Autumn in New England is harsh and unwelcoming. Though it is morning, the sky is dim, like a widow casting her shroud over the world. Alina Starkov waits to enter the meeting house as the wind whips around her, mussing little tendrils of escaped hair from her bonnet. Every inhale is an icicle, scraping searing tracks down her throat. The crowd pushing into the hall is slow-moving and substantial—she thinks near half of Salem is here, come to gawk at the judge sent up from Boston. Morozov, she’s heard whispered, the name parried through the market place, fearfully and ecstatically both. Judge Morozov come to clean us, come to siphon off the sin from Salem.
The hall is cramped when Alina finally pushes in, and made hot by the press of so many bodies. She cannot see, diminutive as she is and a woman besides, relegated to the balcony.
There is a commotion at the front; she hears the rumble of male voices. It is the Mayor of the Colony who steps to the front, to the pulpit as though he is a man of God. Untrustworthy, Alina thinks, a secret, shrouded rebellion. She does not like him, never has. A man of little honor, with a snarling voice and black heart. He used to watch over her like a carrion crow, suffocating her like thick oil.
It is not a simple thing, to be a woman and to be pretty. Alina is alone in Salem, a transplant: untethered and relation-less. It does not win her favors: no family to lend her solidity, to offer her a name with weight. There is a freedom to it, certainly, to walking through the fields bordering her own small homestead, running her fingertips over stalks of rye. To embroidering favored patterns, the ones she herself wishes. To staying up and watching the moon prance across the sky, burning a precious candle down to the quick. She has money, is lucky for it, left over from parents long dead. This, too, does not win her favors, least of all with the governor. She is less easy to sway.
He is welcoming them now; his voice is deep and booming, rushing over the townsfolk, his own congregation. Despite the cold outside, Alina has begun to sweat, overheated from the cloying air. She feels a droplet trail down her back, a bead forming on her brow.
“There is a malignant clot forming in our community,” he is saying. “We must all be wary, lest it spread.”
The words wash over Alina, unheard. She feels a dampness under her arms, looks down to see a darkening patch blooming on her dress. She wishes he would speak faster, wishes she could leave. She dare not, though she has beeswax to mold into candles at home, she has vegetables to tend, a loom to oil. Unbidden, she thinks of the morning she missed church, a month ago, selfishly sleeping in (just once, God help her, just once). How the reverend passed her in the square the next day and how his eyes roved over her; how the mayor took her hand lightly, inappropriately, and bid her improve, lest the wily devil seep into her body.
The devil has made a home in Salem, like she herself has. She knows this: she crosses herself before bed each night, she prays until her knees ache, asking for the Lord’s guidance and the protection of her soul. Anything, to keep the devil from lingering over her threshold. But this man— this oily, snake-like man who claims authority, who looks at her like he could drink the very blood from her veins — she cannot believe this man can save them from Lucifer, can bar Hecate from their door.
Alina feels faint, from the heat and the suspicion that rises like yeast. They are all each others enemies now, not a person amongst them to be trusted. There have been whispers, little yelps of condemnation: witch. Not yet directed towards her, but it may well be only a matter of time, in this town where she has no one. (“I could protect you,” the mayor had said, kindly smile that was not so kind, “should you ask to be protected.”)
She’s stretching surreptitiously, craning her neck away from others, towards the ceiling, towards fresh air, when a new voice speaks.
“Fear is a corrosive thing,” this new man says, “and it has fed from the heart of Salem too long.”
He is handsome, this new man, wildly so (wickedly so). He is handsome and speaks with a voice sweeter than her own freshly-churned butter, this Judge Morozov. For who else could he be, but the avenger sent down from the capitol, here to offer unto them deliverance from the evil in their midst?
He is here, he says, to purge the community of wickedness, to scour out sin where it may be hiding, whether in the hearts of man or of woman. He will not rest until he conquers it. He will not leave until it is eradicated.
He beeches them to examine any black mark marring the soul of a neighbor, to scrub out any degeneracy they may spot within themselves.
“Vice leads us only into the waiting hands of Beelzebub. We must all be persons of unrivaled prudence.”
When Alina lowers her face, slightly less flushed from slightly fresher air, he is looking directly at her.
That voice, that man she runs from like a small creature in a forest, calling out her name. Never mind that it is inappropriate, that he causes faces to turn towards her in a wave of judgement; never mind that he is humiliating her in front of the entire town, that they will think she is his whore, Alina just doesn’t want her name in his mouth. She turns to him, schooling her features: a placid lake.
“Mayor,” she defers. He is standing next to this new judge from Boston, and is made coarser by comparison. The mayor is stout and florid from too much drink; Judge Morozov is tall, towering above Alina, and has eyes like black fire. He is plainly dressed, though Alina knows he could don gold or silk, befitting his station. The mayor is outfitted extravagantly, with a lace cuff that is yellowing at the edge with sweat. He looks like a fool, Alina thinks, made more foolish still by the restraint of the man next to him.
“I thought you particularly should meet our magistrate,” he says, and she hears the faint threat in the words. And why her? Why Alina, though she helps her neighbors dip tallow into fair candles when she has the extra time, though she helps Goody Williams dust her home because the widow is so hunched-over she cannot manage it herself, though she tries to be a valued member of her new community, or if not valued, as least not unworthy? Alina does not know if she is destined for heaven or hell, but the mayor, she thinks—illicitly, immorally—should only be condemned.
“Mistress Starkov,” Judge Morozov says, nodding to her, voice low and almost sinuous, the way it wraps around her.
“We are grateful to have you come, Sir,” she says, and finds she means it.
He nods again, silent, but he trails his eyes over her face; a blush begins to color her cheeks.
The men turn from her; she is dismissed. As they walk to the door she hears the mayor mutter something about wayward women, and right before they exit, Judge Morozov turns and looks her. Another bead of sweat blooms on her brow.
He is everywhere, inescapable, eyes like a deadly hawk. He walks circles around the town square, day after day, like a black-cloaked phantom. He sits in a pew during services, and from her place on the balcony, Alina watches the back of his head. She thinks of him nights, when she wishes only to sleep. She wakes up one night gasping, clammy and flustered, from a dream where she had kissed the scruff on his jaw; where he had shucked the clothes from her body, leaving her as bare as she will be at the judgement, at the coming Day of Doom. She wonders if he is to be her test, if this man meant to blight the sin from Salem is instead summoning it within her.
He has been with them a fortnight when he approaches her, one day near the meetinghouse.
“Mistress Starkov, a moment.”
She had not heard him come up behind her, jerks at his voice.
“I am making an effort to come to know all the citizens of your fine Salem,” he says. “But you, you I do not know, yet.”
She nods, finds she cannot look at him, keeps her eyes downcast. What is there to say? That he does not know her, but if he did—if he knew the dreams she had, those sweet-bitter night fantasies—he would recoil?
“Walk with me,” he says, and as if pulled by a string, she trots after him. He slows his pace to match hers, and they begin to wind their way around the square. She can feel people looking at them, at righteous Judge Morozov and the lonesome woman besides him. But it must be fine, it must be, to walk with him in sight of all, for he is an upstanding man, and would do no wrong.
“I hear you were not born here,” he says, and Alina wonders who has been telling him her history, wonders why he has been asking.
“No,” she admits. “Though not far. I was left land by a family member.”
At his quirked brow, she clarifies: “They were childless. I was their last surviving relative.”
“And how are you adjusting?”
“I have been here for some time, Sir.” Years, she has been here for years, and despite it can still sometimes feel the thrum of mistrust: outsider.
“And at what age did you come?”
“At nine and ten.”
“And you are now?”
He hums, tapping a long finger against his mouth.
“Four years to make a life.”
She cannot tell what he means, if that is judgement or simply commentary.
“I was told you missed services some weeks back.”
Her breath hitches; this is what he has been leading up to, then.
“An unhappy mistake, Sir. I did not rise in time.” And what a horrid thing, to have simply missed the cock crowing, and paying for it in this way. (And worse still: that she had heard it, had known she should wake, but didn’t, had just shut her eyes and gone back to sleep, like some luxurious, extravagant sinner.)
He pauses, and when she says nothing, continues. “There is a black caul over this town, Mistress Starkov. I would not have you suffocated by it.”
Tension in the town, like a piece of thread pulled taut. She wonders if it will ever end, or if Judge Morozov will be made to stay here, forever judging a constant stream of the accused. Alina goes about her chores: dipping candles in tallow when she runs out of beeswax, churning butter till her arms ache, sweeping the dust from the dark corners of her home. She nods to her neighbors, the picture of piety, so that she will stay safe, so no one will point a finger at wretched little Alina Starkov, and decry her witch.
Still, he watches her. He has been here nigh on three months, as autumn has slipped to winter. He has listened to a flurry of complaints and misfortunes: crops failing, livestock dying, children falling mysteriously ill. His judgement is quietly proclaimed and harshly administered. He leaves no room for error.
She is nervous around him, though he has not as of yet done anything to her. Indeed, he is almost kind. When she buys wood from a neighbor in the center of town (as she is unable to fell the tree herself) he notices her struggle and aids her, hitching his own horse to a carriage and bringing her home. But he watches over her so carefully Alina cannot help her apprehension, even when she wants those dark eyes on her, even as she preens when his eyes sear trails over her face.
He is carrying a great weight, he tells her one Sunday after services, and the duty with which he has been tasked is a fearful one.
“I must protect this,” he says, casting a hand out over the town. “Our second Eden.”
She looks at his profile: his aquiline nose, his firm jaw.
“For there are those who would destroy it.”
He starts examining people’s homes, looking for signs of witchcraft—for the devil’s black book, for poppets stuffed with pins. He has not yet come to her, but he will.
He comes on a Thursday, armed with all the authority of God and King. Alina expects him to inspect her home, to scrutinize every corner, every little crack. But the glances he casts around are cursory. His attention, instead, is on her.
“You have made a good home,” he compliments, and Alina feels the heat of pleasure rise within her.
“And as of yet unmarried,” he murmurs, more to himself than to her.
She had heard snatches of gossip when he first arrived, knows he has no wife, is untethered as she herself is. She wonders what it would be to be his mistress. To have him enter her home as he has just done, but instead of standing, casting a judgmental eye around her possessions, to have him live here. Sitting down in a chair, exhausted from a long day, he would stretch by the fire she would build, and she would come up behind him and rub his shoulders, and he would lean back and kiss her wrist, thank you, wife. She blushes.
He mistakes her blush for embarrassment at her unwed state, and offers a smile. “No matter,” he reassures. “There is still time.”
She nods, mouth dry. He looks around the room one more time, and she catches the quick flick of his eyes over her body, before he clears his throat.
“I’ll take my leave of you,” he says, and she watches as he walks through her door and into the blustery world, cloak billowing in the wind.
As the reverend’s sermons grow more heated, so to do Morozov’s judgements. He will burn the devil out of the town, he promises, even if the town itself burns with him. He is frightening like this, Alina thinks, when he speaks at the pulpit after the reverend has finished preaching. If it were not an awful idolatry, Alina could almost mistake Morozov for a God, so impressive and fearsome is he.
“May I walk with you, Mistress Starkov?” He asks one Sunday, as she is preparing to go home. She has not missed services since that one awful (sumptuous) day, but finds them more enjoyable now that he too attends them, now that she can glimpse the back of his neck from where she stands on the second floor, the curve of his jaw, the dark hair curling at his collar.
She nods to him, and he falls into step beside her. She wonders why he is not offering to escort her in his carriage, simply for efficiency of time.
It is an uncommonly sunny day, unseasonably warm, and Alina tilts her face to the sun, eyes closed against the fierceness of its rays. There is such a burning awareness of him walking next to her, of the nearness of his body to hers. She comes up to his shoulder; she thinks she could hide behind him should some darkness erupt in front of them, and he would defend her.
Their walk has been mostly silent, but when Alina’s house comes into view she wishes they could simply keep walking, past her home and down the road, circling back into town, again and again.
But that is a childish wish, so when they reach the roughly-hewn gate that separates her little vegetable plot from the road, she turns to him, intending to thank him for the escort.
“You were blessed with great beauty,” he says to her. His fingers twitch from where they rest on the gate, as though itching to touch her.
They shock her, these words that light her very heart on fire. She stumbles, and his hand shoots out to steady her near her elbow; he drops it very quickly.
“Thank you, Sir,” she murmurs, and casts her face down because she cannot bear to look at him, and so she can hide the smile that is curling round her face.
He sighs, looking at her sadly, like she is an innocent who cannot help her own damnation.
“Oh, Mistress Starkov, the devil loves beautiful things.”
She does not see him for the next fortnight; she wonders if he is avoiding her. Then, awfully, whether she has been accused, and simply does not yet know. She has seen him from afar, sequestering himself with the town elders, plotting how best to scrape the rot from the community.
The reverend’s sermons grow more intense, the mayor’s speeches more bombastic. Through it all, Judge Morozov remains a solemn, sober presence, though he no longer meets her eye.
It is a Friday, late. Alina should be asleep, but sleep no longer comes easily to her. She has been on edge too long. The fire throws shadows across the room, warping the walls and making her think she see things that are not there.
There is a rap on her door that startles her, and sends her heart plummeting. Is this it, then? Have the jailers come to take her away, to make her stand trial, to condemn her to an irrevocable fate?
When she opens the door—trembling, uncertain—he is standing on her threshold. He is without his hat; his hair is mussed and his eyes are wild. He pushes past her, into her home.
“Sir—“ she starts, but has no means to continue.
He stalks the perimeter of her room, as though he too thinks he spots things in the shadows. Without looking at her, he speaks, and his voice is a frightful rasp.
“You have been accused.”
It does not surprise her, though the words settle in the bottom of her heart like sodden mud.
“By who?” Her words a mere whisper, not enough strength to let them ring out.
He shakes his head briefly, as though it is inconsequential, as though it does not matter who has thought of her and condemned her.
“You have been accused,” he repeats. “And I find there must be truth to it, for why else would I react to you this way?”
He is staring into the fire, back to her, but his words nail her to the floor.
“Why else would I think of you, nights?” He says, rapturous words that crawl over her skin, as he turns and walks to her. “Why else would I feel entrapped by you?”
He runs a light finger over her temple, her cheekbone. A man has never touched her face.
His finger trails over her lips, pushes past to touch her bottom teeth.
“The devil makes a mark, child,” he says, brushing her untied hair from her shoulder (her long, lustrous hair, that only her husband should see). “He rakes his claws down the willing bodies of his initiates. I must search you for it.”
It makes little sense, why she feels as though her very organs are set to burst, why there is a hot bubbling in her stomach, though she should be afraid. Should be pleading with him: I’m not a witch, they’ve lied to you, it’s a cruel falsehood. But he has her rooted to the spot, with this finger that is tracing fiery lines across her skin.
His finger trails further, playing with the collar of her chemise, over the rough fabric, till it hovers over her breast. When he gives into it, when he touches her with his whole palm, squeezes her, she arches into him. He raises his eyebrows, and mayhap he is right, she is cursed, and this here is proof: that she seeks out his touch, though there is no binding union between them.
He squeezes her breast again, runs a thumb over her still-clothed nipple, and winds his other hand around her back, into her hair. He tugs at it, wrenching her head back so she is turned to him. His eyes roam over her face, but Alina is looking at his mouth, at his tongue as he wets his lips.
“What are you, Mistress Starkov?”
And she wants to say: Alina, I am only Alina.
He lowers his face, slowly, eyes fixed to hers, but she does not shy away. His lips press over hers, and the touch is shocking: blistering and burning her like a bolt of lightening hitting wood.
She kisses him back, though she does not know how. Their teeth knock together in her desperation, and she has wound her hands around his neck without realizing.
So it is true, then, the devil really is in Salem, and he is here in this room. He is in the air, suffusing her with this pleasant, blooming warmth. He is in this man’s touch, trailing over her back. He is in her own blood, pulsing with needy desire. And perhaps she is the devil’s mistress, perhaps even his whore, and that is why she presses herself so firmly into this man before her, perhaps this is why she tugs his hair and sucks his lip into her mouth. Perhaps she has been weak, after all, and the devil saw the cracks within her, and notched himself inside.
“We must burn the devil out of you, child,” he says, nibbling the skin on her neck. “I must be the one to do it."
And though she still wants to cry out, No! No! There is no devilishness within me! she tilts her head back instead, so he can kiss even more.
He steps back from her, leaving her gasping, on unsteady limbs like a newborn colt.
“Undress,” he says, a command despite his whisper.
What? she thinks, but also, yes!
“Alina,” he says, and it is the first time he has ever said her name. “Undress.”
It is her name that moves her, her name in his voice, and she complies, reaching behind herself awkwardly to untie her laces, letting the garments fall and puddle at her feet. Her fingers are clumsy, making slow work of removing her apron, her chemise. Morozov says nothing, and the heat of his eyes on her makes her fingers slower still.
Finally, flustered, she is left in her shift and stockings; she knows the outline of her body is visible through the sheer fabric. The heat from the fire licks over her back. The devil’s fingers, she thinks, unbidden.
“Undress, Alina,” he says again, and she bends to slip her thick stockings from her legs. Standing, she unlaces the bow near her breasts with shaking fingers. The shift falls; she is bare before him.
“Good,” he proclaims, impassive, and begins to circle her, eyes never leaving her body. He makes a full rotation, comes to stand before her, eyes on her breasts. He reaches for one, circling her nipple with his fingers, so gently she can barely feel him.
“So pretty,” he murmurs, holding the heavy weight in his palm, squeezing the tip between his fingers. “But have you let the devil suckle from this teat?”
“No,” she gasps. “No, I’d never—“
“Bend,” he says, and at her confused look, repeats himself, coming behind her and laying a hand on her back. “Bend.”
She does, several inches, so her gaze is level with the legs of her dining chair.
“I must look for the mark everywhere, Mistress Starkov,” he says. “I must ask you to bend.”
She lowers herself further, until she is straight backed, eyes to the floor. She can feel him behind her, gaze boring into her nether regions. He puts his hand on her bottom; she feels, briefly, how he spreads her cheeks. And then he steps back, and though she cannot see him, she feels his eyes again alight on her. Her core spasms, as though it knows it is being judged. Alina can feel a dewiness gathering there, wonders if he can see it in the dim light.
He kneels behind her, pressing his face against the back of her thighs, running his hands over her calves, up to her stomach. Alina feels a burning heat, embarrassment, that he should be so close to her, that his face should be right there. Then she hears him inhale, smelling the hot scent that is beginning to permeate the room, and she stumbles. His hands shoot out, gripping her hips, and presses her back against him.
“Well done,” he gasps, but what he is praising her for she does not know.
He is standing then, and bringing her to stand as well, and like a cat she is rubbing herself against him, feeling the roughness of his clothes scrape her nipples.
He leads her to her bed, and she sits gingerly upon it, while he stands before her.
“Lie back, Mistress Starkov.”
She does, but mourns the loss of Alina; she wants her name in his mouth.
He gazes upon her, as he is seemingly wont to do, and his gaze makes Alina burn and blush both.
He kneels again, at the foot of her roughly-hewn bed, and runs his hand over the top of her foot.
“Do you know what we are to do, Mistress Starkov?”
She shakes her head, though she does know. She does know what animals do, what married people do. She has heard illicit whispers; she has felt, sometimes, the telltale heat in her core.
“We are going to lay together. We are going to know each other as wedded people do.”
It is wrong, utterly and terribly, how much she wants it. And it does not matter whether the devil had made her his before, because he surely has now. She supposes God knew this long ago, had seen her wickedness from birth and knew the path she would take. But how jarring, still, to have it revealed to her this way.
“But it’s a sin,” she gasps. More for her sake than his: so she can tell herself she tried, that she knew she should withhold herself, and that she endeavored to do so. She will fail, but she tried.
“Not with me,” he says, and grasps the backs of her knees, pulling her closer to him.
She is sprawled out now in line with his gaze, as though she is some decadent feast meant for him alone.
He runs his fingertip up her leg, over her hip and then down again, to her core.
“Do you know what this is?” He pets one lip with the tip of his finger, and then squeezes it between his thumb and index. “Have you ever touched yourself here?”
She shakes her head into the bed, into her pillow stuffed with straw, even though this is a lie. She has, though only when it is very dark out and the moon doesn’t shine into her room. It has never felt like this.
“Your sweet cunny,” he says, tracing the seam. “And this”—he lifts his finger, showing her the slick there—“means she is hoping to be filled.”
He knocks her knees further apart, spreads the lips of her core, and teases the little hooded bundle at the top.
“Here,” he says circling her, “is your pearl. I have to coax her out, she can be shy. But gently, gently.”
He circles her, gently as promised, and a whine escapes Alina’s lips before she can claw it back.
He smiles, pleased, and then he bends, and licks her as though she is some delicious delicacy, forbidden and desired above all. She yelps, undignified like an animal, so overcome by the sensation.
“Ah, ah,” he tuts, putting a firm hand on her stomach so she cannot writhe away. “You must needs stay still.”
But she cannot, there is no earthy way she can. His tongue is as hot as a brand, dipping into each crevice of her body, leaving nothing unexplored. He dips his tongue into her the way she dips her own candles—slowly, steadily, skillfully. When her hips begin to rock into his face—it shames her, when she realizes she’s doing it, but it cannot be helped—he slides a hand under her bottom and presses her more forcefully into him. She is smearing herself over his mouth, his chin, leaving trails of slick over his face.
She has felt little inklings of this before, this unfurling heat in her pelvis, but nothing like this. It was always slow-going and hard-won when she did this herself, rubbing at her core harshly. She would saw back-and-forth, hoping to alleviate some of the ache that could flare when she saw men working, shirts stuck to sweaty skin; or once when the ties of Mistress Nazalensky’s chemise came undone, and she saw the pale round tops of her breasts. But nothing, nothing like this—this searing heat within her, the press of her nails into her palms, the lustful whines that fill the room.
Alina looks down, but the sight of him—black hair between her legs, hands now pressing against her thighs, parting them, tongue flicking over her—is too much, and she throws her head back.
“I’m, I’m—“ She wants to warn him, to tell him something is coming, tries desperately to swat at his head, but then her entire body shudders, curling in on itself like a rounded shell, and she feels her cunt pulsing around his tongue. It seems like it lasts an age: her core spasming, his lips suckling there. Finally, she collapses back onto her mattress, breathing heavily.
“That,” he says, running his finger between her too-sensitive folds, “was your peak.”
She flushes to hear him speak of it so plainly.
“And it was very prettily done, Alina.”
He stands, and begins to remove his own clothing. The fire that he had been doused in her begins to rekindle. His chest is firm and his arms are strong, even though he is a man of letters and not a laborer. Alina wants to lick his skin, she realizes, as he did to her. She wants to nuzzle into his very body.
His eyes are on her, and she thinks of what a jezebel she has become, with her heavy breasts and swollen core. She thinks of waking up this morning, untouched and unblighted, and how tonight she will go to sleep neither.
He removes his breeches, and though she tries to keep her eyes on his face, she cannot help it, and looks down. His manhood is flushed, swollen, jutting out from a thatch of dark hair. It is much larger than she expected, made even more lurid and obscene when he takes it in hand and pumps.
“You see what you have done, little wanton?”
She cannot deny it, she is wanton, and pride erupts within her—shameful, sinful Pride—at knowing she has affected him thus.
He climbs over her body then, and she feels the heat of his skin, pressed up naked against hers. She can feel his cock resting against her thigh as he ruts against her.
“I see no mark upon you,” he whispers against her open mouth. “And yet, and yet…”
He runs a hand down her face, her neck, cupping her breast in his hand. He pushes it, to look at the underside, and finding nothing, bends and brings her nipple into his mouth, like a babe. He sucks, and Alina feels as though there is a fiery current running from her breast to her core. She rocks against him, feels his cock slide against the wetness of her cunt.
He looks down, to her core, and speaks, voice like rough stone. “And how is she? Ready for me? Wanting me?” He thrusts against her; he rubs himself on her.
It’s easier, Alina thinks, to have him speak to this secret part of her, to have him croon to it as though it is something separate from herself. Mayhap it is, and that is why she is acting like this; she is controlled by something apart from her.
But not so removed, because still she presses herself to him, still she gasps “yes, yes” into his mouth.
He notches himself at her cunt, starts pressing into her. The stretch is uncomfortable, foreign and invasive, and she squirms, fleeing from the pressure.
He stills her with a hand on her stomach, a hold on her hip.
“You’ll take me,” he growls into her hair. “You’ll still stay and take me.”
She does, breathing through her nose as her body makes room for him, the way it was meant to do for her husband. She wonders briefly what will happen to her. If she’ll be taken from her home and jailed. If this man she has taken into her body will be the one to rain judgement down upon her.
She looks down when she feels the press of his hips against hers, sees the closeness of their bodies. So this is ruination, with his cock nestled within her and his lips pressed to her brow.
He starts moving, rocking thrusts that shift her up the bed. Her breasts jolt with his rhythm, and she grabs to hold them, embarrassed by this new obscenity.
“No,” he grunts, knocking her hands away. “You will not hide from me. Not when I have searched you and found you unstained.”
His words thread a frisson of pleasure through her: that he enjoys looking at her, that he finds her pleasing. He’s wrong, of course. She is stained; he is staining her. But his movements within her are like sweet honey—a treat to be had once in a lifetime and never again—and Alina finds there is not enough shame within her to drum up.
Hesitantly, she presses her hands to his sides, near his ribs. She can feel the flexing of his muscles as he rocks into her, and she begins to trail her hands down his back.
He likes this, she thinks, because his movements speed up and he groans, sucking on her neck. She wonders if he will leave a mark, if she will have to hid her neck with bolts of cloth or stay indoors until it fades; if he could not find the devil’s mark on her so decided to make his own.
She feels his name rising in her throat, but bids it back whence it came, into the very pit of her heart. She is not yet crazed enough to think she could gasp his name and he would accept it. So she stays quiet, though it rings in her head—Aleksander, Aleksander—and presses herself more firmly to him. It has begun to feel good; he is drawing languid ropes of pleasure through her body. She can hear the fire still crackling in the hearth, and the wet, slick sound of their bodies meeting. She hears her own high gasps, punctuated by his deep breaths.
Later, when the sun rises and he is gone, she will scrub the stains from these sheets and open her door to air out the room. She will not be able to sear away the memory of these sounds.
His movements thrust her bed against the wall; she hears the loud thump of wood meeting wood. That now-familiar pooling has begun again in her stomach, and surges when he bends again to lave her breast with his tongue.
She begins to beg him—please, please—and it is as much a cry for him to ease this hot ache within her as it is to save her, shelter her, take her away from the smoke and sin of this town. She begs him, because if she has indeed signed her name in Satan’s book this night, she intends to get something from it.
He grips her leg, tugging it so it wraps around his lean hips, and then snakes his hand down to touch her again.
“Come now, Alina,” he demands, fingers plucking at her. “Come now, it’s time.”
The rising heat bursts within her, pulsing out in little waves. She curls into him again, head pressed to his throat. She stays frozen like this, sheltering in the heat of his body, while he continues to move within her. Then he jerks, and she feels a different warmth saturate the insides of her body.
He sags onto her, breathing heavily, and Alina feels hidden under the shielding weight of him. She thinks men could burst into this room, come to take her away, and mayhap this man would protect her.
He does not move from her until his breaths settle, and then he leans to the side, staring at her. The fire is dying now, only glowing embers, and his face is cast in shadow.
He traces her throat with a finger, runs it down to circle her breast, then back up, painting her lips with his touch.
“What are you?” He asks. “You’ve bewitched me.”
Alina rises early that morning, while the sky is still cloaked in gray. She creeps to her door, slipping outside barefooted, to feel the cold chill of the world on her face. She is a different woman now, she thinks, as she looks at the naked birch trees shivering in the distance. A chill breeze lifts a lock of her hair, and it dances on the wind. She does not feel damned, not yet, feels only a dull ache between her legs and a faint rawness on her jaw from where his beard rubbed her skin. She looks at the little stars that have punched through the shroud of the sky, and watches as they fade.
She goes back inside when she grows too cold, when she begins to shiver and her toes grow numb. He is still sleeping, and though she feels unsure, she climbs back into bed with him. Her blanket has shifted, exposing his chest, and she runs her eyes over him greedily since he is asleep and cannot judge this new promiscuity.
She sees the rise and fall of his chest, the strength of his arms. She sees the marks she sucked on his skin, lurid bruises that shame her in the light of day, proof of her wantonness. And then…a birthmark she had not noticed before: an uneven patch on his hip. She looks at him to make sure he sleeps still, and then runs her finger over it, feeling the slight rise of the skin.
He sucks in a breath, and she looks to him, now awake.
He runs his eyes over her face, over the tangle of her hair and the bites he sucked onto her neck.
He says nothing, just continues to scan her face, and then presses a finger to her lips.
“Our secret, Mistress Starkov.”