, if Erec thinks—

What does it matter if Erec thinks it? Armand turned out to be a traitor.

“He’ll be gone in a few minutes,” Erec murmurs. He carefully tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Her natural locks have fallen loose from the wig. “He just has to keep up appearances. When he leaves, we can return to the salon.”

“I don’t want to return to the salon. I hate it.”

“Of course you do. But we must.”

“Why? So I can sit in a room surrounded by people I hate?”

“You forget I’ll be there with you.”

“Maybe...” She leans in closer. “I hate you too.”

He freezes. His hand lingers by her cheek. For a while, she wonders if he’s trembling, or if it’s just her own rage vibrating inside of her. If it’s her own body that refuses to stand still. Erec’s eyes darken for cruel second. She realizes she’s stopped breathing.

“You always say that,” he whispers, tilting his head down, refusing to look away. He licks his lips and she watches it—the quick flick of his pink tongue. “But you don’t mean it. You never do.”

“Try me.”

“I’ve known you longer than anyone else, Rachelle.” He drops his hand, and now it skims the bare skin of her shoulder. She can’t prevent her involuntary shiver. His knuckles are warm as a fire. “You don’t hate me. You can’t.”

“That was before I realized who you really are.” She swallows thickly. “Before I discovered what this place did to you.”

His eyes grow wide and liquid. He opens his mouth to speak, and Rachelle is pleased that for once he’s lost for words.

It doesn’t last long.

“This place?” he asks. “This place gave me everything.”

She clenches her jaw. “Well, I don’t recognize you anymore.”

Once she’s said it, she realizes it’s true. The Erec she knew from the streets wasn’t as insufferable as this. The Erec she knew did his job well. The Erec she knew was her friend.

She misses him more than anything else. She misses the Erec from before.

His eyes flicker with an emotion she can’t quite place.

“Maybe you just never knew where to look,” he says quietly. “You think you haven’t changed either?”

He gestures behind her. Rachelle turns her head, only to realize they’re standing in front of a giant golden mirror. Her wig is a mess atop her head, and it’s fallen to reveal most of her natural hair. But the woman in front of the mirror is one she barely recognizes. Her skin is pale and exposed. Her wide chest is heaving. Her eyes are thick-lashed and dark. And her lips are crimson—redder than blood.

The woman is messy and beautiful and everything she thought she would never be.

Especially not with that ruby dangling from her throat.

Rachelle slowly reaches up to touch her pendant. Something heavy spills inside of her chest. Her fingers are trembling. Erec reaches to cup her face and she hates it, hates how he’s being gentle now. It feels too much like pity. It feels too much like being handled like a doll.

When did she care about any of this? About Armand and Erec and other men? About what she looked like? About parties? About the fate of the world?

About anything other than her sins and the thrill of the hunt?

“Come here,” Erec murmurs into her ear, soft and gentle. He wraps his arms around her and she gasps, surprised by the strength of his grip. Their fronts press together but there’s nothing erotic about it, nothing passionate—he’s just a man embracing a woman. Just comforting her before the tears will fall.

Since when did she have any tears?

“We can go back to the salon tomorrow,” he says. “Let’s get you fixed up and back to bed.”

One time many years ago, Erec had also held her like this. He had embraced her while she cried.

It’s not fair for him to be like this again. Not after everything she’s accused him of.

But she lets him guide her towards her chambers. Lets him wrap his arm around her. Lets him remove her wig and her heeled shoes. Lets him kiss her on the cheek.

Before he pulls away, she reaches forward to grab him by the lapels. Erec stumbles but she catches his lips with her own. It takes him less than a second to smile, to reciprocate.

At least if he isn’t being kind, then she won’t be forced to think.