Actions

Work Header

Oh, but Conformity is Such a Dull Routine!

Chapter Text

A thin mist blankets the town, it smothers the greens of the leaves, the grasses and the underbrush. It leeches out their colour, turning everything the same stony grey as the rock. Occasionally, a warm orange glow peers through the almost unbearable grey as the carriage passes by various streetlamps. No one is out. It’s much too early for anyone to be milling around. The streets are devoid of any life except for a street dog that darts into an alleyway. 

 

The thundering hooves of the horses that pull the carriage split the silence, accompanied by the raucous, metallic shrieks of the wheels. The rickety sounds heralds the arrival of the decrepit carriage. Inside seats its lone passenger, a woman both annoyed and exhausted of having to practically stay up the entire night because she was expected to arrive at such an unreasonable time. She exhales a breath and watches the water vapor float in the air like a small cloud before it dissipates. She’s still feeling the cold she felt when she waited for the carriage. It was late. She was left shivering in the winter cold on the platform with ten minutes of numbing quiet before the damn thing arrived. 

 

I really should have worn a better coat, she thinks dully, this house better be warm when I get to it.

 

This is too much of a far cry from what she’s used to. The past five years has been one adrenaline rush after another, her life constantly threatened with each passing battle. But she reveled in it. Reveled in fighting in the five year war that’s just finished. Perhaps she enjoyed it too much considering she’s been branded a war hero. 

 

She snorts at one of the titles that’s been given to her. ‘War hero’ was just a fancy term meaning ‘person who killed a bunch of people on the opposing side.’ Not that she minded, exterminating with extreme prejudice was what she did best. Now with the fighting’s over and the enemy has finally been subjugated, Maevis finds herself bouncing her knee restlessly as the carriage rocks and creaks. It’s too calm and it’s too quiet. Sure, it’s in the dead hours of the morning, but that never mattered when she was a soldier or when she was a bounty-hunter. Anyone could strike at any moment, no matter the time of day. 

 

She feels like she’s going to be hearing the horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the road in her dreams for a while. She finds she prefers the noise of bullets and explosions. 

 

Calm the fuck down, Maevis. The war’s over. You can go back to being a gun for hire later, she inwardly chides herself.

 

She’s been lauded for her exploits upon coming back to her home country of Asnain. So much so that even the Empress herself saw it fit to grant her an entire estate. She’s never held any love for nobles, much less the Empress, especially when she’s expected to arrive at the estate in the dead hours of the morning and in the numbing quiet. This entire journey as been one minor nuisance after another that’s been building up and threatening to bubble over. She just really wants to punch something. 

 

She inhales. Counts to ten. Exhales. 

 

She knows she doesn’t really have anything to complain about. The war’s over. She doesn’t have to deal with the politics and fallout of it because she’s not a noble. And, well, a free house is a free house. But something still makes her restless. Her knee continues to bounce. 

 

A raspy “woah!” calls out and the carriage is halted to a stop with a soft screech. The doors reluctantly eases open as if the handles are stiff with arthritis. Maevis doesn’t waste any time stepping out and hauling her luggage off the top of the carriage. She’s grateful to finally be free of the noisy thing, the sounds were starting to drive her mad and she was on the cusp of starting a yelling match with the coachwoman. She turns to throw a small coin purse to the driver, who catches it without glancing at her. Maevis peeks at the horses and it’s clear the entirety of this woman’s budget goes to her beasts of burden. Their muscles ripple under the freshly groomed pelt and powerful legs. They’re healthy and strong, a stark contrast to the carriage itself that looks like it’s about to fall apart. Given a hero’s welcome at the border and gifted an estate only to now be given some rickety and aged wagon to ride on. What a joke.

 

The coachwoman grunts something and the horses begin to walk off. The carriage continues to squeak and creak before it eventually disappears into the mist. Maevis turns to the opposite direction and she sees she’s been lead up a hill. The estate oversees the small town she just passed through. Grey mist still covers and suffocates every building and every tree at their base, swallowing every distant object. She supposes she’ll only have a good look at her new hometown later in the day.

 

Then she turns to directly face the mansion before her. She doesn’t know how old it is, but it looks as though it’s been recently renovated for her arrival. The building looms proudly behind creaky iron and spiked gates, flanked by rows of skeletal trees that have lost their leaves in the autumn season. In the garden she can see a delicate marble fountain, the gurgling of the water sounding positively melodic in the surrounding bleak silence. 

 

Maevis shivers and wrings her hands together. Of course it’s still cold and her thin jacket and trouser-pants aren’t enough to protect her from the elements. Her eyes flick to the oversized, mullioned windows of the mansion and she spots flickering light dancing upon the glass panes. Someone’s here, and she can take a guess on who it is.

 

Luckily the gate is unlocked and she pries it open. She sighs. Time for a new lease on life. 

 

She makes her way into the estate. 

 


 

Evidently, the estate also came with its furniture. Maevis didn’t know what she was going to do with half the rooms in the house since she frankly didn’t need them. Still, the warmth that greets her when she enters the building and the inviting yellow candlelight from the many candelabras hanging on the ceiling is worlds apart from the derelict shack she used to call home when she was a bounty-hunter. 

 

But a shack worked for her. She seldom used it anyway. She was always on the move, on a hunt that took her far and wide across the countryside. Now she’s no longer in the business to do her usual work. She’s been given enough by the Empress to basically retire early. She’s only just barely entered her new mansion and the rooms already feel too big and too suffocating at the same time. She wants to fight something. Rather than bounce her knee, her fingers flex around the hands of her bags restlessly. She peaks at the chandelier to try to distract herself.

 

This is a nice chandelier. Pretty. Yeah.

 

A stellar second long distraction. Before she can think of releasing that pent up energy in the form of punching something, she hears rapid footsteps approach from the adjacent room before the doors fly open, hitting the wall with a bang. 

 

“Maevis! There you are, I was beginning to think you didn’t make it!” A boisterous voice calls out and she’s greeted with the familiar scarred face of her friend and fellow soldier, “Just imagine it, the Wolf of Brackensberg done in by the winter chill. War hero turned a laughing stock, haha!”

 

Maevis huffs at her other moniker, a name given to her after she and her squad infiltrated a military base in an area called Brackensberg. Suffice to say, many necks were broken that night.

 

She matches her friend’s smile with one of her own and laughs lightly, “I was given a shitty carriage to ride on, Cal. I thought the thing was going to break apart at any moment.”

 

She appraises her friend. Calvara Kuere. A tall, rather ungainly woman who was a mercenary before she was drafted into the war. Her caramel hair is tied tightly into a messy bun and she wears a tailored suit that contrasts her battletorn face. The gruesome scars on her face seemed all the more prominent in the flickering candlelight. There’s almost no part of her that wasn’t untouched by some injury. 

 

“You’ve got the scar that everyone wants on their face because it makes you look attractive,” Calvara had said when they were drinking at a pub one night, “I bet you have every bachelor around here hot and bothered with your rugged appearance. Meanwhile I’m stuck here looking like the wicked witch of the forest, hah!”

 

Maevis supposes she should be thankful the only scar that’s gracing her own face is one that goes down her cheek to her lips. Something she got when one of her targets tried to defend herself with a butcher’s knife.

 

Maevis sets her luggage down and the two women embrace in a tight hug. Her back is patted by a strong hand several times before they separate.

 

Maevis pats Calvara on the shoulder, “Look at you! All dressed up like some pompous noble. Where’d you get this?”

 

Calvara fiddles with the collar of her luxurious long covercoat and Maevis sees her fingers are adorned with ruby studded rings. 

 

“You’re not the only one who was rewarded for maiming people, Maevis.” Calvara then studies her, she brings her hand to her chin as if in deep thought and then sighs dramatically. 

 

“Maevis,” she shakes her head, “Maevis, Maevis, Maevis. Don’t you know you’re practically a noble now with this giant house and riches that was bestowed upon you by the ever generous Empress? You can’t go around wearing ragged tatters for clothing. You look like a beggar. And your hair’s too long, it’s reaching your ass.”

 

Maevis snorts, though there’s still a smile on her expression, “I’ll have you know that you look fucking awful in that thing. I doubt I’d look much better.” Then, her expression develops into a cringe, “And the last thing I want is to pretend I’m a noble.”

 

Calvara shrugs nonchalantly and then flicks a finger at Maevis’s forehead. 

 

“Just pretend to look the part for now. Remember, you’re gonna be the main event for the Gala in a few months. Knighted by the Empress and all that nonsense. After that you can drop the pomp and circumstance, yeah? Everyone will forget who you are after that.”

 

Then she clasps her hands together excitedly before Maevis can reply, face lighting up with a wider smile. 

 

“Now, let’s take a look around your new abode. I didn’t spend the day telling people what to clean or where to put stuff for nothing.”

 


 

Calvara leads her around the seemingly endless rooms and corridors. Every room is adorned by a large window, so that they can be bathed in daylight from the first kiss of dawn to the twilight hours. It was all so very grandiose and regal with it’s large oak doors and red carpets.

 

Eventually, they reach a study. Every inch of the wall is covered by shelves filled with books Maevis doubts she’ll ever read. The two of them sit at the large rectangular table at the center of the room, cups of tea in their hand that Calvara had brewed when they visited the kitchen. 

 

Maevis sighs heavily, “Where’d you even get half this shit, anyway? Like, thanks for helping me move in but, really?” She pinches the bridge of her nose, “I’m going to have to hire a fucking armada of servants for the upkeep of this place.”

 

Calvara sips her tea, then leans back on her chair and spins a desk globe ornament on the table. 

 

“Stuff was already here. I just cleaned and moved stuff. Well, I got other people to do that but whatever. Like I said, you’ve gotta keep up appearances. Your place is gonna be flooded when the town wakes up. Everyone’s gonna wanna meet the local war hero.” She winks. Maevis rolls her eyes. She’s been hearing that fucking term far too much lately. It’s beginning to annoy her.

 

“I didn’t join the war to become a fucking celebrity. I hope everyone will forget me when the Gala happens so I can sell this place and go back to hunting people for a living.” She glares at the tea like it personally insulted her and her knee begins to bounce again, “This house is already stifling. It’s too big. It feels like a cage,” she flicks her hand at a buzzing fly, “I don’t want to be gawked at like an animal in a circus.”

 

This house is too much. I can’t deal with all this extra space. A stationary lifestyle is just not… me. Regal doesn’t fit me.

 

Calvara blows a raspberry and crosses her arms, “You’ll be gawked at for a while and then they’ll forget about you. Don’t worry about it. And you’re planning to sell this place already? Seriously? Your backyard is a forest. Go take the horse out and hunt some rabbits if you’re itching to kill something that badly.”

 

That makes Maevis pause.

 

“Horse? What horse?”

 

“Behind the mansion is a stable, Empress gifted you a horse too. A white mare.” She smirks, canines peeking out, “You’ll look real noble riding on that thing.”

 

She throws her head back and groans, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

 

“Nope.” She pops the P. 

 

Bitch. She’s having too much fun with this, her thoughts are harsh but there’s no malice behind them. She likes her friend too much to actually hate her. She looks back at Calvara, who now has her face cradled in her hands, elbows propped up on the table. Her grin can only be described as shit eating. 

 

She quirks a brow, “Now what?”

 

“I was about to tell you that that Valentine girl, you remember her, right? She’s heading off to Utreau as an interpreter. When she comes back I’ve told her to give your wardrobe a makeover like she did with mine.”

 

The good natured smile returns on Maevis’s face, “Considering how you look, I don’t hold much stock in her sense of fashion.”

 

Calvara continues, undaunted, “You remember that sniper that part of your squad? The one that said barely anything for the entire war? Nadine? She’ll be your personal steward now. Helping with paperwork and whatever other bullshit you can’t do, probably coming over this afternoon. Just like a real noble .”

 

Maevis downs her entire cup of tea like it’s a mug of beer. I really need to drink this morning away.

 

“Aaaaaaaaaaand,” Calvara draws out the word while she stands up and takes out a thick book from one of the shelves and throws it on the table, making the teacups jump slightly. 

 

She taps on the book cover before opening it, revealing the photo album within. It’s a series of portraits of young men with their names, ages, and other useless information listed. Maevis suddenly feels a pit in her stomach. Her knee bounces faster.

 

“You can find yourself a man pretty easily here. I heard the duchess of this estate had commissioned the mansion to impress the groom of her choice and apparently it had worked rather too well; she ended up getting multiple grooms.”

 

Maevis groans again, followed by an even more annoyed eyeroll. “I’m—I’m not getting fucking married.”

 

Calvara points at her, “Look the part!” 

 

“There’s a difference to looking the part and actually getting tied down to a man! If I’m gonna go back to bounty-hunting a man will only slow me down,” she hears her own voice. This is most exasperated she’s felt in a long time.

 

It’s too much.

 

This time, Calvara groans, but much more dramatically. “ Again with the bounty-hunting. You’ve enough riches to retire. Just deal with bullshit of being famous for a while and then live an easy and lazy life. Why are you so against that?”

 

“And why are you so invested in what I do?”

 

Calvara sits back down on her chair and crosses her arms, “Because I’m your friend and I care for you, shockingly enough. We both know what it’s like to fight for your next meal, and now we’ve been given a way to live the rest of our lives without any trouble on a golden platter. Literally. Is it so wrong that I want to see you settle down, and you know… happy?”

 

Maevis furrows her brows, suddenly feeling guilty. She supposes she can humour her friend for now and think about what she’ll do in the future after getting some rest.

 

Then Calvara sits back, and uncrosses her arms to put her hands at the back of her head, “I know I’m gonna take full advantage of the privileges handed down to me. Get me a second husband. One that can actually cook, because Alex sure as shit can’t.” Then she gives a toothy grin, “That’s another reason to get a man. You said you’d need an armada to clean this place, well, what’s the difference between a servant and a husband? You don’t have to pay the husband, hah!”

 

Maevis takes another glance at the portraits of young bachelors looking up at her as Calvara continues to guffaw at her own joke. How long has she been bouncing her knee now?

 

“I don’t know…” She says, “Picking them out from a book, just basically shopping for a husband. Eugh. I don’t like it.”

 

Calvara crosses her legs and puts her arms back on the table, “If you’re that against it, you can go the old fashion way and enslave a man.” She lets out another guffaw when Maevis grimaces, “All you’d need to do is stick a collar on his neck, and I’m sure as your status as a local celebrity you’d have men just lining up for the opportunity!” 

 

“That’s illegal,” Maevis deadpans.

 

“Like you ever gave a shit about the law.”

 

Maevis plays with a strand of her hair. Calvara was right, it has grown out too long. Full of split ends too. Perhaps Frea can cut her hair when she re-does her wardrobe. Her knee slows its bouncing when she begins to hear a cacophony of chirps as the birds finally awaken. Light filters through the window as the sun rises.

 

Calvara stands up and stretches her arms above her head, “And that’s my cue to leave, don’t worry, I’ll lock the gate and throw the key over. Now, I wouldn’t want to leave Alex all alone for too long or else he’ll talk my ear off,” she’s walking towards the door when she turns her head to give Maevis one last smile and wink, “Besides, I’ve gotta tell him a new man will be joining the Keure household soon.”

 

She leaves, and Maevis can hear the front door opening and closing when she exits the mansion. 

 

She sighs. She feels as though she’s been sighing a lot recently. War over and propped up in a new house. A fucking mansion. It’s too big for one person, but apparently Nadine will be joining her soon. She likes Nadine, but she’s stoic and not much for conversation. Practically emotionless, really. She’ll probably act as her shadow like she did in the war, a ghost flying through these halls. If anything she’ll be someone for Maevis to spar against and hunt with, for her to release her pent up energy that’s making her far too restless. 

 

Her knee bounces again with full-force. Fuck, she felt so right at home in the war. She stands, almost knocking her chair over in the process. She paces around the room, feeling like a lion prowling four corners of a small cage. All her problems were solved by force of arms and gunshots, but now she finds she can’t get out of being a local celebrity with just brute force. Her one companion for many years was a six-shot revolver that she named Frenzy. Her hand instinctively goes to where it sits holstered on her hip. 

 

She fucking loves her gun. It’s old, but she’d sooner die than part with it. As a bounty-hunter, she usually had the option to bring in her prey either dead or alive. She always went with dead. Perhaps that was too cruel, that it showed she lacked any morals. But morals were a weakness and no person still living had accused her of having either.

 

And because of her distinct lack of a moral compass, she thinks she might actually open fire on the people that will undoubtedly flock her new estate when word gets out she’s moved in. She doesn’t like attention, but that’ll just give her more attention from all the wrong people, she may have earned a reputation for being hard to kill in the war but she sure as shit doesn’t want to start something with her own country. 

 

She stares at the book, then walks back to her seat to sit down in front of it. 

 

What is this, the Big Book of Available Bachelors? Fucking nobles.

 

People will be trickling down to the mansion. It’ll be a circus. 

 

But.

 

Buuuuuut.

 

Seeing prospective bachelors for her to potentially marry will be the best excuse to avoid the crowd. It’ll also help her ‘look the part'. Besides, just because she’s basically interviewing men doesn’t mean she actually has to marry them. If anything, it’ll be an excuse to not only avoid the crowd, but also to oogle some young eye-candy. 

 

She looks at the faces in the black and white portraits. Calvara talked about enslavement, and just picking out a man of your fancy reminded her of a slave auction. Wasn’t part of the reason they waged a five year war against Utreau was because of their practice of legalized slavery?

 

She sighs. Again.

 

She thinks back to Calvara also mentioning getting a second husband. With the amount of money she has now she’s sure she can acquire several, but she’s certain a harem will cause nothing but trouble, what with all the testosterone and inevitable jealousy and competition.

 

Whatever. Not like I’m actually getting married anyway. Stop thinking so hard about it.

 

Her knee bounces again and it’s a completely unconscious movement now. She exhales sharply before closing the book. She shuts her eyes, feels around the book, and opens to a random page. With her eyes still closed, she circles a finger above the page and then points down.

 

She pries her eyelids open and looks to where her finger landed. 

 

The man in the portrait almost looks… annoyed. Miffed about an inconvenience. He's not smiling, and his brows are knitted slightly. He doesn’t look like he liked getting his photo taken at all. But he’s a handsome man. A good jawline with a straight-edged nose and clean-shaven. From what she could tell, his eyes were dark. Probably brown. It fits his dark tousled hair. 

 

She looks down to his name.

 

Julian von Leventis.*  

 

An awfully fancy sounding last name, but one she hasn’t heard of before. But she never really cared to memorize the noble families in the area. Interestingly, his name is marked with an asterisk. There's notes at the bottom of the page that tells her what the asterisk means.

 

Not a virgin.

 

She snorts, loudly. Of course something like that would be noted down. She never put stock in a man’s virginity like the rest of society apparently still does. She looks at his age.

 

Birthdate: Tleohn 20th, 1173. Year of the Crow.

 

She does the math in her head. He’s twenty-six, twenty-seven in eight months time. That’s… older than most of the men pictured here. They’re usually in the seventeen-nineteen year range. But it’s probably because he’s not a virgin, he’s been defiled, so no one wants to marry him . And probably partly superstition as well. Year of the Crow is generally seen as a bad year for boys. 

 

She prefers that if anything, since it means the age gap isn’t massive. She’s nine years older. Not too bad. Certainly smaller than most age gaps between a husband and a wife.

 

She takes a glance at the accompanying photos of the other men. They’re smiling. He’s the only one not cracking a fake grin.

 

She smirks.

 

A black sheep, then?

 

Or crow, whatever. Either way, he’s clearly someone who doesn’t quite… fit in here. An outcast. 

 

And that piques her interest. She fully expected to have to deal with a boy that sucks up to her. To puff up his shoulders and submissively bow to her to show her he’s prime husband material. Though this one looks like he isn’t very keen on doing that. He doesn’t look like he’d play the usual game men are expected to in this situation. She always liked people who broke away from her expectations.

 

Maybe this will be fun.

 

She starts looking up his family’s contact information. Her knee stops bouncing.

 


 

The crack of the riding crop hitting flesh is the only sound that echoes throughout the room. A low light filters in when the closed curtains move lightly, briefly bathing the faded tapestry hanging on the wall in a faded orange.

 

The man who’s the riding crop’s target grips onto the silken sheets of the bed. He’s on his knees, ass up and head down. Naked from the waist down. He presses his cheek to the cool, velvet pillows and exhales a sharp breath. 

 

“Harder,” he grunts.

 

He hears the sharp whistle of the crop before he feels it. It makes him clench his fingers against the sheets. There’s only a brief stinging on his asscheek before the pain fades. It’s not painful enough. The sting needs to last longer. It's not enough. 

 

“Harder,” he repeats, louder this time. 

 

This time he jumps when it hits him, but slightly. It’s a harder hit, but just barely. 

 

It’s not enough.

 

He lifts his body up so that he’s on all fours. He turns his head with a fierce glare etched on his face, “I said harder, Francesca!” He glares at the woman in question, one of the guards of his sister’s estate, “Are you fucking deaf? Do I need to hit myself to show you how it’s done?”

 

Francesca glowers at him. This was a song and dance they performed at least once a week by now. He’d wait for his sister, Anna, to leave somewhere for business and he’d drag Francesca to his room. Order her to beat him, he’d spout out abuse to make her angry so she’d hit him harder. Make him sob and beg. Make him apologize for his deplorable behaviour. The pain was euphoric. Positively divine when compared to the monotony of his daily life of constantly being drilled the same etiquette lessons everyday by headmasters who’ve clearly given up on him a long time ago.

 

And they’re right. He is hopeless. He’s nothing more than a disgraced whore. Julian von Leventis, a name that might as well as be used to scare young boys. A boogeyman to tell them that “this is what happens when you don’t stay chaste for your future wife.”

 

Once, whenever he went somewhere he was followed by whispers and gossip. Julian the whore. Unmarriageable. Sometimes young women would throw a coin purse at him, asking “Is this enough for your services?”  It had tormented him, but it’s been nearly a decade since he lost his virginity to a woman who was all too happy to sully his reputation. 

 

And now he finds he doesn’t care anymore. If anything, he’s grateful since he now has a woman like Francesca to have these trysts with.

 

They want a whore? He’ll fucking give them one.

 

He wiggles his arse at Francesca and gives a low, rough chuckle, “Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to give me the riding crop so I can give myself a proper beating?” He continues in a more mocking tone, “Are you daft, too?”

 

She shakes her head as if in exasperation, her blonde wavy hair moving almost gracefully at the motion.

 

"You are a brat," she says.

 

"Then hurry up and punish me like one or else I'll fire you," he spits. It's not a bluff or a lie, not really. Francesca isn’t the first guard he’s made these sort of… arrangements with. Getting his guards to agree to these sort of secretive trysts was surprisingly easy. Maybe it was because of his sullied reputation, and maybe it was the allure of fucking the man of the house and getting away with it, but it wasn’t long before he had something hook, line, and sinker.

 

The challenge of getting them to actually fuck him properly was the real issue. The first months he tried to find someone was terrible. It felt like he was experiencing something close to withdrawal symptoms. He needed more for his body and nothing was ever enough. He asked for a whipping, he got light strokes. He asked to be pushed around, he got silly play acting. He asked to get slapped, he got pathetic taps. Eventually asking became commanding, but it seldom helped.

 

So he fired the ones who couldn’t beat him like he wanted. He may be a man, but he was still technically their boss, especially when his sister wasn’t around. 

 

Naturally it didn’t exactly do wonders for his reputation, but, again, he doesn’t care. And he figured any chance to piss off his sister was a good one. 

 

Francesca was a blessing. Her self-control was remarkable and she usually got the job done. Best of all, he could command her to do what he wanted done. It made him giddy. Him, commanding a woman and having the reigns in the bedroom despite the fact he’s the one being dominated. It felt as though it was the only sense of actual control he had in his life. 

 

The woman in question continues to glower at him, and she takes a single step closer and Julian licks his lips because he knows what’s coming. He returns to his original position of his face pressed against the pillows when he sees her lift her own up.

 

He hears the whistle in the air.

 

And when it hits him, he yelps. It’s a hit worthy of someone who’s the descendant of a famous knight. The light sting turns into a searing pain and he groans into the pillow. She hits him again and the resounding twack reverberates across the room, followed by his moaning. He arches his back further, presenting his ass like it’s her prize. 

 

“Is that how a man should speak?” She asks, her voice rough and she hits him again like he’s a horse that should gallop faster. Another hit comes in faster than before and he writhes on the sheets. There must be red marks blooming across his pale skin now. 

 

He pants and nearly bites his bottom lip hard enough he bleeds when she hit him several times in quick succession. His cock twitches, fully hard, and leaks a single drop of precum. His toes curl at the thought of him pinching and prodding his future sores and bruises the next day. 

 

“Y-You,” he rasps, “Can do better than that. Those hits were like a child’s.” It’s always like this, him egging her on. The lines were pretty much rehearsed, and the script worked every time because he demanded it to.

 

She hits him again, faster now and giving him no time to make another snide remark. His body jerks each time the riding crop makes contact with his skin, the sounds of cracks and the whimpers he can no longer stop himself from uttering creating a symphony of debauched noises. 

 

Now it’s Francesca’s turn to relay her own script, “Men. Your type always needs to have a beating to put you back in your place.” She punctuates that with a hit so hard he thinks the riding crop is going to break in half and he squeals, “You’re so pathetic, but I suppose at least you’ve got a woman to whip you back into shape. Literally.” She alternates between each cheek and the backs of his thighs with such ferocity he eventually falls to his side and curls in on himself. His eyes shut tightly to ward off the tears, it’s not time for that just yet. He gasps sharply, exhaling a breath he didn’t know he was holding. 

 

He hears Francesca dropping the riding crop and opening something, and he peers at her to see her beginning to put oil on her fingers. 

 

“Don’t,” he growls, throat dry, “I can take your fingers just fine. I’m not made of glass.” Truthfully, it’s because he desires even more pain.

 

Her brows furrow and her eyes narrow when she throws the snakeskin pouch to the side. 

 

“Fine, but don’t come to crying to me if you need to go to the hospital because I broke your stupid ass,” she mutters. She’s long since given up on trying to convince him to take proper preparations like these. He prefers it this way. He wants, no, needs to feel like his body is on the cusp of breaking like he is made of glass. Francesca has told him before that his mindset isn’t healthy. But, well. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about a lot of things, not anymore. 

 

And the fact he ordered her again makes him bare a toothy smirk. 

 

Francesca approaches him on the bed and he’s sure she can hear his heartbeat thundering in his chest. His eyes are hooded and he’s still smirking when he meets her honey gaze. She moves in and pushes his bangs back as she rakes her fingers through his messy hair. 

 

Then, she grips him tightly. His scalp feeling the biting pain as she pulls his head back and forces him to go back to his original position. Now with his ass up and head down again, he feels her hot breath against his nape as she holds him down. 

 

He whimpers when he feels her lips run along the shell of his ear. She sucks lightly on the lobe and his asshole clenches he feels her other hand pinch at one of the riding crop marks before running along his balls to his perineum.

 

She slowly circles his hole and his face fills with the same fiery heat currently engulfing his rear. His cock leaks some more when she lightly prods at him. 

 

But it’s all she does. His arousal and anticipation is quickly replaced with annoyance and impatience. He shifts on his knees. 

 

He grits his teeth, “Fucking do something—Ah!” he’s cut off with a shrill yelp when Francesca sinks her finger knuckle deep. The grip in his hair tightens and pushes him further into the pillow and she growls into his ear. 

 

“Looks like you can take my fingers just fine. A good slut, like a proper man.”

 

Chilled bumps run down his torso as her fingers pump in and out of him with measured movements. She’s fast and unrelenting and he feels as though his stomach is tight in a tight knot. 

 

“Nnnggh, haah…” He clenches down on her finger when she roughly inserts a second digit inside of him. He back arches, like he’s a cat stretching its back. It hurts. It hurts so good. She stretches him further when she makes a V-shape and his voice becomes pitched when he mewls into the pillow. 

 

She continues fucking him roughly and bites down on his neck, hard. She sucks at his tender flesh and the pain from her teeth and fingers makes him see stars. His cock feels like it’s about to burst, the pressure becoming almost unbearable. 

 

She effortlessly inserts a third finger and he can feel the tears prickle at the corner of his eyes again. His breathing is rapid and uneven as she stretches him, occasionally twisting to coax more whimpers and cries out of him. He finds he can’t develop a single coherent thought of sentence anymore. 

 

Her fingers felt so good as they mercilessly pounded into him, so achingly good slipping up and down his tight walls. One of his hands that was holding onto the bedsheets as if for dear life finds their way to his dripping cock and he begins to pump himself quickly.

 

“F-Fuck…! Nnnh—haah—nng,” is all he can utter out of his now dry throat, tears rolling down his face. 

 

Then, Francesca hooks her fingers against those bundle of nerves and Julian screams. He dry-heaves, stomach lurching and body shaking violently when he cums. Francesca exits him and releases his neck of her teeth as she lets him ride his orgasm out. 

 

At some point he doesn’t feel her presence anymore, and he lays there sniffling with his fingers and legs twitching occasionally. 

 

She comes back with a glass of water in her hand and she brings it to his face.

 

“Here,” is all she says, softly this time. 

 

He sits up and gingerly takes the glass from her hands and drinks from it. At some point, she tries to tangle her fingers in his hair again, but gentle this time. To caress him. 

 

He bats her hand away, “Leave. You’re dismissed,” he croaks. 

 

She frowns. She always frowned at this part. Always mentioned something called aftercare but he finds he doesn’t want anyone near him after sex. Especially women.

 

She sighs. 

 

“I’ll get a servant to bring you some food, and take a bath, yeah? If you won’t let someone take care of you at least take care of yourself.”

 

He rolls his eyes, “I said you’re dismissed.”

 

She’s about to say something, but her mouth immediately clamps shut at a familiar sound suddenly echoing outside.

 

Clip. Clop.

 

He blinks.

 

Horses?

 

Then he can hear the wheels of a carriage. 

 

Shit. 

 

“Fucking go!” he whispers frantically, “Leave!” This time she doesn’t argue with him and makes a hasty retreat out of the room. He haphazardly puts on his own clothes and tries to wash his face with what little water he has left in his cup. 

 

Anna’s back already? I thought she was returning only in the evening, it’s still the afternoon.

 

Now clothed, he hears the front door opening loudly. He internally notes that someone should grease the damn hinges sometime. 

 

He rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck before leaving his room. 

 


 

Julian is almost at the base of the spiral staircase when he hears his sister calling out his name. He reaches her and spreads his arms far and wide to greet her.

 

“Dearest sister of mine,” he drawls, “I was expecting you to return much later. Miss me so much you just had to come back, didn’t you?”

 

She appraises him, giving him a once over. He knows his eyes are still red-rimmed and puffy, the bite mark on his neck is visible and he doesn’t bother hiding the awkward gait in his walk. 

 

Her expression turns into a look he’s grown quite used to, as it’s been thrown his way by both his sister and many others over the years. 

 

Disappointment and disdain.

 

It’s no secret he’s currently living up to his whore reputation, what is a secret is who he’s having trysts with. No doubt Anna would fire Francesca if she found out, and Julian’s not prepared to try to coax another guard into roughing him up again after finding someone who fulfills his needs so perfectly. 

 

So, he keeps her identity a secret while flaunting the fact someone is currently debasing him in sex.

 

Anna folds her arms and her face looks as though it’s etched in stone now. She’s become quite the convincing imitation of their mother after inheriting the von Leventis estate and obligations. 

 

“I’ve told a servant to get you a fresh set of clothes,” she says, almost annoyed, “Clean yourself and cover your… neck. We’re going to Beckinsale. Now.”

 

His hands fall to his side and he tilts his head. “Huh? Why?” He doesn’t think he’s ever been Beckinsale, what with it being a completely unassuming town that’s mostly useless to merchants, and therefore to his family.

 

“Maevis Bernard wants to meet you over the prospect of an arranged marriage.”

 

Julian’s spine straightened like a whip pulled taut. Bernard? He thinks, trying to remember any noble family with that name but comes up blank. Who in the shitting hell—

 

He hears his sister scoff, “Of course you don’t know who she is,” she says as if she just read his thoughts, “I wonder, do you know we just ended a war with Utreau? Probably not, since you’re so busy having your face in between someone’s legs.”

 

“My, not even hiding your hatred for me today? I heard that’s a bad look for a woman.” He gives her a condescending smile and she merely tells him to get ready again. 

 

She leaves him in the main foyer and he feels a slight bubbling of anxiety build up in his stomach. His jaw tenses. It’s been literal years since someone’s asked to meet him over the prospect of marriage. The name is familiar now that Anna mentioned the war. He thinks he’s seen the name mentioned in the paper. Some famous soldier. Famous enough to start asking for marriageable bachelors from noble families, apparently. She’s started at the bottom of the barrel with him, that’s for sure. 

 

He tries to temper his growing anxiety. 

 

She’ll hate me as soon as she sees me. If not, I’ll make sure to be as unappealing as possible.

 

He knows why his sister seems very keen on getting them there as soon as possible. Sons were a gambling chip, passed down from mother to daughter if they don’t get married quickly enough. But ever since his status as a pariah was more or less firmly set in stone, Julian was useless to both his mother and sister. Now that his mom has passed, he knows he’s certainly overstayed his welcome with his sister. He not only sullies his own reputation but also the von Leventis name with his antics. 

 

So of course at this point Anna just wants to get rid of him. Perhaps there’s even some political power to be gained depending on how famous this soldier really is. 

 

But he doesn’t want to get married. He knows ultimately no one gives a shit about what he wants, but he’s going to make damn sure this Maevis person doesn’t want to even look at him by the end of it. He doesn’t care about many things. A man can be talked down to for only so long before he doesn’t give a shit about his family name or reputation anymore. But this? This absurd sexual relationship he currently has with Francesca? He cares about that. He doesn’t care about Francesca as a person, but he cares about the freedom and control he has over the fling they’re having. It’s the only thing he has control over. The only real freedom he has. He also likes to think of it as his own way to give society the middle finger. A sort of way for him to rebel. 

 

So he won’t give that up. Not by a long shot. 

 

He’s going to make this woman hate him.

 

Chapter Text

Maevis doesn't like the big house, but she definitely likes the bed. It's softer than anything she's ever slept on before and a comforting darkness immediately enveloped her the second she laid her head on the pillows. She thinks she might have slept a day. She isn't sure. She's already lost track of time.

 

What did I even do yesterday…?

 

Perhaps it was too good of a slumber, because now she's far too groggy and dazed. Her hair is a matted mess on her head and she has to claw at it to even see her surroundings. She moves her bangs aside to blink the world into focus and—

 

There's a dark figure standing at the corner of the room.

 

Mind suddenly screaming at her and heart thundering against her chest, she scrambles to reach for her gun at the nightstand. When she hastily points it at the intruder her gaze is finally focused. 

 

She puts Frenzy down and groans exasperatedly. 

 

"Nadine! When — When did you get here?" 

 

The glasses wearing woman has a completely blank expression and Maevis can’t tell what she’s thinking. She was a fair bit infamous for that in the war, being cold and unapproachable. Though she was a good soldier, and an even better sniper. Following orders seemed to be her calling, which is probably why she decided to become her steward of all things. 

 

I guess she does look dashing with the suit and bob cut. Maybe she likes the fashion, Maevis muses.

 

“I came here about two hours ago. I did not know what you wanted me to do. So I waited.”

 

And she’s completely monotone. Classic Nadine. 

 

Maevis scratches her head and yawns loudly. The events of yesterday is starting to come back to her. Nadine came shortly after Calvara and immediately started acting as her shadow. It was weird, but also familiar so she didn’t mind much. Then she sent the letter to the von Leventis family. Then she slept the entire day. 

 

“Right,” Maevis says groggily, “Next time just… relax I guess. Or clean around if you’re feeling antsy. If you don’t mind doing that, anyway.”

 

“Yes, Master.”

 

She winces, “Don’t call me that.”

 

Nadine only tilts her head, “Titles are part of decorum. What would you like me to call you instead?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, look at the part and all that shit. Just call me Sir like you did in the war, okay?”

 

There’s a nod and Maevis begins to braid her hair. She looks at Nadine’s outfit, it’s a silken black suit that appears to be specifically tailored for her. She looks down on her own outfit, tattered rags with haphazard stitching. She really does look like a beggar. 

 

She has to stop herself from yawning again, “Hey, Nadine, when is Valentine supposed to come back?”

 

“She does not have a set date to return. It’ll likely be a few months,” Nadine says dully. 

 

Maevis blows a breath. She’d appreciate a new wardrobe. Nothing exceptionally fancy of noble-y but… just something that isn’t torn to shreds. 

 

She throws a smile at Nadine, “Well, Calvara said she’d be in charge of my fashion. She was able to plan me moving in and you arriving, but she didn’t take into account that going in a country would take a while. Heh, guess she’s equal parts smart and equal parts stupid huh?”

 

She ends it off with a light chuckle. 

 

Nadine’s face is still expressionless and Maevis can feel her expression crack under her steely gaze. 

 

Her chuckle ends with an awkward cough.

 

She clears her throat and thinks about the previous day. Sure, she was exhausted and slept like a log because of it, and she imagines that’s why she promptly needed reminding on what she did yesterday.

 

Guess the change of scenery really did throw me out of the loop. 

 

She shakes her head. She doesn’t like forgetting important details.

 

Perhaps I’m rusty. I can’t be rusty. I should take Calvara’s advice and go rabbit hunting sometime. 

 

She cracks her neck and then rolls her shoulders. She takes a peek out of one of the curtains, it’s early morning but there’s no mist. Her room’s on the second floor and she has a pretty decent view of the town her mansion oversees, so she finally has the opportunity to take a good look at it. 

 

It's pleasant enough. Really, without the heavy mist it looks downright romantic. Rustic cabins dot the grassy hill going down to it, and the town itself is probably what a village becomes with no city planning but with a great enthusiasm for architecture. Every building is different, borrowing different aspects from many eras that span centuries. She’d call it as charming as a beloved grandfather’s quilt, every patch as unique and different as the last. 

 

She can’t help but smile at it. At least the place has personality. And other than this oversized mansion, there’s no indication that there’s a heavy nobility presence. Even better. 

 

She stops staring out the window and turns to Nadine, who’s still staring at her with a completely blank expression. 

 

Maevis gives her a lopsided smile, “Well, time for breakfast.”

 


 

Maevis isn’t very privy on what a steward actually does considering she’s never had one. But she’s pretty sure it doesn’t involve being one’s personal chef, no matter how much Nadine insists she sit in the dining room and wait for her breakfast to be served. She also liked to consider herself a decent cook. After all, practically being a nomad from bounty-hunting meant she had to take herself, and that included getting creative when it came to getting and making food. 

 

And she just doesn’t really trust other people making food for her. She learned the hard way that it’s simply far too easy poison someone’s food. She doesn’t expect Nadine to actually lace her food with anything, but, well. Old habits die hard. 

 

She makes herself something simple. Eggs, toast and fried potatoes. Nadine finished early and left to do… whatever it is stewards do. 

 

The only sounds in the room is clinking of cutlery hitting against the plate. It’s soon accompanied by the heel of her boot tapping against the floor constantly when her knee starts its bouncing. She hates that she has a nervous tic. She also hates how the only thing that fills her head is thoughts of the house and room being too big and suffocating again.

 

It’s too much.

 

Usually she’d be sitting in the middle of nowhere, in a tent with far too many holes in it and eating roasted deer or rabbit. It’d be small and cramped, but comfortable. It’d be noisy with the outside world, but comfortable. No people, no civilization, no need to keep up with stupid appearances. 

 

She bites down on her fork, hard enough she thinks she’s going to make her teeth shatter. 

 

Maybe the only thing I really need is to go camping.

 

She’s taken out of her unhelpful thoughts and bubbling anxiety when Nadine enters the room, lightly knocking on the open door to grab her attention. 

 

“Sir, a crowd is beginning to form at the front gates.”

 

Maevis takes the fork out of her mouth and stands, if only to make her knee stop its infuriating bouncing. Her hand unconsciously goes to Frenzy holstered on her hip and she has to inwardly chide herself that no these are just civilians and no one wants to kill you, idiot. 

 

She forces her hand to play with a strand of her instead and she blows a sharp breath, “Can’t you just tell them to go away?”

 

“I have done so. They will not leave.”

 

Of course they won’t.

 

The hand on her hair goes to rub her neck and she frowns sharply. She was able to avoid any crowd that may have came because she slept for the entire day. Before sleeping she covered every window with its curtains, partly because she wasn’t comfortable with how… voyeuristic it felt. And she’s glad she did, though her heel hitting the floor sounds much louder now. It thunders against her eardrums. It engulfs her and suddenly all she sees is black.

 

The people outside can’t see her now. They can’t come over the gate. They can’t come near her. They can’t touch her they can’t overwhelm her they can’t punchherkickherstabher—

 

Her body jolts when she feels a deceptively soft hand lands on her shoulder. The blackness disappears from her vision and now the only sounds in the room is her panting.

 

“Sir,” Nadine says, it’s an almost inaudible whisper, “You were having one of your episodes. Do you need me to fetch you some water?”

 

She blinks rapidly. She hadn’t realized she was breathing heavily either. She’s sure her face is pale as a ghost as well. She tries to stop herself and count to ten in between breaths. Eventually she calms down, free from the hurricane of thoughts and gives Nadine a shaky smile. The steward, while her expression is still blank, looks softer somehow.

 

“No, it’s alright. Thanks.” Damn, her voice sounds croaky. Maybe she should have actually accepted. Nadine, bless her, doesn’t look entirely convinced but doesn’t say anything. The steward lets go go her shoulder and takes a peek outside of the curtains. Maevis pinches the bridge of her nose, both frustrated at herself and infinitely grateful towards Calvara now. She probably got Nadine precisely because she knows of her… Issues. She’ll need to take her out of the pub as thanks. When she isn’t famous anymore, of course.

 

Stupid, is all that fills her thoughts, Stupid, stupid, stupid. You’re the Wolf of Brackensberg, not a fucking rabbit. 

 

She pinches her nose tighter, First you can’t deal with a big empty house and now you can’t deal with your neighbors. Pathetic. Do you want to be left alone or not?

 

Calvara said something about everyone forgetting her after the Gala. She hopes they’ll forget about her much sooner than that. She breathes in sharply. The Gala will involve a fucking huge crowd and—

 

She’s interrupted by Nadine again, and she already knows she needs to give the woman a raise. 

 

“There’s a carriage outside, Sir,” she pushes her glasses further up her nose with her forefinger, “It’s the von Leventis.”

 

Maevis splutters, “I — What? How do you know?” She peeks through the curtain, but just barely.

 

“It has her family crest. Do you want me to open the gate for them?”

 

A reason to avoid the crowd. A distraction. She can deal with a man and whoever he comes with. She nods fitfully, sure her expression must be one of desperation, “Yes, let them in. Make sure no one else sneaks in.”

 

“Of course.” Nadine gives a single nod and she walks off. 

 

Left alone again, Maevis puts her hand on her chest and breaths in heavily. Now that thinks about it, it’s awfully early for them to arrive. Do they just live close? Are nobles that prudent when it came to basically selling their sons off to a stranger? That wouldn’t really surprise her. 

 

She supposes she should meet them at the front door. It’s open and she tries to ignore the excited exclamations she hears when the crowd sees her. Nadine won’t let them in, she’s too good at what she does to let that happen. Even with her wooden leg. And if worst comes to worst, she still has Frenzy by her side.

 

Despite that, the hands clasped behind her back dig into one another, scraping the skin. She ignores that too. She puffs out her chest and squares her shoulders. She schools her expression into one of stoic solemnity befitting an experienced soldier. Look the part, she tells herself. She’s a big, bad war hero. Some might even call her a murderer. No moral compass and all that. 

 

When the two individuals step out the immediate thing that catches her attention is that the crowd goes silent. And then they disperse slightly and she sees they’re giving the man a wide berth. She narrows her eyes, instead of the initial excitement on their faces they now look… scornful. One woman even spits on the ground in front of him. 

 

Maybe her neighbors aren't as charming as their architecture.

 

She feels herself start to calm down when she hears the click of the gate locking. She can handle this. No one is coming over that gate. She watches the von Leventis duo make their way over. The silence now is almost eerie. The crowd stares at them with rapt attention. They’re absolutely expecting her to do something. They have to know this is some marriage interview bullshit, right? Do they want her spit at him as well and tell him to fuck off when he’s just arrived?

 

There’s a controversy with this man. Probably several. 

 

And now her curiosity is sufficiently piqued. 

 

She keeps her defiant pose. Some people in the crowd are leaving now. Good. Exactly what she wanted. She wonders if she’s going to get negative press from this. 

 

Now looking at the man in question, he’s much more handsome in person than in the photo. He has soft, feather-like black hair brushed away from his brow. He had the kind of face that stopped one in their tracks. Well, it was really his eyes. A piercing crimson. She can’t remember the last time she saw someone with red eyes. Same with the woman who’s his sister, she supposes. She looks far too young to be his mother.

 

Albinos who dyed their hair black, perhaps?

 

He even has a beauty mark just beneath his left eye, though it’s stifled under the vexed expression he wears. If he didn’t have whatever reputation he has she’s sure he would have rich suitors across the country wanting to get him into their harems. She knows he was born in the Year of the Crow, and just looking at him she’s reminded at that very animal.

 

It’s a shame their crest doesn’t have the bird. They’re both wearing black and white uniforms, which look a bit too thin for the wintry chill. The sister seems to be the only one affected by it as she rubs her hands together and her brows furrow while her brother stands perfectly poised. Their coat of arms is displayed on the right side of their chests. She sees an image of a fox and she can already tell the von Leventis are a family of merchants. Nobles were so cliched. 

 

They reach her and the woman immediately plasters on a wide smile that’s all teeth, seemingly ignoring the chill now. 

 

“Maevis Bernard! It’s such an honour to meet you. I’m Anna von Leventis, but please call me Anna!” Maevis’s hand is shaken enthusiastically and the only thing she can think of is if Anna’s face is growing tired by wearing such a wide smile. 

 

Anna then turns to put a hand on her brother’s shoulder, “And this is my brother, Julian. We may look it, but we’re not twins, I assure you.” And damn, is she putting on quite the amount of effort to sound so… happy. 

 

Maevis can only quirk a brow at the reassurance that they’re not twins. Now Julian looks more irritated than before, jaw tense and eyes narrow, but Maevis doesn’t think it’s because of the cold. He just really want to be here. She puts out her hand to Julian with the intent of shaking his hand but he keeps his arms folded. 

 

“Nice to meet you,” she says.

 

He looks at her hand, then looks up at her with not with annoyance, but with a lopsided smile and his chin raised in the most condescending look she's ever seen on a man. Before Anna can say something, he speaks with an equally condescending voice. 

 

“Aw, is this your first time doing this?”

 

There’s a crack in Anna’s expression and one of her eyes twitches noticeably. The hand on Julian’s shoulder tighten considerably and she thinks he’ll probably get a bruise.

 

Maevis is too… entertained by the two people in front of her that she forgets she’s still holding out her hand. Anna claps her hands together, loudly, probably to divert attention away from Julian. 

 

“Please excuse him!” She says, voice still filled with fake cheeriness and smile still almost impossibly wide, “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Now! Let’s go inside, yes?”

 

Clearly she’s desperate to get the show on the road and Maevis supposes she can at least grant her that wish. Besides, it’s cold. She’s beginning to shiver. She nods at Nadine.

 

“Right. Nadine I trust you, uh, know which room would be best for this. Lead us there.”

 

“Of course, Sir. Please follow me.”

 

And then they finally enter the house proper. The large oak door creaks ominously as it closes behind them. 

 

Julian soon asks whether she’s allergic to the sunlight when he glances at all the closed curtains. Anna smacks him upside the head with her flat palm and apologizes profusely. Maevis thinks this may become a running theme.

 

Well, I guess this’ll be interesting.

 


 

For a bounty-hunter who’s traveled to an awful lot of places, Maevis isn’t as world-weary as she would like to be. When she was being led down the hall Nadine has discreetly slowed her pace to saddle up next to her and whispered, “The nobles of this region consider twins a bad omen and you don’t shake men’s hands.”

 

So she fucked up her own greeting. She’s pretty sure she’s shaken men’s hands before, so is this a noble thing? She never bothered learning the intricacies of noble culture because her job never allowed for it, so that’s her excuse. No big deal, not like she’s actually planning on impressing and marrying this guy. But she supposes she shouldn’t fuck up too badly because then Anna might change her mind and leave. She wants to keep this distraction as long as possible, but at the same time, she's not sure she has to worry about it that much since Anna is clearly a woman who wants to sell her brother off. And if Maevis was honest with herself, she also just liked oogling Julian.

 

They're in some sort of lounge. Two sofas sit on either side of a coffee table, and Nadine has left to get some tea. Maevis appraises the von Leventis duo. She leans back on the chair with her legs crossed and fingers intertwined over one knee. Usually she’s the slouchy type, but look the part and all that.

 

Maevis likes to think she can read people pretty well. She apparently may not be privy to different cultural practices but she can read people’s nuances and subtleties. The body was a universal language and people — well, save for maybe Nadine — all had their telltale signs and quirks that they couldn’t stop from showing. 

 

So, she liked to think she could read the siblings seated across from her. 

 

And she knows they’re so full of shit. 

 

Anna’s smiles and platitudes are so painfully coming out of her ass it’s almost funny. That she expected to a degree as she imagined most women would regale prospective suitors with stories of how sweet and talented the potential groom to be was. Anna hasn’t made so much of a peep about Julian’s positive traits. She tried, once, just commenting on his looks and then immediately looking like she regretted it when he intentionally burped loudly and spread his legs apart. Now she’s talking Maevis’s ear off with how honoured and amazed she is to be talking to the Wolf of Brackensberg. 

 

“I heard many tales of your achievements, Maevis. May I call you Maevis? I feel like we’re old friends already because of how often I have read about your brave feats in the paper. Truly stunning!”

 

Ass-kisser. But I guess that’s what merchants do best. 

 

And then there’s Julian. He’s slouched across the couch, almost looking he’s going to form into the sofa. He yawns loudly every now and then to be as rude as possible. In the midst of Anna’s constant yabbering she takes a moment to truly appreciate Julian and his… outfit. 

 

His jacket and shirt is unbuttoned to his stomach. His pants are tight. Unbearably tight. She can see his bulge. But, well, if his only positive trait was his attractiveness then it was natural his sister would emphasize just that. She's vaguely impressed that he apparently wasn't affected by the cold outside.

 

She doesn’t stop looking at him. 

 

And she guesses she isn’t very subtle with her staring at his crotch because next thing she sees is his hand scratching his balls. Her eyes flick to his face. He’s smirking. Smug. Indecent. 

 

She barks out a laugh before she can stop herself. Anna stops talking, and Maevis feels a perverse sense of achievement at seeing Julian’s brief surprised face before he wrinkles his nose in annoyance. 

 

“You’re trying too hard,” She chuckles, and then his surprised expression returns. She decides it suits him. 

 

Before either sibling can reply she turns to speak to Anna. 

 

“So, what did you do during the war? You were drafted, right?”

 

Anna’s back becomes straight like a ramrod at the question and she plasters on a wide smile, “I was a supplier. I worked with the factories across the country to give our troops the weaponry they needed.” Then, she leans in, “They’re still great business partners. I think the union of our fam—”

 

Now, it’s Julian that barks out a laugh, but he’s a lot more obnoxious about it. He keeps his eyes directly on Maevis, an expression on his face that only spoke of arrogance.

 

“They’re not business partners anymore. They made sure to cut us off when the war ended.”

 

Anna hits him on the bicep and now her face is barely contained rage threatening to bubble over like a boiling pot of water, “Shut up you fuc—” she’s borderline shouting and she quickly stops herself, her mouth clamping shut with an audible click. She breathes heavily, and turns to Maevis with a shaky smile. Her eye twitches. 

 

So that must be her nervous tic. 

 

Julian snickers loudly and Anna smacks him again.

 

“I — I must apologize for his behaviour. You know how men are, too full of testosterone and don’t know a thing about what they’re talking about,” Julian doesn’t hide his exaggerated eye roll, “I must admit, I fear he might be under the hysteria.” 

 

Julian’s eyebrows shear low and his jaw tenses as he gives his sister a side-long glance. Maevis's eyes dart between the two of them as anticipation start to fill her gut. She tries to keep her face neutral but she unconsciously narrows her eyes.

 

Anna continues, leaning in like she’s telling a secret, “He has such a tendency to cause trouble for others. That is why it is so integral he get a woman to properly guide him. I think you are that woman he needs in his life,” Now her voice sounds like she’s going to cry, but Maevis knows the waterworks are as fake as her smiles. Perhaps she’s just a bad actress.

 

“You know… Our father—”

 

Now it’s Julian that hits her bicep, but harder than her — Maevis can almost feel the hit herself — and she reels back, yelps and stands up suddenly. Her eyes are blown wide and her teeth are bared in a nasty snarl. He stands as well with his own growl, and the two are locked in a staring contest with only hatred in their eyes. It’s a sight Maevis has seen more than enough times, either in pubs or during brawls in the war. First it was the eyes, then a tension of the muscles, an inability to think clearly soon followed. Rationality would be gone, replaced with unabated feral rage as fists fly and bones are broken.

 

Maevis cautiously joins them in standing up, putting her hands up in a placating gesture. She’s ready to intervene, but she’d rather that the first two official guests she has don’t try to kill each other in the next couple of seconds. 

 

“Hey now,” she says awkwardly, “Uh, let’s… calm down.” She cringes at her voice.

 

Great job, Maevis. You should become a fucking negotiator. 

 

They continue to just stand and stare at each other. They’re both seething. Anna flexes her fingers while Julian’s fists are tightly clenched, knuckles white.

 

Anna exhales a long breath and slowly sits down, eventually turning to face Maevis again with an apologetic smile and lowered face. It’s the most genuine expression she’s seen on the woman. Julian soon joins his sister on the couch, but he continues staring at Anna and his knuckles are still clenched. His face is rigid, jaw clamped tight, teeth grinding. 

 

Maevis sits as well and clears her throat. She makes a mental note to avoid mentioning anything relating about his dad in the future. 

 

Julian, thankfully, stops staring at Anna like he wants to set her on fire and turns his head to the opposite direction to angrily look at a potted plant. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Anna says quietly, eyes closed and lips quivering. While she’s facing her direction, Maevis assumes the apology is actually directed towards her brother. 

 

Maevis hazards a glance at Julian. She can see that his eyes are wetter than normal before he clenches his eyes tightly shut. 

 

And then it's unbearably quiet. Her knee bounces and she clenches her fists together. The tension in the air is so thick she could cut it with a knife. Or shoot it with a bullet.

 

She swallows, her whole body feeling tense. Now she wishes she could have broken up a fist fight instead. She’d feel more confident in doing that instead of dealing with a man who’s trying desperately not to cry and a woman who's currently the definition of sullen with her eyes downcast and slumped shoulders. She wanted a distraction from a crowd, not deal with sibling drama. Should she… try to comfort them? No, that'll probably make things more awkward. She thinks they both need to have a change of subject. 

 

So when Nadine finally comes in the room with a tray of tea, biscuits and toast she thanks every deity from every religion and inwardly makes it a goal for herself to start praying in every language. When her knee stops bouncing she thinks she should start going to church.

 

She claps her hands and tries to make her voice cheery, “Nadine! Ah, I could kiss you right now. Let’s dig in, yeah?” 

 

Nadine sets the tray on the table, her almost vacant expression feeling like a blessing. Dainty cups surround a silver tea-kettle with a smaller tray holding the food and cutlery. The steward stands behind Maevis, hands behind her back and still as a statue. 

 

She gingerly takes a cup and sips some tea, and eventually she’s joined by Anna. She still looks a bit sullen, but more life is starting to come back on her face. They eat in quiet. It’s awkward, but it’s comfortable in a way with the fallout from… whatever just happened subsiding. 

 

She bites into some toast and looks at Julian. He’s just staring at the food forlornly and hasn’t touched it. 

 

She points her chin at him, “Not hungry?”

 

His expression goes from forlorn, to confused, to thoughtful, to condescending in seconds. He licks his lips and Maevis knows she asked him exactly what he wanted her to ask.

 

“Are you really from Asnain?” 

 

Anna just sighs and steps on his toes, though her assault is light, “Please excuse him,” she mumbles, looking tired. 

 

Nadine leans down to whisper in her ear, “With nobility, men eat after their female relatives.”

 

Nobles and their fucking rules.

 

Julian rubs his neck roughly and it turns out he’s smudging off some make-up when he reveals a hickey. He angles his head so he puts it on full display. 

 

“Yeah, Bernard,” he rolls the R for some reason, “How do you not know something that’s such common knowledge?”

 

She matches his smug smirk with a grin of her own. 

 

“My, my. Showing you’re indecent and being rude, huh? That’s a pretty good tactic, but if you’d ask me, I’d say you’re trying too hard again.”

 

His expression flickered with annoyance. Good. She definitely prefers that look over him looking like he’s going to cry or punch his sister. 

 

Anna throws back her head and groans loudly. She brings a hand to her face to rubs her eyes, “I think it’s time for us to leave. Thank you for having us,” evidently, she’s given up on trying to sell Julian’s hand. 

 

The man in question stands and pats his knees, “Yup,” he says gleefully, “Time to leave.”

 

He walks to the door and waits for Anna, who drinks the rest of her tea in one go and grimaces at him before looking at Maevis. 

 

“I apologize again for his behaviour. Goodbye.” 

 

Maevis surmises the distraction was long enough. She doubts anyone is at the gates still but… She’s curious. Is that the right word? Intrigued, perhaps? She’s certainly interested in Julian. She feels like she might have learned more than she bargained for about this family and their squabbles, but she wants to see him again. If anything, she definitely pities him.

 

This—This meeting was beyond her expectations. She doesn’t even really know what she was expecting. 

 

But she always liked people that went beyond her expectations.

 

Nadine leans down again, “Shall I see them off, Sir?”

 

And she knows the only way to see him again is to continue seeing him over the potential of marriage. Part of her is screaming that this is such a stupid idea, but another eggs her on. She ignores Nadine and stands.

 

“Anna,” she calls out and the two siblings look at her, “When… When would be the best time for you two visit again? So that we can continue this discussion?” 

 

She watches the shock register on their faces. Anna tries hiding it quickly and there’s a delicious moment where Julian's face washes blank with confusion, like his brain cogs couldn't turn fast enough to take in the information from his wide eyes. She… likes the confusion on his face. She likes it when he doesn’t know how to respond. 

 

Maybe this will be fun, she remembers thinking when she first started writing a letter to Anna. She thinks it again at the thought of him being a continuous distraction. The little drama over their father wasn’t fun, but him trying his damnedest to be as unappealing as possible and her seeing through it? That was fun.

 

That’s what he is. He’s a distraction, a good one. Not only that, being involved with him will ruin her reputation in the best way possible. It’ll drive people away, her being with a whore or whatever his problem is. The crowds will stop coming, and she doubts they’d chase her with torches and pitchforks because she sees him. At most they’d gossip and give her withering looks. They’re only physical against the men in situations like these. She can deal with that. She’ll deal with that, then sell her house when she’s no longer a celebrity. Maybe even skip out on the Gala. No one will care about her and she’ll go back to bounty-hunting. 

 

She might need to deal with more sibling drama, but she figures that’s a small price to pay to get her old life back. 

 

Fun and beneficial. That’s what Julian is. 

 

Anna opens her mouth, then closes it. Then opens it again. Something passes over her face that reminds Maevis of a look Calvara gets when a plan comes into fruition — eyes widening and mouthing parting in a small 'o'. 

 

“I can’t come tomorrow,” she glances at Julian, “But he can sleepover if that’s acceptable.”

 

Now it’s Maevis’s turn to have her eyes blown wide open, and Julian looks like he’s just been hit with twelve consecutive punches to the gut. 

 

To her surprise, Nadine speaks next. 

 

“Are—Are you sure that’s not… improper?”

 

“Y-Yeah!” Julian splutters, “It’s improper!” 

 

Anna huffs and lightly slaps him on the back, “Sure. You totally care about that,” trying to act like picture perfect noblewoman is apparently just thrown out the fucking window at this point. “Bernard, I apologize for the imposition. But I’m busy with trade agreements with the Cecille family.”

 

Then she smirks. Smug, just like her brother, “I think it would be best if he could sleep over. Just for the night. It will help the two of you to get to know each other,” she shrugs, “And let you decide if you wish to… continue courting him.”

 

Julian makes a gagging sound reminiscent of an animal dying, “You—You can’t—” 

 

“Yes,” Maevis interrupts him, surprising herself, “That’ll be fine. I’ll sleep in the barn if it makes you comfortable, Julian.”

 

A different sort of anxiety bubbles up in her. He’s a distraction, sure, but isn’t this going too far? But having him over for the night will definitely sully her reputation. If anything it’ll do so the quickest way possible. Everything’s going so fast. It’s starting to give her a bit of an adrenaline rush. 

 

She likes that. Suddenly the house doesn’t feel so big anymore. 

 

Anger flashes over Julian’s face, before confusion again and then… Consideration. 

 

“...You have a barn?”

 

That’s what he cares about now? What?

 

Before she can think about that further, Anna wrings her hands together, “Great. It’s decided. I’ll be leaving now. Goodbye.” She doesn’t spare either of them a glance before she steps out of the room and walks like a woman on a mission. Julian is slack-jawed and sweat forms on his brow, and Maevis briefly wonders whether or not this is Anna’s revenge for his bad behaviour.

 

Nadine quickly follows, “I’ll escort her out. Excuse me.”

 

And then they’re left alone together.

 

Maevis scratches her head, and tries to keep it casual with a lopsided smile. Julian'a eyes frantically dart between her and the door and legs slightly bent, like he's ready to run after his sister. A rabbit caught in the crosshairs. Maevis would think it's a look that suits him as well if she didn't really need him for her half-baked plan. She might even feel a tinge of guilt for dragging him into this, which is what surprises her most of all. It’s not an emotion she’s used to.

 

Perhaps she should come clean to him now that he’s sister is gone, though that may take some of the fun out of this.

 

She wets her lips.

 

“So, which bedroom would you like? There’s a couple in here.”

 

Chapter Text

Julian's thoughts were scattered and going a mile a minute, they each and only increase his feelings of unease and confusion. He blinks rapidly, flickering his gaze from the women in front of him to the door next to him. 

 

What the fuck. 

 

“So, which bedroom would you like? There’s a couple in here.”

 

What the fuck?!

 

This woman was clearly insane. Or maybe wanted to bed him. Or both. He had to admit he's never had someone be quite this blunt with him. Sure, he's had people throw coin purses at him as if he was a prostitute but it never went beyond cruel teasing. When he used to still have women interested in seeing him and Anna over the prospect of marriage they'd wince and tell him he was a whore when he acted indecent. Sometimes he'd get a slap to the face and then Anna would give him a belting at home before threatening to sell him to a brothel — For the umpteenth time. 

 

But now — Now he's supposed to sleepover? What bedroom would be like? Had Anna finally stopped caring enough to abandon him?

 

He grits his teeth. Everyone had a limit, so he'll have to be extra obnoxious to reach hers. He might still be able to catch up with Anna, so he'll have to be quick about it. 

 

"You know," he has to consciously make an effort to not cringe at how his voice wavers, "I bet most men would be intimidated by a strong woman like you. You're the type that would have a guy looking over his shoulder in a dark alley," he steps forward, lifts his chin up and quirks a grin that he hopes comes off as sultry, "But I find I just want to see you naked." 

 

There's a brief second of confusion on her face, so he continues, his voice with a slight lilt, "I wonder quite often how a soldier like you would be in bed. I bet you're just too tired of commanding people. You want to be commanded, don't you? Talk to and fucked like a dog?" 

 

He waits for her response with bated breath, if there was one thing that pissed women off quickly he knew it was assumptions of what they did in bed. 

 

There's confusion on her expression again, but then her lips lift upwards and a dimple crinkles. 

 

"Well, if you want a fuck we can do that, I guess. But I'm still partial to commanding even then, and," she narrows her eyes and there's a sense of danger in the air suddenly, "If anyone's going to be a dog, it'll be the man I'm fucking. I'm quite fond of using leashes for unruly pups."

 

Julian's smile fades quicker than the smoke from a blown-out candle.

 

And he hates how what she said made his heart skip a beat. He can feel a familiar warmth pool his stomach, perhaps he should get Francesca to—

 

Not now you fucking idiot!

 

Fine, if being indecent and lacking a sense of propriety won't work, he'll just have to be bluntly rude. He tries to act condescending and leans on the wall with his arms crossed and raises his chin.

 

"Your steward is such a dullard. She's one of those Hauptmann girls isn't she? You couldn't get a properly trained servant so you went with a throwaway cripple?"

 

There's confusion again, and one of her brows raises upwards when she considers his words.

 

"Well, I guess she's a bit dull but she's not a dullard, heh," she says almost thoughtfully, "Though she's anything but useless. She may have a wooden leg but she's one of the best snipers I've ever met."

 

He only stares at her, flabbergasted. How is she not throwing him out of her estate yet? 

 

He closes his mouth quickly when he realizes he’s gaping at her, “And you’re an idiot! You’re some — some,” he flails his hands, “some country bumpkin who doesn’t know shit about high society but just because the Empress saw fit to give you some money you think you can just get a husband? Hah! As if any woman with sense would sell their son or brother to a buffoon like you!”

 

She brings a forefinger and thumb to her chin and closes her eyes as if deep in contemplation.

 

“Insulting both me and your sister? I’m impressed. You’ve got a talent for this.”

 

An all too familiar rage boil up inside of him. It builds like deep water currents but also burns like fire lacing his veins and creeping up his spine. The flame reaches his eyes and all he sees is red. His fists clench as hard as they did when Anna mentioned their father. He thinks his palms might bleed with how his fingers scrape against the skin.

 

“You!” He yells suddenly, voice hoarse, “You fucking bitch! What goal could you possibly have to — to humiliate me like this? What game are you playing?! I’m not your fucking toy!”

 

There’s second voice that’s urging him to stop, the same voice that stopped him from continuing his squabble with Anna. But now there’s no dampeners. Julian's every word is clipped, punching into the air. He jabs the air with a pointed finger at each utterance, his eyes narrow and set hard.

 

Maevis then has the audacity to rub her neck, her expression now sheepish, "Sorry, I guess I’m making everything worse, huh? Let me explain—"

 

“Was the only reason you called me here to see the fabled Whore of Asnain? Well you’ve fucking got him! Let’s all point and laugh at the man who lost his virginity too early, because clearly that’s a crime worse than murder!”

 

He has too much energy in his body that wants to be let out, he wants to punch something. Mostly himself if he were to be honest. His throat is unbearably tight and he knows he’s on the cusp of spilling tears again. 

 

“Ugh, stop crying. It’s gross,” are the only words that fill his head, words that were crueler than any teasing or bullying he experienced from strangers or those he had considered friends. It hit him like a knife, pulling and twisting inside of his viscera. 

 

He clenches his eyes shut and tries to banish any thoughts of her. She wasn’t worth remembering after what she did, but she always came into his mind when he was at his worst. 

 

Despite his efforts to steel himself, a hiccup escapes his throat. 

 

He opens his eyes when he hears footsteps slowly approach him. Her hands are lifted warily but her eyes show a gentle kind of concern he isn’t used to receiving. 

 

“Sorry,” she says so quietly, quieter than he thought possible for an apparent bumbling buffoon. “I honestly didn’t intend to cause you this much… distress. Just, please, let me explain.”

 

He tries his best to imitate a snarl despite his body now feeling weak and exhausted. Idiot, he now thinks, how could you be done in so easily by this moron? Reduced to an emotional little boy?

 

He’s about to weakly tell her to fuck off when a hand is placed on his shoulder from behind and he thinks he might have a heart attack. His body jolts and he spins around fast enough his head and vision is slightly dizzy for a second.

 

It’s — That Hauptmann cripple.

 

“Lord von Leventis,” she says blankly, “Your sister has departed. Is there anything I can do to make your stay more pleasurable?”

 

He thinks he hears Maevis smack her forehead with the palm of her hand and she breathes exasperatedly.

 

“Nadine! Geez you’re not called the Ghost for nothing. Stop sneaking around like that, you're going to scare us both half to death."

 

The steward's hand leaves her shoulder and his eyes dart between the two women. His gaze eventually rests on Maevis and when she tries to approach him he unconsciously steps back. Now he gives a proper snarl, his fury renewed, like a wolf backed against a wall. 

 

“Don’t you fucking come near me. I don’t want you touching me, or speaking to me, or even looking at me until my bitch of a sister comes back for me.”

 

Blood pumping, he doesn’t even bother waiting for either of their responses when he storms out. His thunderous footsteps and heartbeat are the only thing he hears as he passes the corridors and rooms. 

 

The only things he feels is rage and exhaustion. 

 


 

He didn’t have any destination in mind, considering this was a house he was wholly unfamiliar with. It was large and a labyrinth of corridors. But eventually, once he thinks he’s sufficiently away from that woman on her servant, he finds a nondescript room with a bed that’s unmade. It’ll have to do. 

 

The day will still be long. It’s only just the start of the afternoon, he thinks. He’ll get hungry but he doesn’t care. He’ll fast for the day. The hunger pains won’t kill him.

 

The first thing he does after he shuts the door and put a chair under the knob is get out of his pants. The blasted thing is so tight he’s so sure he’s going to cut off circulation to his lower body. Now in his undergarments, he looks at himself through a small mirror that’s hanging on the side of the wall. It’s dusty. Most things in this bedroom are, clearly ignored in favour of cleaning the central and front rooms. 

 

His hair is messy now and forehead is slicked with sweat. 

 

“Crybaby.” Is the only thing that fills his head once more. A grating voice that he once considered pleasant, even uplifting. A voice that once belonged to a woman he had considered more than a friend. 

 

It’s such a juvenile insult, but it hurts harder than anything anyone’s said to him. 

 

He gnaws at this bottom lip hard enough that he tastes a drop of blood. The pain giving him a tingle across his body.

 

It’s not enough. 

 

Anna used to belt him, but ever since she’s stopped he’s gotten Francesca to do it. It was really only reserved when he was particularly wracked with anger, so lost in the moment and the torment his mind was in. More and more, it felt like anger and frustration was his permanent state in life, it replaced the constant misery he was in when he first started gaining his so-called reputation. 

 

He glances at his discarded pants and quickly fishes out his leather belt. He folds it twice at the buckle and looks at himself through the mirror again. Eyes narrowed and lips pursed, his face was set in stone. 


He takes off his jacket and shirt as best as he can with one hand. Now almost entirely naked he does some practice swings with the belt and then quickly hits the side of his body with the impromptu whip. It curls around his slim frame with a smack, sparks of pain singing through him. He gasps sharply, but his mind is still filled with boiling anger and thoughts of her.

 

It’s not enough.

 

He hits himself again on the same spot. 

 

And again. 

 

And again. He jolts at the force of it and grits his teeth in frustration. It’s not enough. It’s never fucking enough. 

 

He hits harder each time until his breathing wavers and he ushers his eyes shut. He clenches his teeth to prevent himself from whimpering. It’s not time for that just yet. 

 

He knows exactly when he started this… habit of punishing himself. To use pain as a means to temper his fury. It started at the height of his infamy. After he was ostracised from the community, after his friends pretended they didn’t know him, after his own mother scorned him. 

 

All because he slept with a woman who then promptly bragged about it and then had the audacity to scoff and call him a crybaby when he crawled back to her when someone had thrown rotten fruit at him in the middle of the street. 

 

He hits himself again at the memories flooding his head. This time he hits himself over the shoulder, the belt making a loud crack in the air as he bites his lip hard enough to bleed.

 

And again.

 

And again. When Francesca belted him, the noise was loud, but here it’s inescapable because it’s closer to his ears. It thunders across his eardrums everytime he swings the belt over his shoulder and it exacerbates the pain.

 

The only sounds in the air are the belt hitting his pale skin and his strained breathes. 

 

In his mind, however, was the cacophony of voices. Voices of cruel teasing from the women and men that walked over him like a carpet after he lost his virginity. 

 

“Dumb whore probably can’t tell left from right because’s he’s too busy thinking with his cock.”

 

That quip was usually followed with snickering behind his back.

 

“Don’t speak with him, he’s exactly what we don’t want you becoming.”

 

That was were fathers hastily herding their children away from him, warning their sons and using him as an example. Sometimes he’d see the same children come back to him, but to hurl their own insults and throw small stones or fruit at him until he ran back home with his tail between his legs.

 

“Hey, Julian, you left something in your food!”

 

Boys he shared etiquette lessons with had taken to dropping herbs that prevented pregnancy during intercourse in his food. It was a terrible bitter flavour. His father took him out of those lessons soon after, opting to have teachers to come to their estate to homeschool him. The fact that members of his own sex apparently didn’t empathize with this plight crushed him.

 

“There was nothing between us. Go away already! Ugh, stop crying!”

 

The one that probably wounded him the most. Even more so than the tired and disappointed glares of his mother. He thinks he might have cried an entire week with how long he shut himself in his room.

 

He hits himself with each memory of the relentless bullying. He alternates between each shoulder and he knows his skin must be blooming a deep scarlet from the abuse he’s giving himself. His breath hitches and he hiccups, eyes filling with tears that threaten to spill over. 

 

He remembers when there was a party held at his family’s mansion. Anna had started menstruating for the first time and as is tradition she had a party to celebrate her becoming a woman. Strictly no men were allowed, so both he and his father were holed up in their rooms; except when catering needed to be done because of course the men were still responsible for that. Only his father and some servants did when summoned, Julian had to sulk in his room because of his reputation and his mother had made it clear she didn’t want him mingling with any women. 

 

He remembers pressing his ears against the door to hear the party happening just outside. Someone was playing violin and a distant, hazy chatter could be heard. He couldn’t make out any words, but their laughter rang in his ears and wouldn’t seem to stop. He pressed his knees together and creased his brow. 

 

I need to pee.

 

And that was the catalyst. He tip-toed out. Made himself as quiet and small as he could to reach the bathroom. When he had successfully relieved himself he started his journey back to his room, ducking and hiding to avoid anyone coming down the hall. He thought he was home-free but next he knew he was smacked over the head with the flat of someone’s hand. It hit hard and it stung. Turning suddenly he saw it was her — a woman who he refused to even utter the name of, even in his memories in this moment — she gave him a sardonic grin before mouthing the words crybaby at him before sauntering off to her friends in the next room. He could hear them laughing and he knew she was talking about him. 

 

He could pick her voice apart from the rest and seem to hit him harder than her smack did. 

 

Why was she here? Why did everyone treat her normally, without any disdain or scorn even though she’s the one who started everything? She’s the one who coerced him into having sex so why was he the one treated like he unfaily bed her? He knows not even Anna likes her very much, she had even defended him from the cruel taunting until she became like their mother. Was she invited because she was from a family that was too influential to ignore?

 

Why him? 

 

Why does everyone hate me?

 

At that moment hearing her shrill laughter his brain went on overdrive as it picked every moment that he'd spent crying over this woman and what she did to him. The memories of the torment weighed down on him but instead of breaking even more like he had done countless times before, his heart turned ice cold and slunk into the shadows as a dark, feral part of him took complete control. Rage started to burn in his stomach and they rose up to his chest and crawled through his veins. His fingers coiled into fists and a great bitterness swelled within him.

 

The term anger was an understatement. It barely even touched the tip of the volcano that he so clearly feeling in that moment.

 

He hits his belt across his bicep, the consuming pain across his body starting to make his knees buckle. He parts his lips in a wolfish grin as he remembers what happened next.

 

He ran. He bolted into the room and ignored the surprised and gobsmacked faces as he reached his target. He didn’t think about what he did, he was too blinded by a five-course serving of rage that tasted bitter, but it was incredibly satisfying. Especially when his fist met her face. 

 

Everything after that was a blur, though the next thing he knew he was locked in his room. The only thing he could through the walls now was a certain someone lapping up sympathy from everyone else. He couldn’t help laughing wildly at that.

 

Julian smacks himself on the thigh next and he gives a shrill whimper. He places a hand on the wall to steady himself and pants heavily. His brows come together and he grits his teeth. The red marks across his body gave a dull ache. He brings the hand on the wall to where he hit himself on his side and he pushes down on it with two fingers. He closes his eyes tightly shut again and sharply inhales. Lightning hot pain courses through him, making his entire body wince.

 

He groans and opens his eyes when he’s done and looks down on himself.

 

His undergarments are tented. 

 

He blows a breath and throws his belt to the side. He begins to palm himself slowly through the fabric. 

 

His anger felt so good in that moment he punched that woman. Anger had become to his natural response after that. No longer had he ignored, shut down or sulked at people’s cruel jabs, instead opting to respond with unabated malice and rage. It was cathartic in its own way. All his life he was taught he didn’t have a right to feel negative emotions, and now they spilled out of him like a broken dam. 

 

But when he punched her, the assault acted as a sort of release. He couldn’t very well hit every person that made a snide and taunting remark, no matter how much he wanted. He needed another release or else he felt like he’d explode.

 

Pain had become that release. It started small. Pinches, scratches, bites. His skin became a canvas for him to lash his anger and frustration out on. It soon escalated into something more. Something pleasurable. He became intoxicated on the exquisite torture. 

 

He soon shimmies out of his undergarments to become fully naked. By now his whole body is slicked with sweat and there’s a slight chill in the air that gives him goosebumps. A hand cups his balls while another starts to stroke himself. An unbearable heat pools his entire body, both from his punishment and from the pleasure deep in his gut. 

 

He caresses his balls a moment longer before pinching at one of the many bruises that’s forming on his body now. He alternates between different wounds, some he gave himself and some Francesca gifted him in their last meeting when she used the riding crop on him. 

 

He pumps his shaft so fast his hand becomes blurry. He catches some precum and smears it across his penis for extra stimulation. His other hand continues to push, pull and twist at his sensitive skin. 

 

It doesn’t take long after that. He cums with a strangled cry and catches the pearly-white semen with his hands. Most of it, anyway. Luckily he brought wipes in one of his breast pockets. 

 

Cleaning is a laborious affair. Every muscle in his body has lost its tension, only to be replaced with aching exhaustion. Eventually he’s done, and he falls on the unmade bed with all the grace of a sack of potatoes. His body conforming to the shape of the easy mattress, as if pulled by invisible strings gentle downward.

 

Naturally, quick masturbation wasn’t enough to temper the entirety of his frustration. Likely nothing could assist with the anger that was bubbling inside of him again. He’s left in some stranger’s estate. Left with an infuriating women that seemed far too nonchalant with the whole affair. Thrown away like a used toy. 

 

Dangerous thoughts and memories fill his head once more. No longer satisfied with gnawing his lip, his teeth soon find purchase on his hand. He bites into himself.. 

 

He refuses to cry in some random woman’s house. The only person who’s allowed to make him cry is Francesca because she was fucking good at what she did.

 

And he made a promise to himself a long time ago to never cry by himself. 

 

So he won’t cry. He knits his brows and shuts his eyes.

 

And his teeth sink further into his skin.

 


 

There’s a long drawn out sigh as Maevis drops down on the sofa like her legs suddenly stopped working. She rubs her forehead and sighs again. Then her knee bounces. And she sighs again. 

 

“Would you like some more tea, Sir?” Nadine deadpans. 

 

She blows an annoyed breath, “Be straight with me Nadine, how much did I fuck up?”

 

Nadine keeps her poker-face. She’s far too talented at seldom ever reacting at anything. 

 

“No comment, Sir.”

 

Maevis snorts at that and she briefly tells her ‘At ease, soldier’ like she did in the army, but she doubts she’d get a different response. Regardless, she continues her questioning.

 

“Obviously I’ll have to speak with him. Should I do it now or wait until he’s cooled off?”

 

One of her brows lifts in a near imperceptible amount, “It’ll be lunch time soon. Perhaps that would be the best moment to speak with him properly.” 

 

Maevis nods, mostly at herself rather than at Nadine.

 

“Right. I’d like that tea now, thanks.” and on cue, the steward leaves.

 

She closes her eyes and scratches her head. Her knee continues bouncing, which honestly surprises her. Somehow the house doesn’t feel exceptionally big right now despite being alone in a room. She doesn’t feel the same anxiety she usually feels when she does her nervous tic. Still, she’s annoyed with herself.

 

This’ll be fun my ass. This is the fastest something’s ever blown up in her face. Really, it’s impressive. 

 

She has to give Julian props. She’s never seen a man lose it and yell at her that loudly before. Most men she knew were raised a specific way and never designed to speak against a woman like that. She had to at least respect his conviction. 

 

If anything it’s unsurprising this went south as fast as it did. She only thought of herself and her goals. She didn’t really take into account the strife she’d cause the man by making him hunker down for the night. She isn’t used to thinking about other people’s feelings. Even in the war when she was in charge of a squad she had mostly worked alone, unless it was for planned covert missions. 

 

She huffs a humourless laugh. Of course she’s only good at planning things when it came to killing other people. Because murder didn’t involve taking into account people’s fucking feelings. 

 

She sighs, again. She’s a terrible person. And maybe a bit stupid. She’s accepted those facts a long time ago.

 

Eventually Nadine brings her the tea. The pine needle aroma gives her a calming effect and she drinks it slowly. The warmth settles in her stomach nicely and she’s even a bit thankful for Nadine’s company, even if the woman says nothing. Perhaps she should have told Nadine to make herself some tea. 

 

“Hey Nadine,” Maevis finally breaks the silence, “Have we got enough to make some porkchops and corn? Maybe curry as well? The spicy kind.” 

 

“Yes, Sir.”

 

This time she huffs a genuine laugh, “Did you really memorize the entire pantry or something?”

 

“I might have. It just involves some reading.”

 

Maevis’s eyebrows shoot up, before furrowing as she considers Nadine. The steward’s face is still blank. 

 

Was that a joke? Some fabled sarcasm coming out of the Ghost? 

 

She shrugs at herself before continuing to drink her tea. 

 

“I’ll be making the food then. You can check on the horse and see if it’s doing fine, I guess.” She had nearly forgotten about the animal. If she’s sleeping in the barn she’ll have to share it with the mare. She’s shared living space with animals before, though she makes a mental note to check on it and see if it’s the temperamental type or not.

 

Nadine gives a single nod before head off.

 

I’ll tell him the shitty plan. Who knows, maybe he’ll agree. He’s obviously not the type to follow rules. Maybe a scheme like this will be up his alley. 

 

She briefly wonders if Julian has the same paranoia when it comes to people lacing his food like she does. 

 


 

Julian doesn’t know how long he lays there. He awakes to find he actually fell asleep without realizing it. At some point he had gotten the sheets folded by the bed to cover himself with. 

 

He sits up and blink blearily. His body still aches, his hand most of all. He experimentally flexes it and winces at the sharp stings. 

 

He would inspect himself further but the air is thick with the scent of roasted meat.He sniffs a few times and then his stomach rumbles loudly. He presses his non-bitten hand down on himself to will the growling away. If anything, his stomach just becomes louder. He scowls, and lies on his side with a pillow wrapped around his head to cover his ears. It stifles the noises, but does nothing for uncomfortable feeling he’s experiencing in his stomach.

 

Whatever. He’ll just deal with it. 

 

He lays there, body prone, until he hears a knock that’s loud enough to ring through his impromptu earplugs. 

 

“Food’s ready,” and he can that it’s that infuriating woman that started this. 

 

She doesn’t stop knocking when he doesn’t answer.

 

“I like to think of myself as pretty good at tracking people. I know you’re in there.”

 

His brows knit together and he growls, “Aw, your cripple couldn’t come down here so you needed to fetch me yourself?”

 

There’s a brief pause. He hears her puff some air. 

 

“I don’t intend on actually courting and marrying you. So you can stop with the act.”

 

He’s glad there’s a door between them because he knows he must look like a slack-jawed idiot right about now. 

 

She continues, “Well, I planned on saying this at dinner but I guess now’s the best time. I want you to ruin my reputation.”

 

Is this bitch making fun of me?

 

He must have said that part out loud, because next she’s guffawing. 

 

“Hah, no, really. I’ll admit it was entirely a spur of the moment plan that wasn’t thought out very well. Now that I’ve had some time to think, I was hoping to further explain it to you.”

 

He hears her tapping again the wooden frame, “But, I’m hungry. It’ll have to be over lunch. Come on up, huh?”

 

Soon her footsteps disappear and Julian is left to ruminate over his thoughts that’s becoming a whirlwind again. 

 

This is a trick. It has to be. 

 

Though, admittedly, he doesn't know what type of trick it could be. Does she want him out of the room to, what, assault him? She may be a bullheaded soldier but she doesn't really seem the type to attack at random. 

 

He scratches his head. If she really wanted to do… whatever he thinks she might, surely she can just break the door down. She’s a big woman, and definitely strong enough to do just that. 

 

Must be a game of cat and mouse. 

 

He shifts on the mattress awkwardly. If he were honest with himself, Maevis hasn’t actually impressed him much.

 

She’s too stupid for that.

 

Unless it was all just an act. The only thing she surprised him on was seeing through his little act. Perhaps he was being too obvious this time. It’s been so long since he tried to make himself unappealing to a woman, perhaps his technique is getting rusty. 

 

Still, he gnaws on his lower lip in annoyance. He soon stops because he’s been abusing it far too much recently. 

 

She’s a war hero a reason. She could probably crush people heads with her thighs. 

 

He makes a conscious effort to avoid gnawing his lip again with that… image in mind. His traitorous body would just react in a way he doesn’t want to deal with now. 

 

He doesn’t know her specific accomplishments but he guesses she’s a war hero probably because of her brute strength, not for any sort of intelligence. Though she was able to track him down, perhaps that requires some smarts. Then again, this is her house so maybe—

 

He shifts again.

 

Where the fuck am I even going with this?

 

His stomach rumbles again. The smell is divine right about now. Especially for a bruised and battered body. Maybe he could just get the food and run back to this room which is apparently his now.

 

He sighs. He doesn’t care anymore. It would seem not caring is the strongest motivator of all. 

 

He goes through the rigmarole of getting dressed. 

 


 

The Hauptmann girl escorted him to the dining room. Now he finds himself sitting in front of plate of pork, corn and curry. The table is fucking huge. Though, perhaps the more accurate description was that it was extremely long. It could seat at least twenty people. Clearly this was a room meant to host parties. 

 

But now it’s just him and Maevis. The Hauptmann woman left, vaguely mentioning that she had work to do. 

 

They’re seated across from one another at the far end of the table. It’s… quiet. Definitely awkward. 

 

He pokes at the meat with his fork. He can feel drool forming in his mouth. 

 

“Well, go on then,” Maevis says, flicking his eyes at her he sees her with an expectant expression, “I’m not your relative. You can eat.”

 

He narrows his eyes and points his chin at the food. 

 

“The cripple make this?”

 

She groans, “She has a name you know. It’s Nadine. You don’t have to pretend to be rude. Unless that’s your actual personality. Then, well, that’s unfortunate.”

 

He rolls his eyes, “Says the woman who forced me to have a fucking sleepover.”

 

She looks like she’s about to scoff, but she has a mouth full of corn. She swallows heavily and punches her chest a few times. 

 

“Hey, hey, hey. I said I was sorry. But this is a perfect moment for me to get into it, so thanks.”

 

He must look as unconvinced as he feels since she continues. 

 

“Like I said, I want you to ruin my reputation.” He has to avoid some corn that flew out of her mouth, “Sorry. Anyway, I don’t like being famous. I sure as fuck don’t like it when people crowd around the front gate or around me. So I figured the fastest way to make me not famous and to have people not want to interact with me is to involve myself with a man with, uh, your standing.”

 

She continues eating her meal and Julian can only stare at her, dumbfounded. He blinks three times in rapid succession, “That is the dumbest fucking plan I’ve ever heard.”

 

She points her fork at him, “Aha! But it is a plan!” She drinks some water, “So, yeah. I don’t want to get married. Sure as fuck looks like you don’t want to get married. I just want people to just not fawn over me anymore.”

 

He continues to gape at her. 

 

“This… All this to just, what? Because — Because you don’t like the crowd? Weren’t you in a crowd all the time in, like, the war?”

 

She furrows her brow and shakes her head, “That’s completely different!” And again he has to avoid flying food. “Sorry.”

 

This fucking woman. She really is the dumbest person he’s ever met. He leans back in his chair and this time when he stares at her his eyes go to her biceps. She’s wearing a sleeveless shirt. He clenches his jaw when he sees each scar and each valley of her muscles, a testament of her bitter work of a soldier. 

 

He crosses his legs and curses his biology. He doesn’t really trust any woman in his life, and he sure as shit doesn’t trust this moron, but his throat always get dry when he spots a ripple of muscle on a woman’s body. He clenches his hand around the fork and stabs the pork. He reacted when she mentioned using a leash on unruly pups. Then he reacted to the thought of her thighs. Now he’s reacting to her biceps. A side effect to conditioning his body to be the way it is, he supposes sourly. 

 

The irony is not lost on him. This has started as a way for him to rebel against how he was treated by women and society as large, only for him to revel in being dominated and beaten into submission. 

 

He’s cursing himself inwardly when he hears Maevis speak up again. 

 

“There’s bandages in the cupboard over there for your hand. You can probably dab some alcohol on your lip.”

 

He doesn’t look at her, opting to just stare at the food in front of him while it continues stabbing it. 

 

“Fuck off,” he mumbles. Before she can respond, he changes the subject, “What if I refuse to do this stupid plan of yours?”

 

He can almost feel the lazy shrug she does, “Then you leave with your sister tomorrow and I’ll figure something else out. Besides, you staying the night should be a good starting point. I’m sure there’s plenty of gossiping happening already.”

 

He doesn’t think he’s ever heard someone be so giddy with the apparent downfall of their social standing. He scowls at the food. 

 

“I don’t trust you,” he growls, “And this is still the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. I don’t know when Anna will be coming back since it’s a five hour carriage ride.” his face becomes more bitter. Why did he feel the need to mention that out loud? 

 

“S’okay. Didn’t expect you to trust me. Just think about it, huh? If she doesn’t come by tomorrow night I’ll send a letter asking her to get you back. Now, eat! You’re killing me here, I like to think of myself as a good chef!”

 

He lifts his head to finally look at her, “ You made this? Guess you’ve been without a man for a long time if you need to cook for yourself.”

 

She quirks a brow, “I mean, it’s a useful skill to have. I never understood women who think that cooking and cleaning was beneath them. They always scoff at men’s work or whatever. But that shit’s the backbone of society! I think you guys deserve a little more credit if you ask me.”

 

Apparently, staring at her with wide bewilderment is going to be a common issue.

 

Is she... Trying to get on my good side? Make casual conversation?

 

He tries to school his expression to a more casual one, “I don’t cook or clean. Too lazy.”

 

“Don’t look very lazy if you ask me. I can see the muscle through your pants.”

 

His sneer must be a little too obvious because she apologizes again and sheepishly rubs the back of her head, “Aaah, sorry. Can you tell that words isn’t my strong suit?” She cracks a lopsided smile.

 

Now his face is stuck in an incredulous expression. Throwing people out of the loops seem to be her talent. He wonders if she really killed people or if they just killed themselves to get away from her babbling.

 

He tries to crack a smug grin and square his shoulders.

 

“Oh, I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm lazy. The minute I hear something that sounds like effort, my entire body feels as if it's been chained to the spot. My brain is working a mile a minute to even say this sentence, and trust me, I'm suffering. I could do it with my eyes closed from all the etiquette lessons I’ve had but... Nah , that sounds like work.”

 

There’s a beat of silence and Maevis suddenly lets out a loud and boisterous laugh that makes Julian’s heart skip a beat in surprise. She chortles and with the way her chair leans back it looks like she might fall flat on her back a few times. She brings a finger to the corner of her eyes to wipe tears. 

 

“Man! Is that something you rehearse to say to potential wives? That’s pretty good. Props to you. But again, I’m not marrying you. You can drop the act.”

 

Julian looks away immediately, suddenly feeling the torture of embarassment because that’s exactly what it is. Blushing would have been no problem, but he’s as red as a beetroot and radiates heat like a hot pan. He’s pretty sure someone can cook a three-course meal on his face right about now.

 

She may be an idiot, but she can read him like a book. His lines always worked on pompous nobles, perhaps commoners were just better equipped for sarcasm?

 

He’s still blushing a fierce scarlet. Time to change the subject. 

 

“F-Fuck off! It’s the t-truth!” he yells and stabs at his food again, “Anyway! I can’t eat, these pants are too fucking tight, ugh. ” 

 

Her laughter soon turns into giggles, “Ah, right. I guess I should have expected that. I don’t think my pants will work. Who knows, maybe there’s some old men’s pants lying around here that came with the house. Otherwise I can get Nadine to get you something.” 

 

She stands, giving him an easy smile and he stares at her angrily, though the warm blush still cakes his features.

 

“You could unbutton your pants and eat if that’ll relieve any tightness. I’ll leave so don’t worry about whatever it is men worry about. Speaking on that, I’ll still sleep in the barn if that makes you comfortable.” She takes her now empty plate and glass and starts to walk off, just when she’s about to exit into the kitchen she turns to him, “Oh yeah, I guess I’ll set up a rule. As long as you’re here, you won’t call Nadine a cripple. You’ll call her, well, Nadine.” She winks, “We’re all about taking into account people’s feelings here.”

 

She leaves, and again Julian has to pick up his fucking jaw from the floor.

 

What the fuck just happened?

 

It was only hours ago he was belting and biting himself. Making himself bleed, tormenting himself of memories from the past and now he’s — he’s having fucking dinnertime conversation with some idiot who wants to ruin her own reputation? What? 

 

He looks at the food. With the amount he’s stabbed at it it’s littered with holes. It’s probably cold by now, but his stomach still growls in protest. 

 

Julian quickly examines around the room, then blows a breath as he unbuckles and unbuttons his pants so his stomach actually has some room. 

 

He won’t admit it, but the food tastes delicious.

 


 

Eventually, Julian finds himself stalking around the back garden with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. The sun is setting, basking the estate in a honeyed glow and before long it’ll be replaced with darkness. After the meal he walked aimlessly, eventually asking the cri — Nadine — where the back exit was. He partly wanted to go see this barn Maevis mentioned, but now he’s staring at the dead and withered plants. It’s winter, so that much was expected but he finds he can’t ignore it. 

 

He hears footsteps behind him, “Enjoying the view? Not much to look at.”

 

“Your garden is shit,” he says while gingerly touching some dead roses. 

 

“Uh huh. I only just got the house, guess no one was around to do gardening.” She saddles up next to him, “The dead plants bother you that much?”

 

“I’ve a garden back home,” he mumbles, unsure why he’s saying this out loud, “And a greenhouse. I’m pretty fucking good at taking care of plants.” He sticks his finger in the dirt, “The soil is wrong for these flowers. And those pots have too many plants in them so the crowded flowers were susceptible to disease, I bet. From what I can tell it’s a bunch of flowers with conflicting colours so it probably looked like someone vomited paint on a canvas.”

 

He looks at her, a smile creeping on his face, “So yeah, the garden was shit when it was alive.” He’s not sure if he’s trying to be rude or not.

 

She puts her hands on her hips and appraises him with a grin of her own. 

 

“Look at you with all this flower power knowledge. And you’ve got a garden? What happened to being lazy?”

 

He feels a blush creeping on his nape from his prior embarrassment and pokes at the dead flowers to distract himself, “Gardening is the only thing I’m good at, then. It’s fun.” The last bit ends in a shy mutter and he grows annoyed with himself. He’s not fucking shy, he’s supposed to be a brat. It’s just been too long since he actually talked about his interests with anyone. He’s just rusty when it came to normal conversation, though he thinks he’s made that excuse already. 

 

He keeps at a rock and Maevis hums noncommittally, “Well, I’m gonna hunker down in the barn. Nadine took the horse out for the day after she fed it so hopefully it’s tired from the exercise. Don’t want to be dealing with a restless horse afterall.”

 

Something in his spirit suddenly becomes elevated and a fast smile spreads over his haggard features. For a split-second all his negative emotions leave him as he turns to Maevis again, but this time with a beaming smile that actually seems to blind her with how she stiffens. 

 

“You have a horse?!”

 

The second the words leave his mouth his expression is one of brief horror before he tries schooling it. He doesn’t know whether he’s supposed to look his usual condescending, blank or casual and he’s sure his face must be a horrid amalgamation of all three.

 

He clears his throat awkwardly.

 

"Erm, yes. A horse."

 

At least he can take solace in the fact that he’s actually managed to make her speechless, if her hanging jaw and wide eyes is anything to go by. If only it didn’t involve him blushing the same deep scarlet again and saying something he never intended to blurt out. 

 

Maevis finally finds her voice, “You — You’re full of surprises! Yeah, I’ve got a horse. A mare. She came with the house. Wanna see her?”

 

He turns suddenly, not wanting to show her any more of the red that’s marking his skin. Usually any red on his skin were the result hits and slaps, not… this. He’s not used to this - not used to fucking anything this woman is pulling on him. When was the last time he had anything resembling a normal conversation? 

 

“No!” He yells, “I don’t want to see any old dirty beast! I’m going to bed.” He storms off to the door, making sure to make his steps as angry as possible. 

 


 

He slams the door to his bedroom. It’s only when he leans on the wooden frame does he notice the bed has been neatly made with some books put to the side. Probably the steward’s work. 

 

He puts a finger to his forehead and exhales sharply. 

 

He fully expected to be belting himself again at this point. Probably making his back bleed. But instead he licked his wounds, Maevis even let him take some gel to his room with no questions asked. Was she just that nonchalant or did she just not care? She can see right through him so surely she has to have an inkling of what he did. 

 

Infuriating.

 

She’s so infuriating, but at the same time he doesn’t feel that familiar anger flowing through his veins begging for release in the form of pain. Instead she’s somehow… easy to talk to. 

 

He snorts.

 

It’s been forever since you left the house. 

 

She’s the first person other than Francesca and Anna he’s spoken to in a very long time. She has no tact and no decorum. A complete idiot with a half-baked scheme. She’s not easy to talk to, she’s just confusing. And he’s properly confused by now.

 

And yet, a feeling flows through him, one he also hasn’t experienced in some time. 

 

Curiosity. And he hates it. He should be furious. He pinches a welt on his skin but it does nothing for him. He just needs to sleep, and maybe he’ll find the entire day was a bizarre fever dream. That or the idiot froze to death in the barn.

 

Julian grunts and takes a book to read on the bed. He doesn’t know how long he’s reading for, but eventually he falls asleep.

 

He dreams of horses doing gardening. And then promptly eating the flowers they grow.

 


 

Okay, so the guy actually is pretty fun. 

 

Drama done and her plan seemingly coming into fruition, Maevis was feeling pretty good. She’d like to think she always got her way, one way or another.

 

She enters the barn and sees the horse in its designated area. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call this a stable, or a mix of both. But, well, semantics. It’s built with weathered oak planks and has a sloping corrugated iron roof. There’s a deep golden hue of old straw,

 and half empty hay net hangs limply in the corner. The horse is in its stall, the door is pinned back by a rusted iron hook. 

 

The mare whinnies at her but otherwise doesn’t give Maevis much notice. 

 

“Hello to you too,” she waves and then notes she should probably give the animal a name. Another time. 

 

She fully intends to sleep on some hay. She has a blanket and jacket, she thinks she’ll be warm enough. She’s crossed through arctic plains in less though she thinks it was the adrenaline that made her warm. Either way, a barn and stable is familiar. She already feels more at home.

 

She stretches her arms above her head and it’s only when she opens her eyes after it does she notice… something off at a far corner that’s only just barely lit by the waning sunlight outside. 

 

“What the— Is that a bed?”

 

“Yes.” She didn’t actually expect to get a deadpan answer, but soon enough Nadine slinks out of the shadows.  

 

Maevis rubs her forehead and blows a breath, “Geez, Nadine. What did I tell you about sneaking around? And where’d you even get this?” 

 

“There are many beds in the house. I simply moved it. I did not want you to get cold.”

 

Maevis looks at the bed, then gapes at Nadine. 

 

“So, you were able to take the horse out to give it exercise it, and probably groomed and fed it, and then you got a bed out without anyone noticing. How do you manage all this shit? Did you always have powers of teleportation? I guess being a steward really was your calling.”

 

Nadine walks over to hand Maevis a small bell, which makes her grimace.

 

“Call me when you need anything, Sir, I’ll be right over,” Nadine says, and Maevis is about to make a retort but the steward continues, “And as for your other questions,” she brings a finger to her lips, “It’s a secret.”

 

Maevis blinks and can only stare, rooted at the spot, as Nadine leaves. 

 

Eventually she huffs. 

 

Guess she has some mischief in her deep down.

 

She puts the bell down on the side and lays on the bed, hands behind her back and smiling at the ceiling. 

 

Julian is cute. Adorable, even. Evidently, deep down all the vitirole and foul words is a shy man and she wonders if she got glimpses of how he was like before whatever happened to make him like this. She definitely got more than she bargained for. She appreciates a man who has no mask of docility, rather he has a mask of hatred. That’s pretty exciting for her. 

 

She wants to chip that mask down. Satiate her curiosity. She hopes he’ll agree to continue involving himself with her and if not, well, she’ll preoccupy herself with something else.

 

But she’s pretty sure she’s got him. She’s sure she’s piqued his own curiosity. 

 

Then she bites her lip and crosses her legs. 

 

I shouldn’t have mentioned leashes earlier. 

 

But now it’s all she can think about. He has such a lovely neck, and it looks even lovelier with bruises. He’d look good in a collar, though really, any man does. But he would especially. And she knows part of her interest in him is because he’s always so angry - she likes angry men. They were always more satisfying to make into a panting and whining mess when they’re underneath her. To make them keel and swallow their pride as they beg for more. To completely dominate. 

 

The hands behind her head clasp onto each other harder. 

 

You aren’t using Julian for that. He’s just going to ruin your reputation and you’ll never see him again. A means to an end. Go fuck a prostitute if you’re that frustrated. 

 

She closes her eyes and counts between her breaths. Willing herself to not be so aroused. Sexual advances will just make him run away even with his reputation of being whore. 

 

Maybe she will fuck a prostitute. She just has to find one.  

 

But inevitably her thoughts go back to Julian, though for decidedly less lewd reasons. She thinks she’s thought of another good plan She opens her eyes and her smile grows wider. 

 

“I should ask him for gardening tips.”

Chapter Text

Julian wakes up in a daze, and the next thing he knows he’s in the back garden with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders again. It’s early. He stares beyond the fence of the backyard where there’s a sea of skeletal trees bathed in the morning mist. He scratches his messy bed hair.

 

Went to bed early and then woke up early. Now what do I do?

 

He thinks his body seemingly came outside on its own because in his mind he really wants to see that horse Maevis mentioned. Or maybe he slept-walked. Either way, now he finds himself shifting on the grass and not sure what to do next. 

 

He knows Maevis is likely still asleep. That would make things too awkward, no matter how much he wants to see this horse. She’d probably make a snide remark and reference him mouthing off on her yesterday. He’s not about to let her know he has a childish love for animals. 

 

Julian shifts on his feet and frowns at the thought that his general affection of all things non-human is childish. That was what his mother — and eventually Anna — said to him. Childish, a useless fascination, an inane distraction or several other combinations of words that meant the same thing. Remarks to dissuade him from getting inattentive of his damnable etiquette lessons that in time resulted in him being self-conscious of anyone knowing of his… Secret? Was it a secret? It certainly felt like one with how his mother made those confidence destroying remarks. An especially dirty secret.

 

He wished he could have grown up with a dog or a cat. But Anna seemed to be allergic to everything so he never did. He knows that out of the many things he considered to be Anna’s fault she couldn’t be blamed for that, it was completely out of her control. But he still sometimes wonders if that’s where the resentment for his sibling started to fester.

 

Julian keeps staring at the trees to distract himself. They look fairly ominous with the mist and having no leaves, but he knows come spring and summer time this view will be a sea of brilliant green. He tries not to think of his past, but now he can’t help but think of his fucking etiquette lessons. Those long drawn out sessions that taught him subjects specifically to make him more attractive to women and other members of the nobility. 

 

He remembers being taught that everyone’s soul is connected to a tree in the forest during a religious lesson. He quite liked those. They were interesting, even if he didn’t necessarily consider himself a spiritual man. Having a soul connected to a tree almost seemed romantic and during the lesson he got excited over the prospect of exploring the nearby forest to search for his tree.

 

But his excitement was immediately dashed when the teacher noted that it was only women with these apparent soul trees. And therefore only they could go to the afterlife, and men would just have to hope to be reincarnated as a woman in their next lives. 

 

He lost much of his interest in religious studies after that. He wonders if that’s where his resentment in life in general began to fester.

 

Having a pity party first thing in the morning are you? He bitterly scoffs at himself. 

 

Luckily, before he can feel annoyed at himself and build up an anger he’ll need to release later, he hears a sudden whinnie. He turns his head at the direction of the stable. Looks like the horse has woken up. He shifts on his feet again and knits his brows. He really, really wants to see it. It whinnies again and he feels his resolve quickly crumble. Animals were always good at that. 

 

She’s probably still sleeping. I’ll just pop in and out. None will be the wiser.

 

He makes his way to the stable with footsteps that are more excited than he’d like to admit, and he totally isn’t grinning in anticipation at this point.

 


 

Maevis drifts in and out of consciousness. The world is a blur, with random images floating aimlessly in her stream of thoughts. At some point, she can see a clear image. A broken city, destroyed by a hailstorm of bombs and mines. The image later retreats into wallowing blackness.

 

She knows she’s dreaming, but she can’t wake up. In the darkness it almost feels like there’s someone trying to look at her, but she doesn’t know where. 

 

The broken city comes into view again, but this time she’s in a town square. A statue of a wolf that would sit on top of a fountain lays in front of her in pieces. Maevis knows that will happen next. She’s had this dream before. She tries to will herself to become awake, but all she can feel is her stomach shifting uneasily.

 

There’s a crack of someone stepping on broken glass. Then there’s multiple steps that surround her. Maevis stands there in the dream, almost in a daze, but inwardly she’s screaming both at herself to move and for her body to fucking wake up they’re coming again pleasedon’tletthemgetmeagain—

 

Someone hits her over the head with part of the wolf statue. It’s not real — it’snotfuckingrealwakeup — but the pain takes over a portion of her brain like it is. Then agony sears through her abdomen better than a branding iron from another individual stabbing her with glass. There’s another stab at her gut, then a kick at her legs, a punch to her face. It's as though her blood has become acid, intent of destroying her from the inside out. All she can do is writhe, the occasional whimper escaping the grunts and shouts of her attackers.

 

Wakeupwakeupwakeupitfeelstooreal

 

There’s a gruff, gravelly voice of an older woman above her. She’s holding the head of the wolf statue, ready to smash Maevis’s skull in. Every time the dream gets to this part, she wonders if her brain matter would be like spilled porridge on the gravel. 

 

The older woman grins. She’s missing a few teeth in this rendition. Sometimes she’s younger. Sometimes she has one eye. Sometimes she’s a different skin tone. 

 

But every time she says the same thing. 

 

“This is a poetic end to you, isn’t it, Wolf?”

 

And then the world goes black again just before the statue makes contact with Maevis’s face. 

 


 

She finally, finally opens her eyes to the real world again. Her breathing is rapid and shallow. She’s slicked with sweat and feels an unbearable heat course through her entire body, as if there was an invisible flame held against her skin. Maevis sits up suddenly and throws the blankets off of her. When she touches her stomach it doesn’t feel like it’s filled with boiling water anymore, but rather she becomes overcome with nausea. It claws at her throat and she tries to force down the bile.

 

She lurches her body forward when her stomach contracts violently. Maevis shuts her eyes tightly when she feels her lunch from the day prior spew out of her coughing, then her nostrils is invaded by the pungent stench and she retches again. 

 

When only clear liquid comes out of her she finally opens her eyes again. Her face is white and her throat burns from the stomach acid. She surveys the mess with watery eyes and her stomach dry-heaves again.

 

Her breath is still rapid when she brings shaky hand to wipe the bile from her lips. She can still taste the vomit in her mouth. 

 

She can feel a pair of eyes on her. It must be the horse. It wouldn’t surprise her retching woke the animal. Her lips tilt further downwards.

 

Probably made a lot of noise while having that fucking nigthmare again. Whining and crying like a baby.

 

She certainly feels like an infant with the constant dry-heaving and coughing she’s doing now. 

 

Maevis thinks she’ll make use of that bell Nadine gave her when she hears a quick, nervous “shit” before there’s rapid footsteps that run out of the stable and across the yard. 

 

Soon she just hears a door slamming. There’s only silence before the horse whinnies and stomps a hoof impatiently. 

 

Then she sits there, unsure of how to take in what just happened. She knows that was Julian and she wonders if she should feel embarrassed, horrified or surprised. Or all three. But somehow she feels nothing but a dull ache.

 

She spits out more bile.

 

“Probably too tired from heaving these damn chunks out,” she glumly says to herself. Her eyelids feel heavy but the stench prevents her from trying to actually fall asleep again. She rubs her forehead as she gets out of the bed and stumbles out of the stable. 

 

“Sir!” She hears Nadine yell, and Maevis leans on the stable door. 

 

She gives her steward a lazy wave, “Hey. Mind running up a bath for me?”

 

Nadine reaches her and adjusts her glasses. Maevis absentmindedly notes this is one of the first times she’s seen the woman so anxious. 

 

“Lord von Leventis alerted me you were in distress. Are you alright? Do you need assistance? What happened?” 

 

Maevis tries to give her an easy grin, though she knows her teeth is probably stained a nasty colour.

 

“I vomited,” she thinks she would have laughed at Nadine’s expression if she didn’t feel like complete shit, “I’ll help you clean it. Just — The bath first, okay? And let the horse out in the yard. Don’t want it spewing chunks as well.” Maevis rubs her throat with her hand, “Can you get me water too? My throat feels like it’s on fucking fire.”

 

She taps a hand on Nadine’s shoulder before the steward can reply and walks to the mansion with unsteady steps. She ignores the tuft of black hair and red eyes that hides behind a door when she enters the building.

 


 

The bath, look the rest of the house, is quite luxurious. It’s fashioned with tin and large enough to fit at least three people. Maevis soaked into the warm water and watched the steam rise to the ceiling. 

 

Thank fuck for plumbing. 

 

She sighed, and then Nadine creeped next to her to begin brushing her hair. 

 

“You really don’t have to help me bath, you know. I appreciate you bringing me tea, though.” Maevis says through another sigh. 

 

“It’s no issue, Sir,” Nadine whispers, “I should have never left you alone. Giving you a bell to call me was an insulting alternative. I apologize.”

 

Maevis taps on the rim of the bathtub and closes the eyes.

 

“Why? Do you think I’d drown in my own vomit?” It comes out a lot more biting than she intended, and she lowers her voice when she feels Nadine still on her hair, “I’m getting better, really. Waking up used to end up in a lot more than just expelling whatever I ate the night prior.”

 

Nadine continues brushing her hair, and then squirts some shampoo, “I understand,” her words are almost inaudible. 

 

Maevis takes a sip of the tea that’s seated on a small table beside the bath and then stares at the wall, the tiles a busy mosaic of red and gold. She supposes she should be honoured that  Nadine would worry about her like this. Though at the same time she dislikes being babied. She had enough of that when she was recovering in the hospital and later discharged from the army. 

 

At the same time she’s thankful for Nadine’s presence. She’s sure being alone would start her incessant knee bouncing and anxiety. 

 

She blows a breath and decides to think of something else. Namely Julian. 

 

“So. Julian saw that mess.” She tries to keep her voice light and casual, “I know I didn’t exactly  give the greatest first impression ever, but I doubt vomiting all over myself is helping my image, heh.”

 

Nadine wets her hair, then scrubs her arms down with a sponge, “He was quite frantic. I’m sure he will be glad to know you are alright.”

 

“And I’m sure he can’t wait to get out of here. Though I’m sure my reputation is in tatters by now.” She turns to Nadine, “Hey, can you go into town and see if there’s any gossip about me yet? And if you can buy some clothes that aren’t rags I’d appreciate it as well since clearly Valentine won’t be giving me a wardrobe change any time soon.” 

 

Regardless of when Julian actually leaves — and she’s sure it’ll be some time today — she would like to speak with him. The fact that he was apparently frantic interests her for some reason.

 

Perfect fodder for some teasing. 

 

She’ll let him know she doesn’t have some disease she’s dying from, and then get the last bit of fun she can out of him. She wonders if vomiting was the last straw and he’ll leave permanently after this, though she would still like to ask him for gardening tips.

 

The steward answers in a soft ‘mhm’ and Maevis stands from the bathtub. She stretches her arms above her head and downs the rest of the tea. 

 

“Taking a warm bath really does wonders on the body. I’ll make myself toast, you want some?”

 


 

With the toast eaten Maevis heads to the backyard with the intent of cleaning the vomit in the stable. Naturally, Nadine closely shadows her and insists she can clean it on her own. 

 

Maevis stops walking towards the stable when she notices that the horse has been let out in the field. It happily grazes on the grass and pays them no mind. 

 

Then her gaze flicks to Julian exiting the stable with buckets in his hands. He looks as though he’s about to drop them when he sees Maevis and Nadine. 

 

She can almost feel Nadine adjusting her glasses behind her and then the steward speaks, “Lord von Leventis? Apologies for the state of the stable. I will get it clean immediately.”

 

Julian shakes his head, almost looking bashful, “I cleaned it.”

 

Maevis had once noted that Julian’s surprised face was delicious and she reveled with messing with his expectations. Now, she’s sure he feels the same way with her dumbfounded and slack-jawed expression because his once bashful look is replaced with a loose grin. 

 

She puts her hands on her hips and smirks at him when she gathers herself, “Lookit you. Taking out the horse and cleaning my mess. Again, I find myself wondering about what happened to being lazy. Perhaps you really are husband material.” 

 

His telltale annoyance flickers on his expression, though it’s accompanied with the lightest blush. What a strange man. He seems to be quite talented in sending mixed signals. 

 

He snorts, “I did it for the horse, not you. It smelled horrible. It’s practically animal abuse to leave it in there. Maybe if you grovel and beg I’ll forgive you for wasting my morning.”

 

Maevis puts her hand on her chin and closes her eyes, still bearing a smirk, “ Again with trying to be rude! And now I remember that you said you didn’t want to see some dirty old beast but  you’ve let it out and cleaned its home. Again, perhaps you really are husband material.”

 

She opens her eyes and is greeted with the truly adorable image of Julian’s blush deepening. Maybe he liked being teased. And Maevis was a woman who liked doing just that. 

 

He’s about to say something but Nadine loudly clears her throat. When they both turn to her the steward nods at Julian. 

 

“You are a guest, Lord von Leventis. I would be improper for me to just stand here while you clean. Please, allow me to do the rest.” For a sniper turned prim and proper servant, she doesn’t really give Julian much room to argue when she walks to him and firmly takes the buckets from him and leaves.

 

The horse whinnies and both of them look the mare.

 

Maevis points at the animal with her chin and grins, “Wanna help groom her? You did say she was a dirty beast. Maybe she needs some cleaning.”

 

Apparently the ground becomes a topic of great interest since Julian keeps staring at, occasionally kicking the dirt with his once spotless boots. Then he looks at her. His expression is annoyed but it’s forced and tight. He flexes his jaw and his gaze flickers between Maevis and the horse. 

 

She can tell he’s having some sort of inner conflict, but why she can’t quite figure out. 

 

Julian eventually leans against the wall of the stable and crosses his arms. His face is still tight. 

 

“You steward just said it would be improper for me to clean. And I’m feeling far too tired to continue cleaning up after you.” He says, as if trying to convince himself. 

 

Maevis can’t contain the sigh that comes out of her, suddenly not interested in teasing now, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you’re very easy to read,” he stiffen and she continues, “It’s obvious you want to groom her. Or at least touch her. As fun as you are, it has got to be tiring constantly acting like a brat. I already told you don’t have to try so hard.”

 

He seems to bristle at the word ‘fun’ and Maevis wonders if she’s going to need to change her entire vocabulary to prevent pissing this man off constantly. 

 

It’s almost imperceptible, but she’s pretty sure she hears him mumble a soft “I’ll just watch.”

 

She shrugs and gets the grooming supplies and shortly gets to work. She falls into an easy rhythm of rubbing the horse’s hair with a soft brush. The mare continues to lazily graze on the grass and keeps mostly still.

 

She figures she could try to start a casual conversation, “So, you like horses? Looks like you do.”

 

There’s no answer, and Maevis has to contain another sigh and eyeroll. He’s really dedicated to being a brat, evidently. Though if he doesn’t want to talk she won’t force him. She’s quite content with him just watching the mare. He’s obviously interested in horses, and perhaps animals in general, which is just positively adorable. She thinks she’s seeing more of that mask of his crack, even if it’s just a miniscule amount. 

 

I might even miss this kid when he leaves. 

 

But he’ll come back. Maybe. Probably. She has curiosity to satiate, afterall. 

 

She continues grooming idly and the repetitive motions puts her at ease. She almost forgets about vomiting in the morning and of Julian’s presence when she hears a pebble being kicked. 

 

“...What’s her name?” It’s another soft mumble. 

 

His facade is cracking again. Cute.

 

She doesn’t see his expression since her back is turned against him, but she can’t suppress another grin forming on her face. 

 

“She doesn’t have one,” then she pats the mare’s rump, “Wanna name her?” Clearly she’s intent on teasing again. Can that be considered teasing? She doesn’t know, perhaps she just wants to have a conversation partner now that Nadine is doing whatever she’s doing. 

 

Then she frowns, would Julian not being here result in her thinking the backyard is too big and stifling at the same time? Too empty like that town square with the broken fountain? Would her knee be bouncing at this point?

 

She doesn’t have the chance to continue ruminating on that thought because next she hears a scoff. 

 

“With the amount of stuff you don’t know, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you don’t know how to name a damn horse.”

 

Yeah. Reaaaaaaaally dedicated to his shtick. 

 

Her smile comes back. He’s far too good as a distraction. 

 

“Hey, hey,” she says through a light laugh, “I know some stuff.” 

 

“Like?”

 

She pats at her holstered gun, “Like using this bad girl. Her name’s Frenzy. I like to think I’ve got pretty good aim.”

 

There’s a beat of silence and she guesses he’s got another slack-jawed expression. His next response confirms her suspicions. 

 

“You name your gun but not your horse?” She has to stifle a laugh from how scandalized he sounds. 

 

“And I’ve had this gun my entire life! I’ve only known this horse for like three days.”

 

She hears Julian slide down from the stable’s wall, and a quick glance behind her shows him now sitting on the ground and idly picking at the grass. His face is neutral, almost bored.

 

“I know you were in the war,” he says, “But why would you need a gun for your entire life? What did you do before?”

 

She huffs a breath when she fully turns to him and quirks a brow, “Curious, are we?”

 

When Julian pointedly looks at the grass he’s currently picking and doesn’t answer her, she shrugs and continues, “I was a bounty-hunter. Didn’t Anna tell you?”

 

He finally looks at her again and the corners of his lips fight to stay closed, his eyebrows slightly raised.Then he looks back at the grass. The action makes Maevis tilt her head and raise her brow up further. 

 

“You don’t know what that is, huh?”

 

A blush forms on the corner of his cheeks again but he keeps his gaze pointed to the ground, “O-Of course I know what bounties and hunting is! You — You hunt prizes?” She’s pretty sure the last bit isn’t meant to sound like a question, but it does. 

 

Maevis puts her hands on her hips, takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, “Hold on a second. I know something you don’t? I gotta… bask in this moment.” She exhales happily and when she opens she gets a fraction of a second to enjoy Julian pouting at her before he looks back to the ground. 

 

She thinks this is the third time she’s thought of him as adorable.

 

He clearly has no intent on speaking, so she talks instead, “You’re… sorta correct. I do hunt prizes, specifically prizes that’s put on people’s heads.” She sees him still his movements on the grass, and she can tell he’s listening with rapt attention now. 

 

“You could say… I was a reaper,” she smiles at herself, “I hunted down wanted criminals and got paid for it. Sometimes I would chase them down from country to country. And if I’m allowed to brag, I was pretty fucking good at what I did.” 

 

He looks at up at her, eyes gleaming with… wariness, so she quickly adds, “Don’t worry, you’ve got no bounty. I ain’t gonna touch you. It’s also not loaded.” His wary look then flickers with annoyance again. 

 

Julian shifts on his seating position and his lips fight against opening again, but eventually talks, “You went to a lot of places, then?”

 

She nods, “Uh huh. Been to Utreau, obviously, but also Meltzare, Neiand, Czechda, some really foreign ones that I can’t pronounce the names of…” 

 

Now he looks at her dubiously, “You’ve been to so many places and yet you don’t know even the most basic stuff? Like men not eating before their female relatives?”

 

“Hey now, I’m never there for long! Not like I can take the time to learn cultural practices or whatever. Besides, that rule of yours? That’s a noble thing, I think. I went after brigands and miscreants. They sure as fuck don’t follow any of that nonsense. So all these politics, the bureaucracy, the hierarchy of the world? Doesn’t matter to me because it never cropped up on my work. I’m just given a name and a face and I hunt them down. Easy peasy.”

 

Julian gnaws at his bottom lip, but only slightly because she assumes it still hurts with how abused it looks. His eyes still look unconvinced, “Nobles and commoners can’t be that different, can they?”

 

She tilts her head again, “I’d imagine commoners and criminals don’t really feel the need to keep up some sort of image like nobles do. All these rules you follow have got to be exhausting, so I really don’t envy you.”

 

Maevis throws the grooming supplies to the side and pats her legs down. She saunters over to Julian and sits next to him, though she makes sure to keep some distance when his eyes flick to her gun. Then she takes Frenzy and tosses aside as well. He seems to be a bit relieved from that. 

 

She continues, “You know what? I grew up knowing only one thing for certain. The world isn’t made for anyone. Not for the likes of bounty-hunters, mercenaries, runaways, brigands… And not for pompous nobles bound by rules either. If you ask me, life is easier to live knowing that,” she shrugs and then smirks, “I’d say you should drop the rules but you’ve already been doing that pretty well. But I still think you should take it more easy, you know? Just relax.”

 

She doesn’t really know if what she just said makes sense or why she’s sharing her life’s mantra with him. Perhaps it’s the pity bubbling up inside of her again, Julian being a bundle of touchy nerves and remembering how the townspeople here spat at him makes her feel sorry for him. Maybe she feels some sort of responsibility for bringing him here. Maybe she wants to save him like the heroines in the occasional books she reads. They always save a poor abused man in those. 

 

Though, clearly, Julian doesn’t seem to appreciate her pity, because next he scowls at her, “Oh, sure. Not following rules and doing whatever the fuck you want is easy for you to do because you’re a woman,” he spits, “I can’t just do whatever I want, no matter how you think I can break and bend the rules. If you and Anna deem fit I can be married by tomorrow without any fucking input from me.” 

 

Maevis puts her hands up in mock defense, inwardly berating herself for fucking up monumentally again. 

 

Julian continues, voice and eyes bitter, “I couldn’t go to University like my sister, instead I just got these fucking etiquette lessons that only taught me shit to be more attractive to women, I can’t get a job because it’s ‘improper,’’ he makes mocking air quotes with his fingers, “And I can’t own property so I’m bound to Anna’s estate until she sells me off. Which, I thought wasn’t going to happen because she seemingly gave up on it but now you’ve reignited that interest!”

 

He points at her accusingly, every word is over-pronounced, slicing rather than tumbling through the dry air. His eyes show the same franticness when he blew up on her yesterday. 

 

“The world may not be made by anyone, but I can’t just ‘take it easy’ or whatever the fuck you said. You have freedom, I don’t! I can’t do whatever I want because I’m a man!” 

 

Fucking great, Maevis thinks, back to square one with him being pissed off again.

 

Though what he said surprises her, and she can’t help but splutter out a question, “You — You really can’t do any of those?”

 

Julian rolls her eyes and throws some grass at her, “Don’t fucking tell me you didn’t know that either. Surely you’re not that stupid.”

 

She shakes her head and tries to keep her tone light to defuse the situation, “No — I, I guess it’s something like that. It’s just that the men I’ve met in my travels could do those. Well, I don’t know about the University part but I’ve absolutely met men who could own their own place and work. And get paid! They exist, I swear!”

 

He squints at her, unconvinced. 

 

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

 

“What reason would I have to do that?” She asks and brings her hands down, trying to keep body language neutral, “I told you I wanted you to ruin my reputation, it wouldn’t make sense for me to antagonize you that much would it?” 

 

His squint becomes narrower, his eyes becoming slits, “And yet you feel the need to tease me constantly.”

 

She blinks at him and watches his hands as they clasp and unclasp each other as if in constant need of touch and reassurance.

 

Maevis sighs.

 

“If it bothers you that much I can try to stop, though no guarantees since that’s just part of who I am. And again, if you want to leave, I won’t stop you when Anna comes for you,” she scratches her head, “Maaaaan, I’m really good fucking up when talking, eh? That’s why I took on a job that was about actions and not words.”

 

She leans back on her hands and then she eyes Julian pinch his wrist before he stops. Then his eyes go down to his hands and then dart to the pile of grass he pulled out. He looks as though a touch or comment will stir another hurricane of harsh and horsed insults. So she does neither and watches him have another internal conflict with himself. 

 

When he finally looks back at her, he almost looks apologetic. He doesn’t apologize, but rather he backtracks on the conversation. 

 

“Men could really own property and do work? Where was this?”

 

Well, I’ll take it. Better than him still being angry.

 

“In a couple of places, including Asnain. I’m not sure if they legally owned property or it was just the law wasn’t enforced or whatever, but I can assure you that commoner men aren’t so… subject to strict rules like nobles apparently are.” Although the commoners who know of Julian’s infamy still seemingly curtail themselves to social norms by treating him like garbage. So not really that egalitarian, but still a teensy better than nobles.

 

He furrows his brows and looks deep in thought, “...I guess I can believe that. Not like I ever got out of the estate very much so not like I would know that.” He ends it in another mumble. 

 

She tries to give him an easy smile, “What about those etiquette lessons? Didn’t they allow you out?”

 

“They were usually held in another noble’s house. So I never really got out of the noble district then,” his expression becomes softer and melancholic, “I guess we live in completely different worlds.”

 

She thinks of patting him on the shoulder reassuringly, but decides against it. “And that’s where you learned cooking and cleaning? I still standby the notion that those are useful skills to have. You probably give yourself too little credit, I bet you’re pretty good at those even if you’re as lazy as you claim.”

 

“How would you know? You haven’t had my cooking,” he scoffs.

 

“Well, if you’re taught something your whole life I can only assume you’re good at it. You’re probably way better than me in any case,” she almost begins to gnaw at her lip. She means what she said, but she hopes he actually doesn’t make her something because she doesn’t think she’d have the confidence to eat it. And she’s sure her denying his food or insinuating he’d poison her would just throw him off another edge. 

 

To her surprise, there’s the lightest blush that she’s ever seen on his face now. 

 

“I also know the violin. Every nobleman knows at least one musical instrument, apparently makes us better at conversation,” he mutters. 

 

She blinks at him again and she suddenly has a theory. 

 

Maevis chooses her words carefully, “That’s pretty cool. You can probably make quite the symphony, huh? I know I can’t pluck a string for the life of me,” he shifts his sitting position and she continues, “You must be quite talented!” 

 

His blush deepens slightly, and his hands clasp tightly on one another. She can only describe his expression as a cat expecting another pet. 

 

Oho. 

 

Quite the change from him yelling at her. Perhaps she’s found another crack in his mask. She’s certainly been learning a lot in just two days.

 

Looks like someone likes to be praised. 

 

It’s not really teasing if she compliments him, is it? Everyone deserves a little praise every once in awhile.

 

Julian looks away bashfully, “I can sew too,” then he clearly gets an idea in his head when he hastily takes a boot off, “I made these socks.”

 

She matches his smile with one of her own and claps her hands together, “An artisan and craftsman? Damn, you really are talented! Those look mighty comfy.” She is genuinely impressed. All she knows of sewing is patching a hole, and even then it usually comes out looking it was done by a blind person. Though she thinks someone who's blind could still do better than her.

 

He’s about to say something else when he puts his boot back on — probably wanting to fish for more compliments — but the same brief horror he had when he suddenly asked her about having a horse yesterday flashes across his face. The crimson on his face is likely from embarrassment now, and he covers his mouth with a hand and stands up quickly. 

 

Maevis joins him in standing and he speaks before she can get a word out, “W-Why am I telling you this? Every nobleman can do those things! You’re impressed too easily,” he tries to scowl, but it’s tempered by his blush, “I’m — I’m going inside to read. I’m done here.”

 

He stomps off, walking like his shoes were too tight, making short little strutting steps that screamed annoyance. 

 

Maevis blows a raspberry and sits back down. Seems like this will be an often occurrence if she does indeed continue seeing him. Angry outbursts, moments where it feels like she’s getting somewhere, and then he backtracks by making a pissy comment and leaving. Though she supposes she should be thankful that she’s getting anywhere at all. 

 

He tries to act superior and condescending but he can’t hide the insecurity that sometimes bubbles onto the surface. Perhaps that's the emotional optimum in a shallow society. The anger that flickers behind his eyes so often and his fishing for compliments further confirms her theory of him actually being quite shy within, but now she can see he’s starved of the affection he craves. 

 

Her pity for him grows. When was the last time someone actually complimented him? She compared him to a cat earlier, but now she can’t help but think of a dog. A dog that’s been hit and now bites at any hand that tries to caress it, an animal that continues to be wary of people’s intentions even after becoming acclimated to the kindness of a new owner. Something like that takes time. Baby steps. Though she’ll keep the comparison to herself since she doubts Julian will appreciate it very much.

 

She still needs to ask him for gardening advice. 

 


 

Julian experimentally pinches on the hand he bit and he narrows his eyes of not feeling the pleasurable release he wants. He’s frustrated. He — He wants to be angry. At something. Anything. It’s the same as yesterday, the damnable curiosity he thought he buried a long time ago when he was told he shouldn’t be so childish. Nothing good ever came from being curious. 

 

And yet he was able to stop himself from yelling at her further because he was legitimately interested in the notion of men working and owning property. 

 

She could just be pulling stuff out of her ass to make you stay with her. 

 

He supposes that could be true. He’s not sure he believes her, or maybe he doesn’t want to believe her because he knows nothing but petty jealousy will fester inside of him.

 

He rubs his forehead and closes his eyes. He then decides to just read whatever books are left in his room. Anna will surely pick him up today, and then he won’t have to deal with the confusion and curiosity. He can go back to his normal, isolated life. 

 


 

It’s hours later, Maevis finds herself in her study. She idly notes that the books have been rearranged alphabetically and she vaguely feels jealous over Nadine’s ridiculous efficiency. Maybe the steward just doesn’t sleep. Maevis sometimes wishes she didn’t need to sleep, she feels like she could be a much more productive individual then.

 

She looks at the leather spines lined up perfectly, a whole room filled with valuable first editions. It’s only know that she realizes that the owner of this estate probably died during the war and was someone who seemingly didn’t have any next of kin to give the mansion to. 

 

She snorts. How nice of the Empress to give her a home that otherwise would have been auctioned off or demolished. How many more empty fancy houses are out there? 

 

There’s a knocking on the door before Nadine opens it and ushers a familiar face in. 

 

Maevis’s plasters on a large, toothy grin that reaches her ears. 

 

“Calvara!”

 

The woman in question enters and proudly displays two bottles of whiskey in her hands. She shakes them and winks at Maevis. 

 

“A little birdie told me you could use a drink.”

 


 

Maevis swirls the whiskey in her glass, listening to the chinking of the ice cubes and breathing in a fragrance that only years in an oak barrel can achieve. Already the worries of her day were beginning to fade, even before the first taste. Just staring its gentle vortex was hypnotizing enough. Perhaps it was the repetition of the motions, but again she finds herself becoming calmer like when she was grooming the horse.

 

“I didn’t think you’d try to snag a husband so soon! You’re already shacking up? Colour me impressed by your efficiency,” Calvara takes a swig of her drink, then gives Maevis a lopsided smile, “And the man you choose. I’ve heard of him. I should have known you’d pick a slut. You always used to hire those types in brothels, heh.”

 

She hasn’t been in a brothel in far too long as well. Again with too many people. She’s had to make due with her own hand, but she thinks she’d rather have a tongue on her. 

 

Paying for a guy to warm my bed sounds pretty good right about now. 

 

She knows there’s services that sends prostitutes to people’s houses. It might be a good alternative since there'll be no crowd mingling on her part. She makes a mental note to do just that later.

 

Maevis leans back on her chair and one of her brows goes upwards as she appraises her friend and changes the subject, “Now, now. That’s a little rude. He’s… a little bit more complicated than that. He certainly makes the place more lively. Anyway, I don’t actually intend on marrying the guy.”

 

Calvara flicks a hand at her and huffs, “Sure. Ruining your reputation and all that. I don’t know how you do it with these half-baked schemes but props to ya.” Then her her brows knit together in a look of worry, “The crowds still bother you that much?”

 

Her jaw tenses and the grip on her whiskey glass tightens. 

 

“I still get nightmares about it, so I guess it does. I — I don’t think I could even go into town without thinking about getting jumped. My hand would be permanently attached to Frenzy.”

 

Calvara tries to give her a reassuring smile, “I still think it’s a good idea to just… slowly expose yourself to more people. You don’t have to go to a market or anything, but maybe start with like five people. Then seven, then ten, and so on. Work yourself up.”

 

“Easier said than done,” Maevis takes a swig of her own whiskey. The bitter taste makes her squint her eyes.

 

“Yeah, I know,” Calvara says softly, “Took me a while to even be comfortable in a room with a fireplace and now look at me. You helped me through that, and I’ll help you through your troubles! What are friends for, am I right?”

 

“You know, everytime you make a remark like this I forget that you’re kind of an asshole.”

 

She hears a guffaw and see Calvara’s lips part in a small ‘o’ in mock surprise, “You wound me! I’ll have you know I’m an absolute delight.”

 

Maevis gives her a skeptical look, “Somehow I doubt your husband feels the same way.”

 

“Oh, he’s just pissy because I’m thinking of getting a second man. He always has a stick up his ass. You know how men are.”

 

Maevis likes Calvara, she really does. She considers him her closest friend after her own mother. They’ve saved each other’s sorry asses more times than she can count and she would trust Calvara with her life. But she’s not really sure she approves of her… less than stellar treatment or opinion of men. 

 

They continue on like that, drinking and making easy conversation. It reminds her of the establishment she and Calvara used to frequent whenever they got the chance to hang out with one another. She remembers one bar she used to be a regular in, it curved into the room that was dark and barely lit. Through the windows, light from street lamps would trickle in. It was cozy. She thinks about how the smell has changed over the years she visited it. Sometimes it was of cigarette smoke only, then perfume that clung to clothing, skin and furniture alike. One bad days it was stale beer and body odour. 

 

Now it’s been years since she’s visited it. Too many people. She wonders if it’s still around. 

 

She misses it. It was a seedy establishment whose patrons were miscreants like herself, but it was comfortable in its own way.

 

She takes on large gulp and downs the rest of her whiskey, the light burning sensation at the back of her throat making her forget the distant memories that only serve to sour her mood.

 

Calvara splutters suddenly and after some coughing she smashes her glass against the hardwood table, almost shattering it. Her cheeks burning light hot coals when she gapes at Maevis. 

 

“Oh shit! I forgot, the Gala’s in three months.”

 

Maevis feels like her brain stops for several seconds as she takes in the new information. She almost coughs up the whiskey she just drank and she hits her hand on her chest when she does her own spluttering. 

 

“Are — Are you fucking serious? Calvara, that’s fucking important! Three months?! That’s — That’s way too soon. What the fuck. I figured it would have taken at least six months to plan something like that.”

 

Her knee starts its bouncing and she can feel the walls of the room starting to close in on her. 

 

There’s going to be so many fucking people there. Too many. I’ll just skip out on it and never arrive—

 

She feels two strong hands hold onto her shoulders and Calvara’s worried face appearing in front of her, “Relax. Three months is enough time to acclimate yourself in crowds, right? Like I said, I’ll help. You’ll be right as rain in no time.”

 

Calvara pats her shoulders and smiles at her, “You’ll be meeting the Empress and all that. I think she has, what, five husbands now? That’s pretty wild, eh?”

 

Clearly she’s trying to calm her down, but when there’s another knock on the door Maevis’s body jerks violently and she hates it. When Calvara takes her hands off her shoulders Maevis slaps both her cheeks with her hands. 

 

You’re a Wolf, not a rabbit. 

 

She swallows a lot more thickly than she would like to admit and stands to stop her knee bouncing. Nadine peeks through the door again, face as neutral as it usually is. 

 

“Lady von Leventis has arrived for her brother.”

 

Fucking...shit!

 

Perhaps it was the alcoholic stupor she was currently in that made her heart rate rise a little and her face flush a light pink. When she barrels past Calvara and Nadine she attributes her unwavering speed to the whiskey as well. 

 

“I need to ask for gardening advice!” is all she exclaims when Calvara calls out to her. 

 

Her thoughts swirl in her head like the whiskey in her glass. She supposes she could do what Calvara suggests. She knows it’s really the most reasonable route to take. Something that’s the most likely to succeed for her damnable issues. 

 

Her fists clench and unclench at the thought of even getting close to a crowd of people she doesn’t know. She can feel her heart pulsate with unusual rapidity at the mere thought of it. 

 

She doesn’t want to do any sort of… exposure therapy? Is that what Calvara called it? She’ll just feel like a wolf backed into its cave and lash out. She’s sure of it. It’ll be a fucking mess. 

 

What will be quicker, trying to get used to people again or ruining my reputation so bad even the Empress revokes my invitation to the Gala?

 

She’s well aware denying Calvara’s is a stupid decision. 

 

Regardless, she thinks she’ll stick to her original scheme. She’s starting to get deja vu. She’s had two sudden ‘ideas’ in a row to make Julian stay. Hopefully this one will be more concrete.

 


 

Julian stands in the main room, alone after Nadine left to fetch Maevis. Anna is outside. In his mind, he entertains the idea of making her stay in the cold for as long as possible. 

 

He isn’t looking forward to the carriage ride. 

 

There’s multiple steps that thunder against the carpeted stairs and when he looks he sees three women. He doesn’t recognize one of them and his surprise must show on his face since the scarred woman gives him a cheeky salute. 

 

Maevis then unceremoniously wraps an arm around his shoulders. 

 

“Julian!” and man is her breath fucking rancid. He scowls and pinches his nostrils shut with his fingers. 

 

“Sorry,” she says, but continues to speak right in front of him and invading his senses, “You wanna come over again and give me gardening tips?”

 

He just stares at her.

 

“You said yourself my garden is shit, it would be a nice little project sprucing it up a bit eh?”

 

His brows furrow, “What?”

 

She leans in further and he notices the pink on her cheeks. Of course she’s been drinking. He hears light snickering from the scarred woman behind them. 

 

Maevis continues, “And do you have any advice on how to make everyone hate me? So they want absolutely nothing to do with me?”

 

“...What?”

 

She mercifully lets go of him and stands back, finally giving him actual room to breathe. He narrows his eyes at her when she spreads her arms and closes her eyes. 

 

“Allow me to start over,” her words are more slurred than before, “I’m Maevis Bernard and I want you,” she points at him and opens her eyes, though her gaze is unsteady, “to ruin my reputation!”

 

He rolls his eyes, “Yes. You’ve made that clear.”

 

“Ah! But — But I need you to come back. So here’s a reason to come back! My garden is shit, as you said. And I figured it would be something to do. I’ll — I’ll rent a cabin for you nearby as well if you don’t want to sleep here!”

 

He has to make a conscious effort to not stare at her with an open mouth. 

 

This — This fucking moron, I swear.

 

He looks at Nadine and the other woman and points at Maevis with his thumb, “Is she always this stupid?”

 

The other woman barks out a laugh and her scars contort and twist when she smiles, “Yeah, you could say that.”

 

Nadine seemingly ignores them all and saunters to open the door, apparently confirming this conversation is over. 

 

“Lady von Leventis, it is good to see you are well.”

 

They exchange pleasantries, but Julian doesn’t hear it. He isn’t interested in anything Anna has to say. She’ll probably berate him in the carriage. Anger begins boiling up in him just at the thought of it. 

 

“Think about it, eh?” he hears Maevis whisper suddenly and he has to stop himself gagging from her breath again. 

 

He waves her off, “Yeah, whatever.” 

 

He doesn’t bid anyone goodbye when he follows Anna to the carriage. 

 


 

The carriage ride is just as unbearable as he expected. It’s just silence save for the sounds of the horses’ hooves hitting the ground. Julian makes it a point to stare out the window and not sparing his sister a glance.

 

One person seems to recognize him, and he briefly sees a grimace form on their face when they pass.

 

He supposes he should be impressed he’s still so famous. 

 

At least Anna is staying quiet.

 

If anything, it just makes him angrier. She’s said nothing to him this entire time. She practically abandoned him here and now she just keeps quiet? 

 

Even more infuriating than her actually berating him. 

 

Eventually, he can’t hold it in any longer.

 

“How dare you mention father,” he bites, still staring out of the window. 

 

There’s a shaky breath and then, “I’m sorry.” It’s no more than a whisper. 

 

Julian turns to Anna only to see her staring at her hands and looking as pathetic as she sounds. 

 

He snarls, “Of course. You try to sell me off, leave me at some stranger’s estate and then come crawling back with your fucking tail between your legs. Some Matriarch you are.”

 

To his further annoyance and anger she meekly mumbles another apology. 

 

“How many times have you done this? Playing as the meek victim? You’ll be all too happy to try to sell me off somewhere else another time, and when something goes wrong you’ll pretend to the sad sack of shit you are now.” His voice has a hard edge and he slams a fist on his thigh. 

 

He runs his hand through his hair three times in quick succession before clasping both hands together, fingernails scratching tightly against the skin. His facial muscles twitch in rigid fury. His eyes are narrowed, rigid, cold, hard.

 

He wants to yell and spew vitriol at her. If only to make her say something else to him that isn’t just an apology. He wants to have a proper shouting match. They used to have those all the time, but more and more he finds Anna becoming like she is now after something goes awry. It makes him dig his nails further into his hands. 

 

The rest of the ride is spent in silence, Julian seething the entire time. 

 


 

Julian barely hears Anna saying she’s going to visit another family for a trade deal when he steps out of the carriage. He doesn’t bother waiting for her to say anything else and quickly enters the von Leventis home.

 

Burning rage hisses through his body like a deadly poison, screeching a demanded release in the form of unwanted violence.

 

Though, really, the violence was entirely wanted. He feels his chest tighten into a knot like a cramp and the only way to untie it is to have himself shake and writhe with pain. 

 

He spots Francesca after entering the main hall. 

 

“Meet me in my room in an hour,” he says without looking at her.

 


 

Francesca has always been a punctual woman. She indeed arrives in an hour and locks the door behind her. Julian spies a bag over her shoulder and he assumes she’s brought the many toys he owns with her. They’re usually hidden away underneath some floorboards, when he first got them he often wondered how Anna’s scandalized face would look if she ever found them. 

 

But the last thing he wants to think of is his sister. He’s already naked, grateful to finally be out of those fucking pants. 

 

Francesca stops her movements, brows knitted together, “What happened to you?”

 

“I used my belt. I want you to do the same,” he wets his lips, “Make my back bleed.”

 

He enjoys the way her lips purse and her jaw tenses. 

 

“I don’t think—”

 

“I don’t care what you think. Must I remind you every time that I’m in charge here?”

 

He feels intense glee at her narrowed eyes and he leans in to condescendingly smile at his guard. 

 

“You look annoyed. Why don’t you punish me?” He asks mockingly. 

 

Francesca only gives a small nod, and next her hand cracks across Julian’s face. The force snaps his head back and causes him to reel sickeningly as his body falls on the bed. Black dots briefly covers his vision and he groans in the dull sensation of pain. 

 

It stung. He hopes there’ll be a red welt where she hit him. 

 

“That’s more like it,” he rasps and the air is now heavy with anticipation. When Francesca begins to unbuckle her belt he turns to lie on his stomach. He grinds on the silken sheet and he can feel his cock already begin to throb. 

 

He hears only a weary sigh before there’s a whisper. 

 

“You never take care of yourself.”

 

Julian’s about to look over his shoulder to snarl at her, to tell her to shut up and get on with it, but he then hears a whistle in the air.

 

The belt makes contact with his skin his breath leaves his lungs in a rush. His body shakes and he continues to grind on the bedsheets. 

 

She hits him again and he doesn’t bother trying to make himself quiet. The sounds. The sounds of leather hitting flesh was his favourite part. The swish in the air, the cracks, the snaps. Even more so than the pain itself. It made him harder, his lips pressing thinly on each other, and his knuckles are white from the grip he has on the sheets.

He assumes Francesca is watching the red line form on his shoulder since she waits a moment before hitting him again. His eyes flick to a mirror on the wall. He sees her face contorted in a look of frustration. She stares at his back, probably looking at his older welts as well. He remembers a time she made him count the amount of times she belted him while standing, and he got to thirty before he crumpled to the ground.

 

He shuts his eyes when Francesca reels her arm back. She falls into the easy back and forth of it like falling into a conversation. She was always good at that. Though usually she’s more talkative.

 

He doesn’t care. He likes the silence broken by the belt. 

 

His arms shake when the belt hits an old welt and he bucks his hip. His toes curls and he bites down on his lip to suppress a whimper. He thinks he’ll make his lips bleed as well while he’s at it. 

 

Another whistle in the air makes his throat go dry, and this one hits the shoulder he repeatedly abused the day before. He outright yelps and he knows his cock is leaking now. Her hits reignite the pain from his previous ministrations and he feels lightheaded. His breathing was ragged as he pants. 

 

She whips him again and his whole body convulses like he’d been struck by lightning. It certainly feels like he’s been struck by lightning. 

 

Now with every lash Julian receives, he jolts forward, and he is quickly faced with the headboard of the bed. Each movement makes him wince.

 

He’s sure rather than red that he’s back is turning a shade of purple now. He hiccups, and soon tears begin to fall down his cheeks. 

 

Francesca gives him no quarter and spreads her brutal lashes throughout his shoulders, back and occasionally his thighs. He sobs into the sheets, and with one more buck of his hips and a scream, he cums. There’s a last painful snap of leather he hears the belt being dropped on the ground and Francesca whispering “It’s done” through her own heavy breaths.

 

He sniffles, and he turns over his shoulder to inspect her work. The belt had indeed cut into his skin, but not enough for the blood to flow like a river that he inwardly wanted. Small red spots litter his body, beading up over his flesh.

 

He tries to snort, but it ends in another whimper and he throws his face back into the sheets.

 

There’s footsteps behind him, and then a hand makes it way into his hair. He can tell from her unsteady movements that’s she’s hesitant, perhaps unsure of what to do. 

 

“Please,” she mumbles, “Allow me to take care of you this time. Just this once. I need to disinfect your back.”

 

He wants to tell her to get out like he usually does. He always wallows in self-pity in these moments. But—

 

“You must be quite talented!”

 

He blinks. Then he blinks again. 

 

“Well, if you’re taught something your whole life I can only assume you’re good at it. You’re probably way better than me in any case.”

 

He swallows. He can feel his face reignite in heat. And he can also feel… something he can’t really identify build up inside of him. Why — Why are her words suddenly filling his head? Confusing. She’s always so confusing. 

 

Despite that, he talks under his breath.

 

“Praise me.”

 

The hand in his hair stills and he inwardly screams at himself. 

 

“What?” Is all she asks. 

 

He sinks his face further into the sheets as if trying to smother himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What the fuck was he thinking? Why is he constantly blurting out things he shouldn’t recently?

 

“Nothing,” he says with his face still buried, “Do whatever you want.”

 

Eventually, the hand continues to caress him. Before long, Francesca washes his back. 

 

He didn’t think it would feel as nice as it does. He keeps that thought to himself. It embarrasses and frustrates himself too much to admit that fact out loud.

 


 

A day later, Julian finds himself dragged to a meal without his consent. He stares at the coffee and scones with annoyance. He has to make an effort to not outright scowl at the men who dragged him here. 

 

“I can’t believe you’re getting married, to a war hero no less!” A man with curly red hair and freckles says to him. Nathaniel, he thinks, though his memory is a bit foggy since it’s been so long he’s seen these guys. 

 

“Ah, there’s no definite prospect of marriage yet, is there? No contract?” Another man with slicked back brown hair and a light stubble asks. Julian thinks his name is Rubert. 

 

Obviously they’re expecting him to respond as they stare at him, so he pokes at a scone and mutters, “...Not yet.” 

 

“Not yet he says!” Another man with a ponytail and bright eyes exclaims, Julian doesn’t know his name, “But I can tell from that half-hearted reply that you don’t want to be sold off! So, what do you say about our proposition?” 

 

Right.

 

The reason he’s here is because they want him to join their club. Though club is probably the wrong word. Perhaps coalition? Either way, they’re forming a group that rally against arranged and forced marriages. 

 

He appraises the men in front of him. There’s six of them. He knows they’re all married, with at least two of them being wed to the same woman. 

 

He can’t help but feel a bitterness inside of him when he looks at three of them. Nathaniel, Rubert and Thomas. He had met them when they were boys during etiquette lessons. They were even friends who were once willing to support him, but then they had derided him with much the same glee and enthusiasm as those who had harassed him after he was branded a whore. 

 

He supports their cause, really. He’s against a lot of things, but arranged marriages places high on his shit list. 

 

Though his support for them is tempered by the fact they were once his childhood bullies. He grits his teeth and keeps his face neutral. They torment him and now they come back in hopes he’ll join their cause? Do they think his lack of decorum will help them change the law? Is it because he has nothing to lose? 

 

“I’ll think about it,” he mutters again.

 

There’s an excited shout and someone claps his shoulder. Julian tries not to wince at the hand hitting him right where Francesca belted him multiple times. 

 

A blonde man speaks next, another one he doesn’t know nor care to remember the name of, “We’d be ecstatic to have you on board,” then he turns the other men seated around the table, “Women like to mention enslavement no longer being legal in Asnain, but wouldn’t you think selling a man off to a woman often twice his age is basically still slavery?”

 

There’s murmuring of agreement. 

 

Blondie continues, “And then they have the gall to go ‘at least you don’t have a collar like the old days.’ Honestly!”

 

Then their conversation and gossip falls on deaf ears. He blocks the noise out. He can only assume that they’re usually nice men, but he knows they’re like a den of vipers. For all their talk of going against the system he’s heard of these men constantly going against one another as they vie for political power and make their families more prestigious. He wonders how much it will take for one of these guys to stab one in the back. Julian knows he would likely be the first target to blame if there’s infighting. 

 

When he looks at them, he can still see hints of scorn in their eyes. So much for being progressive in their ideals.

 

So he has no intention of joining their group. It would only be a disaster and he doesn’t want to relive any of the childhood drama that will inevitably be brought up. 

 

He leans back on his chair. He thinks back to Maevis without realizing it and his eyes twitch. 

 

She’s… such a stupid woman.

 

He thinks that, but he knows he would much rather be in her company than these men. She’s much easier to speak to, for some reason. And for as infuriating he might think she may be because she’s so confounding, she doesn’t quite anger him like everything else seemingly does. After she explained herself he didn’t feel the need to abuse himself. If he does get angry, it’s a normal type of anger that’s quickly defused. 

 

And—

 

He forces himself to not think of her praise. Buries it in the back of her mind. Instead he thinks of her vomiting over herself and how it reminded him of his father. He tries to ignore that too.

 

Despite himself, the curiosity he felt returns in full force. She’s not much of an orator, but surely she has many stories to tell. And he thinks she’s a much better conservationist than Anna or these men and their fake saccharine words. She’s… real with him. Frank. He also wants to know what’s her deal with crowds.

 

And she gave him a choice. An option to leave. Slept in a barn because she thought it’d make him more comfortable. Even offered to pay rent at some cabin for him to stay and… garden for her? He can’t remember the last time a woman gave him a choice like that. He supposes there’s Francesca, but even she gives him limitations and curfews when she isn’t busy beating and fucking him. 

 

He thinks he should feel insulted by the implications that she thinks just being with him will make everyone hate her, but he doesn’t care. The more he thinks about it, the more he likes the notion of having a cabin all to himself, even if it’s for a short while. 

 

She’s given him a choice, and the possibility for some freedom. He’s pretty Anna would be happy to get rid of him for an extended period of time, even with her recent meek attitude. And he’ll take any chance to get away from his past bullies trying to act friendly towards him. 

 

No one wants him around. So maybe he should just leave. 

 

He snorts at the irony. He thought she wanted to take away his freedom, but now she's offering him the chance of more of it and he's jumping at it. Being with her for only two days made him realize how truly caged he was.

 

Maevis may be stupid, confusing and even a bit infuriating, but there’s some adventure to be had. A childish glee and curiosity fills him, and for once he doesn't feel the usual guilt that accompanies it.

 

And she has a horse. He wants to see that horse again. 

 

He takes a bite from the scone and stands to leave. He ignores the surprised voices behind him.

 


 

Maevis boils the water for the fifth time that morning. It’s already filled to the brim with tea but she continues to ready more teabags and cups. A glance at the clock on the wall strikes up her nerves. Time was going so slow. Ever since Julian and Calvara left it’s been too quiet and calm. Like a certain town square. Her stomach knots up.

 

Maybe she should go with Calvara’s exposure therapy idea, though her stomach seems to knot up further at the thought of it.

 

“Sir.” 

 

She has to stop herself from jolting again, “Fuck, Nadine. Stop sneaking up on me.”

 

“I apologize,” Maevis turns at her and she sees she’s carrying a white envelope, “A letter for you. It’s from Lord von Leventis.”

 

A grin immediately forms on her lips and she takes the envelope and opens it one smooth motion. 

 

The handwriting is considerably more neat and fancy looking than she expected of a man with apparent anger issues. Must be from those etiquette lessons he mentioned.

 

Bernard, 

 

Your plan is stupid. So stupid that I find myself wanting to help you ruin your social standing. You said you would rent a nearby cabin so I expect you to do so. I will bring gardening supplies with me.

 

However, I have three conditions:

 

  1. I will name your horse.
  2. You will teach me how to ride a horse.
  3. Give me access to any and all books about animal biology you have.

 

—Julian.

 

Maevis doesn’t stop the sudden bark of laughter that escapes her. 

 

Teach him to ride a horse, huh? 

 

She can’t help but wonder how much willpower it took him to write that one out. She can just imagine his furrowed brows and his hand hovering over the paper, wondering if he’s going to write that condition down or not. It would seem another baby-step was successfully taken.

 

How adorable. 

 

With his future companionship finally set in stone, she thinks she’s going to have a proper amount of fun. He might yell at her again, but even then he still looks kinda cute. 

 

She clears her throat in an attempt to again remind herself she’s not using him for that. Her thigh muscles still tighten. 

 

Before she answers this letter, she needs to take care of her own needs. Needs that have been neglected recently. She thinks back to the possibility of having a man sent to her.

 

Need something to celebrate the occasion, I guess.

 

She faces Nadine, “Hey, you know where I can hire a prostitute around here?”

Chapter Text

“You seem… pent up,” is all the man in front of Maevis says after he introduces himself as ‘Cosmo Lovelace.’ An obviously fake name because who the fuck would name their child that monstrosity? Surely only parents who wanted their kids bullied and then put into prostitution work. 

 

His horrendous name aside, he’s quite handsome. His face is strong and defined, like his body. His eyes are a mesmerizing deep ocean blue, flecks of silvery light performs ballets throughout. His makeup just accentuates his features. His short, light brown hair is combed to the side, and was washed recently. He smells like jasmine.

 

Maevis would assume the guy gets a lot of clients, but he’s also a bit… awkward. His voice tells her he’s trying too hard, and he fidgets. Maybe he’s new to the job, or he just hates it and wants every session over as quickly as possible. One or the other. 

 

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she’s got a young attractive guy in her bedroom and she’s ready to fuck. She is pent up, feels like she’s been getting more and more pent up just waiting for the guy to arrive. Too much anticipation. She’s wanted a man in her for far too long now. Nadine had discreetly left the estate to give the horse some exercise. 

 

And because she’s apparently a bit too aroused at the moment, the house doesn’t feel so big. No anxiety. Perfect.

 

Ordinarily, she’d have… a fair amount of toys lined up. Chains, whips, collars, leashes, wax… All coalescing to a night of pain, pleasure, humiliation and lust. A utopia in Maevis’s mind. 

 

...She doesn’t have any of those things. She’ll just have to make due with what she has. Herself. 

 

Can’t believe all my toys are fucking gone. How much money is that? Practically my life’s savings. Ugh.

 

She stares at the big, bright eyes of the man before her. He’s gnawing at his bottom lip, probably in an attempt to look sultry. 

 

“I am a bit pent up,” she says, playing the role of client. She runs a thumb across the seam of his mouth before tracing a thumb down his chin. He’s nervous, but perhaps that was inevitable, considering her current status.

 

The type of man she would usually request for would be the ones who could act like a brat. Give her a challenge and were vocal when they were successfully cowed into submission. She didn’t request anything specific this time since she doesn’t think this town has a very in-depth system for that. And she merely didn’t want to wait for them to find her the most suitable man. 

 

She wanted to fuck now.

 

She leans in, “I suppose you’re mine for the morning,” she says and she’s sure her voice is warm as it ghosts his lips. She can see his eyes blink slowly as he takes her in. His breath hitches. Cute.

 

She won’t be rough, not with a man who’s probably not experienced with more extreme treatment. She didn’t ask for a masochist so she won’t treat him like that. So she’ll be gentle, even if that usually bores her to tears.

 

“How good are you with your tongue?” Her hand goes down from his face, and moves between his legs. She rubs him and now his eyelashes flutter. When she unzips his pants and touches his length, Lovelace’s — she refused to call him Cosmo — hands grasp onto the sleeves of her blazer, needing to steady himself as his knees wobble. He’s certainly good at being cute. 

 

“I’m — I’m the best,” he rasps. A lie, he probably only ever used his tongue on three women, tops. Looks like he may actually be new to the job. Though she hardly expected a prostitute to actually admit to something like that. 

 

She shoves him suddenly, making him land on the bed with an oof. 

 

Ah, I want to put a blindfold on him and tie him to the bedposts. Slap him around. Call him a whore.

 

She won’t. It’ll probably scare him off. At least his eyes are pretty. 

 

“You’ll be using your tongue, but you already guessed that, huh?” She doesn’t wait for his response and she shimmies out of her pants and undergarments in one motion. He has a sharp intake of breath.

 

Geez I would think this guy has breathing problems if I wasn’t about to fuck him. 

 

She goes on top of the bed, and when her knees are at either side of his head she says, “You know what to do.” She lowers herself. 

 

She has to give him credit when he wastes no time putting his tongue on her. Though his technique could use some work. He gives bold licks, but it’s unfocused and like a cat lapping up water. At least his wet tongue sweeps and strokes every inch of her. His lips suck and smack against her sex and Maevis would guess he would be prying her further open with a finger to lick her deeper if his hands weren’t busy clutching at the sheets. His knuckles are white. 

 

She grabs onto his hair, hard enough that she knows he feels stings of pain. When she grinds of him she’s rewarded with his moaning and whimpering. She enjoys the lurid symphony almost as much as his tongue. She cups her breast under her shirt with her other hand, flicking a finger over the nipple.

 

Lovelace circles his tongue and when he sucks on her clit she thinks she wants to give him an applause for finally finding it. 

 

“Good work,” she breathes, “I see I paid for a good tongue.”

 

Her eyes become lidded when he goes back to licking, almost teasing her folds. When he dips into her and curls she shoves his face further into her crotch. She can hear how wet she is, can feel her body heating up, sweat starting to pool behind her bent knees.

 

She lifts herself from his mouth and he pants like he was drowning. She taps at his cheek a few times.

 

“Thank for me for that.”

 

He blinks several times and swallows thickly, “T-Thanks.” Then his eyes widen and he tries again, “Thank you… M-Mistress..?” 

 

She rolls her eyes, “You don’t need to call me anything.” 

 

Looking over her shoulder, she sees he’s fully hard. She thinks about taking his pants off and then smacking his thighs with her belt. Make his skin into a nice shade of red, and then trail some ice on the new marks. 

 

She paid for a prostitute to relieve some pent up frustration, but thinking about things she won’t do just makes her irritated. Next time she has to demand for a masochist. 

 

When she aligns his cock just beneath her entrance she enjoys his excited ah, ah, ahs. He looks like he’s about to cry. Good. The best look on a man during sex is him crying. 

 

She rubs her cunt on his tip but doesn’t allow him to enter and he arches his back to an almost impossible angle. 

 

“How dramatic,” she laughs, “You should think of going to theater school.”

 

She slowly, slowly, lets him inside. It’s a familiar fullness she’s missed and she sighs contentedly.

 

Lovelace, meanwhile, actually cries. Nothing extreme, but tears trickle down the corner of his eyes. 

 

She thinks she would feel a bit sorry for the guy if he wasn’t filling her deep. She circles her slick, throbbing clit with a finger. She licks her lips and imagines him tied up and bruised. Begging and properly sobbing for relief. He’d have a plug in his ass. Maybe she’d pour candlewax on him while she’s riding him.

 

Yeah, that image will have to do. She circles her clit harder and faster.

 

She clenches, and he gives a shrill whimper before biting into his shoulder. 

 

Maevis rides him, rolling her hips with enough force that it rocks the bed violently. At least the furniture in this mansion is top of the line. One time she passed by a poor village while hunting for a bounty, and when she paid some street whore she fucked him in some shitty hotel. The bed broke. She had to pay extra for that.

 

A guttural growl comes out of her when the knot in her stomach becomes tighter. Lovelace is muttering countless please and, well, that pleases her greatly. One of the best sounds that can come out of a man.

 

Goddammit I just want to make someone bleed. I want him to hurt. 

 

While still fingering her clit she leans down suddenly, and kisses his gasping, whimpering mouth. It’s raw and hungry and her other hand grabs onto one of his wrists, fingernails denting his flesh. 

 

She bites at his bottom lip. She wasn’t intending on actually marking him, but she thinks he can handle a swollen and bloodied lip. A squeal comes out of him when her teeth sinks in and doesn’t let him. Pleasure spiral down her spine in unrelenting waves and she feels her thighs tremble. She can feel him cum as well, his semen filling her. She knows prostitutes are usually made infertile, but she made sure to drink a herbal blend that prevents pregnancy. A woman could never be too careful, even if services to terminate pregnancies are a dime a dozen. 

 

When the aftershocks of her orgasm subsides she finally releases his lip. He’s got a nice voice, especially when he’s crying. She briefly entertains the idea of making him eat her out again under the pretense of cleaning his mess, but he looks far too exhausted already. His eyes are glazed, breath heavy, face so red as if she actually poured candlewax on him. 

 

She clicks her tongue. He’s too vanilla. She basically just used him as a dildo as she masturbated.

 

Oh well. Lesson learned. 

 

She removes him from her and reaches over to the nightstand to get something out of the drawer. Lovelace groans like he was just punched in the gut. 

 

When she finds what she’s looking for she flings it at him. A coin purse. A reasonably big one. 

 

He blinks at her owlishly. 

 

“Consider it a tip,” she says with a lopsided grin, “And payment for a favour. Tell everyone you know I’m an awful person, yeah?” 

 

He takes a peek in the purse and gasps sharply. He’s wide eyed now and his brows shoot to his hairline. 

 

Maevis winks. “I mean that. I’m a bad person and I want you to relay that info. You can find the exit yourself, right? I’ve got a letter to write.”

 


 

Julian looks at the garden in front of him, his passion project for several years. Gardening was one of the few things that were considered proper for a man that he actually enjoyed doing. Now that it’s winter, he had spent most of his time in the greenhouse that houses flowers that wouldn’t be able to survive the colder weather. 

 

He taps at the dirt, smiling fondly at those fragile petals. They were perfectly healthy.

 

Julian has carefully planted each flower in a specific category: Colour. What was only green about a week before has become a garland of the most vibrant blooms. The greenhouse is now a blanket of rainbows; colours to weave dreams from, as soft as silk. He always admired how tenacious these blossoms were. Though he made sure to only give them the utmost care he knows they are able to be born to take whatever comes their way and make beauty of it. In the very rare occasions he actually left the von Leventis estate he would see these flowers dotting the streets and walls. They really were nature’s graffiti. 

 

How plants were able to come from the earth with the help of rain and sunshine made him think that the magic from novels he read as a boy were actually real; even though he knows the science of floriculture is well known. 

 

He takes a deep breath to smell the refreshing fragrance of jasmine in the air. Peace. His own private haven. He can never see flowers too many times or ever tire of their sweet scent. Whenever he finished a… session with Francesca he would come here to just relax. Sometimes just lay there for hours at a time. Perhaps it was the ‘aftercare’ Francesca felt the need to mention every time.

 

The garden — his garden — was his safe space. No one took care of it except for him, but because of that he finds himself anxious over the thought of them dying while he’s gone. He left very specific instructions for Anna, and for as much trouble they give one another he knows she’s not cruel enough to kill his garden. And for as much as it gives him a bitter taste in his mouth, he’ll just have to trust her with his prized possession. 

 

He steps out of his greenhouse to survey the outside garden. It’s mostly bare, save for some onions and garlic he’s growing. This garden is mostly filled with seasonal plants and when spring comes he hopes it’ll become another sea of brilliant colours. Another rainbow that’s coordinated and organized, naturally. He likes to think it would look so good people would pay to see it. 

 

Julian reluctantly leaves his life’s work to enter the main hall of the mansion. All his bags are packed and he’s met with Francesca and Anna. 

 

His sister crosses her arms and nods at him, with the same steely expression that imitates their mother. A stark contrast to her meek attitude a day prior. It makes him feel like her pathetic apologies were all fake and the very notion causes him bristle. 

 

“Francesca will be accompanying you,” she says, voice cold like he’s used to. 

 

His eyes flick between the two women, “I can take care of myself.”

 

“You’ve given me many reasons to think otherwise, Julian.”

 

Now he stares at Anna. Her expression is stoney and he matches it with gritted teeth. 

 

He makes sure to make his tone as biting as possible, “You act like a beaten bitch with your apologies the other day and now you’re pretending to be the picture perfect Matriarch? You’re so full of shit.”

 

Anna’s eye twitches and he knows he’s hit a sore spot. If he pushes her further she’ll probably become docile again, which just pisses him off further.  He’s about to spew more vitriol when a hand clamps down on his shoulder, hard. He winces at the pain from his welts that shoot through him like a bullet. He growls and glares at Francesca. 

 

“My Lord,” the guard says and her grip on his shoulder lightens, “Try to see it from your sister’s perspective. You may have stayed at Lady Bernard’s estate for a few days but now you’ll be staying at a cabin on your own for the first time. I will accompany you to make sure you settle in safely and comfortably.”

 

She mercifully lets go of him but Julian continues to glare at her. He knows it’s a valid reason and concern, but he still wants to argue against it. Argue against Anna, because picking of the von Leventis Matriarch is what he does best.

 

He looks at his sister and now she’s wearing a smile as fragile as glass. It reminds him of their father. 

 

He hates it. He hates how she seems to have suddenly taken after father more and more with her newfound meekness. He continues grinding his teeth until he thinks they have the same glasslike fragility. 

 

She — She doesn’t have the right to be like father. How dare she. How fucking dare she.

 

He exhales sharply. If anything she’s practically holding his beloved garden hostage since she’ll be taking care of it. He clenches his fists to will himself to calm down and acquiesce to the women in front of him, something that almost shoots through him with the same sting as the welt on his shoulder.

 

Anna nods, and waves him off. “I hope staying with Lady Bernard will be a fruitful experience.”

 

So you can sell me off, he scoffs inwardly, but he keeps the thought to himself. 

 

She leaves, and Julian glances at Francesca who’s giving him a smirk for a reason he can’t fathom. He turns to pick up his bags and huffs. 

 

“You really don’t have to come, but if you must you can just spend the day checking out the town. I would rather be alone,” he says, despite the fact he knows he’ll be spending most of his time with Maevis. Francesca doesn’t need to know that, anyway.

 

“You were told not to come alone,” Francesca’s voice purrs; and her warm breath tickles the back of his nape. When did she suddenly get directly behind him? His own breathing stops when he feels her teeth setting on his ear, “You should listen,” she whispers.

 

What the—

 

His face flushes with heat when her hand reaches around him and traces his lips. 

 

She’s never done this. Never — Never tried to initiate anything. Is that what she’s doing? Start something? Impossible. Julian has only ever been the one to start something. 

 

Her fingers still touch his lips, and then he feels a tongue licking the base of his neck. 

 

His heart does a somersault. He drops his bags with a harsh thud and turns so quickly he almost headbutts Francesca. He slaps her hand away and takes two frantic steps backwards, his breathing suddenly becoming rapid. 

 

“What — What the fuck, Francesca?” He rasps.

 

For her part, she actually has the gall to look surprised. 

 

“You looked pretty angry. I thought I’d… help you release some frustration like I usually do.”

 

He gapes at her and opens his mouth. Then closes it. Then opens it again. 

 

“So you thought you’d try to fuck me right here?” he whispers angrily, “Did you fucking forget we’re supposed to be a secret? What the fuck? You think that just because I let you stay a little longer last time you can pull something like that off?”

 

Francesca droops her head slightly, her wavy blonde hair beginning to obscure her eyes.

 

Julian points at her, “Don’t forget who’s in charge here and don’t pull that shit ever again,” now he realizes his brow is starting to become sweaty and he swallows thickly, “For that you can’t sit in the carriage with me. Sit with the coachwoman.”

 

She actually sighs and Julian thinks he wants to punch a hole in the wall.

 

“And now you can load up the bags by yourself. I’m leaving,” he spits. 

 

He walks faster than he’d like to admit, his heart thumping against his chest. 

 


 

Julian sits in the carriage with his arms crossed. The curtains on the carriage windows have been brought together, only a dim light filtering through. 

 

It’s cozy, in a way. And he likes being left alone so he can just… think. Think about what just happened.

 

“You should listen,” Francesca said and it makes his muscles tense.

 

He didn’t like it. It reminded him too much of being manipulated, of being led around by sweet words and being forced into something he doesn’t want to do. The only reason he thought he and Francesca work is because he was entirely in control of whatever they did and she did what was ordered. But now she’s, what, trying to take some of that control? By trying to initiate something? Tease him? Does she think she can make him do what she wants through her words and actions? 

 

He won’t allow it. 

 

Her words, her expert movements to get his body excited, her… her control over him reminded him too much of — of her. 

 

Of Camilla. Her name made his skin crawl. 

 

Now his thoughts go back to how she took his virginity and his teeth grind together again. 

 

I’ll just sleep for the ride. 

 

He lays down on the seat, and closes his eyes. 

 

Just need to rest.

 

The movements of the carriage and sounds of the horses feet hitting the ground lull him into a comfortable rhythm. He can feel his heartbeat calming and he tries to relax when darkness envelopes him. 

 


 

“A-Are you sure about this?” he asked the woman in front of him. Camilla tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear and it made Julian’s heart flutter. Anything she did made his heart flutter. How couldn’t it? She was his first in everything. She was courting him. In secret! It was like a scene straight out of those novels he always read late in the evening. 

 

He was breaking so many rules, and he loved it. He lived for the days he could sneak out of etiquette lessons to meet her. 

 

“Of course I’m sure,” she teased and traced a finger along his jaw, “Don’t you trust me?”

 

He nodded fitfully and she purred at his need to impress her. They’re in his room and it’s in the middle of the night. Camilla snuck in his window and peppered his neck with kisses when she pushed him against the wall. She placed a hand under his shirt and he jolted, but he submissively let her trail her hand up and down his stomach, eventually she reached his chest and flicked a finger against his nipple. The action made him whimper and he had to bite his lip to avoid being too noisy. 

 

Tonight was the night. He was sure of it. She had teased and groped him. His heart had erratic palpitations and he felt his entire body shiver. When she gave him a full mouth kiss it felt like he was melting into her as he leaned in and gasped as her tongue made sweeps across his.

 

The two hands went on his shoulders and puts some pressure to push him down. 

 

She wanted him on his knees, and he obliged. 

 

When she started to unbuckle her pants he felt a sudden hesitance. He’s been taught that men shouldn’t interrupt their wives in these types of moments unless it was absolutely urgent. Surely this was urgent. It felt like it.

 

He inhaled sharply, “Ca-Camilla.. I don’t think—”

 

“Don’t think what?” she said, voice slightly snappish and he looked at up to her with worried eyes.

 

“I-I… My hand hasn’t been sold to you yet. Mother doesn’t even know we’re courting! And we’re not married and—”

 

Both her hands cupped his cheeks and her eyes were soft, but also impatient. 

 

“You were always quite happy breaking the rules before.”

 

She’s right, of course she is. She’s always right. But he couldn’t stop the nervousness bubbling up in him. He's only seventeen. He’s never done this before, and the etiquette lessons that have been drilled into him are hard to forget. They’re the only thing he knows. 

 

“But—”

 

She interrupts him again, voice having become more sharp, “I thought you trusted me.”

 

His heart lurched. Nononono. This is — This was a good thing they have and he’s ruining it like the idiot he is. He’s broken rules with her before but now he has to follow the most important and sacred rule of them all. He has to submit himself to her. He has to trust her because naturally she would know better than him. 

 

She lowers her face closer to him, a small and gentle smile playing on her features. 

 

“If you love me, you’ll do this for me.”

 

He nodded fitfully again, hands clamped tightly on his lap. He loved her. Loved her with everything he had. And now, he had to show that love with his body.

 

When she pulled her pants and undergarments down in one smooth motion he merely stared at her mound. When she lifted her leg to perch a foot against the wall it felt like his heart was crawling out of his throat. 

 

Her vagina. He’s never seen one before and it’s so, so close to his face. He chanced a glance to her face and her eyes are narrowed. Camilla’s hand wrapped itself tightly in his hair and it was clear she expected him to take her unsaid directive.

 

Sex was never something that was once touched upon in his lesson, other than the need for the man to be submissive, but he’s heard of this action before. Gossip between his friends. Apparently this was something women especially liked. 

 

He was going to perform well. He had to. He had to show his love for her, afterall. 

 

He leaned in, mouth open. He wondered what she tasted like. This… had to be a little filthy didn’t it? A mouth to down there? But that doesn’t matter. All that mattered was her. 

 

When he put his tongue to her—

 

Julian’s entire body lurches and he almost falls off the carriage seat. His heart feels like it’s trying to crawl out of him like in the dream and he gasps sharply. 

 

Of course I’d fucking dream of that now. 

 

Taking a nap was a stupid idea. It always makes him more annoyed and tired when he woke up. And now he dreamt of his first time and he feels even more irritated. He sits up and nibbles on his fingernails, furrows of consternation creasing his forehead. 

 

It was so awkward. His tongue had no direction and he just lapped at her like a dog drinking water. She had eventually came on his face and then… left. Him using his mouth on her was the only thing they did that evening. 

 

And the domino effect started the morning after. People laughing and jeering at him. He crawled back to her with tears in his eyes and she unceremoniously called him a crybaby and threw him out. It was like she completely changed—

 

No.

 

She never changed. She was always like that. He knows that now. The teeth on his fingernails now bite on his thumb. 

 

She always spoke to him like she were some wily sheep dog and him her quarry. And he always followed her because he couldn’t see that. He thought she looked at him with warmth and adoration in her eyes but now he knows her gaze stopped at his skin and her thoughts were only geared toward her own perceptions and endgame of her grinding her cunt on his mouth. 

 

His bite tightens.

 

He was a stupid teenager and he fucking fell for her manipulation. 

 

He hates Camilla. Hates her more than anything in his life, but there are days where he only blames himself for being a fucking idiot for ever trusting her. 

 

Then his thoughts go to Francesca. She was beginning to mirror Camilla too closely.

 

He supposes it was inevitable, considering their relationship. Of course Francesca would only be interested in fucking him, but her incessant need to tell him to take care of himself made him think she was at least somewhat different than the rest. Cared for him. Even if it was just a little bit.

 

But I guess she just cared about the quality of her fucktoy.

 

His teeth go to his index finger.

 


 

“I apologize for my crass behaviour,” is the first thing Francesca says when they step out of the carriage hours later. Julian feels a bit dazed from his failure of a nap, and he had just laid there waiting for the carriage ride to end, drifting in and out of consciousness. 

 

He blinks blearily at her, “Uh huh.”

 

“It was grossly inappropriate,” she continues, “And now I know it was against the rules. So, I apologize.”

 

He’s not sure if she’s genuine or not. Really, it’s only now that he realizes he barely knows this woman beyond that she’s a good dominant in bed.

 

He narrows his eyes at her, entirely unconvinced. It doesn’t help that his thoughts have been invaded by Camilla.

 

“I don’t trust you,” is all he mutters and he focuses at the cabin in front of him. A small thing, but looking inside it has all the necessary amenities. Comfy, in a way, but his fingers flex at the thought he’ll be sharing it with Francesca for a few days. 

 

He doesn’t spare her a glance when he gives her an order, “Put all the bags in. I’ll be going to the estate up the hill. That’s where Maevis lives.”

 

“You’re on a first name basis? Already?” There’s surprise in her voice but he continues his trek up the street. He waves her off.

 

He ignores the heat flooding his face, because evidently he is on a first name basis with Maevis. He’s not sure if he was ever on a second name basis. Maevis is just obviously someone who didn’t care about formalities. There’s nothing special about it and Julian doesn’t care about it. 

 

He keeps telling himself he doesn’t trust Maevis either.

 


 

Maevis stares at the towers of books in front of her, standing with arms akimbo. She figured she would get all the books about animals ready for Julian, if anything it was just something to do and took her mind off her anxiety at this fucking Gala, but now she’s at a bit of a loss. 

 

Whoever owned this mansion was probably a biologist. There’s an awful lot of books about wildlife here.

 

The Great Lakes of the Telfarre Continent, Vol. 2. This one is authored by several people, many of which whose names she can’t pronounced. She flips through the book and wonders if Julian would be interested in the ecology of the lakes and the animals that live in them. She looks over some other books.

 

Molecular Biology of the Cell. She blinks at that title. She thinks she’s heard of that…  Microbiology, a mostly recent discovery. She remembers people not being able to talk about anything except for this new invention that apparently allowed people to see reaaaaaaaaaaaaally teeny tiny organisms that aren’t visible with the naked eye for about six months. She thinks she’ll stash this book for herself. She’s not sure if she believes in… cells or whatever these are but she’ll read about them. She’ll believe in their existence when she sees them for herself.

 

Animals of Asnain. This one has four volumes. She’ll take those. They seems like a safe bet on what Julian wants. 

 

Next, she decides to look for something more specific. Closer to home. 

 

She lets out a small “aha!” when she finds what she’s looking for. 

 

Introduction to Horse Biology. Julian likes horses. He’ll totally like this. Looking at more on the shelf, she feels like she’s in the horse section with the amount of equine related books that filter in her vision. 

 

Equine Science: Third Edition. It’s filled with a bunch of jargon that flies over her head. How much of this would Julian even understand, anyway? They don’t teach science in etiquette lessons, do they? She shrugs at herself and takes it. 

 

The Horse: History of Domestication, Behaviour, and Famous Individuals Throughout Time. Now that’s a title if she’s ever read one. This one is probably written for a more casual audience so she takes it. She takes a peek to see a ‘famous individual.’

 

 Acantha was a mare born sometime in the year 188 and is probably one of, if not the most famous horse in antiquity. She was the horse of famed Mestanan General Sophronia Damia Rhodanthe (Hicusis 24th, 165 — Thyra 9th, 220). 

 

Well, she supposes she should have expected most of the famous horses would be the noble steeds of famous war generals. That general had one hell of a name too. She’s almost jealous. She closes the book and adds its to the pile. When she continues spying for more books a title catches her attention.

 

Superstitions and Folklore of Asnain.

 

Maevis takes a look at without a second thought. She usually never has the time to learn of a country’s cultural nuances and beliefs, but she did genuinely think they were interesting most of the time. 

 

Before long she’s on a page about twins and her interest is sufficiently piqued. 

 

It is believed that twins are one soul split into two bodies. As only men are reincarnated and women go to the afterlife, many assume that the man did something abhorrent in his past life to be split into two as punishment. They are considered an imbalance to the natural order and throughout Asnainian history there are multiple accounts of twins usually being killed shortly after birth. If a Soothsayer alerts a woman that she is pregnant with twins oftentimes the pregnancy will be terminated. 

 

She quirks a brow at that. That seemed to be a bit harsh, but in her experience intense religious and superstitious beliefs often lead to extremes. She’s killed many would-be cult leaders in her time. 

 

Maevis puts the book back and rolls her shoulders. She probably has enough books to satiate Julian’s curiosity for the time being. 

 

She looks out the window and sees the sun beginning to set. The day went by a lot quicker than she’s used to, probably because of the anticipation. 

 

Well, time to wait at the main entrance, I guess.

 


 

Maevis becomes quite pleased with herself when she watches Julian’s face light up like a child in a candy shop. He inspects the books like they’re the most prized possessions in the world. It was the most genuinely ecstatic expression she’s seen on the man.

 

A person smiles with more than their mouth, and she can hear it in his voice as he reads the titles of the books and makes gleeful noises. There’s a light in his eyes and he seems completely relaxed. 

 

It fills her with a weird sense of pride and accomplishment. She mentally pats herself on the back. 

 

“There’s more where that came from,” she says, and she thinks even Nadine develops a smile on her face when Julian positively beams at her.

 

Julian quickly goes back to burying his face in the books after he looks up at her. He probably thinks he’s been too happy already, since he tries his damndest to school his expression.

 

Maybe he’s allergic to smiling for too long.

 

She can just imagine him trying to think of some smarmy response in an attempt to keep up his image of being an asshole. She knows nobles are quite stingy about their images but Julian’s dedication to his is almost admirable, in a way. 

 

He clears his throat when he finally extracts himself from the books. There’s a slight blush on the corner of his cheeks and she feels like she can get used to that sight. Julian crosses his arms and looks at her with his chin raised and pointed, clearly trying to look like he didn’t just fawn over some books with intense boyish glee. 

 

He’s about to open his mouth when there’s a knock on the door. 

 

“Ah, that must be Lady Bordetto. I left the gate open for her,” Nadine informs and she opens the door. 

 

Who—

 

She stops that line of thought when she sees tension return to Julian, a tightness in his face and eyes move like a puppet on its strings. When he turns it looks as though he’s got some clock ticking in his head, perhaps a countdown to his next explosion.

 

She sighs through her nose. 

 

Great. 

 

A woman with luscious locks and blue eyes enters the mansion. She’s wearing the von Leventis insignia but there’s no way she’s related to Julian with such starkly different features. 

 

“Maevis Bernard, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says in a orotund tone, “I’ve heard many tales about your grand exploits. I’m Francesca Bordetto, personal guard of Lord von Leventis.”

 

Julian’s eyes narrow, “She’s just here for a day or two to make sure I settle in.” From the way Francesca’s brows shoot up she wasn’t even aware of that fact, but Julian’s voice leaves no room for argument and she says nothing. 

 

She understood Julian and his sister didn’t have the cleanest relationship ever, but evidently he was quite good at holding grudges against many people. He must live an exhausting life and for the second time Maevis finds herself thinking she doesn’t envy him in the slightest. 

 

“I’m going to the dining room. We can discuss about our future schedule there,” he says as he picks up his books. While he’s still filled with tension for some unknown reason, he moves his new possessions with the utmost care.

 

When he leaves, it feels as though it’s just her and Francesca, despite Nadine being behind her. Her steward is far too good at blending in the background. Really, she’s far too good at most of the stuff she does. 

 

Now’s not the time to get jealous of Nadine’s seemingly inhuman abilities and talents, not while Francesca’s gaze pierces her like icy daggers. 

 

Maevis lifts a brow in response. Though with the uneven smile she gives, it’s more like a challenge.

 

Francesca’s gaze doesn’t waver, and it holds a glimmer of something dangerous, something Maevis has seen more than enough times in her line of work. She wasn’t looking in the eyes of some von Leventis liaison. 

 

No.

 

This was a woman who knew how to kill. Who had killed before.

 

“What are your intentions for him?” Francesca asks.

 

Maevis tilts her head and retains her easy smile. She feels her fingers twitch in anticipation at her gun. With a crowd, she would probably be dry-heaving right now, but she is one woman. A young one too, and therefore probably inexperienced even with the blood lust. She’s sure she could make Francesca eat dirt if it came to blows.

 

“Just want him to help with gardening,” she responds, “It’s apparently a five hour carriage ride for him to come here. So it’s more convenient for him to just shack up in a cabin nearby. My treat.”

 

Francesca steps forward, gaze still icy. Maevis doesn’t move from her spot and the guard almost looks annoyed by that fact.

 

Her tone is pointed, “You’re clearly unused to being a noble. Men belong to their mothers and wives. You are neither. Do you intend to court him or not?”

 

“Geez. He’s just here gardening, honestly. Cross my heart and all that. Let the guy have a little adventure, yeah?”

 

The guard steps closer until she’s well and truly in Maevis’s personal space. She smells of jasmine. At least she had the sense of mind to put on perfume before she decided to be bullheaded. 

 

“I heard a story,” Francesca says lowly, “That in Utreau women who steal another woman’s man are stripped naked and have water poured on them in the winter until they become living ice statues.”

 

Now it’s Maevis’s turn to look annoyed when her smile drops and her brows knit together.

 

Is this bitch threatening me?

 

Before she can respond by taking Frenzy out of her holster, Nadine intervenes and steps between the two women, “Correction, Lady Bordetto. That’s a punishment reserved for slaves and prisoners.”

 

Francesca’s lips twitch and she steps back, apparently successfully cowed already, “Ah. My mistake.” She squints at Maevis, “Lord von Leventis merely has a habit of getting in a lot of trouble. I just want to make sure he can take care of himself and that your intentions are not… unsavory.”

 

Her piss poor attempt at threatening aside, Maevis can tell she does seem genuinely concerned for Julian. Or at least concerned by the fact he might be taken away from her. She also feels a bit flattered that she would think she has any unsavory plans for the man.

 

Maybe my plan’s working. Nice.

 

She nods at Francesca, “It’s just some gardening. If you saw my backyard you’d understand. It’s pretty shitty.”

 

Francesca still looks unconvinced, but she nods back at Maevis. 

 

Now... whatever that was done with, Maevis claps her hands together and grins again.

 

“Well, let’s head to the dining room, huh?”

 


 

Julian furrows his brows. He’s been reading this Equine Science book for what felt like five minutes now. He doesn’t even know how to pronounce ‘equine.’ Or knew what it meant, but from the contents it’s evident that it means horse. Or relating to horses. 

 

Why can’t they just say horse? Horse science? Do we really need two words for it?

 

He reads over one of the opening lines, “A horse is an odd-toed ungulate mammal,” and blinks several times. 

 

“What the fuck is an ungulate?” he whispers annoyedly. Then the line goes on to say horses belong to something called a taxonomic family. The hell is that? Something about taxes? He knows what that is. Maybe taxonomic family means they’re an animal that is taxed? 

 

He flips to a random page and he’s greeted with a labelled illustration called “Points of a horse.” Why are there so many points to a horse? The back of the animal has three different names, back, loin and group. Why? Why not just call it the back? And the rump is labelled as a ‘dock.’

 

Horses don’t have docks! That’s — That’s something for ships!

 

When he sees the stomach labelled as ‘barrel’ he thinks he’s going to have an aneurysm. Is this really a scientific book? He turns the page and sees an illustration of the skeletal system.

 

Woah.

 

He doesn’t think he’s ever seen the skeleton of anything before. It looks pretty cool. He recognizes the skull, it’s something women would wear during the Summer Solstice Festival. Huh. So that was a horse skull.

 

Though he’s still feeling confused because now there’s more labels that was completely different than the previous page. This is… an awful lot to take in. He knew that he, well, knows absolutely jackshit when it came to biology or science. But he wants to know, more than anything. This is the first time he’s been able to read a book like this in years. His curiosity builds like a cat fixated upon its prey when he skims over more pages.

 

He reluctantly closes the book. It’s far too advanced for him. There was something inside of him that hoped he wouldn't have to start at the very beginning but it looks as though he should start with the Introduction to Horse Biology one instead. 

 

Though he can’t right now since the dining hall door opens and the women filter in. Maevis takes a seat directly across from him while Francesca sits next to him, and he tries not to grit his teeth. He’s been doing that far too often. How the hell is he supposed to release sudden bouts of anger now that he doesn’t want anything to do with his guard turned fuckbuddy? 

 

Nadine continues on to the kitchen, probably for tea. Maevis leans on the table with her forearms and smiles at him. 

 

“Now, let’s get this schedule done, yeah?” She says.

 

But first, Julian needs to get rid of a present nuisance. 

 

“Francesca, since you’re so worried about me, why don’t you look around the house?” 

 

She looks like she’s about to argue but he continues before she can get a word out, “Just to make sure it’s not booby trapped? That should put your mind at ease.” He says with the barest hint of a sneer. 

 

There’s a beat of silence, and then she sighs. His nails dig in the palm of his hands. He hates it when she sighs, it feels too — too condescending. Too much like she’s showing her patronizing superiority. Too much like Camilla when she called me a crybaby and ruined fucking everything—

 

His anger is extinguished when she stands up and leaves. He’s now alone with Maevis. Good.

 

His wets his lips. 

 

Good? Since when? He’s not interested in this woman, no siree. Just interested in her books and horse.  

 

Mercifully, Maevis opens her mouth, “So, you like those books?”

 

He nods once, not wanting to look so eager like earlier because he’s not a fucking child. 

 

“Yes,” then, after a beat, “Thanks.”

 

He watches her eyes narrow juuuuuuuuuuuust a tad and a smile dimple her cheeks with far too much anticipation. When she says a light “You’re welcome” he feels a pang of excitement, similar to the one he felt when she complimented him. 

 

You’re too eager. Stop it. Stop being so childish.

 

Underneath the table, he pinches his thigh. Nadine then returns with tea and when she sets his cup down he smells pine needles. It calms him. Certainly a step up from Maevis’s fucking awful whiskey breathe. 

 

The steward stares at Francesca’s seat with another cup, then to Maevis with a single raised brow. 

 

“She’s somewhere in the house. You can have that cup if you want. After, take the horse for more exercise, yeah?”

 

Apparently Maevis doesn’t want any tea for herself. 

 

A single nod and she leaves. Julian can’t help but think about how much the blank faced servant creeps him out. Sometimes she seemingly has emotions, other times she reminds him far too much of a doll. The type that would just sit there and stare at him, endlessly and bottomlessly. He thinks back to a doll Anna had perched on her bedside table, back when they shared a single room together. He remembers just staring at it late one night as it sat there limply, and when it lazily winked — it absolutely fucking winked at him. It was one of his most vivid memories — he screamed and ran to his father. 

 

He pinches himself harder. What a stupid memory. 

 

“Do you need to go to the bathroom or something?” He suddenly hears. 

 

Julian blinks and his face turns into a grimace. 

 

“Excuse me?” 

 

She curls her upper lip, “You just looked like you were struggling to hold something in.”

 

“I’m fine,” he says quickly, “Let’s get on with the damn schedule.”

 

She considers him for a moment longer and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Stupid, confounding woman who makes everything awkward. 

 

But.

 

She’s better than Anna or the men he was with the other day. He actually feels welcomed and there’s no outright malice in the air. He’ll take it.

 

Maevis hums softly, “Well, we’ve got three months. I want to get out this fancy Gala thing I’ve been invited to.”

 

Probably to do with her crowd phobia. It still confused him how a soldier could have such a fear. How can someone called a Wolf not handle being with a pack? Was she a lone wolf? He doesn’t think so. He had considered writing “tell me what your deal with crowds” as his third condition, but changed his mind at the last second. 

 

Though now the curiosity bubbles up inside of him again. Her general nervousness around the subject, and — and her suddenly vomiting after what looked like a nightmare… 

 

Father.

 

He never once thought the bumbling idiot in front of him would remind him of his father, and yet here he is. He’s been thinking more and more of his dad because of her, of memories he had locked deep inside of him. 

 

Those painful memories are books with chapters, deep and horrible; and so he left them on the shelf to gather dust. 

 

Now he finds he’s been reading and dwelling on those books an awful lot lately. Remembering far too many things at once. 

 

And because of that, he finds himself blurting out his question. 

 

“What’s with you and crowds, anyway?” He voice cracks and he hastily takes a sip of his tea. 

 

He keeps his gaze at the tea, unsure of why he’s suddenly reluctant to look at Maevis. Probably because he’s thinking of father vomit in his bed. Of his dry-heaving and crying. Of his darting glances that only spoke of anxiety. He begins staring at the huge table in front of him to further distract himself, and he absentmindedly notes that it’s an elongated ellipse of oak with the raw bark at the edges. The chairs were probably made from the same tree. 

 

No doubt Maevis sees his hesitance, because next she lowers her voice like she’s talking to a scared animal. 

 

“Do you know what it’s like to try to put your intestines back into your body?”

 

He jolts his head up to look at her, nose wrinkled at the image. 

 

She continues, “I do. I know what it’s like to your gut slashed open with a shard of glass. I know what it’s like to have your face beaten so badly you almost go blind.” She rests her chin on her closed fist, her eyes looking down and her smile now tight lipped but also shaky. 

 

“I know what it’s like to have every ounce of safety taken away from you.” Her voice is as shaky as her smile and he hears something continually thumping against the floor. Probably her foot. “To put it simply, I got jumped and almost died. Only reason I didn’t get my head completely smashed into the pavement was because my squad came to my rescue. I spent the last year of the war in the hospital. Was in a coma for most of it.”

 

She leans back on her seat and exhales a long breathe, “So yeah, I don’t do well with crowds of people I don’t know because I think I’m going to die and all that fun stuff.” There’s still thumping on the floor. 

 

“Oh,” is all Julian is able to manage. In hindsight, he supposes he should have expected something like that. This was a woman who was in the company of a steward with one leg and a friend who had half her face burned off. Of course, of fucking course, it was the war that royally screwed her up. 

 

It makes sense. It’s a valid reason to develop a phobia, but now he feels a bit at a loss. He was hoping that asking Maevis would give him some sort of peace of mind, some clarification. Clarification of something that ate at him for years. Just something — something that could give him insight on father. 

 

Father was never assaulted like that. And yet he became a paranoid recluse when he got old. Why? Was it really age? 

 

The possibility that merely age made a man like that terrified him like none other, but then surely the only other explanation was that he contracted something called the Hysteria. Which was something he absolutely refused to believe because he doubts that even existed to begin with—

 

“Can I ask you something? Question for a question?”

 

His shoulders tense at her sudden voice and he realizes he’s been staring at her this entire time. She has a slack expression now, and his heart rate accelerates at the notion she might ask him about why he’s acting the way he is. It must be weirding her out. It was weirding him out. 

 

He can’t find any words, and doesn’t really want to answer any questions — if anything he wants to be sarcastic and say she’s already asked her question — but he finds himself nodding. 

 

“Does Nadine remind you of anyone?” She asks, and he has to stop himself from wrinkling his nose at her again. 

 

“She reminds me of someone,” she continues, apparently not actually willing to wait for him to answer, “She reminds me of a dear old friend from Oakheart.” 

 

Then there’s silence, and Julian presses his lips into a firm line wondering where she’s going with this. 

 

“She’s dead.”

 

The noise Maevis makes comes from deep within her throat, reminiscent of a snorting pig and then the room resounded with her guffawing before she slaps her knee. 

 

Was — Was that a joke? What?

 

He can only stare at her as Maevis’s heavy bellowing becomes like that of a donkey before it reaches full bray. She slams a fist on the table and wipes a tear from her eye.

 

“Get it? Huh? Huh?” She gasps for air, “‘Cause she’s so blank most of the time. Like— Like a dead person.” There’s unrestrained gales that debilitated her to more thigh slapping and an expression that was the image of glee. 

 

Julian cocks his head, mouth open in an ‘o’ shape. What the fuck was that? Is this woman really that intent on being the most confusing being on earth?

 

Despite himself, he snorts and then shakes his head exasperatedly. He is thankful she changed the subject. 

 

Though he'll never admit that out loud.

 

“Hilarious,” he says.

 

Maevis eventually is able to recompose herself, though just barely. She sometimes breaks into fits of giggles and Julian idly notes that the thumping on the floor has stopped. 

 

He rolls his eyes, “Alright, alright. It wasn’t that funny.”

 

She shrugs and quirks a smile that’s all teeth, “Atmosphere was getting a bit heavy there. Figured I could lighten the mood. But I guess we should get back to scheduling. It’s too late to do anything now, so maybe we can start with gardening tomorrow and horse riding the day after. That sound good? You can name the horse now if you want.”

 

“You truly think just me being here is enough to do the job? In three months? Can’t you just… not show up? Maybe you should commit a crime, that’ll make people not like you the fastest.”

 

She waggles a finger at him and pouts her lips, “Now, now, I just want people to ignore me. If I do anything illegal I’ll get an angry mob.”

 

Right. She just mentioned almost getting lynched one time. Flushing with embarrassment, he awkwardly tugs at his earlobe.

 

“And not showing up is not an option." She continues, almost sounding wistful, "I’m… kinda of the main event. Going to be knighted by the Empress and given medals, apparently.”

 

Now he gapes at her. 

 

That's kinda important fucking info!

 

He says as much out loud, and he heaves a dramatic sigh because he can't fucking believe this woman. 

 

"If you're the main event then you kind of need the Empress herself to revoke her invitation? Is that it? Seriously? You think me being here to garden is enough?"

 

"No offense, Julian, but your reputation precedes you," then she leans conspiratorially, eyes shining like she’s in some dirty secret, "Besides, no one knows you're here to garden, people will just think nasty shit's going on."

 

He tries not to roll his eyes — he thinks if he were to do that again his eyes would roll so far backwards he'd see his brain shrivel up and die. 

 

"This is even dumber than I thought, but hey, it's your Gala. Or funeral. Whatever. I'm just here to get away from my sister's estate. Do what you want."

 

She laughs, “Ah, we’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it, huh?”

 

“For a woman with such an intense phobia of crowds, you don’t seem to have a sense of urgency.”

 

She acts like she’s been shot, reeling backwards and furrowing her brow, “I’ll have you know I’m fucking dying at the prospect of going there. I have other plans to fall back on. Maybe I’ll just pray to the God of Misfortune for help. I think his name is Cicero? Maybe if I grovel he’ll ruin my noble status, huh? That’s some misfortune right?”

 

Perhaps almost dying messed with her head in more ways than one. He tries to drink another sip of his tea but it’s empty, so he’s left staring like the cup personally insulted him. 

 

“Are you actually religious?” He asks, trying to be neutral. She doesn’t strike him as much of a spiritual nut, but considering he’s only had poor experiences with religion he feels as though he can’t take any chances. 

 

And if she is? Will you just stand up and leave?

 

He’s not really sure about that, but luckily Maevis answers in the negative.

 

“Nah, not really my style, but I respect it for the most part. It’s pretty interesting reading about it, especially how different beliefs are from around the world. Though every major world religion always repeats the same mantra that since women create life they should be the ones to rule it. Funny how that works, huh?”

 

Julian scowls, “Which is why I hate it. It’s just a tool to reaffirm the world order.” Inwardly, he cringes at himself. He knows he must sound silly. The last time he said anything like this to someone they called him a conspiracy theorist. He didn’t know what that meant. And when mother got wind of his less than stellar opinion she backhanded him across the face.

 

Put that book back onto its shelf.

 

She crosses her arms and tilts her head. 

 

“You seem to hate a lot of things,” she uncurls her fingers like she’s counting, “Your sister, your sister’s estate, your guard, religion, probably me…” 

 

His face screws into a pout tighter than a hangwoman’s noose. “Fuck off,” he says, though there’s no bite because he thought of mother of all things. And now because he’s thinking of that gangly bitch he finds himself growing increasingly self-conscious over excitingly reading books, books he was never allowed to read. Childish. 

 

He had thought of asking Maevis about her travels. She has stories, probably interesting ones. He wanted to hear them, to imagine them in his head; but all that fills his mind is mother’s nostrils flaring as she screeches in a tone that could curdle milk. Childish, childish, childish.

 

Maevis probably sees his growing discomfort — because he’s apparently so physically incapable at hiding his emotions. He should have taken acting classes, he hates being read so easily, — and she changes the subject again. He doesn’t look at her, but her voice is softer again. 

 

“You know, I always wondered about women who can’t get pregnant. If there’s such an emphasis on getting a daughter to carry on the family, then are they considered useless?”

 

Julian throws his head back and groans, he rubs his eyes and he realizes they’re dropping like they were beginning to get heavy. 

 

“I don’t care. This was meant to be something about a schedule and now we’re talking about fucking religion.” He sighs, “I’ll just come back tomorrow and help you with your stupid garden.”

 

Maevis stands with him, a single eyebrow raised, “How about naming the horse?” 

 

He gives her a sideways glance. 

 

Naming the horse huh. 

 

He forgot about that, too busy being screamed at by a ghost in his head. It doesn’t take long for him to find a name. A particularily stupid name.

 

“Shadowmare.”

 

For perhaps a split second it looks as though she simply doesn’t have the ability to even comprehend his words, as if he suddenly spoke a different language. Then creases appear beside her eyes when she gives a loose grin. Seems to be a trademark of hers. 

 

“You want to name a pure white horse Shadowmare?” 

 

“Stupid, ain’t it? Fits you.”

 

She takes his insult in stride when she merely shrugs, “Sure. That’s her new name then.”

 


 

Francesca was where he expected her to be, right outside the door. He doubted she even checked the mansion out. She probably would have gotten lost, anyway.

 

Back in his cabin, he sits in the dining room. Though, calling it a dining-room was somewhat misleading. It was a room. They ate in it. That was all. 

 

And now, Julian’s hands are on either side of Francesca’s face after he backed her into the wall. 

 

“Fuck me,” is all he says. He came here to not think of past events, but now he’s thought of mother, father and Camilla in the same day. It must be a new record for him. As such, he decides he’s in need for some much needed release. He may have been pissed at her before, but he’s the one starting it here, so it’s fine. 

 

She frowns, and keeps her hands to her side. Which serves to just infuriate him and he assumes she’s playing a game to rile him before she gives him a sound beating.

 

“I thought you said you didn’t trust me.” 

 

He taps at the wall with his finger and matches her frown with one of his own, “No, I don’t.”

 

Much to his own astonishment, her shoulders slump and her eyes cast down in a mournful gaze. It surprises him so much he drops his arms from the wall. She sighs, and it’s the same one as last time but now… it doesn’t sound condescending. In this context, all he can think of is a kicked dog. 

 

“Ah,” she says, voice morose, “I have gravely misinterpreted the nature of our relationship.”

 

He furrows his brow. How was it not the most clear thing ever? She’d fuck and beat him when he got angry. Only when he initiated it. That was it. What was there to misunderstand?

 

He clicks his tongue, annoyed. “What do you mean?”

 

She huffs a humourless laugh, “I thought we had gotten over an obstacle the last time, but apparently not,” that just makes him furrow his brow even more, “Rest assured, the fault lies with me. I think you might need to find a new partner for this arrangement.”

 

“I — What? What are you talking about?”

 

She wants to end it? What the fuck? But — But she tried to initiate something today! 

 

“I will catch a carriage tonight. If an issue arises please do not hesitate to contact me, Lord von Leventis. Goodnight.” Her back straightens, with shoulders stiff. The image of a detached guard.

 

He splutters, eyes wide, and when she makes her way to the door he grabs a hold of her bicep. 

 

“You — I, what the fuck? Now you’re using my title? And leaving? E-Explain yourself!” 

 

Her expression is as blank as Maevis’s steward, “It is inappropriate for you to have relations with your guard. Please find someone else who better fits your needs. Goodbye,” her gaze softens, “Take care of yourself.”

 

His grip on her falls limp, and she leaves. The sound of the door swinging and closing echoes through his mind when he just stands there, slack jawed. 

 

That was the first time a guard ended it with me.

 

His mind is like a lost man at sea, desperate and starving as he tries to make sense of the situation. He knew she was going to leave soon but to end their little fuckbuddy relationship and leave the day she comes with? What? What just happened? What had he misread? 

 

Perhaps fitting for the situation, the gloom of the wintry day creeps into him like the damp into bare timber. It seeped into his pores, travelling to his heart. Even the bird song from outside comes to him as if from a deep well rather than high in the trees. Then from under the steady blanket of grey cloud, comes a steady rain, the sounds of pitter-patter almost mocking him.

 


 

“For a woman with such an intense phobia of crowds, you don’t seem to have a sense of urgency.”

 

Maevis snorts. She liked to think that inside she’s absolutely dying at the thought of being at the Gala. She’s plenty urgent. She still sits at the dining hall, having had her own dinner and rubs her stomach, content with her hearty meal. 

 

Three months. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not long in the slightest. Exposure therapy would absolutely not work in that time-frame, so enlisting the help of Calvara is off the table. At least, that’s what she tells herself. 

 

I won’t do exposure therapy. It won’t help. I’ll just punch someone. 

 

She shakes her head to stop thinking about it. Now, all she has is gardening. With Julian. He had a point, she would technically need to piss off the Empress herself to get out of this damn thing. 

 

Now that she thinks about it, three months is about when the first snow is expected to fall. So they want this Gala to be some winter wonderland bullshit. How romantic. 

 

She briefly considers the idea of running around naked. That would upset some people. She knows it would, she’s done it before. She was young and it was something dumb young people would do. Though that was long before the… incident and she’s not sure about the type of attention she would attract now. 

 

Maybe I should… start a rumour of some kind?

 

She narrows her eyes at that thought. She might be onto something… Maybe Julian has some good ideas. 

 

There’s a light knock on the door, “Sir, there’s someone by the gate. She claims to be the sister of the escort you met earlier.”

 

That gives her pause. 

 

Maybe she’s going to tell me off for being a terrible person? Did he actually do what I asked?

 

That would certainly please her. Can’t hurt to see what this person wants. She wastes no time checking it out. 

 


 

 

“M-Maevis Bernard!” Is all she hears when she exits her home. The voice is wobbly — cracked. Like someone’s about to cry. When Maevis gets to the gate, it turns out it isn’t someone who’s about to cry. She’s already crying. Her cheeks are practically waterfalls.

 

“Uh,” is all Maevis’s voice helpfully supplies.

 

“You — You asked for the services of my brother, Arnold, though no doubt he gave you a fake name. Thank you...  thank you so much!” Then her visitor cries with more violence than any gale. Sniffling and snorting. 

 

Maevis finds her mind is blank. 

 

How the fuck do I respond to this?

 

She interrupts her cry with the need to draw breath, then she speaks again, “I-I’m Cynthia and — and,” more sniffling, “My b-brother and I… We came into the most terrible debt…”

 

She blinks. 

 

Oh no.

 

“And you paid it off! Oh, thank you! Words cannot express our gratitude!” As much as Maevis would like to tell this woman that was absolutely not her intent, she can’t really bring herself to tell someone who currently has emotional pain and happiness pouring out of them the truth. So she says nothing but gives a strained smile. 

 

“Everyone will know of your kindness! I’m sure you’re helping the von Leventis boy, yes? You are a saint, truly!” Cynthia’s chin trembles as if she was a small child. She breathes heavier, gasping for air that simply wasn’t there.

 

But the smile she has on could only be described as beautiful. It extends to her eyes and, Maevis can only presume, deep into her soul as well. 

 

This was a woman who went through a lot of pain. Her brother too, perhaps more so since he was the one evidently forced into prostitution.

 

And Maevis apparently fixed all their problems. Unintentionally. 

 

Julian was right. She really is an idiot.

 

Cynthia wobbles off after extending more gratitude and platitudes. She also continually assured Maevis that everyone will know her newfound saintliness. 

 

There is only one thing on Maevis’s mind, and she voices it.

 

“Well, fuck.”

 

Chapter Text

The next morning Julian ate his eggs on toast in complete silence. He stares at the crumbs of his now finished meal. He doesn’t even remember going to bed last night, or even waking up and getting dressed in a hand-me-down shirt that was too big for him and making breakfast. It all just feels like a daze. Like it isn’t real. 

 

Francesca ended their relationship. He still has trouble processing that very fact. 

 

“She’s just here for a day or two to make sure I settle in.” He had said. She was gone sooner than that. He wanted her gone as soon as possible because he wanted independence, but also as a sort of punishment for pissing him off, but now he’s upset she’s gone. 

 

It makes him grind his teeth. Did I want her gone or not? Make up your fucking mind. 

 

Inwardly he knows it’s not because she didn’t fuck him or left earlier than intended.

 

It was because of his distinct lack of control. 

 

It was the one thing he felt he had any semblance of authority over and it was... just, poof, gone. He had tried protecting it, tried so hard in being as unattractive as possible towards Maevis when he thought she wanted to marry him. He felt it was his the only aspect of freedom in his suffocating life and it was gone in a fucking blink. By Francesca’s will. Not his. He — He never had fucking control over it. Not truly.

 

It’s hilarious. He should laugh at the irony of it all. Heave a bellowing guffaw like Maevis and slap his knee in derision. Maybe even gasp out some tears because it’s so fucking funny. 

 

He doesn’t. 

 

He continues to stare at the crumbs. 

 

Eventually Julian rubs his hands over his eyes tiredly and groans loudly. 

 

This is — This is some divine punishment. Ugh. 

 

Then, he slaps his cheeks with both hands. 

 

No control huh? Then this is better. Fuck Francesca. I don’t need her. I brought my own shit if I need relief. 

 

Though he’s unsure of what he would actually do. He can’t belt his back and shoulders again. As much as it annoys him, he needs time to heal. He knows that. He flicks his eyes to the corner where he put his bag with his… toys. He could just fuck himself with a dildo. Smack himself on his thighs. Put a gag on himself. 

 

He huffs. A lot of the scenarios he wants to play out actually requires another person. Having his limbs tied up, spanked over a knee, being inside a woman… 

 

This time he grunts, and pinches the bridge of his nose with his eyes closed. 

 

I don’t fucking need her. I don’t need anyone. She said to take care of myself and I fucking will, dammit. 

 

He will gain control and freedom. That’s what he came for. This was a small wrench in his plan but it doesn’t matter. He’ll get over it. He doesn’t fucking need anyone. He’ll take what he can while he’s here. He won’t let any future opportunities to actually have a grand old time slip him by. He’s completely independent now and that’s a good thing. 

 

His eyes glance to the edge of the table he’s sitting at. 

 

The books.

 

Really, they would be the prime distraction in this moment. He edges closer to them.

 

Childish. 

 

His eyes narrow but he doesn’t stop edging further closer to his prize, but now more hesitant. 

 

He’s alone. By himself. Independent. He reminds himself to not let future opportunities pass him by again. 

 

Francesca isn’t here, but the most important people aren’t here either. Mother and Anna. They can’t berate him for being childish — silly and immature. No longer are these books forbidden and restricted because they’re a distraction from etiquette lessons. No. He doesn’t have those fucking lessons anymore. He’s not shackled anymore. He can finally escape the box he was forced into as a teen.

 

I can read these. No one can stop me. I will read them.  

 

He picks up Equine Science again despite knowing it’s too advanced for him. He doesn’t care. Every fiber of his being was vibrating with anticipation. Adrenaline courses through his veins. His hands tremble and his eyes become wide. 

 

This is what a cat must feel like waiting to pounce on a mouse, he thinks.

 

When he opens the book the prior worries and pain of his life become muted and all there was to know about was this moment. He doesn’t understand a word that he reads over but he doesn’t mind. The same impish excitement he felt when he first let his eyes wonder these pages fills him again. He reads and reads and reads.  

 

And over and over, the same thing fills his mind.

 

No one is here to stop him. He will do what he wants. He will have the control and freedom he longs for.

 


 

When Julian comes over, it’s lunch time. Maevis had already eaten. Something simple, pasta with tomato and cheese sauce. A personal favourite of hers. 

 

“Nadine’s out. She’s getting more hay for the horse, and more food in general for us humans. So if you want something now you’ll have to make it,” she says before she takes a bite out of her apple. They’re in the dining room, apparently this’ll be the main base of operations.

 

He huffs a humourless laugh, “I guess neither of us can go into a town to buy our own food, huh?” 

 

She blinks at that. He’s… technically correct. She knows she certainly won’t, and presumably Julian doesn’t want to be spat at again.

 

Though she wonders if word of her supposed saintliness actually got around. Perhaps Julian’s overall treatment would be different now, but she doubts either of them are going to test that theory out. 

 

She gnaws at her apple. That’s not important. She can think of her apparent mishap of making her reputation better another time. 

 

“Look at you, sarcasm first thing when coming over. Anyway, I'm kinda excited to see what you make for yourself. I’m sure you’re a killer in the kitchen.”

 

He rolls his eyes, “Considering your steward is out getting food I doubt there’s much for me to work with,” then he looks at her with determination in his eyes, “After I’m done we’ll start with the garden. Don’t try to get out of it.”

 

Her hand goes to her chest, “I’m shocked you think I would shirk gardening with you! I’ll have you I’m dying from excitement.”

 

There’s a hint of pink on his cheeks now, and he reflexively looks away. 

 

When he goes to the kitchen, she follows him, finding nothing else to do with her time. Though she knows her knee would start its bouncing if she were left alone, she tries to push that fact to the back of her mind. 

 

If she doesn’t think about it, it’ll go away. 

 

What would her mother think if she could see her now?

 

She blows a breath, and watches Julian begin to make himself a sandwich. She’s almost disappointed. She was actually looking forward to watching him make something overly fancy and pompous. Something worthy of a noble. 

 

On that note, she speaks, “Ah, I guess I should apologize for forcing you to make your own food. You’re probably used to being served hand and foot back home, huh?”

 

He slathers mayonnaise on his bread. Really, she would call the amount he’s putting on truly absurd. 

 

“You’re shit at making small talk,” he says smoothly, while continuing to drown his bread in more condiments. Maevis can only watch with morbid curiosity. “I guess when I was growing up I had a lot of servants make food and everything. Don’t really have them anymore, so I make food for myself most of the time.”

 

Evidently making food meant death by mayonnaise at the current rate he’s going. When he sets the condiment down she thinks she might heave a sigh of relief. Next he reaches for the lettuce and rips at it like he has a personal vendetta against it.

 

She was looking forward to him being a whiz in the kitchen, but she’ll settle with this as well. 

 

“My dad,” she says, which seems to get his attention since he stills his movements for a split second, “made all the food when I was young. He made the perfect pot roast. It was,” she kisses her fingers dramatically, “fucking brilliant.”

 

“...What did your parents do?” He asks, almost carefully. He reaches for the cheese.

 

“My mom was a hunter and my dad was a prostitute,” there’s a resounding clunk from the cheese being dropped on the counter. Julian turns around with knitted brows. 

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, my mom was a frequent client and he retired from the business when they married. I know, it sounds like every corny romance novel ever written.”

 

“And that was... Fine? Marrying a prostitute?”

 

She huffs, then waggles a finger at him, “Ah, we weren't nobles so it was about fun, not hierarchies. Don’t really need to keep up with appearances, remember? I grew up in the mountain, and I’m sure it’s obvious but my mom taught me everything I know about hunting. Hunting in the mountains is no joke, you always have to watch your step lest you want to fall to your death. But at the same time it was ridiculously fun.”

 

He squints at her for a moment before turning back to his sandwich. He grates cheese with speed that only spoke of impatience. Does he feel a vendetta against every piece of food in her kitchen? What did cheese ever do to him?

 

His back is to her, so she moves to she see his profile. From this angle she can see his pursed lips and furrowed brows.

 

He’s having another internal conflict himself. An inner argument with his own thoughts, probably. She’s had plenty. Though she likes to think she’s much better at hiding it. 

 

Eventually, one side of him wins out, and he quietly asks, “You’ve been to a lot of places?”

 

“Yup. Been across the ocean. Those are some of my favourites, I love the open-water sunsets. Almost as good as mountain sunsets.” And she thinks the perfume of the salty water is one of the favourite smells, too, along with the fresh mountain air she grew up with. Maybe she was just too fond of the ocean and hilly cliffs since they're all she can think of now.

 

There’s also been far too many occasions where she almost fell overboard because she got too excited over the prospect of seeing some whales or dolphins, but that doesn't dull her enjoyment of the sea.

 

Julian glances at Maevis, but apparently he didn’t want to be caught so he hastily looks back to his food. He begins slicing and dicing some leftover meat. 

 

“I’ve never been to the ocean before… What’s it like?” Again with the mumbling, but she’ll entertain his question. 

 

“It’s great. If there’s one thing I respect, it’s the ocean. One moment it lulls you to sleep with the gentle waves and next it’s practically mocking some poor sailors with how the water becomes so rough and basically tries to kill you.” She’s been in many boats that pitched and rolled like a frantic child thrashing about in the waters of the choppy and wallowing sea. Though she doesn’t think she’s ever felt like her life was in immediate danger. No, she always had an immense amount of fun in those moments. Always had her adrenaline pumping and baring a wolfish grin. 

 

She smiles at a sudden thought, and she inclines closer to him, “But the waves are nothing. Not when you had to deal with Matris Amni,” her tone becomes capricious, much like a parent regaling their child with a fable.

 

It seems to work, if Julian stopping midway to bite his sandwich is anything to go by. 

 

“...What’s that?”

 

She opens her arms wide, eyes glimmering, “She’s the biggest trouble for any sailor intrepid enough to take on her domain! She’s a grand sea serpent who eats boats whole!”

 

Maevis wouldn’t call that an entire lie. Matris Amni is a famous tale between sailors, and she certainly would cause a fair amount of trouble to any who came across a giant snake in the ocean, but whether she even exists Maevis isn’t sure. She’s never seen the serpent, but she has seen some driftwood and seaweed that made some very convincing silhouettes in a certain angle. 

 

Julian turns to face her properly, eyes suddenly wide. “R-Really?”

 

“Yes! I’ve been unlucky enough to come across her once. They say her mere movements causes the waves in the oceans, and I’m inclined to believe that. She’s massive, and we wouldn’t have stood a chance but it would seem she had no appetite for our petite ship. I don’t think she even noticed us. She merely swam by, but even that was enough to sweep tidal waves large enough to knock some sailors off!”

 

Maevis has dealt with her fair share of rough waves, but only once did someone ever get knocked off. And that was because she threw them off and made it look like an accident. The ship was used to transport kidnapped men to be sold to slavers. The men were stripped and hung belowdecks as toys for the oarswomen. The captain had been her bounty, but she never got the money because there was no body. 

 

She liked to think Matris Amni made a snack out of her. Perhaps giving human sacrifices to her allows for calm seas, because that’s exactly what happened for the rest of the trip when they made it to land.

 

Anyway. She’ll keep that memory to herself.

 

He raises and curves his brows. His jaw simple gapes for a moment before he seemingly remembers he can speak. 

 

“If — If it’s—”

“She.”

 

She’s rewarded with an eyeroll for that. 

 

“If she’s so big then what does she eat? Surely there’d be nothing in the ocean left? Is she the only of her kind?”

 

She gives a half-smile, “Ah, despite being massive we know so little about her. All we know is that most people who do see her are gobbled up. I was lucky! Kinda hard to study an animal when they’re so dangerous like that.”

 

“If you know so little, then how do you know she’s a female?”

 

Maevis shrugs lazily. 

 

“Educated guess.”

 

There’s another eyeroll on Julian’s part, and he finally bites in his sandwich. A sandwich that’s so soaked in mayonnaise the bread might as well fuse into the condiment. He doesn’t seem affected by it and continues to heartily eat it. 

 

Well. Maybe she’s learned what his favourite spread is.

 

When he’s chewing, he narrows his eyes at nothing, and with how he eyes flick at her he seems to having another argument in his eyes. 

 

He wipes his mouth, “Do — Do you have a book on her? The Matris Amni?”

 

“Dunno, didn’t check. But I’ll look out for it.” Her grin grows wider and makes a mental note to think of more folklore and legends to weave more tales out of. 

 

She lets Julian eat the rest of his soggy sandwich in peace after that. 

 


 

 

They’re standing in her decrepit garden. Appraising it. Well, mostly, with how Julian’s eyes peek at her she wonders if he’s even had a good, proper look at it yet.

 

His eyes continue to flick at her for a while longer, and she’s not sure if he’s trying to be obvious or not. Maybe he thinks he’s being subtle. He’s not.

 

She’s about to make a comment about it, but then he blurts out what was apparently gnawing at him. 

 

“How old are you, anyway?” He asks, incredulous. 

 

She snorts, “What, Anna never told you? I’m thirty-five.”

 

His brows shear low as he narrows his gaze. She can tell he thinks she’s lying. She doesn’t know if she should be flattered or not.

 

“You look at least ten years older.”

 

And here she was thinking he thought she was younger. She’s not flattered. 

 

She throws her head back with a grin, “Rude! I’ll have to know I’m young at heart.”

 

Julian then moves his gaze away from her to the dead garden, “You look older, but you act like a child. So I got confused.”

 

She snorts and gives him an open-handed smack on the back of his shoulder in what should be a friendly gesture, but he immediately tenses and staggers forward with a hiss. One of his hand goes to clutch at his shoulder, but he stops midway to clench his fingers in a tight fist. He inhales sharply before steadying his breathing to shallow puffs. His head is lowered and he clenches his eyes shut.

 

Maevis finds herself tensing as well. She’s no stranger to well-intentioned touches suddenly turning intensely painful. She remembers a time when moving without pain, without aches, was just one thing she used to take for granted. When she spent what felt like eons recovering physically from the war her muscles felt as though they have been flash-burned with acid from the inside — just sufficient to make them move like her blood have been replaced by aging rubber bands, thick and twisted. Any touch, anything that so much as grazed her skin, felt like there was a stake being hammered into her flesh, the strikes radiating pain in a way that shattered her brain. 

 

Her fellow soldiers were the same way. Every moment in the hospital she felt like she was walking on eggshells, and so was everyone else. It was hopelessly exhausting for all parties involved.

 

“Sorry,” she quickly says, “I didn’t intend to actually hurt you. Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” he spits, he tries to roll his shoulder but immediately winces. He huffs, then pointedly glares at the dead flowers, “Let’s just get on with this.”

 

He leans down slightly to get a closer look at the plants, and Maevis has to stop herself from reaching over to open up his shirt collar. His shirt is… puffy, to say the least, and the top two buttons are unfastened. She’s got a decent look at his collarbone. Normally she would enjoy the view, but it’s marred by a great purple welt wrapping around his clavicle and lining a bit of his neck. 

 

She bites her cheek. She hit his other shoulder, so does that mean there’s bruises running across both shoulderblades? Perhaps down the entirety of his back? 

 

There’s… something that bubbles up inside of her. She’s accepted that Julian seems to act out against his own body, she’s seen at least three separate bite marks on his hands and fingers that she assumes were self-inflicted. It was a fact that upset her to a degree; certainly made the pity in her grow. This, however? This makes a rapacious fire build in her veins. 

 

She thinks she knows what’s going on. A form of physical discipline. She’s heard of it when she used to eavesdrop in bars or, hell, even Calvara’s admitted to doing it before; of women using belts or paddles in an attempt to keep men in line. 

 

It — It makes sense. It’s all coming together, she thinks. It’s no secret that he’s a problem child and so presumably he’s been physically punished on more than one occasion, as much as the thought fills her mouth with bile. 

 

She flexes her fingers. She didn’t expect to feel quite this strongly. 

 

She thinks back to Francesca and how viscerally uncomfortable he seemed to be even sharing the same air as her. 

 

“What are your intentions for him?” She remembers the guard asking, “I just want to make sure he can take care of himself and that your intentions are not… unsavory.”

 

The gall. The… the fucking nerve of that woman! Acting like she wants to make sure Maevis isn’t the one with unsavory intentions while she’s the one apparently making Julian’s skin into a canvas of black and purple. Of course he’d wanted nothing to do with Francesca.

 

Before her vision can turn into a blinding red, a hand waves in front of her face.

 

“...Is there something on my face? Hello?” He hears him say, sounding impatient. 

 

She blinks and gives relaxed smile in an attempt to not look like she was just imagining killing his own guard. 

 

On that note, she thinks it might be good to mention that very woman. 

 

“Ah, sorry. Just daydreaming a bit there while you made sure to see everything wrong with my garden. I hope you made a checklist,” she leans in, “By the way, I know I’m late at noticing, but where is your guard? Francesca?”

 

His expression twists into a scowl, “She’s gone. Left last night.”

 

“Yeesh, didn’t even stay the night? Sounds like she left in a hurry.”

 

“Yeah, I guess you could say she did,” he says sourly and she knows she won’t be getting as much information she would like with this. 

 

Still, she feels the need to pry in further, “Not much of a personal guard if she ditches you that soon, huh?”

 

“No, I guess she’s not,” he huffs out a single laugh, “Maybe I should send a strongly worded complaint to Anna. I have to annoy my sister somehow while I’m here.”

 

“Ah, maybe I should do the same. She was awfully rude before I joined you in the dining hall, you know.”

 

He narrows his eyes when he considers her, then lifts a single brow, “...Yeah?”

 

He’s suspicious. Time to backtrack.

 

Poking around for info was something she did often as a bounty-hunter, but she knows when to back off. She can be nosy later.

 

She wrings her hands together and points at the garden with her chin, “So. Your verdict? What are we gonna do with this thing?”

 

He squints at her, but diverts his attention to the dead plants, “Well, first you have to winter proof it. Get rid of the weeds. They’re fucking everywhere,” he spreads his arms wide to make note at the entire yard, “And clean all the garbage. There’s too many dead leaves and flowers. I guess you could use that as mulch but I’m pretty sure they’re diseased.”

 

“What’s mulch?”

 

“Dead shit. Mostly. Grass clippings, decaying leaves, hay, shredded bark, animal manure… Guess Shadowmare can help with gardening in that regard. You spread mulch around or over a plant. Makes it healthy.”

 

She tilts her head. That doesn’t sound right. Or healthy. “Wouldn’t spreading literal shit on a plant make it diseased? How is that supposed to keep it alive? Sounds counterproductive to me.”

 

He knits his brows, “It’s — I, uh, — It makes… It makes the soil… t-tastier for the plant?” He shuts his eyes in a cringe, a blush suddenly flushing across his face, “Idon’treallyknowhowitworks,” he spits out quickly, and then points accusingly at Maevis, “ But! I know it works! I’ve done it countless times with my own garden and they come out fine! It’s — It’s enriching!” 

 

Julain rubs his chin with his hand and he deliberately keeps his eyes on the ground. His cheeks continue to redden into a nice shade of scarlet, though not as red as his own eyes. “Yeah. Enriching. That’s what all my gardening manuals say,” he mumbles.

 

Adorable.

 

Then she finds herself in the predicament of desperately trying not to smile like a goofy idiot, or laughing. She doubts Julian would appreciate either, so she presses her lips firmly together. 

 

“Roger that. You’re the expert. I’ll trust your advice,” she says.

 

That seems to please him as his lips curl just a tad in a small smile. He really liked to soak in compliments, apparently. He shifts on his feet and continues, “You don’t really have to worry about pruning, considering everything here is dead. Gotta get rid of all this and plant something first.” He turns his head to look at the big swathe of land that’s mainly used as Shadowmare’s pasture. Maevis follows his gaze, and she makes note of the fence further out. Might be good to inspect those to make sure there’s nothing broken. Would suck if the horse to just jump over and disappear into the forest. She thinks horses would do that, the ungrateful pricks.

 

“You’ve got a fence so I guess you don’t have to worry about deer,” Julian says, “But you might have to worry about Shadowmare munching on your flowers if you plant anything here. You’ll need to build a fence or greenhouse to protect it or…” 

 

He trails off, then glances at many of the large urns and hanging baskets near the entrance of the mansion. She idly notes that his blush is gone. That’s a shame. It was a good look on him.

 

“You could bring them inside.”

 

“Make... an indoor garden?”

 

He nods, “Something like that. Just bring in the urns and pots. Might make your rooms more lively. I recommend planting calendulas and pansies. Maybe hellebores too. They’re pretty vibrant and sturdy. Easy to take care of too so they’re good for beginners.”

 

Maevis runs a hand through her hair, then curves her mouth in a smile. 

 

“Bold of you to assume I know what any of those flowers are.”

 

“Just get Nadine to buy their seeds. I’ll write a list of more flowers and supplies. I’ve brought my own tools that you can prune with. Maybe you can practice on the dead plants here,” then his eyes flicker with… nostalgia, she thinks, “It feels really good when the first flowers bloom. Even better when they continue to blossom for a nice while. I know I feel pretty accomplished when my garden comes to life.”

 

His voice is soft, and by the way the corners of his eyes crinkled and stares at the flowerbed she can tell he's reminiscing over a fond memory.

 

“Take care of the garden, and it’ll take care of you,” he continues, his voice even softer than before, “My father always used to say that.”

 

Maevis wets her lips. Now she knows this is dangerous territory, but her curiosity wins out. 

 

“...He taught you how to garden?” She asks, making sure to keep her tone neutral. Wouldn’t do anyone good if Julian blows up at her again so she tries to be as inoffensive as possible. 

 

He nods, then leans down to gingerly rubs his fingers across the dead petals and leaves, “He taught me everything. Before gardening became a topic in etiquette lessons… Before he...” his voice wobbles and Julian clears his throat heavily.

 

“Anyway,” he says, “First things first is to clean this place up.”

 

She nods reluctantly.

 


 

Julian was six when he became excited over gardening. It was an especially bitter winter that year that had left the garden bare. Rain and the occasional day of sunshine came, but without the gentle spring heat nothing grew, not even plants that would usually survive the harsh cold. Everyday he had peeked out the back door to look at the flowers, but day after day nothing would come. 

 

Until early one day, when spring had begun he peeked out the door was greeted with a sea of green as the blanket of snow had finally melted. He yelped suddenly. 

 

The second the squeal came out of his mouth his father came running, “Julian, what is it?”

 

“Its’ — It’s the flowers, dad! They have buds, I can see some purple through the green!” He pointed at them when he turned, beaming, eyes wide.

 

His father — Adrian von Leventis — grinned, and it was this moment Julian noticed he was wearing a scarf of neon wool the two of them made together. It was thin, and much too small for an adult, but his father wore it for the entirety of the winter. He’s still in his morning gown and his hair was a disorderly mess on top of his head.

 

The older man smiles, “Ah, I was wondering when you’d be able to see the first flowers of spring. How many mornings have you been peeking out the door, hm?”

 

Julian giggled and sheepishly looked away, almost feeling embarrassed from being found out. He had tried to be discreet, but a six year old could only be so secretive when he ran to the back garden everytime he woke up. 

 

“I’ve seen you sneaking a couple of glances at my gardening manuals,” Adrian continues, his eyes crinkled as he smiled wider, “And I’ve seen you checking the garden every chance you get. You can’t fool me,” he taps Julian’s nose with his index finger, when he did that he often ended it with a soft ‘boop!’

 

Julian continued to giggle, then excitedly followed his father when they stepped outside. Adrian wiped some of the lingering frost away from the bud/

 

“How do they grow from the snow? It’s like magic!” Julian asked, eyes still beaming. 

 

“Aha, they grow from the soil, not the snow. Though I suppose that’s just as magical.” He ruffles his son’s hair, “Would you like to help me with gardening? Like how you help me with sewing?” He leans in, his eyes now glimmering with some mischief, “Would you like to learn some magic?”

 

Julian nods enthusiastically and shifted on his feet continuously, just barely able to contain his excitement.

 

His father continued, “You picked the perfect time to learn, you’re already doing so good! What’s going on right now is that spring is sending her rain and warm winds to wake up the flowers, and soon you’ll see the little critters in the forest begin to wake up too. As spring makes her return, life comes back, but we have to help her! We have to do our part and take care of our garden,” he boops his nose again, “If we take care of the garden, it’ll take care of you. Now, let me show some supplies we’ll use…”

 

Julian stares at the small pile of dead leaves he collected, his mind now back to the present. he had listened with rapt attention. His father’s voice had soothed his ears, and resonated so deeply with everything that he was.

 

It may be because he was a young child back then, and he truly believed it was some form of magic, but he had never seen blooms that appeared to kiss the sky so boldly as those tulips since then.

 

It was a day he never forgot, and he can still hear his father’s words echoing in his head as if the memory played out only yesterday. His dad was the image of the perfect man. He would never be improper and appear in public without his wife, and in private he was the doting and loving father.

 

He knows he has a small smile playing on his features, but it wavers with his next thought.

 

Has it really been twenty years?

 

There are days where he has to remind himself of his age. It almost seems surreal. When he was a child, he thought he would be a father himself at this point in his life. Had even dreamed of that possibility. 

 

Instead, he’s… acquainted with the most bizarre woman he’s ever met. 

 

Having a better time than last week, I guess.

 

He shakes himself and bundles up the leaves to throw them in the bag at the center of the garden. He and Maevis started at opposite ends, but he had forgotten just how much work tidying up would take. They had to take a break for a snack, and now the sun begins to wane. Nadine had returned at some point, and is now making dinner.

 

Shadowmare had retired to her stable, apparently uninterested in the goings on of mere mortals.

 

Julian places the leaves in the trash bag and spies Maevis cutting stems with the garden clippers he leant her. She’s stabbing at the dead plants with far too much glee. She’s quick with her movements, twisting and turning and probably making a bigger mess than there is already.

 

“Take that,” she whispers and stabs at the ground again, “And that!”

 

This woman is thirty-five.

 

And she’s not getting much practice on how to properly prune so he figures he needs to intervene. He’s almost jealous with how carefree she is sometimes.

 

She’s about to stab at something in the ground again and he notices it. A hue of brilliant purple petals. Something — Something was alive. There was a flower about to grow and Maevis is going to kill it—

 

“Hey, stop!” He exclaims, and reaches to grab at her wrist. He grabs a hold of her to try to pull her arm back and—

 

It all happens in a blur.

 

Next thing Julian knows is that the wind is knocked out of him, then his back is enveloped in searing pain, like how Maevis slapped him on the back, but it’s significantly worse this time. 

 

When his mind catches up he realizes why.

 

He’s been knocked on his back, harshly. Onto his bruises. The pain increases in waves, utterly debilitating, and tears threaten to drop out of his eyes. There’s a feeling of nausea too, just enough to make him breath slow. But even that is a struggle, because next he realizes is a hand grasping at his throat and squeezing hard enough to cut off his air. 

 

Finally opening his eyes, all he sees is another blur. When the world comes into focus he sees it.

 

Maevis.

 

And she’s holding the garden clippers directly above his eye.

 

All he can do is writhe, the occasional whimper escaping his mouth. 

 

Her eyes are wide enough with the whites showing. Her pupils are so small. He thinks she can see right through him. 

 

Then, just as quickly, the weight on his neck is lifted after she blinks rapidly, and she moves away from his line of sight. Julian coughs, his body curling into something fetal, something primeval and all the while the pain continues to burns and radiate.

 

He hears something dropping to the ground. The clippers, probably. 

 

“I’m — I’m sorry. I… I don’t know what happened. I—” He hears Maevis’s voice splutter quickly, then footsteps leave him, “I’ll get Nadine.”

 

Then he’s left alone. He coughs again, and clenches his eyes shut to prevent tears slipping out. 

 

Eventually, the pain begins to fade away now that he’s no longer putting pressure on his back. He sniffles, and shakily gets on his knees.The next thing he sees is the purple that caused… whatever just happened. 

 

Getting a better look at it, he sees the bud was a living corpse. There’s no roots, and soon enough it’ll probably fade like the daylight. He almost had his eye gouged out because of a dead flower.

 

He shudders. What the fuck was that? Would she have really had stabbed him with a gardening utensil? 

 

His life. His life was in danger. Honest to god danger, even if it was for a split second.

 

It feels like he still can’t breath, like her hand is still choking him. His heart was races and all he can do is hug himself. He lets out a choked cry when he hears soft footsteps approach him.

 

“Lord von Leventis,” Nadine whispers, and he feels like he can breathe again knowing it’s her.

 

She continues, “I can escort you to your cabin, if you’d like. There was some first aid supplies if you are injured.”

 

He swallows thickly. He doesn’t know what just happened. And he’s pretty sure he would look at Maevis the same way he does her gun if he saw her again.

 

And yet. 

 

And yet.

 

He doesn’t want to leave. Not yet. He can’t even explain the feeling himself.

 

He turns to give Nadine a shaky smile with his cracked lips, “W-Weren’t you making dinner? I’m hungry.”

 


 

Maevis felt like she was drowning. It looked as though the room was becoming distorted so she keeps her eyes shut. She’s locked herself in her study because, what, is she afraid? Of Julian? He’s the one she pinned to the ground.

 

Despite that, her breathing becomes erratic, deep, then shallow. Her knee bounces and it’s the only fucking sound she hears. The evening was cool, but her blood is icy and her muscles tense. Her hands tremble at her sides and she jams her fist into her mouth to stifle the scream. A scream of fear, frustration, anger or a combination of all three she doesn’t know. All she knows is that the room feels too small and suffocating. 

 

It all happened so quickly. The — The hand that grabbed her. It was a tight grasp. It was too close to the town square.

 

She grinds her teeth.

 

That’s not even the worst part. The truly horrendous part in these fucking moments was the void. The black hole in her head, deep inside her, slowly swallowing her whole. Ever since she awoke in the hospital bed it was what kept her awake. Sometimes deep into the night. Made her wonder; Why am I alive, anyway?

 

And when she couldn’t find the answers from staring at the ceiling — she never did — her anxiety became panic. 

 

There’s a contortion in her stomach as her knee bounces faster and her breathing becomes rapid again. 

 

Count to ten. Count to ten. Count to fucking ten.

 

She does that, or at least tries to. She never reaches the desired number before she exhales and inhales again. So much for calming down. 

 

Get it together you fucking—

 

When there’s a light knocking on the door she thinks her might jump out of her skin. 

 

“Sir,” Nadine says, “Julian insists on eating dinner here.”

 

She groans and pinches the bridge of her nose. Though immediately after the action a humourless smile graces her features.

 

She didn’t expect that, if anything. She’s almost impressed. 

 

She sighs, “That’s great to hear. I hope he likes what you made.” She thinks she might cringe at how muted she sounds. 

 

“I think it would be good for you to come down as well.”

 

Doubt festers in Maevis’s gut, slow and churning. She doesn’t think she agrees with Nadine. 

 

“I think I’m going to bed early.”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and she realizes that Nadine is expecting her to come out to go to her bedroom. She doesn’t. She continues to sit her with her knee doing its usual infuriating movements. 

 

“...Alright,” Nadine finally says, “I will be in the dining room with Lord von Leventis.”

 

And then she leaves. Maevis breathes heavily. She doesn’t like being alone, but now she insists on doing just that. The room feels constricting, but she’s… afraid of leaving it. She trembles at the mere thought of opening the door. Like there’s a mob waiting outside for her. Sweat starts trickling down her neck.

 

She sleeps behind her desk.

Chapter Text

Maevis wakes up slowly, every heartbeat like a physical blow to the inside of her skull. Maybe her brain is trying to get out. It certainly feels like it. When she opens her eyes, she’s blinded by flashing colourful spots. She lies as still as she can, eyes now pressed shut, in an attempt to will the migraine away. 

 

“Wakey wakey,” she hears above her, “Come on, Mae. Wake up.”

 

Calvara’s lucky she can recognize her voice, otherwise Maevis thinks she might have blown her face off with Frenzy. She opens her eyes reluctantly, and makes sure to crease her brows to look especially annoyed. She’s pretty sure there’s a visible vein pulsing on her temple.

 

“Ugh,” she groans, “Where’d your ugly mug come from?”

 

Calvara lightly taps on Maevis’s cheek, lips quirked in a grin, “It is a bit early so I’ll forgive your grumpiness. There’s barely anyone out in town right now. Come on, let’s get you some clothes.”

 

Maevis sits herself up on her elbows and scowls. The crushing pain just on one side of her head comes and goes in a pattern. Her eye feels like it’s throbbing.

 

“I’m not going anywhere. You know how badly that’ll end.”

 

“And that’s why we’ll start with something small, and go slowly. I’ll bail you out if need be.”

 

Maevis cranes her head to look at Calvara, then immediately regrets the action. 

 

“Ow, fucking — think I sprained my fucking neck. Shit.”

 

"You’re not getting out of this. It's time for some tough love. Come on, get ready. Gotta go buy seeds 'n shit too."

 

She squints at her. She knows her aching head is the result of sleeping awkwardly on the floor, and probably caffeine withdrawal as well, but she’s just going to pretend it’s the mere thought of going outside that’s the cause. She ignores her heart suddenly begin to thunder in her chest. 

 

“What are you even doing here?” Maevis asks, “Last I checked you don’t even live in this town. And how do you know I need to get seeds?”

 

Calvara merely quirks a single a brow at that, “A little birdie told me you were having some trouble. Figured it was high time you actually do something productive with your problems. I’m sorry, but you just aren’t getting out of this stupid Gala thing.”

 

So Nadine actually went out and contacted Calvara. Maevis feels shame bubbling up inside her, though it’s probably actually stomach bile with how she has to swallow it down. Ever since awakening in the hospital she’s had to rely on far too many people. Stupid. Useless. Weak. 

 

Something stings at her eyes, and she forces her body to hide that as well. Again, her mind drifts back to her time recovering physically in the hospital. Of the times her almost drowned in her own fucking vomit or nearly killed a nurse. The war was still going on, though coming to its end. Regardless, it was no comfort. She was an invalid for almost an entire year. Trapped to a bed and scared of every shadow that passed her line of vision. Some fucking war hero. Some fucking Wolf. She’s supposed to have fur of iron and a soul of steel. Brave.

 

Some days, a sliver of light flickered and she eagerly reached out to capture what once was lost — her safety, her freedom but she would always find that it slipped through her fingers like sand being sifted in a sieve. Sharp, broken sobs pierced the air as she screamed and clawed her body until it bled. That’s when the nurses started to tie her down. She’s pretty sure that only served to make her condition worse. Her mind could no longer find solace in isolation. Now, there are days her head just doesn't work. She tries so hard to focus and it's like trying to run through water. 

 

Weak. Weak. Weak. 

 

A hand softly grazes her bicep and Maevis muses it must be divine intervention that she doesn’t jump at the gentle, but sudden, contact. 

 

Calvara gives a half smile, eyes sad, “You didn’t go to your room because you could only think of a mob being outside the door, couldn’t you? As your pal, I can’t let you sink further into this hole. Like I said, time for some tough love.” She pats Maevis’s shoulder, “This’ll help. You’ll hate it at first, I know I did, but it’ll help. We’ll go slow.”

 

Maevis rubs her throbbing temples. She doesn’t want to talk about this. Doesn’t to think about it. 

 

So she backtracks, “You didn’t answer my first question.”

 

Calvara sits back, “Well, uh, Alex kind of kicked me out for the time being. Been shacking up nearby.”

 

Perfect, Maevis thinks, she’ll just grab hold of this piece of information and change the subject. Her friend just being here exemplified the epitome of her shame. She needed a way to stop thinking about it. 

 

“Getting a second husband ain’t working out, huh?” She says with a more mocking tone than she intended and she mentally slaps herself. Then, she thinks back to myriad of bruises that no doubt crisscrosses against Julian’s back, and maybe across the rest of his body. Before she reign herself in, she continues. 

 

“Do you still… Discipline Alex?”

 

Calvara eyebrows furrow, and his lips press together as if she’s just eaten a particular sour citrus. 

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever heard her sound so offended. 

 

“Come on now, you remember. We overheard some fuckers talk in a bar one time about beating their men. You said you did the same to keep him in line.” She thinks her migraine is a knife trying to rip out of her skull. She massages her head with both palms now. 

 

Calvara blinks several times, and leans back with an expression that only speaks of disbelief. 

 

Great. Just great. This is definitely a fuck up. Have I lost my way to avoid pissing people off after getting jumped too? Fucking hell. 

 

“Obviously, that headache is killing your brain,” Calvara quips, and then throws a water flask before she continues, “It was a fucking joke. Thought you of all people would get that. Maybe I’m just a better actress than I thought.”

 

She sniffs the flask when she opens it. It’s just water. It’s not poisoned. She would recognize a smell. She’s sure of it. She hesitantly sips it. When she’s still very much alive and it is, indeed, just water she continues to drink. Water is fine. It’s harder to convince herself to consume other food items.

 

“My bad,” Maevis mumbles, suddenly feeling like the biggest dullard on the planet. Well, that’s probably just what she is, she hasn't exactly had the best track record lately. Maybe all her successes in her life was purely out of blind luck instead of any actual intellect on her part. She drinks more from the flask to hide her embarrassment. She’s supposed to be good at reading people. She’s good at reading Julian, she thinks. Maybe he’s just bad at hiding anything. Maybe Calvara is an exceptional actress. 

 

Regardless, she just feels more shitty. The headache isn’t helping her current pity party.

 

Calvara moves on the edge of her stool like a frail puppet held in place by a single fraying string. She wrings her hands together, eyes awkwardly looking to the side. 

 

“I don’t actually want a second husband. I like just being with Alex well enough. Though his cooking is shit, that part wasn’t a lie.” She says, and Maevis creases her brow. Though the movement seems to make her migraine pulsate even more so she winces. 

 

“Enlighten me. Why do all this shit?” She eventually rasps out. 

 

“I’m as shit as planning as you, apparently.” Calvara shifts in her seat awkwardly, “You know, one of the first things he said to me when I got back was that he wanted a — a kid,” and boy does it sound like it took an unreasonable amount of effort to get that last word out. 

 

“Can you fucking imagine me as a mom? With a baby bump! I had a laugh with that, but he was serious and started with the water works. I know I’m trying to be noble-y or some shit, trying to get into their little dumb clique. But I wasn’t a noble when I married him, I courted the idiot out of genuine affection, not because of some political alliance. And — fuck, where am I going with this?”

 

Calvara scratches her cheek, a light blush forming on her cheeks from embarrassment. She hunches her shoulders as if in an attempt to make herself look smaller, eyes trained anywhere but towards Maevis. Fear.

 

Oh, now she decides to be easy to read.

 

She continues, “I’m fucking scared, alright? Terrified. I can’t be a fucking mom. So now I act like a fucking moron and piss him off. I’m — I’m running away from the responsibility. I know that.”

 

Guilt suddenly washes over Maevis for not seeing this sooner. She tries to drink more water to distract herself but the flask is empty. 

 

“That’s, uh, rough, buddy,” is all she’s able to get out before she rolls her eyes at herself, “I guess it’s true. Great minds think alike. Hurrah for idiots like us, eh?” She gives a tired smile, feeling more exhausted than last night despite having just woken up. 

 

“Sigh.”

 

Maevis snorts, “Did you just say sigh? Instead of actually sighing?”

 

She thinks Calvara means to let out a wry laugh, but it comes out more like a bark. 

 

“Man, we’re fucking morons. Hurrah to us indeed.” She leans back on her chair, confidence beginning to come back to her body language and voice, “With that heart to heart out of the way, I gotta ask why you asked if I hit Alex.” 

 

Luckily, Maevis’s headache is beginning to subside with the hydration. Unluckily, it’s her turn to go red with embarrassment, with a side dish of shame churning in her stomach for being a fucking idiot. 

 

“I, uh, saw that Julian was a little bruised up. Thought he was getting beaten at his home and I guess I thought you could give me some… insight about it,” she groans, “Saying this out loud really makes me realize how stupid I am. I blame my headache and lack of breakfast. Anyway, since you’re all high and noble now, figured you’d know if the whole disciplining shtick was a thing they still did.”

 

“Well I have been talking to nobles here and there. Most of the time they pretend I don’t exist, if they notice me they fucking love talking down on me, though whenever I remind them of being personally rewarded by the Empress they immediately shut up,” she blows a breath, “They’re all bunch of spineless fucks. But yeah, some like to brag about belting their men or whatever.”

 

Calvara cranes her neck, and Maevis finds herself jealous that she can’t do the same. Stupid fucking muscle spasms. She needs to ask Nadine for a bag of warm water. 

 

Her friend grins, the smile twisting the scars on her face, “Are you feeling… protective over our little man? Even though Nadine told me you practically stood him up last night.”

 

“I didn’t stand him up, come on. We just established I was a stupid nervous wreck last night,” she spits out. Her jaw tenses at the memory of how weak she was. 

 

Calvara’s voice softens, ironically reminding Maevis of a comforting mother, “You give yourself too little credit. We’ll get you back to normal in no time, don’t worry.”

 

Her jaw continues to tense. She doesn’t share the sentiment. 

 

“And,” Calvara says, tone now filling with mischief, “I find it very interesting that your immediate conclusion was abuse. You know his reputation at being, well, a slut. Maybe he likes it.”

 

“Those bruises looked… pretty intense.”

 

“And I’m sure you’ve done worse to the men you’ve bedded.”

 

That’s not… entirely untrue, but that’s besides the point. The corner of her lips downturn at the thought of him getting hit without his consent. She can’t quite put her finger on the feeling. She wants to wring someone’s neck. Preferably whoever gave him that walloping, probably Francesca.

 

She flexes her fingers into a fist. Is she really… becoming protective of this guy? She does remember thinking about the novels she used to read, of the stories of gallant knights saving their poor, destitute men. Does she want to save him? Is she going through some weird sort of power fantasy? Fuck, she really needs to get laid. Again.

 

She bites her cheek. She’s a pathetic, weak woman afraid of crowds. She’s the last person to be saving anyone. Another thought fills her head.

 

Am I a hypocrite? I like to degrade men in bed and now I’m, what, trying to take some sort of moral high ground by getting mad about him being bruised? 

 

She scowls.

 

I don’t have the right to feel this way, surely.

 

Calvara’s voice comes through her uneasy thoughts, “Anyway. Time to go. Like I said, there’s not a whole ton of people out. So, get ready. I’m not leaving without you and you’re gonna beat this issue. I’m with ya.” Her eyes narrow with arms crossed, and now Maevis knows she won’t be getting out of this at all. 

 

Maevis wets her lips, “You’re such an emotional parasite,” she says jokingly. 

 

Calvara cocks a smile, “I prefer to be called a friend.”

 

“On one condition,” if she’s gonna force her to go out then Maevis might as well make her friend suffer with her. 

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You come clean to Alex and stop pussyfooting around the kid issue. Talk to him.” She feels a perverse amount of glee at how Calvara’s eyes widen in shock before she pouts like a child. For a moment, she’s able to ignore her own growing nervousness.

 

“Fine,” Calvara groans out, “Now come on.”

 

Maevis reluctantly joins her in standing. She can feel the sweat begin to form on her brow, and her stomach contorts. It feels like there’s a snake slithering through her stomach lining, looking for a way to get out. It twists and turns, pulsating through Maevis’s innards and she has to make a conscious effort to stop from gagging. When she’s momentarily blinded by a vision of someone with a wolf head statue above her head, she leans on the door frame for support while breathing heavily.

 

Calvara says nothing. She merely waits for her, occasionally offering a napkin to wipe her sweat. She gives Maevis a shoulder massage when she eats breakfast. 

 


 

They take a carriage to town. They don’t need to. It’s a very short distance that’s perfectly walkable. 

 

“Easy get away if you need it,” Calvara had said, and Maevis finds herself intensely grateful for that. 

 

The carriage windows are closed with its curtains. The less she sees the better. They sit there, saying nothing. The only sounds are the horse’s hooves hitting the pavement and Maevis’s knee bouncing. 

 

“So,” Calvara eventually starts, “I’ve been hearing people call you a saint.”

 

It’s a good thing the headache has subsided, because Maevis thinks her head would have exploded at this moment. She groans and tries to stop her knee, but it continues its movements. She’s never hated her leg more. 

 

“I paid for a prostitute and gave him a tip. Accidentally gave him enough to pay off his debt that forced him in the business, apparently.”

 

There’s a badly hidden laugh and Calvara puts a hand to her mouth to muffle it, “Nicely done, Maevis,” then she recomposes herself, and her eyes narrow slightly, “Now you’ve got to know that getting out of this Gala business ain’t happening. As much fun as I’m sure Julian is, it’s time to face the facts.”

 

Maevis gnaws on her lip, “Is this your tough love?”

 

Before Calvara can reply, the carriage stops, and she gives Maevis an expectant look. Her knee is still bouncing incessantly, but the rest of her muscles tense immediately. Her hand automatically go to Frenzy at her hip. She knows it isn’t loaded, as a precaution, but her fingers flex around the trigger. 

 

“Deep breaths, Maevis. Relax.” She hears the carriage door open, “There’s barely anyone out right now. We’ll get you a new coat and go.” 

 

Her body moves on its own, and the next thing she knows she’s outside against her will. Her hand it still on Frenzy under her jacket. Calvara’s hands are on her shoulders, and she slowly leads her to their desired stall. Her eyes are on the clothing racks under a tarp. 

 

Their steps are horribly slow and awkward. Rickety and stiff like a wooden puppet that hasn’t been oiled. It just makes her mind go into overdrive. The — The anticipation of their slow approach only serves to fill her stomach with bile.



She feels the panic begin like a cluster of static shocks in her abdomen. Tension continues to grow in her face and limbs — so much so she didn’t even know her body could feel so tight — her mind replays the last attack. Her breathing becomes more rapid, more shallow.

 

“This is a poetic end to you, isn’t it, Wolf?”

 

Stupid fucking wench. She wishes she could have seen the bitch get her head blown off by Nadine, but that was the moment she blacked out. 

 

She thinks Calvara is saying something. Soft reassurances, probably. She doesn’t hear any of it. It’s all mutterings blocked out by a shrill ringing in her ear. 

 

Her eyes flick to the people who are out. The sun’s barely out and there seems to be five people milling about. Are there stores really open this early? Did Calvara pay the shopkeeper to open early for them? Wouldn’t surprise her. 

 

In her periphery there are more people. Waiting. Hiding. Every corner terrifies her, every shadow dancing in the streetlamps resembling a sprinting phantom coming for her. The mist blanketing the area doesn’t help her growing anxiety. There’s too many places to be concealed for an attack—

 

The hands on her shoulders prevents her primal urge to flee. In her mind, she imagines more hands, feels them grasp her coat and pull her off to some alleyway. Their bony hands making her ride throughout the intermingled dirt and stone path, skin tearing from the rough movements, as they dragged her off to some unknown, godforsaken place. Some hellhole, buried beneath a sewer. A fitting burial site for a weak, pathetic woman like her. 

 

Again, the voice repeats in her mind.

 

“This is a poetic end to you, isn’t it, Wolf?”

 

She’s hyperventilating, and gasping for air, heart thumping against her chest. She only realizes this when Calvara’s face blocks her whole vision, her hands cupping her cheeks. 

 

“Whatever is going on in your head, Maevis, it’s not real. It’s in your head. Look past it. You have to try to look past it.” 

 

She blinks several times. She almost laughs at how their roles have been reversed. She remembers when she had to speak to Calvara as if she was a child, when any hint of edge in her voice risked pulling the trigger to her anxieties. If Maevis had to describe Calvara during those moments many years ago, she’d say she was functionally vacant. A husk of a human scared of any flame. She wouldn’t say she’s fully cured of her fears — Maevis isn’t sure anyone can be truly cured of these things — but Calvara is able to take care of herself now, which is certainly a stark improvement from a decade ago.

 

How the tables have turned. She never once imagined being the one that’s coddled. 

 

She hates it.

 

Her hyperventilating must have abated slightly, because next she’s hearing praises. 

 

“Yeah, you’re doing well. You’re doing good, Maevis. Where are we now?”

 

She responds with an incoherent mumble, her breath threatening to quicken again. 

 

“Describe where we are. Why are we here? What are buying?”

 

Her only movements are her trembling movements, and she wets her lips. Her throat is so, so dry and her voice comes out like a raspy croak. 

 

“We — We’re in the t-townsquare?” She didn’t mean for it to come out like a question. 

 

Calvara nods, a soft smile gracing her features, “Nicely done. You’re doing good. What are we doing here?”

 

She swallows thickly, she thinks she’s done that multiple times now, “I — uh, we’re getting clothes.”

 

“Atta girl. If Sergeant Isabelle could see you now she’d be proud of you.”

 

Sergeant Isabelle. She recognizes that name. Also fondly known as Sergeant Hundred-Decibel Verbal Pummeler with how she ripped people apart with mere words. Yelled at Maevis a fair bit. She liked Isabelle. She was a frank, honest woman and she appreciated that. 

 

When Maevis was in the hospital she had visited her. There was no yelling, only soft murmurs. Softer than Maevis thought possible. Isabelle said she’d want to her out drinking sometime after the war is over. Her treat. 

 

It was the last thing Maevis heard her say. Isabelle didn’t survive the war.

 

“Would she… Would she really be proud?” She mumbles.

 

Calvara’s hands go from her cheeks back to her shoulders, “Yeah. Absolutely. I know I am. You did good.”

 

She can’t say anything to that, so she keeps her mouth shut to focus on her breathing and tense muscles. They go back to the awkward and stilting walking. Her gaze is focused on the people on the road. Some of have left, replaced by new faces she doesn’t recognize. Doesn’t seem like anyone paid her panic attack any mind.

 

There’s a father and his child. 

 

The child can be a decoy. Give you a false sense of security. The father is probably hiding a knife in his jacket. 

 

An older woman walking her small dog. 

 

Doesn’t matter how big a dog is. Any dog can be trained to bite. A small dog can be used as a distraction while the owner readies her gun. 

 

A guard seems to be wooing a young man. 

 

She’s a guard. Trained to kill. She definitely has a gun. 

 

Before her breathing can become rapid again, she’s forced to turn. She’s greeted with a line of clothes. 

 

It’s only now does she realize she’s wearing a hood. Maybe no one recognizes her with the hood and mist. No one’s been looking at her. She’s thankful for that, but it also affects her anxiety. Maybe it’s all an elaborate act. They’re just pretending to be harmless. Someone will stab her in the back. 

 

She shuts her eyes and rubs her forehead. She hears Calvara talking to the shopkeep. 

 

Thank fuck I don’t have to talk. 

 

She doesn’t know what would happen if she would need to speak with anyone, to distract herself from imminent threats that are all around her. She reluctantly opens her eyes to stare at the clothes in front of her. She makes a conscious effort to avoid looking around her, but every now and then she finds herself looking behind her to make sure there isn’t a sneaking assassin. 

 

Thinking about her panic attack that happened mere minutes ago, her pale skin slowly turns from a pale white to a shade of a ripe strawberries from embarrassment. The warmth blooms, almost feeling sweltering. It bursts through her pores and triggers the waterfalls in her eyes. She wills herself to not cry because she’s not fucking weak. That’s what she tells herself. 

 

She rubs her throat awkwardly, and stares at the clothes.

 

She notices a pattern. 

 

The tags all have the same name. Dolloway Company. Every single one. Apparently there’s only one clothing manufacturer around. 

 

She knows she’s not in the right state of mind, because the thought makes her chuckle. It’s so stupid. It’s not even for the clothing. There’s some other useless trinkets in this stall, also proudly wearing the Dolloway Company name. Does this company own this town?

 

Maevis figures it’s time to furtively glance around for anyone ready to kill her, so she does she. She’s greeted with Calvara’s face again when she turns. 

 

“Got ya clothes. You’ll look mighty fine on them,” she winks and shows the coats and pants to Maevis. 

 

They’re all so generic looking. She won’t stand out at all. Good. That’s what she wants for her clothing. 

 

“Time to get those seeds. They’re on the next stall. There’s a greenhouse you can enter too.”

 

Maevis’s fingers are white-knuckled holding onto her new sets of clothes when they awkwardly shimmie to their next destination. Calvara blocks her vision when someone passes them and she nearly drops the clothes to reach for her pistol. The two women keep their heads down and hoods up.

 

When they reach the next stall, which feels like a fucking eternity, they go into the greenhouse. Maevis immediately hobbles to the back of the room so she can keep watch of the door. So she can check whoever comes in. 

 

Calvara talks to the woman in charge, taking out a list that no doubt Nadine wrote her. She thinks she stares a hole in the door, and when she glances down she realizes in the area that houses desert plants, she thinks. She looks at the prickly cacti, and some others look vaguely like roses. She looks at the tag for one plant.

 

Hens and Chicks. 

 

She blinks. Is that the… name? Who names a plant that? She looks at some other tags, half expecting another Dolloway Company logo. She actually sees one on the pot itself. 

 

Green Prince. 

 

Donkeys Tails.

 

String of Pearls. 

 

She can’t stop the smile that forms on her face. Who the hell names these plants? She’s never heard names like these before. Are people just more poetic when it comes to desert fauna? Perhaps the heat makes them hallucinate and they saw… other things when looking at these plants. 

 

“You like those?” Calvara asks and Maevis jolts her head up so fast she winces, her sprained neck protesting from the movements. Fuck. She’d forgotten about that. 

 

She grunts, “Their names are awful. So yeah, I like them.”

 

“I got the seeds, we can get some of these fellas if you want them. Don’t look too hard to take care of.”

 

Maevis makes sure to look at the entrance again. No one there. She has the urge to look under the rows of desks to look for anyone hiding. 

 

She clears her throat, “I’ll get something prickly. And the Hens and Chicks since that name is too adorable.”

 

“Sure thing lady,” Calvara gives a lopsided grin, “I’ll pay for them.”

 

And she does just that. When they exit the greenhouse Maevis doesn’t spare the shopkeep a glance. When they’re back in the townsquare she keeps her gaze on the ground.

 

She hears too many footsteps. 

 

Her grip on the clothes, and now the potted plants, turn white-knuckled again when Calvara’s hands go on her shoulders to urge her to move faster. 

 

“Looks like the town’s waking up properly now,” Calvara whispers, “Time to leave.”

 

In that very second the panic is a deluge of icy water surrounding every limb, creeping higher until it passes her mouth and nose. She feels her ribs heaving as if bound by ropes, straining to inflate her lungs.

 

It’s a miracle she doesn’t drop anything when they borderline run back to the carriage. 

 

“Sorry,” Calvara mumbles when they enter, “I shouldn’t have said that. But we’re safe now. No one can get us here. See? Hear the hooves moving? We’re outta there, safe and sound.”

 

She playfully reaches over and pats Maevis’s shoulder, “And you got a new wardrobe outta that. Proud of ya.”

 

Maevis notes she’s drenched with sweat. She feels like shit. This doesn’t feel like a victory at all, so she just mutely nods her head. Everything is spinning and it feels as if the carriage floor is melting under her feet.

 

To distract herself, she takes off her old, ragged jacket to wear her new coat. 

 

“There’s a cabin I wanna stop at,” she says, surprising herself, when Calvara quirks a brow she continues, “It’s up the hill on the way to my mansion. Julian’s place.”

 

“Oh yeah?”


She ignores Calvara’s shit eating grin, “Figured I need to apologize for almost shanking him yesterday.”

 


 

Julian attempts to read his books again, but finds his mind far too distracted. 

 

I almost got my eye gouged out, he thinks for maybe the umpteenth time. The scene continues to replay in his head, over and over. 

 

It seemed far too unbelievable at first. Maevis, the woman he largely considered a harmless fool with idiot ideas. 

 

Perhaps yesterday was a wake up call. She’s not harmless. She’s a warrior. 

 

A soldier. 

 

It was the first time he ever thought of her as such. He’s seen her scars and her muscular biceps, but he didn’t think about her actually killing anyone. Really couldn’t imagine it, but now he can. She’s killed people before. It was a sobering realization. 

 

She could probably snap his neck if she really wanted to. 

 

But somehow, despite her practically shoving him on the pavement he doesn’t… fear her like he expected to. Rather, he just feels sorry for her. 

 

He thinks he’s starting to understand, even just a little. She wasn’t lying about her issues. 

 

Someone would just straight up get killed at the Gala. 

 

He thinks he should feel bad about the small huff of laughter that escapes him from that thought. Dad would probably tut him for being insensitive.

 

He’ll just… make it up to her, by helping her. Teaching her to garden and whatnot. He’s good at helping. He’s helped Father plenty enough when he was still alive. 

 

When there’s a knock on the door that makes him jump slightly.

 

Who the fuck is here at this hour? This better not be any welcoming neighbor bullshit. 

 

He’s already formulated his dismissive response when he opens the door—

 

“Hey—”

 

It’s all Maevis is able to say before he unceremoniously shuts the door at her face. 

 

What the fuck is she doing here?!

 

He’s pretty sure she can just break down the door if she really wanted to, but it doesn’t stop him from leaning on it. His mind goes on overdrive, what the hell is he supposed to say? He was just thinking about how he was feeling sorry for her and wanted to help her, but his thoughts just end up blank. 

 

“Uh,” he hears her muffled voice through the door and someone… laughing? 

 

“Hey, Julian,” she continues, “Sorry about yesterday. I, uh, really didn’t mean that. Really. I get if you don’t want to see me for the time being all things considered.”

 

He purses his lips. Right. He can do this. He’s rehearsed this conversation in his head. He just intended to do it much later than... at this very moment. Now that she’s right in front of his door his mouth goes dry and his heart was beating more forcefully than it usually did. 

 

“It’s fine. It was my fault for grabbing you so suddenly,” he croaks out. 

 

There’s a bit of silence.

 

“Can I at least see you?”

 

Right. The door. 

 

He opens it after he’s sure his face isn’t flushed with a blush. He immediately notices her new coat. He thinks it’s new, anyway. It’s the first thing he’s seen her wear that wasn’t patched with holes. Belatedly, he notices that they’re the same height. 

 

Next he notices her friend — Calvara? — standing by a carriage parked on the side the ride. The coachwoman looks like she’s seconds away from falling asleep. Horse looks cute, though. He wants to pet it. 

 

“Hey,” Maevis repeats, “Sorry, again. Are you — Are you still willing to come over?”

 

“And miss out on Shadowmare? You wish.” He huffs, and weird sense of pride swells in him when Maevis grins at that. 

 

He tilts his head at her, “Looks like you got new clothes. You… went out?”

 

He thinks he sees a spark of nervousness flicker in her eyes for a split second, “Yeah. Calvara did all the talking and buying. Trying to get better with crowds.” She smacks her fist in her palm then, eyes doing wide like she’s remembering something important, “Oh yeah, how good are you at spreading rumors?”

 

“...Huh?”

 

“It’ll be swell if there was a nasty rumor spreading around to make me bad. You know. We got a reputation to ruin here.”

 

“Keep acting like a buffoon and you’ll do fine,” he says through a laugh, then he takes a closer look at her coat, “I see your taste in fashion hasn’t changed. That’s a really bland looking outfit.”

 

She pats at it, “Exactly what I want. Don’t wanna stand out.” Then she furrows her brows, “But I guess if I wanna be the local buffoon I need to wear something ridiculous. I think you’re onto something…”

 

Obviously that’s a joke, but he finds himself rolling his eyes regardless. It’s a good natured eye rolling, if that’s possible. 

 

Then maevis fiddles with the hem of the coat, “Yeah, apparently every piece of clothing ever around here is made by the same group. Dolloway Company or something. They probably make the furniture too. Do you know if they own this piece of land?”

 

His heart skips a beat and his hand grips the door tighter. 

 

Dolloway. Camilla’s family.

 

Julian grits his teeth, irritation brewing in his veins. Of course it’s that fucking name. 

 

Maevis obviously notices his sudden agitation, and her expression flickers with worry.

 

“...Someone you know?”

 

“Something like that. It’s not important.”

 

Maevis thankfully drops it, so they stand there awkwardly. He’s pretty sure she’s about to make her goodbyes when he speaks before he can stop himself. 

 

“Did you see anything from… my family? Any von Leventis products?”

 

She brows lift upwards, “Not that I remember. What does your family sell, anyway?”

 

Of course there’s nothing. He’s not even sure what they sell either. He never did think Anna was a good merchant. He remembers mother always going on about von Leventis products always being everywhere. There was such pride in her voice, but that was during their great-great-grandmother’s time. Their influence was waning with mother but she always made sure to incessantly remind them of past family glories. 

 

He sighs. 

 

“Dunno. Ask Anna. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

 

Maevis nods in response, almost looking apologetic, “I’m sure Shadowmare will enjoy your company. Seeya.”

 

He closes the door and sighs again. He wasn’t really intending to suddenly be reminded of Camilla but he can’t very well Maevis for that. He needs to distract himself. He’s not angry enough to try to hurt himself so he needs something harmless. The books haven’t been working recently.

 

I should just sew something.

 

It’s been a while since he’s done that. Maybe he’ll mark a scarf. 

 

He takes out his sewing supplies.

 


 

When Julian arrives later, Maevis had set out the saddle and reins on the table. She doesn’t miss how he’s more… hesitant around her, mostly in the sense that he seems hyper aware of his movements whenever he’s close. She gets it, and a part of her appreciates it, but it still upsets her. She says nothing, however.

 

“This is some basic equipment for horseriding,” she says, after Julian had insisted on getting some paper to write down some notes. She didn’t suppress the grin that formed from that. She did have to suppress the need to call him cute, however. 

 

“This is the saddle blanket. It’s more for the horse than you, makes the ride comfy for them.”

 

Julian nods and scribbles it down, “Yeah, of course. The horse’s comfort is important.”

 

He says it like it’s the most essential rule. Well, she supposes it’s an important rule unless you want to get thrown off, but Julian taking note of it is… cute, dammit!

 

“This is the saddle,” she points at the leather seat, and he looks at it like it’s a particularly hard puzzle, “Your ass will be sitting here. These is the safety stirrups,” she points to them, “It’s designed to release your foot in case you fall.”

 

She picks up the bridle and wiggles it in front of him, “This is the bridle. This part over here will go in Shadowmare’s mouth. And these are the reins, you’ll steer her with this.”

 

He squints, “In the mouth? That doesn’t sound comfortable. I thought the horse was supposed to be… comfy.”

 

She would tilt her head with a smirk, but her neck still feels like it’s made of concrete. 

 

“How else will Shadowmare know where you want to go? She’ll be fine.”

 

Then she points at a sliced apple she brought, “And that, is probably your most important piece of equipment.”

 

“...An apple.”

 

“Which just so happens to be a horse’s favourite treat! You gotta build up trust and all that. Feed her and she’ll like you. Take the apple and I’ll get Shadowmare.”

 

His face lights up, body practically brimming with nervous excitement as he holds the apple like a sacred object. 

 

Shadowmare, for her part, probably senses her next treat and practically trots over to him. She makes a noise and Julian tenses slightly. 

 

When Maevis moves next to him she whispers in his ear, “You have to actually give her the the pieces you know.” 

 

He nods jerkily, then lifts a piece towards Shadowmare. His hand is… trembling. Maevis purses her lips. 

 

Well, a horse does have a scary mouth, I guess. Wouldn’t want to get your fingers bitten off.

 

When the mare opens her mouth to get her prize, Julian quickly, and perhaps instinctively, grabs onto the sleeve of Maevis’s coat like he’s holding onto balance. He immediately lets her go, eyes going wide when he rapidly glances at her before looking back to Shadowmare.

 

“Sorryaboutthat,” he says so quickly she almost doesn’t understand his words.

 

Before she can formulate a response, he practically yelps when the horse happily bites onto the apple slice. He stands there, empty hand still outstretched as he stares at Shadowmare with awe. A wide, toothy grin forms on his mouth as he pats the mare’s snout. 

 

“She ate it!” He quickly gets another slice, “That — That means she likes me, right?”

 

Maevis huffs a small laugh, “Sure does. Good job.”

 

He continues giddily feeding her the apple slices, and Maevis remembers a key detail.

 

“Oh, right,” she says once she’s gotten Julian’s attention, “This is really important to know, so write this down.” She pats Shadowmare on the neck, then trails her hand down the horse’s body as she walks to her rump. 

 

“If you ever walk behind a horse, you have to pat their bum,” Maevis does just that and Shadowmare swishes her tail, “It lets them know you’re behind them. If they don’t know, you might spook them and they could kick you into next week.” 

 

When Julian scribbles that note down, another idea pops in her head. 

 

“Works for people too, you know.”

 

He takes his face out of his notes, and looks at her with a perplexed expression, “What?”

 

“If you don’t let a horse know you’re there you may surprise them. Same for people. I know you’re worried about what happened yesterday. Just — Just let me know it’s you if you grab me suddenly when I can’t see you, alright? Say something first. I don’t want you to think you’re walking on eggshells with me.”

 

She can see pink on the corner of his cheeks, probably from embarrassment, as he focuses back onto Shadowmare. 

 

“Noted,” he says softly. 

 

Well. That’s that.

 

She hopes so, anyway. She’s glad she at least said something about it so he knows how to avoid another garden clipper to the eye. Maybe it’ll put him at ease. She’s glad he didn’t apologize again, at least. If he did she think she would have thrown another apple at him. 

 

She pats Shadowmare’s rump again, “Well, time to put on the saddle. I’ll do it, so just watch and make notes.”

 


 

It doesn’t take long to prepare Shadowmare for riding. She hopes she didn’t go too fast, but Julian doesn’t make any comment about it so she assumes he understands the process. 

 

Both she and Nadine have ridden the mare. She’s remarkably well tempered so Maevis doesn’t have to worry about her actually throwing Julian off. Maybe she’s an old horse, would explain her almost grandmotherly patience. 

 

“Horseriding is a pretty physical sport,” she says when she takes hold of the reins, “Your legs and abs will be getting a bit of a workout, so you might wake up sore tomorrow. But it’ll be worth it, your legs will get nice and toned.”

 

She doesn’t miss how his eyes flick to her thighs.

 

Did he just check me out?

 

She manages to avoid letting out a guffaw by biting her lip, and Julian rubs Shadowmare’s neck for perhaps too much enthusiasm. 

 

“Do I just get on?” He asks at length. 

 

“Yup. Here, let me help.”

 

It’s a bit awkward, but he’s eventually able to perch himself on the horse after a few tries. To her amusement, he’s facing the wrong direction. Just like she guessed he would. 

 

“Uh,” and there’s that lovely blush again, “Let me, uh, let me just turn around.” 

 

He does so, awkwardly, almost falling off in the process.

 

Maevis huffs, “Yeah, there’s another lesson. You want to mount on the left side and use your left foot in the stirrup. Use your left hand on the mane. I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here.”

 

“Uh huh. The left. Gotcha.”

 

When he’s seated, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, so he grips on the front of the saddle with white knuckles. She can see him vibrating with anticipation. Adrenaline was probably coursing through his veins. His hands tremble and his eyes are wide.

 

And he wears the facial expression of a small child with an especially large birthday present.

 

Great start.

 

She takes the reins and makes Shadowmare move in a circle, letting Julian get used to the movement. 

 

“Don’t slouch,” she says and he immediately straightens his back. At least he’s good at taking orders. 

 

“How is this supposed to be a workout?”

 

“It will be. Especially when you take the reins and go trotting and galloping.”

 

He shifts in his seat, eyes narrowed, “Then give me the reins. I want to ride properly.”

 

“No.” She grins at his annoyed pout. 

 

“Why?”

 

“Cause I said so. Just let Shadowmare get used to your weight. Since it’s your first time we’ll walk around the pasture.”

 

And they do just that, Julian making sure to ask to have the reins every five minutes. When they lazily make one full lap around the pasture, the sun begins to set. 

 

It’s not especially late, but it’s been getting dark more and more early. 

 

I hate winter, is all Maevis thinks. She wants to keep annoying Julian by not letting him steer the horse. Leading them around the pasture made her remember how much she thinks seeing the world from horseback was a privilege. Riding a horse was… something special. Something she really enjoyed. She’s glad she’s able to share it with Julian.

 

“We’ll end it here. I’ll take off the saddle and all that.”

 

He does another pout, “I better be able to use the reins next time.”

 


 

“You bought succulents?” Is the first thing Julian asks when he notices Maevis’s newly acquired desert plants.

 

Succulents, she repeats in her head. These plants are… juicy then? The last time she heard that word was when a man used it to describe her vagina. She snorts.

 

“Just had to get them,” she says, and points to the prickly cactus, “They reminded me of you.” 

 

It’s only after the words leave her mouth does she realize it can vaguely sound like an insult. Luckily, and perhaps surprisingly, Julian doesn’t take it as so. 

 

“Succulents are some of my favourite,” he says, staring at the Hens and Chicks one, “Easy to take care of too. Don’t really need to water them very much. Though they need sunlight, obviously. Since it’s winter, you'll need to keep them indoors. I’ve heard there’s some lights you can buy for them.”

 

He lightly tugs at the plant, “This one is native to Utreau, I think.”

 

Julian blinks, then glances at Maevis. She watches him open his mouth and then close before shyly looking back at the plants.

 

You couldn't be more obvious if you tried. 

 

She leans on the table with a quizzical smile, "You wanna ask me something about Utreau?"

 

“Just…” he scratches his cheek, “What is it like?”

 

“Well, I was there for a war. Can’t say I went sightseeing very much. I do know it’s a fair bit warmer than Asnain.” 

 

Julian then holds himself like he's trying to take up even less space, probably embarrassed again. He’s so… self conscious in these moments, almost like he’s concerned with her thinking he’s some type of idiot because he just doesn’t know some stuff. 

 

She thinks she’s feeling the same bout of protectiveness simmer inside her.

 

“Hey now,” she quips, “Stop looking so down all the time. You can ask stuff, you know. Though I really can’t tell you much about Utreau, since I don’t know either. All I know is that it was hot and they had slaves.”

 

Though she does remember being told that there was apparently a local custom wherein women would basically prostitute their husbands to their guests during hosted parties. Now that she thinks about it, that might be that was made up by Asnainian soldiers to make their enemies seem more barbaric. Honestly, rather than husbands she would think they would do that to their slaves.

 

She stops thinking about it, she doubts it’s something Julian is interested in. She motions for him to speak.

 

Julian doesn’t respond to her comment, rather he changes the subject.

 

“Looks like you got some pansies. These are the red ones, I think. They’ll definitely brighten the place up. They don’t need a lot of water. Maybe once a week. Remember to water the soil and not the leaves when they bloom.”

 

Despite herself, Maevis flutters her lashes, “Red, huh? I bet they’ll almost be as pretty as your eyes.”

 

That gives him pause. He looks back up at her; a gentle flush of pink had arisen in his cheeks that makes him look vulnerable. She hold her breath. 

 

“You think my eyes are pretty?”

 

First saying a cactus reminded me of him, and now this. You’re on a roll Maevis.

 

She’s not entirely why she’s saying these things. She likes to tease and compliment him. She definitely thinks a blush looks good on him too, so her mouth has mostly been moving on its own without any real thought. 

 

I might be going into dangerous territory with this.

 

She nods, “Yeah. Red’s my favourite colour.” She thinks it’s a suitably lame response to end any of this… flirting. 

 

He almost looks disappointed when he returns his gaze to the succulents. She tries to think of something else to break the now awkward silence, but Nadine comes to her rescue. 

 

“Sir,” the steward says, “And Lord von Leventis. I was hoping I could have your opinion on a proposition I was ruminating over.”

 

Well, now this I gotta hear.

 

“Yeah? What is it?”

 

Nadine’s clearly got Julian’s attention, as he watches her with a cocked head. 

 

“Please do not take this as an insult, Lord von Leventis,” that just serves to pique both their interests further, “But I noticed you were having some trouble with the books Sir have given you. I — I have some experience in teaching. Perhaps I can tutor you in biology, if you are willing.”

 

Julian goes slacked-jaw. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be finding his voice any time soon, so Maevis takes the opportunity to speak. 

 

“You have experience in teaching?”

 

Nadine moves her glasses further up her move, face still blank, “Yes. Before the war I was working on my degree. I assisted my professors in class to make some extra money. Though I was studying history and not biology I am sure I can still assist Lord von Leventis in his desire to learn.”

 

“What history did you study?” She knows she’s getting off track, but dammit she can’t stop her curiosity. 

 

“Asnainian history, specifically. I was writing an 800 page study on Asnainian politics from year 378—1100 with my professors.” Her eyelids lower, and her expression cracks, “The manuscript has been lost, presumably destroyed during the bombing of Duncaster… Most of my professors did not make it out of the attack either.”

 

Oh.

 

Maevis… really doesn’t know how she’s supposed to react to that. That sure is one way to kill the mood, and now all she feels is guilt. She knows Nadine’s mother was a pioneering researcher into degenerative diseases, and her eldest sister followed in her footsteps. The second Hauptmann daughter inherited a distillery from one their daughter-less aunts. 

 

I don’t know anything about Nadine.

 

And she’s been in a fucking squad with the woman during the war, and she knew nothing. She didn’t know she wanted to be a historian, but was never given the chance to finish her degree because her university got blown up. And now she’s stuck being her steward. Nadine must fucking hate her. Her offering to tutor must be her way to reclaim some semblance of her life before the war.

The guilt feels like ice in her guts, freezing her up. She stiffens herself militarily and clears her throat. Distantly, she hears Julian mumble a soft “I wish I could have gone to university.”

 

Maevis’s voice comes out as raspy, “I’m… sorry to hear that, Nadine. I’m all for your idea, it’ll be some fun for you two I bet. You can tutor Julian in the evenings, if he’s fine with it.”

 

She doesn’t really hear that happens after that. She’s too busy thinking of universities in Asnain she can suggest to Nadine, and Maevis already knows she wants to pay for her tuition.

 


 

An opportunity to learn. 

 

It’s the only thing Julian can think of as he’s being led to the study. 

 

He wanted it so badly. He wanted to learn, to — to just know things. He’s never been offered to be taught this topic and he knows there’s a bounce in his step. 

 

He was deliriously happy, giddy even. So much so he doesn’t even hear the usual snide childish remark echoing in his head. His mother’s words are dormant. 

 

It just serves to make him giddier. 

 

When the study is opened, he’s immediately reminded of his father’s mending room. There’s a large window overseeing the forest, the setting sun makes for a truly gorgeous view. His father did sewing in an upstairs room, too. The view was similar, but Julian would consider it ruined because of recent construction. 

 

He wants to knit in this room. Another time. 

 

“I’ll just sit here and read, I guess. I won’t bother you.” Maevis says. She had followed them, though she was strangely mute.

 

He knits his brows at her slouching in the corner of the room. He knows she doesn’t want to be alone, probably due to her issues, but she doesn’t seem to want to be here either. The hell happened to her? She was complimenting his eyes only moments ago. 

 

“Red, huh? I bet they’ll almost be as pretty as your eyes.”

 

He looks away, not quite willing to let Maevis see him blush for the umpteenth time. He wishes he could control his fucking blood flow… Is it blood that makes him blush? He turns red, so it must be that. 

 

He hopes Nadine will teach him the science of blushing. 

 

“Lord von Leventis,” Nadine says as he takes a seat across from her, “I have prepared a small test for you. It’s just for me to gauge how much you already know.”

 

His heart skips at getting a test. He’s only heard of that with negative connotations from Anna, but his veins thrum with more excitement. 

 

He’s never had a test. The closest test he’s ever had was when his headmasters would judge his cooking and cleaning capabilities, and hit the palm of his hands with a ruler when he didn’t perform up to par.

 

Julian hated those. 

 

He’s tapping the top of the desk with his fingers when Nadine gives him a sheet of paper with some questions. 

 

“So — So I just answer these?” 

 

“Correct. Like I said, it’s just for me to gauge your knowledge so I can formulate a teaching plan suited for you.”

 

He swallows. A test. Knowledge. He’s going to learn so much. 

 

What is an ungulate?

 

He hasn’t really figured that one out yet, but he knows it’s related to horses. So he just writes a horse. That’s gotta be at least partially correct.

 

What is a taxonomic family?

 

Aha, this one he does know. He read more about this one in one of the beginner friendly books. It has something to do with hierarchy and rank, it encompasses more classifications called genus and order, he thinks. 

 

It’s like what separates nobles and commoners. At least it sounded like it when he read it. So he writes, it’s a method of classification that separates the higher class animals from the lower class.

 

He assumes animals tamed and used by humans are the high class ones. 

 

What is digitigrade?

 

He blinks. This is a new word he hasn’t seen before. He racks his mind over it for a bit before deciding to break up the word. Digit is related to numbers, and grade is a score someone gets. 

 

He thinks back to a man he knew during etiquette lessons, his family bred dogs for a living. The canines were specifically bred for competitions where they were graded and awarded if they won. And they were graded by numbers...

 

He writes, a method of grading animals in competitions.

 

What is sexual dimorphism?

 

Well, obviously it has to do with sex. He doesn’t know the second word. He knows morph, however. Has something to do with changing one thing to another. Transformation. Why does there need to be more than one word that means the same thing? 

 

He nibbles on his pencil. Sex transformation? That’s a new one. He’s never heard of that, granted, he’s never heard of a lot of things relating to this topic. He supposes anything is possible when it comes to nature. Maybe there are animals that can change their sex, so he writes that. 

 

What are all living organisms made of?

 

This is a simple question. Skin and hair. 

 

He scratches it out. Plants are living. They have neither of those. He thinks about Shadowmare. Then he thinks to a pansy. What could they possibly have in common? 

 

Then he almost snaps his fingers. Water. Everything needs water, so everything probably has some of it inside of them.

 

What is the theory of evolution?

 

Easy. A theory.

 

He continues the test until he’s finished, and by that point Maevis is sleeping. Some of his confidence in his answers have waned, but he liked to think he did pretty good. Better than any of the men from his etiquette lessons would have. 

 

When Nadine looks over his answers, nervousness replaces his initial excitement. Her face is blank as usual, giving him no indication of how well he’s done. Is she — Is she going to call him stupid? Childish? He hopes she’s not too harsh as a teacher. 

 

He remembers a time when he expressed his desire to go to university to some boys he knew when he was younger. They laughed. Their snickers still rung, harsh and cold, inside his head — almost sounding like a warning shot intent to enact direct compliance from him. 

 

Nadine doesn’t strike him as someone who would laugh at him, but it doesn’t stop his growing anxiety. A muscle twitches involuntarily at the corner of his right eye, just like Anna, and his mouth forms a rigid grimace.

 

“I think I have a good idea of where to start with this.” Is all Nadine says. 

 

“You’re not going to tell how I did?”

 

He hates how his voice cracks. Almost sounds like he’s going to cry like a fucking idiot. 

 

Nadine looks at him, he feels like she’s seeing through him, “Lord von Leventis, you have never been given the chance to learn, have you?”

 

He opens his mouth. Closes it. There’s no sarcasm in her voice. Just a genuine question.

 

“I — uh, not on this topic, no.”

 

“Then it is natural you’d be unfamiliar with content of this test. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

His mouth goes dry from that. That must be her way of saying he completely failed it, but somehow the nagging voice in the back of his mind that spoke of nothing but doom ahead stays silent. 

 

Nadine leans forward and shows him the test, “Now, let’s go over each answer.”

 

An opportunity to learn.

 

Without the judgement. Without the snickering laughter behind his back. Without a steely mother yelling at him to get his mind away from childish distractions. He can read books and understand them. 

 

He isn’t going to let this chance slip through his fingers.

Chapter Text

Life continues on like normal for about two weeks. 

 

They find an easy and comfortable schedule. Gardening in noon. Horseriding in the afternoon. Tutoring in the evening. Some mornings include Calvara’s brand of therapy. 

 

Therapy. It’s still a word that makes her feel weird inside. It didn’t feel... right. The main image that conjures in her mind when thinking about it is a simpering and incredibly patronizing woman with no dress sense. Probably pretending to be listening when she's actually thinking about what to have for lunch, and then after her session was done she signs something that sends Maevis to an asylum.

 

She bites angrily into her apple. Was that even therapy? Is she thinking of counseling? Whatever. They’re the same thing to her. She’s not a fan of asylums either. She’s never actually been to one, but from what she’s heard of fellow soldiers she knows it’s no place of refuge. She’s sure she would have been sent to an asylum if the doctors had the choice, but perhaps luckily for her she stayed in a makeshift and overcrowded war hospital and half the town was destroyed. 

 

“You’re traumatized,” Calvara had said one morning when Maevis threatened to shoot her for waking her up so suddenly, “I know I’m not a licensed expert or some shit but I’m trying to help.”

 

Trauma. Another word that makes her feel queasy. Again, it just doesn’t feel right having it attached to her. It makes her skin crawl. It — It felt unnatural. The Wolf of Brackensburg was the one who traumatized people, not the other way around. 

 

Weak. 

 

Trauma made someone weak. So called therapy was the epitome of all her failures. She bites her lip, hard, and she thinks she might crush the apple in her palm. 

 

She wills herself to stop thinking of her weaknesses, and throws the core in the makeshift compost she and Julian made a few days ago. She digs her hands into the moist dirt. She found that kneading her hands in the dirt was oddly satisfying. Immensely satisfying, even. 

 

Over the past two weeks there’s been massive improvements in her garden. She’s going to pot petunias in this section, right next to the larkspur and snapdragons. She’s found a routine. Dig her hands in the dirt, add to the compost heap, water the plants, trim a bush, prune a flower, make sure the fence is stable so Shadowmare doesn’t have the garden for lunch. Maybe muck the stalls, depending on their state. The repetition is… soothing. It makes her feel lighter. The perfect distraction from both her weaknesses and the impending Gala. She’s started the very slow process of accepting she can’t truly get out of that fucking party. 

 

Her pulse quickens, the growing dread pushing against her like an invisible gale. There’s going to be so many people there. Too many people.She harshly exhales a breath. Distraction, Maevis. Use your distraction. 

 

She’s done many things indoors, too. Her potted plants are a welcomed addition. She’s accumulated a lot of potted plants, much to Julian’s glee. A garden in her own home, though it’s more of a forest at this point. It’s filled with plants that bloom even during winter and succulents. Naturally Julian has taken it upon himself to make sure everything is colour coded properly. He’d never allow for anything to “assault the eyes,” as he put it.

 

Maevis has started her own do-it-yourself projects, too. Making mini terrariums with large wide necked jars. She tries not to think of the fact she nearly punched someone in the face when she bought them. In her defense, the idiot tried to pull down her hood. She sent them running. 

 

She still has some jars to be filled, she makes a mental note to get some small rocks to line the base of the jars with so she can then fill them with potting mix. Maybe she’ll plant more cactuses. Those are her favourites. She’s also painted some of the plain terracotta pots along with making some mosaic pavers. 

 

Her cheeks redden at the thought of her imbibing in such… silly activities over the past few weeks. Almost juvenile, but the house is far less suffocating now. She’d even go as far as to say it’s got some personality. 

 

And her knee has stopped bouncing so frequently. It still happens, but having a garden in her home brings in the soothing atmosphere from the outside. She feels… at peace with the flowers. 

 

Most of the plants in her backyard are dormant for now. She’ll have to wait for them to bloom later. If anything, it’s something for her to look forward to. 

 

She wants it to be spring. She wants her garden to become fully alive.

 

She huffs lightly. Having a garden like this will make it much harder for her to leave this place when she goes back to bounty-hunting. 

 

I am leaving this place. I will go back to my old life.

 

Her brows furrow. Thoughts of leaving this place behind now makes her anxious. It’s supposed to relieve her anxiety, dammit.

 

“Looks like it’s coming along nicely. Mostly thanks to me, anyway,” she hears behind her, and turning she sees Julian with a cheeky grin. 

 

He’s become a weird sort of constant in her life. He definitely spends more time at her place than at his own cabin. He’s mellowed out too, though she’s sure to an outsider he’d still look like an absolute demon due to his foul language. To her, though, it’s all just friendly banter. 

 

He’s also been good at letting her know he’s around when she doesn’t see him. There hasn’t been a repeat of what he calls the Garden-Clippings-To-The-Eye-Incident.  

 

Ruin my reputation, she can’t believe she actually asked Julian to do just that. She knew it was  a half-baked scheme from the start but wow. He might not be helping her get out of the Gala anymore — was he ever? — but at least him being here has been somewhat productive in unexpected ways.

 

Still, she thoroughly enjoys his company. 

 

His friendship. 

 

Maevis pats her muddied pants with her hands, “I fucking love plants,” she says moreso to herself than to Julian.

“You better. If you didn’t I’d pack my bags and go back home.”

 

She takes note of the extra layer of clothing he’s wearing. It’s been getting colder recently, though it does make for cozy evenings now that they’ve moved Julian’s tutoring lessons to the dining hall and next to a fireplace. 

 

“On that note,” Maevis says while wiping her brow, “Nadine told me I got a letter from your sister. I should answer that. I’ll see you in a bit for horseriding.”

 

His expression becomes colder with the mere mention of his sister. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that he’s mostly mellowed out. Anything to do with his family seems to still set him off. He doesn’t talk about it, so she doesn’t ask. Still, she’d at least like to have an inkling of what the issue is.

 

Maevis pats him on the shoulder as she leaves, knowing that his prios bruises have mostly healed. Before she closes the door, she can hear him mutter a soft “You don’t have to answer. Anna can go fuck herself.”

 

Charming, she thinks. She’ll pretend she didn’t hear that even though her curiosity continues to gnaw at her.

 


 

When she reaches her study, Nadine is already there with a pitcher of water. Maevis does her now customary sniffing of the liquid before drinking. That’s also something she needs to work on. 

 

Not everything is poisoned. 

 

It’s hard to convince her body that. 

 

She looks at the piles of letters she has. Most of them are probably just junk. 

 

Sure enough, the first one she reads is complete garbage. 

 

URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSAL.

 

WE HAVE FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DALLIS WHICH WE GOT FROM OVER INFLATED CONTRACT FROM OIL INVESTORS AWARDED TO FOREIGN CONTRACTORS IN THE UTREAUIAN NATIONAL OIL COMPANY (UNOC). CONSEQUENTLY, MY COLLEAGUES AND I ARE WILLING TO TRANSFER THE TOTAL AMOUNT TO YOUR ACCOUNT OR SUBSEQUENT DISBURSEMENT SINCE WE AS CIVIL SERVANTS ARE PROHIBITED BY THE CODE OF CONDUCT BUREAU FROM OPENING AND/OR OPERATING FOREIGN ACCOUNTS IN OUR NAMES.

 

WE ARE SEEKING YOUR ASSISTANCE AND PERMISSION TO REMIT THIS AMOUNT INTO YOUR ACCOUNT. YOUR COMMISSION IS THIRTY PERCENT OF THE MONEY. 

 

PLEASE NOTIFY ME YOUR ACCEPTANCE TO DO THIS BUSINESS URGENTLY. THE WOMEN INVOLVED ARE WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT. MORE DETAILS WILL BE SENT TO YOU BY LETTER AS SOON AS WE HEAR FROM YOU. 

 

NEEDLESS TO SAY, THE TRUST REPOSED TO YOU IS ENORMOUS. KINDLY EXPEDITE ACTION AS WE ARE BEHIND SCHEDULE TO ENABLE US TO INCLUDE DOWNPAYMENT IN THIS FINANCIAL QUARTER.  

 

YOURS FAITHFULLY,

PRINCESS ALMIRIA DEPKA.

 

Maevis appreciates the capitalized letters, if anything. Really accentuates the urgency of the matter. Even has a seal of some crest under the signature to look ultra official. She’s pretty sure this specific type of parchment is from Utreau as well. She gives them top marks for presentation. 

 

Everything else, however, could use some work. Why would a company from Utreau be contacting their arch nemesis who just defeated them in a fucking war? Dallis isn’t even Utreauian currency. They signed off a princess, she isn’t very knowledgeable of Utreau politics but last she checked they didn’t have a nobility. ‘Depka’ is a very Eastern name too, and Utreau is decidedly not very Eastern at all.

 

She rips up the letter. If someone actually gets scammed by these guys then they fucking deserve to lose their money. 

 

Next, she skims through some random advertisements. 

 

HORSE EXERCISE AT HOME!

 

Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddler — A Steam Powered Machine Designed to Imitate Horseriding!!!

 

The ADVANTAGES of this UNIQUE SUBSTITUTE for horseriding are:

 

  • It promotes health in the same degree horseriding does.
  • It invigorates the system by bringing all the VITAL ORGANS into INSPIRING ACTION.
  • It acts directly upon the CIRCULATION, and prevents STAGNATION OF THE LIVER.
  • It is a complete cure for OBESITY, HYSTERIA and GLOUT.

 

The Horse-Action Saddler has been PERSONALLY ordered by the Prince of Mestana. Her Excellency Queen Estelle writes: “The Saddle has given my son complete satisfaction.”

 

She snorts at this one. Does this machine have levels that go from walk to gallop? What a joke. She’s pretty sure Julian would feel personally insulted by this one. The mere thought that a horse, or any animal, can be replaced by something unliving would probably make him see red. Hell, Maevis feels insulted too. Shadowmare deserves better than this. 

 

What the hell is the Prince of Mestana doing using this? Can’t he just buy a horse? An entire herd? 

 

It wouldn’t really surprise her that the Princeling is a lazy snob who doesn’t want to put in actual effort into taking care of an animal. Or paying people to do just that. Or maybe this ad is just a scam. Probably that. 

 

Though the thought of the Prince flying out the window because he put the machine on its highest speed does make her snicker.

 

She sifts through more junk mail. She ignores most of them.

 

I CURE MEN OF MALE DISEASES. 

 

Well. She’s gotta read this one now. 

 

I will cure you so that you should stay cured — Men no longer need to submit to embarrassing examinations and expensive doctor’s bills. 

 

I hold the secret remedy which has seldom failed to cure men of their male weaknesses: dry orgasms, finishing too fast, impotence, unwanted and spontaneous erections, hysteria, prostate cancer, ect. Not only are these all readily cured from my treatment, the remedy will additionally assist with sexual performance and make one’s sperm good and healthy. 

 

I offer this priceless secret to the men of Asnain, believing it will cure in almost any case, no matter how long you have suffered and how many doctors have failed. To show good faith, and to prove that I can cure you, I will send a free package of my remedy to every sufferer. If you send me your name and address I will mail you a trial package completely free, which will show you that you can be cured. 

 

Do not suffer another day! Write for me right now!

Mr. Ezekiel M. Coratz, Box No. 1097, Ilyviel, AN.

 

At least this isn’t an ad insisting men go to this address, otherwise she would think this was an elaborate ploy for human trafficking and then she’d feel compelled to visit to shoot up the place. 

 

She huffs when she rips this one up. She loves how vague it all is. Just give me your address and I’ll send a totally secret remedy that I won’t explain the properties of. Yeah. Totally not suspicious at all.

 

Next she looks over a list of universities that she got Calvara to send her. She didn't do the research herself because that would mean going out , and as much as Cal likes to drag her out nowadays she'd like to keep leaving her estate by her own volition to an absolute minimum. Perhaps that was counterproductive. She didn't care, she had plants to water. 

 

She skims over the list. Many foreign institutes from across the globe with tuition fees ranging from those the average commoner could actually afford to those she could only call fucking absurd. She tries to look at ones that has similar fees to what the University of Duncaster had because she assumes that means they're of similar quality then. Presumably Nadine would prefer to attend a place that's like her prior university before it was blown to smithereens.

 

Maevis's eyes flick over to Nadine. She's picking out some books for Julian's lesson tonight. Something about molecular biology. He's been particularly excited about that lesson, kept repeating "mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell" over the past few days, whatever that means. Maybe she should start joining these lessons because it seems like Julian knows a hell of a lot more than she does now. 

 

She takes some junk mail and flips it over to pretend to write something. 

 

"Nadine," she says, eyes fixed on the gibberish she's currently writing to look nonchalant, "after this Gala nonsense I'll likely be selling this place."

 

She's done this before, once. She's tried to pry into Nadine's thoughts because she's so sure that the woman would absolutely jump at the chance to go back to her studies. One does not simply lose a fucking 800 page manuscript, have her professors die, and be forced into becoming a steward and not be bitter about it. She remembers asking a benign question like "will you be going back to the University of Duncaster when it is rebuilt?" And Nadine gave some infuriating non-answer about how she's content with being her steward. 

 

Bullshit, as good as she at hiding her emotions there's no way Nadine doesn't hold at least a little resentment about her current position. 

 

Maevis continues when she sees her still her movements at the corner of her eyes. 

 

"And I'll go back into bounty-hunting. I think I'll prefer going solo so I'm just wondering what you intend to do when that happens."

 

No answer. Nadine purses her lips in a tight line. 

 

Maevis eggs her on for an answer, "Will you go back to your family? Must have been a while since you've seen them. You can visit them if you'd like, you know. I'll pay for the travel costs." 

 

"The Hauptmann family has no need for a cripple."

 

Maevis stops her scribbling, looking up so fast she thinks she's going to sprain her neck again. 

 

"I — what?"

 

Nadine continues looking at the books, a finger slowly going up and down the spine of one of them. Her expression continues to be blank, but her voice is a faint whisper. 

 

"As minor nobles, the Hauptmann family have no need for a third daughter, either. My elder sisters are the important ones, so much so my parents helped them dodge the draft when it finally reached the nobility. I did not receive the same treatment. My sisters will inherit businesses and our family's wealth, I will not. I was only allowed to attend university because they hoped I would make a name for myself to further increase the Hauptmann influence." 

 

Maevis gapes, unsure of what to say. Nadine turns to her, her lips quirked almost imperceptibly in a smile that could only be described as self-deprecating.

 

"Honestly, I suspect my parents lack of interest in me began when I told them I had no interest in marrying, and so I wouldn't be continuing the family line like they wanted. Losing my leg was probably the opportunity they wanted to cut me off. With their monetary support gone I cannot pay for tuition." 

 

Well that was a fucking bombshell. 

 

She's still at a loss at how to respond to that. She flexes her fingers and grinds her teeth, feeling a boiling fury that only seeks to harm. Her eyebrows draw together and she stands so quickly the chair falls behind her. 

 

"Fuck your family," she spits, and Nadine's lips twitch, "Seriously — what the fuck? They basically disown you because you lost a leg? That's fucking bullshit!" 

 

Suddenly she's glad she's never met her family. If she did she doesn't think she could stop herself from giving them a piece of her mind. And there's some hierarchy between daughters now? Nobles were so full of shit. 

 

She slams the table with her fist, a dull pain momentarily swims across her knuckles and throughout the rest of her arm. She doesn't care, not when she's just seeing red. 

 

"You're the best damn sniper I've ever met, Nadine. There are days I have to remind myself that you even have a wooden leg because you don't let it slow you down. The fact that your family uses — uses that is just, ugh!" She punches the desk again, but lighter this time. She then angrily runs a hand through her hair.

 

Nadine looks at her feet — her foot — "Sir, you needn't get so worked up for my sake."

 

"Nah, I think I do. Because I'm — I want to be your friend." — something fills her gut when she says friend. She's not sure what.— "And pals don't stay quiet when they hear you've been practically abandoned by your family. That's gotta be some — some fucking human rights violation." 

 

Maevis exhales a harsh breath. No wonder Nadine's so blank and standoffish half the time. Her eyes dart back to the list of universities. 

 

Fuck it. I'll come clean. 

 

She pushes the list to the edge of the table. 

 

"You want to finish your studies, don't you?" 

 

Nadine finally looks up from her feet to Maevis, lips now downturned in a frown.

 

"It would… please me." She says softly.

 

Maevis suppresses the urge to roll her eyes at her wording and pats at the list, "Great. Then pick your top three here. I'll pay for tuition when the time comes."

 

"Sir, I—" 

 

"If your next words are something about declining my offer then save your breath," she makes a vague hand gestures, almost like she's trying to grasp at her next words, "I've got more than enough money to burn. Just — pick something. Finish your degree. That's an order."

 

Nadine picks up the list, her face still make of steel though Maevis can see some cracks in her expression with how her brows twitch. She's trying damn hard to keep a poker-face. 

 

"...Alright," she says after staring at the list for a good while. She places it on top of a pile of books she has, and begins to leave. 

 

Maevis settles back down on her seat. She hears light "thank you" and she's pretty sure there's a slight bounce in Nadine's step when she exits the room. 

 

Well. I'll take that as a victory. 

 

Junk mail sifted through and this university issue momentarily dealt with, Maevis takes the opportunity to look at her actual letters. 

 

The first one has the seal of the Asnainian army. 

 

Wolf of Brackensberg,

 

She scoffs at her moniker. There’s only one person who would bother calling her that via letters of all things. 

 

My sincerest apologies for not being able to assist with your fashion like I have promised Mrs. Kreue. My stay at Utreau has extended indefinitely due to a myriad of issues, mostly to do with my accidental acquisition of a slave. Utreauians are truly nothing but savages. To think that these barbarians at some point believed that they could stand a chance at holding a candle to our glorious Empire. 

 

I am sure someone of your illustrious intellect knows the saying — “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the women she has around her.”  And truly, the generals and castellans of this pigsty they call a country are just mindless buffoons, it is no wonder we were able to bring them to their knees. Truly my one regret is that I never could join my glorious countrywomen in weeding out this filth.

 

But do not let me remind you of the Utreauian’s depravity, as I am sure you are well aware of that fact! I hope you are doing well and enjoying the newfound wealth you deserve. When we finally meet properly I am sure I will be stunned by your consecrated presence as surely the stories of your exploits do you no justice! 

 

May the Goddess Acadia look onto you favourably,

Frea Alexandrina Panthea Eirene Valentine.

 

Maevis blinks. 

 

How the fuck does someone accidentally get a slave? 

 

That aside, she’s not entirely sure how she’s supposed to respond to this. Does she pour a glass of wine and swirl it while rubbing her chin with her other hand and go “Haha yes, those Utreauians sure are scum of the earth”?

 

She blinks again. Why did she think of that image? Probably because Frea’s letter reeks of the typical noble high and mighty attitude. She’s awfully anti-Utreauian for someone who didn’t see a day of combat. Maevis doesn’t even share her view and she was almost killed by a bunch of them.

 

She thinks she likes Frea. Thinks. She’s never met the woman, and she only joined the war when it… ended. Though that didn’t stop her from barraging Maevis with letters that could only be interpreted as fan mail. Her hero worship was… uncomfortable, and reeked of naivety. It’s probably a good thing she never actually went to war, she likely would have died immediately because of her stupidly romanticized view of it. 

 

She decides this letter isn’t worth responding to. She throws it out with the rest. 

 

Next she finally gets to what she came here for. Anna.

 

Mrs Bernard, 

 

I am writing to you because I wish to be updated on Julian. I am sure he gives no end of trouble and I hope you will be able to excuse his rudeness. I know this will mean little but he was not always like this and I am sure there are some of that sweet, kind little boy still in him somewhere. Perhaps spending time will you change his ways, as I am sure you are a good influence. 

 

How is he doing? Does he spend any time in town? Does he need more clothing? He left quite a bit of his coats at home. 

 

Also, if you could tell him that his garden is alive and well, I would appreciate it. I know he gets a bit antsy when he’s away from it. Many thanks. 

 

Yours sincerely,

Anna von Leventis.

 

Maevis grows angry again, though it’s not the same hot, blinding rage she felt earlier. Anna’s full of shit even on paper. The first paragraph reeks of someone putting up a facade to keep up with an image. “I am sure there are some of that sweet, kind little boy still in him somewhere” comes off as just patronizing. 

 

Though… Her questions, and then the comment about his garden makes her anger fade. It gives off a completely different feeling than the above paragraph. 

 

She frowns and puts her pen to the paper. 

 

Howdy Anna, 

 

It’s so casual. She kinda loves it, so she keeps it. 

 

From there, she writes a letter that’s probably — definitely — too long. Multiple pages. She makes sure to detail everything Julian’s done while here. Helping her garden, learning to ride a horse, getting tutored. She talks about how much of a fast learner he is, and how he’s so smart. Smarter than anyone gives him credit for. She makes sure to praise the man to high heavens about his behaviour because dammit he deserves that much. 

 

She thinks she’s seen a glimpse of the real Anna in this letter. If she had to guess she’d say the woman does legitimately care for her brother, even though their relationship is incredibly strained. She feels the same curiosity she felt when Julian made his love for animals first known to her. She wants to pry, pry, pry. 

 

And maybe, just maybe, she can find a way to help fix things between brother and sister. Julian deserves that, too. 

 


 

“Heard you yelling at something,” is the first thing Julian says to her when she returns to the backyard. 

 

“Anna’s letter piss you off?” He asks when he kicks at the grass, “Wouldn’t surprise me. She’s good at that ‘cause she’s a bitch.”

 

What a juvenile insult. It almost makes her laugh.

 

But it just serves to pique her curiosity further. Evidently, Anna needs a redemption arc in Julian’s eyes. Or maybe she’s irredeemable. 

 

“Nadine’s family is shit,” she says and before Julian can inquire she adds, “And yours is too, if your attitude towards them is anything to go by.”

 

She turns to him and sees him giving her a sideways glance. 

 

“Why do you hate your sister so much?”

 

Guess I’m just feeling blunt today.

 

He narrows his eyes, “Why do you want to know?” he asks lowly.

 

“Because I—” She stops herself with an audible click of her mouth. She thinks she was about to say like, but somehow the word is too hard to get out. Maybe it’s too strong for what she’s actually feeling. Maybe Julian would misinterpret her meaning. 

 

Care is also… strong. It makes her throat suddenly go dry. Thick saliva lines the inside of her mouth, immediately sapping any moisture that may enter. 

 

So she settles for something wholly inoffensive. 

 

“Because I’m concerned about you,” she licks her lips, trying to wet her mouth. She briefly considered using pity but she wholeheartedly doubts Julian would appreciate that. She knows she definitely felt just pity for him when they first met, and that was partly why she was so intent in inserting herself in his life, but now it doesn’t sit well with her. It almost seems like an oversimplification for what’s actually going on.

 

What is going on? Why am I nervous? What the fuck? 

 

It’s not the same nervousness that accompanies her anxiety. Thankfully her knee isn’t bouncing, but at the same time that serves to piss her off because she doesn’t have an explanation for what the fuck’s going on. 

 

Julian turns to face her fully, his almost wolfish crimson eyes like limpid pools of blood that adorned his pale face. His tousled makes her think of a fountain of molten obsidian. She doesn’t know why she’s taking more note of his face as if this is the first time she’s seeing him. She’s seen him more than enough times by now and yet, in this moment, she felt somehow magically drawn to those serious and silent features.

 

She wasn’t lying when she said his eyes were pretty. She knows that much. 

 

And she has to force herself to not stare at his lips when he speaks. 

 

“Like I said, she’s a bitch. She never allowed me to do things I wanted,” he scoffs, “How could I not hate someone who just wants to sell me off?”

 

He kicks at the grass again, brows knitting together in annoyance. “No wonder all the men I know are a bunch of maladjusted idiots. We’re trapped in the same box but I’m the one who gets walked all over because I tried getting out.” 

 

The last words come out as a harsh hiss, and Maevis can tell his fuse is beginning to run short. 

 

She puts a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to be reassuring, but he tenses, so she keeps her voice gentle. 

 

“If it’s any consolation, I think placing restrictions on someone like that is bullshit. You should be allowed to pursue every opportunity you want.” She pats him, “So, you learn all that biology you want, buddy. Learn whatever else you want, too. I’ve got no problem with that, and anyone who does is an idiot.” 

 

His body is still filled with tension, but it lightens slightly. He exhales a long breath and looks away, eyes downcast.

 

“...How can I know you really mean that?”

 

She frowns. A paid cabin, horseriding and biology lessons and he still thinks there’s some ulterior motive? Briefly, she feels offended and the word selfish is on the tip of her tongue but she stops herself. 

 

The urge of being confrontational is then replaced with something else. She thinks it’s care again, despite just thinking of the word makes her feel parched. 

 

“How many people have failed you for you to think like that?” She asks, and she feels immensely weird of taking... whatever role this is. She shakes herself lightly, and lifts her lips in a grin with a tilted head. It’s time to go back to casual and flippant. She needs to distance herself from this foreign feeling she’s experiencing. 

 

“You do know that not everyone is out to get you, right?” She adds jokingly, but now she feels weird for being nonchalant and distant. 

 

Julian turns back to her, but too slowly to be normal. When he speaks his voice trails slowly, like his words are unwilling to take flight. There is a sadness in his eyes, the red too glossy.

 

“Anna failed me.” — And Maevis feels like she’s been punched in the gut with how wobbly his voice sounds — “She and Father were — were my best friends.”

 

I guess I walked right into that one. 

 

The overwhelming need to protect this man courses through her veins. As much as she wants to beat the shit out of Anna like she does Francesca, she tempers the urge. It won’t help, and most of all, she knows she’s not getting the full story.

 

She clears her throat, “Anna said your garden is alive and well in her letter.” When his eyes widen just a smidge, she continues, “Also asked about your wellbeing. I know she’s… wronged you, probably multiple times if I had to guess, but I think deep down she — she loves you. Really. She just hides it for some reason, and I’m sure she just needs to get a kick in the ass to stop being a dick to you.”

 

It’s not quite what she intended to say. In her mind it was much more elegant, even heroic in a way, but naturally it just comes out a garbled mess. 

 

When he says nothing and just stares at her with a sullen look, sweat trickles her brow, “Look, I’m — I’m not saying you have to forgive her for whatever she’s done. Just — I think there’s more to what’s going on here. Just send her a letter, maybe? Talk?”

 

Now she feels stupid. Surely Julian’s done just that and evidently failed. What right does she have to assume she’s got the answers of what’s going on between the two of them when she doesn’t know what the fuck is going on?

 

Luckily, Shadowmare comes to her rescue. The horse trots until she’s directly in front of Julian, nuzzling his hands with her snout as if she’s aware of his discomfort. He pets her, mumbling a soft “hey, girl.” 

 

Maevis shifts lightly, and glances at Shadowmare with her own sullen stare. 

 

“Well, guess it’s time to start the lesson.”

 

He doesn’t say anything else about his family. She doesn’t ask about it.

 


 

As it turns out, they don’t do much horseriding. Instead, they spent most of their time cleaning the stable and adding horse manure to the compost. Usually Julian complains incessantly during these sessions, but he keeps quiet. 

 

He stays quiet when they groom Shadowmare in her stall, Julian at the horse’s left and Maevis at her right. He mutedly rubs her with the brush. Maevis’s brow twitches. Sure, she knows he’s probably thinking of a bunch of heavy shit right now, but the silence and his sulking is starting to teeter on the edge of annoying. Quiet doesn’t suit either of them, she decides. Neither does looking sad. 

 

She stops what she’s doing to pick up some hay and throws it at Julian. He just stares as if she’d just produced another horse from her pocket. She can imagine the sparks in his brain, desperately trying to connect the dots and instead just causing a short circuit.

 

“Hey,” she says, “Let’s have a race.”

 

“...What?”

 

“A race! Or maybe a test? Let’s see who can saddle up Shadowmare the fastest.”

 

She pats the horse’s rump and cocks a grin, “I’ll go first.”

 

“And what happens to the loser?”

 

She hadn’t thought about that. She shrugs, “They lose out on the sense of accomplishment? Or maybe they give the winner a shoulder massage, I guess?”

 

That makes him look at her with wry amusement. Definitely better than him looking like she kicked his dog, so she’ll take it.

 

“Fine, sure. Whatever.”

 

“I’ll get my stopwatch. And, actually, you can go first. See ya in a bit.”

 

When Maevis leaves, she already knows that she wants to intentionally lose.

 


 

Turns out, trying to lose on purpose is harder than she expected.

 

Julian’s a fast learner, and he’s saddled up Shadowmare without any assistance before. It’s probably because he's doing it under a time limit, and also because of thinking about his family, but now he’s movements seem a lot more frazzled. He put on the saddle without the blanket, and when he realized his mistake he apologized profusely to the horse. He shot a quick “I don’t want her to hate me!” when Maevis laughed at him. His apologizing probably cost him most of his time. 

 

When it was Maevis’s turn, she had to make a conscious effort to lose. She made sure to forget how to put on the reins, and dropped it more than once. But it was the key to Julian’s ‘victory’. 

 

Immediately after the victor was declared, Maevis gestured Julian to her, “Sit on the hay.”

 

He does so after removing his coat, and she kneels behind him. She scoots closer, hands close to his shoulders but not quite touching yet. 

 

“I do have your permission to touch you, yeah?”

 

That earns her a scoff, “I’m sitting here, aren’t I? Are you stalling because you’re bad at this?”

 

My, my. He sounds impatient. Someone wants this massage more than he lets on.

 

Her hands settle on his shoulders and squeeze slightly. One of her brows quirk upwards. 

 

“You’ve got a knot. Must be why you’re so tense today.”

 

“I’m not tense—” He’s cut off by a low groan that he immediately stifles with his hand. Maevis can see his ears getting red and she suppresses a laugh. Her fingers further sink into his shoulders, and she’s pretty sure he would have squealed if he wasn’t busy putting his fist in his mouth. Her thumb circles around his shoulder blades and he just melts. She can feel him leaning into her touch and finally he lets out a sight. 

 

“Ahh… You are um — oh — you’re pretty good at this…”

 

He’s still a bit stiff in her grasp and she works until she feels the warmth of his skin through his shirt. 

 

“I like to think I’m an expert in this,” she says, her voice a half murmur, “Used to give my mom massages all the time.”

 

Mentally, she slaps herself in the face. Mentioning family probably isn’t the brightest idea right now—

 

“Is she— Is she still alive?” 

 

She lightly chuckles at how he sounds almost nervous, like he’s worried he might offend her. One of her hands goes from his shoulder to his bicep. The other goes to the base of his neck and he jerks lightly. She can hear his hands tightening on the hay.

 

Ticklish.

 

She files that information for later. 

 

“No, she isn’t. Died before the war and my father followed shortly after. People like to say he died of heartache.”

 

She wasn’t there when it happened. Maevis was halfway across the country for a bounty, and when she returned for a visit — and because she secretly missed her father’s cooking — she was greeted with the town auctioning off their home. As per their wishes, they were cremated, but sometimes Maevis wishes she had a grave to visit.

 

“Oh,” Julian mumbles, “Sorry to hear that.”

 

“Don’t be. They were old and I’ve done my mourning. But I appreciate the sentiment.”

 

She wants to ask about his mother, but she doesn’t. Now that she thinks about it, she’s only heard briefly about his father. If she had to guess, she’d assume he’s not on good times with his mother either. 

 

They sit in silence for a bit. When Maevis attacks another knot with caresses and strokes another sigh slips past his teeth. She continues circling with her thumb, drawing the muscles upwards with gentle, consistent pressure. She presses the tips of her fingers and thumbs into the trapezius from both sides, and rolls the muscles up towards his collarbones without releasing her grip. 

 

After a while she moves down to between his shoulder blades, and glides the pads of her thumbs in wide, sweeping circles. She’s rewarded with another groan. She spots some red at the base of his neck. Do blushes extend that far?

 

When she thinks he might start dozing off, she brings her thumb back up to his neck and kneads. There’s another light jerk but he settles. 

 

When he practically mewls, she pulls away and he almost falls back onto her lap. 

 

“I take it you liked that,” she says through a grin. 

 

When he turns she praises whatever goddess is out there for the full face blush he’s sporting. She’s pretty sure she can cook a meal on him with the heat that must be radiating off him. 

 

“It was… adequate,” she thinks he’s trying to look smug with the cocky smile he’s sporting, but he just looks shy. 

 

She didn’t intend to enact her plan of attack, but she figures now is the best time. 

 

“You know what I’m also good at?”

 

He gives her a skeptical look. 

 

“Tickling.”

 

Before he can respond, she dashes forward and does a light jab at his side. This time, he does let out a shrill squeal. He jerks his body and squirms, trying to get away from her hold.

 

“F-Fuck off!” He yells, but it’s muffled with spluttering laughter. Loud, genuine laughter that fills her with warmth. Despite the sun waning, she swears that the light brightens through the windows of the stable. Everything just seems brighter. It was like his sound lifted some sort of veil, and Maevis was able to see the world more clearly. 

 

Distantly, she hears Shadowmare whinnie. Maybe she’s joining the laugh. Maevis lets out her own chuckle. 

 

Julian crinkles his nose and lets wheezing giggles. 

 

Cute. Fucking adorable, really. 

 

“You — You bitch—!” It comes out as another high pitched squeal, his half smiles showing her that he’s not actually mad. 

 

She pinches his sides, “Rude,” she chastises, “Is that any way to speak to someone who gave you a massage?”

 

He throws his head back, “Arrrgh!”

 

And then she’s rewarded with perhaps the best prize of all. A full smile. It grows much as a spring flower opens — Heh. He’d totally dig that metaphor — and she could see how it comes from deep inside. There’s a light in his eyes that spreads into every part of him. A person smiles with their mouth, but she could hear it in his voice and in the way he begins to relax in her hold despite her tickling.

 

His face is still red, and there are tears threatening to spill over, but his smile is all she can focus on. 

 

Beautiful.

 

Well, she always did consider him a pretty man. 

 

After a while, he’s clearly desperate for her method of torture to just end because he claws at her and murmurs soft “stop, stop, stop.”

 

She does just that and lies down, hearing his laughter subside and be replaced with breathless panting. 

 

She sees him lift himself onto his knees and glares at her, but he’s not very intimidating when he still looks like a beetroot. 

 

In a flash, she feels a jab at her side. 

 

Maevis snorts, “Sorry. Not ticklish.”

 

He pouts, and hastily takes his hand away from her side and looks a bit sheepish. He flops to his side to lay down next to her. 

 

“I’ll get you back for that,” he grumbles.

 

“Looking forward to you seeing what you cook up.”

 

Julian still breathes heavily as he settles into the hay, and her eyelids begin to feel heavy.

 

Guess tickling is hard work.

 

She looks over to Julian, and it seems he’s just as tired. His eyes are closed and heaves a long exhale. Maevis is left thinking about her… feelings. Of the so called care she seems to feel for him. Then she thinks to Anna and their strained relationship.

 

Ah.

 

She thinks she knows what it is. 

 

He’s like the younger sibling I never had. 

 

Yeah. That was it. It explained a lot of things, especially her growing protectiveness. If — If Anna isn’t the sister she’s supposed to be, then maybe Maevis can at least fill that hole in Julian’s life. Even if it’s just a little bit.

 

She always wanted a sibling. 

 

Before she can ruminate on that thought any longer, the weight on her eyelids seemingly double. She doesn’t actually like taking naps, because she always feels more tired when she wakes up. There are always the vestiges of a dream, turning in nonsensical ways, grasping to remain; and those probably annoyed her more than the accompanying fatigue.

 

She blinks slowly. She can’t quite fight the growing exhaustion.

 

Ugh. Fine, I’ll take a nap.

 

It doesn’t take long until she’s lulled into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

“Get me the fuck out of here, Cal.”

 

“How the hell do you expect to survive this stupid Gala if you can’t handle people seeing you?”

 

Maevis bites down a retort. They’ve just been furiously whispering at each other, but she feels like she might start screaming, which would make this situation worse. 

 

They’re out buying seeds again, which is seemingly the only thing she buys anymore. She wants more cacti, and more succlents in general, so much so that Julian had joked she has an addiction now. Having an actual addiction would be better than what’s currently happening. They’re in the greenhouse. There’s people around, because slowly but surely Calvara is making her go outside later in the day instead of 6AM in the morning. What’s worse is that the fucking fiend of a woman pulled her hood down. 

 

She was always able to keep some semblance of anonymity with a hood and robes. Made things easier, even if she looked like some occultist member walking in the mist. The important thing was that no one could recognize her, and gradually she was able to weave across shop stalls with a decent amount of ease though there was still the occasional hiccup. 

 

But now they can see her face properly. She can feel their gazes on her, it makes her think she’s in a serpent’s den with no way out. Dread creeps down her spine like a careful spider leaving a trail of silk. She feel its feet on her skin, making her body tingle, and it gives her goosebumps. It descends until she’s almost frozen to the spot. Her stomach is full of lead and she thinks she might hurl. Her feet are set in concrete; her mind is worryingly empty other than an echoing voice chanting run, run, run .

 

Calvara’s hand grips her shoulder, “Where are we right now?”

 

“A place that’s soon to be your grave you fucking bitch,” she spits out.

 

“Uh huh, heard that one before. Where are we?”

 

The hairs on the nape of her neck bristle. Her hands are clammy and there’s a glisten of a cold sweat dancing on her skin. “How is Alex? How long will you run away from your own issues?”

 

She knows it’s downright juvenile to try to flip the tables. She knows Calvara is trying to help. She knows she’s not helping herself out in this moment. She knows that, but she wants nothing more than to take the focus off on her. 

 

Calvara furrows her brows, a look of disappointment flickering her expression, “This isn’t about me. Now. Where. Are. We?”

 

 She’s pretty sure Cal’s on the cusp of slapping the shit out of her. 

 

Maevis exhales and inhales harshly, she’s on the edge of hyperventilating. Both her hands are tightly grasped on one another, her fingernails scraping against her skin. 

 

Get over this. If you get over this, everyone will stop looking at you.

 

“W-We’re… We’re in some fucking flowershop,” she practically heaves the words out. 

 

“Mhm, that’s good. What’s in your hands?”

 

She blinks rapidly, and she shakily opens her palms. Inside is the now crumpled up bag of chrysanthemum seeds she plans on buying. 

 

“Seeds,” she mutters, she doubts she’ll be able to pronounce chrysanthemum properly in her current state. 

 

Cal nods sagely, and pats her shoulder twice. “Atta girl.” 

 

Maevis can feel her heartrate begin to go down. Despite that, she frowns. Surely that must have made quite the scene, even though they’re hobbled away in a corner. 

 

Sure enough, from the corner of her eyes she sees two figures. A man and his child. He might be a man, but even they can launch a surprise attack. He’s wearing a long coat. Surely there’s a gun — or, or a knife, maybe even a sword—

 

“Are you Maevis Bernard?” He asks excitedly, the child bounces on her feet. 

 

A smile pulls on the corners of Calvara’s mouth, she steps in front of Maevis but doesn’t completely block her, “Excuse me, but you really should introduce yourself when approaching other people.”

 

The man does a double take, and then sheepishly rubs the back of his neck and laughs awkwardly. 

 

“Aaaah, I’m sorry. Where are my manners? My name is Nathanial. And this little one is my daughter, Emma.”

 

The girl — Emma, who likes about six or seven — excitedly steps forwards and thrusts her hand forward, which momentarily makes Maevis grip for Frenzy under her robes. She winces at herself. She can see it now, local war hero blows kid’s head clean off her shoulders because she wanted a handshake. 

 

She bites her inner cheek, get it fucking together. 

 

Calvara shakes Emma’s hand, a fake plastered on her face and Maevis is briefly impressed by the fact the girl doesn’t seem creeped out by her scarred face. Usually children run away screaming. Especially when she’s smiling. 

 

“My,” Calvara says in a sing-song voice, “You’re a well-mannered little lady.”

 

Emma nods fitfully, and sticks out her hand out towards Maevis. From the gleam in her eyes, Maevis can tell she’s the girl’s main target. To temper her growing anxiety, she focuses on the kid’s hands. They’re mittened, looking almost comical. The extra-thick wool and elaborate stitching made her hands look so much larger than they actually are.

 

Distantly, she hears the father talk, “You’re her hero. Instead of bedtime stories, I have to read off your accomplishments! Her favourite’s the siege of Brackensberg, but I’m sure that’s everyone’s favourite, haha.”

 

A new sense of unease blossoms from within her; as brilliantly as the fragrance of the flowers surrounding her.

 

That’s… fucking weird. 

 

As much as it bothers her, Maevis doesn’t want to risk getting a tantrum from this kid, so she awkwardly shakes it. She feels like a puppet on its strings with how mechanical and jerky it feels. Luckily, it doesn’t last long, and Emma ends up staring at her hand like she’s been personally blessed by one of the goddesses. 

 

She thinks the dad is about to say something again, and by the way he shuffles around she assumes he wants her to sign something, but Calvara interjects. 

 

“Sorry, it’s been a long morning. We’ve gotta go.”

 

She’s quickly herded out, and she doesn’t even remember paying for the seeds in her hands, but next thing she knows she’s in the carriage. Her movements were a daze, and belatedly she realizes she doesn’t feel the same chill crawling down her spine. Rather, the only thing in her mind was how uncomfortable the interaction made her. 

 

What does the dad say to his kid every night? “Ah yes, let me tell you the story of how this woman broke a bunch of people’s necks that one time.” That’s so fucking bizarre. Surely everyone else thinks that’s weird too. The hero-worship reminded her too much of Frea.

 

She sighs heavily, “That was awkward.”

 

Cal laughs lightly and nods in agreement.

 

“Yup. You’re an icon, a saint, whatever. But it’s kind of good they accosted us because you can expect the same shit at the Gala. Better you get used to it now. Just think of it as another hurdle for you to jump over.”

 

Another hurdle. What a massive oversimplification for what’s going on. If getting used to crowds was a hurdle then actually going to the Gala will be a towering cliff for her climb. Maybe add some violent waves waiting to engulf her when she falls for good measure. 

 

Lately the days have been moving far too quickly. The impending date for the Gala comes closer and closer and she thinks she’s on the cusp of losing her mind every time she thinks about it. 

 

She likes to think she’s getting better. Slowly. Hopefully the Gala will go quickly, and she’ll be in a daze for that too. And then after that she leave what she has here behind and technically run away like the coward she is. Not for the first time, she entertains the idea of just not showing up, but then she knows the Empress’s personal guards would start looking for her. 

 

Something eats at her for thinking about leaving again. Damn plants. She didn’t know it was possible to get so attached to a fucking garden. 

 

She sighs again. Nothing is said for the rest of the carriage ride.

 

Maevis wants to wash her brain in cold water, just chill the whole damn thing right out. She wants to brew at least ten cups of tea but the caffeine will put her over the edge. She’s out of the carriage the second is stops moving, she’s halfway to her study before she realizes she didn’t acknowledge Nadine, and she wants to faceplant on the desk.

 

And she does just that.

 


 

After a good while of self-loathing and making herself food, Maevis returns to her study to do what she intended to.

 

Letters. Well, one letter. Anna’s reply.

 

Mrs Bernard,

 

It warms my heart knowing that Julian seems to be enjoying himself. As a child, he wanted to be a veterinarian but he was never able to realize that dream. I worry about him often. I try to make his life comfortable to the best of my ability, but I know he resents me. I hope he can find some comfort in you since he can’t in me.

 

Please keep me updated. 

 

On another note, I have been invited to the Gala happening soon, which surprised me. Was that your doing? If so, thank you. 

 

Yours sincerely,

Anna von Leventis

 

One of her brows lift at the question relating to the invite. She didn’t know invitations were still being sent out or if she even has the ability to get more people in the Gala. 

 

She can’t quite tell if Anna is bullshitting her when it comes to trying to make Julian’s life comfortable. She likes to think she’s actually a good sister. Or at least decent somewhere deep down. 

 

Him wanting to be a vet is a new one, though. Well, maybe not. His interest in biology should at least make that pretty obvious. She files that information for later.

 

She scribbles down her response.

 

What’s up Anna,

 

If anything, she wants to see how casual she can be before someone snaps at her. 

 

I didn’t send an invite. I didn’t know I could do that, and believe me when I say I’d rather there’s as little people as possible instead of more. But you’ve piqued my curiosity, why would it surprise you?

 

I want to believe you’re a good sister. Your last letter showed me that you care for Julian somewhat, but he hasn’t said the greatest things about you unfortunately. And you seemed pretty intent on selling him off when we first met. 

 

I don’t mean to be rude, but currently what you say and my own observations give me two very different images. 

 

—M

 

Maybe that’s too blunt. She has been awfully blunt lately. If Anna gets offended — nobles always get offended by this stuff, right? — and stops responding she’s not sure what she’d do. 

 

She shrugs.

 

If she gets offended then she’s got less of a spine than I thought, I guess.

 


 

Julian awakes with an annoyed groan. Lifting himself with his elbows he looks at the offending member. 

 

Morning wood. 

 

A familiar nemesis of his. He doesn’t actually like waking up with the burning desire to jack off, but he dislikes it far more when he already has a wet spot. 

 

He could just douse himself in some cold water, but it’s also been a while since he actually masturbated. Which just surprises him. He expected to need release or use his toys practically every other day. He truly, truly thought Maevis would have pissed him off that much. 

 

He pulls the sheets off him and wiggles out of his shorts, he swallows a low groan when his cock finally has room the breathe. 

 

Feels weird doing this when… I’m not angry. 

 

He clicks his tongue. That had to be pathetic. Why couldn’t he just be fucking normal instead of using masochism as some sort of method to relieve stress. He’s pressed down on some bruises here and there, but those have since healed and he hasn’t given himself a proper lashing in some time. 

 

Whatever. I’ll just get this over with. 

 

He cups his dick with one hand and rubs it a little. It’s probably because he woke up with burning arousal, but it doesn’t take long for it to feel really good. No need to get used to the new sensation or go slow. His other hand goes to the head of his penis, and he runs his thumb over it. 

 

He doesn’t feel the need to hurt himself, but he also would like to finish this quickly. He tries to imagine the sexiest woman he can—

 

“Rude. Is that any way to speak to someone who gave you a massage?”

 

His hands freeze. It feels like his heart lurched into his throat because the only thing in his mind is Maevis. 

 

After a few beats of awkward silence he licks his lips.

 

Well, she’s kinda hot. 

 

Not kinda, he thinks afterwards. He knows how much time he spends looking at her thighs when he thinks she’s not looking, or how when she sits next to the fireplace she sometimes buttons her shirt down and he can see just a hint of cleavage like it’s a dirty secret. 

 

He’s just never masturbated to her before, but now that he thinks about it she would probably be pretty good at dominating him. She’s muscular — just the way he likes it — and no doubt she could bully him around the bedroom. He’ll just ignore her current issues and imagine her naked.

 

Just a fantasy. No biggie.

 

He sighs and resumes his movements. One hand slithers down to cup his balls while the other continues to pump his member. He’s only seen a bit of her cleavage, but he can tell she’s a decent size. He wants to fondle them. It’s been a while since he’s actually touched boobs. Many of the prior women he had these fuckbuddy relationships with often fucked him while fully clothed because he demanded it. Well, not really fuck him. They just beat him most of the time. A lot of the time he often forgot their names. 

 

It was all about him, all about his demands. Having them clothed and not caring about them on a personal basis allowed him to keep them at an arm’s length — distant, because then if something went awry, he just wouldn’t care about it.

 

Maybe that’s why he hasn’t pleasure himself with Maevis’s image in his mind. He doesn’t want to be distant from her, as shocking as it is for him to admit this. If they did fuck, he’d want her to feel good too. 

 

He bites his lip and snorts. 

 

Just a fantasy, dammit. 

 

“Yeah,” he breathes, “A fantasy.”

 

He repeats that mantra in his mind. 

 

Julian begins gyrating and moving his hips in an attempt to increase the intensity and switches to using long, twisting strokes from base to tip. In his mind she has the most perfect pair of breasts. Her thighs would be divine. They’d be great against his cheeks as he licked her mound—

 

He grunts heavily. His movements become inconsistent when a deep seated feeling of awkwardness bubbles up inside of him. She’s truly a bumbling buffoon but dammit she’s been fucking endearing. She’s grown on him, but she continues to absolutely confuse him. He doesn’t know what he truly feels about her anymore. Her problems had reminded him of—

 

God fucking dammit, man, this is the least hot thing you can imagine. Stop thinking so hard. 

 

He grunts heavily and puts both hands on his shaft. He palms and pulls his penis head while masturbating with a full-hand grip. He moves his hand faster and his breathing begins to become erratic. 

 

“Come on, Maevis, fuck me,” he rasps. She’d be good at that, he thinks. At least she is in his fantasy. She’d overpower him, and push his head in the pillow as she has her way with his ass. He’d taunt her relentlessly until she made him eat his words.

 

A hand moves to his mouth, flicking his nipple on the way, and he puts two fingers in his mouth. He pushes his fingers in deeper and deeper, lapping his digits with his tongue. He hollows his cheeks out in deep suck, and takes them out to lick them. Eventually he spits on his fingers and reaches underneath himself. When he pushes a finger in himself, he’s briefly surprised by how easy it goes in. He can’t help but smirk at it. 

 

The other finger goes in, and he finds a simple rhythm of fucking himself and masturbating. Would Maevis use her mouth on him while fucking him with her fingers? He hopes she would. He tries going deeper in his entrance, hoping to reach that wonderful bundle of nerves. 

 

What would Maevis look like when she’s a breath away from losing herself completely? Eyes narrow and sweat dripping from her temples with a sultry grin? 

 

That’s hot. That’s so fucking hot. He bucks his hip against his fingers and pumps faster than he thought possible. 

 

A whimper rips out of him when he imagines her calling him a good boy but it’s interspersed with her calling him a dirty slut and pet. He likes all three of those in this context. His breathing turns ragged and deep as he feels himself beginning to come close to cumming.

 

Another whimper comes out of him when he does finish, but much louder and he’s never been more thankful that he doesn’t have neighbors. His orgasm shoots through his entire body, briefly whitening his vision with its intensity. 

 

It takes a while for him to climb down from his high and catch his breath, but when he does he takes a quick look at himself. Sweaty and sticky. His cum trails down his stomach like a small river. 

 

He sighs and throws his head back onto his pillow. 

 

He thinks that might have been one of the best orgasms he’s had. 

 

Julian sighs again.

 

I need another fuckbuddy. Another Francesca. 

 

Of course, there’s no one he can really proposition. Only Maevis, and maybe Nadine but he’s pretty sure she’s not even interested in men. And he absolutely can’t ask Maevis for that. That’d be too fucking awkward because she’s too close. He can’t fuck the woman who’s technically acting as his landlady. He risks losing the freedom he has here if things went wrong. 

 

Not only that, it just feels wrong. Why, he doesn’t know. Guilt washes over him and he lets out an annoyed grunt. Again with this woman confusing him, making him feel conflicted over every little thing. 

 

He quickly tidies himself up. He’s got shit to do. 

 

Before heading out, however, he quickly looks out of one of his windows. A pair of grosbeaks are nesting nearby, in a crevice beneath an old deer statue covered in moss. He often found himself arriving late to Maevis’s estate on more than one occasion because he like staring at them far too much. He’s named the male Asfaloth, and the female Windfola. Two names of horses he read in a book once when Mother still allowed him to read fiction. 

 

When he first spotted them he couldn’t help but notice how much brighter and prettier the male was. Its chest was a bright red, with the surrounding body being white. The head and wings were black with white accents. Certainly much more interesting to look at than the female, who was just a drab brown. It reminds him of one of his etiquette lessons when his headmaster had stated “A man must always look his best for his wife. He would only embarrass her if he doesn’t look immaculate. Think of male birds, as they often have the most vibrant plumage to impress their mate. You must do the same! Take great care in your appearance!”

 

He scoffs. What a stupid lesson.

 

He tries to ignore the fact that he spends extra time in front of the mirror fixing his hair and shirt before he leaves.  

 


 

Julian keeps intermittently swiping his hair to the side to the point it starts to anger him. 

 

Maybe I will find a use for my belt after all. 

 

He keeps trying to make himself look prim and proper like he’s a fucking peacock and he doesn’t know why. He grips the brush harder as he rubs it against Shadowmare’s back. He's alone, Maevis having gone to get more hay.

 

He grits his teeth, Oh, so you masturbate once to her and now you’re, what, trying to prepare for your fucking mating dance? 

 

He’s so fucking easy and he hates it. It’s exactly why he was forced to become a hermit in the first place. He was all too ready to get into Camilla’s pants in the same way. It pisses him off. He decided a long time ago that he’ll never get close to another woman. He doesn’t trust Maevis, not really, and he keeps telling himself that.

 

His frustration must make hs brushing more rough, because the next thing he knows is Shadowmare side-stepping away from him and looking like she’s personally offended. 

 

“Sorry,” he mumbles before patting her rump reassuringly. 

 

Now a weird sort of guilt fills him again. He doesn’t like comparing Maevis to Camilla. It feels too much like an insult, but he can’t help but do it anyway. Probably because this is the first time since Camilla that he cared about looking good for a woman. 

 

As if summoned by his thoughts, Maevis comes in with a brand new bale of hay and Shadowmare happily whinnies at the sight. He tries to make himself smaller and hide behind the horse, and he immediately mentally chastises himself for his stupidity. 

 

Despite the wintry chill, she’s wearing something short-sleeved. She wipes some sweat from her brow, and then his eyes are immediately drawn to her beefy biceps. 

 

Want to… touch them…

 

He barely suppresses a scowl. It was during these moments that he fucking resenting his body. 

 

Next he gazes at her warm chestnut colour hair. It’s gotten especially long now, even while it’s braided it passes her ass — he tries not to think about how she’s nice and shapely down there too, stop thinking you idiot oh my god — and wonders how nice it would feel to touch it. He’s never focused on her eyes before, but now they seem to hold a coruscate gleam to them. The scar on her cheek somehow makes her prettier. 

 

He brushes his hair to the side again, unconsciously this time. This time he does scowl. 

 

Maybe the headmasters were right. Masturbation made a man fucking stupid. 

 

He focuses on grooming Shadowmare to distract himself from this new set of feelings manifesting himself without his damn consent. He’s just horny and wants a proper fuck, that’s all. 

 

I’ll just have to deal with it on my own.

 

When Maevis approaches him she waggles his fingers, and he instinctively covers his side with his arm. 

 

“Bitch,” he says, but there’s a smile on his face. 

 

He still needs to get her back for the tickling. He knows he can't do anything sudden and actually try to surprise because then she might snap his neck. Though the more he thinks of it, the more he wants to get another shoulder massage. It felt really good. Maybe he should return the favour. 

 

Maevis looks at Shadowmare’s mane and snorts lightly, “Nice braids. Really gives her more character. Should get a couple of ribbons for her, make her look like she’s come out of a fairytale.”

 

“She doesn’t need ribbons. She’s perfect the way she is,” he leans to rub the horse’s neck and his voice becomes like that of a parent cooing their child, “Who’s perfect? You are, yes you are.” He makes some kissy noises and gives a light peck on Shadowmare’s nose. 

 

Ordinarily he’d be embarrassed by such an action, have a voice call him childish if he’s in a really poor mood, but over the past few weeks he just feels comfortable. Being given the chance to learn how to ride a horse has done wonders for his self-esteem.

 

That, and he thinks Shadowmare just deserves some kisses. 

 

“Ah,” Maevis says, “Of course she is. I’m almost jealous that she gets that much attention from you.”

 

He shifts on his feet. Dammit. If he squints hard enough she’s actually kind of cute, too. Especially with how she’s making a fake pout now. Hot and cute. That should be illegal. Maybe he should visit home to convince Francesca to beat him again. 

 

He doesn’t look in her eyes. Rather he stares at her lips, “Well, I guess I could braid your hair for you too. You seem to have an awful lot of it.” 

 

“Mhm. You’d be pretty good at that, I bet. If you wanna try different styles I wouldn’t be against to it.”

 

He thinks she winks. He idly notes that her lips are cracked. She needs some moisture there. 

 

She continues, “And I imagine you probably have better taste in clothes than me. Maybe you can give me some suggestions for when I go to the store again. Become my personal stylist.” She does her usual lopsided grin. He wondered when she’d pull that one out. 

 

He tries to keep his face neutral, but he knows the tips of ears are growing red. His body is a traitorous fiend. 

 

“Well, maybe I can come with you then,” he says.

 

Her grin wavers, “Are you sure? The townspeople don’t seem very… accommodating towards you.”

 

“Well if you’re going out and about to better yourself, perhaps I should do the same.” He rubs his neck, now here comes the embarrassment, “We could overcome crowds together. Maybe.” Out of the periphery of his vision he sees Shadowmare move away. 

 

He’s not sure if he really wants to ‘overcome’ anything, really. As far as he’s concerned, people he doesn’t even know spitting at him because of some rumours can go fuck themselves. He doesn’t care what they think but… maybe — maybe he could help Maevis in some way. In another way that isn’t teaching her how to garden. 

 

She nods, “Sure. I won’t stop you. Though be warned, I’m really not a good traveling companion. I get a bit antsy, but I’m sure Calvara can tell you all about that.”

 

‘Antsy’ is probably an understatement if he had to guess. No matter, this’ll be something that can distract him from this weird new set of feelings he’s… feeling. Even though constantly being near her is surely counterproductive considering she’s his main source of masturbatory material now and fuck this is gonna be even more awkward.

 

He’ll just ignore it. He’s good at ignoring things. Maybe seeing her issue with crowds will completely turn him off on her for good. That’ll be productive. 

 

Maevis places a hand on his shoulder and once more he thinks about how much he’d like another shoulder massage. 

 

“Thanks, really. I appreciate the sentiment.”

 

He swallows — he hopes the movement isn’t too obvious — and nods slightly, “Yeah. No problem. Just take it as my way of paying you back for giving me a free place to stay.”

 

That’s a sufficiently noncommittal answer, he thinks. 

 

She’s about to reply, but then he hears the telltale sounds of a horse’s hoof hitting the ground directly behind him. Before he can react, he feels something big push him against his back and he’s forced to stumble forward. He instinctively closes his eyes when he realizes he will fall—

 

He lands in something with an oof, but he’s not flat on his face like he expected. In fast, he’s still standing, just a bit hunched over. 

 

Soft.

 

His mind catches up pretty quickly. 

 

Ohshitohshitohshit

 

He quickly extracts himself from his landing site, and sure enough he’s greeted with a smidgen of cleavage in front of him. He can feel his face growing impossibly hot, and he takes a step backwards. Then another, and another, until he bumps back into Shadowmare. He turns so fast he almost hits the horse square the face, and he points accusingly at her.

 

“You—!!” 

 

Shadowmare replies with a whinny. It almost sounds mocking. 

 

First his body betrays him, and now his fucking horse is working against him and pushing him head first into b-b-boobs.

 

Julian’s about to mouth off a chastisement to his best-friend-turned-nemesis when he hears Maevis cackle like he didn’t just get a facefull of her breasts. That’s — That’s so inappropriate! A man can’t just do that, a man can’t do a lot of things and surely this is on the top of the list somewhere and why do I suddenly care about this, oh man I need to fucking get out of here. 

 

He mutters a quick “sorry” to Maevis when he passes her to reach the reins and saddle. She assures him it’s alright, saying something like Shadowmare must have gotten jealous, but he blocks out her voice and presence because he’s feeling and uncomfortable tightness in his pants that he absolutely has to ignore and somehow will away. 

 

He makes Shadowmare do several laps around the pasture, mostly trotting but sometimes galloping. It’s his piss poor attempt at punishing her, but, well, horses sure do like to run. 

 


 

It takes about two days for Anna to reply. Maevis is in her study later in the evening after bidding Julian goodnight. She’s not really sure where the topic first came from, but he and Nadine went on an especially long debate on whether the world was flat and where the sun went when it became night-time. Nadine had made multiple diagrams to prove her point which Julian ended up staring at for a good five minutes, Maevis swore she could see the gears working in his head. 

 

He took the diagrams with him when he left. She wishes he left them, considering now that she thinks about it she doesn’t really understand the topic either. She never went to school, and her Ma never felt the need to teach her about… the solar system? Is that what Nadine called it? It was never something she thought about, either.

 

She huffs when she looks over Anna’s letter.

 

Mrs Bernard,

 

I know I must have not given you best impression when we first met but please know there are limits to what I can do for Julian. I, too, have expectations placed on me as a noble, more so as the Matriarch of the family. 

 

I was intent on selling his hand to you because I truly thought he would have a better life without having the von Leventis name attached to him.

 

Excuse me, I had expected you invited me to the Gala. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I do not have many I can call acquaintances, so I thought you have graciously extended your own invitation to Julian and myself. Apologies for the assumption.

 

Yours sincerely,

Anna von Leventis

 

She frowns at the better life part. She continues to press her lips in a thin line when Anna basically admits to having no friends.

 

She has an inkling on what the issue surrounding their family name is, but she still can’t help but ask. 

 

Hey Anna,

 

I’m sure you have your own problems to deal with being the head of the house, but I can’t help but wonder why the von Leventis name is apparently so reviled. I had thought it was just Julian who was being targeted but apparently you have your own issues as well.

 

Sorry if that’s too forward from me. You don’t have to answer. 

 

Maevis bites the end of her pencil. Maybe she should try to add some levity to this letter. 

 

P.S. Julian’s been learning about the solar system today. I’m not really sure what it has to do with his biology lessons, but it’s all he could talk about today. I’m too embarrassed to ask either him or his teacher, but do you know where the sun goes when it sets? Or how that shit works in general? It sounds pretty wild. 

 

Sure. That sounds carefree enough. She finishes the letter with more updates relating to his studies. 

 

That night, she dreams of the stars. She’s been taught celestial navigation when she was young, but that was about the extent of what she knows about the sky above. In her sleep, she sees the stars swirling, twisting, and churning amongst themselves in an enormous war that was too slow and much too big for the human mind to contemplate. She lifts the darkness like a blanket, looking for the sun. 

 

It is a welcome change from being reminded of that town square. 

 


 

“It’s Saint Otis Day, apparently,” Maevis says when Julian arrives the next day. 

 

She’s happy about it. Ecstatic, even, if her wide grin is anything go by. She said Calvara’s husband wants to celebrate it so she didn’t show up earlier in the morning. Maevis sits back in her chair next to the fireplace, happily taking in the warmth. She loudly declares that she didn’t need to be forced outside the house at all today. 

 

“And so,” she says, “I was able to spend the whole morning just relaxing.” She sighs contentedly, and Julian surmises that her friend must be dragging her out more often if this is apparently such a luxury. 

 

“Careful now, don’t wanna relax too much and lose all your muscles.”

 

She chuckles, “Ah, that would be a tragedy wouldn’t it?”

 

It would be. Muscles look good on you.

 

Already, he finds himself needing to change the subject. Must be a new record. 

 

“Where’s Nadine, anyway?” He asks, ignoring how he needs to clear his throat. 

 

“She went to celebrate the festivities and I figured she needed a day off. Apparently they’ll be doing a bonfire in town later. Lots of dancing too. I know people here have got some stupid problem with you, but maybe you can check the place out later tonight? If you want, anyway, there’s a good chance they won’t recognize you. ”

 

“I’d rather not have to deal with the bullshit that comes with anyone potentially knowing who I am, thanks,” he could turn it around and ask her why she doesn’t just visit the thing herself but he knows it won’t go anywhere, so he shrugs, “Besides, I used to celebrate this holiday everyday. I’ve experienced it enough to last a lifetime.”

 

She leans, grin unwavering and eyes gleaming, “Oh yeah? Mind telling me what this celebration is about?”

 

“...You don’t know?”

 

“Well, yeah. This is a regional thing, at least that’s what Nadine said. She’s never seen this event before and so that’s why she went. And since I’m not from around this part of Asnain I’ve never celebrated this thing either.”

 

It’s things like these that remind him how little he knows about the outside world. He figured this was thing everyone did because he did it, but evidently not. He’s never been outside of this area of Asnain, which is something of a sobering thought. He’s grateful for the lessons he’s been having which have been making him more world-weary — he hopes so, anyway — but in this moment he just really wants to travel and actually see the world for himself. 

 

He suppresses a self-deprecating sigh. 

 

“It’s a celebration of some guy called Saint Otis. He’s a martyr who brought food and aid to Asnainian separatists in hiding way back when Asnain was still considered a state of Chiaya, if I remember the legend correctly. He was executed when he was caught, and on the anniversary of his death people have a feast and shit.”

 

And shit , what an awfully crude way to put it, and by the way Maevis’s face scrunches up she must think the same way so he rectifies it. 

 

“Though, I don’t remember ever doing a bonfire. I guess nobles do it differently. I remember it being a private family feast that the men of the house would make. Sons wear white robes,” — To represent virginity, because of course it does. Literally every one of these holidays he used to celebrate made a big deal of a man’s fucking virginity — “and wreathes. We’d sing too. Women wore red, think to represent the blood spilled by Asnainian soldiers to make us independent.”

 

And women didn’t partake in the singing, opting to eat the food instead. That always made Julian jealous. He remembers salivating just watching Anna and Mother eat while he sang. Despite that, he did enjoy the celebration, though he knows it was partly because of completely superficial reasons. A good chunk of why he liked it was because they were celebrating a man. He always ate up the stories and legends that were about heroic men, though they were few and far between. So Saint Otis Day always held a special part in his heart. 

 

Thinking about it, an uncomfortable feeling festers in his gut. He actually kind of misses participating in the celebration.

 

“Singing, huh?” Maevis looks oddly excited about this revelation, and Julian suddenly feels like he’s in the middle of the spotlight for a play, “I bet you’ve got a good singing voice. I’d love to hear a sample.”

 

He suddenly takes an interest in watching the fireplace casting long shadows over the rug. He hears the crackling as it burns the dry wood. 

 

He ignores the warmth he feels spreading on his nape. It’s gotta be the fireplace’s fault. 

 

“I bet you’re full of knots,” he blurts out, “Must be filled with tension because of your friend taking you out all the time. How about I give you a massage to help you out?”

 

He closes his eyes in instant regret.

 

Oh my god, is this how you deflect attention? By directly putting even more attention on yourself? Asking to fucking touch her? You idiot. You bumbling buffoon. You fucking dimwit.

 

Maevis briefly looks dumbfounded, and then cracks her neck and rolls her shoulder.

 

She quirks a brow, obviously about to play along, “Sure. Who am I to deny a free massage?”

 

After a moment of him awkwardly standing there in silence he makes his way behind Maevis’s seat, not missing how her eyes follow his every movement. She can probably hear his heart beating. The fast, erratic thumping is the only thing he hears, and it completely drowns out the sound of the fire. 

 

Now behind her, she swipes her long hair so that he has access to her shoulders. The shirt she’s wearing has no sleeves and Julian suddenly feels like he wants to scream. It hasn’t been that long since he masturbated to her, but he’s been indulging in various fantasies regarding her with distressing frequency. And now he’s going to touch her. Inwardly, he’s yelling at himself again for being a fucking moron. 

 

He touches his shoulders with shaking hands, if Maevis notices she doesn’t make a comment. He tries to emulate her movements as best as he can remember and circles with his thumbs. 

 

Her shoulders are warm. Or maybe it’s just that he’s warm. Probably the latter. 

 

“So,” her voice nearly makes him jump, “I guess we’re not doing much today. Nadine’s out so no tutoring, and suffice to say I’m far too comfy to move.”

 

He nods before realizing she can’t see his movements, “Yeah. I guess. We all need breaks here and there anyway.”

 

He squeezes and keeps doing the motions, feeling an almost perverse amount of pleasure of feeling her like this. Luckily he’s not quite aroused yet, but the same guilt he felt the other day washes over him again. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. 

 

Despite himself, he still wants to try something. 

 

She touched his bicep when she massaged him, so he moves slowly and carefully as to not surprise and rubs her bicep. 

 

...Firm. 

 

Obviously, since she’s seemingly made of muscle. He’d even hazard to say that her bicep feels really, really nice. 

 

Now he knows this was a bad idea. He can’t stop now because he’s sure he’d look dumber than he already does, so he figures he should yap about something useless to distract himself. Anything to get his mind off her body. 

 

“I—” He tries again, since there was an embarrassing voice crack. “I learned a lot about beetles the other day.”

 

She hums, “Yeah? I thought Nadine taught you about the solar system.”

 

“I that was sort of a spur of the moment thing since I asked her about it. The main topic of that day was beetles.” He leans slightly, excitement evident in his voice, “Did you know beetles are the largest of all families in the whole of the animal queendom? There’s over 400,000 recognized species! That’s 25% of all known animals! That’s nuts. I didn’t even know there was that many different animals in general. It’s almost unbelievable.”

 

He has to stop himself from bouncing on his feet. 

 

“They’re so fucking cool. They’re considered a keystone species.That was a new topic for me, too. If I remember the lesson correctly, I think it means that if they disappeared the world would, like, collapse or something. They, ahem,” he imitates Nadine’s blank voice, “‘play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community,’ cool, right?” 

 

He doesn’t actually wait for her to reply.

 

“So they’re super important. They clean up the world by eating dead shit, and help with pollination. Some are pests for gardens though, which I know from personal experience, but learning how they help keep the world going kind of makes me feel sad for all the beetles I’ve killed for munching on my garden. Maybe I should just move them away? How far do I need to go to give them a new home, anyway? Apparently all beetles can fly, so maybe I’d need to go really far. And — And! They get super big. And really pretty. I wish Asnain was warmer so we had the bigger ones. There’s this one type of beetle called the rhino beetle and they’re so fucking cool—”

 

He clamps his mouth shut with enough force that he thinks he’s going to shatter his teeth. Belatedly, he realizes he stopped massaging her in the middle of his spiel. 

 

“Julian? What’s wrong? Why’d you stop?”

 

Because I sound like a damn kid. 

 

Feeling self-conscious about his tirade he slowly continues rolling circles with his thumbs again. 

 

“Sorry,” he mumbles, “Probably talked your ear off with my useless bullshit.” Despite the fact that going off on a tangent was entirely his plan, he feels vaguely mortified now.

 

Maevis turns slowly and he becomes even more self-conscious with how genuinely concerned she looks and he makes sure to stare at the fireplace rather than her. He doesn’t like that look on her face. 

 

“Hey now. It’s clear you dig beetles. Talk all you want about your interests, I won’t mind.”

 

His eyes flick back to her, and she gives him a reassuring smile, “I wish Asnain was warmer too, but I guess that would mean more bugs. Can’t say I’m a big fan of them, but they’re pretty nice when you roast and fry them.”

 

He blinks at her, his prior embarrassment quickly replaced by curiosity. “You’ve eaten bugs before?”

 

“Uh huh. I’ve been all over the place, and there are many countries that eat bugs. They’re pretty tasty. High in nutrients, apparently.” 

 

She turns back, probably hoping for him to continue with his, probably, lackluster massage. “Do you know about stag beetles, too? There was one hunters always looked for because they're so valuable. Apparently nobles would pay up 40,000 crowns for one of them. Can't remember the name, but I think it was used for jewelry. Was my village's most pricey export.”

 

He flexes his fingers. He does know this beetle and the fact Maevis knows it catches him off guard.

 

"The Asnainian Rainbow Beetle? That's... they're from where you're from? I've seen them in jewelry shops," he knits his brows, "I always thought they were beautiful but now I think it's a waste to just kill them like that..." 

 

Maevis barks out a single laugh, "Hah! Looks like we got an animal activist here. So they're called the Rainbow Beetle, huh? Fitting name. They're found in really high elevations, too, so they're hard to get." She rolls her shoulders, and Julian takes the hint and puts his hands back on her, "So, what were you going to say about the rhino beetle? They definitely sound cool, as you put it."

 

More and more, he feels as though he has to constantly remind himself that no one will actually berate him for his interests. His old memories can’t touch him here. Old habits are hard to get rid of, and every now and then he finds himself shutting up before being coaxed out from either Maevis and Nadine in moments like this. They’ve opened the door, he just needs to fully exit it. 

 

A small smile plays on his face when he talks about the rhino beetle. Then more about the stag beetle. Then the harlequin beetle. Then the scarab. And every other beetle he can think of. He talks about how he hopes he can one day travel the world to see these very beetles. He's seen the one that Maevis had mentioned hanging off people's necks. He wants to see one alive.

 

If anything, talking about what he’s learnt has distracted from his more… physical desires. He practically forgets about his hands on her skin. He no longer feels awkward.

 

There’s still a warmth inside of him, but not one from embarrassment. Rather, it’s something comfortable. 

 

It makes him feel good. Later, he ends up braiding her hair. It reminds him of a time when he did Anna's hair many years ago.

 


 

A day later, Maevis receives her next letter. Anna’s responses are getting quicker. She’s impressed with the local postal service, maybe she should give a tip to the next mailwoman she meets.

 

She reads it over breakfast. 

 

Mrs Bernard,

 

You could say the von Leventis name has been blacklisted by many other noble families after a certain incident. I do not know the details, but Julian lost his virginity to a woman he was secretly being courted by. I, too, am partly responsible for our ostracization because I threatened to cut off the woman’s breasts when the rumors started. 

 

I feels strange admitting that to paper. It’s almost cathartic in a way, so thank you for the opportunity. 

 

Anyway, after the incident our name was tarnished. It was very hard on everyone during that time. The last time I went to any Gala no one spoke or looked to me. That was almost a decade ago. 

 

But please, do not let my ramblings disturb your day. They are unimportant. 

 

As for your question, the sun simply goes to the other side of the world while the moon takes its place. When it’s daytime here, it is nighttime at the other side of the world. Oh, I probably worded that in a way that would make you think the sun revolves around the earth. I believe the current accepted viewpoint is that it is the earth that actually revolves around the sun.

 

Please continue to keep me updated,

Anna von Leventis

 

She has to admit, she feels a certain amount of respect for the woman after reading she supposedly threatened to cut off someone’s breasts. That takes gusto. She thinks she’s starting to like this woman more and more. 

 

Though her saying her so-called ramblings are unimportant bothers her. It reminds her of Julian shutting up suddenly yesterday. Maybe this is a von Leventis thing. 

 

She knows she’s not getting the fullstory, but she knows she’s not getting it via letter. And it’s probably not Anna’s story to tell, anyway. Instead, she opts to go for reassurance. She likes to think she’s gotten pretty good at that. Seems to work pretty well with Julian.

 

Anna,

 

I may not fully understand what happened to tarnish your family name, but I really think there’s nothing that actually either you or Julian could have done that makes everyone’s treatment of you two justified. Point blank, it’s complete bullshit anyone has to go through this. I’m sure it’s because I don’t understand the intricacies — though honestly I have my doubts that there’s any ‘intricacies’ at all — of noble society, but everything I’ve seen seem blown out of proportion and ridiculously unfair. 

 

Fuck anyone who continues to give you trouble for something that happened almost a decade ago. Something that I’m sure was ultimately harmless. Fuck them. They aren’t worth your time. 

 

...Well, maybe not literally fuck them. She’s sure Anna would get her meaning. She hopes so. 

 

On a lighter note, thanks for humouring my question. I’m not sure if I entirely get it but it makes sense. There should be a book about it somewhere I can read. 

 

And on yet another note, did you know there are over 400,000 recognized species of beetle? They probably outnumber us humans. Also Julian asks if you find any beetles in his garden that you merely take them somewhere else instead of killing them.

 

—M

 

That’ll do. She entertains herself with more spam mail. 

 

It’ll be a slow and lazy day like yesterday. Not much to do, and she’ll take full advantage of just that because tomorrow Calvara had made sure to let her know tomorrow is another day of getting out. She loathes it, and when her knee bounces she decides it's time to distract herself with watering her indoor garden.

 

She forgets about tomorrow pretty quickly.

 


 

The next morning, Julian pokes at his eggs. He looks at the clock on the wall. He’s on time. Maevis isn’t. She’s late. It’s really not even morning anymore, it’s just past noon. 

 

She’s usually here by now. Instead, he’s eating his lunch. He’s sure Shadowmare is getting bored out there alone, and he has half a mind to start his lesson without Maevis. Can it even be called a lesson anymore? He’s pretty sure he’s been taught all there needs to be. He doesn’t need her help saddling Shadowmare up or galloping around the pasture. 

 

At the back of his mind, he thinks about suggesting Maevis rent a horse so they can have a race. He’d totally run circles around her. 

 

Nadine enters the room, books in hand. 

 

“It would appear Sir Bernard is running late. Perhaps we should start our lesson early? It would at least be something to do as, if I may be so bold, you look quite bored.”

 

He’s in the middle of chewing his eggs when he pouts. Again with being easy to read. Yolk dribbles down his chin. 

 

“Sure,” he mumbles.

 

It doesn’t take long for him to forget about Maevis being late. He’s absorbed into the lesson quickly, his mind eager to eat up any knowledge that passes him by. 

 

The lesson is about endopterygota, a superorder of insects that includes beetles. Their shtick is that they undergo a radical metamorphosis throughout their life stages.  They go from wormy-y looking larvae — which Nadine notes to some apparently being pretty tasty, which promptly makes him gag — to a pupa to their adult stage. She shows him several illustrations from the books she’s brought, and Julian feels like has to suspend his disbelief. They all look so completely different. It looks more like something he’d see from a fantasy novel. 

 

“Well, those fantasy novels have to find inspiration somewhere,” Nadine says, “There are many events in nature that seem fantastical. You could say she’s our greatest writer.” 

 

He smiles at that. It’s so cheesy. He digs it. 

 

“Yeah. Mother Nature’s a badass.”

 

They continue with the lesson, with Julian learning more and more words that seem unnecessarily complicated for what they mean. Why do scientists seem incessant on using ridiculously long words that are probably impossible to pronounce? Thank fuck none of his tests have been verbal so far. 

 

He’s wracking his brain over how to pronounce Hemipterodea when Nadine makes a soft ah. 

 

“I’ve forgotten one of the books. Can you go get it? It’s called A Field Guide in Color to Beetles . I want to show you examples of camouflage and aposematism.”

 

Aposematism. Another word in his growing list that he can’t pronounce, despite Nadine just saying it. He often finds himself needing to have a word constantly repeated to him before he can properly say it, and most of the time he's too embarrassed to ask for something to be said again after the third time.

 

He wordlessly nods and goes to the study.

 

It doesn't take long for him to reach his destination. At this point he's completely mapped this mansion out in his head. It almost feels like he knows it better than his own home, he certainly feels more comfortable in it. 

 

The book in question is on the desk, when he picks it up his eyes can't help but be drawn to a multi-colour sheet of paper. Taking a closer look, he sees it's a list of universities with multiple notes on it. Three names are circled in red. 

 

One of them is the University of Duncaster. Next to it is a note written in green that Julian assumes is Nadine's writing since it's significantly neater than everything else written on the page. 

 

Ideally I would like to wait for it to be rebuilt. But that may take several decades. For all I know, perhaps Duncaster as a whole will never be rebuilt.

 

His expression becomes crestfallen. An entire town never seeing the light of day again was a sobering thought. He made a point of not reading any newspapers when the war was happening. Some of it was more than he could handle, so he was holed up in his room most of the time, blissfully unaware of the goings-on. 

 

Deep down, he knows it was partially because he was worried about hearing from the factory Anna worked at, about receiving a letter that notified him that she died in a bombing or something. He justified that impending feeling of dread by constantly telling himself that if Anna died, he'd no longer have a place to stay. He was worried about himself, not her. 

 

He shakes himself. Those thoughts will go nowhere. He continues looking at the list, which he knows will ultimately lead to more thoughts that also no nowhere, but he can't help but continue gazing at the university names. He stares at it, almost forlornly. 

 

He thinks about his tutoring.

 

He likes these lessons. He likes Nadine. It’s likely partly because biology isn’t her expertise, but everything he has been taught has been very surface level topics. Shallow. And picked at random. It's really just a series of 'fun facts,' if he had to describe it. 

 

Guilt festers inside him, a feeling he's growing increasingly familiar with and he wants to scream. He's grateful for these lessons. Infinitely grateful. They're free and Nadine really doesn't have to entertain him, but she does. He doesn't have a reason to complain. He shouldn't. 

 

But he wants to go deeper, become an actual expert on a specific topic. There are still things he doesn’t understand in Equine Science, and neither does Nadine when he asked her. It's a very advanced level of science and he wants to know what the book is actually talking about. 

 

He wants to go to school. Be taught by people who know what they're talking about. 

 

"I'm sorry. That's not possible.” Father had broken the news as best as he could to him. He whispered those words, almost like he was trying to keep the whole topic a secret. 

 

Julian pouted. A lot. During that time in his life, it seemed to be his permanent expression.

 

"Why not?! Is it because I'm a boy?" A boy of nine years of age. He had been going out more, collecting bugs and trying to catch birds or the neighbor's cats. When Anna mentioned that a person who takes care of animals is called a vet, he proudly declared to his Father that he wanted to be one.

 

His Father put a hand on his cheek, and Julian vividly remembers batting his hand away. 

 

“Yes." He said sadly, "That’s just how the world works. I'm so sorry Julian, but it's best you know now so that you're not disappointed later.” 

 

Father smiled, but it was weak and fake. Perhaps Julian had gotten his readable face from his dad. The thought makes him grin self-deprecatingly. 

 

"You like gardening and knitting don't you? Keep at those. Those are great qualities for a man. You'll forget about being a vet soon enough." 

 

It's clear Father had been dreading having this sort of conversation. His words were awkward and stilted, but almost rehearsed like he knew one day he'd have to talk his son out of having impossible dreams. 

 

Julian responded in the only way he knew how. 

 

He threw a tantrum. 

 

Now thinking about it, he cringes at the memory. He kicked and screamed, just making the entire situation difficult for his Father who he knows now was just trying to help him as best he could. 

 

He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. Men don't go to university. He'll have to take what he can get — tutoring with Nadine. And he'll have to just grin and bear it.

 

Better than nothing. Stop being a whiny baby. 

 

He exhales a breathe, which he immediate regret because it makes the list fly off the table. Quickly cursing his stupidity he picks it up, but when he's about to put it back to its original spot he realizes it was on top of another paper. A letter, one that's been read if had to guess, considering it's out of its envelope. 

 

He tries to immediately look away, because he knows what he's doing is a massive invasion of privacy. He doesn't want Maevis to actually get angry, and he's sure that would be a terrifying sight. 

 

He can't move his eyes. He recognizes that handwriting. 

 

Maevis,

 

You are very kind. Your last letter left me with much to think about. I wish there was a more convenient for our correspondences than writing letters. I heard that there’s apparently new invention making the rounds called a telephone that’ll allow for quicker communication. I’m not really sure how it works, but let’s hope it reaches Asnain soon. 

 

How about you come over for a day or two? Then we can talk in person, and you can be rest assured I will not be hiding under the facade of being a noble. I hope I can perhaps start over with my introduction, and that we can become friends. As a side note, I would be more than happy to learn what else you know of beetles.

 

And I am sure Julian would like to check on his garden.

 

Cheers,

Anna

 

He purses his lips. Since when were they on a first name basis? And what’s this about starting over? Coming over? Beetles? His garden? How dare Anna try to act fucking buddy-buddy. How dare she.

 

He feels bile in his throat. Anna and her — her fucking cloying vapidity. This is an act. It must be. She’s putting on some bullshit farce in hopes of selling him off again. A vein pops on his forehead, and he balls his hands in a tight fist.

 

Anger and jealousy he hasn’t felt in a while boils inside him violently. If Maevis goes anywhere to visit her then Julian sure as hell won’t let her go alone. He’s going to give Anna a piece of his damn mind. And then show Maevis that she’s just a bitch. Maybe his sister is manipulating her. Maybe things would have been better if she did die in some random bombing. Fuck her. 

 

He brings his hand to his mouth and bites into one of his fingers, suddenly feeling the need to release increasing irritation. He continues sinking his teeth into it when he walks back to Nadine. 

 

He only stops when he tastes blood. 

 


 

Julian keeps his bitten hand in between his crossed legs. It’s a little awkward writing for writing, but it’ll probably be more awkward if Nadine saw his bite mark. If she notices his general discomfort and anger, she doesn’t mention it. They continue mostly in silence. 

 

Until the door is violently thrown open. 

 

The loud bang makes him jump. Nadine immediately gets out of her chair when Maevis strides in, forehead slicked with sweat and steps that only speak of exhaustion. 

 

“Sir—”

 

“I punched Calvara,” Maevis splutters, “Well, she avoided it. Mostly. Think I clipped her on the cheek though. She might still be outside — just go to her.”

 

“But—”

 

Maevis waves her off, “That’s an order. I can’t look at her right now, but I can’t just leave it like this either. Make sure she’s alright. I’ll write her a letter. Just — please.”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and Nadine nods her assent before leaving. Maevis takes her spot in the seat, heaving a long drawn out sigh while doing so. She rubs her forehead, and Julian can hear her foot bounce on the floor. 

 

He hazards a comment, “Sounds like you had a rough morning.”

 

She huffs a humourless laugh, “Yeah. I can’t fucking stand people.”

 

That was probably an understatement. He edges forward.

 

“...You really punched her?”

 

“Well it was far from the first time. It’ll be fine. I just feel like shit right now.”

 

She heaves another dramatic sigh, and Julian doesn’t really need to guess what happened. She’s told her some guy and his kid had approached her a few days ago. Someone must have spooked her this time, bad enough for her to run away it would seem. And she punched Calvara out of frustration. 

 

“I’m fucking hopeless,” she says with a self-deprecating grin. 

 

The sound of her foot on the floor continues to overwhelm every other sound in the room. 

 

He shifts in his seat, “...No you’re not. This thing just takes time. Let’s go water your garden, it’ll calm you down.”

 

Certainly seems to work better than most things. Even with the mere mention he can tell Maevis is beginning to slow her leg. 

 

“I don’t care what Calvara says, this shit doesn’t fucking work,” she hisses, “I calm down faster by watering some fucking plants. That’s ridiculous.”

 

He knows she’s just airing out her frustrations, she’s done this before, but she’ll go back to Calvara because she actually trusts her. He’s about to make a reply, louder this time, the bitter anger he feels being replaced with concern. Maevis speaks before he can get a word in. 

 

“Argh, this fucking sucks. Maybe I’d be better off in some asylum.”

 

Time seemed to stop. Suddenly he can’t hear anything except for his own heartbeat that becomes faster and louder by the second. He knows she’s making a joke, but anxiety hits him like a fucking train. 

 

“No! You can’t!” His own yell reverberates in his ears like a clap of thunder. He’s pretty sure the noise echoes between the bricks of the house, creeping under doors and squeezing through keyholes, travelling through windows like they weren't even there. Nadine probably heard it outside. 

 

That doesn’t matter. All that mattered is that he heard the word asylum and he — he—

 

"Julian, you don't need to come visit me every day, you know." The silent room and muted colours made Father’s voice sound even more frail than it already was. 

 

Julian — sixteen in this memory — grimaced, and tried to focus more on the sock he was mending than his father’s weak face. 

 

“Of course I do,” he said, “I’m worried about you. Anna and Mother, too.”

 

“I’ll be fine on my own, really.”

 

Father always said that everytime Julian visited. He found the more Father said that the more reluctant he was to leave him. Each time he saw him, his eyes looked sadder. 

 

He could hear his dad lean in, and felt his hand in his hair. 

 

“I’m sure your Mother needs her smart son out there.” 

 

Julian didn't know how to respond to that. Much as it was flattering to think he played some important role, he was still a boy. A boy on the cusp of manhood but still hadn’t gotten a single marriage proposal yet. Certainly that was nothing for his Father to be proud of.

 

“Mother doesn’t need me. I’d rather stay here and help you. Who could possibly need help right now more than you, anyway?” Julian mumbled as he finished fixing a hole in the sock. Most of the time he visited he had to patch his Father’s clothing because no one who worked in this asylum seemed to fucking give a damn. 

 

“There’s plenty of people who need help. I remember hearing when you taught all the other boys in your etiquette lessons on how to mend clothing. And I’m sure there’s many people here who need their clothing fixed.”

 

That made him frown deeper. The only reason he helped those boys was because he was feeling second hand embarrassment from the lack of their sewing skills. He didn’t want to touch other patient’s clothing, anyway. 

 

He starts working on another sock, “I wanna be here with you.”

 

Father cupped his cheek, and Julian found himself unable to look away from his face. He had a tiny, weak smile. He looked skinnier, and that bothered Julian the most. 

 

“I’ll be fine, really. Just knowing that my amazing son helps people keeps me going.”

 

It was hard to suppress tears in that moment, but he somehow managed it. How could he call him amazing? Father was the amazing one. He was admitted to an asylum for something Julian was pretty sure didn’t even exist. He wasn't hysterical he just… got nervous sometimes. Messed up from time to time  Didn't everyone? So was dad the one who got the short end of the stick and trapped in this fucking place? 

 

He throat felt so dry it hurt, “We — we should go back to your garden. It helped you better than this place.”

 

He felt a thumb wipe at his cheek, and he realized that he wasn’t actually successfully in suppressing his tears. 

 

His Father continues, undeterred, "If you're going to help someone, make sure you see it all the way through until the end, okay?”

 

Julian nodded fitfully. Yes. He’ll see it all the way through. That’s why he’ll continue to help—

—Regaining his bearings, Julian belatedly realizes that he stood up and smashed his fists on the table. Maevis looks at him like he grew a second head. 

 

She keeps her voice low, and talks slowly, “Okay. I won’t say something like that again. Sorry.”

 

He runs a hand through his hair and wets his cracked lips. He didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable, but he knows what he must do now. Knew for a while, he thinks, but he just needed his dad to keep him in the right direction.

 

He was going to help Maevis. He was going to help like he wanted for his Father.

 

“You know,” he says, trying to keep his voice neutral, “I have a book at home. It’s called Horticulture Therapy, and— and, really, you already know the benefits of plants. They’ve already helped you. I used it when I helped by d-dad when he—” he stops himself. That’s not important right now. “—It’s a different type of therapy that’s already working for you. And! We can visit my hometown, maybe eat out somewhere. I said we could overcome crowds together, remember?”

 

He doesn’t mention his other plan of yelling at Anna. He also tries to ignore how Maevis practically winces whenever he said the word ‘therapy.’ 

 

He can tell she’s making a conscious effort to smile. She leans back on her chair, “My, are you asking me out on a date? Doesn’t the woman usually do that?”

 

Julian rolls his eyes, “Don’t change the subject. I’m trying really hard here.”

 

Her expression falters when her eyes go lower, “You’ve bitten your hand.”

 

“D-Don’t change the subject!” He hides his injured hand behind his back, and points at her with his other, “You! Me! We’re going to visit my hometown! And eat somewhere while we do other stuff!”

 

She looks at him with creased brows, but there is a certain sense of warmth. 

 

“I’m not really good when it comes to eating other people’s food. I usually think it’s poisoned.”

 

He blinks. He hadn’t quite anticipated that, “Oh. I thought you just hated Nadine’s cooking, considering I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat anything by her.” 

 

Maevis lets out a bark of laughter, and he takes special notice of the crow’s feet around her eyes when her grin grows wider.

 

“Yeah, well,” she shrugs, “Just another hurdle to overcome, yeah?”

 

He’s not sure how to respond to that, so he just nods. The thought of visiting his own hometown fills him with anxiety, but somehow he knows he’s doing the right thing. He still fully intends on giving Anna a piece of his mind, though it’s no longer a priority of his.

 

No. Maevis is his priority. He’ll make Father proud. He won’t make a quits halfway through, he’ll see it until the end. 

 

“Thanks, Julian. I appreciate it.” Maevis says softly.

 

Reflexively, he looks away, face red. Again with the appreciation. He’s not good with gratitude.

 

“S-sure, whatever.”

 

A lot has happened over the past few days. He’s still endlessly confused about his own feelings, and he resents his body for its own physical desires. It all just feels too conflicting. Surely his attraction to her and his desire to help is a juxtaposition that just should not fucking exist.

 

Whatever. He’ll just deal with it. And not think about it. He’s good at that.

 

Chapter Text

Maevis continually takes a peak out of the carriage’s curtains. Some moments she has to remind herself that she’s actually going to Julian’s hometown. It has to be completely different than Beckinsale. It’ll probably make it look like a backwater town.

 

There’s gotta be some glitz and glamour because that’s what nobles likes. She’s actually kind of excited, she always liked traveling and she liked seeing fancy architecture more. That was one of the few good things about nobles. 

 

“It’s really not that exciting,” Julian quips when she takes what feels like the fiftieth peek out the window. 

 

“Says you,” she replies without looking at him, “You’re probably just used to it. I almost never get the opportunity to visit noble cities because I’m always hunting vagrants. If I don’t drown in the opulence then I’m gonna feel ripped off.” 

 

Opulence means fancy, right? She absentmindedly thinks. She’s not really sure what the actual definition is.

 

Julian mutters softly, “You sure you’ll feel that way when there’s other people around?”

 

Her anxiety was only tempered from excitement, but now it feels as though he’s brought her back down to earth. As much as she wants to feel annoyed over Julian ruining her very momentary eagerness, she glumly notes that it’s probably better late than never. It wouldn’t really do if she was admiring some extravagant looking building and then punched someone’s lights out because they just said hello to her suddenly. 

 

She sighs. 

 

“It’s just a hurdle to jump over, Julian. Lots and lots of fucking hurdles.” She turns to him, and she doesn’t miss how he suddenly looks away from her face to stare outside the window for… some reason. She can’t help but crack a smile at that. 

 

“I wish I could jump over people like hurdles. That’d make things much easier,” it’s mostly a comment for herself, something random and casual to help calm her down, but she takes special note on how Julian seems to relax. She continues, “I’m sure you know your way around here well enough, if something goes wrong you can lead us out and I’ll watch your back like a knight in shining armour.”

 

It looks like he’s about to say something, but he keeps his gaze at the window. The tips of his ears are red. 

 

She can take a guess on what he was about to say. Probably something about how he actually doesn’t know the area well, and that men don’t travel far or much before marriage — stuck in their neighborhood before they debut in high society as someone’s husband. She’s glad he doesn’t say anything. As far as Maevis was concerned, this was a ‘no-self-deprecation-from-Julian’ zone. If he were to understate his abilities, she’d just have to dole him with a bunch of compliments. 

 

Just like a sister would. That’s a sisterly thing to do, right? Do a pick-me-up for their brother with self-esteem issues? She wonders how he would feel about that, considering his utter lack of confidence in his actual sibling. 

 

She’s broken out of her thoughts when she sees Julian signal at the coachwoman to stop. Both her excitement and anxiety hit her at once, her heart rate increasing when she hesitantly takes a look out the window. 

 

It’s a restaurant. The word Serenity is proudly displayed above the massive oak doors that are etched with images of griffons. She assumes that’s the name of the establishment.

 

And it’s a big place. Or maybe it’s small by noble standards? That wouldn’t surprise her. The walls a pure white, marble if she had to guess, and the windows have an almost golden hue to them. There’s even a red carpet going down the stairs that leads up to the door. 

 

“Should be pretty calm, since we’ll just be getting breakfast. This place usually specializes in romantic dinner dates.” Julian says, and he almost hesitantly opens the carriage door. “This’ll be… an alright hurdle, I guess.” 

 

His brows crease in worry, and she can tell he’s getting antsy like her. She places a hand on his shoulder reassuringly and squeezes lightly. 

 

“Don’t worry. Like I said, I’ll be your personal knight in shining armour. No one will bother you on my watch.”

 

She’s not sure how much she can actually fulfill that promise, for all she knew she could run away like a scared rabbit the moment someone moves suspiciously. Her brain isn’t as brave as she wants it to be, not anymore. She can feel the fear in her chest waiting to take over. It sits there like an angry ball propelling her towards an anxiety she just doesn’t want to deal with. The pounding in her chest she didn’t even notice before accelerated and she takes a long, low exhale to calm herself. She thinks back to the questions Calvara usually asks her. 

 

I am at a fancy restaurant. I will have breakfast with Julian.

 

It takes some time, but she’s able to regain control of her heartbeat. She knows Julian is looking at her, waiting for her. It’s sweet of him. Almost sickenly so. Instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed for her weakness she feels renewed vigor. Looking at Julian, his expression is one of understanding. There’s a small smile playing his features, one that makes her think of pride. 

 

He’s proud of her. At least, that’s what she thinks she’s getting. Or maybe not, considering he looks away from her quickly the second her eyes met his. Again. A warmth fills her anyway. 

 

Fear can only hold me back. 

 

The repeats that in her head when the two of them make their way to the doors. It soon becomes a battle cry in her own head, deafening her own anxiety and dulling her fear. She thinks to the myriad of scars on her body. She pays special attention to the ugly, jagged one going down her abdomen and stomach. 

 

Another line is added to her mantra. 

 

I am all the stronger for my battle scars.

 

Ordinarily, she would feel like she’s trapped in a serpent’s den. 

 

Now, it feels like she’ll be able to skin that same snake. She doesn’t know how long that feeling will last, but she intends to exploit it for all it’s worth. 


She looks at Julian in the corner of her eyes. He’s nervous. Constantly wringing his hands. She doesn’t know his relation to this place, but she thinks it’s mostly to do with him just being back home. Home that was also the residence to shit memories and even shittier people, she surmises. 

 

Fear can only hold me back, she thinks again. She’s got too many things to do to be held back. Things that included going out, traveling, seeing new things, just enjoying life. But not only that. Something else is added to that list. 

 

It’ll hold me back from protecting Julian.

 

There’s a snake that needs to be skinned. 

 


 

Maevis’s guess that men don’t travel much prior to marriage seems to be correct. Other than the upgrade of architecture, she’d say that would be the most glaring difference between Beckinsale and Julian’s hometown; that she now idly notes that she doesn’t know the name of. She caught glimpses of the street before entering the restaurant, and she hadn’t seen a single man that wasn’t hanging off his female companion, presumably their wives. Some women have two men on either side of them. It probably has something to do with what’s considered appropriate. Nobles and their damn images. 

 

Julian follows what his fellow men are doing and wraps his arms around her elbow before quickly whispering, “They won’t know I’m with you otherwise. And if they don’t know they’ll never fucking let me eat here.”

 

She’s starting to understand a little bit. High society was about keeping your man in line. No wonder Julian became the black sheep from just losing his virginity. 

 

One of the restaurant employees stops them mid-stride. She’s wearing a suit fancier than them, it glitters from the rhinestones that’s plastered all over her tailcoat . Fucking glitters! No wonder the fucking economy was in shambles before the war, every noble was probably too busy making their wardrobes star-studded to notice the poverty that was gripping small villages.  

 

Not to mention the building itself. She’s sufficiently drowning from the opulence. There’s ostentatiously, and obnoxiously, detailed pillars. Inside there were no doors on the ground floor, only arches. The floor was gold. Maybe not literal gold, but it certainly looked like it. Was this even a restaurant? Or had Julian just led her in some government building?  

 

How the fuck is something like this only five hours away from Beckinsale? What the fuck?

 

She can only imagine what the Gala will look like. 

 

It takes a lot of effort to stop gawking around like an idiot. Eventually she’s able to tear her eyes away from the roof that’s painted with a scene of flying babies, but just barely. The imagery just served to confuse her. 

 

Finally looking at the employee, she’s met with an older woman with a deep scowl. Her brows are pinched, and she makes her disgust well-known. She’s not even looking at Maevis, rather she looks directly at Julian. Obviously, Miss Resting Bitch Face recognizes him, and she looks ready to chase him off like someone who swats at flies on their food. Unconsciously, Maevis’s hands curl into fists. Julian, meanwhile, grips on her elbow tighter. He’s not looking down on his feet or cowering like she half-expected, rather he stands tall with his head raised. He meets Bitch Face’s scowl with one of his own, and if Maevis had to make a comment on it, she’d say he outclasses the older woman in looking royally pissed off.

 

Bitch Face’s eyes flick to her. She gazes up and down and Maevis knows she’s being sized up. She’s not really sure if she should say something, but Julian hasn’t so much as squeaked, and she figures she’ll just take his lead. When Bitch Face squints her eyes Maevis sees it. Recognition. 

 

“You —You are—,” she clears her throat, “Mrs. Bernard. We here at Serenity at honoured to have you as our guest. To think that you would deign to visit our humble establishment gives us no small amount of joy. We welcome you with open arms.” 

 

She bows deeply. When she’s done, she’s got a smile that’s one of the fakest Maevis has seen in a while. Maybe her dentures will fall out. 

 

She continues, “Please, follow me. I will make sure to give you the best seating available.”

 

You’re ignoring Julian. I won’t let you.

 

Maevis grins, perhaps wider than she intends to, “Please make sure to get something extra romantic,” she sneers, “for my date.” She intentionally draws out the last word. If she could stretch a word out long enough it snaps, she would. 

 

It looks as though her words physically pain Bitch Face, and Maevis takes it as a victory.

 

Apparently, being petty was the cure for anxiety, because currently she doesn’t feel very nervous. When they follow the employee, she takes a peak at Julian. He’s got a cheeky grin that only speaks of smugness. He’s enjoying this immensely. Far more than her. 

 

When they’re seated Bitch Face bows again, but only towards Maevis’s seat. She takes a quick second to glare at Julian before leaving. 

 

“Humble,” Maevis snorts, “Sure.” At Julian’s chuckle, she figures this is the best moment to bring up something that’s beginning to nag at her. 

 

“No offense, Julian, but when I first saw you and Anna I wouldn’t have thought the two of you came from somewhere like… this.” 

 

Their suits were higher quality than anything she had, sure, but it didn’t hold a candle to restaurant employee of all people. Or anyone else she saw outside. And Maevis doubts Julian’s estate looks nearly as fancy as this. 

 

“Cause we’re not from a place like this,” he says nonchalantly, “We’re a minor noble family, remember? We’re not even in the right district right now. But I figured it’d be nice to visit this place for the first time. Heard it was good.”

 

Now she’s more confused than when she looks at the flying baby covered ceiling. 

 

“Are you telling me you’ve never been here before?”

 

He looks distinctly more smug now, “Nope. I saw a chance to visit a restaurant that was out of my family’s league and took it. No one would deny the local war hero the opportunity to try out their food. That’s too much good publicity to pass out on, even if you have the town whore as your so-called date.” He grins wider, “That was a nice move, by the way.” 

 

She scrunches her face in mock offense, “You!” she playfully swats at him, “You just used me as a free meal ticket! Hah, you’re such a troublemaker. I approve of that dirty scheme.” 

 

He shrugs at that, and later they settle in their seats. Maevis takes the moment to assess her surroundings again. 

 

Perhaps asking for a romantic table was a mistake, considering it’s quite… private. It’s on the second floor, on its own fucking balcony. It oversees the rest of the restaurant, and she sees a whole goddamn stage on the first floor. It’s not as cozy as it could be since it’s the morning, but she assumes that for evenings the table is lit with candles and a live band is played on stage. Dinner and a show. Real romantic. 

 

There’s a few people on the ground floor. She doesn’t feel her usual nerves. Is it because she’s on the second floor and has a clear view of them? Part of her thinks it’s because the whole setting it such a farcry of what she’s used to. It almost feels too fancy. She’s used to mist covered towns where the people are… normal, she supposes. Normal people just seem infinitely more dangerous. Especially when they’re in mobs.

 

Regardless of what’s actually going on, she’s going to take the fact that her knee isn’t bouncing as a victory because she likes to think she deserves at least that much. An improvement, even if she finds herself watching the people on the ground floor like a hawk for any strange movements more and more. 

 

Dammit. You were just thinking about not being anxious here.

 

Despite that, she continues to feel a weird sort of calm. She watches the other patrons, but none of the anxiety actually fills her. She almost feels a strange mix of confidence. No one can get her here, and even if they tried, she’d shoot them down pretty easily. No one can touch Julian, either. 

 

A victory, she thinks again and again. 

 

Feeling like she’s current skinning a snake, she turns to watch Julian poke at the flowers on the table. He scowls when he figures out they’re fake. It makes her chuckle. Cute. 

 

Eventually a young man approaches them, and from the same bedazzled rhinestone suit she knows he’s also an employee here. Which surprises her, she figured high society wouldn’t allow men to work. When she thinks about it, she’s seen some other employees, but this is the only man she’s seen. 

 

He looks barely eighteen. Maybe younger. She’s not sure, he has a bad case of baby face syndrome. He has curly red hair and freckles, which just serve to make him look even younger. 

 

“Hello, Mrs. Bernard. Here’s the menu.” He takes a short inhale, “With quality and flavour leading the way, our contemporary Asnainian cuisine looks to the best ingredients available locally, and then from across Asnain; blending a range of culinary techniques and traditions drawn from our culturally diverse heritage. I’m sure you’ll find the dishes made by our talented and highly skilled kitchen brigade both enticing and wholesome. It’ll make you come back for more!” 

 

She’s never heard such a wordy waiter before. It strikes her as counterproductive. She just wants the food, not be told how supposedly great the place is. Maybe it’s a noble thing. She’s probably going to be thinking that a lot.

 

And the way he looks at her strikes her as… odd. Eyes slightly narrowed. His smile is sultry. Almost like he wants her to order him from the menu. When he hands her the menu, his fingers touch hers much longer than what’s necessary. He bows, and leaves. But not before fluttering his eyes at Maevis.

 

He didn’t so much as spare a glance towards Julian. She belatedly notices there’s one menu between the two of them. 

 

He snorts, loudly, “Fucking incredible. That was obviously the owner’s son.”

 

When she blinks owlishly at him, he snorts again. 

 

“The only man that would be allowed to work in a place like this would be the son of the woman who owns it. Can you even call it working? It’s obvious his mom is just sending him around tables to catch the eye of potential suitors.” He gives her a mocking smile, “You saw the way he tried pulling all the stops. You’ve definitely caught his mom’s eye. Congratulations on your new husband.”

 

She exhale noisily through pursed lips. That’s annoying. So she doesn’t have to worry about shooting someone because she thinks they want to kill her, rather now she to control herself from not open firing because some rich asshole won’t stop throwing her son at her. Great.

 

She pushes the menu towards Julian, “Here. Order first since they forgot your menu.”

 

He scoffs, “Saying they forgot gives them too much of the benefit of the doubt.” He pushes it back to her, “Ladies first.” 

 

It would seem he’s feeling extra smug this morning. Must come with having breakfast at a place that will undoubtedly be overpriced. 

 

And sure enough, she thinks she’s going to get an aneurysm from just looking at the prices. 

 

2,000 crowns for a pancake. A fucking pancake! Just one of it, too! Did the Goddess Acadia shit it out herself? 

 

A scrumptious pancake dish layered with lobster, caviar and truffles, finished with Darcy Castillo hollandaise sauce. 

 

She blinks several times. She doesn’t miss how Julian has begun snickering. What even is caviar, anyway? Who makes pancake with lobster? Isn’t it usually just a flat cake with syrup?!

 

Surely this one dish is an outlier. The rest have to be somewhat normally priced. And just normal, in general.

 

She almost falls out of her chair when she read about a bagel that’s priced at 1,500 crowns. 

 

A plain bagel topped with white truffle cream cheese, along with Mestana berry-infused Riesling jelly and edible 14-karat gold leaves. 

 

Making a plain fucking bagel into a noble’s wet dream has to be a human rights violition of some kind, surely. She often ate them while on the go, since they’re cheap and get the job done. Now whenever she eats bagel she’s gonna be thinking about the fact that there’s someone out there that eats then with fucking gold. This bagel is richer than most of her clients. 

 

Next is an overpriced omelette. 3,750 crowns, to be exact. 

 

A one pound of lobster and perched atop a bed of fried potatoes and six fresh fried eggs. Finished with ten ounces Sevurga caviar. 

 

Then whoever wrote this menu had the gall to say a “cheap” version is available that’s smaller and half the price. This menu was made to mock someone like her. Is this even an omelette? It’s so far removed from what she thinks an omelette is.

 

Then there’s another omelette, this one priced at 2,200 crowns.

 

The omelette is filled with Asnainian lobster and crab, Chiayan truffles, fresh Asnainian asparagus and a splash of Dolloway Champagne.

 

There’s that Dolloway name again. Could it be the same name from the clothes she bought a while back? They’re in the food business too? 

 

When she sees a hot chocolate priced at a whopping 35,000 crowns, she thinks she might actually die from heart palpitations. 

 

This beverage combines 28 exotic cocoas, including 14 of the rarest in the world, and five grams of edible 23-karat gold served in a crystal goblet lined with more edible gold. At the bottom of the goblet you’ll find an 18-karat gold bracelet featuring a whole carat of diamonds. 

 

This has to be a mortal sin of some kind. Gluttony. With several dashes of greed as well for good measure. Anyone who buys this deserves to get mugged. Who even got the bright idea to eat gold, anyway? She wants to punch that person. 

 

She leans back. “I hate rich people.” That earns her a loud chuckle from Julian. 

 

“And the richest one of them all gave you a free house and shit. Might as well enjoy something expensive while you can, heh?” 

 

“Sure, she gave me a lot of money, certainly more than I ever thought I’d see in my lifetime, but it’s still, yanno, a finite amount. I don’t actually want to get bankrupt for eating fucking breakfast.”

 

When she passes the menu back to Julian, she chortles at his own dumbfounded expression when he looks at the prices. She doesn’t know how much of a difference there is between minor and major — are they called major? Whatever — nobles, but she assumes it’s a pretty big gap. Again, she thinks about how downright scraggly Anna and Julian look in comparison to the luxury of this place. Absolutely ridiculous. 

 

Eventually they settle for something that isn’t actually over 1,000 crowns. Just barely. It’s 950 crowns, but it’s a meal for two. 

 

Imported Mestana salmon, two duck eggs, Oscetra caviar, crème fraiche, four mini brioche and tomato soup. Enjoy this exquisite breakfast with a glass of Minerva Pallei champagne. 

 

Julian pointedly refused to have anything with the Dolloway name attached. Maevis still doesn’t know what caviar is, and at this point, she’s too afraid to ask. 

 


 

When Maevis ordered, waiter kid made sure to flutter his eyes at her again. He grazes his fingers against hers and if anything, she’s impressed to see a man in this part of the world be so forward. His mother must really want her to get interested. She can’t help but feel sorry for the kid. 

 

What even is the thought process to this, anyway? Does the mother expect her to request an audience with her and go Ah yes, ma’am. Your son is just the most lovely male specimen. I’d like to buy him before I finish my meal. 

 

There was a glass of water she got for Julian. She swore the waiter bumped the table intentionally to make it fall. It didn’t, but he made sure to pretend it didn’t happen and leave.

 

At least the meal she ordered is specifically made for two people. They can’t ignore that. 

 

It doesn’t take long for the food to arrive. It’s obvious it was made a top priority. 

 

But it seems… smaller than expected. She’s heard Calvara complain incessantly about the apparent small servings these posh restaurant serve. She squints at the food when it’s put on the table. 

 

There’s one duck egg, not two. Two brioche, not four. 

 

Did they — Did they seriously turn this into a single person dish?

 

She thinks she could actually laugh from absurdity of it all. There’s only one bowl of tomato soup, and she assumes there’s supposed to be two. When waiter boy takes the soup off the tray he subtly, totally-not-intentionally-totally-accidentally spills several drops onto Julian’s lap. Julian immediately hisses, and from the steam emanating from the bowl she can tell it’s piping hot. If he actually gets a burn from that she’s going to stab a bitch. He makes a move to get the napkins, but waiter boy immediately snatches it in the blink of the eye. For the first time, he actually looks at Julian, and it’s with a condescending sneer. 

 

Oh fuck off. 

 

Julian looks about ready to rip this guy’s head off. She knows he isn’t the type to take other people’s bullshit, but she can’t actually risk him actually assaulting the prick. That’d do them no favours. 

 

Maevis grabs the waiter’s wrist hard enough she’s going to leave a bruise, if his yelp is anything to go by. She forces him down to the point he’s practically bent over the table, almost hitting the food over. 

 

“Excuse me, good sir,” she jeers mockingly, and he winces. Good. “I thought I was supposed to get double what I got. That’s what I paid for, isn’t it? And now you’re stealing my napkins?” His eyes go as wide as saucers, and he’s about to speak but Maevis cuts him off with another jeer. 

 

“Tell whoever’s the boss here that I don’t take fucking well to getting scammed.” 

 

She lets him go, and he practically falls off the table. She can see the sweat form on his brow as stutters out a piss poor apology and excuse. “S-S-Sorry, Mrs. Bernard. That’s — That’s not what — T-The second dish is almost ready and — and pleaseexcuseme.” He drops the napkins on the table and quickly runs off. He can kiss that potential marriage proposal goodbye. Fuck this mom. She’s probably a bitch. She definitely overpriced the food around here like a bitch. 

 

She looks at Julian, who’s just gawking at her. She didn’t really expect that reaction. 

 

“You — You didn’t really need to do that. We can share,” he mutters, almost shyly.

 

“If I pay almost 1,000 crowns for a meal meant for two I damn well expect to fucking get it.” She softens her tone when she watches him clean himself with the napkin, “Besides, you of all people deserve to get a luxury meal, I reckon.”

 

“...What do you mean by ‘of all people?’”

 

“If this is the usual shit you get for just going outside, then I don’t blame you for seldom leaving your house. As far as I’m concerned, you definitely deserve a good meal for putting up with that bullshit.” 

 

Julian doesn’t answer, opting to continue scrubbing at his thigh with the napkin. He looks almost perplexed.

 

“How is it?” She asks, “It looks hot. Does it still hurt?”

 

He shakes his head, “I’m fine.” When he finally looks at her, it’s only for a moment. His eyes go up and down, to the food, and eventually settles on his glass of water. He has the barest hint of a blush forming on his cheeks. 

 

“Thanks. F-For standing up for me.”

 

In that moment, she decides that he’s pretty cute when he stutters. 

 


 

Julian talks her ear off about beetles and other animals when they wait for his food. He continues to talk a million words a minute excitedly when he does get his dish. She doesn’t mind. She likes hearing his voice. Especially when he’s excited.

 

Waiter boy doesn’t try to act flirtatiously towards Maevis, for which she’s infinitely grateful for. He does, however, look absolutely miserable. Clearly his day is ruined. 

 

Not that Maevis gives a shit. She’s got a meal to enjoy. 

 

Julian switches over to talk about plants when he starts eating, stopping every now and then to hum an appreciative mhmm! when he takes a bite out of anything. Initially, she was afraid they might have done something to his food. She wouldn’t put it past them, but him thoroughly enjoying the meal puts her at ease. The people here may be pricks, but apparently not by that much. If anything, they’re not stupid enough to actually poison him. 

 

And she knows they wouldn’t poison her, either. She still stares and pokes at the food like it is, however. Apparently caviar is just fish eggs. A real delicacy around these parts. She hesitantly brings a spoonful to her mouth. Her hand shakes. 

 

The eggs pop on her tongue, which makes her jump. The rich, slightly sweet taste oozes into her mouth and the flavour fills her nose. It’s nice. Not worth 950 crowns, but nice. 

 

She still spits it out, though. An involuntary reaction on her part. 

 

She wipes a string of saliva that dribbles down her chin. She didn’t really intend to spit at violently as she did, hopefully she didn’t catch the attention of waiter boy if he’s skulking around somewhere. She tries again, hands still shaking, and it’s probably the sensation of it exploding in her mouth but she spits it out again with a heavy gag. 

 

“If you won’t eat it, I’ll have it.” Julian’s voice breaks her out of her bundling nerves and she gawks at him. 

 

“Don’t you think I’d be dry-heaving on the floor by now if they did something to the food?” He continues, taking a bite of his own caviar. His shoulders are tense, but he’s clearly trying to stay casual and nonchalant. 

 

He says that, but there’s several poisons that act much later when ingested. She knows that from experience. Some nights she can still feel the stinging burn in her head, like hot needles poke at her brain. She knows it’s just a distant memory of when someone laced her soup, and it’s not really happening, but it feels real. It always feels real. 

 

Maybe they didn’t do anything to his food but surely they could have done something to hers. She accused them of scamming her, and she brought a man this entire town apparently hates to their establishment. And then she ruined that waiter kid’s hopes and dreams of getting married. Surely that’s enough for someone in charge to get pissy and try to murder her. 

 

She taps at her table angrily. Skin a fucking snake, Maevis. 

 

Feeling the need to relax somehow, she picks up a single piece of caviar. She’s not really sure what she’s thinking, but she squishes it, watching the juices ooze on her fingers. At least it’s satisfying, in a way.

 

Maybe she should try the bread. The brioche. Why there needs to be another name for fucking bread confuses her. It’s just some fucking dough. 

 

She picks a slice and notices Julian still watching her. She ignores him. For some reason his gaze just serves to make her more nervous. 

 

She doesn’t eat it. She just breaks it apart. It’s still warm in her hands and the steam wafts out of it. It feels soft and delicate. It certainly looks appetizing but she can’t help but continue to it break and pick at it to look for anything suspicious. Soon it just becomes crumbs on her plate and lap. 

 

If the owner of the restaurant or the waiter guy is watching them from the shadows, they’re probably face-palming right about now. 

 

“...You good?” Julian asks, his voice belying his evident confusion. 

 

She utters a half-hearted laugh. Her dad would probably chastise her if he saw the mess she was making. Whatever this bread tastes like, she’s sure it wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to her father’s baking. His bread had a crunch to the crust that brought so many good memories, and the crumb was that wholesome taste of rustic grain. Perhaps that's why Ma always called his food "hearty," because it is made with such heart.

 

Maybe her and fancy restaurant food just weren’t meant to be, considering she just wants some homemade cooking right now. 

 

She sighs, “I’ve lost my appetite.”

 

Julian makes several protests at that, but she doesn’t hear any of it. She’d rather hear him talk incessantly about beetles and horses while stuffing his mouth with overpriced fish eggs. He does just that after a while, his voice drowning out her initial worries. Eventually he goes to take her portion and she has to use every ounce of her control to not slap the dish out of his hand. It’s not poisoned. He’ll be fine. 

 

She’s not really sure how useful this whole endeavor has actually been. Was a hurdle overcame by either of them? Something felt like its progressed, but she’s not sure what. Probably not her anxiety. It doesn’t feel like she’s improved much on that regard, rather it feels like earlier was only a brief and momentary victory. But she always think that.

 

It’s not important — well, it is — but in this moment she decides it isn’t. She’ll just listen to Julian talk. She likes doing that.

 


 

Turns out minor nobles usually live in a place called the ‘Yellow District,’ while the super rich folk live in the ‘Red District.’ That just served to make her guffaw, much to Julian’s increasing confusion. When she said it was the same name given to places where people normally find brothels in far Eastern countries he almost sounded scandalized. 

 

“The Red Light District? Those really exist? I just thought they were in novels…”

 

“And you thought Staoso was just a place in books, but I guarantee you it’s a real country. Just one that never played much of a role in Asnain’s history, so I guess that’s why you never taught anything about it. But still, really? Don’t you have a globe in your house or something?”

 

Julian blushes at that, though she’s not really sure if it’s from embarrassment or his cheeks are simply red from the cold. He still hangs off her arm while they walk, and their breaths form small clouds of fog in the chill air. In some moments his steps become unsteady because he slips on the frost covered pavement. 

 

“And another thing,” Maevis adds when Julian almost falls again, “What’s with the colour-coded naming scheme? Blue, Yellow and Red District? Talk about fucking lame. The least you could do is name your neighborhoods after animals or some shit. Like Yellow Deer District, I dunno.”

 

“Deer? If I had to rename the districts I’d name mine after a horse.”

 

“Of course you would.”

 

Julian precedes to go off about naming the other two districts after eagles and lions, pausing midway to debate with himself about whether using beetles would be better instead. “They’re noble creatures,” he quips when he catches her side-eyeing him.  

 

He continues rambling about the logistics of denominating when Maevis takes the opportunity to survey her surroundings. In the Red District, it was filled with sculptures in front of the fancy marble buildings that was clearly made long ago by masters of the craft. They were set on pedestals amid the water of the fountains and the perfectly manicured hedges that looked like a menagerie of different animals.

 

The second they entered the Yellow District there was a definite downgrade. No overly detailed sculptors or hedges, for one thing. It was still nothing like Beckinsale, however. Every building was as big as twenty of the ordinary houses of the town. The walls are still a white that would glisten in summer, but she knows it’s not the same quality or as expensive as the marble. If she had to describe the difference between the two Districts, she’d say the Red District has a very clear message to those of the lower class: They’re separate, apart, superior, and untouchable.

 

Julian winces suddenly, and brings his hand to his forehead. As he does that, Maevis hears a small click of something hitting the ground. It doesn’t take long for her to find what made the noise. 

 

A pebble. A small one, no bigger than her thumbnail, but a pebble nonetheless. 

 

Before she can bring her thoughts together and utter a What a fuck? Another pebble is thrown at Julian. He blocks it with his arm and a deep grimace forms on his expression. Then she hears it, giggling. Light, airy giggling. Ordinarily it would be the type of laughter that would soften the room, make lamplights more golden and the fires burn warmer.

 

Because it’s distinctly the giggling from children. 

 

Another pebble flies through the air, and she immediately intercepts it with a flick of the hand and steps in front of Julian. Her vision blurs as a fierce flame begins to burn in the pit of her stomach. Child or not, she’s about ready to fucking wring someone’s neck. 

 

It must show on her face, because she’s hears a series of high-pitched gasps along with quick steps running away. She catches a glimpse of three small forms making their escape around the corner. So it really was children. The fact just serves to anger her further. 

 

“Been a while since people threw stones at me,” she hears Julian say behind her. Nonchalantly. Casually. 

 

When she turns he cowers slightly, and she tries to school her expression where she doesn’t look like she’s about to murder someone. Relax those brows. Relax that mouth. Relax everything. She takes a deep breath.

 

“Last I checked you’re twenty-six,” she says quickly, anger still showing through her tone, “What the fuck are children doing throwing fucking stones at you? Those brats probably weren’t even born when this — this fucking bullshit with you started. Are parents actually talking about you with their kids? Saying you, what, deserve this treatment?”

 

Julian looks anywhere but at her face, he’s been doing more than she would like recently, shifting on his feet and tugging at one of his sleeves. Now she just feels like she’s scolding him for something he didn’t do. She sighs, and when she sees there’s no injury on his forehead she softens her voice. 

 

“You can’t be the only guy here who did something they’re not supposed to. I refuse to believe that. Do they do this to every man who steps out of line? You don’t think that’s a little extreme?”

 

His face forms into a scowl, though he still refuses to look at her, “Of course I think it’s extreme. I think it’s fucking stupid, too.” he kicks at the pebbles that were thrown at him, “It used to be worse when it first started. The words people said hurt harder than the actual hits. But it’s been almost years and I’m — I’m mostly over it.”

 

His lips quirk in a small, strained smile. It makes her teeth clench. She knows what loneliness and isolation looks like. 

 

“No one really tries anything with me anymore, around here at least. All I need to do is get angry and yell before they run away because in reality they’re all just a bunch of spineless fucks,” He clears his throat, “But I guess I can’t really get angry at some random kids so they still like to give me trouble. So I just… stopped going outside.”

 

Maevis matches his scowl with one of her own. “That’s fucking stupid. This town’s stupid, and full of a bunch of cowards if they’re going to make their own children do this shit.” She runs her hand through her hair, and her foot taps angrily on the pavement. Boiling anger threatens to spill over and all she wants to do is punch something. Preferably the parents of those kids.

 

“You’re not a whore,” she blurts out suddenly, “Or maybe you are. Who cares? What does it matter? That’s no one’s business but your own.” Her words aren’t as eloquent as she would like, but hopefully he understands what she means. From the fact that he actually looks at her face, with a small glint in his eyes, she thinks he does. 

 

“Guess they just needed an example out of me,” he said sadly, and goes back to clinging on her arm. He watches the small clouds that form from his breath and huddles closer to her. “Thanks. Again. You’re starting to get a pretty good track record.” 

 

She’s not sure if she was meant to hear the last bit, since his voice becomes a soft murmur. He sounds sleepy. Perhaps it’s all the food he ate earlier that’s making him drowsy.

 

She wants to say something. Something about how being made an ‘example’ out of is more bullshit this town seems to thrive on, but it’s clear he wants to finish the conversation. She’ll just be content with the fact she defended him, because apparently she’s the only decent fucking person around here. 

 

Few people are out, and they all give them a wide berth. Nobles seem to be more wary of approaching her openly, unlike the commoners back in Beckinsale. Maybe it’s because Julian is with her. Good. She doesn’t think she would be able to restrain herself from knocking someone’s lights out if someone tried to talk to her.

 

They walk the rest of the way in silence. She thinks back to his hand and the bite mark on it. She understands why he does that to himself, and that just makes her clench her fists tightly, tight enough she thinks her nails might break the skin. 

 


 

“That’s no one’s business but you’re own.” He wishes that was the truth. But it just wasn’t. It wasn’t how nobility worked. It can’t just be his business when his virginity is so tightly linked to the rest of his family’s reputation. It was a bargaining chip he ruined. It was everyone’s business as far as Mother and everyone else in this town was concerned. They made that fact abundantly clear. 

 

Luckily, it doesn’t take long to reach his home. Or perhaps it was unlucky. He’s not looking forward to seeing Anna again. Or Francesca. He has to remind himself that he wants to yell at his sister for acting like she’s not a terrible person to Maevis. 

 

They’re standing in the main foyer now, but when they were walking through the front gates Maevis made at least ten non-committal hums while looking around. She was definitely checking the place out, and it’s probably because they just came from a ridiculously overpriced restaurant from the Red District but he’s suddenly feeling very self-conscious. 

 

The home is… a bit of a dump, if he had to describe it. He never noticed it before now, but the front gate is rusted and gives out a loud squeak when opened. There’s not even a lock around it anymore. Inside, he sees cobwebs in corners and the wallpaper beginning to peel off. The whole place just feels stagnant.

 

If his face wasn’t already red from the cold, he would have blushed from embarrassment. He knows they stopped having servants a while ago, and he didn’t care about it before, but of course he’d suddenly become hyper-aware of that fact when the someone who — who’s opinion actually matters to him comes to visit. He just wants to clean the damn place. 

 

They’re greeted by Francesca when they enter the home, and with how barely her brows perk upwards he remembers how he’s still holding onto her arm. He extracts himself, the rest of his body suddenly feeling too warm. He begins to remove his coat and scarf when Maevis says, “Nice place you got. Pretty swanky.” 

 

He doesn’t know what swanky means. Maybe it’s commoner lingo for saying ‘wow this place is a fucking trash heap.’ He doesn’t think she would outright say that, but he’s sure she’s thinking it. He notices more cobwebs on the candelabras above them, and he wants to scream at Francesca, to order her to help him with cleaning. 

 

He won’t clean, though. He convinces himself that it’s too late for that, instead he grunts a rough “I’m going to check on my garden,” before leaving. 

 

The state of the place is just something else he’ll yell at Anna about. 

 


 

His garden is immaculate. He heaves a long sigh of relief he didn’t know he was holding. Everything was still good and healthy, blooming their brightest and emitting what he considered a divine smell. The soil was nice and damp, and he knew he didn’t need to water them. As much as pains him to think it, Anna did… okay. Good, even. But he’ll never admit that out loud. 

 

When he’s poking around his flowers for any signs of damage from pests he spots a book at the corner of his eye. It’s on a bottom shelf, almost hidden and covered in dirt. 

 

Horticulture Therapy, he reads when he picks it up. The pages are yellow with age, some torn. He had forgotten how much he had neglected the book after Father died. He almost burned it in one of his fits of anger. He tried, he tried so hard to help Father. The amount of times he tried sneaking in potted plants probably go in the hundreds, but everytime the damnable nurses at the asylum got rid of them. They were supposed to help, and yet it seemed they were intent on making Father miserable.

 

He flips through some pages, and stops when he sees he’s underlined something. 

 

“Gardening can grant someone the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can and the wisdom to know the difference."

 

He remembers this quote. He always thought it sounded poignant. And now, he can’t help but think it fits Maevis. She just needs help getting that courage, he thinks. 

 

“You seem well, Lord von Leventis,” Francesca’s voice almost makes him jump out of his skin. He isn’t sure how to greet her, considering how she left him, so he settles with glaring at her.

 

“You’ve got a bounce in your step. Maevis seems to be treating you well. I’m glad.” she says, her smile soft like she actually cares and that just serves to make him squint at her. 

 

“What do you want, Francesca?”

 

She brings up her hands in mock defense, “I see you still need to work on that temper, however.” 

 

That makes him bristle, “Are you coming onto me? Hoping that I’ll relieve some frustration with you?” 

 

“I— What? No, that relationship of ours is long over. You know that.” She tilts her head at him, “If you need an outlet, I’m sure Maevis would be willing. She seems like the type.”

 

He flares his nostrils in growing anger. What the fuck is she doing acting like some type of friend around him? What’s she hoping to gain from this conversation? 

 

He pointedly ignores her comment about Maevis, he doesn’t need images like that planted in his mind right now, “Fuck off, Francesca. I have half a mind to fire you.”

 

Her smile disappears, and he would take it as a victory, but he feels just empty. Her expression becomes wan. 

 

“It’s really not my intention to make you so antsy, truly. I apologize if I stepped out of line.”

 

“Yeah, whatever. Are you here to tell me to take care of myself for the umpteenth time?” He waves his hand at her, “Why do you care? Like you said, our relationship is over. Go away.”

 

She frowns at that, “Do I need a reason to care for your well-being? I — I know the years have not been kind to you, but not everyone has an ulterior motive.”

 

Maevis had said the same thing to him. He knows it’s true, but it’s easier to just believe everyone is out to get him. It’s just that ‘everyone’ doesn’t include Maevis, apparently. 

 

Speaking of ulterior motives, I have a sister to yell at. 

 

He mostly just wants to get away from Francesca. Her words are a truth that’s too difficult for him to swallow at the moment. He tempers his own growing anger, and he doesn’t know if he wants a beating or to throw the book at her face. 

 

Neither happens, rather he just walks past her angrily. Their shoulders hit.

 

Distantly, he hears her sigh.

 


 

Julian’s steps slow considerably when he gets closer to Anna’s study, which is where he assume she’s holed up in. His movements practically become a dawdling crawl. 

 

He bits his inner cheek. Come on you idiot. Where’d your backbone go?

 

He’s about to round the corner when he hears a door open, and he instinctively hides behind the wall. Peaking his head around the corner he spots Maevis exiting Anna’s study, her back turned towards him. 

 

“Just down the stairs and first door on the left, yeah?” She asks.

 

“Yes, you’ll know when you see it. It’s a door that stands out.” That’s Anna’s voice. 

 

He blinks several times when he watches Maevis walk away before going out of sight. 

 

Down the stairs… first door on the left…

 

He furrows his brows. She’s going down to the kitchen. He suppresses the desire to eye-roll at nothing, and rather feels renewed vigor burn inside of him. It’s just Anna in there, and she’s just a meek bitch when he so much as raises his voice against her. 

 

It’s time to give her a piece of his mind. 

 

He makes sure to make the door fly open, and Anna’s shoulder jump. 

 

“Ah, Maevis, did you forget— Oh,” She says after turning to him. He briefly sees a lighthearted smile on her face, before it morphs into a deep frown. 

 

“Just ‘oh’? Is that any way to greet your brother, dearest sister?” He hisses as he closes the door. “First you leave the house in disarray and now you make Maevis deliver food?”

 

He wastes no time walking up to her desk and slamming his hands on the table — he idly notes he’s still holding the book, but he ignores it — he revels in the flinch she gives him. 

 

“Is that why you’re so buddy-buddy with her? So you can make her your own scullery maid? You can’t be assed to hire a servant but you go through the effort of sending her some fucking letters acting like you’re not some vapid bitch.”

 

“Julian — Please, not now.” Anna pinches the bridge of her nose, which just serves to agitate him further. How dare she act like he’s some type of nuisance when she’s done nothing but torment him for almost a decade.

 

So no, he won't leave it until later, because she damn well deserves to have some of that torment thrown back at her.

 

“What do you hope to gain? Her favour? You’re clearly still trying to sell my hand to her. Are you that desperate to be the spitting image of Mother?”

 

The air is so brittle it could snap, and if it doesn't, he might. For a moment, no-one speaks. The dead silence is broken by a bird tapping its beak at the window, each one reverberating around the room like a cymbal, yet neither of them blinks or moves to stop it.

 

“I’m not Mother. We both know that well enough,” she says bitterly, eyes narrowed in irritation. “Do you think I want her to be a maid or sell your hand to her, huh? Which is it?”

 

“Both, probably. It wouldn’t surprise me that you’re stupid enough to make up a scheme like that.” He steps forward when Anna attempts to steps past him, blocking her way, “You try so fucking hard to be like Mother, giving me hell everytime you can. You’re just like everyone else in this town. Ever since Father died—”

 

He’s cut off by a sharp, stinging pain blooming across his cheek. He staggers backwards, clutching his face and lets out a small gasp of surprise. 

 

The room seems even more quiet than before. He’s sure he can hear his own heartbeat hammering in his chest, and he meets Anna’s glare with one of his own. 

 

“A backhanded slap,” he spits, eyes flicking to her shaking hand, “Like Mother, like daughter.”

 

“I’m not Mother. Stop bringing up Father. Just — Just shut up and leave me alone.” She spits, her words have a dull exhaustion to it, like they'd been over the same bitterness too many times before. They have argued more times than he can count in the past, but everytime — every single time — he mentioned Father she always shut up and took his insults. The fact that she hit him still leaves him in a slight state of shock. 

 

His voice has a sneer in his voice that extended to his eyes, “No, you don’t get that fucking right. I won’t leave you alone, because no one in this town leaves me alone. It’s been almost ten fucking years and people still — still throw fucking rocks at me!” He didn't just raise his voice, his muscles tensed and he got right in close to her face for maximum impact. His voice cracks in the middle of it, but he staunchly ignores that. 

 

He shoves at her shoulder roughly, eyes bulging. “You abandoned me when I needed you most! I thought — I thought I could trust you at first, but you became like everyone else in this fucking place, kissing up to Mother’s ass and thinking everything was my fault. Fuck you! Fuck you, Anna!” 

 

Every breath felt like his last, every breath made him ache for it to be the last. His voice is tight, throat dry with veins pulsing in his neck. “And now you have the audacity to act like some saint to Maevis. Is that it? You can’t stand being the person you are so you act like something you’re not?”

 

Looking at her small narrowed eyes he could tell she wants to slap him again, instead she responds by giving him her own shove. “I’m not — I’m not trying to act like anything, Julian, are you so pig-headed that you think everything is about you?” She shoves him again, spitting saliva with each maliciously punctuated word, “I’m trying to get her to be my maid, sell your hand, be like Mother, anything else you would like to add? You might as well go ahead and admit your obvious jealousy that Maevis deigns to spend time with someone else.”

 

Julian’s face contorts at her venomous outburst. He feels his breath hitch at the word jealousy but he swallows it down. He pushes Anna again, with two hands rather than one and with more force. Anna staggers backwards with two steps, but keeps her infuriating gaze on him. 

 

“Maybe everything is about me,” he snipes, “Everyone in this town seems to fucking think so. Mother too. And need I remind you? You abandoned—”

 

“You’re not the only one who’s suffered in this family!” Anna’s scream tears through him like a shard of glass, and from the corner of his eye he sees the windows shuddering. Her voice must have flew across the entire house. Her fists are clenched with blanched knuckles, and Julian can only stare at her with wide eyes.

 

Anna lets out a slow controlled breath and attempted to loosen her body movements, “I never - I never wanted to abandon you, when this fucking thing started I threatened Camilla. I told her I was going to cut her breasts off,” she huffs a laughs devoid of humour, “But that made things worse. Mother was furious. Kept talking about needing to diminish the damage to our family name, so she basically put me under house arrest. I go to school, then I get locked in my room for the rest of the day. I couldn’t fucking do anything.”

 

Her face moves in strange ways he isn’t used to seeing. He’s never seen someone completely lose it before, and Anna has always been either stern or meek with him. Now, she’s just going through a destructive cycle before his eyes.

 

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.

 

“You say people won’t leave you alone, and you know what? I fucking wish that was the same with me! No one gives me the time of day. No one wants to speak with me. Everyone just acts like I don’t exist. Everytime I think I might have a chance to broker a trade agreement with some family it always, always falls apart. I think they do it on purpose at this point, because our family is such a fucking joke.”

 

Unconsciously, Julian takes a step back. 

 

Anna follows him. 

 

“Only Francesca speaks to me at this point, and now Maevis. Do you want me to spell it out for you? I’m lonely, Julian. And maybe I’m a little desperate for someone’s company so I jumped at the chance to invite Maevis. Will you give me that one thing? Will you allow me that, dear brother?” She spits out the last bit, just like how he would mockingly call her his dear sister. 

 

There’s a heavy throbbing in his head, and he swallows thickly. He suppresses the urge to push at her again when she steps closer, and he feels a renewed indignation brew inside of him. 

 

“You — You’ve threatened to sell me to a brothel on more times than I can count,” he yells back, “Don’t pretend to be the victim here!”

 

“And you’ll notice I never once have gotten close to actually keeping that promise. Wow, Julian! It’s almost as if people don’t mean things they say when they’re frustrated! And you, are one frustrating person! There’s only so much bullshit I can keep taking from you before I say something stupid in retaliation!”

 

He grits his teeth, anger continuing to boil through his veins with the tone she’s taking with him. He thinks one of his veins is about to pop. 

 

He wants nothing more than to respond to her aggression with his own, and he’s about to, but she cuts him off, still as shrill and loud as before.

 

“You mentioned the house, and how utterly shit it is, you want to know why? Maevis said you’re smart. Surely you can take a fucking guess.”

 

At that, his anger is quickly abated by a brief lightning strike of panic. He’s thought of it before, but it was a line of thinking he quickly killed in his mind. He didn’t want to think about it, so he didn’t. 

 

But clearly, Anna won’t allow him that luxury.

 

“We’re almost out of money! We’ve been having financial trouble even before since Dad died. We don’t have any servants and only one guard because I can’t afford a damn thing. I’ve thought about selling the house but I — I can’t. That would feel like the final insult to our family name.” Her screaming has mostly been replaced with her croaking out the word, and he can see the physical effort it takes to get each word out. 

 

He takes another step back. 

 

“Mom left me with a dying legacy. I’m only twenty-three but I feel like I’m already growing grey hairs because I’m steering a sinking ship. You have no idea how much pressure I’ve been under. But I guess you never noticed because you’ve been too busy wallowing in your self-pity for a goddamn decade.” 

 

Julian continues to step backwards until his back hits the door. Only one thing repeats in his mind, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. IdontwanttobehereIdontwanttobehere—

 

Anna takes in one deep breath for her final scream, “Get out of here! Leave me alone!”

 

Adrenaline pumping and sweat trickling his brow, Julian quickly fumbles with the door knob before swinging it open and stepping out, nearly tripping on the way. The door shuts with a bang, and he realizes he’s breathing heavily. 

 

It feels like her scream activated his fight-or-flight response, there’s still a small urge inside of him to fight but overwhelmingly he feels the need for flight. 

 

He only makes two steps away from the door when he hears a soft murmur.

 

“Julian—” The voice makes his heart jump to his throat. He looks at Maevis like a deer caught in the crossfire, wanting nothing more than to crawl into a hole and die. Her brows are creased in worry which just further fuels his desire to get away.

 

Flight, flight, flight.

 

He doesn’t wait for her to say anything else. He doesn’t think he would be able to hear anything, his mind now just screaming at him like Anna. 

 

He runs. 

 


 

I should run after him is the only thought that fills Maevis’s mind when she watches Julian’s retreating back round the corner. 

 

She doesn’t. She looks at the bottle of unopened whiskey in her hand, and the half eaten sandwich in her other. She thinks back to how she was absolutely planning to confront Francesca about Julian’s bruises when he left them alone, but Anna immediately joined them. She had such a wide, bright smile. So genuinely enthusiastic about her being here. She practically dragged Maevis to her study. 

 

Then her stomach rumbled. Maevis would have been embarrassed if she wasn’t starving. Anna was about to get food, but Maevis insisted she’d get it instead. Practically begged her. She doesn't want Anna to see what might happen should she eat food prepared by someone else

 

It didn’t take long to get what she wanted in the kitchen. It was exceptionally bare, the only thing in abundance being alcohol. She opted to take an unopened bottle of whiskey. She checked that it was untampered. Her sandwich was pathetic. Only with ham and a slice of cheese, and stale bread. She took an open box of old biscuits for Anna’s sake. 

 

And now, here she stands. In front of a door after hearing way too much. She thinks about chasing after Julian again, but then her thoughts goes to his sister. She can’t just leave her. Especially not after hearing everything. Leaving without so much as checking on her would feel like she’s hammering a nail to the coffin of Anna’s nonexistent social life. 

 

Maevis gingerly pushes open the door, and Anna doesn’t so much as look at her. She’s back to sitting at her desk, gazing downwards at nothing, her energy seemingly spent. Most of her fury seems to have dissipated. 

 

“How much did you hear?” Maevis almost doesn’t hear the question with how soft her voice is. 

 

“...Enough,” she responds when she places the whiskey and biscuits on the table. She takes a bite of her sandwich and it feels even more tasteless than before. Looking at Anna, she gaze lingers on the dark circles that frame around her eyes. Maevis had noticed them when Anna greeted her, but now they look even more prominent.

 

She doesn’t look twenty-three. 

 

When she first them, she thought Julian and Anna may have been twins because they looked so similar. Then she assumed she was older. Figured she was in her thirties. 

 

“You look tired. I think you should rest, maybe have a nap.” She tries to keep her tone as neutral as possible. She doesn’t really want to risk Anna going off on her as well. 

 

She doesn’t answer, opting to rather open the whiskey and pour herself a glass. At this point, Maevis notices at least three empty glasses on the table, with one empty bottle of what appears to be wine. Behind Anna, there’s a small pile of more empty bottles of alcohol. Mostly cheap brands.

 

Well. Now she knows how Julian’s sister makes it through the day. 

 

“I never wanted to become a merchant,” she mumbles after taking a large gulp of her whiskey, coughing lightly at the taste. It doesn’t really feel like she’s talking to her, rather the words seem to go through her, but Maevis keeps quiet and listens. If Anna needs someone to vent to, then she’ll fill that role.

 

There’s a sniffle before Anna continues, “But that’s what the von Leventis have been for centuries, so my future was written before I was born. I wasn’t allowed to study anything else.” She massages her temples, brows creasing in a scowl. “Mother didn’t really take into account that I’m absolute dogshit when it comes to investments. Must have gotten it from her, considering she’s the one that left me with her fucking debts and bills.”

 

“Hey, now…” Maevis fumbles over her words, unsure of how comfort the woman before her. A woman, she realizes, she really doesn’t know. At all. Letters are one thing, but dealing with self-deprecation and hungry insecurities in person is an entirely different beast. 

 

She tries to change the subject. Sort of. 

 

“What did you want to be?”

 

Anna’s face scrunches into a questioning expression. Her throat bobs when she swallows. 

 

“An inventor,” there’s a smirk, but it’s small, “I wanted to make the things the merchants would invest in and sell. Silly, huh? I always liked building things in my free time.”

 

She takes another swig at her whiskey and splutters lightly. With how her brows crease Maevis would assume she actually doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, but she continues chugging it down anyway. 

 

“And now,” her words begin to grow slurred and one of her eye twitches, “I have a lot of free time because no one gives me the time of day. There’s — There’s this idea I have. I haven’t made a name for it yet a-and I know this sounds crazy, but just imagine carriages without horses.”

 

At Maevis’s quirked brows she continues, “Wouldn’t that be much more convenient? I’m still working out the kinks, but — but I think we can instead power those with an engine.” Anna’s eyes go wide, and she sits up straight as if she’s regaling Maevis with a grand story, “It can be fueled with steam. Or maybe oil. Or even electricity! I still need to work out the logistics with everything and… Well.”

 

Just as quickly as her enthusiasm begins, it ends. She slumps back on her chair, about to take another swig of her drink before realizing the glass is empty. She scowls. 

 

“Not like it’ll ever see the light of day. I’ve tried getting some investors for it, but no one likes it. Keep talking about where the horses will go and how to keep the fuel going… I’m sure Julian would say the thing about the horses, but the second he hears the abuse they usually go through I’m sure he’ll take to my idea. Heh.”

 

Maevis follows her gaze when it falls on a picture. She can’t see what it is, since it’s turned away from her, but from the way Anna’s eyes seem to have a slight spark to them and small smile tugging at her lips, she can tell it’s related to fond memories.

 

Anna’s voice doesn’t match her face, as the next words she practically chokes out. “He and I… Used to do everything together. Collect grub from the garden and hit each other with twigs,” she huffs at that, “Being older, he also took a more protective role with me. I remember when he saved me from a spider that I was sure was going to kill me. But then puberty happened for the both of us, and we started getting forced into our roles as woman and man, I suppose. Separate bedrooms. Separate classes. Separate teachings. That sort of thing.”

 

Seems like Anna and Julian have more in common than Maevis initially thought. Paper thin self-esteem and both get quiet about their interests the second they think the conversation is going nowhere. Two adults who were denied the simple pleasure of having options in life.

 

Maevis always figured she had a simple childhood, but she’s never been more grateful that she was able to have the home life she had than in this moment. She’s taken many things for granted.

 

“I bet you two looked pretty adorable when you were younger,” she says in an attempt to keep some form of levity. 

 

To her surprise, Anna meets her gaze with a smile. “Insinuating that I don’t look adorable now, are we?” 

 

Maevis can’t help but bark a laugh at that. In reality, Anna looks like an absolute mess in this moment, but she’ll let her have that one. 

 

After a moment, Anna’s expression goes back to being sullen. She stares at her empty glass before eyeing the whiskey. 

 

“I accused him of wallowing in his self-pity, but I do the same thing. I — I basically just told him I had it worse, but at least I had the chance to go to University, right? He was never given that opportunity. I don’t — I don’t have the right to complain.”

 

Oh no you don’t.

 

Maevis now declares this a ‘no-self-deprecation-from-Anna’ zone. Maybe she needs to adopt the big sister role for her too, since clearly no one else is going to do it. 

 

She’s about to jab her finger at Anna and dole out platitudes like she does Julian, but Anna speaks before her. 

 

“I hit him,” she croaks, and Maevis finds whatever she was planning to say lost in the back of her mind, “I’m a terrible person… and an even worse sister.”

 

Maevis bites her cheek and tries to ignore the quickly rising need to find Julian. 

 

“I’m… not the one to decide whether or not you’re a terrible person,” She says quickly.

 

Anna nods fitfully, “Y-Yes. It would be Julian who decides that. I need to apologize to him.”

 

“That would be a start, yes,” in a split second decision, Maevis leans in closer, putting her hands over Anna’s in a gesture she hopes is reassuring, “If it’s any consolation, I think Julian owes you an apology, too. Not everything is your fault. You didn’t deserve anything that happened over the past decade. Neither of you did.”

 

Anna’s eyes shifts to the side and became glazed with a glassy layer of tears. 

 

Maevis continues, eyes not leaving Anna’s face. 

 

“Maybe things can’t go back to what they were, but your relationship can be… Whole again.”

 

As Anna blinks, her unshed tears dripped from her eyelids and slid down her cheeks. She bit her lip tightly in an attempt to hide any sound that wanted to escape from her mouth. Maevis puts a hand on her shoulder. 

 

“The two of you need to talk. Properly. Without the yelling.”

 

Anna’s lower lip quivered as words slowly made their way out of her mouth. “Yes. Yes. You’re right — You’re absolutely right. And I will, just… I don’t think he wants to see me at all right now. He needs to cool off. I need to give him space.” There’s several hiccups followed by Anna wiping her face with the back of her hand. She takes a long, steadying breath, lips still quivering.

 

“G-Goodness… I was planning to just tell you about the damn solar system for your visit and now look where we are.” She chuckles, but this time with genuine mirth. Maevis smiles. 

 

As if on cue, there’s a light knocking on the door before it opens. Francesca peeks her head through the door. 

 

“Lady von Leventis,” she murmurs, and nods to Maevis, “Mrs. Bernard.” 

 

Maevis still isn’t sure what to make of Francesca. Her plan to confront her about Julian’s bruises is very belated at this point but she’ll have to deal with it later. Regardless of how she feels about the guard, it’s good she’s here. Anna won’t be alone when she leaves. 

 

“I’m going to look for Julian,” Maevis says softly. In all likelihood he probably doesn’t want to see anyone, but she hopes that out of the three of them, she’s the one he doesn’t want to see the least. 

 

Anna nods, and Francesca speaks, “He’s in his greenhouse. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.” 

 

Ever the picture of the gallant knight, she supposes. Anna gives a choked thanks to Maevis, and just as she turns for the door she hits her palm with her fist, an invisible lightbulb lighting up in her head. 

 

“Oh! Anna,” she says, “About your idea, I think I got a name for it.”

 

When Anna just blinks owlishly at her, she continues. 

 

“You could call it… an automobile!”

 

“...A what?”

 

Maevis claps her hands together, a smirk forming on her lips, “Automobile. Think about it. It moves, so it’s mobile , but it moves on its own so it’s auto. Boom. Automobile. Kinda catchy too, wouldn’t you say?”

 

Anna seems to consider it, her hand going to her chin and brows creased in thought. 

 

“Automobile…” She mumbles, and repeats it several times. “Yes. I think I like it. If — If you’d like, I could show you some sketches I’ve done for it sometime. Whenever next you’re free.”

 

Maevis’s smirk grows wider, “I’d absolutely like that. See you later.”

 

As she leaves, she claps a hand on Francesca’s shoulder. She keeps her voice low, “I’ll take care of Julian. Take care of Anna for me. We’ll talk later.”

 

She doesn’t wait for her response. There’s only one thing on her mind now. 

 

Sorry for the wait Julian. I’m coming for you.

 


 

Julian keeps his eyes shut. The fragrance of the flowers surrounding him envelopes him, and he heaves a long, defeated sigh as he tries to calm down. 

 

That was the first time Anna yelled at him like that in so long. First time in a long while someone actually responded to his aggression with some of their own. It felt unreal. Unnatural.

 

He doesn’t want to think of anything. He doesn’t want to do anything. Part of him hopes his body will take the hint and fall asleep already; even if his current pose will probably lead to a stiff neck later.

 

His heart skips a beat when he hears footsteps, and he grinds his teeth unconsciously. 

 

“Jul—Fucking hell, man, thought you were unconscious there.”

 

Right. He’s lying on the floor in the middle of the greenhouse. Maybe it looks like he fell. 

 

At the very least, Maevis’s voice makes his heart beat more calmly. He doesn’t know what he would have done if Anna showed. Probably throw a potted plant at her, as much as it pains him to even think of putting his flowers in danger like that. 

 

He gives a sad smile at nothing in particular, and strains his voice to sound slightly less miserable. “I usually like to lie here when I’m feeling like shit.” 

 

There’s more footsteps as she comes closer. He can hear her try to keep her tone leveled. 

 

“...Would you like a pillow? Maybe another massage? Bet you’re full of knots now.”

 

He snorts, a strange warmth filling him. He ignores it. “I’d rather be left alone.”

 

More steps, now he knows she’s standing directly by his feet. “Sorry, Julian, no can do. Mind if I lie with you?”

 

“...Do what you want.”

 

There’s some shuffling, from the sounds he assumes that they’re lying back-to-back now. There’s a brief strike of nervousness that hits him, unused to having someone else with him in moments like these. Flowers are usually his only companion. 

 

“You alright?” Maevis eventually asks.

 

He has to suppress the urge to scoff. “Fucking peachy.”

 

“Right, right. Sorry I asked.”

 

Then there’s silence, only broken by their breathing. He keeps his eyes shut, but he knows he won’t be able to actually sleep now. Not with Maevis right behind him. He can practically feel her curiosity. She obviously wants to ask him things, considering there’s a big damn elephant in the room.

 

“I’m irritated at Anna, not you.” He says, if only to just get rid of the suffocating silence. 

 

“I’m glad to hear that.”

 

Silence again. He shifts uncomfortably in his position. 

 

“You heard a bunch of shit.”

 

“I did. Anna told me some things.”

 

“So you know everything, then.”

 

He doesn’t really mean to get annoyed when she just hums, but he does. Why is she putting off the topic? What’s the point? Now he’s starting to feel irritated at her. 

 

“I know Anna’s side, if anything,” she says, “And I have an inkling of what the full story for you is.”

 

The heart rate picks up. Feeling the sudden urge to get the attention off of him, he snarls, “I can’t believe she kept the money thing away from me. And then she had the fucking gall to hit me.” He knows she didn’t really keep their monetary troubles away from him. He’s known for a while now. He’s just been in denial about it. 

 

Maevis keeps her voice neutral, “Anna’s got a pretty good idea. I think I want to… invest in it.” He’s taken aback by that response, so much so that it takes a few seconds for his mind to catch up. Before he can ask her what the hell she’s talking about she continues, “I can’t really excuse the hitting part, though. For what it’s worth, I do think she’s genuinely sorry about it.”

 

His nostrils flare, and he just barely stops himself from turning around and angrily yelling at her. “Are you actually saying I should forgive her? Because she said fucking sorry to you?”

 

“You don’t have to forgive her. I just think the two of you need to talk.”

 

His voice gets louder, “We already fucking talked. Did you miss what just happened?”

 

“Without the yelling. And without either of you accusing each other of stuff.”

 

“Go away, Maevis.”

 

“Everything started after your dad died, didn’t it?”

 

For an agonizing couple of seconds, he’s rendered speechless. This time, he does open his eyes, as wide as they could stretch, and his mouth hangs with lips slightly parted. His body leaps in the air as if a firecracker had gone off as he growls at her. 

 

“Fuck off. You don’t know anything.” 

 

Infuriatingly, she doesn’t so much as budge. “But I’d like to know.”

 

“Why?” he spits angrily, “What could you possibly do with that information?” 

 

This time she moves, head slightly turning towards him. Her brows are creased and her mouth is set in a tight frown. 

 

“Because I want to help. I care about you.”

 

His brain stutters for a moment, every part of him goes on pause while his thoughts catch up. After a wash of cold, he shivers. Be it because of fear or anger, he isn’t sure anymore. Why would he be afraid? Why does he suddenly feel the need to keep her an arm’s length? To keep her as far as he can?

 

Julian frantically tries to remember how to breathe, unable to speak, totally stunned as the word care bounces around inside his skull.

 

“Your family was hit with financial issues, and it took a toll on your father,” she says, she doesn’t move, but it feels like she’s too close, “It affected him so much he was institutionalized for it, probably to be treated for some bullshit disease, something called the Hysteria, I bet. He passed, and that’s when you were secretly courted by someone.”

 

It was as if each word was an impact that knocks every wisp of air from his lungs, and he sits there struggling to do anything.

 

“Seeing how you’re practically allergic to the name Dolloway, I assume it was a woman from that family. She courted you, and then the second she slept with you she drops you like a sack of bricks. She’s probably the one that started rumors and your family reputation took a nosedive. And then, your mother, likely due to pressure, became more strict with Anna and she was unable to support you as a sister.” ‘Then you spent the next ten or so years in abject misery’ is left unsaid. 

 

Julian’s shoulders hunched together like he was trying to disappear inside himself. Even his dark eyes seemed to be attempting to retreat inside his head. “Y-Yeah,” his voice warbled, “Hit the fucking nail on the head. Congratulations.”

 

He doesn’t see her expression. He’s too busy looking at the floor, a feeling of shame threatening to suffocate him. 

 

A hand lightly grasps his shoulder, he flinches. “I’m not saying this to upset you. I want to help you.”

 

“And how will you do that? Send me to an asylum?” He had meant to spit it out, to make his words as venomous as possible, but it comes out as a whisper. 

 

Maevis makes a noise close to a displeased snort, “Fuck no. As far as I’m concerned they’re responsible for your dad’s death. I’d rather light that place on fire than send you to it.”

 

He’d like to do a hell of a lot more than set it on fire. Arson was too generous of a punishment for those useless fucking ingrates. 

 

He sucks in a breath, “Maybe Father was sick. He definitely needed help. But he didn’t — didn’t have the fucking Hysteria. He... He just had panic attacks. That’s all.”

 

“A man’s emotions are often an unsightly and fragile thing,” Julian remembers overhearing one of Mother’s friends saying to her. Father’s mannerisms and failing mental state was the topic of everyone’s gossip. Their reputation was already failing long before he lost his virginity. 

 

“You should send him to the asylum. They’ll fix him right up.”

 

What was Mother even thinking then? He knows they had an arranged marriage but surely they had grown to love each other. How could she send him to what was basically a death sentence? Was she truly under that much pressure?

 

“They—They never told me how he died,” he sniffles, and he can feel himself shaking, “But I know. I know. It couldn’t have been anything else but — but suicide.” And just like that, his walls, the walls that he spent years building around him just... collapse. Moment by moment, they fall. Salty drops fall from his chin, drenching his shirt.

 

He starts to sob, choking out words between gutted breaths. “I was… I was so mad. I hated everything. And everyone. T-Then I met Camilla and — and…” He swallows thickly, and belatedly realizes Maevis’s hand went from his shoulder to his cheek, rubbing small circles. “Being with her... It… It was my way of rebelling against society, I guess. She was — She was nice and I… I loved her.” 

 

He croaks out another stuttery sob. Before he’s even aware of his own movements, Julian puts his face to Maevis’s shoulder. He sobbed against her unceasingly, hands clutching at her jacket. She held him in silence, rocking him slowly as his tears soaked her clothing. A tiny lapse let him pull away — in a last ditch effort to get away from her like a tiny voice in his head demands of him — blinking lashes heavy with tears, before he collapsed again, his howls of misery worsening. Minutes of sobbing is broken apart by short pauses for recovering breaths.

 

It's raw, everything, raw tears, raw emotions. In the brief moments he’s able to think straight, ruminates back to Camilla.

 

Had he truly loved her? He wasn’t sure. It felt real at the time. But he was just a stupid teenager.

 

He has says as much. 

 

“I’m — I’m such a fucking idiot,” he sniffles, “If I wasn’t so stupid — If I didn’t—”

 

“I’m gonna stop you right there.” Her voice is more commanding than he expected, so he clamps his mouth shut. Instead, he continues sobbing against her shoulder. 

 

Maevis smooths a hand across his back, “You probably know more about animals than I do now. And you’re a natural when it comes to horseback riding. You’re anything but stupid, Julian.”

 

Try as he might to reign in his sound, his crying is both ferocious and noisy. Clear watery snot streaked from his flaring nostrils down his red mottled skin to his open quivering lips. His throat hurts, and he’s sure his eyes are bloodshot at this point. 

 

“You’re so much more than your past. Don’t let it define you.”

 

He doesn’t know if she says anything else after that. He can’t hear anything else over his sobbing. 

 

It’s been so long since he’s a good, long cry without the overwhelming need to hurt himself. It almost feels unnatural. If he couldn’t belt himself he would have stuck a needle in the webbing between his toes. His mind had always justified the pain. Each time, it felt like he was pushing poison out of himself, bit by bit. It became a natural reflex to hurt himself, so he just drowned in it.

 

Now, he drowns in his tears. 

 


 

Crying turned out to be a painstakingly long process of confusion, embarrassment and anger. 

 

But in the end, Julian felt as though a weight was lifted from his shoulders. He slowly extracts himself from Maevis’s shoulder, vision bleary. It’s hard to focus on anything. 

 

“I made Anna cry too,” Maevis says lightly, “Guess I’ve got a knack for this sort of thing.”

 

He’s not really sure if she’s expecting a response to that, so instead he says, “Sorry. About ruining your jacket.”

 

She shrugs, a hand patting on his head. The action surprises him, but he finds he immediately misses her touch when she’s done. He ignores the warmth filling his gut. 

 

“You don’t ever have to apologize for crying. Feels good to let it all out, huh?”

 

He gingerly rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, still sniffling every ten seconds. When he catches a glance at her expression, she’s got a smile that only makes him feel warmer. Reflexively, he looks away.

 

“I’m tired.” He mumbles. “Fuck. I’m such a mess.”

 

“That makes two of us. Well, three if you count Anna. Maybe four if you count Nadine’s family situation. Birds of a feather flock together, huh?” Again, he finds himself unsure of how to respond, so he just sighs. 

 

Maevis chuckles lightly, “Heh, right, you’re tired. I’ll get you a pillow if you still wanna sleep here. Some water, too.”

 

He nods lamely, “...You can get one from my room. It’s the first room above the stairs.”

 

She hums in affirmation and pats his head again before standing. Just has all been something else to add the list of nice things she’s done for him, with apparently no ulterior motive behind her actions. 

 

It’s a list that’s growing awfully quickly. Part of that makes him nervous, for reasons he’s unsure of. She had reminded him of Father. Sometimes of Camilla. It all felt like a disservice now. She was just Maevis. A woman who endlessly confused him.

 

She’s a moron. An idiot, really. 

 

He sniffles.

 

But also the kindest person I’ve ever met.

 

Perhaps spurred on by that thought, he grabs onto her sleeve before she gets too far. When she turns to him with a look of surprise, he speaks. 

 

“You need to take your own advice,” his voice is croaky, and it hurts to get any words out, but he continues, “About not letting the past define you.”

 

There’s a flicker of apprehension on her face, before it’s replaced by the barest hint of a smile. “Well, it’s a good thing I have you helping me out, huh?”

 

Again, he finds he has to look away from her; face quickly growing warm. 

 

“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.”

 

There’s another lighthearted huff before she leaves. 

 

When she returns, it doesn’t take long for him to fall asleep. The last thing he sees is her, and the last thing he feels is her hand brushing his hair away from his eyes.

 


 

I need a fucking drink, is what Maevis thinks to herself when rummages through the kitchen. She doesn’t really intend to take drink all of it, but she takes two bottles of unopened whiskey. That particular drink seems to be a favourite of Anna’s.

 

She sits at the dining room table, and thinking back on it, Anna has a distressingly large collection of alcohol. Especially in comparison to everything else in the kitchen. 

 

Yet another hurdle, I guess.

 

She rolls her shoulders. Now’s not the time to think about that. Now’s the time to dull the emotions that happened today. With Francesca, seeing how the woman unceremoniously joins her with her own bottle. Said something about Anna currently resting in her room.

 

Maevis doesn’t really want to spend time with Francesca. She’s sure she’s a fine enough person, but she just doesn’t want her to bring anything else up on an already tumultuous day.  

 

Thankfully, she doesn’t say anything and they sit there in silence. Maevis isn’t sure how much time has elapsed from Julian sleeping and her coming her. She stayed with him for a while, probably longer than what was necessary. All she knows it’s been a couple of hours. 

 

She’s taken a few sips from her glass when the door creaks open. Julian peeks his head through the door. 

 

Francesca speaks before she can, practically leaping off her chair. “Lord von Leventis. Are you well?”

 

He waves her off, “Fine.” He looks at Maevis, it’s clear he fixed up his appearance before coming here, “Drinking the day away, huh?”

 

She shakes the bottle at him, “Well, it’s been a long day. Want some?”

 

From the impressive scowl Francesca immediately gives her, it must not have been the right thing to say. Her eyes go from Maevis to Julian. 

 

“That’s improper.” She turns to Maevis, “Men aren’t allowed to drink.

 

Julian scoffs, “Well, it’s a good thing I’ve never been much for rules, huh?”

 

“You’ve never had alcohol before. You may have a negative reaction.”

 

“What, like I’m allergic? I’m having some.”

 

Leaving no room for debate, Julian sits down. He stares intently at whiskey like it’ll bite at him when it’s poured in his glass. Maevis doesn’t miss how Francesca gives her the stink-eye the entire time, probably thinking she has unsavory intentions for her precious Lord. The woman really needs to get that stick out of her ass. If there’s anyone who deserves a moment to kick back and relax, it’s Julian.

 

Maevis takes her own sip, and Julian then looks at her with slightly narrowed eyes. 

 

Clearly, he doesn’t want to be outdone, if him just chugging the drink is anything to go by. The soft amber colour must belie the harsh taste, because next he splutters like a child. Then to make up for his apparent foolishness he downs the rest in one shot, looking like he’s about to cry when he harshly puts the glass back on the table. 

 

“A-Another!” he rasps.

 

Maevis is briefly stunned into silence, but then barks a throaty laugh, “Coming up!” 

 

Francesca, meanwhile, continues to look a bit anxious, but drinks from her own glass.

 

Maevis watches with morbid fascination as Julian downs another glass, groaning like he’s been punched in the gut but continuing to happily destroy his liver anyway. She’s not sure she wants him drinking too much alcohol in the future at the current rate he’s going, considering Anna’s entire situation. All things in moderation and all that.

 

“Now, now,” she chides as he demands another shot, “Don’t drink too much. You could get hurt if you get drunk, and we don’t want that happening.”

 

She hears Francesca snort, and she sees her mouth quirked in a smug grin, “You sound like an overprotective girlfriend.”

 

Maevis straightens her back, taken aback by such a… casual comment, and from Francesca of all people. What the hell spurned that on? Didn’t this woman want to bite her head off just a moment ago? The hell is she doing getting all friendly?

 

She thinks Julian stills his movements because she can’t hear him gurgling down the whiskey anymore. 

 

“Nah,” she says, mostly in an attempt to get Francesca to shut up, “I’m not his type.”

 

From the corner of her vision, she can see that Julian’s looking at her. He moved so quickly he was just a black blur. Turning her head, she sees his eyes are very narrow along, almost slits, brows creased deeply and with an expression that she could only describe as confusion mixed with rage.

 

“Not my type? Since when?!” He japs an accusing finger at his guard, “Did you tell her that?!”

 

She can stare at him, and Francesca doesn’t respond to him, opting to instead continue her own drink. Maevis gets the distinct impression that the guard knows more than her and she squints at her.

 

Suddenly feeling embarrassed, Maevis awkwardly rubs her neck, “Uh. Figured I was too old, I guess.”

 

Then she notices the redness gracing his face. A deep blush, and now Maevis thinks she understands.

 

Must be a lightweight. Totally. That explains his outburst. 

 

He mumbles something incomprehensible before returning his attention to the whiskey. 

 

To her shock, and slight terror, Julian takes the second bottle and proceeds to guzzle it down. Luckily for him, Francesca helps him with it. She probably drinks more than he does, saving him from truly destroying his organs.

 

“You’re a bad influence,” Francesca mutters, but with a smile on her face. It’s clearly meant to be harmless banter.

 

The comment makes Maevis squint at her further. You’re not my friend. Stop acting so friendly. The hell?

 

They continue like that for a while, this time with Maevis giving Francesca the stink-eye. She still feels like she’s missing something. Like she skipped over an important plot point in the story. 

 

They talk of nothing important and Julian almost falling on his face on more than one occasion. On several occasions, Maevis finds herself thinking that she doesn’t want him drinking in the future. As the hour wears on, he becomes considerably more unsteady, drinking much more than her.

 

Eventually, Francesca stands, remarkably steady for the amount she drank.

 

“I’m going to check on Lady von Leventis,” when she looks at Maevis, there’s a certain glint in her eyes, “I’ll take care of Anna. Take care of Julian for me. We’ll talk later.” 

 

What the— Why are you throwing my words back at me? The fuck. What do you know that I don’t?!

 

She barely stops herself from yelling those very same words as Francesca leaves. She didn’t know it was possible for the day to be more exhausting, but now she feels like she needs to sleep for ten years.

 

Maevis looks over to Julian, who’s now slouched forward, staring at the empty glass. There’s the occasional hiccup, but he’s mostly silent. He’s somehow even more red than before, she didn’t know red could even have that deep of a shade. His eyes are bleary and watery, reminding her of his earlier crying. She really hope he isn’t a tearful drunk.

 

Drunk. She blinks. Please don’t tell me he’s drunk.  

 

He leans back on his chair and groans loudly and his words become slurred, “Whiskey fucking sucks.”

 

She can’t help but snicker at that, “Yup. Got that right.”

 

He stares at the ceiling, meanwhile she stares at him. His mouth is slightly open. 

 

There’s a thin trail of drool that goes down his chin. She doesn’t think he’s even aware of it. 

 

“There’s, ah, just let me—” She moves forward to wipe at his lips. When her fingers reach his mouth she tries not to take extra note of his glazed over eyes. 

 

Rather, she can’t look at his eyes. Instead, she’s staring at his mouth when his lips go around her fingers. She exhales a sharp breath and she’s pretty sure her heart has just lept in her throat. Her hand stiffens, seemingly trapped in his mouth.

 

Oh. Okay then. 

 

She thinks she might be a bit tipsy herself, because she just becomes enamored by his dazed expression. 

 

He has… pretty lips. She’s not sure she’s taken close notice of his lips before. They’re… plump. Curved nicely. 

 

And the warmth of his lips is making her warm in a decidedly different pair of lips. One that’s much further down. Before she can formulate a proper response Julian takes it upon himself to further swallow her two fingers. 

 

His tongue.

 

Oh fuck his tongue. 

 

She feels him go up and down on her digits, his tongue just completely slathering her fingers with saliva. Eventually, his mouth reaches her knuckles and she feels the back of his throat.

 

No reaction.

 

No gag reflex. You learn something new everyday. 

 

And she’s been learning an awful lot recently. 

 

Her licks her lips, intensely aware of her own blush forming on her face. Julian hollows out his cheeks to get one great suck — the noises. The noises. — and Maevis thinks she’s on the cusp of losing her damn mind. 

 

“Julian,” she rasps after she hears only wet slurping, “I, uh, I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I’m gonna need my fingers back.”

 

She awkwardly pulls her hand away, her fingers just barely grazing his teeth. A string of saliva follows her, and Julian almost falls out of his seat with how he leans forward. 

 

“Come on buddy, time for you to go to bed.” she mutters, and tries to make him stand. 

 

He stands, but she’s introduced to another problem when he wraps his arms around her neck and presses his body against hers. She lets out a small oof in response, her mind completely scattered at this point.

 

Evidently, Maevis was not the only person who was affected by his finger sucking, because she feels a familiar hardness against her. 

 

“I just took a nap. Not tired.” He mutters. 

 

“...I’m taking you to bed anyway,” the second the words leave her, she has the intense urge to punch herself in the face because wow that can be interpreted in a certain way, idiot. 

 

She clears her throat, “You’re going to sleep anyway. You’ll thank me tomorrow when you’re hung over.”

 

Her mind becomes frazzled than before. Eventually she makes a split second decision to just carry him to bed. Her hands go behind his thighs, and when she lifts him off the ground he wraps his legs around her waist. It’s probably muscle memory on his part, but she appreciates the cooperation, though his erection is more pressing now.

 

Through awkward and unsteady movements, she heads up the stairs. She’s never been a religious woman, but now she’s praying frantically that neither Francesca or Anna see them. She doesn’t think she’d be able to resist the urge to jump out the window if they came around the corner. 

 

She doesn’t have time to think about that, not when she can feel the heat radiating off his face. He buries his face against the crook of her neck and she thinks he’s about ready to go to sleep, despite his earlier comment. Good. Finger sucking and an erection was just a weird side effect of being drunk and—

 

She nearly drops him when she feels a warm wetness lazily and slowly going up her neck.

 

Oh god. Oh fuck. 

 

Julian practically purrs when he gives long, languid strokes on her nape with his tongue. He giggles like a schoolboy, before blowing a breath against her ear. 

 

“You’re nice,” he slurs, “Strong, too.”

 

She staggers when she feels teeth take hold on her damp neck. He sucks, and sucks and sucks. 

 

This — This fucker.

 

“Mhm… You’re my type,” his voice is no more than a whisper, “You’re exactly my type.”

 

‘Nice’ and ‘strong’ isn’t a very high bar when it comes to preferences, but she’ll try to feel flattered all the same.

 

She clears her throat, feeling lightheaded herself, “...You’re drunk, Julian. Just sleep.”

 

Yeah. He’s never having whiskey ever again. 

 

Julian continues his licking, occasionally pecking at her neck. So he’s a clingy drunk. Extracting herself from his hold may prove difficult.

 

It doesn’t take long to reach his room, but it feels like a fucking century. When she drops him on the bed, his arms still have their hold around her neck, and she finds her face directly above hers. 

 

He licks her lips, and bucks his hips against hers. 

 

She bites her cheek hard enough she thinks it might bleed. 

 

“Hey you,” he says, his eyes are cloudy, but his grin reaches his ears. 

 

“...Hey.” she says, “I think you gave me a hickey.”

 

“Mhm,” he lips his lips, a hand reaching the back of her hand and entangling in her hair, “Maybe you should return the favour.” 

 

Then, he cranes his neck. Practically throws his head back. Showing off his entire neck, inviting her. 

 

For a moment, she thinks her soul has left its body. 

 

“I—” she clears her throat again, “I can’t do that. You’re drunk. Go to sleep.” She grabs his wrists, and it doesn’t take much force to make him left go of her. She has to ignore the small whine he gives her. And ignore the image of him having his wrists pinned above his head. 

 

Even if he was completely sober, she’d still refuse him. After everything that’s happened today, it would feel too much like she was taking advantage of a man who’s emotionally vulnerable. It’s all been too much for a single day.

 

And Julian deserves better than that. He's not a convenience to just be used. She’s not Camilla. She refuses to be her.

 

Besides—

 

He’s like a brother to me. 

 

A voice at the back of her head nags at her. 

 

A brother who happens to stare at your thighs a lot. 

 

Sweat beads her forehead. She takes his shoes off before putting a blanket on him. He complains about it, but makes no movement. Good. She doesn’t actually want to make him stay in bed. 

 

Okay. So he checks me out. Men do that. No biggie. 

 

You check him out, too. 

 

She closes his bedroom door with perhaps too much force when that thought invades her head. Horseriding has been such a boon for Julian. The results have been quite… evident on his body.

 

I care about him. 

 

Care for him, more than just a brother. 

 

She bites her cheek again. Stop thinking, Maevis. You need to go to sleep, too. 

 

He can deal with his erection himself, and she’ll deal with her own growing wetness. And then neither of them will remember this when its morning. 

 

She hopes so anyway. 

Chapter Text

Thud. 

 

The sound whirs through the air, penetrating Maevis’s skull and every thought. Someone’s fallen. Who? Why?

 

She looks around. Her vision is unfocused, everything a blurry mess. Everything bleeds into one another, like wet paint on a canvas. Though somehow, she can make out the scene. She knows what’s happening.

 

There are people. A crowd. They look bewildered. Their gazes tears through her skin like a knife. The clouds from their breath surround her like smoke, and soon, she can’t see anything anymore.

 

“Mae, come on, calm down already.” She knows this voice. She knows the face that suddenly appears before her. Scarred and older than her. A woman she’s known for well over a decade. 

 

Calvara. Her voice is muffled. Her words come out like she’s in a tunnel. 

 

Maevis feels like a sudden sting on her knuckles. Looking down, there are specks of blood. 

 

Right. She had hit Calvara. She fell with a thud. But blood on her hands? She didn’t hit her nearly that hard. She just grazed her chin and made Cal lose her balance. Didn’t she? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. Shedoesn’tknowshedoesn’tknowshedoesn’tknow

 

The blood continues to seep through her. It seeps through over parts of her body, her mouth, her nose, her ears, her chest, her stomach. 

 

“Maevis calm down.”

 

She can’t. There’s people around her again. 

 

“Where are you?”

 

She doesn’t fucking know! Everything is a blur again. Her skin feels like it’s the surface of a boiling stew, as if just beneath her skin the blood that seeps through wants to burst out now. Her skin bubbles. It builds, and builds, and builds before it pops like a pimple. 

 

Maevis screams, but nothing comes out of her mouth. The silence almost seems more deafening. 

 

“Maevis.”

 

She lashes out. She punches at Calvara’s face but it dissipates into mist. She swivels around to try to punch a vague outline of a human, but it too disappears as quickly as it formed. 

 

“Maevis!”

 

She has to run. The blackness that suddenly surrounds her is going to swallow her. She runs, runs, runs, with no direction or destination in mind. She doesn’t think she’s moving anywhere. It’s just black. 

 

“This is a poetic end to you, isn’t it, Wolf?”

 

The voice hits her like a sack of brick. It’s not Calvara or anyone she knows. It’s some old croon and soon she feels her skin bubble all over and her head splitting open as her skull cracks under a crushing weight—

 

Maevis lurches. Waking up feels like she’s being pelted by cruel shattering waves. She can taste the bile in her throat threatening to spill, but it soon it’s forced down when she swallows heavily, though her stomach feels like a tight knot. Sweat sticks to her clothing, and she gasps desperately for air for what feels like hours but she knows it’s only a few seconds. 

 

She feels a stab of fear when she finally realizes the…. strangely comforting weight on her body. Something is wrapped around her with a contrictive grip, and she wiggles around to try to discern what the hell is on top of her. 

 

Arms. Arms are definitely around her. Lifting her head, she sees a tuft of black hair laying on her chest. 

 

What the fucking hell

 

Her blinding panic is immediately replaced by obfuscating confusion. When did— How— Why

 

Why the fuck is Julian here!?

 

She didn’t bring him to her bed. She definitely remembers putting him in his own bed. Maevis’s eyes quickly scan around the room. Yup. She’s in the guest room. That’s directly across from Julian’s room. Had he — ? Had he really snuck into her bed in the middle of the night in his drunken stupor? And she didn’t notice?

 

Fucking I really have gotten rusty. 

 

She blames the alcohol for her lack of situational awareness. He’s lucky, she probably would have pistol-whipped him if she awoke to him getting comfy on her chest like that. 

 

...But she also can’t deny that him wrapped around her like that feels… nice. Really nice. Like she’s got an oversized cat sleeping on top of her. It almost feels like it anchors her, her previous nightmare seeming like a distant memory. Though just thinking about it makes her feel sweaty again, so she deftly ignores it. 

 

There’s a light rustle, and panic begins to fester again. How the hell would she even begin to explain their current position? Or the hickey for that matter? She’d rather the Goddess Acadia herself to just strike her down now than have to go through form laborious misunderstanding.

 

Julian’s small movements end as soon as they began. She thinks she hears a light snort, and he stills. 

 

Alrighty. Mission one. Get him back to fucking bed. His own bed.

 

She doesn’t know how early it is. The light is just barely beginning to filter through the window. Surely Julian will be waking soon. He’s gotta have a massive headache sooner or later. And if the headache won’t wake him, it’ll probably be her sweat. Gross.  

 

Maevis wriggles around again, trying to escape his iron hold as gently and unassuming as she’s able. He’s got a surprising amount of strength in his grip, but she’s eventually able to break free and slither off the side of the bed. 

 

Guess he’s a heavy sleeper. 

 

Julian continues to sleep, his chest rising and falling in slow, lazy intervals. Belatedly, she notices he’s drooled on her shirt. Suffice to say, sweat, drool and a headache are not how she expected to wake up in the morning. 

 

She sighs. Better than waking up and vomiting out what she had last night, she supposes. 

 

After a second to recollect herself, she decides she’ll carry him to his room again. She puts an arm behind his back, and one under his knees, and lifts him up. She likes this way of carrying people. It always made men so flustered. She almost laments the fact that he’s out like a log, his reaction would have been great. 

 

...She immediately tucks that thought back in her mind. It comes with a feeling of… something. Something she’s not sure about. Guilt, maybe? The same feeling she felt when he sucked her fingers last night, — a fact she has to remind herself actually happened — a feeling that made her think I’m not Camilla. Maybe that’s where the guilt comes from: The fact he’s awfully easy to take advantage of in moments like these. She won’t. She refuses to. I’m not Camilla, she repeats in her head .  

 

A strange feeling. She doesn’t know what to do with it. Doesn’t know what to truly call it.

She doesn’t tuck him in bed. She settles with placing him on top of the bunk and immediately leaving, especially when she hears more shuffling and sounds like a small ugh. The jostling probably finally woken him, and the headache must be making its unwelcome appearance. 

 

He has water at his bedside table. He’ll be fine. 

 

Maevis walks down the stairs with slow moments, mind still abuzz with the fact that wow he actually snuck into bed with me. What the fuck. It was a strange blessing in disguise, if anything. Definitely better than waking up alone. Almost flattering, in a way. But still. Wow. 

 

Inevitably, her thoughts go back to her nightmare. It was a hazy mess, but there were remnants of a memory. She hit Calvara when a crowd came too close outside the gate and now she royally feels like shit. A part of her knows the reason she jumped at the chance to come to Julian’s home to avoid seeing her friend as long as possible. Ironic, she thinks, considering she’s told the two siblings they need to talk and yet here she is avoiding her own problems.

 

Another sigh escapes her. Nothing she can really do about it now. She’ll just do what she initially planned to do. 

 

She wants to a proper chat with Francesca. 

 


 

The second she opens the door to the dining room Maevis is greeted with a gun to the face. 

 

Entirely driven by instinct, Maevis whips out Frenzy with blinding movement and then there’s a resounding click. 

 

Nothing. Obviously, since Frenzy hasn’t loaded in a while now because of situations like this. Though she still takes an inordinate amount of glee from the looks of Francesca’s face. Eyes wide and a bead of sweat on her forehead. She knows. She knows she would be dead if there was an actual bullet in there. Maevis is faster than her. At least she isn’t rusty in that regard.

 

“Want to explain why you pulled a gun on me?” Maevis asks as she holsters Frenzy. This morning keeps getting more interesting. 

 

There’s a twitch on one of Francesca’s brows. She puts down her own gun, a derringer, a tiny little thing she probably pulled out of her sleeve. 

 

“I thought you were better than this,” is all the guard says.

 

Maevis rolls her eyes, “So you want to explain or continue to be vague?”

 

Francesca scowls deeply, beginning to pace around the room. 

 

“I believed you to be the saint people seem to say you are, even deemed you someone good enough for Julian. And then what do I see, fucking that.” She jabs at her own neck, near the base, and realization dawns on Maevis. 

 

“I — What? No!” She splutters, “I swear I didn’t touch him while he was drunk! He touched me!” 

 

That obviously wasn’t the right thing to say, because Francesca points her gun at her again. 

 

“He got drunk, then he got a bit… mouthy. Pushed himself on me. But that’s it. It never went beyond a simple hickey and I got him to bed pretty quickly. I didn’t touch him other than carrying him,” then, she feels her skin prickle. A sting of sharp irritation over being accused of that, “I don’t consider myself a saint, but I’m not a fucking barbarian. Fucking hell.”

 

Francesca lowers her gun again, much slower this time, but still looks unconvinced. 

 

Maevis sighs. She’s not really sure if there is a conceivable way to concretely prove that she didn’t do anything to Julian. Francesca’s scowl seems to lessen slightly, and she moves to the back of the room and Maevis notices a bag of groceries on the table. 

 

A scarf is thrown at her face. 

 

“I assume Julian is unaware of what happened? Then hide it.”

 

Maevis really doesn’t like taking orders, especially from a woman that’s done nothing but irritate her, but she puts it on anyway. Then she furrows her brow. This guard acted all friendly the day prior and then she pulled a gun on her. Honestly. 

 

“Alright,” Maevis says through gritted teeth, “Now that that’s out of the way, I gotta ask. What the fuck is with you? When I first met you, you threatened me. And then last night you apparently had a change of heart, and now you’re threatening me again,” she jabs a finger at her, “Why the fuck do you care so much anyway? I’ve — I’ve seen the bruises on his back. You did that didn’t you? What right do you have to act like you’re his — his protector or some shit when you do the very things that upset you?”

 

Her little spat doesn’t really get what she wants. Instead of opening her eyes wider and reeling back from the confrontation, Francesca quirks her lips upwards.

 

“You don’t know? It seems I have overestimated how far you would have gotten with him. He’s a masochist.”

 

Maevis is about to make a snide comment when the last bit finally registers in her mind. It hits her like a fucking freight train, so far removed than what she was expecting, so she just stares at Francesca with an open mouth. Her brain, deciding to be exceptionally unhelpful now, formulated no thoughts other than to register that she was shocked. She closes his mouth, then looks around the room in an attempt to get her brain to function properly. When that fails, she glances back up to catch her eye. "Excuse me?" is all she could say.

 

“A masochist. He gets off on pain—”

 

“I know what that fucking means.”

 

“—He and I had an… agreement. I’d hurt him when he wanted it, and he’d leave a little less angry at everything. All consensual, I assure you. It fell apart, however. Ended when I helped him settle in your place.” Francesca takes a seat, smile not leaving her face, “I had worried you would be bad for him. But he looks so much healthier in the time he’s been with you. Happier. So I decided I could trust you with him last night.”

 

Maevis finds she can’t really formulate a proper response, mind whirring as the word masochist jumps around in her head. It… makes sense, she supposes. Some things seem to be falling into place.

 

She doesn’t miss the telltale slick of arousal that drips out of her.

 

“You know,” Francesca continues, “If I hadn’t already graded you, you still would have passed. Putting him to bed when he’s drunk and then confronting me over potential abuse? That’s an A+ right there. Good work.”

 

Confusion re-takes its hold on Maevis. “Grade me? What the fuck are you talking about?” This woman seems awfully talented at throwing her for a loop. 

 

“Well, not literally. Just making sure you’re a decent person. He likes you, you won’t take advantage of him, viola. You two are good for one another.”

 

“Why do you even care so much? There’s no reason for you to be so — so invested.”

 

She shrugs, “I’m capable of empathy, you know. I don’t care about the rumors and other nonsense surrounding the von Leventis name. When I came here to work all I saw was a sad pair of siblings, though they can be quite tiring to deal with,” her smile falls for a moment, “I don’t intend on staying here forever. I’d like to see things… mended before I leave. Otherwise I’d just be thinking about them constantly.”

 

One minute she’s telling her Julian is a masochist — the word still reverberates in her skull — then the next she’s talking about grading, and then this spiel about empathizing with these two. It’s the transitions that make her head spin. She was prepared to just punch Francesca this morning. Maybe use this scarf to strangle her, though now her readiness to assault this woman makes her feel weird inside. Now it feels like her brain cells have been randomized.

 

At least I passed a test I didn’t know I was taking, she thinks wryly. Maybe she should change the subject, mostly to distract herself from some lewd images of Julian that’s cropping in her head and making her feel just a teensy bit guilty. 

 

“Where are you from, anyway?” Maevis asks as she runs a hand through her hair, “Bordetto isn’t a very Asnainian sounding name.”

 

Francesca’s lips quirk again, “You’re right. I’m from the Southern Isles. I miss the sandy beaches, honestly. And my tan. And my accent. Hrm. Perhaps I’ve been here for too long.”

 

“And what made you come all the way out here?”

 

“I got lost.”

 

Maevis can only blink at that. Has her brain cells gotten randomized again?

 

“I got lost,” Francesca repeats, “I never actually intended to come to Asnain. I was planning to go to the capital of Chiaya for a seperate job but wound up here. Only when I got my hands on a map did I realize I went into the opposite direction over 4,000 miles away.”

 

The woman leans back, a hand rubbing her chin as she closes her eyes like she’s reminiscing over fond memories. “I’ve the most terrible sense of direction. When I left Julian in your care I was foolish enough to not take the carriage back. It’s a five hour ride, but it took me two days because I went the wrong way.” She opens her eyes, and now her grin is wider, “It drives my brother up the wall. I try to send him letters as often as I can but when I reached Asnain I hadn’t written him in a while, and when I was finally able he told me he held a funeral because he thought I died.”

 

She huffs. “He was so angry. Said he was planning to name his first daughter after me in memoriam, heh. ...Anyway, I came to Asnain, needed money and offered my services for cheap. And now here I am. Been here for a few years.” 

 

“Are you fucking for real?”

 

“100% real! Stick a needle in my heart and hope to die.” She smile falls, replaced by a pensive look. “Is that how the saying goes? I’m not good with idioms either.” Then, her words become a soft whisper as she talks to herself, “Is it an idiom? It’s not a metaphor, is it…?”

 

Julian had called her a moron on more than one occasion, but Maevis thinks that maybe Francesca is the actual moron here. And probably a phenomenal actress, if the fact that she was able to fool her into thinking she’s some big tough overprotective guard is anything to go by. 

 

A master manipulator, and a bit of an eccentric. 

 

Maevis rubs her forehead and sighs. “I think I’m done here. I’ve learned way more than I wanted to.”

 

“Ah yes,” Francesca claps her hands together, “Off to Anna, I presume. Going to ask her permission to court Julian? That’s what you originally came here for, right?”

 

Court.

 

Court?

 

COURT?!

 

Maevis staggers backwards, skin suddenly clammy as her hands flutter around like she’s not sure what to do with them. “I — What?! Huh!? No!” She can feel her face getting warmer, and now she just wants to die, “What — What gave you that idea?! I’m—” Images flash in her mind, of a naked pale body beneath her, writhing and gasping out desperate pleas as she shoves three fingers in him and toys with his cock— 

 

She blinks heavily. She tries to think of the least attractive thing to keep her mind off that. She settles for thinking about geese. She hates those fuckers. 

 

“I’m not Camilla,” she says quickly, surprising herself. Another thought filters through her mind, one she had last night, Julian deserves better than that.

 

Francesca furrows her brow. “Yes. You are Maevis. Is this another idiom I don’t know?”

 

“I, I uh—”

 

“And the way you two steal fleeting glances… You love him don’t you? So, naturally I assumed you wished to court him.” She puts her hands on her hips, seemingly oblivious to the fact Maevis is in the middle of an existential crisis, “Would you like a list of what he likes? For when you two finally get intimate? I can give you his top three now, he likes to be slapped around a little, anal penetration and—”

 

“Stop! Stop, stop, stop!” Maevis flutters her hands around again, sweat being to trickle down her brow. “That’s — That’s absolutely not what’s happening here!”

 

Now love bounces around her head like a ping pong ball, the word strong enough to almost make her lose her balance. The same guilt-like feeling washes over her in waves. This is the same man who spent the better portion of last evening crying into her shoulder over his dead dad, for fuck’s sake. Thinking him about that way feels… dirty. Inappropriate. Immoral. 

 

His smile comes back into her mind, of when she tickled him. A smile that spread across his entire face. One that she remembers thinking was beautiful, she still does, and she wants… to see it again—

 

Another image makes itself home in her head. He’s still smiling, but it’s different. More importantly, he’s underneath her again—

 

Maevis pinches the bridge of her nose, hard. Ignore it, she tells herself, Stop thinking. 

 

Francesca’s voice comes back, breaking her out of her thoughts. “I see, I see.”

 

Looking at her, the guard looks deep in thought again with her hand beneath his chin. 

 

“You wish to make it a surprise. I understand. My lips are sealed.”

 

Now Maevis wishes her gun had actual bullets. She scrunches her mouth, retort about ready to leave her mouth when the door squeaks open. 

 

“What surprise?”

 

Fucking Holy shit oh my fucking shitting fuck!!

 

Maevis whips around with enough speed that almost makes her scarf fly off her neck. Her entire vocabulary is only a trainwreck of expletives as she watches Julian groggily make his way into the room. He rubs his temples, headache probably still pounding against his skull.

 

He looks at the two of them with a neutral face. That alone tells her that he didn’t hear everything, thankfully enough. Likely just heard what Francesca just said. It’s probably a blessing from the Goddess Acadia herself that he isn’t good with poker faces. 

 

“Julian!” Maevis exclaims, her voice sounding a bit too chipper, “Still hungover, huh?”

 

“I’m never drinking whiskey again. I don’t understand how anyone can stomach that shit,” he squints at her, and she feels herself clench her fists to try to calm herself, “Why are you wearing Anna’s scarf?”

 

Maevis suppresses the urge to give Francesca a sidelong death glare. 

 

“I was cold, grabbed the first thing I saw to keep me warm.”

 

“Then you should get new socks since yours have holes in them.”

 

“Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll put it on my shopping list.”

 

He continues to squint at her. “If it’s so cold then why are you wearing a short sleeved shirt?”

 

“The cold is entirely localized on my neck.”

 

Smooth. She can’t help the twitch in her brows at suddenly being interrogated like this. When he looks between her and Fracesca, he continues to look more suspicious. Maevis figures it can’t help to send off a quick prayer, Yo, Acadia, if you’re up there, mind turning back time a bit so I can restart this conversation? Thanks.

 

“What were you two talking about?” He asks.

 

Francesca then takes this moment to clap Maevis on the shoulder, which in turn just makes her want to shoot the woman again. The guard has that same grin again as she leans in, her voice an airy whisper. “I’m sure you want to be alone now. I’ll take my leave, but if you need any… advice I’ll be available anytime.” She brings her voice to normal volume, “Lord von Leventis, excuse me.”

 

He responds with a scowl when she walks past him. When she opens the door she makes one final comment. 

 

“I’ll be rooting for you, Mrs. Bernard.”

 

I’m going to fucking kill you!

 

When she leaves, Julian just has a single brow lifted, clearly expecting his question to be answered. Maevis clears her throat. 

 

“You heard. Just talking about a surprise with her.” She tries not to cringe at her own words. 

 

“What sort of surprise?”

 

“Wouldn’t be much of one if I told you, now would it?”

 

He purses his lips in a thin line and petulantly looks away from her. He’s pouting. 

 

“What can you possibly speak to her about that you can’t mention to me?” He mutters.

 

For a moment, her brain is scrambled. Again. She can’t really speak for a good couple of seconds, but when realization dawns on her, she grins widely. 

 

“Are you,” she says coyly as she leans on the table in the middle of the room, “...jealous? Is that why you’re interrogating me?”

 

He bristles at that, hair seeming to stand on end like an annoyed cat and a fierce blush takes over his face. “N-No!” Then he walks over to her to jab a finger at her face, “And I’m not interrogating you. Francesca is… is… She fucking misreads the room all the time, alright? She misunderstands a situation, and then makes it worse.” 

 

Maevis wouldn’t really disagree with that — she did totally misread her relationship with Julian, after all — but she’s not really sure why he’s mentioning this or where he intends to go with it. He jabs his finger at her again. 

 

“She said something stupid, didn’t she? That’s what this surprise is, huh?”

 

She briefly entertains the idea of just showing him the hickey. His complete lack of mentioning last night tells her he doesn’t remember it, as well as him crawling into bed with her. How would he react? Shock? Fear? Disgust?

 

Francesca pulled a gun on her. She thinks she would have done the same, given the context. 

 

She doesn’t want him to misunderstand. Doesn’t want him to, even for a second, to think she violated him while he was intoxicated. So she doesn’t move the scarf.

 

“I want to surprise you.” she says slowly, as she tries to formulate an idea, “Which is why I can’t really say anything to you since, you know, it’d ruin everything. Figured I’d ask Francesca for ideas since I don’t think Anna’s awake yet.”

 

That gives him pause. A significant one. When he just stares at her with wide eyes for a good ten seconds she finds it very difficult to keep her smile unwavering. She decides she probably needs to add context.

 

“There’s this tradition in the very Northern regions of Asnainian, from where I’m from. When the first snow falls people give gifts to one another. Figured I’d bring a bit of home with me and follow that tradition. So, I asked Francesca what you might like but yeah, she didn’t really help much.”

 

It’s not entirely a lie. It’s a real tradition. Just one reserved for lovers. She keeps it to herself.

 

Maevis isn’t a religious person, but now she finds herself praying to Acadia for the second time this morning. Hey, me again. Please make it so he doesn’t know what the actual holiday is, thanks. Better yet, do that whole reverse time thing I asked earlier.

 

Julian’s lips twitch, and it’s very obvious he’s trying to suppress a smile. He can’t, however, hide how further red his cheeks become.

 

“O-Oh,” he stammers, “I guess — I guess the first snow is supposed to be pretty soon.” He quickly turns around, likely to hide his growing blush. “I-I won’t tell you what I want, just so you can keep it a surprise. You’re welcome. I’ll, uh, go now.”

 

He leaves. 

 

Being alone now almost feels stifling. What an exhausting morning. Fucking Francesca making things needlessly complicated. Maybe there’s a way to kill her and make it look like an accident.

 

Has this all been an elaborate revenge scheme on Francesca’s part? That had to be it, right? Revenge for seemingly breaking the… relationship she had with Julian? Now her mouth tastes bitter. So many feelings have been swirling around her, some she doesn’t know and some she does. This one is she familiar with. Envy. That moron of a guard had the — the privilege of laying with Julian. She’s touched him down there. 

 

She grimaces. The ache to touch him hits Maevis like a falling boulder, and suddenly she’s falling down that line of thought. How warm would his skin feel? How would his muscles strain against her grip and hold? What does his voice sound like when he’s needy? How— 

 

She shakes herself, guilt coming in waves again. She feels dangerously close to admitting something that she just… wasn’t prepared to face.

 

Love. 

 

Despite herself, she scoffs aloud. She’s not in fucking love. She doesn’t even know what that would feel like. Pa always told her she’d know when it hit her, and she sure as hell isn’t feeling the coming ons of some grand epiphany in this moment. 

 

She’s never been… romantically involved with anyone. Her nomadic lifestyle never allowed for that, and the war sure as fuck didn’t give her time to go out courting men. She’s been on dates, sure. Played around with some of the boys in her village when she was a teenager, but it never really lasted. Just dumb teenage stuff. Wasn’t really love. She’s a romance-virgin, as Calvara likes to snidely put it.

 

Now, she mentally chastises herself for bringing up the Day of Snow tradition. 

 

Well, she reasons, He doesn’t know it’s about lovers. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Getting him a gift isn’t terrible. He deserves that at least, if anything. 

 

Maybe she’ll get him a custom saddle. Hell, maybe a whole horse. 

 

She smiles. Yeah, a gift isn’t so bad, actually. She doesn’t need to be courting him to get him something. 

 

I’m not in love. 

 

No, she cares for him. Just like a brother, but also… not like a brother. And just wants to fuck him, too. 

 

She cringes. 

 

Julian told her she was his type. He just happens to be hers. Just in terms of body, obviously. It’s all just a physical attraction. Only that.

 

He looks good. She’s just physically attracted to him, is all. Sometimes the body reacts in ways you don’t want it to, and she decides that’s what’s happening now. And the guilt, she surmises, is from imagining him as a convenient cock. 

 

What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. She thinks again. He won’t know about what he physically does to her. She'll just have to take care of herself in private and get over it like an adult. She doesn’t want to make things fucking awkward, so she won’t.

 

She mulls over a potential list of things to get him.

 


 

Julian stares out the window. It’s been an hour or two after his brief chat with Maevis and having breakfast, and his migraine has since subsided. It was fucking insufferable, so bad that he had to go to his garden to see if he had any feverfew or butterbur available. He doesn’t actually like eating his own plants, but when it felt like a hammer was blasting against his skull he figured desperate times call for desperate measures.

 

He looks at the frost outside. It hasn’t started snowing yet, but it’ll happen soon. He’s sure of it. He thinks back to the whole Gala nonsense. She said she had three months for it. It’s been… about two months now. Maybe two months and a few days. 

 

He puts his forehead against the plane of glass. Has it really been that long? His headache is gone, but his head still feels uncomfortably warm. The coldness from the glass provides him momentary relief.

 

It felt like an incredibly short timespan, and yet he doesn’t — he doesn’t want it to end. He wants to continue gardening with Maevis. He wants to continue horseriding with her. He wants to do a whole slew of other stuff with her, too. 

 

She’s going to get me a gift.

 

A boyish glee immediately takes over him.

 

A gift!

 

A smile forms on his face. He thinks about what she could possibly get him. He’s unreasonably happy about the prospect of getting something. He’s not even sure he cares about what he gets. It’s just the excitement and anticipation of it that makes him giddy. It’s been years since someone’s given him a present. 

 

He assumes it’s an idea she thought up after the events of last night. It was certainly one of the lowest points in his life, an embarrassment fills him again when he thinks about all the crying he did. 

 

So, he thinks, she’s going to get him a gift as a pick-me-up. To make him feel better. 

 

How considerate. 

 

Well, she is nice. She’s proven that time and time again, much to his consistent surprise. 

 

“You’re nice. Strong, too.”

 

That gives him pause. Was that his own voice?

 

“Mhm… You’re my type. You’re exactly my type.”

 

He knits his brows. Tries to think hard about where that came from, but it’s all just a vague blur. He’s not even sure if that was his voice. Is that a memory? When? He doesn’t remember saying anything like that.

 

He blows a breath. Maybe I’m still hungover. Thinking about weird shit. 

 

“Found anything interesting outside? An animal, perhaps?” 

 

He glowers at his own reflection. Continues to stare daggers outside when he spots Anna’s reflection saddle up next to him. 

 

“Go away,” he says, quickly feeling irritated. 

 

There’s a tired sigh, and Julian pointedly glares at a tree branch. He tries blocking her out of his mind. 

 

He can’t. He can’t just will himself to be deaf in this moment, despite how much he wants to be. He hears her soft voice. 

 

“I’m sorry, about yesterday,” she says, “Hitting you was inexcusable.”

 

He grinds his teeth for what feels like the umpteenth time. Perhaps soon his mouth will be ground to dust at the rate he’s going. 

 

“Hardly the first time you’ve done that,” he grits. “Don’t think I haven’t forgotten how you used the belt on me on more than one occasion.”

 

A hot coil of rope twists in his stomach when he thinks he hears a small whimper. He thinks he does prefer her being this meek over her being confrontational, but dammit, it just makes her look like the perfect little victim. Fuck her and fuck her little act. 

 

Her voice is now wobbly, “S-Sorry. But I — It’s been years since—” she swallows, loud enough that he can hear her gulp, “Right. That’s also inexcusable. I’m sorry for how I’ve treated you all these years.”

 

Silence. He hopes that he continues to say nothing that she’ll just go away. 

 

Unfortunately for the both of them, she stays, “You can - You can hit me, if it’ll make you feel better.”

 

Despite himself, he turns to face her, surprise overtaking him from her comment. He just wants to utter a quick The fuck are you talking about? but when he sees her face he can’t get his words out. She got a stern look in her eyes. Steely. Similar to last night but at the same time different. There’s slight hesitance to her expression. At the very least, it doesn’t look like she's going to yell at him again.

 

She pokes at her cheek, “Hit me. I deserve it, don’t I?”

 

That is a very enticing offer. As much as he wants to give her a proper walloping, a part of him stops. He can just imagine Father tutting at him. ‘That isn’t proper behaviour for a man’ he would probably say. It’s not the fact he’s breaking the rules that bothers Julian — he’s done that more than enough times in the past ten years — but hitting his own sister? That would be crossing an invisible line. Just imagining the disappointment in Father’s eyes makes him want to throw up.

 

“...I’m not going to hit you,” he murmurs. 

 

She’s visibly relieved by that, and her shoulders look a little less tense now. Looking at her now, all he sees is the little girl who sniveled and cried after scraping her knee when she was seven. She used to hide behind Mother all the time. She always cried a lot when she was a child. He always took it upon himself to take care of her. 

 

“You’re such a good older brother,” Father had said one time. Julian was eleven, long before everything happened, “Taking care of your sister like that, you’ll be a great dad!”

 

His brows crease at the memory. It must look like he’s scowling at her, because her shoulders slump. Another silence blankets them, and again, he hopes not saying anything will mean the conversation is over.

 

Anna fumbles with her hands, nervously glancing out the window. 

 

“Mother was very hard-nosed, but hardly ever successful in her endeavours.”

 

This time, he does scowl. “Yes, you yelled about our money troubles last night.”

 

There’s a twitch in her brow, and she continues to wring her hands.

 

“Y-Yes. I’m aware. That was also inexcusable but I was just — just so frustrated.” She swallows again, and Julian notes that she’s bitten her lips at least three times already. “A lot happened to the both of us. We were forced to grow up too fast. I tried to become what Mother wanted — demanded — me to be. But you were always able to see the cracks in my facade and make me, what is it you like call me? A meek bitch?”

 

She huffs out a small heh and wears a self-deprecating smile. Perhaps she’s expecting him to join in, as if they’re talking about old, fond memories. He doesn’t join in, still keeping his annoyance evident in his expression. When she turns to look at him, her smile immediately falls.

 

She clears her throat awkwardly.

 

“A-Anyway. I know I’ve made myself to your enemy. For what it’s worth, during those moments I tried to sell your hand… I thought it would help you. That you can marry someone and shed the von Leventis name and its stigma. It could be something as an escape for you. I really should have actually spoken to you about it, instead of acting the way I did.”

 

Julian knits his brows further. He just wants her to shut the fuck up and leave. His top lip twitches, and he bares his teeth in a low growl.

 

Seeing that, Anna’s shoulders slump further as she cowers. Her eyes dart between him and the yard outside. She looks like a deer staring at the muzzle of a gun. She wants to run. Julian hopes she will. 

 

“Right,” she says quickly, “That probably sounds like another excuse. I’m sorry — I’m trying, really. I’ve never been good for this sort of thing, you know that.” She rubs her neck, “I’ll do anything to make it up to you. Really. I want us to be siblings again. Please?”

 

Normally, seeing her so beaten down and defeated would have given him an inordinate amount of glee. Maybe he would end it with one more condescending remark and he’d leave. An accusation and insult is on the tip of his tongue, but he bites it down. Maevis’s words fly around his head. She said they need to talk. 

 

Maybe the years of having a relationship that’s merely defined by tension, and of thinking everyone is secretly out to get him have finally caught up with him, but he doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want to start shouting at her either. Another feeling crashes into him in waves.

 

He’s just tired. 

 

“Whatever.” Is all he says when he walks away, with no particular destination in mind.

 


 

Maevis isn’t sure how long she’s supposed to stay here. Sure, she figured she’d be staying the night since it’s a five hour carriage ride from here to Beckinsale. Now, she’d like for Julian and Anna’s relationship to be somewhat mended before she leaves, but that’ll likely take… a while. 

 

She hopes Nadine isn’t lonely. She’ll be plenty busy with the garden and Shadowmare, and there’s plenty of books in case she’s bored. Maevis even sent a letter to Calvara asking her to keep the steward some company. 

 

Meanwhile, Maevis tries to entertain herself by just walking around the house. The more she looks around the more decrepit it seems to become. It’s been a while since someone’s cleaned this place. She can tell it’s quite old, too. The price for the upkeep of this mansion must be quite hefty. 

 

She overheard Anna saying something about not wanting to sell this place. Really, though, perhaps that’s their best option at this point.

 

She continues just walking around the place. It feels like it’s been hours at this point. Thankfully, Francesca had left because she apparently forgot to buy something. Maevis doesn’t think she could deal with her again, but now she finds herself infinitely curious about what she would have said was the third thing Julian likes if she wasn’t cut-off. 

 

Slapped around. Anal penetration. And…?

 

It takes a good amount of her willpower not to punch herself in the face.

 

Shut the fuck up, me.

 

As if by some miracle, she finds herself directly in front of Anna’s study. The door is slightly ajar, and she can see a whole flurry of paperwork on the table. Anna’s practically buried under the pages as she furiously scribbles something down. 

 

When Maevis lightly knocks on the door to announce her presence, she immediately becomes ramrod straight, the movement pushing some papers off the table. 

 

“Looks like you’re busy,” Maevis says.

 

Anna becomes a bit red, likely embarrassed from the mess. “I— yes. I’m doing some sketches about the automobile. I know you wanted to see them.” Then confusion flickers across her face, “You’re wearing my scarf?”

 

“Uh. Yeah, it was cold. Sorry. Should have asked.”

 

“O-Oh. That’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

 

The quiet afterwards immediately becomes awkward. Anna’s unsettled eyes glances unceremoniously around and tried to avoid catching her glance, apparently unable to keep eye contact for too long. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She was already a small woman, but now she looks… tiny. 

 

...Moving on.

 

Maevis coughs. “ Anyway. I’d love to see those sketches.”

 

Anna straightens her back again, “Yes! Please do!”

 

The first thing that strikes Maevis is that Anna is a talented artist. The illustrations of what she’d call damn good. Though some to leave the realm of reality. She’s pretty sure she sees a couple of wings in some of these sketches, for some odd reason. One that sticks out to her is one with three wheels. Two large at the back and one smaller at the front. It has a single seat that looks like it could hold two and the roof that appears to be able to fold. In front of the seat is just a rod that looks bent.

 

“So. Tell me how these work.” She asks

 

A smile replaces her nervousness. 

 

“Okay. So. The idea is that it’ll be powered by an internal combustion engine. The engine will be  mounted at the rear. The frame of the whole automobile will be built with steel tubing and wooden panels. The wheels are made with solid rubber tires. This, uh, stick thing will steer it, the person in charge of the vehicle can pivot it around. There’ll be two foot panels, one that can make the automobile go faster — still have to figure out how that will work — and another one will activate a mechanism that will stop all movement. I’m thinking about making some sort of… strap system, I guess, that will prevent the person from flying off the seat.”

 

Anna stops, eyes flickering from the pages to Maevis. She puts her hands on her lap, and Maevis can tell she’s a bit clammy. Nervous. And also expecting a response. 

 

Maevis takes a better look at the sketch. She’s not really sure she… gets it, and the multiple labels don’t entirely clear anything up for her. Above the engine the words ‘four-stroke engine with trembler coil ignition’ are scribbled on the page. She doesn’t know what any of that means, and she doubts she would understand even if she asked Anna for clarification. 

 

Despite that… she knows potential when she sees it. 

 

“I think… You’ve got a damn good idea here, Anna.” She doesn’t miss the smile that reaches Anna’s ears the second the words leave her mouth, and the tension leaves her shoulders. She looks like the wind was knocked out of her lungs when Maevis says her next words. 

 

“I think I can help finance you.”

 

“Oh — I appreciate it, really, but, but you can’t. I couldn’t ask you for that—”

 

“I insist. Really. You’ll need a full team to make this little motorwagon a reality, and you’ll need to pay them.” Maevis smirks, “Perhaps it should be called a motorwagon instead of an automobile. Certainly looks like a wagon.”

 

“I-I couldn’t possibly get a whole team.” Anna’s voice was quieter now, less sure.

 

“Not here, probably. Which is why I think you need to leave.”

 

Now the von Leventis woman looks somehow even smaller. Like a light breeze could just blow her away. Maevis continues. Her lips are pressed together in a thin line, and her brows are knitted in an expression that speaks both of confusion and… anger. She’s offended and Maevis finally realizes she may have just unceremoniously told this woman to basically get the fuck out of here. She makes quick work to amend that.

 

“I’m not saying you have to sell your home or anything, but you’ll get no support in this town. I think you should travel around. Find contract workers that won’t know about your family’s reputation. It’s easier than you think, you just need to give them money and they won’t give you trouble. Probably. If they do, Francesca is burly enough to scare them, I’m sure. Just think of it as a business trip.”

 

Anna considers this, weighing each word. She gnaws at her lip, a trait she certainly shares with Julian, and she shifts in her chair again. 

 

“Julian wanted nothing to do with me.” She eventually says.

 

Maevis tilts her head. “...Yeah. He’s a bit of a tough nut to crack.”

 

“I don’t want to leave while he still… hates me. I’d like to see at least a little progress with him if I were to go away.”

 

Ah. That made sense. Maevis clicks her tongue. 

 

“Well you definitely don’t want to up and leave without him knowing. I’ll try to help you out with that. When — if — you leave you should send him letters. I’ll help out with that too, make sure he reads ‘em, heh.”

 

She just nods mutely, obviously still unsure of the whole situation, not that Maevis can blame her. So, she decides try to comfort her further.

 

“I’ve got contacts, and so does my friend, Calvara. We can totally hook you up with engineers that’ll help you out. Probably at a reduced price too. I know this woman named Nadine, and she’s really brainy. She may be able to help out here and there as well.”

 

Anna nods again, but she seems less unsure this time. At least there’s some progress. She blinks heavily then, and Maevis has to stop herself from frowning that the fact that this woman seems close to tears again. 

 

That better be some happy tears, or so help me.

 

“Thank you,” Anna says, voice shaky, “You truly are the saint everyone says you are.”

 

Maevis blows a breath. Francesca had mentioned the whole saintliness nonsense as well. Had it really travelled here? The town full of snooty nobles? She had hoped her behaviour at the restaurant was less than stellar and made people hate her, even for a little bit. 

 

Despite that, she can’t help but be… curious of what the people here say about her. “Uh… What have you heard about me?”

 

“You are quite the philanthropist, apparently. I heard that you paid off several people’s debts, paid for people’s medical expenses when they couldn’t afford it, and even donated a substantial amount of money for a local orphanage! Are those — Are those true?”

 

What the fuck.

 

She must have said that out loud, because next Anna wears a bewildered expression. 

 

Does Beckinsale even have an orphanage? Where the fuck did that one come from? Who’s saying this shit anyway? And why!? Do the people who crowd around her now want her to bestow them loads of cash?

 

Her mind was still a surging perplexity, but she figured Anna at least deserved the truth. 

 

“Uh, can’t say I’ve done any of those. I did pay off a prostitute’s debt, but that was one time. And an accident.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“But hey! I’ll still pay for your stuff, no worries.” She claps her hands together, an idea suddenly forming in her head. If there’s one thing she’s learned about Julian’s sister in this exchange, is that she’s actually as fragile as glass on the inside. She just needs a little kick for her self-consciousness, “On that note, it’s time to build your confidence.”

 

Before Anna can respond, Maevis puts a hand on her shoulder, a smirk dimpling her cheeks. 

 

“Who’s footing the bill for this automobile shindig?”

 

Now Anna looks at her as if she’s grown a second head. “Y-You?”

 

“Nuh-uh. Well, that’s technically true, but work with me here. It’s you that’s footing the bill. After I give you your cheque, anyway. Now, again, who’s footing the bill for this shindig?”

 

“...Me?” she whispers.

 

“Atta girl. Who makes the rules for this project, kiddo?”

 

“Kiddo?”

 

“Work with me here, Anna!” 

 

Anna blinks, and eyes her weirdly. For a second, Maevis thinks she might have actually scared her, but thankfully the smaller woman squares her shoulders. 

 

“I, uh, I make the rules. It’s my project.”

 

Maevis quirks a brow.

 

“...Me,” Anna squeaks.

 

She’ll take that. She starts to raise her voice in intervals. 

 

“Who’s going to make an incredible patent that’ll change the world?”

 

“W-Well I don’t know about that

 

“Anna!”

 

“M-Me!”

 

Now Maevis is starting to see a small fire in her eyes. She can immediately see it in her demeanor and how it changes. Soon, Anna joins her in standing up.

 

“Who’s going to become a famed inventor?”

“Me!”

 

“Who’s going to fix your relationship with Julian?”

 

Hesitance retakes its hold over Anna, but she clenches her fist to steel herself.

 

“Me.”

 

Marvis winks, “Well, I’ll make sure he does his own part, don’t worry. Anyway, who’s going to do great things once the family drama is patched up?”

 

“Me!” Then, Anna smiles wider and Maevis can see a deep, anchored confidence begin to surface. A type of confidence that has no doubt been hidden away by insecurity and the need to be this stern, unforgiving bully of a Matriarch that simply wasn’t her true self. “Julian, too. I know he can do great things. He just needs… Well, maybe he doesn’t need anything other than a good friend. You’ve already done so much.”

 

Maevis guffaws at that, but she knows she can feel the heat flooding her cheeks. Dammit. It’s supposed to be Julian who’s easy to make blush, not her. 

 

Maybe this is her way of saying you’ve gotten her permission to court him.

 

No it’s not, fuck off. Go away.

 

Great, now her mind works against her in more ways than one.

 

To take her mind over her sudden predicament, she continues her newly patented shouting exercises. They continue like that for a while, soon breaking off to normal conversations. Maevis talks of her travels, with Anna listening with rapt attention. 

 

They talk for a long time. For the first time since she’s known her, Anna looks genuinely at ease.

 


 

The sun sets, replaced by a dark sky where stars dot the blackness like paint on a canvas. Julian is where Maevis expects him to be, in his garden. 

 

He’s standing in the middle of it, covered in at least three layers of clothing. His breath makes small wisps in the air, and he doesn’t really look at her when she walks up beside him. Instead, he keeps staring at the sky. She doesn’t need to ask what he’s doing, because he speaks before her. 

 

“Sky’s really clear tonight. Looking at some constellations, seeing if I remember anything from etiquette lessons.”

 

She briefly peers his way before looking upwards, “They teach you that?” She’s not really sure what knowing about stars has to do with being a better husband.

 

“It was part about religions class since all the stars are related to the Goddesses and Gods. See that clump over there?” he points to a cluster of about five to seven stars, or maybe they were planets? Maevis wasn’t really sure how celestial bodies worked, but she did use them for star navigation, “They represent Acadia, and this one is really easy to remember because they’re so much brighter than everything else. And if you look next to it, there’s an outline that sort of looks like red-crowned crane if you squint hard enough. That’s Theodosia, Acadia’s one constant companion.”

 

Maevis smiles, “Of course you’d know the constellation that’s about an animal.”

 

A small grin tugs at the corner of Julian’s lips, and he looks down briefly before facing her, and maybe it’s the moonlight, or the starlight, or whatever else, but he somehow looks handsomer than before. “Theodosia is a damn cool bird. She’s immortal and the beat of her wings create the winds. Every animal on this earth comes from her eggs, too.”

 

He looks back to the sky. Maevis keeps her gaze on him. 

 

“You know,” he says, “I don’t hate religion, not really. I agree with some of its teachings, and there are some pretty interesting stories to be told. Like how winter came to be. You know that one?”

 

She thinks she does. She may have grown up non-religious, but this story was one of the most significant across the entirety of Asnain. People like to celebrate it, regardless if they believe it or not. 

 

But she wants to hear his voice. She’s not sure if she’s noticed it before, but there’s a silvery melody of a drawl in the way he speaks. Though, she’s also intently aware of how much she’s been… noticing a whole lot of other stuff about him. How she’s been looking at him more frequently.

 

Don’t be fucking weird, Maevis. She wets her lips to distract herself, “...No, I don’t know about it.”

 

Luckily for her, Julian keeps looking up in the sky, unaware of her own internal conflict. 

 

“Well, I don’t remember the details or anything, so I’ll just give you a really quick bullet point version of it. There was this God, Erik, and he’s a bit of an asshole. He’s always pulling some bullshit to annoy someone. I like him, honestly, ‘cause he never follows rules, heh,” he cracks a grin, “I kinda relate, well, except for the fact that he likes to sacrifice babies. Anyway, he’s doing this baby sacrifice ritual thing, and he summons this giant creature that had the body and head of a wolf, the tail of a horse, and the wings of an eagle. Think it was called Skagverg the Deathless. It steals the sun for Erik, and the world is plunged into an eternal darkness, and that’s when the first snow ever came along. The first winter.” He pauses for a moment, a small humorous huff escaping him, “Can you imagine stealing the sun? The whole fucking sun?”

 

He continues, Maevis listening like his words are golden, “So, Acadia ain’t having any of that shit. She follows his trail and finds him in a volcano. They fight. Theodosia beats Skagverg and Acadia beats Erik and ties him up in some cave. When Acadia put the sun back in the sky, apparently it was chipped — not really sure how that works — and that’s why winter is a thing. Because of a broken sun.”

 

Yeah, Maevis knows this story. On the night of the Winter Solstice the people of her village always has this huge bonfire to celebrate Erik’s defeat. She’s pretty sure it’s mainly this big metaphor, about how men are easily corruptible and that women need to keep them in line. She knows of a popular saying that often accompanies this story, 'The world is a better place when a man finds his place.’ 

 

Julian speaks up again, his voice have the slightest edge of annoyance to it. 

 

“I said there were interesting stories, but I can’t say I care much for most of the ones about Acadia, despite her being the boss of everything. They almost always involve scantily clad men fighting over the privilege to submit to her. I’m pretty sure she’s fucked every man in the Pantheon.” Now he turns to her, and Maevis can see a keenness in his eyes. A keenness to seek more information.

 

“I’ve always liked the stories about monsters. Surely you know more than just the Matris Amni. Mind telling me about another?”

 

Ah, there’s that curiosity reignited in him. Of course he’d like the monsters, they’re basically animals anyway. Maevis wracks her head over what she’s heard. Matris Amni was a carnivorous sea monster, perhaps she should pick something that’s the opposite. 

 

“There’s this beast called the Anderras,” she begins, “From the mountains of the Republic of Anavelle — which is where I happened to meet Calvara, by the way, but that’s another story, — and it’s basically this giant goat,” She out-stretches her arms in an attempt to prove her point, “A ram. It’s got three heads, and a serpentine tail that ends with a spike, like a spear. I haven’t seen it myself but according to people who have, it’s apparently a jackass. Just like a real goat.”

 

Calvara insists she’s seen it, said it almost killed her in a fall. She was also high on medicinal drugs, so Maevis isn’t really sure she puts much stock in that eye-witness account. In fact, most people apparently see it under a drug-like stupor. The Republic of Anavelle is a major production site for recreational drugs. So...

 

She continues, Julian seemingly to hang off every word, “It can also speak, too. It talks in riddles and each head contradicts one another. Supposedly, if you can figure out what the fuck it talks about you’ll be gifted wonderful riches. Buuuut,” she draws out the word,  reveling in how Julian leans in like she’s holding some sort of secret, “It’s also a big trickster. And like I said, a jackass. There’s no guarantee it’ll give you riches. It could just curse you instead.”

 

Julian harrumphs good naturedly, one his brows quirking up. “Well, if I was this almighty three-headed goat thing that could curse people, I know I would totally mess with people. I’d intentionally move in a way where people could just barely catch a glimpse of me, so they’re always second guessing if I’m actually there. And when they do see me…” he crosses his arms, “I ram them off the mountain.”

 

Maevis lets out a small disbelieving pfft and pats him on the back. “Honestly, I’d probably like to be a bit of a dick if I were some omnipotent creature, too. So. I’ve told you about Anderras, wanna give me another constellation? We can swap stories and monsters.”

 

He agrees to that, more eager than before. He looks back to the sky, immediately pointing out something else. Somehow, Maevis isn’t able to hear anything. The words are drowned out, and it just seems fuzzy. Even the surroundings become a blur.

 

The only thing in focus is Julian. He was like… a statue… a painting… a doll… an angel? 

 

His hair has grown. Not a whole lot, but enough where he’s always having wipe at his bangs to keep them out his eyes. He’s even got the barest hint of stubble starting to grow in.

 

How would he look with a full beard? She can’t really imagine it. It seems like an insult to cover his porcelain skin with facial hair. 

 

Soon, his eyes meet hers. She doesn’t look away, but she also doesn’t say anything because too damn pretty. It’s only when creases appear on his forehead does she regain the ability to hear.

 

“...Something on my face?” he asks, voice incredulous. 

 

Only handsomeness, which she internally cringes at. Since when did she become a fucking poet? And an awful one at that? She really needs to get laid. Again. Maybe she’ll end up paying off someone else’s debt.

 

The urge to touch him touch her again, but not in a sexual way. Before she can stop herself, or even realizing what she’s doing, she reaches out and tucks some hair behind his ear. 

 

Everything stops in that moment. She can tell Julian is just surprised as she is with the movement, because of his held breath, wide eyes, and tense shoulders. 

 

“Your,” she swallows, “Your hair’s gotten longer.” 

 

Maybe she should pray to Acadia again. Third time’s the charm and all that. 

 

Time seems to slow to an agonizing crawl with how they just stare at each other. Feels like eons. Before she can say goodnight in an attempt to escape from the growing silence, Julian speaks. Or rather, it’s more like a squeak. 

 

“Why are you still here?”

 

For a brief second, Maevis thinks she’s going to throw up. Had a single touch really offended him that much? How would he react to seeing a fucking hickey then?

 

“H-Huh?” she croaks.

 

He takes in her discomfort, eyes blowing more wide, and he waves his hands around in a panic. “Oh no — I mean — I just, we came here for that stupid horitculture therapy book.”

 

Confusion takes it hold on her now, and she just blinks at him. 

 

He continues, still a bit flustered, “I mean, that’s why we came here in the first place. But honestly, there’s really nothing more I can teach you about gardening. You’ve already got a handle on it, and growing things just fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Again, I can’t teach anything more. And then…” his face cracks and all that’s left is a horrible emptiness, “and then all that shit happened last night. Surely you don’t have any reason to stay here anymore. You can just leave me here and be done with it.”

 

He lowers his eyes. “Surely anyone would want to leave at this point. Too much baggage.”

 

Maevis’s expression forms into a grimace as she wrinkles her nose. Certainly better than him actually getting offended over her touching him, but an upsetting feeling still pangs at her. She’s had enough crippling self-doubt for one day, and she’s not about to let Julian continue to wallow in his own head for much longer. She cradled him as he cried. She can continue to do more for him.

 

“I already told you I cared for you,” she says, voice no longer croaky but no less shaky. However, she found it surprisingly easy to take hold of his shoulder, and giving it a reassuring squeeze. Her heart skips when he responds with a fragile smile, and she feels as though she’s passed another hidden test. “You’re a smart man, Julian, and daring too. I simply can’t wait to see where our story goes.”

 

His fond smile widens, but there’s a definite mischievous glint to it now. “Our story, huh?”

 

Yeah, can’t believe I just said that either, she thinks wryly. She immediately tries to justify it, Friends say that all the time… Duh… 

 

She doesn’t think she can get out of saying that, so she doesn’t try to deny it. Somehow, the same nervousness doesn’t fill her, instead replaced by a sudden surge of confidence. A comforting warmth fills her chest, and she squeezes his shoulder again.

 

“Well, we’ve come this far. Might as well see what happens next. Besides, you can’t just leave Shadowmare like that, can you? Gotta give you that gift, too.”

 

A light pinkness dots his cheeks, and he licks his lips as he seems to ponder what to say next. Maevis tries not to stare at his tongue.

 

“You know what, Mae,” her heart jumps to his chest as he shortened her name. She waits with bated breath to see if he’ll add the ending vis but it never comes, “It actually wouldn’t be so bad having you around for a little while longer.”

 

Chapter Text

Maevis’s fingers trace against the cover of a book, her eyes constantly re-reading the same word in its title.

 

Horticulture Therapy.

 

Therapy.

 

There are still moments where a voice in her head mocks her. Incessantly calls her weak with a jeering voice that is her own, but at the same time different. There are times when she has to wait, and will her knee to stop bouncing, and it feels like it takes hours. 

 

Now, however, the word doesn’t seem so heavy. It doesn’t make her feel the now familiar existential dread.

 

It is just a word.

 

Flowers, on the other hand, turned out to be significantly more powerful than she thought. Despite the fact that it’s winter and most plants are dead or dormant, she finds herself careful whenever she steps outside. She doesn’t want to step on any plants.

 

Damn. He’s fully converted me to a gardening nut. 

 

Well, she’s fine as long as she doesn’t start naming each flower she has. Probably. 

 

Her gaze goes away from the book. She’s in a living room, with two cushioned chairs in front of a fireplace. The wooden floor was a chorus of browns, and they practically sang with each step she took. Her eyes are immediately drawn to what's propped up on the fireplace mantle. 

 

An over-sized black cat statuette.

 

From what she can tell, it’s carved from wood. Old too, if the chipped paint and layer of dust if anything to go by. And definitely made by am amatuer. The bulging eyes and over-sized ears are unnaturally pointed. It’s hunched, almost looking disfigured as it leers downward from its perch. Honestly, from some of the experiences she’s had with felines, she’d say how the ornament evokes pure sadistic pleasure is a pretty accurate representation of actual cats. 

 

Then, she hears creaking footsteps behind her, followed by Julian’s voice.

 

“That’s Sophia,” he says, then yawns immediately after. She’s surprised he’s woken up so early. The sun’s just barely rising.

 

Looking at him, she lets out a low chuckle. His bed hair is terrible. Since her mind is currently on cats, all she thinks about is a hairball. One that’s been eaten and puked out again and left in the sun to dry. If his hair was as long as hers, it’d take hours to brush. 

 

She quirks a single brow, “Sophia, huh? Cute name.”

 

Julian steps forward and pokes at one of the stateuette’s bulbous eyes. 

 

“I’m going to assume you don’t know the significance of black cats around here.”

 

Maevis shrugs lazily, a grin forming on her lips as she tilts her head at him. “Nope, I don’t. But I’m always happy to learn, Professor Julian.”

 

So early in the morning, and she’s already rewarded with a light blush. She’s never been more thankful for regional differences in culture. Her lack of knowledge has been a gift, because then she can tease him and coax out a smile. 

 

All just friendly banter, she preemptively thinks, before any of that useless lovey-dovey shit can invade her head. Luckily, she’s not invaded by images of his body under hers. The day’s just barely start, but it seems like it’ll be somewhat manageable.

 

Just keep that up, Maevis.  

 

Julian looks as though he’s trying to hide his blush under his tangled mess of hair with how he shyly plays with his bangs. He clears his throat after a short while, still staring at the cat — Sophia.

 

“It’s nothing super complicated. Winter is when ghosts come out, and black cats protect us from the malevolent ones. Ghosts can’t see them because they blend so well with the darkness,” he scoffs, “You’d think ghosts of all things could see in the dark.”

 

Now that gets her attention. She always loved ghost stories, would practically beg Ma to tell her some every time she went to bed. One of her favourite stories is one of a ghostly rider that throws barrels of blood at unfortunate passersby and uses a human spine as a whip. Her steed could even run on water, so not even sailors were safe. 

 

That was something Maevis called a power fantasy. Fuck, she wishes she could nearly be as cool as a pissed off ghost.

 

A part of her wishes that some of the bounties she killed would come back to haunt her, but alas, none have made contact with her. Yet.

 

She turns her attention back to the cat, then to Julian.

 

“So, this little lady is protecting you from evil spirits, eh?”

 

He snickers lightly, “That’s the idea. We tried getting an actual cat, once. But Anna was allergic so we had to give her back to the breeder we got her from. You can probably guess what name we wanted to give her.”

 

His face falls, and he runs his hands against the cat as if he was petting a real one. He looks down to the empty fireplace. “Anna cried for days about it, she was… eight or nine then. We figured we could at least get a dog if she was just allergic to cats but, well,” he huffs, eyes returning to the statuette, “she was allergic to dogs, too. She cried for what felt like a month after that. We carved this thing together as a family as a sort of compromise, I guess. She’s allergic to everything, you know. Winter is her best month, come spring time and she’ll be dry-heaving all day.”

 

He squints as he pokes its nose.

 

“Geez. It’s fucking ugly.”

 

Maevis lets out a small pfft before poking at it herself. “I think it’s charming.” Then, just as quickly, she steels her expression to a serious one, her facial muscles going taut. Julian can probably sense what she’s about to say because it’s evident he’s making an effort to keep his eyes off her. 

 

“Sounds like she’s an animal lover, too,” Maevis says slowly, aware she could just set off a ticking time bomb, “She’s got more in common with you than I thought.”

 

Now his facial muscles pull together tightly, clearly becoming annoyed in an instant. If he wants to get mad, fine. She’ll take his anger like she did before and clearly, Julian needs to be constantly reminded he needs to do his part of mending their sibling relationship. That’s a two person job, afterall. 

 

“Look,” she says, now softly, “I’m not going to pretend to know what it’s like to go through what you’ve been through. But I do think Anna is at least trying to do good by you. You talked about having too much baggage, perhaps it’s time for you to unpack it.”

 

Julian’s eye twitches, and at his side he flexes his fingers. He’s clearly irritated and as much as Maevis would like to magically absolve him of all his problems, she’s aware she can’t do everything for him. However, despite the fact he looks like a kettle that’s about to burst, he has mellowed out in the time she’s known him. 

 

He doesn’t blow up at her. He doesn’t even yell. Instead, he sighs heavily and changes the subject. 

 

“I told you something about here, so tell me something about where you’re from, like last night.” 

 

Maevis is about to click her tongue at his avoidance, but he quickly turns to her with a mischievous glint in his eyes and his lips quirk upwards. 

 

“You know,” he says, “One thing I remember from etiquette lessons is the gossip. It seemed like the only thing we could talk about during breaks was shit about other nations. One rumour I heard about the Republic of Anavelle is that women would lock away her husband's clothes so that he wouldn’t be able to go outside without her permission. Mind telling me if that’s true?”

 

Maevis opens her mouth, then closes it. She rapidly blinks and for a moment she thinks the tonal whiplash broke her fucking neck with how she staggers.

 

I wonder how he’d look

 

Great. Couldn’t go a single morning without thinking about him like that. Fucking A. 

 

She pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs. Fine. If he wants to avoid the subject she’ll let him, for now. “Dunno. Can’t say I visited many houses where I saw naked men,” she gives him a tired smile, “I’ll have to ask Calvara about it. Sure she’d know.”

 

They continue like that for a while, swapping stories, beliefs and rumours from the places they’ve been to. Eventually, Julian talks of the ghost stories he knows, almost all of them involving a male ghost who was spurned by a lover in some way. Those are ridiculously common. 

 

They’re sitting in their seats while Julian is spinning some wild folklore tale of a woman who locked her husband away in their mansion when she went to some nondescript war. Her motive was that she wanted to make sure he’d be faithful. She died in combat, and her very unfortunate husband was left to starve to death. So now his ghost roams the halls, waiting for his wife to come back so that he can show her that he was faithful to her until the very end. 

 

“Can you fucking believe that?” Julian snipes, “What type of an ending is that? It should have ended with the guy realizing his wife is a fucking maniac, escape and find someone who won’t lock him up. Now there’s an actual moral to be had there.” Then he narrows his eyes in thought, “Although… apparently the mansion where this took place is nearby. I kind of want to go for the novelty of it.”

 

Maevis chuckles at that. She’s sure this story is only gaining providence because of the actual war they just had, but visiting an allegedly haunted mansion wouldn't be too shabby. She’s not sure how her nerves would react in a situation like that, but she finds she doesn’t really care. A part of her just wants Julian to be a bit of scaredy cat so when he a spooky creak or noise he’d squeal and jump right in her arms

 

She blinks. She’ll have to entertain that thought later. Alone. In her bed. Without Julian actually being there because she respects him and won’t treat him like an object because they’re friends, dammit!  

 

Her eyes fly across the room in an attempt to find something so her mind can kindly shut the fuck up already. Her gaze falls to someone at the side of the unused fireplace. A violin case, that also has a layer of dust on it like everything else in the room. 

 

“Didn’t you say you played the violin?” She suddenly asks, and Julian looks at her with a quirked brow.

 

“...Yeah, guess I did. It’s been years, though.” He leans back in his seat, “Surprised you remember that.”

 

“Aw, of course I remember. Ever since you told me I’d be thinking about wanting to hear you play! I’m sure you’re great.”

 

Success, she thinks when that gets him to blush again. He squirms in his seat, not from being uncomfortable but from the sudden praise. He’s trying so hard to show it doesn’t affect him, but he’s failing spectacularly. And now, Maevis thinks she knows what the third thing Julian likes is. 

 

She puts her hands together as if in prayer and grins widely, “Come on, pretty please? Pretty, pretty, pretty please?”

 

She begs for what feels like another minute, Julian clearly getting a kick out of it. I’ll make you beg next time you brat, she snidely thinks, and immediately tucks that thought back in her mind because priorities, Maevis! Get your mind out of the gutter!

 

Eventually, he caves. When he gets up from his seat, he makes sure to act like he’s exerting the greatest effort he's ever had to in his life. When he gets the violin out of its case, a moment of hesitance overtakes him as he just stares at it. 

 

Maevis is about to dole out a bunch of compliments to encourage him, but then he puts that… long wooden stick thing to the strings. She doesn’t know what that part is called. She doesn’t really know what any part of the violin is called.  

 

He gently places the stick to the string, and moves. 

 


 

Julian’s movements are mostly just muscle memory. He’s not even sure what song he’s playing right now. 

 

What he does know, however, is that he is hopelessly out of practice. It sounds fucking awful, and he can feel a blush formning from embarassment. He has half a mind to just stop playing lest he wants both his and Maevis’s ears to bleed. 

 

The instrument is so out of tune. Really, he should have expected that, but he’s not sure if he remembers how to properly tune it anymore. The F-Holes definitely need some cleaning, and so does its bridge. He can see the dust just flying off everytime he moves the bow across the strings. 

 

After some time of the violin just sounding like it’s screeching, he stops playing. Now he just wants to use this fucking thing as firewood, but a part of him immediately cringes at the thought. He used to play every day. Used to play with Anna, too, when she played piano. 

 

A piano that’s suspiciously absent from this room. The spot it usually occupies is just… empty.

 

A light clap echoes from the room and he looks at Maevis. Her previous grin is even wider now.

 

“Encore!”

 

He rolls his eyes. “You can tell me it was awful, you know. I know it was. I’m out of practice.”

 

“Ah, I think you’re just being too hard on yourself. You sounded fine to me, and if you keep playing you’ll be right as rain in no time,” she leans forward on her seat, “I’d love to hear you play more.”

 

Maybe she’ll get me a new violin as a gift, he muses. He’s spent much of his time wondering what she might get him, though the wonder is usually quickly diminished when he sees her still wearing that stupid scarf. 

 

Why is she wearing that scarf. It’s Anna’s, not hers, and for some reason that very fact annoys him immensely.    

 

She shouldn’t need to wear someone else’s scarf, he thinks, I should knit her one.

 

The thought doesn’t even come as a shock to him, and he doesn’t bother to try to have an internal argument with himself about it. She’s going to get him something. Sure, then he’ll reciprocate and get her something too. 

 

Keep her at an arm’s length a voice coos at him. One that reminds him that he can’t trust women, not really. Not after what they did to him.

 

The warning is drowned out by thoughts of what colours he’ll use for knitting. Something to go with her hair. Now that the sun is coming through the curtains, it glows like dark honey. Each long strand of her hair ran down in rivers of reds and browns as each rivulet shone. It reminded him of autumn. 

 

Now, all he can think about is wow. Her hair is awfully pretty.

 

She’s just drinking tea she’s made herself now. Not paying him any real mind at the moment, but he moves forwards after he sets the violin down. He’s not thinking about his movements, but then, just like how she did last night he tucks a strand behind her hair.

 

Her movements still, and luckily he knows he hasn’t… triggered any of her issues with his actions. She merely looks at him with a raised brow.

 

He speaks, his voice sounding suspiciously similar to hers when she did this to him.

 

“Your hair’s really long, Mae.”

 

Mae.

 

Maevis is fine. Calling her by her first name like he has all this time… it’s friendly. Mae seems… far more intimate. But in this moment, it now feels like a whisper of hidden desire on his lips, a desire that burns his lungs by just saying it.

 

Mae, Mae, Mae.

 

You need to keep her at arm’s length. You’re treading dangerous territory.

 

He’s not able to entertain that thought further, because Maevis opens her mouth. Though she’s not able to say anything either, since at the corner of his eye he sees a flurry of strawberry blonde hair. 

 

“Ah. Apologies. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

 

“Fuck off, Francesca.”

 

The guard gives off a sheepish smile, but part of it looks distinctly smug. Maevis, for her part, looks like she actually wants to murder the woman as her fists slow clench and unclench as Julian seperates from her. 

 

Francesca clears her throat, “I bought the groceries I forgot.”

 

Maevis’s bloodlust is quickly replaced by confusion, “Didn’t you go out yesterday? And now you’re only back?”

 

He scoffs, aware of what Francesca will say next. He’s so used to her shenanigans now, but when he first met he was confused and annoyed as Maevis. He certainly relates to the exasperation the bounty-hunter is feeling right now, if anything.

 

Francesca’s now sporting a lopsided grin.

 

“I got lost.”

 


 

For the next two days, Julian either outright ignores Anna or just growls at her like a rabid dog. Though, as the hours tick on, he finds himself snapping back at her less and less. Maybe it’s Maevis’s disappointed glare that makes him eat his words now. If he can see it, that is, considering his fucking hair is constantly getting into his eyes now. He hates long hair. He doesn’t know how Maevis puts up with it.

 

So then, after annoyingly brushing his bangs away from his eyes for the umpteenth time, he decides he’s had enough of it. It takes far more mental effort than he expected, but eventually he soon finds himself opening the door to Anna’s study and being greeted with her gobsmacked expression. 

 

He had put a knife to his hair when he figured he could just do it himself. But he knew it would just come out… exceptionally poorly. He knows that from personal experience. He knew Anna was probably his best bet, loathe as he is to admit it. She’s cut his hair multiple times before.

 

“Hey,” he says roughly, “You said you’d do anything to make it up to me. You can start by giving me a haircut.”

 


 

The whole affair has been excruciatingly awkward so far. Anna hasn’t said a single word, and neither has Julian. They sit in complete silence as she cuts his hair, sometimes spraying him with some water as she does so.

 

He hopes it’ll be over quickly. 

 

It feels like it takes a lifetime. 

 

He tries to look around the room as much as he’s able. He’s tired of just staring at his hands. 

 

By his feet is a folded newspaper. He doesn’t know the issue, but it’s torn and yellow with age. He’s just barely able to read a small excerpt.

 

Did you ever stop to think that almost every minute in the day someone, somewhere, is having teeth pulled? This proves that there is always someone worse off than you.

 

He suppresses a snort. Whoever wrote this snippet would surely change her mind once she saw the sorry state of his family. An absolute shitshow from start to finish.

 

“Perhaps it’s time for you to unpack it.”

 

Easier said than done. He — He hates Anna. He thinks he hates Anna. Just sitting here was making him antsy, but at the same time he does want this fucking tension to end. It’s just that every time Anna so much as says anything he feels like he has to bite back. Like he has to defend him from a hidden threat. 

 

He grinds his teeth. He should say something, he knows that. He doesn’t really want to continue staying here. He wants to go to Maevis’s home but he doubts she’ll let him leave until something is done. He can’t continue leaving on cracked glass like this.

 

In his mind, he’s rehearsed hundreds of possible conversations. Rehearsed them a thousand times. This had to end, but taking the first meant admitting he was also in the wrong and he wasn’t sure he was prepared to admit or believe that very fact.

 

His heart ricocheted off his rib cage. He doesn’t say anything he rehearsed. Rather, he just asks about something that’s been nagging him. 

 

“Your piano is gone.”

 

Anna’s movements still for a split-second. Her voice is soft. “...Yes. I sold it.”

 

He half-expected that, but it still catches him off guard. Anna takes a shaky breath as she continues. 

 

“I sold a few of my things. Some of my glass ornaments, the classical Silverfield paintings, the telescope…” her voice grows smaller before it tapers off. She doesn’t need to continue. He gets the point. 

 

“You didn’t sell any of my things.” It sounds more like a question rather than a statement, and Julian mostly says it to himself. A realization, one that makes him extremely uncomfortable. The cold metal of Anna’s scissors sends a shiver to his already quivering neck. 

 

“No,” she says softly, “I didn’t want to sell anything without your permission.”

 

Except for my hand, apparently.

 

Oh, he wants nothing more than to spit that accusation out. It’s on the tip of his tongue, but he swallows it back down. It won’t help. And it’ll make them go back to square one. One of his hands pinches his other in an attempt to disallow any other unproductive thoughts. Tries to think of Father. Tries to think how elated he’d be if he and Anna were able to fix this joke they call a family. 

 

He thinks about an ancient proverb Father was always fond of.

 

“You’ll fear regret more than the past.”

 

And he has many regrets from the past. He doesn’t want to add to the list.

 

Now he mulls over past memories. There were days, many of them, when he had locked himself in his room and just stayed there. He’d just sleep if he could, and if not, he would just lay in bed. A part of him knows he would have just withered away if it weren’t for the fact that Anna would occasionally unlock his room with her master key and place a tray of food on the table.

 

As time passed, the ingredients lessened, but she always managed to get him something. He convinced himself the dwindling food was because of laziness rather than monetary woes.

 

Not only that, she always tried to groom him. Cut his hair like she is now. He convinced himself it was because she just wanted to sell his hand. Everything she had ever done for him was because of an ulterior motive. That’s what he genuinely thought. 

 

He swallows. His throat feels dry. Everything feels dry. His eyes sting. Every clip of the scissors reverberates in his skull like a war drum. 

 

Every time he ever blew up at anyone he reckoned the other person deserved it. There was the explosion and then the mental framework afterwards to avoid guilt, avoid owning the shame that was his. He refused to think he was ever in the wrong. It was everyone else’s fault. They abandoned him.

 

It was like — like he had been left behind in a forest. No matter how hard he ran, he could never catch up to the carriage that was abandoning him. It became so dark in that forest. The sky was black and the trees were even blacker as they silhouette against the horizon. Everything was so achingly hopeless and forlorn of all optimism that the only way he could defend himself was lashing out against everything and everyone. Anger was his shield against a forest that threatened to swallow him whole every day. 

 

The forest was huge and vast. He was so hopelessly lost. But he knows something else now.

 

Anna was left behind in the blackness, too. Abandoned by everyone, just like him.

 

Now, one thought fills his head. 

 

If I keep being angry, how could I love anyone? How could I begin to love myself?

 

Anna fucked up. He fucked up as well. There’s still an intrusive thought at the back of his mind that screeches at him, telling him everything is his sister’s fault. That she deserves no sympathy. A stronger thought overtakes it. He knows he was at fault for some things, too. He knows he made things worse with his behaviour. It was a toxic cycle they both perpetrated, except Anna’s managed to break out of it. He wants out. 

 

He doesn’t hate Anna, not really. He doesn’t love her either. 

 

But he wants to. Being brother and sister again… It’s something worth salvaging. 

 

His throat aches at this point and he has to stop himself from scratching at his neck. He blinks heavily.

 

“Maybe,” he says, so quiet that he barely even hears himself. It’s so hard to get the words out. It feels like his walls are crumbling around him again. 

 

“Maybe,” he repeats, louder this time that he knows he’s heard, “You’re not as bad as I thought.”

 

Anna’s movements still again, but she continues. She doesn’t say anything, but Julian is pretty sure there’s a small grin on her face. He can almost sense it.

 

The comment is really pitiful if he thinks about it, but he can’t bring himself to say anything else. He won’t apologize. He can’t. The words are too hard to get out, like shards of glass stuck in his throat. He’s well aware he was in the wrong as well, but a decade of feeling like he was justified about everything is hard to just… toss away. 

 

Despite that, it feels like… he has found a path out of that horrible forest. A light in that pitch black sky. 

 

No matter how small, it feels like progress.

 


 

Anna must have thought it was significantly more progress than he did, because the next morning he finds himself packing the carriage. He’ll be going back to Maevis’s place. 

 

Maevis is ecstatic. Obviously she wasn’t intending on staying at his house for so long, considering she’s been wearing practically the same thing the entire time. 

 

He feels a hard smack across his back, so hard it almost makes him fall over. He’s barely to hold his balance when Maevis’s strong arm goes around his shoulder and soon he’s greeted her radiant smile.

 

“I don’t know what you did,” she says, happiness almost infectious, “But good job!”

 

Julian tries to extract himself from her hold, but she doesn’t let him go.  

 

Stupid Mae and her stupid big biceps.

 

Why were biceps so hot? That’s just fucking unreasonable. Maevis’s biceps were unreasonable.

 

“Y-Yeah. Whatever,” he mutters.

 

She ruffles his hair next, “You new haircut looks good too. Very handsome.” And that makes him feel like he’s got hot coals on his face. He’s shaven, too, now looking every part of the prim and proper nobleman. 

 

He had admired himself in the mirror beforehand. Thinking Fuck yeah I’m handsome. I look fucking great the entire time. He had been taught that vanity is a poison for men, and that he should always be humble but now he thought fuck that. It felt damn good having some actual confidence in himself and he isn't about to let that go.

 

She pats him on the back again before turning back. Anna is there. Francesca, too. There to see them off. Now it seems a little bit surreal leaving now.

 

When he turns, Maevis leans in to whisper to his ear, “But you’re not outta the woods yet. Do that thing I told you, yeah?”

 

He grits his teeth. Not out of annoyance, but due to the fact her warm breath tickles him. It’s positively frigid outside right now, but he’s already feeling hot and bothered. He’ll just have to make her hot, too. With a scarf he’ll make, obviously. Nothing too crazy, obviously. Certainly nothing sexual. That’s reserved for his dreams.

 

Julian looks at Anna. She’s got the barest hint of a smile on her, and what’s there is fragile. He’s pretty sure Maevis wants him to say it now. 

 

“I’ll — I’ll, uh,” God, why was just speaking to Anna the hardest fucking thing ever? He swallows, “I’ll send you letters as much as I’m able. I’ll tell you about my studies.”

 

Anna’s smiles blossoms into a full one, her eyes looking a little less haggard now. 

 

“Yes, I’ll send you letters as well.” She says.

 

Everything feels less tense for once. He’s forgotten what having a normal conversation with Anna was like.

 

They make their goodbyes, with Francesca giving Maevis a thumbs-up at some point. Mae flips her off, much to Anna’s surprise. 

 

When he enters the carriage, Maevis slaps him on the back again. And again, he finds himself almost falling over. 

 

“Good job!” she exclaims. 

 

He feels his face grow warm at the praise. Why must that affect him so much? It annoys him, but also makes him feel warm in… other places. 

 

Despite himself, he smiles back at Maevis. Was he really making so much progress? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps they were just overestimating him, but perhaps this was just self-doubt working against him. 

 

Yes, he thinks to himself, Good job to me. I fucking deserve it.

 

Progress. He’s making progress. He and Anna both are.

 


 

It’s afternoon by the time they get back. Not even late afternoon, but the sun is already setting. 

 

Despite the long ride, Julian practically begs Nadine for another lesson.

 

“Come on!” he says, “I don’t want to — want to get out of practice! Just teach me something, anything.”

 

Nadine places his tea on the table, face blank as usual despite his almost childish insistence. “I am not sure if this is something you can get out of practice from, Lord von Leventis.”

 

He scoffs and takes a sip of his tea, though it’s hot enough he almost drops the cup. The pine needle aroma fills his nostrils and from across the table Maevis chuckles as she reads some book Julian can’t read the title of. 

 

He doesn’t want to leave. He’s not entirely sure why, but he does know a lesson would be his best excuse to stay. Is it because Maevis expects him to write a letter when he goes back to his cabin? Sure, he’s reluctant to a degree. Mainly because he’s not sure what the fuck he’s supposed to say. He told Anna he’d tell her about his lesson, so he needs a fucking lesson to write about! He’ll have a lesson, then begin knitting a scarf back at his cabin. Perfect plan, as far as he was concerned.

 

Nadine eventually agrees. 

 

“Very well. Could you get me some books about virology and immunology? Those terms should be in the titles. Any book will do.”

 

Julian’s grin reaches his ears then he immediately goes to Maevis’s study. He’s going to learn about viruses. Now he’s ridiculously excited. He doesn’t know much about them, obviously, but he knows they can seriously fuck a person up. God, learning ways to die is gonna be such a cool lesson. 

It doesn’t take long until he has a small pile of books with the desired terms in their titles. 

 

Just before he’s about to leave, another title catches his eye like a shard of glass reflecting the light from the sun. 

 

Superstitions and Folklore of Asnain.

 

He stares at its spine for a bit. That’s gotta have some stuff about monsters in it. That’s gotta have something about Maevis’s homeland in it. He wants to learn more about both. 

 

A little detour hurt no one…

 

He pulls the book out, hands almost beginning to quiver as if he’s holding a forbidden book. The Anderras and Matris Amri probably aren’t in here, he realizes. Neither are from Asnain. That just further piques his desire to look through this book. 

 

He opens to a random page. 

 

Southeastern Asnain is home to a multitude of of water spirits and nixes due to its extensive lake system. One such water spirit is the Rochspar, which embodied the anxiety of travelers who were fearful of getting lost and drowning while crossing a body of water. Even natives, who knew the lakes well, were wary of this spirit. It is often described as hideous humanoid creature with the face of a frog, however, despite its appearance, it is said to be the owner of sonorous voice. Its songs were often vocal, and mesmerizing, lulling its prey into a false sense of security and enticing them near the water. The Rochspar would then use its tongue to capture its quarry and drown them. 

 

The description is accompanied by an illustration and yep, it sure was one ugly looking motherfucker. If there’s one thing folklore has taught him, it’s to not listen to random cooing and singing in the wilderness. Those are always a damn deathtrap. 

 

He turns the pages, trying to get the section about Northern Asnain. A part of him wants to read something that he can bring up in conversation with Maevis, mostly because he wants to see her expression. And maybe even get a bit of praise for being so smart. 

 

Day of Snow Gift Giving

 

That grabs his attention.

 

Day of Snow is a regional holiday celebrated in some areas in Northern Asnain. It's celebrated in remembrance of Saint and Martyr Justine who secretly officiated weddings for Asnainian and Chiayan citizens when Asnain was still considered a state of Chiaya. Marriage between Asnains and Chiayans was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. 

 

Now he feels his hands begin to get clammy. Ok. So it started with marriage. No biggie. Just a coincidence, and several centuries ago. Nothing special or romantic about it now, surely. 

 

There is a common belief that giving a gift to one’s lover

 

He drops the book with a resounding thud before he realizes his movements. Now he knows he’s beginning to sweat profusely. It’s getting way too warm in this room. 

 

He picks up the book with shaking fingers. There are only two things filling his head. Ohshitohshitohshit and loverloverloverlover.

 

He wets his lips when he continues reading.

 

There is a common belief that giving a gift to one’s lover when the first snow falls, the couple will be blessed with a happy relationship for years to come. Women will also present gifts to the men they’re courting, believing the snow will give them luck in successfully seeking the favour of the man that caught their eye.

 

He drops the book again, but this time on the table so it doesn’t make as loud of a thud when it lands. His heart threatens to jump out of his throat. There’s an overwhelming… fluttery feeling in his stomach. Is that — Is that what people called butterflies in one’s stomach? 

 

He suddenly felt awkward; going as far as attempting to hide his rapidly growing blush behind his fingers despite being the only one in the room. The warmth seared his cheeks. 

 

That’s not It’s not It’s just a coincidence. Maevis is fucking fucking stupid. She’s absolutely not that romantic at all. This is all just just a simple gift and

 

He thinks back to what she’s done for him. She’s been… a consistently stable force, his one stability in a world filled with chaos and something he desperately needed in his life. She’s been so nice. Almost unbearably so. He thinks back to how she almost coyly pushed his hair behind his ear.

 

Oh fuck.

 

This feeling is so strange; it stretches throughout his whole body. It’s overwhelming, yet makes him feel complete. It has no bound nor length nor depth; it’s just absolute.

 

She’s She’s Mae is—

 

It feels as though he’s in a dangerous fire, yet he’s completely safe at the same time. He feels so light, like he’s floating yet his heart is constricting and it feels as if there’s no oxygen in his lungs. He’s feeling such intense boyish excitement but also pure, unmitigated panic because he’s sure there is only one explanation.

 

Maevis is courting me!