The Promise of the Future
Thuan stares into his bedroom, hand frozen on the doorknob, trying to decide what he should do.
Close the door, probably. Try to find Asmodeus? To show him this or to hide this? They're in the middle of such delicate negotiations here, and—
“Thuan?” Asmodeus' voice, silken and far too sweet, comes from just behind Thuan's shoulder. “What's going on?”
“Ah...” Thuan turns to his husband, forcing a smile. “There's a... slight problem.”
Asmodeus' eyes narrow. “I smell blood.”
Thuan swallows, his body still blocking the doorway. “There's a body.”
“In our bedroom?” Asmodeus' head tilts, his eyes sliding up and down Thuan's body, a slight smile touching the corners of his mouth. His grey-green eyes sparkle behind his glasses. “Did you put it there?”
Thuan winces, giving his head a shake. “No.”
Asmodeus' smile vanishes. “Step aside, please.”
Thuan does so, allowing Asmodeus to enter the bedroom first.
Asmodeus circles around their bed, his eyes taking in the details of the corpse laid out upon it. The person isn't a member of Hawthorn, Thuan doesn't think. The fact that he doesn't know is still difficult for him to handle, though he was only Head of the House when it was a House and not a house for a short period of time. The dead man's skin is pale white, made whiter by the splashes of red blood covering about seventy percent of his body.
Thuan forces his jaw to relax, his teeth to stop grinding against one another. Of all the times for this to happen—not that there's ever really a good time for a corpse to end up in one's bed.
“Interesting.” Asmodeus bends down so that he's looking into the vacant blue eyes of the corpse. “Killed yesterday, I think. Which means they were killed on Good Friday. Coincidence?”
Thuan forces himself to stop flailing and panicking and think. The body wasn't here two hours ago, he knows that for a fact. And Asmodeus is, unsurprisingly, right that the man doesn't look like he was killed recently. There's not enough blood for that, and the blood that is present has dried into red and brown streaks. “I don't know much about your holidays, I'm afraid.”
“No, you wouldn't yet, would you.” Asmodeus' tone is calm, but there's an icy undercurrent that makes Thuan wince again.
Asmodeus has a... complicated relationship with the holy days of his culture at the best of times. When a body has been left in their bed as a clear indication of something, it's not the best of times.
“Good Friday is the day that God's bastard son was interred in a tomb after he allowed humans to kill him.” Asmodeus smiles, and it is not a pleasant expression. “He rose from the dead in a display of powerful magic three days after he died, on Easter.”
Which is the holiday they'll be celebrating tomorrow, along with a contingent of Thuan's family, Asmodeus' latest attempt to cement a more formal alliance between their two kingdoms. “Would the message be that this man is... what? A sacrifice, too? Going to rise again in three days?”
Asmodeus shakes his head. “Mortals don't rise from the dead. More likely we're overthinking it. Clearly someone is sending you and I a message. That message could be one of three things. One, that Hawthorn is weak enough that they can slide in and out at will, including into your and my sanctum. Two, that Hawthorn is responsible for this man's death in some way. Or three, that you and I need to be watching our backs, to prevent us from ending up like this man.”
Thuan digests the possibilities, studying the torn-up corpse. “None of those reasons seem completely contradictory.”
“They aren't, are they?” The smile Asmodeus flashes him is similar to the one that Thuan gives the children when they do well.
It makes Thuan bristle. The fact that he doesn't revel in torture and death the way his husband does sometimes doesn't make him a child or foolish or naive. “We're going to need to investigate, obviously. The question becomes which of us does the investigating, and which of us is going to take over guiding my family about the—”
“There you are.” The elderly voice comes from the doorway, and Thuan freezes.
Turning slowly, he's not surprised to see his grandmother in the doorway, her aged form held stiff and straight as she glares at him.
She marches into the room, still glaring, and begins haranguing him in Viet. “You were supposed to come right back. I don't appreciate being left with those barbarian children to fret, not when—” She pauses, apparently becoming aware that Asmodeus is also in the room. Her smile returns, and she rocks back on her heels. “Ah, I seem to be interrupting something.” Her eyes fall to the body on the bed, and both eyebrows rise. “Asmodeus, are you finally teaching my grandson something useful?”
Asmodeus switches to Viet, his accent tolerable even if not as smooth as he likely wishes it were. “We teach each other, your grandson and I. It's a... mutual relationship.”
“But Thuan did not do this.” His grandmother marches up to the body, leaning down and sniffing it. “And neither did you. Oh! More murders and adventure afoot? Another attempted coup?”
Thuan just barely manages to keep from groaning.
Asmodeus' smile sharpens. “One always has to hold tight to the reins of power. I think it would be foolish of someone to attempt a coup at this point, but foolishness has never stopped those with more courage than sense.”
“You intend to stop them?” His grandmother smiles at Asmodeus, rather like a farmer at a particularly talented dog. “Would you mind an old woman looking on?”
“You are always welcome.” Asmodeus holds out his arm. “Shall I show you to our dungeon, and perhaps discuss with you other attempted coups that have come and gone? Or perhaps you'd enjoy more getting to hear about my own quite successful takeover of Hawthorn.”
Small footsteps patter down the hallway, and Ai Nhi's head pokes warily around the door. Her antlers are showing on her forehead, dragon scales scattered on her cheeks as her worry eats away at her control of her form. Her shoulders slump in obvious relief when she spots Grandmother, though she tenses again when she sees Thuan.
“It's all right.” Thuan should have known better than to trust Ai Nhi and some of the younger Hawthorn charges to distract his grandmother while he fetched the scroll he had forgotten from his room. His grandmother is far more likely to be distracted by blood and dismemberment than happy, healthy young ones, though Thuan thinks the latter is probably a better gauge of how a group is doing than the former.
“Yes, dear one.” Grandmother smiles at Ai Nhi. “You'll need to be much older before you'll be able to dream of stopping someone like me from doing what I want. And what I wanted was to see what was distracting my darling grandson. And perhaps to see my grandson-in-law again. And to get away from that dreadful concoction they called tea.”
“I will see what kind of tea you were served and ensure it doesn't happen again.” Asmodeus speaks smoothly, guiding the old woman towards the door. “Ai Nhi, do you wish to accompany us?”
“I would like to borrow her for a bit.” Thuan forces a smile. “Assuming I am to handle this matter?”
“One of us must.” Asmodeus' smile doesn't falter, but his eyes become harder behind his unnecessary glasses. “If you would prefer I use my methods first—”
“That's all right.” Thuan forces a smile in return. “I'll talk to you later. Do you have a preference what I do with the body?”
Asmodeus gives him a gently chastising look. “I assume you will bring it to Madeleine to check for any magical residue. What you do with it afterward—hmm.” Asmodeus holds up a hand, clearly putting together the pieces of a plan that make him smile. “Bring the body to the chapel when it's been checked. Drape it in a white cloth.”
Thuan frowns, but he doesn't contradict his husband. The last thing he needs is his grandmother poking her head about in House affairs, recommending that everyone who so much as glances sideways at Thuan be eliminated. She had ruled with an iron fist; it's part of why she is so enamored of Asmodeus, recognizing another ruthless ruler.
Thuan has far different reasons to be enamored with Asmodeus. The fact that Asmodeus is walking away from this, at least for the moment, is one of them.
Asmodeus doesn't rule Hawthorn with an iron fist. He is vicious with Hawthorn's enemies, and brutal with anyone who betrays him, but the people in his house... the people in his house are his, and he protects them.
Including from himself.
Thuan will likely have to talk with Asmodeus one day about Asmodeus' relationship with his God and all the celebrations of the city that are tied to said God. He doesn't know if it will be a very long or a very short conversation, though.
Asmodeus doesn't remember what crime it was that saw him exiled from the City and his God's presence. None of the Fallen do. Does he hate his God because he thinks his God betrayed him?
Or does Asmodeus hate his God because he thinks Asmodeus betrayed God, and the only reason Asmodeus would do so was because God was a terrible ruler?
Either way the holidays are a time of internal strife for Asmodeus, his city celebrating religious rituals that Asmodeus clearly has no patience for and just as clearly can't condemn his people for enjoying. What is there for them if he forbids them from Easter and Christmas and all the other little religious holidays? Celebrations of the Empire, of the crushing of resistance and foreign gods and the pillaging of their lands?
Those are still celebrated, too, because Thuan doesn't know how to pry them from his people's hands. Mortals and Fallen and dragon alike all need chances to celebrate, chances to break the monotony of daily routine. The dragons have added their own celebrations to the calendar, but Thuan isn't sure how to modify the celebrations Hawthorn already had without angering most of the original House. He's settled for trying to separate the holidays as much as he can from the spirit of imperialism that bore many of them, just as Asmdoeus separates the House's celebration of the holy days from their religious roots as much as he can.
When was the last time Asmodeus willingly stepped into a church?
Does what he did to damage Silverspires count?
“Uncle?” Ai Nhi's hand lands on his wrist, a small, warm weight.
Thuan sighs. “Do you mind getting doors for me while I carry this?”
Ai Nhi smiles at him, and Thuan wonders if it's a good or a bad thing that she seems so completely undisturbed by the dead body in her uncles' room.
Most likely it means nothing. It is just one more sign that Ai Nhi has grown up in their deadly, dangerous world; evidence that she has survived tragedies that others did not. How many bodies did she help pull from the wreckage after Thuan and Asmodeus destroyed the children of thorns that were the heart of the House?
The body weighs exactly what Thuan expected. He, too, has had enough experience with dead bodies to last a lifetime.
He prays it will be a long lifetime, and that he will spend it all in Hawthorn, damn whatever plans and plots are brewing around them once more.
“No sign of magic used to kill him.” Madeleine steps back from the body.
“Magic would have been excessive given the two dozen stab wounds.” Iaris glowers at the body as though its existence is a personal affront to her. Which perhaps it is, but Thuan thinks he and Asmodeus have more of a right to be irritated than Iaris does.
Though some of Iaris' irritation may be due to her knowledge of how Asmodeus can be around the holidays. She doesn't like strife in the House, either, especially around their heads of house.
Ai Nhi is still next to Thuan, having asked to stay and watch the investigation of the body. Her hand had remained still in his, her expression grave as she watched the slow uncovering of the corpse.
At least this isn't a Fallen corpse. There's no need to break down the body to component bits of magic, storing them away for later use or eliminating the parts that are too dangerous to keep.
“Can anyone tell me anything useful?” Thuan looks between the two women.
Iaris shrugs. “Stabbed to death. The number of wounds and the depth makes me think killing him was the intent, but I can't be sure.”
Madeleine glares at him. “What do you want me to say other than 'no magic'?”
Thuan sighs. “Any ideas on his identity?”
Iaris pulls the man's left arm up, revealing a small tattoo on the skin just above the crook of his elbow. “Not House. One of the gangs.”
That hadn't been what Thuan expected. “I knew he wasn't Hawthorn, but one of the gangs...”
“There's a lot of desperation out there.” Madeleine coughs into her hand. “The only odd thing about this death is where the body ended up.”
“Which wasn't where he was killed.” Thuan closes his eyes, considering. “All right. Thank you both. Iaris, Asmodeus wanted the body laid out in state in the chapel. Can you see that done?”
Iaris startles, but nods. “Does he have plans?”
“Most likely, but he hasn't shared them with me.” Thuan studies the woman. “Do you think it's dangerous?”
“It's Asmodeus. He's always capable of being dangerous.” Iaris shrugs. “I suspect he'll be more dangerous if we contradict him.”
“True enough.” Thuan inclines his head. “I'll see you both later.”
Madeleine nods absently, already packing up her belongings to head back to her slowly replenishing storehouse of magical items. Iaris is studying the body, probably determining the logistics of where to put it and how to hide the slowly growing smell.
Keeping Ai Nhi's hand firmly in his, Thuan heads towards the children's section of the House. He pauses when they're alone, bending down and putting himself on Ai Nhi's level. “Little one, have you seen that man before?”
Ai Nhi startles, looking guilty. “No. Of course not.”
“But you were looking at his face so intently...” Thuan frowns. Perhaps he'd misread the situation.
“He looks...” Ai Nhi bites down on her bottom lip, her antlers flickering into view once more. “Am I going to get someone in trouble?”
“No. If someone gets in trouble, it's going to be because of what they've done, not because of anything you've done.” Thuan runs his fingers through Ai Nhi's hair. “I need to figure out who did this. And it will be better if I find them first than if Asmodeus does.”
“Uncle Asmodeus does have a temper...” Ai Nhi's hands twist in front of her. “I don't want to get anyone in trouble. Promise me you'll protect them, if I tell you?”
Thuan draws a breath, lets it out. “I will do my best to make sure that the punishment is not harsher than whatever crime has been committed. Now, please tell me what you know.”
“I don't know anything. I just... he looks a lot like one of our teachers. One of the ones teaching us French in the Court of Birth.” Ai Nhi's voice trembles. “Maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe I'm wrong. But...”
“Show me, please.” Thuan tries to keep his voice gentle as he stands and takes one of Ai Nhi's hands in his again.
Ai Nhi guides him through the corridors of Hawthorn as though she has always lived there, comfortable in this place where dragons have lived for less than a decade. She greets others as they move, mostly children and the young adults who are tasked with teaching those children. There's an easy camaraderie between Ai Nhi and the children, whether dragon or Ammonite or pure-looking French, that helps lighten Thuan's heart.
Things aren't perfect, but they're better.
He's made them better, and he's going to keep doing so.
Ai Nhi leads him out to the gardens, to the grounds that are slowly recovering from both the devastation of the great war and the explosions of khi energy that the great tiger had loosed. They are more beautiful now than Thuan thinks they have ever been, lovingly resurrected and maintained by a stable of gardeners that includes humans, Fallen, and dragons.
There are children playing there, and among the children there is a young woman. She is smiling, but there is a redness to her eyes and a blotchiness to her face that suggests serious tears in the not too distant past. Her smile vanishes when she sees Thuan and Ai Nhi, though she plasters it back on a moment later.
Too late. It may have just been for a moment, but in that moment Thuan saw what Ai Nhi meant. The shape of the face is similar, though not entirely the same—this woman is well-fed, protected by Hawthorn, while the dead man was not. The eyes are the same shade of blue-gray; the hair is the same gold-yellow.
The dead man is related to this woman, most likely a sibling, possibly a cousin.
Ai Nhi draws Thuan forward, moving with the grim determination only a small child can manage—determination that is focused solely on the task and not on the perceived goal at the end, determination that is rooted in performance of the act and not completion of the plan. “Miss Aurelie, Uncle Thuan needs to speak with you for a few minutes.”
“Of course.” Aurelie smooths out her skirt. “Children, why don't you play hide and seek for a few minutes?”
Ai Nhi looks up at Thuan, and he gives her back a gentle shove. “Go with the others.”
With a long-suffering sigh Ai Nhi does.
“Walk with me.” Thuan makes the command, surprised to hear a glimmer of Asmodeus is his gruff, demanding words. “And answer my questions.”
“Of course, my lord.” Aurelie falls in at his side, her hands clasped demurely in front of her. “I would need to know what questions those are first, my lord.”
Thuan leads them towards the edge of the river, feeling more comfortable close to the water. He doesn't know why. It's not like he was safe in the dragon kingdom—not like the dragon kingdom is safe, as the body they discovered there proved. “Tell me who the dead man was.”
“I've really no idea what you're talking about, my lord.” Aurelie feigns innocence well.
Thuan lifts a hand to tug at his hair, then sighs, forcing his shoulders to relax. “Look, this is going to go one of two ways. Either you will speak to me, and I will try to intercede on your behalf if I feel it is appropriate. Or you will speak with Asmodeus, and he is not pleased at the moment.”
Aurelie is silent for long, long seconds. “Does Ai Nhi know that Asmodeus still tortures people?”
Thuan feels his jaw clench. “Ai Nhi is aware of many things. That is not an answer to my question.”
“Isn't it?” Aurelie lifts her eyes to meet his, and they blaze with tears and fury and helplessness. “I am told that Hawthorn is better than it was before. I am told that Asmodeus has only made improvement after improvement to how the House runs. I am told that prior to Asmodeus coming, there was no promise of sanctuary save what you could grasp with your own power—that if you weren't useful you could easily be discarded as a pawn.”
“I was not here before Asmodeus came to power.” Thuan shifts uncomfortably, surprised at the vehemence in Aurelie's voice. “But I have heard similar, yes. That to preserve power between the houses Asmodeus' predecessor would do... many unpleasant things, without hesitation.”
Aurelie smiles, but it's a grimace of fear and rage rather than anything humorous. “And Asmodeus? He doesn't do unpleasant things? He enjoys torturing people. He enjoys killing them. He makes it very clear to all of us.”
“He protects Hawthorn and the members thereof.” Thuan feels like he is on solid ground here, and he frowns at the woman. “I promise you, that part is true.”
“Hawthorn and the members thereof, as though we spring fully formed from the ground of this hellsite, without family or ties elsewhere.” Aurelie wipes a hand across her eyes, laughing harshly.
“That is the oath that you swear when you become a part of Hawthorn.” Thuan is beginning to see the shape of the problem, and it makes him tired.
“I had him try for three years. Every year I was told that he hadn't succeeded, that he wasn't trustworthy enough, that he didn't work well enough with others, that he wasn't smart enough.” Aurelie glares up at Thuan, the tears running freely down her face now. “He was plenty smart. Do you think we don't have to be smart to survive on the streets?”
“You could have come to Asmodeus or myself, asked—”
“How?” Aurelie's hands clench into fists. “There is a latticework of intentional bureaucracy that keeps most of us from reaching the heads of House unless our complaint is deemed worthy. You set it up that way; you benefit from it. My brother died because of it.”
“Asmodeus and I cannot be at the beck and call and whims of everyone who has the smallest problem.” Thuan's voice is chilly, and he forces himself to breathe, to calm his own anger and shame. “We have a whole House to see to, after all. But I will see what happened, why matters weren't brought to one of our attentions.”
“Because, as you said, your attentions were busy.” Aurelie draws a shuddering breath. “Would you have known who I was, if I had been brought in front of you? Would you have recognized me as a part of House Hawthorn without Ai Nhi telling you I was such?”
Thuan draws a long, deep breath. “You are a part of Hawthorn. You're mine to protect, and I'm sorry that we failed you.”
The woman opens her mouth, hears the words that he said—the words that were not the ones she expected, clearly—and starts sobbing harder.
Thuan allows her to cry, waiting for the shuddering of her shoulders to settle before he speaks again. “Tell me what happened. All of it.”
Aurelie sinks to the ground, her strength apparently gone with her tears. “I was doing my best to keep him safe despite not being able to get him into the House. There are so very many houseless now, so very many scrabbling for something, anything...”
“I know.” Thuan kneels next to the woman. “I am doing my best to help the whole city rebuild.”
“Asmodeus turned Emmanuelle away two days ago when she was looking for assistance with a feast for the houseless.” Aurelie tries to glare, but it has no force behind it. “He gives crumbs when it suits his fancy, but if it doesn't—”
“Asmodeus is not going to pay or assist in anyone else celebrating Easter, not when I think he would be far happier if Hawthorn didn't celebrate it, either.” Thuan finds it strange defending Asmodeus' record on the houseless; he is far more used to arguing with Asmodeus that they should be doing more than they are. “But we are trying. I want us to craft a better Paris. A better France.”
“If you want a better Paris you aren't going to get it with a viper in your bed.” Aurelie spits the word at him, turning her head away. “I was trying to get Jean into the House, but I hadn't managed it, and the things he was doing to survive... he moved further and further from what the House would want with each passing month, it seemed.”
Thuan grimaces in sympathy. “The things people do to survive do not always make them people who will be able to thrive.”
Aurelie's eyes return to him, and perhaps her tears aren't entirely spent, gathering in her eyes once more. “I loved him. I told him I would save us both. When I was accepted into Hawthorn but he wasn't, I almost didn't take the position. I told him I would stay with him, and he told me not to be silly, that I would be better off in the House and he would be better off with me there.”
“When did he die?” Thuan gently tries to steer the conversation back to what he needs to know.
“Yesterday.” Aurelie wipes at her tears again. “I received a note that he was hurt, but by the time I got there he was already dead. His gang had left him behind. They put him in a position to get hurt, running their precious angel bones through contested territory, and then left his body behind like garbage.”
Thuan nods, the shape of the story coming clearer. “You carried him home? How?”
“Some of his blood was shimmering. They must have dropped some of the powder into it. I don't normally use angel essence, I'm not a fool, but I couldn't... I couldn't leave him there.”
“And then... what, you decided to put his body in our bed as a... message?” Thuan thinks back to Asmodeus' musings about why it could have happened.
“I didn't know what to do, and I was so angry...” Aurelie raises her hands to cover her mouth. “I just wanted him to see what's happening. To understand.”
“You...” Aurelie shudders. “You already seem to understand. You're kind, they say. You temper him, they say. But if this is tempered, then he truly must have been a monster before you came.”
“Yes. He was.” Thuan stands. “But not just a monster. You say your brother became what he had to be to survive; do you think the rest of us do otherwise?”
Aurelie's eyes harden. “Have you become a monster, too?”
“Some would say so. But I like to think...” Thuan draws Aurelie back towards the house. “It's more than Emmanuelle and I and others like us have stood in the shadows of monsters, and told them that we do not want their gifts anymore. We have told them that the sun is rising, and that they can put their teeth and claws away.”
“Most monsters don't want to lose their teeth and claws.” Aurelie digs her heels in, refusing to move.
“Some don't.” Thuan pauses, facing the woman squarely. “Some would like to be monsters just because they like the taste of rended flesh, the sound of mourning screams. We do not tolerate those monsters in our midst anymore.”
“It wasn't you who caused the downfall of House Harrier.” Aurelie lifts her chin.
“No. But it was Asmodeus and I who decided that the people in the house were worth far more than the House could ever be.” Thuan squeezes Aurelie's hand. “Give us a chance to show you that we care.”
“If you're wrong...” Aurelie swallows, her face turning ghost-pale. “He'll torture me to death, slowly and painfully.”
“I swear that he won't.” Thuan has a moment of doubt, a moment of hesitation as he remembers the way Asmodeus had looked at Van before Thuan decided to make her part of the House. “Give me a chance. Please.”
Aurelie hesitates. “If I try to run?”
Thuan closes his eyes, deciding what he wishes—deciding how much he is willing to trust Asmodeus.
As far as Asmodeus is willing to trust him, and he remembers Asmodeus in chains because he did as Thuan bade him, endangering himself to save Thuan's home.
He releases the woman's hand. “If you run, I won't stop you. But you'll lose the protection of the house.”
Aurelie hesitates, then reaches out and takes his hand once more. “If you betray me—”
“I won't. Believe me or not, but we take loyalty very seriously in Hawthorn, from Asmodeus and myself on down.” He gives the woman's hand a gentle squeeze, as though he were comforting Ai Nhi. “Come now, let's find somewhere to stash you while I discuss matters with Asmodeus.”
Asmodeus is at his desk, pouring over a combination of books and personal notes.
It's something Thuan has seen before, and it always means only one thing—Asmodeus is working on a spell. Some piece of magic that will be bigger, better, more unique than anything that's been tried before.
Something that will do what Asmodeus wants, when what Asmodeus wants is the impossible.
Thuan hesitates, as he always does when he sees Asmodeus working on deep, intricate magic. He can't help it. Some part of him will always see Asmodeus like this and remember the papers that he was never meant to see, the ritual that was never able to be completed—the utter betrayal that Asmodeus had planned for Thuan on their wedding night.
Asmodeus looks up, and for just a moment his eyes, too, are haunted.
Asmodeus burned the copy of the ritual that Thuan had been given, saying that there was no need for such a thing when they were well and truly wed, co-rulers of Hawthorn.
Thuan never asked if Asmodeus had other copies of the ritual; Asmodeus never volunteered the information. They know each other well enough to know what should not be said, what cannot be asked.
Asmodeus will not give up knowledge, not once he's worked so hard to claim it, not when it will give him an edge; Thuan will not tolerate sacrificing the innocent, no matter what the cost others are trying to make him pay for that morality. So the knowledge exists, but it is not used; the potential to kill and destroy is kept in check only by the desperate scrabbling of those who don't think it necessary or wise.
“You look concerned.” Asmodeus has allowed his glasses to slide down on his nose and is studying Thuan over them.
“I've found the source of the body.” Thuan forces himself to meet Asmodeus' eyes, to drown out the echoes of the past in the firm reality of the present. He is here with Asmodeus willingly, happily, and he intends to remain here for some time to come.
“Interesting choice of words.” Asmodeus sets his pen aside. “I had half expected you to say 'murderer'.”
“Only half?” Thuan arches an eyebrow.
“It was a strange case. I am always prepared for it to get stranger around you, my love.” Asmodeus flashes a predatory smile, standing and moving around the desk to stop just in front of Thuan. “Who was the dead man and who put him in our bed?”
“The dead man was houseless, part of a local gang. He was murdered in a dispute over angel essence.” Thuan draws on all his years of court training to keep himself still, to look into Asmodeus' eyes and deliver his news calmly. “The one who put him in our bed is his sibling, a member of house Hawthorn who blames us for allowing him to die instead of taking him in.”
“Was there a reason we didn't take him in?” Asmodeus reaches out, his right hand touching Thuan's throat, a gentle caress.
“He stole during the testing process. Twice.” Thuan sighs. “Harsher punishment was considered, but his sister begged for clemency both times, and it was granted.”
“I will want to know by whom.” Asmodeus' lips follow his hand, trailing gentle kisses up the side of Thuan's neck to his ear.
Thuan groans. “It doesn't matter.” He should take a step back, but that will be allowing Asmodeus to win, and besides, he's enjoying the attention. More than he should be, given the circumstances. “What matters is that there's no threat. Just a grieving mortal trying to make a foolish point at an inopportune time.”
“There are rarely opportune times to dump a dead body into your liege's bed.” Asmodeus whispers the words into Thuan's ear before biting down sharply on his earlobe. “Where is she?”
The question is spoken so calmly, so casually, that Thuan almost answers before biting down on his response. “What do you intend to do?”
“Have you made promises?” Asmodeus shifts his head back just enough for them to be eye to eye, his mouth far too close to Thuan's, his breath a waft of orange blossom and bergamot.
“She's a member of House Hawthorn.” He had originally intended to try concealing even her gender until he had Asmodeus' concession not to hurt her, but he's already failed at that. “She wasn't in her right mind. Mortals and grief—”
“Are not so very different from immortals and grief.” Asmodeus' mouth presses firmly against Thuan's, his hand sliding to the back of Thuan's head and holding him tight. When he breaks the kiss, he looks once more into Thuan's eyes. “What have you promised her?”
“That we won't hurt her.” Thuan whispers the words, though he tries to give them a core of steel, a certainty that is harder to hold with Asmodeus so close and so tense.
Asmodeus studies him, fingers still tight on the back of Thuan's neck. “Do you intend to let her transgression go unpunished?”
“There are ways to punish people without hurting them.” Thuan lifts his chin. “She's intelligent and clever and good with the children.”
“You'd trust her with children after what she's done?” Asmodeus' eyebrows rise mildly. “With Ai Nhi?”
“She did it because she thinks you're a monster.” Thuan wraps his fingers around the lapels of Asmodeus' jacket, holding him in place. Being called monster won't hurt Asmodeus, but Thuan has been trying so hard to help him not be a monster, and he wants to remind him of that. “Proving her right doesn't seem like the proper path to discouragement of that idea.”
“She thinks I'm a monster because I am one.” Asmodeus' left hand rises to lie atop Thuan's on his jacket; his right stays on Thuan's neck.
“Not to our people, you're not.” Thuan shakes his head. “Not to the people you defend.”
“I am. Just... a monster that they can point at other people. Just ask Madeleine.” Asmodeus' smile flickers at the corners of his mouth, there and then gone.
“We can forgive our House for foolishness.” Thuan leans closer to Asmodeus, his dark eyes boring into Asmodeus' light ones, his face undoubtedly cast into stark shadows by the light Asmodeus always emits. “I doubt many people even know what's happened.”
“You know better than that.” Asmodeus' voice is gently chiding. “We may have good people, but it was a body in our room. I'm sure everyone is discussing it.”
Thuan leans forward, kissing Asmodeus fiercely. “Please. For me. Don't hurt her.”
“Mmm.” Asmodeus sighs contentedly. “For you, my prince... I suppose I can find another way to make an example of her.”
Thuan feels something lift in his chest, and he leans forward to kiss Asmodeus once more.
Asmodeus turns them both in one swift motion, pressing Thuan against the edge of Asmodeus' desk. His teeth are on Thuan's neck, his hands diving beneath Thuan's clothes with practiced ease.
Thuan makes a protesting noise in his throat, though it takes him longer than it should to grab Asmodeus' hands to make him stop. “Where's my grandmother?”
Thuan pauses for a moment, considering. Probably he should be concerned about the fact that so many people in the House—in power in the House—share his grandmother's love of stories involving torture, death, and clinging to power.
He'll be worried about it later.
He uses some of the khi currents in the room to close the door, creating a barrier that any halfway talented khi manipulator would be able to tear through. That's all right. The barrier is just to provide an indication that they want privacy, the knowledge of what Asmodeus will do if that privacy is breached enough to stop most fools from pushing through.
He doesn't want Asmodeus to be a monster, but sometimes it's nice to have that reputation to wield.
Then there isn't thinking for a while, until they're both sated and satisfied, crawling into their freshly cleaned bed.
Asmodeus slips out in the night.
Thuan only notices when he comes back, but he doesn't come back covered in blood, so Thuan decides to let it go.
Things are better between him and Asmodeus when they trust each other, after all.
And Asmodeus has given him no reason not to trust him, at least not recently.
They both rise fairly early, dressing and preparing for the day's events. There's a cheerful edge to the atmosphere, everyone in Hawthorn eager for the celebration that is to happen.
Easter Sunday. One of the most holy days for the God who cast Asmodeus and his siblings out of the City.
Thuan watches his husband carefully, but Asmodeus shows no signs of discomfort or irritation. He dresses impeccably, as he always does, studying himself in the mirror.
Thuan dresses in fine silk robes. They are in Hawthorn colors, but they will fit in with his grandmother and the diplomats who have come to forge tighter ties with Hawthorn. Thuan clears his throat. “Asmodeus...”
Asmodeus looks up at him, settling his unnecessary but very nice-looking glasses on his nose. “Yes?”
“I spoke with her. We have our plan in place.” Asmodeus steps up to Thuan, reaching out to trail fingers along Thuan's throat. There's just a hint of seduction in the motion, a teasing promise of more to come later. “I didn't hurt her at all. Not physically, and very little mentally. I hope that pleases you.”
“It does.” Thuan speaks plainly, honestly, reaching up to touch Asmodeus' fingers before they pull away.
“I hope you feel that way when we're done today.” Asmodeus turns to the door, moving fluidly, a cat after his prey.
“Asmodeus!” Thuan hurries after his husband, that sense of relief evaporating as though it never existed. “What do you have planned? What are you going to do?”
“Nothing to be so alarmed about.” Asmodeus drawls out the words, opening the door to their bedroom, refusing to pause and talk to Thuan.
“My grandmother is here.” Thuan hisses out the words, half expecting the old woman to be standing in the hall and grinning.
“I'm doing nothing that your people will object to.” Asmodeus takes Thuan's hand, pressing a kiss to the back of it. “Trust me on this.”
It's such a dangerous proposition. Asmodeus is trustworthy only within certain boundaries.
But they're within those boundaries, aren't they? The woman in question is a member of the House. Thuan's family is here for diplomacy. Asmodeus has promised, has given his word.
Thuan swallows, shifting just slightly so that he's walking with and not trying to hamper his husband. “I do.”
There's just the slightest falter to Asmodeus' step, a flicker of emotion across his face. Then his chin dips just a bit in acknowledgement, and he leads them towards the chapel.
Thuan separates from Asmodeus, joining his grandmother and her entourage. He has them sitting at the back, where he can explain things to them without causing too much distraction for everyone for whom this is a holy occasion.
They attract less attention than they would have before Thuan and his delegation spent years in the House, but there are still people who watch with expressions ranging from curiosity to veiled hostility. It's not perfect, but it's better, and Thuan clings to that better, a reminder that he is changing things. He is making a difference.
Asmodeus is at the front of the chapel, watching the proceedings with a bored expression. He's surrounded by his usual cohort, the Fallen who have stood beside him through all the trials and tribulations of Hawthorn as well as a handful of mortals, including Madeleine.
It takes Thuan longer than it should to realize that Aurelie is also among that group. She's sitting by Madeleine, the older woman's hand on her knee, and Thuan feels his heart stop for a moment as he tries to decide if this is a good or a bad sign.
Since nobody else is causing a stir or a fuss, and Aurelie looks pale and still grief-stricken but otherwise unharmed, Thuan decides it's not worth interrupting the ceremony for.
He begins to second-guess himself when Asmodeus rises before the reading of the gospel, striding towards the altar as though he owns it. Which, technically, he does, but Thuan recognizes sacrilege when he sees it, and the murmur of the crowd tells him that's exactly what this is.
The priest pauses, watching his head-of-house approaching with thinly-veiled panic. Typically it would be his place to stop this interruption, but stopping Asmodeus if he's intent on something—and he is very intent on this, moving with a predator's easy grace up to the altar—is usually foolish.
Thuan could potentially stop him. Asmodeus listens to Thuan, even if they sometimes talk in circles around each other, neither quite understanding the other's worldview.
Asmodeus asked Thuan to trust him.
So Thuan just stands frozen at his grandmother's side, feeling the khi currents in the room, hoping he isn't making a terrible mistake.
“Three days.” Asmodeus doesn't turn to address the congregation, but he doesn't need to. His voice carries to fill the room, and Thuan doesn't know if it's magic or simply Asmodeus, in his element and certain of his place. “They say that Jesus lay in his tomb for three days, and then when his mother went to see to his body, she found only empty linens. He is not here, he is risen.”
Asmodeus' magic gathers around him, flows into lines and fills runes on the altar that Thuan realizes Asmodeus must have set up last night, while Thuan was sleeping.
“A very pretty bit of magic, that.” Asmodeus' tone manages to mix contemplation and contempt in equal measures. “Very impressive indeed.”
Thuan feels the khi currents in the room being manipulated and turns to look at his grandmother. She's grinning, her old eyes sharp in her wrinkled face. “I like your husband. He knows that next to controlling death, controlling life is the thing that matters most. There is a reason he was in the Court of Birth before his coup.”
Thuan watches as his grandmother adds strands of water and fire and a hint of earth to Asmodeus' working, an incredibly complex tapestry of magic that blends Fallen and khi into something... impossible.
There is a stirring on the covered bier that has been left beneath the cross, a lifting of the cloth. A body, Thuan realizes, is rising.
The body, the one from their bed. Dressed all in white as he shrugs off his burial shroud, and his skin is pale, glowing luminously with Asmodeus' magic. He looks around, clearly dazed. “Aurelie? Sister?”
Aurelie shrieks, and it's a sound like nothing else Thuan has ever heard. It's a cry of pure elation and still-burning grief, the sound of someone having their heart reinserted into their body.
Asmodeus turns to the priest even as Aurelie, too, breaches the sanctuary of the pulpit, scrabbling to her brother's side and pulling him into her arms. Madeleine is with her, the older woman's hands guiding both resurrected and sibling back to the collection of Fallen that form Asmodeus' base of power.
Asmodeus smiles. “Please, continue. Tell us of the miracles that have happened, and of what we can expect in the future.”
Then Asmodeus just... leaves. He turns and strides down the aisle, the light from his skin illuminating faces as he passes, his expression one of absolute haughty arrogance.
Thuan turns to his grandmother.
She laughs, clapping her hands together. “I like him so much, grandson. I'll keep him if you ever decide you don't want him.”
Thuan opens his mouth, closes it, glances towards where Asmodeus has left the chapel, and sighs. He wants to race after his husband, but he should stay here, at least for a few more minutes. He should make sure the ceremony continues as it's supposed to, even given the dead man sitting in the front row, even given Aurelie's wracking sobs that fill the room.
But as soon as he's set the ceremony back to rights—because having a script to follow, expectations fulfilled, can be the best way to keep a group occupied—he is going to find his husband and see exactly what this was about.
He finds Asmodeus three-quarters of the way to their room. Asmodeus is resting against the wall, looking for all the world like he's just decided to survey the area from that position.
Thuan knows better. He sees the way Asmodeus' light flickers, dimming whenever Asmodeus' intensity falters. With a sigh, Thuan slips his shoulder under Asmodeus' and guides him the rest of the way to their room.
Asmodeus doesn't thank him. He just kisses Thuan soundly before flopping, near boneless, onto the bed.
“You drained yourself.” Thuan looks down at his husband.
“I did the impossible. I resurrected a mortal.” Asmodeus' lips flicker up into a smile. “It won't last, unfortunately. I couldn't figure out how to make it last, not and still have it be her brother who woke and not a shell that looked like him. She'll have three days. But she was fine with that, because at least it's three days.”
“You talked to her?” Thuan settles slowly onto the bed next to his husband.
“Yes.” Asmodeus rolls his head, keeping his gaze fixed on Thuan. His glasses are just slightly askew. “Last night.”
Thuan nods, slowly. “Just because she agreed to it doesn't mean that she'll really accept what happens in three days. And he didn't agree to it.”
Asmodeus frowns. “Are you really unhappy with me for giving her what she wanted instead of torturing her for insubordination?”
“No, I'm just...” Thuan trails his fingers gently through Asmodeus' hair. “Making sure you thought about it clearly.”
“I did. I thought it was the best way to handle matters without going against your wishes.” A smirk blooms slowly on Asmodeus' face. “Even if she starts cursing me again in three days, I'll have achieved what I really wanted.”
“And what was that?” Thuan stares down into his husband's eyes, his breath fogging Asmodeus' glasses. “Declaring yourself a god?”
“Showing that it's just magic, all of it. Sometimes it's bigger magic, sometimes it's smaller, but what matters is how it's used.” Asmodeus' hand rises, grips Thuan's shoulder with fierce intensity. “What matters is what a person does, no matter who they are.”
Ah, love... Thuan knows better than to say the words, just as he knows better than to point out that it's a sad way to look at magic—as just an exchange, just a means to an end. Perhaps that's what comes of the Fallen seeing magic as something innate to themselves, something finite, rather than a function of the world around them like khi is. “Not declaring yourself a god, then; declaring your God no better than a Fallen.”
“I suspect the only reason Morningstar was cast down was that he was too much of a threat.” Asmodeus smiles, but there are ghosts in his eyes, permanently unanswered questions.
Thuan leans down, kissing Asmodeus with gentle languor. “There's a reason I walk beside you and no one else.”
“Oh, I know that reason.” Asmodeus kisses him back, his teeth nipping lightly at Thuan's lips. “It was a wondrous series of accidents and plots that led us here, don't you think?”
“If you were Morningstar, I would have let you die in the grove.” Thuan trails a hand down Asmodeus' chest, feeling the muscles through Asmodeus' shirt. “I didn't, and I've happily stayed beside you for how many years now?”
“Are you sure it's you staying with me, and not me staying with you?” Asmodeus arches into Thuan's touch.
“I think both are equally true.” Thuan pulls back. “Did you talk to my grandmother last night, too?”
“What I needed to do would be better done with dragon magic added to mine, and I suspected you would have too many questions. I didn't have time for questions, not when I was inventing something new and spectacular.”
“Not when you knew I might tell you no.” Thuan presses a finger to Asmodeus' nose, not quite a flick. “But... I don't think I would have. Especially not if you talked to Aurelie first.”
Asmodeus' eyebrow arches up.
“It's not how I would have solved the problem.” Thuan takes Asmodeus' hand, holding it tight. “But it did solve the problem, quite neatly. No one will be talking about bodies in bedrooms after that display. And... it was kind. In a roundabout way, with a bittersweet aftertaste, but still... it was kind.”
Asmodeus forces himself into a sitting position. “Do not.” He presses a finger to Thuan's nose in turn. “Ever call me kind again.”
“Of course not. How silly of me.” Thuan shakes his head. “However could I have slipped like that?”
The glower that Asmodeus sends him could have cracked glass, but Thuan doesn't allow it to even fluster his facade.
“How about I say this, then.” Thuan leans in to press the most chaste kiss to Asmodeus' cheek. “I love you.”
Asmodeus sighs, wrapping his arms around Thuan's neck. “You are mine, my dragon prince, and I am quite happy with that.”
It's the closest he'll probably come for a while to getting I love you in return, and for now—with the House safe around them, with Paris and the dragon kingdom both slowly recovering—it's all Thuan would ask of his impossible, wonderful husband.
A monster only sacrifices his fangs one at a time, after all, especially when those fangs have kept him and those he loves alive for the last few decades.