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Metamorphosis

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I sigh with distinct content as I set the last of the crystals I’ve been organizing into the shop’s display case, a proud smile on my lips. If I said I hadn’t been cleaning and organizing obsessively throughout the entire day while Asra was preparing for his most recent journey, it’d be a lie. For most of three years we’ve had this routine. He gets ready to leave while I do everything I can to distract myself. At the beginning, I’d cried and begged to join him, terrified of being alone, but that fear has left me now.

The soft clatter of the beads on the curtain separating the back room from the shop announces that Asra is done, but I don’t look up at him, pretending to polish an orb of amethyst for the fifth time. He sighs behind me, and I feel a hand on my shoulder.

“Dauna, I know you don’t want me to leave, but I won’t be gone long. I promise. And besides, you’ll have Faust.”

He hugs me from behind, Faust sliding from his arms to wrap herself around my shoulders. I sigh but can’t help the smile that comes to my face. “I know, Asra. I just…” I cut off and bite my lip, already regretting opening my mouth. Asra doesn’t miss a beat, moving around me so he can meet my eyes.

“What’s bothering you? I can tell something’s wrong.”

I choose to deflect, putting on a forlorn face and looking away. “Well, it’s just that… you promised to bring me a souvenir last time.”

After a moment of silence, Asra’s laughter fills the space between us. I relax, glad that he bought the lie. “Is that really all, Daun? Don’t worry, I’ll definitely bring you something this time.”

He presses a chaste kiss to my forehead, making me roll my eyes. He’s always affectionate just before and after his trips, and I can’t say it’s on my list of Asra’s best qualities. It just feels like he’s trying to get brownie points to excuse his leaving me all by myself.

“Alright, mister magician, you can stop stalling. I’ll be fine, really. What’s the worst that could happen, a murderer falling in through the window?”

Asra raises an eyebrow at me as he places his silly traveling hat on his head. “Where do you get this stuff, honestly? So morbid. Anyway, I’ll see you in a week, at the worst. And I’ll have your souvenir this time, promise.”

I nod and wave, leaning against the counter as he disappears through the door. I wait one minute, then two. After five, I sigh and go back to cleaning. All I can do now is deal with the shop and wait for him to come back. He’s right though, at least I have Faust.

Even with no memory of my life before, I can’t help but feel that this is all a bit off. Asra says it was normal for us. He doesn’t elaborate, most likely afraid I’ll have another spell like every other time I try to remember my life before. I’m thankful he was here when I woke up, but…

A knock startles me from my thoughts. Suddenly, I realize that the sun has gone down outside and that I’ve been so distracted I forgot to close the shop. The knock sounds again, and I momentarily consider ignoring the visitor. My sense of manners gets the best of me, though, and I head to the door, opening both it and my mouth to greet the guest.

The visitor, however, is in no way what I expected. The Countess of Vesuvia, Nadia Satrinava herself, stands at my door, her imperial stare pinning me to the ground and stealing my breath. She quirks an eyebrow, and I quickly clear my throat, a flush of embarrassment spreading across my cheeks.

“M-my Countess! To what do I owe such a visit?” I step aside, ushering her inside. I’m struck with a small sense of relief that I’d cleaned so obsessively today.

The Countess strides into the shop, waving for her guards to stay outside. Once the door is firmly shut, she rounds on me, a calming smile on her lips. I feel the tension in my shoulders easing and find that I’m returning her smile.

“Good evening. I apologize for the late call, but I simply must find the magician Asra. I was told this is his shop, but I don’t believe you are the one I’m looking for.”

Ah, Asra. Ever popular, it seems. “No, madam, I’m not him; I’m simply his apprentice. I’m afraid you’ve just missed him. He left a few hours ago, and will be travelling for quite some time.”

The Countess nods thoughtfully, her fingers hovering above the glass of the display counter. “A shame. You said you’re his apprentice, yes? Surely the apprentice of the best magician in Vesuvia could aid me instead.”

I pause a moment. Yes, Asra has taught me magic. He’s taught me to read the Tarot. I would, however, hardly call myself a suitable replacement for him. Magic doesn’t come to me as easily as Asra would like to think.

As if sensing my doubts, the Countess approaches me, placing her finger beneath my chin and tilting my face up so our eyes meet. “Surely he wouldn’t have you keep the shop alone if he were not confident in your ability. I don’t require anything difficult, merely a reading of the cards.”

I nod, relaxing. Just a reading. That’s simple enough, right? I lead her to the back room, offering her a seat at the table. For a moment, I’m worried because I’ve only ever used Asra’s tarot deck. He would have taken it with him, right? Just as I’m thinking this, I notice the neat stack of cards on the table. He left them behind. For once, I’m glad he’s got a tendency to forget things.

I take my seat, running the cards through my fingers and shuffling them. After a minute or so, I cut the deck and lay out three cards. I’m not expecting to feel anything, but, to my surprise, the center card calls to me. I turn it.

The Magician.

Nadia picks up the card, examining it thoughtfully. “What does he tell you, magician’s apprentice?”

I am silent for a moment, listening for the card. He speaks to me. “You have plans. The time has come to set them into motion.”

The Countess nods thoughtfully, slowly setting the card back into place. She examines me with a bemused glint in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “Excellent. I must say, I’m very satisfied. In fact, I may have a job for you. Please, come dine with me at the Palace tomorrow. You’ll be my honored guest.”

I bite my lip. An invitation to the Palace? Asra told me that no one but the staff and highest nobles have been past the gates since the late Count Lucio’s murder three years ago. At the same time, Asra shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have adventures.

My confidence growing, I nod, smiling softly. “It would be my honor, Countess.”

She chuckles and stands, heading for the door. Just before she leaves, she looks back at me. “Ah, it seems I’ve allowed my manners to slip. What is your name, magician’s apprentice?”

I bow deeply. “Dauna, milady. Dauna Plessus.”

She laughs again, amused, it seems, by my manners. “Well, Miss Dauna Plessus, I eagerly await our meeting tomorrow.”

With that, she’s gone, the door shutting firmly behind her. I quickly close the shop once she’s gone, only pausing once I’m sure there will be no more visitors. I take Faust into my hands, a mischievous smile on my lips.

“Well, looks like Asra’s not going to be the only one with a story to tell when he gets home, hm?”

Faust begins to respond, but a loud thud in the back room overwhelms her. She slithers up my arm and back onto my shoulder as I hurry to see what the commotion is. On the floor beneath the now open window lays a man clad in black, a plague doctor’s mask covering his features. I gulp as he slowly stands, not having seemed to notice me yet.

The stranger takes his mask off, and I take a step back. I know I joked about murderers falling through the window earlier, but I didn’t expect Doctor Julian Devorak himself, the very man who confessed to murdering the late Count Lucio, to tumble into the shop. He runs a hand through his hair, fluffing it out, and stretches before calling out as he turns towards me.

“Ooooh As raaa- oh, who are you? You’re definitely not Asra.” His eye falls on me, and I gulp again, frozen in place. I ignore the slight feeling of familiarity as the doctor looks at me appraisingly.

“I’m… no, I’m not him. I’m his apprentice. He’s not in Vesuvia at the moment.” I try to stay as calm as I can in the presence of a confessed killer. The longer I’m in front of him, though, the less certain I am that he could kill someone. I mean, he probably could. I could if I really tried, but this Julian Devorak in front of me seems… unable, in the simplest term.

The doctor pouts and kicks the floor a bit. “Oh that just figures. I come back to town and he’s run off.” His eyes land on the Tarot deck still sitting on the table. “Oh, I remember these cards. Surprised he left them here, honestly.” Julian casts me a sidelong glance. “He must really trust you if he left his cards with you.”

I start to answer, but Julian cuts me off. “Not that all this magic mumbo jumbo is real or anything. It’s all highly suspect, in my opinion.”

Huh. Funny, I said something similar when Asra first started teaching me magic. I decide to take a page from his book. “Why don’t I do a reading for you? You can decide whether it’s mumbo jumbo based on your reading.”

The Doctor looks at me with a playful smirk. “Oh, you sound just like him, don’t you. Always tricking me into his little spells. Fine, what can your cards tell me?”

I sit and start to shuffle the cards, nodding to the seat across from me. He sits, long legs barely fitting under the table. After I shuffle, I cut the deck again and lay out three cards. Again, I feel a supernatural call, this time to the leftmost card. I turn it over.

Death.

Without waiting for me to speak, Julian leans forward and laughs, picking up the card. “Death? Of all cards? Isn’t that hilarious. Death cast her gaze upon this wretch and turned away.” I try to explain that it doesn’t mean literal death, but he stands and heads back to the window. “I’ve seen enough. Tell Asra when he gets back that I’m back in town, if he cares.”

With that, he’s gone, out the window and into the shadows. I close the window, staring at it for a few moments before sighing, shaking my head, and heading up to bed with Faust.

-

The next day, I close the shop early. I dress in my best, even if my best isn't quite Palace worthy, make sure Faust is snug in my shawl, and grab Asra's Tarot Deck, just in case, before heading out into town. I weave through the familiar streets, waving at the townsfolk I've met through Asra and the shop. Faust trills her own cute greetings, her head poking out of the fabric of my clothes. We stop in the market, talking with the baker and buying pumpkin bread to eat on our walk.

We round a corner, intent on heading to the stairs that lead to the Heart District, but come up short when we run directly into a young woman carrying a basket of pomegranates. I quickly grab her hand to keep us from falling, but a few of the fruits tumble to the ground. I pick them up as the girl checks her basket, smiling apologetically.

"Sorry about that, I was distracted. Are you alright?"

She accepts the fruit with a grin, shaking her head. "Oh, don't worry about me, I'm right as rain! Takes more'n a bump to rattle me around." She gives me a hard once over before grinning. "Say, aren't you Dauna Plessus? You're supposed to be milady's guest of honor tonight! Let me walk you to the Palace, I know all the shortcuts."

I raise an eyebrow. Has word really traveled that fast? I'm not one to turn down a faster route, though, so I accept her invitation.

Along the way I discover that Portia, as the girl is named, is the closest thing to a personal handmaiden the Countess has, and I note the pride and spring in her step as she says it. What a cute crush. I also learn that apparently whatever plans the Countess has for me involve me staying in a guest room tonight. Asra is sure to get a thrill out of this story when he gets home.

We scurry through the gates, large and looming and beautiful. Asra brought me to see them once, not long after I first awoke. Something felt familiar, then, and I can't shake that same feeling now. In the back of my mind, I hope that I will find clues to my past through this foray.

Portia leads me to a lovely room, advising me that an outfit has been laid out for my use during my stay here, and that a servant will escort me to dinner. I thank her, looking around at the magnificent room as the door clicks shut. I'm sure that the shop could fit into this bedroom alone, and it’s only for guest use. I can't begin to imagine what the rest of the rooms are like.

I shake myself out of my wonder, stepping over to the bed where the clothes I've been provided are laid out. The cloth is soft and feels like air between my fingertips, the color a golden amber. I can't help but wonder if Nadia picked it herself, seeing as it's nearly the same color as my eyes. I disrobe quickly, letting Faust slither down my arm. She hides in my clothes, her head poked out as she watches me change. I give her a little kiss on the head as I finish the final clasp, stepping towards the floor length mirror to examine myself. I'm not familiar with the cut of clothing, but I must say that I do like the high neckline and empire waist. Oh, and pockets too! Maybe I could make something similar for myself if Asra and I ever have something fancy to attend.

A soft knock alerts me to my escort's arrival, and I smile at Faust. "Would you like to come with me, or do you want to explore?" She repeats my last word and I giggle, opening the window for her to slip out. "Stay out of trouble, sweetheart. Asra would have my head if you got hurt." She flicks her tongue at me, darting outside.

The dining hall I'm led to is beautiful, a scene I really thought I would never see. The Countess waits patiently at the end of a long table set only for two but decorated nonetheless with golden candlesticks and fresh flowers. I make my way to the setting placed beside her, bowing nervously. Seeing her in my shop was one thing; I'm in her element now. She motions for me to sit, and I follow her command, watching her do the same.

"I'm glad you could attend, Miss Dauna. It's a pleasure to have you at my table."

Our conversation is relatively, shall I say, strained through the course of the meal. Not that the Countess isn’t a wonderful conversationalist, because she very well is. I can feel, however, a sense of something great looming over her. She’s holding back from the real reason she brought me here.

As the final course draws to a close, Portia steps forward with a bottle of something wrapped in shimmery foil. The Countess praises her for her choice as we’re both poured a glass. I think I hear a hint of adoration in her voice, and I quickly hide the little smile it brings to my lips by taking a sip of the drink I’m offered.

After a short silence, interrupted only by the sounds of the servants moving back and forth, the Countess sets her glass down, fixing me with a look that radiates confidence. “I’m sure you’re wondering, Dauna, why I’ve called you here today.”

I give her a smile that I hope is serene. “Is it not because you enjoyed my company, madam?”

The Countess’s laughter rewards my remark, and I can’t help the grin that lights up my face. The servants, too, seem amused by my teasing, and Portia has to cover her mouth to hold back her giggles. Once she’s calmed down from the outburst, the Countess wipes a small tear from her eye, shaking her head with a smile.

“Well, as true as that may seem to be, I’m afraid I’ve called you here for a more serious matter.” He gaze trails away to a painting on the wall. I had noticed the piece when I came in, but I only just now realize the subject matter. A host of animal headed figures gather around a goat headed man in the center, who lays before them an assortment of food. “My husband had this painting commissioned. A testament to his provision for the people of Vesuvia, who lapped up what they were given from the very palm of his hand. In his mind, no gift he gave was greater than the Masquerade, held to celebrate his birthday each year. Do you remember the last one, Dauna?”

I’m spared having to answer as she continues to speak. “It was tragic. Imagine the outrage when the people of Vesuvia learned their opulent Count had been burned to death in his own bed, on the very day of his birth. Such a scar has tainted the memory of the Masquerade.” Her lips turn back up from the somber look they’d held into a smile. “Which is exactly why I intend to revive the Masquerade this year.”

The servants whisper excitedly, and even Portia seems surprised. Once all the commotion quiets back down, Nadia fixes me with her imperial gaze. “Which is where you come in, magician’s apprentice. There is one small issue that must be dealt with before Vesuvia can rest easy over the murder of my husband. The culprit needs to be caught, and I believe you are just the girl for the job.”

I gulp, taken aback by the confidence in her tone. “You… Want me to find Doctor Devorak? And what will happen if I do?” My mind replays the scene from last night, of the doctor staring me down in my own home and my initial belief that he was not the sort to commit murder.

The Countess sits back in her chair. “Well, the laws of Vesuvia state that the punishment for such a crime is to be execution-”

No sooner than the word leaves her mouth, there is a crash of breaking glass. We both turn to look at Portia, who is no longer holding the bottle she had poured our drinks from. Instead, it lays broken at her feet, her face awash with shock and horror. She quickly sputters an apology, citing slick hands as the reason for her clumsiness before hurrying to clean up the mess with the help of the other servants.

Nadia settles back into her seat, but I note the worry on her face. “As I was saying, the laws state that he is to be executed, but I have been working on a small judicial reform for the city of Vesuvia. So, while I wish for you to find him, I also wish for you to prove without a shadow of a doubt whether or not Doctor Devorak truly committed the crime. There was no formal investigation conducted when the murder occurred, so you won’t have that to go from.”

She fixes me with her smile again. “Of course, I don’t expect you to decide right away. Please, take the night to think about your decision. You’re free to roam the Palace during your stay.”

I nod, giving her the best smile I can as I thank her. This is so overwhelming. I know I wanted an adventure, but this might prove to be a little too much. If Asra were here, he could take some of the burden, but I’ll be set in my decision by the time he returns.

Nadia takes her leave, and another servant leads me back to my room. I’m glad, as I probably would have gotten lost if I’d tried to find my own way back. Faust is already curled up on the bed, but my clothes have been suspiciously replaced with a bundle of white linen and a note informing me that my belongings are being laundered. I sigh, slipping out of the amber gown and laying it over the back of a chair before changing into the linen nightgown. Thankfully, I notice that Asra’s Tarot deck and the other contents of my pockets have been placed on the dressing table.

Satisfied with the location of my possessions, I slip into bed, letting Faust slither into my nightgown for warmth. I stroke her head, looking up at the ceiling. “What do you think Asra will say, sweetie? ‘Oh, hey, I stayed the night at the Palace and got asked by the Countess herself to investigate the most infamous murder of Vesuvia! By the way, did you bring that souvenir?’”

Faust’s tongue flicks my cheek as she replies. “Heart attack!”

I laugh, booping her on the nose. “He probably would have a heart attack, huh? I bet we’re having a lot more fun than he is.”

With that, the two of us relax, drifting slowly off to sleep in the calm of the Palace.

-

I’m awoken by golden light spilling across my face, a cheery hum accompanying it. As I sit up, I take a moment to try and remember where I am. Asra left two days, and yesterday… Right, the Palace! I open my eyes, looking for the source of the humming. Portia is brushing out the dress I wore yesterday, a bright smile on her face. On the nightstand, beside the Tarot deck and my other possessions, sits a tray of little breakfast pastries.

“Mornin’, Miss! Milady said that, if you’ve decided to accept the investigation, she has something to show you that should help with. If not, I brought you breakfast, and you’re free to go .” I notice the way she averts her eyes when she mentions the investigation. I’ll have to remember to ask her about it later. “And, if you stay, she wants you to meet the inner circle of the court. They’re all really excited to meet you!”

I raise an eyebrow as I eat one of the pastries from the tray. The members of the court? I don’t know anything about courtly affairs. Seeming to sense my unease, Portia smiles reassuringly at me. “Oh, don’t worry. Milady won’t let them bite. They’re harmless, really. Just eager.”

As I finish breakfast, Portia lists off each of the courtiers’ names and positions, as well as a short summary of their duties. Consul Valerius is the most important, he is practically second in command to Countess Nadia herself and is the one she most lends her ear towards. Praetor Vlastomil handles legal affairs, acting as a sort of judge. Procurator Volta is in charge of food distribution, and Pontifex Vulgora seems to preside over matters involving Vesuvia’s military.

The final courtier gives me pause. Quaestor Valdemar, whose expertise lies in the medical field. Something in the back of my mind begs that I press for more, telltale signs of a headache coming as I dwell on the thought. Could they have something to do with my past?

Portia claps, pulling me out of my thoughts. She announces that she’ll leave me to change before heading out to wait in the hall. I take a deep breath, looking around for Faust. She’s nowhere to be found, but I trust that she won’t get into too much trouble. I slip back into the dress I was given. As I check my appearance in the mirror, I absently wish I hadn’t had Asra cut my hair so I could make it look a bit more presentable.

Portia and I don’t talk much on our way to meet Countess Nadia, but the silent isn’t awkward. It’s nice and reminds me of slow days at the shop with Asra, though Portia radiates a good deal more mischief than Asra ever has. She keeps sending me little glances that I can place on the spectrum between worry and hope.

Finally, we stop before an opulent panel in the wall depicting a beautiful tree. Its roots curl into the floor, and beautiful gems are set into the panel. Portia jingles a set of keys before fitting each one into its matching lock. “Milady had this door installed. Isn’t it something?”

I nod, watching the roots of the tree uncurl as the panel is unlocked. Finally, it slips open to reveal a beautiful library. I revel in the scent of literature, rich with age. This is the biggest collection I’ve ever seen. The Countess, seated at a table within the room, chuckles as she watches me take in the scene. “Do you read, Dauna?”

I nod, blushing a bit. Asra says it’s a good hobby, reading, that the way I engross myself in whatever I’m reading to the detriment of my awareness is endearing, but I’m sure such a thing wouldn’t be looked well upon at the moment. “I do, madam. You could say it’s a passion of mine.”

She hums thoughtfully. “You are my guest. Should you wish to return for leisure, no one will hinder you. But today, I’ve brought you here to show you something that I hope will be illuminating to your investigation.” Nadia ushers me towards a secluded corner of the library, lit by a beam of sunlight from a tall window. There sits a small desk, overflowing in a meticulous manner with manuscripts, papers, and journals. “The Doctor’s desk, where he spent a majority of his time while here researching the Red Plague.”

I step forward, running my fingers over a leather tome. This could prove useful, indeed. One of these journals may very well detail Julian Devorak’s innocence or guilt. The Countess watches me closely as I make my cursory examination, leaving me to my work after the first few minutes. I sit at the desk, starting through the many journals kept here.

I’ve only made it halfway through the first when Portia comes to bring me lunch; Doctor Devorak’s hand writing is anything but legible. I thank her, and she gives me a smile, peering over my shoulder.

“Are those even words?”

I laugh a bit, shaking my head. “Some of them, I think. Most of it is just scribbles. I wonder if Doctor Devorak could even read his own handwriting.”

She giggles a bit, casting one last long look at the journal before leaning against a nearby shelf. “Do you mind if I wait with you? I’ll need to escort you to see the courtiers, after all.”

I set the journal down, turning to the tray she brought me. “I’d like that. I think if I read another line of that journal right now, I’ll go insane.” Not only that, but this is the perfect opportunity to ask her about her reactions to the investigation.

I let silence hang between us as I take a few bites of my food, watching her eyes flicker from the books on the shelves to the desk and then back. I take a drink of tea before speaking. “Did you know Doctor Devorak, Portia?”

She chokes, sputtering a bit at the suddenness of my question. Her cheeks flare as she tries to stammer a negative, but I raise an eyebrow skeptically. She sighs softly, nodding. “Yes… He’s… Dauna, he’s my brother. I came to Vesuvia to find him, but he’s so good at hiding… I know he didn’t kill Lucio; he couldn’t kill a fly! You have to believe me.”

She looks at me with wide, teary eyes. I give her the best smile I can, reaching over and taking her hand. “You heard the Countess, Portia. My job is to find the truth, and that’s what I’m going to do. I promise, if he’s innocent, I will prove it.”

We share a smile before she springs forward, wrapping her arms around me. “Thank you! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I promise I’ll help in any way I can!”

I smile, patting her back and thanking her. We chat happily as I eat lunch, the weight of Portia’s secret no longer hanging over us. Once I’m done, Portia passes my tray off to another servant and begins walking me down the winding halls to where I’ll be meeting the courtiers. I must look nervous, because she squeezes my arm encouragingly.

The room she leads me into is lovely, furnished as lavishly as I had expected. The group inside pauses in their merriment. I cast my gaze around as Portia introduces me, catching Nadia’s eyes as she pauses playing the lovely organ by the window before glancing to the courtiers. Thanks to Portia’s brief rundown earlier, I can piece together who is who. Valerius glares at me over his wine glass while Vlastomil, Volta, and Vulgora all eagerly invite me to sit with them.

As I step forward and open my mouth to greet the group, my eyes meet with those of the final courtier. As soon as I make eye contact with Quaestor Valdemar, I know that something is wrong’ my head sears with pain and my vision whites out. I think I’ve fallen to my knees, but I can’t feel anything but the pain. I hear voices, but they’re distant, as though I’m trapped underwater.

In the midst of the pain, I feel a pair of hands grip my arms and haul me up and into a sitting position. The hands tug at my wrists, bringing them above my head, and I feel a different set of hands take hold to keep them in place. A voice breaks through the white-hot fog roiling in my mind.

“Miss Plessus, I need you to take deep breaths. Open your mouth plea- no, Praetor, she is not dying. Now, miss plea- Procurator, she is not suffering from hunger. Now, plea- Pontifex, don’t start. Now, mouth open, deep breaths, and- Consul, if you do not let me treat my patient you are the one who is going to need a physician.”

It doesn’t take as long as usual for the waves of pain to subside. When my vision clears, the first thing I see is the Quaestor kneeling before me, examining me closely. They nod and instruct whoever is holding my arms to let go before reaching forward and taking my chin, turning my head left and right. The leather of their gloves creaks as they check my pulse, and I can’t help but blush when they press an ear to my chest to listen to my breathing.

Satisfied by what they hear, the Quaestor pulls away, sitting nonchalantly on the low table in front of me. The other courtiers, I notice, have left, and only the Countess, the Quaestor, Portia, and I remain. Tense silence hangs in the air, the only calm person in the room seeming to be Quaestor Valdemar. Finally, they break the silence.

“How long have you known about this condition of yours?”

“For as long as I can remember…”

“And how long is that?”

“Just under three years.”

Their eyebrows raise, and I see Portia and Nadia exchange a look. The Quaestor produces a small notepad and pencil from their apron pocket and begins jotting something down. “And what seems to be the triggering instance for these spells?”

“Whenever something happens that should make me remember something from before three years ago.”

They nod, writing another line and tapping the pencil thoughtfully against their mask. “Have you sought medical assistance in these instances?”

I nod. “Asra, my master, his magic can ease the pain, and I’ve taken some medications before. But I never know when it will happen, so preventative measures haven’t been successful.”

They nod again, writing on the paper again. “An interesting case. If you think of any other bits of information regarding your condition, or if any of these symptoms manifest again, do let me know. I’d like to keep an eye on this anomaly of yours.”

With that, the Quaestor stands and leaves, not even bothering with a farewell to the Countess. Silence hangs over us before Portia quickly drops onto the couch beside me, her eyes wide.

“That was terrifying, Dauna! Are you sure you’re okay? I had to hold your hands up because you were trying to tear your hair out!”

I smile apologetically. “I’m fine, Portia. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. And, milady,” I turn to Nadia. “I promise this won’t hinder the investigation you’ve tasked me with. I can work around it, especially once Asra returns.”

She nods, moving over to sit on my other side. “I believe you, Dauna. But please, do not feel like you must push yourself. You are my guest first and foremost.” She smiles and sets a hand on my back. “And please, call me Nadia.”

Before I can reply, there is a knock on the door. The Countess - no, Nadia - calls for the newcomer to enter. A befeathered and quite high-strung servant enters, clearing his throat. “Milady, there is a gentleman, a magician, who wishes to see your guest, Miss Dauna.”

Nadia raises an eyebrow and glances at me before asking that he be show in. Just a minute later, Asra enters the room, a furrow in his brow that eases when he sets eyes on me. I give him a small smile, just as surprised as Nadia is at his arrival.

It seems I’ll get to share my adventure with him sooner than I anticipated.

Chapter Text

Asra and I move to the library when Portia and Nadia leave us alone after introductions are made. I explain to him what's happened since he left, taking special care not to mention Doctor Devorak's tumble into the shop. I tell him about the investigation I've been tasked with, noting the wry smile on his face every time I mention the doctor's crime. When I finally get to the part about meeting the courtiers, though, Asra fixes me with a hard look. I've never seen such malice in his eyes as there is when I say the Quaestor helped me with my pain. He pulls me down to sit on one of the couches, grasping my hands tightly in both of his.

"Daun, do not go back to them. If the Quaestor gets anywhere near you, turn around and leave. I don't care if it's rude. They are not to be trusted. Do you understand?"

I sigh. Even if I don’t intend to follow his instructions, I know that Asra won’t leave me alone until I agree with him. But that doesn’t mean I’ll go down without a fight. “What are you so worried about? They seem a little weird, but they were nothing but attentive to my condition. This could be a chance to fix whatever is wrong with me, Asra.”

My mentor’s brow furrows, and he sighs, looking away. “I know I’m not making the best headway in fixing everything, but I have other things we can try. Can we just… wait, at the least? Before going to them?

I pull my hands gently out of Asra’s, patting his shoulder. “I’m not suggesting I go to their office first thing in the morning. I never even said I was thinking about it. And, Asra, you don’t have to tell me why you hate them so much, but I am a guest here. I can’t just snub an important member of the Countess’s court.”

He sighs a bit, looking back at me with a smile. “Thank you, Daun. I promise, I’ll have you fixed soon.”

I nod, giving him a smile. “I know, Asra. I get that it takes time.”

Faust slithers up onto the couch and into my lap, her tongue flicking against my cheek before she goes over to Asra, curling up in his lap. “ Bedtime!

Asra chuckles and looks out the window, where the sun is beginning to set. “The sun is going down, huh? Daun, do you want to come back to the shop tonight?”

I shake my head, standing and smoothing out my dress. “No, but thanks. I’m pretty much settled in. Nadia said she’d have a room prepared for you, if you’re really that worried about being far apart, but I , for one, am going to take full advantage of that cloud of a bed in my room here.”

I hear Asra chuckle and wish me a goodnight as I leave the library, heading for my own room. As I turn in for bed, wrapped in the same soft nightgown from the night before, I know that I have no intention of waiting for Asra to fix me. I resolve to speak to the Quaestor about my condition the moment we’re alone.

-

I get my wish sooner than I expect. Two days later, as I’m headed into the library for another exciting day of trying to decipher Doctor Devorak’s absolutely disastrous handwriting, I nearly run directly into the Quaestor themself. Quickly, I step back, dropping into a curtsy as I fumble for an apology.

“My deepest apologies, Quaestor. I was lost in thought and didn’t see you. Are you alright?”

They watch me with their crimson eyes, expression unreadable. I squirm a bit beneath their gaze, feeling my face flush with heat the longer they watch me. Finally, they shake their head, chuckling softly. “No, I’m quite fine. How is your condition treating you?”

I relax, relieved that they finally spoke. “I haven’t had another attack like the one in the salon, but I do feel the pangs more often, lately. Especially here in the library. But I suppose that can’t be helped, seeing as it’s where I’m working as of current.”

They hum softly before turning to walk back into the library. “Follow me, Miss Plessus.”

I quickly do as I’m told, following the Quaestor through tall shelves lined with tomes older than I can even imagine. My head twinges with pain, and I press a hand to my temple. Something feels so very familiar about this. The Quaestor stops in front of a specific set of shelves, looking at me expectantly.

The pain flares again as I look at the books, and I bite my lip. In the back of my mind, I feel as though I know what I’m meant to do here. Slowly, I extend a hand, running my fingers over the beautiful books. As my fingers brush a red spine, I feel the pain peaking. I tug on the book, and it slides forward, stopping before I can pull it free from the shelf.

Again, I search across the spines, very aware of the Quaestor's watchful eyes. A leather bound tome is the next target, and it stops halfway just like the red one. The Quaestor has their notebook out now, scribbling on the page. The last book, black with golden trim, is pulled into place, and I step back, feeling the pain fade away. The bookshelf swings inward, revealing a passage in the wall. I take a deep breath, smiling softly as Valdemar nods with approval.

"It seems your memories are somewhere in there, after all. Not completely lost, simply locked away. That, my dear, is a very good starting place."

I look back at them, my eyes searching theirs for answers. "How did you know? Did we know one another? Do you know who I was?"

They tut their tongue. "Eager as ever, I see. Luckily for you, only one answer will suffice. You worked, for a time, as my apprentice during the days of the Red Plague."

Silence hangs between us for a long minute as I process the information. A few things make sense now, my interest in medical science, my meticulous way of cleaning and organizing. Things you'd expect in a medical professional. I turn to look back down the long passageway. "This was…"

Their gaze follows mine. "The passage to the lab where the majority of our research was done. You didn’t work here, but you came frequently to deliver research and learn under my wing.”

They offer me a hand, and I take it. A rush of magic washes over me, and my vision blacks out for just a moment before the scene before me changes.

The library is different. Still opulent, still quiet, but the vegetation around the mantle isn’t as prevalent. Books pass as I move towards the sound of two voices. With a start, I realize one of them is my own. Just as I start to make out words, everything goes back again.

When I come to, I’m sitting on one of the chaises in the library, Valdemar sitting beside me with a keen look in their eye. I take several deep breaths, trying to make sense of what I saw. “Was that…”

“A memory? Yes. One of mine. I don’t have time to show it to you now, but perhaps we could find time on another day. Though my schedule is so busy, I can meet you here, tomorrow morning at dawn. I trust you won't waste my time."

With that, they stand and leave, the only sound the tap of their shoes on the marble floors. I sit for a long minute in the calm silence of the library, my mind made a cacophony by the multitude of thoughts racing through it. I'm closer now than I ever have been to knowing who I was. I have a sliver of knowledge now, more than I've ever had.

Determination fills me as I set about my research of Doctor Devorak for the day. The sooner I find evidence, the sooner I can focus on myself and who I was.

-

Portia is a life saver, helping me wake early enough to have breakfast before I go to the library. She’s curious about my sudden initiative to start working before even the sun wakes up, but I laugh it off, telling her that the sooner I work, the sooner her brother is free. Thankfully, that’s enough, though she does cast a look back at me as we part ways so she can finish her morning duties.

The halls are quiet, the only people I pass are a stray servant or two. It’s calm, something I relish in. The slight chill in the air makes my skin prickle, and I hum, rubbing my arms. I’m back in my common clothes, sure that they will be more apt to the journey into the dungeon that I’m sure is close at hand. As I step into the library, sunlight is just starting to illuminate the room.

Quaestor Valdemar is waiting patiently, face turned towards the window. They look towards me as I enter, eyes unreadable from this distance. Quietly, they start towards the stacks that hold the hidden door, not looking back to see if I am following.

When we arrive, they watch me patiently as I pull each book from its spot and then push the door open. Together, we start into the dark passageway. It’s not long before darkness surrounds us, hiding the Quaestor from my sight. For a moment, I feel the oppressive sensation that I’m well and truly alone here, trapped in the dark with no way to tell left from right, but I quickly recall a spell Asra taught me.

I focus my energy into the palm of my hand, but the result is lack-luster. Instead of the brilliant orb of light Asra would have conjured, a dim sphere barely the size of a walnut sits in my hand. It’s enough, at least, to guide me across the uneven floor and let me see where my actual guide is going. The Quaestor only now spares a glance back at me, their eyes flicking to my little ball of magic before turning back to the passage ahead.

When we finally reach the end of the narrow corridor, I gape at the room we enter. My magical light gutters and snuffs out, but I don’t need it anymore. It’s more of a cavern than a real room, a metal enclosure around a beautifully wrought cage set into the wall opposite us. Red flame illuminates the area from two rows of torches that lead directly to the cage, casting sinister shadows across the dark stone floor and walls.

As I marvel at the room, the Quaestor watches me with something close to amusement in their ruby eyes. They follow my gaze around the space. “Interesting. Your reaction is nigh identical to the first time I brought you here. I wonder if this trend will continue as we go further down.”

With that, they start towards the metal cage. I follow close behind, coming to stop beside them in front of the cage’s gate. A plaque on the iron begs me come closer to read it.

“Bloody hands may turn the key. Know the weight of your sins, and enter.”

As I finish speaking, Valdemar produces a key from their apron pocket, lifting my hand and tucking the object into my palm. I hold it aloft in the flickering light, marvelling at the way the beautiful scarab shaped ruby seems to glow. I look back at the lock beneath the plaque, taking a deep breath before sliding the key home.

With a groan, the cage and enclosure slide open. I look to the Quaestor, who strides past me, beckoning I follow. We both step into the cage, and I am acutely aware that it was not meant for two occupants at once. They reach around me, pulling the lever that starts our descent into the darkness below. It’s less oppressive, somehow. Maybe knowing just how far away the Quaestor is standing is calming my nerves?

The lift screeches as it hits the bottom of it’s shaft, and I take a deep breath. There’s no way of knowing how far beneath the Palace we are, I lost track of time in the cage.

The Quaestor’s hand rests on my shoulder as they lead me out onto solid stone. I try to conjure another ball of light, but nothing will come forth. Maybe I exerted too much power earlier? It doesn’t matter, because I hear the scrape of wood in metal. The hand leaves my shoulder, and suddenly a torch flares to life, illuminating the new corridor we’re in.

Quaestor Valdemar steps forward and I follow. They light the torches on the wall as we trail down the hall. Silence hangs around us like a blanket. I have so many questions, but they all run over one another in my head until I can’t be sure which is which. Finally, one comes forward.

“Quaestor, you said I only came here occasionally, but this was where the plague research was done, wasn’t it? Why didn’t I work here?”

They look back at me, an eyebrow raised in what I think is amusement. “You were in charge of other duties, Miss Plessus. More of a nurse who was training to be a doctor. You saw to a clinic in the South End of Vesuvia. I must say that the files you brought us from your clinic were an excellent addition to our research.”

I smile a bit, nodding. That made sense.

We come into a room lined with medical gear and tools. The Quaestor sets the torch into a bracket and glances at me for just a moment before nodding and taking a set of gear from a hook. “You seem to be the same size as you were three years ago. Healthy, considering your age. These should still fit.”

I stand still as the Quaestor straps me into the uniform, watching their hands fix each clasp and strap. Seems easy enough. Perhaps I’ll be able to do the same when I come here again.

Once I’m strapped into the precautionary gear and a plague mask is firmly secured on my face, the Quaestor leads me into the next room, removing their mask and taking a deep breath of the rank air. “Now, please keep your questions until after the procedure is complete. Most of them will be answered during the course of the memory.” They look at me, lips curling into a smile as I nod.

They lead me through a large room lined with shelves of medical equipment and set with tables meant for various types of post mortem surgery. How I know this from just a cursory look as we pass through is beyond me, but I don’t linger on it.

Finally, we pass through another door into a much smaller room, decorated with a single cot, a desk piled with papers and a candle, and a chair. The Quaestor lights the candle and shuts the door to the large room before taking the chair and motioning for me to sit on the cot. I sink down, my eyes on the Quaestor.

“Lay down, please. The process will cause you to go limp, and I’d rather not have to explain to the Countess why her magician has spontaneously developed a concussion.”

I let out a nervous laugh. “I can imagine how well that conversation would go, considering I didn’t tell anyone I was coming to meet you.”

The Quaestor raised an eyebrow, one corner of their lips tugging higher than the other in a bemused smirk. “Oh? Most would be afraid to even step foot in a crowded room knowing I was there. And yet you willingly chose to come alone, so far from anyone who could aide you were I to show myself a threat. I wonder why.”

My laugh isn’t nervous this time. “It’s true, you’re intimidating. But I don’t feel like you would hurt me. And besides, my business with you is ours, not the Countess’s or Asra’s or anyone else’s.”

The Quaestor shakes his head. “Close your eyes, silly duckling. We will begin where we left off.”

I nod and close my eyes as the Quaestor takes my hand. For the briefest moment, I think I feel their thumb run across my knuckles, but the world blackens before I can put any logic to it.

-

I step from the passageway, closing it tightly behind me. Though I prefer to be in the dungeon overseeing the medical research being done, it is a harsh truth that I must attend at least a few meetings with my fellow Courtiers. As I step away from the shelf, I note two voices coming from the library entrance. Both sound young. Wonderful, who doesn’t love children speaking in the library. As I come closer to the sounds, I begin to pick up the conversation.

“I told you, Asra, I can’t. I have to deliver these files to Doctor Devorak and then go back to the clinic.” Most likely female, roughly age twenty, possibly younger, Vesuvian native by the accent. Signs of stress and tension in the voice.

“Daun, you never come just to see me. It’s sad, I thought we were better friends than that.” Presumably male, a year or two older than the other, accent also Vesuvian. Playful tone but notably unhappy with the conversation thus far.

As I round the final set of shelves, I pause to watch the rest of the argument.

“Look, I’m busier now than I used to be. I know we have a long friendship, Asra, and I know we never get to see each other anymore, but I’m trying to help our people as best I can.” The girl is dressed in a nurse’s uniform, one designating a South End assignment, specifically. She turns away from her companion, who I now recognize as Count Lucio’s little pet magician.

As the girl begins to walk away, she looks up, seeing me and stopping in her tracks. Her face flushes a bright red, and she bows deeply, clutching the files in her arms to her chest so they don’t fall. “Quaestor Valdemar! I’m so sorry, were we blocking your path? I promise I’ll drop these off on Doctor Devorak’s desk immediately and be out of your hair!” She straightens up quickly, black hair threatening to pop out of the tightly coiled buns on either side of her head. I almost wish it would just to see if she’ll combust from further embarrassment.

I eye the folders in her arms. “Doctor 069 is busy in the lab, at the moment. Follow me, I’ll show you the way.” I fix the magician, Asra, with a cold look. “I trust you’ll let the Count know that I’m tending to research to fix his little problem at that meeting we were both about to attend.” With that, I set a hand on the girl’s shoulder and lead her back into the stacks.

She’s quiet as we go to the hidden door, and I open it, leading her into the torchlit corridor. As we reach the halfway point, she finally speaks. “Thank you for the intervention, Quaestor. Asra and I are old friends, and while I love working for the people, it can be difficult to say no to him.”

I glance at the girl, raising an eyebrow. She continues. “Thank you, also, for letting me see the lab. I understand that the research is being kept secret to prevent it from being stolen, so getting to see such a sight even though I’m just Doctor Devorak’s apprentice is quite exciting.”

A nervous talker. Interesting. “Yes, well, your research is valuable. Now, you say you’re Doctor 069’s assistant. What exactly does he have you do at the clinic?”

She bites her lip as she thinks. “Well, he has me take care of all the patients that come in. I assess their needs and, when he was still there, he would tell me what to do for them. Usually he would suggest bloodletting. Now that he’s here, I am free to treat them as I see fit.”

“And how has the success rate of your treatments differed from his?” She pauses and I can see it in the way her face sits. Her treatments work well. Leeches do not. “Don’t bother answering, I already know what the results are.”

We step into the cavern that holds the magic powered lift, and the girl pauses, eyes making a wide arc over the scene. Red light flickers across her face, reflecting in her eyes. I’m not surprised; it’s a lovely room.

When I offer for her to enter the lift first, she pauses, looking nervous. Of course she is, she’s practically an infant. I close my eyes and sigh softly. “Come, I believe there’s space enough for us both.”

There is indeed space, if only barely. It’s strange, this girl is so calm in my presence. I idly imagine what her reaction would be if I showed my true form here and now. Terror. Screaming. The delicious scent of fear and blood as I rip her limb from-

The lift grinds to a halt, and I usher her out, leading her down the hall. We stop in the changing room, and I give her a once over, taking a quick approximation of her measurements before checking the spare sets of safety equipment. Thankfully, we have a set that should fit her well. The girl sets the files down, allowing me to clip and strap her into the work gear of the higher doctors.

We stride through the large doors, barely any of the doctors giving pause as we pass their vivisection tables. Beetles skitter across the floor, and I notice the girl glance at them nervously as we come to stop by a door. I open it with no ceremony, clearing my throat.

“Doctor 069, your assistant is here with the new files from your clinic. I expect you to be finished with them by the end of the day.” I nod to the girl and watch as she sets the bundle of files down, explaining that they are ordered from oldest to newest. Doctor 069 waves her off dismissively as he picks up the first, pushing his research aside to attend to the new work.

As we step back into the the vivisection chamber and I shut the door to 069’s office, I note the girl watching a nearby doctor closely. After a few moments, I look back at her. “Have you ever performed an operation?”

She jumps a bit, face flaring. “I, uhm- n-no, Quaestor. I’m only an assistant. Doctor Devorak took care of those kinds of things when he was at the clinic. Thankfully, we haven’t had any cases requiring sure methods since his transfer to the Palace…”

I scoff lightly, shaking my head. “You’re a nurse, yes? And you’re the acting physician of your clinic. You should not have been left in such a position without being properly prepared. That’s reckless, even for Doctor 069.” Giving her another once over, I nod. “What is your name, young lady?”

She chews her lip for a moment before replying. “Dauna Plessus, Quaestor.”

I set a hand on her shoulder and begin walking her back the way we came. “Nurse Plessus, how often do you come to the Palace to drop off your files?”

“I deliver case files once per week.”

“You’ll begin coming twice per week beginning immediately. It is imperative that all clinics in Vesuvia have fully trained staff at all times, so I will be training you to take over Doctor 069’s South End clinic.”

She looks back at me, and I hear her breath hitch. It’s amusing, how easily a mortals’ emotions play across their faces. Shock and excitement and fear and worry flash in equal measure. I look away, pushing open the doors to the dressing room. She’s quiet as I quickly help her remove the safety gear and then lead her back to the lift.

Finally, on the way up, when we are surrounded by darkness, she speaks. Her voice is meek, barely over a whisper. “Are you sure I could be a full-fledged doctor? I don’t treat patients the way Julian does…”

“What, with leeches? We both know he’s wasting his time. If your patients are satisfied with the care you give them, and if you learn the required treatments and surgeries, then you can become a doctor. It’s really not that hard, simply a matter of memorization.”

She is more confident when we step out of the lift, her whole bearing says it. I do feel a bit proud, somewhere within me, that I can still produce a feeling other than fear in someone. I set her off with a key to the lift and the instruction that she will observe the other doctors until I arrive if I am not already there when she returns.

For the first time in a long time, I find myself looking forward to something.

-

I open my eyes slowly, my breathing rushed and my head swimming. With a start, I bolt upright, hands moving to try and check a multitude of things at once. Was I in Quaestor Valdemar’s body? Those thoughts belonged to them, didn’t they? And that was me!

I look to the Quaestor, who moves to sit on the cot beside me. They don’t speak, checking my pulse and breathing with their stethoscope before checking my eyes. Satisfied, they nod. “Well, you took the treatment quite better than I imagined. No pain or discomfort in your head, I trust?”

I shake my head slowly, gulping as I watch them stand and pick up my plague mask from where they must have set it.

“Excellent. Seeing as you reacted so well to the treatment, we can set up a schedule should you wish to continue the memory transferrals. How does every third day at dawn sound?”

I nod, still trying to process everything I just saw. Most disturbing, though, are those thoughts I heard. Does the Quaestor know I heard them? I say nothing, only take the hand I’m offered to aide my standing. I clip the mask back on and follow dutifully as I’m lead out of lab.

We’re both silent as the Quaestor helps me out of the safety gear and we head back up, taking the lift together again. Are they fantasizing about ripping me apart again? Were they fantasizing about it on the way down?

We part ways when we reach the library, confirming one last time that we’ll meet at the hidden door again in three days at dawn, just like this morning. As I sit to my work at Doctor Devorak’s desk, I find myself excited and terrified in equal measures of what is to come.

Chapter Text

A calm breeze rifles my hair as I sip from the delicate, butterfly clad teacup that was set before me when I joined Nadia and Portia on the veranda. We're waiting patiently for Asra before I discuss what I've learned so far from my research. Portia chats animatedly with the Countess, talking about how she's been able to help me so far. It's been two weeks since I came here, and I barely feel like I've made any headway. To hear Portia talk, though, it sounds like I've already cracked the case.

"Dauna's really dedicated to this, you couldn't choose anyone better! She’s even been going to the library at dawn every few days to get more time with the case!”

Nadia raises an eyebrow, looking over at me. “Is that so? Interesting, I’ve heard that Quaestor Valdemar has been frequenting the library at on a similar schedule.”

I choke on my tea, sitting forward just in time to keep from spilling it on myself. I set the cup down quickly, coughing as Portia pats my back. Nadia raises an eyebrow and sits forward, resting her chin in one hand.

“Oh, have we stumbled upon a little secret, Dauna?”

I feel my face flush, quickly shaking my head. “No, it’s really nothing scandalous like that. The Quaestor is helping treat my memory issues. As it turns out, we worked together during the days of the Plague. They’re simply helping me recover my memories.”

The girls share knowing smiles and I cover my face. “Please, it really isn’t a big deal! Just medical treatment!” Even as I say this, though, my thoughts flicker to the brush of the Quaestor’s thumb across my knuckles that I’m sure I imagined just before our first sharing of memories. Would I want something like that with the Quaestor? More importantly, would they want that with me?

The door opens and I’m spared anymore embarrassing thoughts as Asra strides in, Faust on his shoulders. She slithers down as soon as Asra is seated, slipping over and up into my clothes before settling up around my shoulders. I give Asra a smile as I pet Faust’s head.

“Asra! Good, now that we’re all here, we can get to the topic at hand.” I set out some of my notes, noting the look Portia and Nadia exchange. “So, my next step, now that I’ve thoroughly examined Doctor Devorak’s desk, is to interview the courtiers. I know they all have hectic schedules, though. Luckily, I was able to find out when each will be free this week.”

The others pass the papers around as I continue. “They overlap quite a bit, though, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get to a couple if I don’t enlist a bit of help.”

Nadia nods. “I’m happy to aide in any way I can.” Portia happily reprises the sentiment, pumping her fist in the air. Asra hums a bit, smiling and nodding as his agreement to the request.

I grin, picking my cup back up to take a sip as the others figure out who'll they'll be able to speak with. Nadia claims Volta readily, and Portia exclaims her assurance that she can wrestle some information from Vulgora. Valerius has already been taken care of, so that only leaves Valdemar and Vlastomil. Asra and I lock eyes, and I can see in his eyes exactly what he’s going to suggest.

Before either of us can speak, though, Portia pipes up. “Oh, you should talk to Valdemar, Dauna! You two must get along pretty well since you’re meeting up and everything, so they’ll probably be more likely to give you information!”

I sigh softly, looking down at my cup as Asra bristles at Portia’s words. “What do you mean, Daun and Valdemar have been meeting?”

“Oh, I’m talking about the medical stuff Dauna was just talking about before you got here!”

Silence hangs over us for a few seconds before Asra turns to me. “When were you going to tell me about this?”

I sigh, keeping my eyes on my tea. “I wasn’t. It’s none of your business who I talk to or seek medical treatment from. And I will be talking to the Quaestor when we meet again. We’ve actually got another appointment scheduled after this, so let’s just leave it at that.”

Asra narrows his eyes at me. “No, Daun. I don’t want you hanging around Valdemar. They’re not a good influence for you, and I don’t approve.”

I scoff, finally looking Asra in the eyes. “You don’t approve? They’ve been a better influence than you have! At the very least they don’t disappear for days or weeks or months at a time. And they’ve told me more about my past than you ever have, even though we’ve supposedly known each other since childhood and always kept the shop together. Which, hey, I know isn’t true. Seeing as I was a medical student. Were you never going to tell me about that?”

Asra stammers for a moment before looking to his lap. Faust slips off my shoulders and back to her master as I seeth silently. As if searching for help, the magician looks to Nadia and Portia. The women look to one another before Nadia speaks.

“She’s right, Asra. You shouldn’t have lied to her. And who she associates with is her own business. While I can’t say I would chose the Quaestor as a companion for myself, if they are her choice, then you, as her friend, should honor that."

Portia nods. "Especially if they're helping her with her memory problems. I don't know what it's like to miss parts of myself like that, but it can't be easy. So if they're helping her, then shouldn't that be a good thing?"

I give the girls a smile, standing up and grabbing the paper with the Quaestor's schedule. "Well, with that, I'm about to be late. Have fun, Nadia, Portia. Asra, we can have a civilized discussion about this later." Without another word, I head inside, ignoring Asra calling my name.

Unbidden, rage boils inside me. Asra doesn't have the right to tell me that I can't see Quaestor Valdemar. He can't take that decision from me; only I can set who I can and cannot associate with. Why would he even think that's alright? I understand that he practically raised me since he had to reteach me how to interact with the world after my amnesia, but this seems like more than just worry. I mean, I know Asra has feelings for me. It's hard not to see that. And he's told me that it’ss okay if things don't immediately go back to the way they were. The way he tells it, though,we were in love, and I just can't feel that spark for him, no matter how hard I've tried.

My anger petters out as I reach the door to the library, its presence replaced with guilt. Asra probably doesn't mean any harm. He just doesn't want to see the person he had feelings for spending time with someone he dislikes. Or, at least, that's what I have to assume. Asra still won't tell me what's so bad about the Quaestor. I mean, yes, there was the initial worrying commentary in the first couple of memories, but those have stopped. It seems more like I was favored student than a task needing attention.

I turn from my thoughts as I come to the hidden door, already open. The Quaestor waits patiently, a lit torch in their hand. I can tell by the look in their eyes that they're smiling. We walk through the dirt passage quietly for a few moments, interrupted only when they speak.

"Something is on your mind, Miss Plessus. Usually you're more conversational on the trip down."

I sigh a bit, wrapping my arms around myself. "Portia figured out that we've been meeting and announced it in front of Asra, so he got mad. Then I yelled at Asra and now I feel bad. I know he didn't mean any harm, but he doesn't have the right to dictate my life."

The Quaestor nods, seeming to have expected my response. "Mister Alnazar has never been the most supportive of your delving into the sciences under my tutelage, so it may just be runoff from that. He possibly sees me as a threat to his attempts at courting you."

I laugh, the sound echoing off the walls of the cavern as we approach the lift. "As if! I wouldn't accept Asra courting me under almost any circumstance. I've tried seeing him like that, but I really just can't. It’s a nice thought, and I'm sure he'd make for an attentive partner, but I just don't feel that kind of spark for him. I thought I'd made it obvious in refuting the little advances he's tried, but I guess I just need to spell it out for him."

The lift grinds into motion and we're pinned into darkness as Valdemar speaks. "And if he refuses to accept your lack of interest?"

The question hangs over us as we descend. What if Asra doesn't accept it? I hadn't thought of that. He's always been supportive, so I'm not too worried. But, then again, I've never seen him get as worked up over anything as he has been about the situation with Quaestor Valdemar. Maybe they have a point.

"If Asra doesn't accept that I'm not feeling the spark he thinks should be there, then I'll just have to try to make him see reason, I suppose. He's not an idiot, so hopefully it doesn't come to anything too drastic."

The Quaestor looks at me as we step from the lift. "Should it come to drastic measures, my tables are always ready for use, and I can always make time."

I laugh, shaking my head. "I think that's the funniest joke I've heard you say yet, Quaestor."

The squint of their eyes betrays the grin beneath their mask. "Yes, joke. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

After the Quaestor straps me into the medical gear again, a habit we've somehow fallen into, we go back to the same small office that we've had all of our sessions in at this point. As usual, I lay on the cot and the Quaestor sits at the desk. They take my hand in theirs.

"Any requests before I choose a memory?"

I look at him, nodding a bit. "Yes, actually. Can you show me the night of the Masquerade?"

They raise an eyebrow, leaning forward to rest their elbows on their knees. "And what, pray tell, gives you the impression that we've attended the Masquerade together?"

I flush and thank whoever is watching that I'm wearing the mask. "No, no, not like that. I meant the night of the murder. Can you show me the crime scene as you saw it?"

They watch me quietly for a moment before nodding. "That can be done. I suppose this is for your investigation?"

"It is."

"Then let us hope it illuminates your case."

-

Silence surrounds me, though a party rages all around. In front of me is Praetor Vlastomil. Though I can’t hear the words he is no doubt shrieking, I am filled with a deep loathing. Together, we begin to make our way from the ballroom. Something catches my attention, a flash of a butterfly mask and amber eyes, and I turn. Disappointment fills me when I see that it isn’t who I had expected. Quickly, I exit the room, striding past Vlastomil to make my escape sooner.

It’s a short trip from the ballroom to the foot of the steps to Lucio’s wing. It’s cordoned off to keep the guests away from him, plague ridden as he is. Procurator Volta and Pontifex Vulgora meet us just as we arrive, and Consul Valerius is not far behind. Together, the five of us flash invitations edged in gold to the guards, whop wave us through.

I can feel it as he climb the stairs and exchange a look with the others. It seems only Valerius is unknowing. As we come to the top of the stairs, I move ahead of the others. I see the door of Lucio’s rooms ajar, flames spilling forth from the opening. As I watch, A figure bursts through a section of wall and turns to face the door. I can make out his shocked face in the fire’s light. Doctor 069, Julian Devorak. Frustration sparks within me at his managing to slip out of his locked office. As he stumbles back from the fire, the other four round the corner.

The next events happen in a sort of blur. Julian runs back through the wall he came from. I turn and say something to the others, but Valerius is already running back the way we came. Vulgora is yelling and stomping. Vlastomil is shrieking. Volta is sobbing.

-

I take a deep breath as the memory ends, sitting up slowly. As per usual, my mask is now sitting on the desk, and Quaestor Valdemar is ready to take my vitals. While I’m being checked, I speak.

“It wasn’t him. I knew it couldn’t be, nothing seemed right! Valdemar, please, you have to testify! This is sure to prove that he’s innocent!” A soft smile tugs at the corner of the Quaestor’s lips, and I suddenly realize what I’ve done. “I-I’m sorry, Quaestor, I didn’t mean to call you by name I got carri-”

A raised hand stops me, my mouth snapping shut. They pat my head gently, and I feel my cheeks flushing. “When we are alone, you may call me by name. We were friends before your incident, and I should hope we can be friends once more.”

I smile softly and nod. “Of course we can. But if I’m going to be calling you by name, I expect the same. You’re the only person still calling me ‘Miss Plessus’. Even the servants call me by name.”

They chuckle, helping me stand. “Well then, Dauna, let’s get you back upstairs so no one is missing you any more than they need to. Would you like to continue the midday appointments, or should we go back to dawn?”

“Dawn is more convenient, I think. That way neither of us are having to pull away from meetings if something lasts longer than we expect.”

They nod, a hand on my shoulder as we make our way back to the changing room and then to the lift after leaving my gear behind. The silence between us is comfortable, and I feel more confident about this talk I’m going to be having with Asra once I’m upstairs.

-

Asra is sitting on the ledge of the fountain when I finally find him, Faust hanging from a limb of the willow above him. I give him a soft smile as I sink onto the ledge beside him. We’re both quiet for a long minute before I sigh.

“I’m sorry, Asra. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. I didn’t mean to upset you or make you feel bad, and I didn’t expect Nadia and Portia to gang up on you with me. But I really… I just want to be able to make my own choices.” I look up at him, but his head is down. “I know that you care about me, and I know what you’ve said about how we were before, but I don’t want to be coddled.”

Asra takes a deep breath before looking at me. “I know, and I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t be trying to keep you under lock and key. You’re your own person. It’s not either of our faults that everything is different now.”

I give him another smile. “Asra, you know you’re important to me, yeah? You’re my best friend. You’ve been like a parent to me through all this, helping me relearn to be a person, basically. That’s why I want to make sure I’m not leading you on. I know you said we were together before. In love, and all that. But I don’t feel that now, Asra. I’m sorry, I’ve really tried. That spark just isn’t there…”

The look in his eyes almost breaks my heart. He takes a deep breath and looks down at his hands, nodding. “I thought as much. I just hoped that maybe it was only a matter of time. I’ll probably still be jealous, but I can accept that you don’t want something with me.”

I lean over, wrapping my arms around him and giving a squeeze. “Thank you. The fact that you’re going to respect my decision means a lot to me, Asra. And it’s not like I’m going to just disappear. Once the investigation is over, I’ll be back at the shop and we can just relax.”

Asra opens his mouth to reply, but a sound in the shrubbery stops him. We both stand, definitely not ready for most of the things that could come from the bush. A figure stumbles out, and for a long moment none of us move. Asra sighs, lowering his raised fists and I cover my face, letting out a long breath of relief and frustration.

Before us stands Julian Devorak, the best visitor the Palace could ask for.

-

Asra, Nadia, Portia, Julian and I all sit around the table in Portia's small cottage on the Palace grounds. It's been relatively quiet aside from Portia's chewing Julian out for being anywhere near Vesuvia. He sits quietly, listening to the others talk while I finally get a chance to transcribe the memory I was shown. Once I'm done, I clear my throat for the others' attention.

"Julian, why did you come back? You know you're a wanted man in Vesuvia. What could spur you to return to a place where death awaits?"

The man flushes to his ears, glancing at Asra and then at the table. "Ah, yes, about that… Until recently I had no recollection of the night in question, but I've remembered something. I had research in the dungeon. A cure. I was half-mad with the plague, but I'm sure that I found a way…"

Asra sighs and shakes his head, leaning back in his chair. "Really? That's why you came back, Ilya? No one even knows where the dungeon is. Do you even know?”

Julian begins to speak before sighing. “No, I don’t. I don’t remember… well, a lot, honestly. But I’m sure it can’t be too difficult!”

I watch as all three of the others give Julian an unconvinced look, chuckling to myself. “Well, I know where the dungeon is. And my next order of business, now that I’ve finished looking through your desk, was to search your office. I could bring something back for you to look through.”

Asra shoots me a worried glance, and Nadia raises an elegant brow. “Oh? And how, pray tell, do you know the location of the dungeons? Even I’m not aware of such a secret.”

I flush a bit, fidgeting with the hem of my sleeve. “Oh, well, actually that’s where the Quaestor and I have our appointments.”

Julian fixes me with a horrified look. “You poor thing! I can only imagine what cruelties that sadist bastard is subjecting you to, all alone in the bowels of the castle where not even a wayward soul could hear you cry for help!”

I raise a hand to stop the doctor’s tirade before it causes Asra to implode. “No, there’s none of that. The Quaestor shows me memories, and then checks my pulse and breathing.” I hear Portia snicker and give her a withering glance, but can’t help the smile it brings. “That’s all . Really.”

Asra and Julian exchange a look that I know all too well, and I sigh. “See, this is why I didn’t tell anyone. Now Asra’s mad and Portia’s teasing me about a relationship that doesn’t exist and Julian’s being dramatic.”

Nadia chuckles as the others do their best to deny my remarks, but she gives me a knowing look. “I’ll allow one week, Doctor Devorak. But after that I can’t turn a blind eye to a fugitive staying on Palace grounds. Does that sound suitable?”

The doctor nods, a catty grin lighting his features. “That should be more than enough to go through a couple of my old journals, provided Dauna picks the right ones.”

I roll my eyes. “Provided you can read your own disastrous scrawl.” Julian clutches his chest, feigning death and exclaiming something about how wounded he is and how heartless I am. I roll my eyes and stand, smoothing out my skirt. “Alright, well, I need to get to bed if I’m going to have enough time to look at evidence and weed through your journals.”

Asra offers to walk me to my room, but I’m already to the door. I call back something about him catching up with Julian and make my escape into Portia’s garden. The sun is down, but it’s just as beautiful in the moonlight. A peppy Siamese cat darts between clumps of flowers and leafy greens, chasing a few stray birds that haven’t gone to their nests.

In the crisp air, I take a moment to think about what’s happened today. No, I didn’t learn about myself, but at least I’m closer to completing the task the Countess gave me. Will I still be her guest when I’ve finished the investigation, I wonder? My mind flickers to Quaestor Valdemar for a moment and I feel my face flush unbidden. Will I still be able to continue my sessions with them? Will they even want to see me?

Suddenly, I realize where my mind is travelling. I pat my cheeks and sigh, hurrying towards the Palace. Since when do I think of the Quaestor like that? True, we’re friends now. And on a first name basis, too. I suppose it’s normal to hope you can see your friends again, right? That’s how Asra and I are, I suppose. Though with much more complicating everything, to be sure.

Satisfied with my rationalization of the situation, I hasten my journey inside and to my room. I have a big day ahead of myself tomorrow, after all.

Chapter Text

I sit back and take a deep breath before leaning over to my candle. It’s on it’s last leg before guttering, but I still have work to do. Once I light another, I sit back, looking around myself. I’ve been in Julian’s office in the dungeon for hours, pouring over his notes in the dark and quiet. It’s been a month since I brought him his journal. Within the day he was throwing himself to the guards, practically begging to be hung. From what I’ve gathered through the few sessions of interrogation I’ve had with him, he’s claimed that he has to die. That he’ll come back. That something is going to happen between his hanging and his resurrection and he needs it to happen.

As if any of that made sense. I get that magic is fickle and powerful, but this seems past the realm of anything I’ve learned. Asra seems to trust that Julian knows what he’s doing for once, so I put my faith there.

In the meantime, I’m trying to piece together Julian’s notes on the Red Plague. Now that we know Julian needs to be hung, I’ve been able to turn my attention to something far more worrying. Julian says the plague is returning, that he sees its infection in the water and that non-lethal cases are cropping up in the very poorest sectors of Vesuvia. He spoke of a cure in his notes, one that he saw in that place between life and death. The sooner I find it, the better.

As I sit forward to go back to my work, I hear the door creak open. I look up, knowing only one person could be down here with me. “Good morning, Valdemar. Is it still morning? I’m afraid I’ve been here so long I lost track.”

They chuckle, lips turned up into a smile. “It’s past lunchtime, Dauna. You’ve been quite the busy bee down here, haven’t you? Taking the elevator on your own and everything.”

I laugh softly as they sit on the cot, turning my chair so we can face one another. “Well, I do have so much work to do. I’m trying to find Julian’s cure for the plague. He said it’s somewhere in his notes, but I’m not having much luck.”

Their eyes flicker to the pages on the desk. “With handwriting like that, I must say that I’m surprised you’ve gleaned any information.”

I shake my head and pick up the top paper, looking over it. “It’s thanks to you, honestly. Ever since you’ve begun showing me my past, I’ve started to piece things together more easily. I’ve discovered so much. Like that I’ve a Vesuvian native. That I used to live near the docks, and that that’s how Asra and I met.” I look up to meet Valdemar’s eyes. “I’ve felt more like myself than ever before. All thanks to you.”

Their eyes soften, and their smile takes on something I haven’t seen on them before. It’s soft, maybe even warm. A hope rises in my chest that such a smile is meant only for me. I quickly turn away, feeling the flush of my cheeks. As of late, it’s been impossible for me to stave away these kinds of thoughts. I’ve never been so flustered by a smile like that, never had the want to keep something like this to myself.

I hear Valdemar stand and start towards to door. “Well, Dauna, as your physician, I’m prescribing a break from your work. Two days, at the least, to rest your eyes and mind. I won’t enforce it, but I will be quite disappointed if you don’t take my suggestion.”

I giggle a bit, standing. “Oh, before we go, do we have time for another memory? I’m excited to see the rest.”

Their hand pauses over the handle to the door, tense and poised to take hold of it. “That’s, ah, all of the memories I have to show you.”

My brows furrow. “It is? But… surely there’s more? There’s still more than a year between the memories you’ve shown me and when I woke in the shop… That can’t be where it ends.”

They sigh softly, turning to look me in the eyes. In them, I see an emotion the Quaestor hasn’t yet shown me. I see pain. A single step brings them back to me in the tiny room, and their fingers tilt my chin up so our eyes stay locked. When they speak, their voice in barely over a whisper, but I hear it clearly in the intimate space between us.

“Dauna, are you sure you want to see the next memories I have to offer? I have no doubt that they may not be what you are wanting to see, but I assure you that they, like the others, are wholly true.”

I nod, giving them what I hope is an encouraging smile. “I’ll see anything you have to show me. Even if I don’t like it, it’s a part of me that I want back.”

They let out a small huff of a lap, backing me up to the cot and sitting beside me as I lay down. “Remember, there is no turning back once we are in the memory. You are free to never speak with me again once it is over, if you so choose.”

With that, they take my hand, and I am plunged into familiar darkness.

-

I tsk and shake my head as I look through a set of files from the Heart District. Prissy nobles keeping themselves locked away in their houses, barely a one of them contracting so much as a sniffle while the rest of Vesuvia bleeds and dies. Funny, really, but still more than a little annoying.

A light rapping against the door of my office breaks my train of thought, and I smile to myself. Dauna is here again, ready for our usual lessons. Though I am no lover of surprises, I have one prepared for her today. Hope, something I haven’t felt in a very long time, blossoms in me that she will enjoy it.

It’s funny , I think as I go to the door to greet her. I didn’t think anything like this could grow within me, but I’m not upset by it. I certainly never thought that I could grow such an attachment to a little Vesuvian nurse.

I open my mouth to say hello as I open the door, but close it immediately. Her head is down, and she wears her mask, but I can see in her bearing that she’s upset. I quickly usher her inside and close the door, leading her to sit down before reaching up to unclip her mask. She lifts her hands, keeping it in place, and I sigh.

“What has Asra done to upset you? I will personally see his heart removed, seeing as he quite clearly isn’t using it.”

I hear her sniffle and choke on a sob, but her hands slowly move away from her mask. I set it on my desk and take a clean cloth from my pocket, drying her tears. She catches my wrist as I move my hand away, looking up at me.

“You’re not terrifying like the others say you are.” I must look as surprised as I feel. The smallest of smiles breaks free on her lips. “You’ve been so kind to me. They say you’re heartless, but you really aren’t. Unphased by the worries of the world, but not heartless. You wouldn’t have taken the lift with me if you were heartless. You wouldn’t have taken me under your wing so I could properly treat my patients. You wouldn’t offer to harm someone who you thought hurt me…”

I frown, raising an eyebrow. “Nurse, I’ll need you to speak more plainly. You came to my door crying. What is it that’s upset you, if not someone who very clearly does not take your feelings into consideration.”

She bites your lip, a habit I’ve noticed she never has grown out of. She sighs after several long moments. “I… can’t be your student anymore.”

I shake my head, standing. “No, I believe you cannot. I was going to talk to you about this very topic today, in fact.” I pick up the paper wrapped parcel on my desk, turning back to Dauna. She is looking down again, hands wringing the fabric of her apron. I gently move her hands and set the package in her lap. “I cannot let you to continue as my student, because you are now fully trained as a doctor of Vesuvia. This is your new uniform.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s been plainly obvious. I never meant to get like this, truly. I understand that it’s inappropriate to feel this way towards my superior- wait, what?”

A short, tense silence hangs between us. She stares at the package in her lap, slowly running her fingertips over the paper before looking up at me. I turn my chair to face the cot she’s sitting on before sitting as well.

“Dauna.”

She looks away, blood rushing to her cheeks.

“Dauna, I need you to repeat and explain that last sentence. I can sit here all day if I must. I’m not upset, I promise you.”

After a few seconds, she lets out a breath. “I… said that I know it’s inappropriate… to have feelings for you, seeing as you’re my superior…”

I nod, leaning forward. “Go on. Why, specifically, are you so worried about this?” She gulps, glancing up to meet my eyes and then away again. “You’re afraid I don’t reciprocate these feelings you have, yes?” A small nod. “How are you to know if you keep silent? Isn’t it best to deal with these things head on?”

She looks back up at me slowly, confused and with a modicum of hope in her eyes. I continue. “I cannot court you publicly, it would shed doubt in the mind of Vesuvia on my dedication to the research we are doing. However, I can promise you that I am very certain that you are who I choose, and that these feelings you have are mutual.”

I feel something stir inside me as she beams at my words, my hand rising on its own to cup her cheek. She is warm like the sun. In the happiness of this moment, I can’t help but feel something else. Worry. Will my darkness blot out her light?

-

I keep my eyes shut as I take deep breaths. Valdemar helps me sit up, checking my pulse and breathing. When I open my eyes, I find theirs searching mine. Slowly, I lift a hand to cup their cheek. The words leave my mouth before I even realize I’ve thought them.

“Can I kiss you?”

They chuckle, the corners of their eyes crinkling just a bit. I smile and laugh along, feeling the apprehension that I’d felt till now melting away. They press their forehead to mine, taking my hands gently.

“I would like that, Dauna.”

I tilt my head and lean up just enough to catch their lips against mine. Their skin is cool, but it quickly warms against me. After a few seconds, I lean back, meeting their eyes again. There are so many words I can say, but they all stick in my throat. Not that I mind. This moment is perfect as it is. Finally, a question detangles itself from the rest of the mess of my emotions.

“Valdemar, can we try again? I know I’m probably different now, but I’ve never wanted anything more.”

They chuckle and run their thumb over my knuckles before lifting one of my hands to place a soft kiss against it. “How could I deny a request like that? We can.”

I giggle softly at the notion. “Half of the Palace is already certain we’re courting, so it’s not much of a step, hm?”

They shake their head softly, standing and helping me up. We take the lift back up together for the first time since I began coming down to search Julian’s office, and I smile as the Quaestor wraps their arms around me once the darkness surrounds us. They keep one arm around my shoulders as we make our way from the cavern to the library, and I can’t help the giggle that slips past my lips when they press my knuckles to their mask once we’re in the library and the hidden door is closed once more. If anyone notices, that isn’t our problem anymore.

-

Courting Quaestor Valdemar is an interesting affair. Outside of our usual appointments, we really only see one another in the early mornings, late evenings, and in short passes in the hall. It is enough, though. Soft kisses on the back of my hand through their mask and very rare presses of lips to lips in the garden, a hand on my back when we walk through the halls together, the slow unfurrowing of their brows while we tell one another about our days. It’s lovely, to me.

Of course, the talk about our relationship doesn’t go away. Everyone’s suspicions are confirmed, but that just encourages them. I’m surprised by how bold some of the comments are, hearing most of them from Portia and then relaying them back to Valdemar. Some of the older servants who recognized me from my visits during the Plague thought that the Quaestor had murdered me, apparently. That one brings a chuckle.

The preparation for the Masquerade has begun, and I find myself with less and less to do regarding the trial as it, too, comes closer. Everything is ready for our plan, a room set aside, a defense prepared. Even though I know Julian is set on hanging, I couldn’t help but put together the best defense possible. I sit in the garden, laying on a stone bench and tracing the patterns of the leaves above me as I go over the case once more in my head.

A rustle stirs me from my thoughts, and I sit up, smiling when I see Valdemar ducking beneath the branches that obscure this little hideaway I’ve found. I make room on the bench for them, leaning against their shoulder when they join me. I know they’ve had a long day of dealing with the other courtiers, so I wait for them to speak, having noted that they prefer silence after stressful situations. One of their arms wraps around me and I smile, setting a hand on their leg.

Beyond our little hiding place, we hear voices passing by, speaking joyfully of the coming Masquerade. Music floats through the air, an enchanting melody perfect for dancing. I hum softly to the tune, recognizing it vaguely. Valdemar’s hand touches mine, and I feel the familiar tickle of their magic beckoning me into their memories.

-

I watch quietly as the final doctor trundles out the door, giving them a nod. Count Lucio, ever inefficient, has proposed that the doctors pause their efforts for the duration of the Masquerade. Horrible for any real progress on fixing the Plague, but he is, lamentably, in charge. I stride across the room, shaking my head as I pass the empty vivisection tables. I stop at the last one, raised on a dias beneath the crude chandelier. It is the only one that still has a doctor and a subject occupying it.

Dauna’s hands work slowly and methodically as she performs her operation. I watch her remove the heart, shrivelled and deformed by the Red Plague, and ease it into a jar of formaldehyde. She looks up at me as I come to stand beside her.

“I’ve had a thought, Valdemar. Do you think it may be possible to separate venoms from blood? It may be a venom within the plague beetles that’s causing the illness.”

I hum softly. “Perhaps with magic, it could be done. Do you think you could perform such magic?”

She looks down at the heart and then back to me. “I don’t know… I’ve not tried much magic. Maybe if I had time to develop it, and Asra’s help… I might be able to convince him to help.”

I nod and cap the jarred heart, watching as Dauna scrawls a label for it and presses the adhesive paper to the jar. I set it on a shelf as she turns back to her work, setting about my own task whilst she is distracted. I move several of the vivisection tables that aren’t bolted down, clearing a fair section of the room.

Dauna turns to put away the last of her jarred organs just as I place the final touch, a small box made of rosewood, on a table. I can’t see her face beneath her mask, but the tilt of her head tells me she’s noticed. I open the box, a waltz spilling from its confines. The music fills the vivisection chamber, and I hold a hand out. Her soft laugh laces together with the music as she sets the jars back down and step down from dias.

We meet in the center of the dancing space, and I take her into my arms. Her body is warm against mine, the steady beating of her heart almost making me feel like mine is thrumming along in tandem. I smile as we take the first steps of the dance, a clock chiming the hour and signalling the beginning of the Masquerade. Soon, she speaks.

“May I ask what the occasion is?”

I chuckle softly. “I simply thought you might not want to miss the first dance of the Masquerade.”

I hear her laughter from beneath her mask again. “There’s plenty of time to enjoy the Masquerade, Val. Missing the first dance won’t kill me. Besides, neither of us are dressed for the occasion.”

I tilt a brow before raising my mask. “Masks are all that is required, are they not? I believe we meet those standards.”

She shakes her head as she laughs again, and we fall back into silence. As the song begins to come to a close, I lead her towards the tables I moved, lifting her up to sit on the edge as the final notes of the music die out. I unclip the straps of her mask as she pulls mine down. When I remove her mask, she smiles at me, and I feel the stone within me cracking.

Lightly, our lips press together, heedless of the music restarting or our less than romantic surroundings. I find her hand with one of my own, holding it tightly as if it were the manifestation of these multitudes of feelings that bloom whenever she’s near, whenever she says my name, whenever I hold her in my arms or press my lips to her skin. The softest sigh of her breath ghosts my lips as we part, and I trail soft kisses across her cheek and jaw, chasing what I once called happiness. Her arms wrap around me, and I feel the tension in my muscles melt away as I press ever closer. It feels as though the edges between us have disappeared, leaving only one heartbeat, one set of breaths, and one mind.

When finally I pull away to look into Dauna's eyes, I feel my heart clench. She is lovely, this girl who has pulled from me the last vestiges of humanity that I could have. I know, in this instant, that I would once again feel the sting of loss were anything to happen to her. With one more kiss, I vow to myself to protect her by any means she will allow.

Chapter Text

I sigh softly, cuddling up in my seat on the veranda as I was Asra and Nadia fussing over a small map of the palace, discussing this and that about specific rooms. As much as I'm enjoying helping with the Masquerade preparations, I have to admit that I expected it to be more hands-on. Though it does make sense, I can't deny that it's a little more boring than I was hoping. Asra stands and shakes his head a bit, murmuring something about needing to see the room they were discussing for himself, before heading inside. A soft breeze rustles the papers Nadia had been looking at as she turns to fix me with a bemused gaze.

"I was beginning to wonder when he would become bored and wander off. Now, onto the real reason I called you, Dauna."

I shift a bit, my nerves agitated by such an ominous pronouncement. “The, uhm, real reason you called me?” I try to think of what I might’ve done wrong or who I might’ve accidentally insulted with my presence.

“Don’t fret, you’ve done nothing wrong. I think you know what it is I want to talk about.” She sits, leaning forward to rest her chin on her fist as she watches me with a bemused smirk. My cheeks flush as I realize what she’s getting at.

“Everything is fine with them, Nadia. There’s really nothing to tell. I don’t have any juicy gossip for you.”

She laughs and sits back. “Oh, I hear plenty of juicy gossip from the courtiers, Dauna. Things about what the two of you disappear into the library and garden to do. A few rumors that a child is on the way. Some that the two of you will be eloping.” She raises an eyebrow as my face flushes brighter.

“None of that is true, m’lady, I promise . We’re working up slowly. Nothing past kissing, I swear.”

She chuckles softly and shakes her head. "No, I didn't expect anything more. But you are my friend, so I feel it's important to check on you. Are they treating you well?"

I smile softly and nod, looking at my lap and fidgeting. "They do… They're so much kinder than everyone thinks, Nadia. I feel… I feel so treasured when I'm with them. Like I'm a priceless jewel." I giggle and cover my face. "They're so sweet. Every memory they show me is better than the last. And even if their methods aren't exactly orthodox, they're romantic in their own way. I… I couldn't ask for anyone better, Nadia. I want to spend my life with them."

The Countess sighs with a smile. "Well, I'm glad the two of you are getting along. Will you be attending the Masquerade together? I could arrange for your outfits to match, if you're agreeable to such a notion."

I look out over the garden. "We haven't talked about it, yet. I can't imagine them doing more than donning a mask for the event, so I don't think matching will be very important."

We sit quietly for a few minutes, both content to relax for just a short moment during the tumult of Masquerade preparations. Finally,  I stand, smoothing out my skirts and wishing Nadia a good day as I head back inside. I trail through the halls and down to the library, a path I'm sure I could take blindfolded at this point. When I pass through the secret door and into the passageway to the dungeons, I'm surprised to find the torches unlit. I don't pause for a light, trailing my fingers along the the rough walls. I know my way now, and the darkness no longer scares me as it once did. Even the thought of being alone here isn't so terrifying. I know Valdemar waits for me beneath my feet, so there is nothing to fear.

Through the darkness, I find the lift, open and waiting for me. I step inside and feel for the lever, leaning against the bag of the cage as I descend. It's a bit strange, when I think about it. Valdemar is usually good about lighting the way when he comes to the dungeon before me. Something must be on their mind. Could they be upset by something?

The dungeon hall is lit when the lift comes to a stop. I trail through the hall, my fingers tracing the walls. I don't pause in the changing room for my safety equipment, passing through the double doors and going straight to the office Valdemar calls their own. Inside, I find then sitting on the cot, back pressed against the wall. They look at me with soft eyes, reaching for me silently. I slip into their arms and let them pull me into their lap. Their gloved fingers glide across my shoulder and up to unpin my hair before trying with the strands. I hum softly, relaxing in their embrace. Silence hangs around us for uncountable minutes, hiding us away from the world above and around us. After what seems like an eternity, Valdemar speaks.

"I only have one memory left for you. I debated not showing you, but it is important that you know. It is an undeniable part of your life and very likely the source of your missing memories. I am… afraid, though. That you may turn against me for not showing you sooner. Or for… other details that will come to light."

I look up into their eyes, illuminated by a single, flickering candle. Never have I seen uncertainty in their eyes, but it is there now. I touch their cheek, smiling softly as they lean into the touch. "I won't leave, Val. I promise. And I'm not upset that you didn't show me earlier. It obviously upsets you. I'm proud that you've made enough peace with it to show me."

They nod, sighing softly and letting their eyes close as they take my hand. A familiar magic engulfs me, tinged with sorrow and a touch of regret.

-

I survey the doctors with a slight spotting in my step. I wonder if they notice the changes she's wrought in me, or if they simply assume I'm in a better mood. Either way, I see an improvement in their work ethic. Smiles on their faces as they remove their medical gear in the changing area. Laughter floating from the lift and down the hall. It's the lightest this dungeon had felt since our research began, and I can't bring myself to quash it. Happiness, it seems, is more infectious than even the Red Plague.

The clock chimes, and I look to the door in anticipation of Dauna waltzing through in her normal flurry of joy. Minutes tick by slowly, and I feel my smile fade. I would worry that Asra caught her in the library, but no one has seen him in nearly a month. Finally, I tire of watching the motionless door and make my way up to the library. Just as I exit into the hallway, a young messenger runs to greet me.

"Pardon me, Quaestor, but I have a letter for you from the South End clinic."

I nod to the child, taking the letter and opening it as they scurry away. I feel a pain in my chest as I take in the words, quickly pushing the paper into my pocket as I start down the hall towards the palace entrance. I make my way through the city and rain, intent on my journey to the South End. Barely a soul travels the lanes out in the rain, but those who are out pause and stare as I pass, surely concerned by my presence in such a sorry sector of the city. I stop in front of the clinic, nothing the sign on the door that read 'Closed'. I enter, checking each room before stepping back outside. An elderly woman pauses, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Happen to be looking for the good doctor, sir?"

I nod, moving closer. "I am. Where is it she lives, if not in the doctor's quarters of the clinic?"

The woman hems and jaws floor a few moments before motioning I follow. She leads me through a back alley to the back of clinic and motions towards a set of stairs that leads up to the third story. "She rents the room above it. Be warned, noble, you may not like what's up there."

I ignore her words, taking the stairs quickly. I pause with my hand over the knob for just a moment before entering.

Inside, the stench of Plague is thick. With no sign of Dauna in the main room, I move through the only door into her bedroom. I stop still in the doorway, unnameable emotions gnawing at my heart and mind when I see her standing at a water basin against the wall. Her skin has paled, her veins red vines that trace down her cheeks and across her hands. She looks up with a start, and I am met with the tell-tale red sclera wreathing her amber irises. I push down the rising tide within me and close the distance, guiding her to sit.

“You should’ve sent for me sooner; how far along are you? Two days? Three?” I pull off a glove and check her temperature, pushing back her sweat-damp hair. She averts her eyes, and I stroke her cheek. “Dauna, I could have been here for you.”

She looks back at me, her eyes watering. “I didn’t want you to get sick…”

The earnesty in her voice breaks me. I take her into my arms as she begins to cry, stroking her hair and pressing kisses to her cheeks. When she finally calms, I move onto the bed with her, cradling her in my arms and letting her rest her head on my chest.

I spend the following days watching over her, making sure she eats and drinks. I feel a futile hope in my heart that she will be the first case of a Red Plague survivor. I know better, but the thought doesn’t leave me. Never have I been the hopeful sort, but she has brought out many things within me.

The seventh day dawns, and I can see that she is not long for this world. She is unafraid, and I feel her death creeping ever closer. As we sit together, her laboured breathing the only sound save the patter of rain on the roof, I take her hand.

“Dauna, we need to speak.” At her sound of acknowledgement, I continue. “I can stop this… I won’t contract the Plague from you, and I could… I could fix you. I have the ability to facilitate the forging of a deal between you and the source of my own power, but you would have to give up something in return.”

She hums softly, squeezing my hand gently before looking up at me. I see her going over the idea in her mind before she smiles and shakes her head. “Thank you, Val, but… I think I’m ready. And I… I want to make sure I don’t regret it. I want to make sure that I’m whole…”

I hold her tighter, gritting my teeth. She hums softly, her trembling hand reaching up to touch my cheek. “Val… you’re crying…”

I lift my hand to hers, shocked to find that she is correct. How long has it been since I last shed a tear? I thought I had bargained my sorrow away long ago. “I don’t want you to go. I… You’ve given back so much of myself, things that I thought were lost.”

She leans up, and I move to meet her in the middle, our lips pressing together. We sit together in silence, whispering soft nonsense to one another every once and a while. She tells me she is tired, and I begin to sing a lullaby from my childhood, a song I haven’t given half a thought to in centuries. She falls asleep in my arms, and passes on not long after. I sit with her for hours after she is gone, an emotion welling inside me that I never thought I would feel again. The hollowness of separation.

-

I open my eyes slowly, embraced by darkness and Quaestor Valdemar. Slowly, I reach up to their cheek, pausing when I feel dampness. We sit silently for what feels like forever, the only sounds being the beating of my heart and the soft rasp of my breath.

Finally, Valdemar shifts, and I move to straddle their lap, gently wiping away their tears. My voice comes as a whisper, seemingly muffled by the darkness. “It’s okay now. I’m here. I won’t go anywhere this time. I promise.”

Their hands take mine, and I feel their lips brush mine. “I need to explain.”

I press out foreheads together, nodding “Yes, but I can wait. I want to make sure you’re okay first. I want to make sure you know that everything is going to be okay.”

Valdemar begins to speak, but sighs softly. “What do you have in mind?”

I smile softly, taking their hands and slowly stripping off their gloves. Their hands are as cold as ice, so I press them between mine and lift them to my lips. Slowly, I press kisses to each finger, starting at the tip and going down each knuckle. After I’ve done both hands, I kiss along the creases of their palms, smiling against their skin as they chuckle softly.

“What are you doing, Dauna?”

“I’m kissing your hands.”

“So I’ve noticed. I suppose ‘why’ would have been a more apt question.”

I run a hand up along their arm, cupping Valdemar’s cheek gently. “Because I want you to feel me here with you. Is it working yet?”

Without waiting for a response, I lean in and press my lips to theirs before trailing kisses over their cheeks and jaw. I can’t help but giggle at the soft hum of appreciation that’s drawn forth. Valdemar’s hands come to rest, one between my shoulder blades and the other around my waist, drawing me close to their chest. I let out a long sigh, trailing my fingers across their jaw. Their tears have stopped, and I can feel them smiling as they kiss my forehead.

“I feel you here… I know you won’t slip away from me again, Dauna. I know because I’ll hold you as tight as I can, and I’ll never let go.”

I press a final, lingering kiss to their lips before sitting back on their lap. Their hands move to rest on my legs, and I set my own on top of them. “Are you feeling better?”

They nod and sigh softly. I can feel their eyes on mine even in the darkness. “I am. And it’s time you let me explain who, or what, in all honesty, I am.”

I nod, waiting patiently for them to begin. After a long silence, they speak again.

“As I’m sure you’ve come to assume, I’m not human. Not anymore, at least. I was, once. My heart beat, my skin was warm, I could feel the full range of emotion that humans can experience. Everything was splendid. Until I made a deal with the Devil. I was in dire straights; there simply seemed to be no other option. I became his pawn, and slowly made more and more deals until I became what I am now. A demon.”

The room seems to grow impossibly colder as the word is finally spoken aloud, and I shiver. They bring me closer before continuing.

“I’m not supposed to be able to feel; my emotions were what I bargained away for my power. And yet here I am, feeling what I do for you. I haven’t been confused in.. so long. Everything up until we met was very calculated. No margin for error, like a delicate surgery. But then you waltzed into my life and it all changed. For the better, truly, but change is… not something I relish.”

I squeeze their hands gently. “I understand, change is scary. Terrifying, even. But it’s inevitable. It’s our choice whether we’ll make the most of it or try to fight it. Right?” I smile softly. “And now we can face it together.”

I hear them take a sharp breath before their arms wrap tightly around me. “Of course. We face life together now.”

We don’t leave the dungeon for hours, content with one another’s presence. When we finally do, it’s only because I’m starting to fall asleep. They let me lean against them as we ascend to the library and make our way through the darkened halls to my room. Outside my door, they lean in, pressing one last kiss to my lips before we part.

As I change and slip into my bed, I let the day’s revelations sink in. My death, Valdemar’s being a demon. So many new surprises, to say the least. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, feeling sleep racing to me. One step at a time, one change at a time, no matter how long it takes. We’ll work through each knot in the rope as it come to us.