It was odd to see Julian’s personality in Asra’s body, creating an almost disturbing effect for Verun, but it was also amazingly, incredibly, hilarious.
Verun bit her lip and tried not to grin. Thankfully Julian didn’t seem to be too upset with the fact that she had temporarily turned him into Asra. Portia looked at her brother with a curious expression, her gaze sliding over to Verun with a question in her eyes.
“Portia… this is… Asra, my master,” Verun said, having to suppress a sudden cackle at the situation.
“Oh!” Portia’s cheeks colored slightly and she nodded. “Alright. Okay, I can work with that. It should be pretty easy to get him into the castle, then.”
Julian brushed his new white curls out of his face, seeming interested and kind of annoyed with them as he swayed on his feet. His eyes crossed as he glared at said hair. “How does he even deal with this stuff…?”
“Cmon, weirdo,” Verun chuckled, putting her arm through Julian’s and tugging him forward as they walked back out of they alley. “We gotta get going if we want to get in and out of there before dinner starts.”
Honestly she… wasn’t sure if this was the best idea given how wasted Julian was at the moment. But her magic was already cast, and if she had to keep it up for longer than it took to get Julian in and out of the palace Verun knew she would have to take a while to recover from it. And that was time that they just didn’t have before Nadia really started pushing her to find Julian before the Masquerade.
On the way there, Julian did his best to come up with Asra impressions, directed loosely by Verun. With some things he didn’t seem interested in following what she had to say, others he was so lost for direction that she had to show him approximations of the expressions that Asra commonly had, which was… a different experience. Julian’s pace was also relentlessly fast, as if his shorter legs didn’t slow him down in the least, like he was desperate to get to the castle. But thankfully, as they went along Julian slowly fell out of his drunken stupor and sobered up, and his impressions improved greatly by the time they got close to the palace gates.
“How do you suppose he’d be feeling in this moment? Like a lamb, entering the den of wolves… or more like a wolf, ending the den of… vipers. Hmm. He would like that though, he and Faust would fit right in.” He suddenly stopped, the heel of his boot screeching against marble as he turned to Verun, eyes wide and reflecting some sort of pain. “Faust… that is the snake’s name, right? I haven’t forgotten that?”
Verun nodded slowly, somewhat confused. Though it would kind of hinder the illusion of Faust wasn’t there, it also wasn’t too hard to say that Faust had simply hid under her master’s sash like she liked to do around new people.
Julian rubbed his temples, his brow furrowing deeply. “I… I remember that snake. She nearly squeezed the life out of me, once.” Then he turned away, leaving her and Portia in a state of quiet confusion.
He had been having small moments like that ever since the three of them left the Raven, though Verun didn’t know what to make of it. She knew that the two of them had had a falling out at some point, but the waves of amusement and hurt that came from Julian surprised and concerned her. He had kept his distance once he was able to walk sufficiently on his own, but gave her pained, searching looks every once in a while. Like he was trying to understand her, like she was the one that had pushed the two of them apart.
“So it’s safe to say he would be surprised. When he’s surprised, is he more of a…” He pulled one face before letting it drop again. “Or this?” Again, another face, this time a bit more Asra-ish.
“More like that,” Verun said, amused.
“Hey Ilya,” Portia spoke up, interrupting the two of them. “I know this is gonna be a challenge but… try not to talk too much, okay?”
“Of course not. Asra doesn’t talk much, naturally. Believe me, it’s hard to maintain such an aura of mystery once you open your mouth.”
“Hmm. Maybe he was just quiet around you?” Portia tilted her head a bit, lightly teasing. “You’ve got a real bad habit of doing the talking for everyone, Ilyushka.”
Julian’s eyes met Verun’s for a moment and she shrugged. Honestly Asra did most of the talking between the two of them, filling up their space with talk about the places he had been to and customers that had come in and whatever else occupied his mind at the time, but… well, Verun knew that Asra did get quieter around other people. So she couldn’t really say anything without some sort of bias.
Then the three of them reached the gates of the palace and fell silent around the guards. Portia took a deep breath, holding it for a moment as she set her shoulders, and then shoved the massive gates open for them to pass through. Once through the entrance, she slipped back into her stately handmaid personality, ushering them forward and to the palace. The gate closed on its own behind them, with the somewhat ominous sound of grinding stone.
It took a few minutes to get through the slightly weaving path to the palace itself, but once inside Portia stopped, intrigued. “That’s weird… where is everyone?
They seemed to be in luck, with the palace unusually empty. Julian still seemed stiff, on his guard even in the quiet halls. Portia turned to them with a cheeky grin.
“So, uh… where can I take you first, oh great magicians?”
“The bedroom, of course,” Julian said, throwing a flirtatious glance at Verun. Oddly it made sparks fly in her belly, unexpectedly powerful when that glance was coming from the face of her teacher… even if she had quietly been in love with Asra for at least a year now. But then the moment passed and Julian returned his eyes to his sister. “Bring us to the room where the dark deed was done.”
Portia laughed and turned, leading the two of them through the halls with expert direction. Oddly the dogs weren’t at their usual position at the stairs like they usually were, nowhere to be found as they all walked up the steps to Lucio’s wing. In the dark passageways noises echoed, quiet and haunting enough to make both Verun and Portia feel rather nervous. Julian seemed outright jumpy, his eyes darting to either side as if he was expecting the ghost of Lucio to melt out of the wall and pounce on him.
“Didn’t you say that no one ever comes to these rooms anymore?” His voice was high and tighter than Verun remembered hearing, even if it was technically Asra’s voice.
“Yeah… no one ever has, in the years I’ve been here… not if they don’t have to, at least. And when they do…” Portia pursed her lips, stubbornly trying to ignore the fearful butterflies in her belly. “Let’s just say there are a lot of stories around downstairs. People have heard things. Seen things.”
As they reached the door to Lucio’s former bedroom, a ghostly moan seemed to flicker down from the rafters, making Julian bristle with nerves. Portia cautiously took hold of the door handle, turning it and finding it unlocked. Gently leaning on it…
A crash was heard from inside, and the door swung open. Inside the room was full of activity. Servants were scrubbing all available surfaces, clearing away ash and grime from years of disuse. Massive streaks of the stuff climbed the wall behind the heavy canopy bed, which was untouched by the ash but not so lucky with the dust. Standing beside the bed, eyes wide, was Nadia, staring at the three of them.
In her eyes there was a flicker of recognition as she sees Julian, disguised in Asra’s body.
“Portia, there you are. Hello, Verun. At last, we are tending to this ruin of a room,” she said, waving a graceful hand to gesture to the bed in particular. “There have been a number of curious accidents so far. Who is this?”
“I-I am the majulian- ah, magician Asra, here to help my apprentice help you. Countess.” His voice was stiff and faltering, yet he didn’t even give Portia a chance to introduce him before he opened his mouth. Verun’s heart started to pound. This was bad. Nadia stepped closer to him, and Verun swears she was taking Julian’s disguise apart with her eyes, piece by piece tearing her magic away.
But then she stopped, reaching her hand out delicately. “Asra… at last, we meet.”
“Ah yes, I’d have offered my help earlier you see but I was on a- uh, quest to open my third ear.”
Verun almost visibly cringed, taking a deep breath and trying to force herself to dissociate if only to get out of having to listen to this awful, awful conversation. She felt like she was about to heat up and explode into a mass of tears and a liquid magma of embarrassment if she had to hear any more.
“No no. I simply thought we might have met before… but you are indeed a stranger to me. Or perhaps my eyes deceive me… it is terribly dim. Perhaps if that lamp was lit?” Her hand raised to a cobwebbed sconce high up on the dusty wall, too high to reach without magic. Verun felt like she was dying. Actually, physically dying on the spot. This scene was something from the theater, not anything that could happen in real life-
“Uh, lamp, what lamp?” Julian’s voice made Verun’s heart break in second-hand embarrassment.
“That lamp,” Verun said quietly, trying to keep her wish of death out of her voice. She probably failed miserably, but who knew at this point? She nudged Julian’s arm as discreetly as she could and he gave a flourish of his arm, eyes on - thankfully - the correct lamp. With just a moment of focus Verun was able to light the lamp on queue.
But it came out as a sudden pop and burst of light, making the lamp shoot sparks. Most of them faded quickly, but two caught on the Count’s portrait on the wall, precisely over the painted figure’s proud eyes.
“Oh my!” Nadia cried, her eyes widening as she watched. Portia snatched a ladder from nearby and rushed past them to take care of it, grabbing a rag from one of the idling servants that had paused to watch the Countess’s new guests.
“It’s fine milady, I got it!” She set the ladder down and scrambled up it, dashing the rag across the burning embers to put them out.
Verun just barely saw it, a shape in the darkest corner forming just a split second before it barreled through the room to crash into the ladder. Her fingers dug into Julian’s arm as the ladder toppled, taking Portia down with it.
“My heavens, Portia!” Nadia rushed forward, just able to catch the falling girl before she crashed to the ground.
“Ahem, so quick! That was a feat of amazing foresight, Countess! Almost as if you saw the future. You may have… abilities. In uh. In magic.” Julian stared, his eyes screaming regret even as his mouth continued moving.
Verun’s fingernails dug into the skin of his arm, wanting to burst into tears on the spot. Maybe if she did she could fein sickness and get the hell out of the palace before she throttled Julian. She had a feeling it would be odd for the Countess to see the apprentice of this supposed duo choking out her master.
Setting Portia down on her feet, Nadia glanced at Julian curiously. “I wonder. Perhaps when I am through here, I shall join you both investigating.”
“In the library! Investigating in the library.” Portia cut in nervously, eyes wide.
“Ah yes, a perfect place to start. I believe you keep the keys, Portia.” Nadia nodded with a small smile.
“I uh… yes, I. Ahem. Follow me, esteemed magicians,” the girl said with a quick bow.
As she led them out, Portia’s eyes glittered with some sort of emotion, and once out the door Julian loses whatever kind of control he had of his Asra facade. He grinned with such an intense air of mischief that it was too familiar for Verun to mistake it as anyone else.
“How was that, my dear Verun?” He reached for her hand, and Verun smacked it away.
“You’re fuckin… dumb.” She watched his expression falter, but then an embarrassed smirk slipped through her annoyance and she shook her head as she tried not to laugh. She was still stressed out of her mind, but… god. Only Julian could have messed up that badly and gotten away with it like he had. It made her wonder just how many of his stories were actually true, give or take a little (or a lot of) embellishment.
Portia led the way back down from the late Count’s wing and through the almost familiar palace halls until they reached the library. Verun felt exhaustion hit - not physical exhaustion, but of the more magical kind - and was able to get her and Julian inside just before the spell broke as the last of the locks ground into place behind them.
As she watched, it was like a ripple of water falling from his head to his toes, exposing Julian’s natural form once again. He blinked, looking down at his hands when they returned to their natural state once again.
“Well, that could have gone worse,” he remarked.
Verun let out a huff of a laugh, shaking her head. “Are you sure? You almost blew your cover with that performance in the Count’s room.”
“I may not know magic, but there’s definitely something going on here. Something beyond my knowledge.” He continued on, ignoring her as his mind fixated on his thoughts. “Luckily for us, we’re at the library. Let’s see what we can learn.”
He gave her a soft smile before the two of them set to work. Julian walked through the stacks and shelves of books as his eye picks through the titles as his gloved fingers slide over the spines. Every once in a while he would find a book out of place or set back onto the shelf in a way that apparently bothered him, as he muttered to himself as he set them straight. At one point he swore viciously enough that Verun whirled around to see if he needed help with whatever had apparently jumped out to attack him.
“Julian? What was that?”
He looked over at her, scowling. Then he waved his hand, indicating a book that had been placed on the shelf backwards so that the spine was hidden. “Who does that?” He whisper-shouted harshly, clearly deeply aggravated at the careless handling of the books.
It just made Verun smile. Asra did that sometimes when he wasn’t paying attention. Julian must have despised researching with him if he hated it that much. It sent her into a round of quiet giggles as Julian huffed and righted the book, continuing his search. Julian had already grabbed half a dozen books, and Verun wasn’t sure if it was because they were connected to something in his memories or because they had piqued his interest.
“All these books, and I kept going back to the same old…” He blinked. “Just around that corner, I had a desk. It’s coming back to me… it’s close, at the back of my mind. I can just…”
But then his gaze slid to Verun, turning rather bashful and embarrassed as he looked away again. “I guess you’re still mad at me?” Did she really look that angry?
Verun sighed, ruffling her hair a bit. She didn’t want to make him think that he was in trouble or anything. The scene in Lucio’s room was just… stressful.
“I’m mad at you, yeah. Kinda.”
He sighed, slumping a little. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you be? After I acted so foolishly, wasting your time like that. Wasting my own… look at me. I really should be enjoying my so-called freedom.”
“... That’s what you were doing when we picked you up earlier?” Verun’s voice dropped into annoyance, going almost a full octave or three lower as it hit an almost growl-ish texture. Maybe she was more mad than she thought, after everything that had happened so far. Between Julian dumping her, her and Portia having to find him only to see him drunk off his ass, and then dragging him into the castle where he nearly blew the only cover that kept his neck from the noose… she supposed it was only fair. “It didn’t look like you were enjoying it much.”
The voice drop obviously surprised Julian. It surprised most people when they heard it, anyway, the way her small body didn’t seem capable of such a deep noise, especially compared to her normal voice. He was caught up in surprise and guilt for a moment, just staring at her, before his eye slid away completely and he quickly slipped past her, again focused on something else entirely. The moment of ignorance stung her, but as she turned to follow whatever had caught his attention Verun was forced to let it go for now.
Julian’s desk. It was very much like she had left it the last time she had been at the palace, still cluttered and ultimately unassuming, but… it looked like it had been messed with. Verun saw a few papers with the indecipherable scrawl of Julian’s handwriting covering them, unfamiliar to her eyes.
“There it is, that’s my desk,” Julian murmured, eye wide. He scrambled towards it, seeming to completely forget Verun and the almost-argument they had as he started tearing through it, stacking papers and books alike on the surface of it as he searched frantically through the drawers. There were drawings of various parts of human anatomy, logs written in both his messy scrawl and various other people’s handwriting.
At some point he simply started throwing papers out of the way, letting the parchments flutter to the ground. Verun snatched one out of the air, studying the intricate design drawn out on it. It was a drawing of a beetle, one that she had never seen before. Her eyes were so engrossed in studying the fine lines that she almost completely missed it when Julian goes perfectly still, leaned over and his eyes wide as his hands held up something in his palm.
As she let the drawing drop to the floor, Verun stepped forward, carefully nudging papers out of the way of her foot. In his hand he held a key, a deep red ruby set into oily-looking metal. A tremble ran through him, and he looked frightened, terrified, before he grinned almost maniacally.
“Ah ha! This is it! This is what was calling to me! Don’t ask me how I know, but I know. It’s not any of these old scrawlings. It’s this!” He tossed it up, grinning still as he caught it and slipped it into one of his many pockets with a gleam in his eye. His hands came up, grabbing onto her shoulders with an adoring gaze. His fingers dug slightly into the bite mark on her shoulder, making her twitch as she tried not to flinch away in pain.
He didn’t seem to notice as he sidled closer. “I’m one step closer. If it wasn’t for you, my dear Verun, I’d still be two behind.” He swept her up into a hug, twirling the two of them around, not minding the papers crinkling and tearing under their feet. Then he stopped, the tip of his nose brushing hers as he blushed.
Then a loud screech destroyed the moment, and Julian reacted with trained efficiency of panic as he pulled her away, quickly ushering the two of them into a quiet corner of the library. She was pinned up against the wall as Julian quivered, swallowing harshly as he watched the window. Then he seemed to realize that it wasn’t the warning call of guards that Malak would give, and he visibly forced himself to calm down, taking a slow, deep breath.
Verun felt almost crushed as his chest pressed against hers, and she got to watch with some sort of desperate infatuation as he blushed. Just as he was about to pull away from her, Verun trapped him there with her arms around his waist. It was interesting to note how thin his waist was compared to his broad shoulders, though the shape of his body was usually hidden by layers of leather and billowing white cloth.
“Sorry, just a bird…” But his voice was wrecked, tightened by the invisible tension between the two of them. As he looked down at her, Verun could almost feel the moment that he became hyper aware of all the ways they stood so close, especially with his body now cinched so close to her by her arms. A low groan rumbled at the back of his throat, and Verun leaned forward, wanting suddenly to swallow the noise.
But his voice broke into her thoughts too soon, just as her lips were teasingly close to his own.
“About everything… I’m sorry,” he whispered sadly, staring at her with half a lidded eye, though he avoided her direct gaze. For a moment Verun could see everything about him - the guilt, the nights spent trying to drink away memories, the harrowing loneliness that he tried so hard to shake off time and time again - and her heart ached for him once more. “I don’t know what I was thinking, rejecting you like I did. Temporary madness, you could say… it perhaps goes without saying that I find you… very, very attractive, whether I’m destined to hang or not. And by some miracle, I’d hope that you see something attractive in me too.”
His face was flushed still, and the red seemed to turn darker as he continued speaking, even as his voice turned scornful. “But to what end? I pace, I drink, I tear my hair out. And I still don’t know what to do. Verun… what do you want me to do?”
Finally he looked at her, passion suddenly burning in his red-rimmed eye. He looked so tired, like he hadn’t slept since the two of them laid together in Mazelinka’s home. Verun had a feeling that was the case.
But she had a question to answer, and she didn’t want to leave him hanging. So she leaned up to him until their noses brushed once again, making his breath catch in his throat.
“Kiss me, you fool.”
For a moment his eye went wide in surprise. Verun - jokingly - had a thought of making him bleed if he asked her if he had heard her correctly like he had last time. Ain’t nobody got time for that foolery. But then his lips curled up in a smirk, and his body gently pressed closer.
“If you insist, my dear.”
Then his fingers brushed through the hairs at the back of her head, pulling her closer as his lips nearly crashed into hers. He was needy, almost as much or more than Verun was. The kiss turned heated, ravenous, careless, in just a few moments, each of them needing more.
Verun tugged at his hair and he gave her a delicious moan as every inch of his body responded. His arm wrapped around her, the other still buried in her hair and scrabbling to gain purchase among the short strands. They weren’t long enough to grab and pull with his gloves, but he could clench his fingers together to tug just enough.
And then he tipped her off balance, leaning her so heavily against him that Verun grabbed handfuls of his jacket to hold on. She loved it, the lips pressing to her own in a frenzy of need, the heave of his chest that she could feel under her hands. For a moment she was sure that she could feel the press of his arousal against her hip, but his mouth was too busy with hers to make any noise past a pleased hum.
He felt like he was wound up so tightly, his heart hammering where her fingers gripped like he was about to break under her pressure, shatter into a thousand pieces. Verun’s fingers gently spread over his chest, aiming for comforting but- he leaned back, breaking the contact between them as she gasped like he had burned her by pulling away. She was suddenly hyper aware of her own need, the intense want for his hands on her. But the look he gave her was suffering, like he was about to go off on another rant into the oblivion of his own mind, and she pushed forward.
“Don’t speak,” she said firmly, gently, reaching her hands up to brush her fingertips across his skin. This time the kiss is slower, building more gradually as she pressed closer, closer, until he was forced back and into another corner.
With a short sigh, he took a deep breath and returned the kiss with all the intensity that he could give. This time Verun could definitely feel just how turned on he was, just from the kissing, though it almost seemed forgotten between the two of them. Again, he pulled his head away, separating their lips by millimeters, so close that Verun could feel as he spoke, lips still brushing hers.
“Oh, if we had the time… the things I would do-”
Verun bit at his lip, eliciting a quiet moan from him. “Did I tell you to speak?”
His face turned red, the color chasing down his neck. “No,” he murmured.
Trying to settle into something more commanding but gentle, Verun pulled him forward, pressing a kiss to his parted lips. He let out a slow, shaking sigh and she slid her hand into his hair again, making her mind whip itself into a storm of thoughts. She wondered what she could do to him. The thrill from just him falling silent under her hands and her words made a shiver run up her spine, an interesting high buzz filling her mind, like she was high.
Maybe they should have stopped there. Verun knew keenly the danger of the two of them getting caught - it was Julian’s life at stake, and very possibly her own. But in the quiet, listening to his heavy breathing and the quiet sounds of their kisses, those worries seemed to slip away with alarming ease.
And then he leaned back against his desk, pulling her into his lap without even pausing to breathe. He was tall enough, his legs long enough, to be able to simply sit down without scooching back too terribly far. Papers scattered, and the stack of books Julian had grabbed from the shelves fell to the ground, unnoticed as Verun grinded down onto him. It shocked a moan out of him, as if he hadn’t even realized how hard he was until she did that. His hands gripped onto her hips, helping her rock back and forth until she got into her own rhythm, and then his hands were everywhere, pulling her closer and kissing her harder.
Verun felt heat gathering in her belly, wanting, needing-
But then there was a sound on the other side of the door, and instantly the two of them parted, eyes wild and panicked.
“AH!” It was Portia, sounding like something crawled up her throat. “Milady! Finished up so soon? That’s a surprise!” Her voice was high, almost hysterical.
Then they heard Nadia’s voice, low and soothing, too quiet to be heard. It snapped them both to attention as Julian pulled her into the shadows once again, his chest heaving with something very different than arousal now.