Actions

Work Header

Royally Screwed

Chapter Text

The door to Nadia Satrinava’s bedchamber burst open with a loud crack.

Only the slightest shift in her position seated at the vanity betrayed her surprise, but when she heard the heavy, familiar footsteps of her husband rushing in her direction, she quickly resumed a bored expression and continued to brush her hair. If anything, she made efforts to look even more bored.

“I saw you with that magician earlier,” Count Lucio huffed, coming to a halt at her side. 

“Which magician?” Nadia drawled, not taking her eyes off her reflection in the mirror. “There are many in the city, and plenty of them walk through our halls.”

“You know ,” the Count hissed. “Asra’s apprentice! The one with the shop!”

“If I recall clearly, she’s not so much his apprentice as she is his equal in the magic arts.”

“So you DO know who I’m talking about!”

Lucio’s boots clacked on the marble floor as he paced to and fro behind her.

“I saw you with her,” he continued, “sidling up real close when she’s not with Asra. Giving her lavish gifts, handing them to her yourself. Touching her arm .” 

Nadia said nothing, but Lucio could have sworn he saw the shade of a smirk pulling at the corner of her lips. She ran her brush through her long, violet hair, only regarding Lucio through the reflection in her mirror.

“She is a welcome guest and has helped Asra with Masquerade preparations considerably,” Nadia explained easily. “Why shouldn’t I reward her for her hard work?”

“I know what you’re doing, and this certainly isn’t just another one of your rewards ,” Lucio said. “I’ve certainly never seen you get that close with Poncho.”

“Portia.”

“Whatever. Cut the games, Nadia. You want her, don’t you?” He all but spat the accusation. In the mirror, she saw him stopped behind her, eyes narrowed. “I may not be your preferred partner but I am your husband, and believe it or not, I know you well enough to be able to tell when you’re coming onto someone.”

“Why, dear husband,” Nadia breathed, finally turning to face him, her hand raised to her chest in a clear display of mock indignation. “How kind of you to pay such careful attention to me. What ever could have brought on this much observation?”

I want her,” the Count said.

Now he had her attention.

“You what?” Nadia said simply, dropping the airs from her voice.

Lucio shifted uncomfortably on the spot, like a child about to be scolded. “I want her,” he repeated. Nadia’s glare bore into him, and he could not meet it. “S-so you can’t do that. You can’t have her.”

At that, she laughed, the sound ringing sharply across the room.

“What are we, Lucio, children? Must we stake such claims in our romantic pursuits?”

“So it IS a romantic pursuit!”

“For one so seemingly astute about my behavior, you remain incredibly dense.”

“I just wanted to hear you admit it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Just lay off her, okay?” He ran a golden arm through his already disheveled hair. Nadia had often seen the Count in various states of distress when he threw tantrums, but this seemed different somehow. A smile slowly spread across her lips as an idea formed in her mind.

“Lucio, why don’t you just go for it , then?” Nadia said. She leaned back in her seat as she regarded him. “You are the Count after all. Couldn’t you just do whatever you want? And don’t we have an arrangement allowing you to do just that?”

“I was going to, but then I saw you doing it, and it—it threw me off!” he said hotly. “I was getting ready for it!”

“You honestly can’t tell me you were just working yourself up this whole time,” Nadia said, unamused. “It took you all of 2 seconds to lay your first pick-up line on Doctor Devorak. Whatever happened with that, anyway?”

“Jules won’t crack,” he pouted. “And besides, the magician is cuter, and now I want her instead.”

“Are you telling me to back off because you’re afraid she’ll prefer me to you?”

The question was simple, but its effect was devastating. The expression on Lucio’s face dropped to abject horror at the very idea . Nadia savored this moment and etched the memory into her mind—she will treasure it forever.

“P… Prefer you to me?! ” He balked. His mouth formed shapes without making words as his gaze flitted around the room, going anywhere but Nadia’s smug face. He forced out a barking laugh. “Now that—that’s good! That’s GOOD, Noddy, have you been to the community theater lately? Because your comedy is getting sharper!” His voice rose in pitch as he spoke and he resumed his pacing.

“I assure you, I’m being quite serious,” Nadia said. She rose from her vanity and stalked toward the Count. “Why else would you come to me like this, begging me to stop pursuing that adorable magician, instead of simply trying to have your own way with her?” She caught up to Lucio and leveled a gaze at him, stopping him in his tracks. They stood side by side for a moment, facing opposite directions. It reminded Nadia of the starting position dueling opponents took before walking ten paces away to formally begin their encounter. The comparison wasn’t entirely inappropriate, given what she was about to suggest. She placed her hand firmly but gently upon his arm.

“Why don’t we both make attempts to woo her in our own ways,” she said slowly, watching Lucio register the words. “And see who she prefers?”

She practically heard the gears turning in Lucio’s mind. His mouth twisted into a pout as he considered her.

“It’s not fair though,” he protested, though his voice betrayed a note of interest. “You’ve got a head start.”

Nadia shrugged. “On the contrary, dear husband,” she said, giving his arm a little squeeze. “If you’re as good as you claim, then I’d say my having a head start levels the playing field, does it not?”

It only took a moment. A wicked grin spread across the Count’s face as her well-placed compliment found its mark. His previous distress melted off him as he bathed in the reminder of his own prowess. Beneath her hold, she felt the tension leave his body and the swagger return to his posture.

“You know, Noddy,” he said, his voice returning to its usual cool, arrogant tone, “I can’t say I blame you. If I had to compete with me, I’d want to get a head start, too.”

He smirked at her and spun around, cape flowing dramatically behind him as he strode back to the entrance of her bedchamber.

“I’ll play your game, but I’m going to win,” he called behind him. “I always do.”

He chuckled to himself as he passed over the threshold, not bothering to shut the door behind him.

Nadia breathed a sigh and slouched her shoulders, releasing tension she wasn’t aware she was holding. Rolling her eyes, she walked back to her vanity and sat down.

“Portia?” She called.

Almost no time passed at all before the redheaded handmaiden came bustling in, cheery as ever. “Yes, milady?”

“Clear my afternoon schedule for tomorrow and tell the chefs to prepare a picnic lunch for two,” she said. “I suddenly have a very important date to attend.”

Chapter Text

The door of your magic shop creaks open again, defying your attempts to close it for the fifth time in a row. You stick your foot out to close it once more, arms filled with items that are supposed to go into your bag eventually, the rush of the morning sending your brain into panic mode as you try to accomplish several things at once. Nadia has invited you to dine with her at the palace, and you’re running late.

Before the frustration rising in your chest could bubble over, Asra holds the door steady from the other side and pokes his head out, white fluffy hair peeking out the doorway. He smiles in amusement.

“Having troubles?”

“Asra,” you gasp, shoving the last of your items into your bag. “The door, it keeps—”

“Sticking open?” He finishes. “I’ll take care of it. Go run along now, best not to keep Nadia waiting.”

“How did you know—”

“Go on, go on,” he urges, shooing you away with a wave of his hand. With a gentle smile, he closes the door firmly as he disappears back into the shop. You make a mental note to thank Asra sometime later, perhaps with a gift. Though you’ve been friends and partners at the shop for a long time and he always insists he never needs any reward or incentive for helping around, you make sure to treat him for it anyway. He’s also the one who introduced you to Countess Nadia, and the one who brought you in to start helping with the palace’s annual Masquerade. You’d swelled with excitement, knowing that all the magicians in the city coveted the opportunity to work on the biggest event of the year. Not many got the chance to work so closely with the Countess. Even less got a personal invitation to dine with her.

You break into a sprint toward the palace. Halfway there, you remember you’ve put on your nice clothes, and slow to a brisk but respectable pace. You smooth the sheer fabric down your front and straighten the shoulders. You’re not used to wearing this clothing outside of an occasion like the Masquerade. Nadia’s summons came as a surprise today—this is the first time you were summoned by name, on your own, without Asra. The two of you were often summoned together when it came to assisting with things like the upcoming Masquerade. Part of you wondered if you were being given a chance to show off your own skills. Most of the town saw you and Asra as a set, so the thought of being recognized for your own work—let alone by Countess Nadia herself—was an exciting prospect. You smile at the thought.

By the time you reach the palace gates, your breath has slowed and your clothes have been smoothed down many times over. You give the guards your name and produce the summons. They nod once before letting you through. Portia, Countess Nadia’s ever-present handmaiden, greets you with a peppy smile at the doorway.

“Welcome back!” She says, waving as she beams at you. You nod as you greet her in return, searching her face for signs of anything amiss. You knew you were late, but if this bothered the Countess or her handmaiden, the latter’s face at least betrayed no such worry.

“Milady is waiting for you in the gardens,” Portia says, walking into the hall and gesturing for you to follow. She casts a sidelong glance at you and winks. “Don’t worry about being late, her schedule is pretty clear today.”

You breathe a sigh of relief. Clear schedule or no, it felt rude to keep the Countess waiting, especially after she’d gone through the trouble of scheduling lunch. Her generosity is not lost on you as you ponder the situation once more. She had been taking a greater interest in you lately: finding you when you were left alone for a few moments, asking you about the work you do at the shop, chancing a few casual touches on your arm here and there. She’d even given you a few gifts as a token of her appreciation—one of which you were wearing today. Your hand reaches up to smooth the soft, sheer top once more. You’re not sure when she had the time or the means, but somehow, she had this made to fit you perfectly. You felt slightly out of place in such finery, but elected to wear it for the occasion.

After walking through a maze of halls, Portia finally opens a door that leads to the outside. This particular hall is curiously empty, devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of servants and royal guests. Portia gestures out the door.

“Milady is just outside,” she says. “I’ll not be joining you today, but if you need anything, I’ll be nearby. Just give me a holler!”

You walk outside and into a lush, well-kept garden. It had clearly been manicured to look artfully overgrown. Bright, green grass carpets the area while hedges and trees loom overhead, reaching to the sky and bearing flowers and fruits of all kinds of shapes and colors—some you couldn’t even identify. You don’t see Nadia anywhere near, so you venture into the tangle of greenery.

After making your way through the dense garden, you finally spot her. Perched elegantly atop a plush cushion on the edge of a picnic blanket, Nadia waves you over to her corner of the garden. The picnic setup is exquisite: large blankets scattered with cozy cushions, and in the center of it all, a low table piled high with some of the palace’s finest food. Beside her, a dainty waterfall flows into a small pond, surrounded by dark green plants lush with gigantic leaves and colorful blooms. It’s all so picturesque. The Countess herself is a vision, dressed in fine silks that dance over her figure at the slightest breeze, its gauzy material shimmering in the sunlight. The sight of her catches your breath. You don’t realize how long you’ve been staring until Nadia clears her throat.

“I hope finding me wasn’t too much trouble,” she says, giving you a warm smile that reaches her eyes. “I understand the food is quite a sight, but I can promise you it tastes better than it looks.”

Oh. How long were you standing there, staring at her and the scenery? You recover with a quick smile and a nod, and hastily make your way to her. You set your things down but before you can take a seat on the cushion across from her, she pats the one at her side expectantly. Blinking, you shift over to her chosen cushion. She scoots closer to you, as she had done the past few times you’ve sat together. This time, however, her presence makes a stronger impression, and you can’t contain the blush that creeps up your neck.

“I’m sorry for being late, Countess,” you say, trying to casually break the silence.

“Please, just Nadia is fine,” she says. “And do not worry yourself—I have plenty of time today, and I wanted to spend it with you.”

The blush you were fighting off makes its way to your cheeks. With… you? You swallow hard, trying to read her indecipherable expression. So she didn’t summon you here to discuss the Masquerade preparations. What, then? You tamp down your wandering thoughts and decide to just enjoy this normal, decent lunch with her.

“I’m honored,” you say graciously. 

She smiles, satisfied. “I see you are wearing the gift I had made for you. How wonderful! You look positively radiant. Do you find it to your liking? I can always have it altered to better suit your tastes, if you like.”

“I-it’s perfect!” The response tumbles out clumsily as you instinctively smooth your top again. “You’re too kind, Nadia, this is—this is honestly too fine of a gift.”

Nadia’s laughter rings out like a bell.

“No need to be so modest, dear,” she says. “I do enjoy your company, and besides, I thought you could use a bit of reward for doing so well with the Masquerade preparations.”

Asra didn’t receive such a gift for his efforts , you ponder.

She reaches across you to pluck a fruit from the table. Her hair falls down the side of her face in violet waves as she does, sending a waft of—is that jasmine?—scented air your way. You breathe a sigh as you take it in, as if it completes the experience of simply being here in such a lovely place, seated with the loveliest woman in Vesuvia.

You shake your head free of these thoughts. Normal, decent lunch! You remind yourself. You reach over to the table, pick up a pastry, and bite into it with haste. It crunches lightly as it bursts into a hundred little flakes in your mouth, flying up your face and into the back of your throat all at once. In your shock, you lurch forward, coughing into your arm in fits. Nadia calls your name, her voice pitched high with worry. Your attempt to respond with a smile is weak, and you keep coughing. You can feel your face turning red from the effort. She rises from her seat, and within a moment she’s at your side with a glass of water. You take it in your shaking hands and gulp it down gratefully, washing the traitorous pastry flakes down your throat. After a few more solid coughs, you bring a napkin to your lips and look up at Nadia sheepishly.

“Nadia, I—”

She reaches up and brushes away a few errant flakes from your cheek. You flush, embarrassed to be seen by the Countess in such a state. Her thumb lingers on the side of your face. When you finally bring your eyes to meet hers, her gaze is soft, her smile warm.

“Are you all right, dear?”

Her hand doesn’t move from your face. You nod slowly.

“I-I think so.”

She lifts her hand to caress your jawline with the backs of her fingers, brushing off more pastry debris. Your blush deepens.

“Perhaps I ought to scold the baker,” she muses as she caresses your cheek. “These flaky pastries are dangerous. Far too deadly. Totally unsuitable for a leisurely picnic.” She frowns. “We ought to use them in the next war. Forget the swords and canons, just send these pastries off to our enemies and watch them fall!”

Her change of tone sends you laughing, the weight of embarrassment lifting from your shoulders. Nadia smiles, her lips parting ever so slightly as she chuckles. She finally pulls her hand away from your face and reaches for the table again; you find yourself missing the warmth of her touch.

“Here,” she says, presenting a small, bright red fruit. “Try this, it’s one of my favorites. I managed to have it imported from Prakra. No flakes present here, on my honor as a Countess.” She makes a show of crossing an X over her heart with her other hand.

Giggling, you take the fruit and pop it into your mouth. Its flesh is soft and lightly chewy, its juice sweet and tart. You hum your approval and nod deeply. Nadia is delighted, and points out a few more offerings from the table.

“If you like that, you ought to try this as well, it’s made from the berry’s juices…”

The rest of your time with Nadia passes like a dream, the two of you exchanging bites of food, sips of wine, sharing interesting stories and clever jokes. If someone told you that you’d get to see Nadia like this—hair down (both literally and figuratively), joking around, regarding you with increasing familiarity—you wouldn’t have believed them. Most of the time you saw her she was cool and composed, every bit of her appearance and demeanor impeccable as she performed her royal duties. Even now as you sit beside her, her skin radiant in the setting sun, her joyful laugh infectious, you could hardly believe your luck in getting to spend the afternoon like this.

When the last shred of sunlight has dipped below the horizon, the two of you finally stand up, stretching your limbs from the long hours of sitting and dining. Nadia assures you that the servants will take care of what remains of the picnic setting in due time, and ushers you back inside. She guides you back through the maze of hallways, much of the palace already empty as the city winds down for the night. When you reach the large double doors of the entrance, the night breeze blows through your sheer top and you instinctively reach up to rub your arms.

“Goodness,” Nadia says. “You’ll freeze out there. Please, allow me to fetch you a coat and a carriage—”

“Oh Nadia, that’s not necessar—”

“Please, I insist,” she says, calling out for Portia. She materializes beside her.

“Portia, please call for a carriage. And please fetch my evening coat, you know, the one with the—”

“No need, darling, our guest can borrow mine.”

Nadia is interrupted by a low voice from behind her. Startled, she blinks before turning to see a shadowy figure whose face becomes clearer as they walk into the light.

It’s Count Lucio.

He cuts a dashing figure in the doorway, his golden arm propped up against the side of the threshold, glistening in the light of the moon. The pale evening light accentuates his sharp features, shadows playing across his face in a way that is both menacing and alluring. You haven’t had many personal interactions with the Count himself, but you’d heard stories—stories of his bravado on the battlefield, his charm on the public, and the Countess’s poorly concealed aloofness toward him. You’d seen him whip previous Masquerades into frenzies with his penchant for partying. All the stories surrounding him made him seem like a mythic figure. Seeing him this close renders you speechless with awe.

With a smirk and a flick of his golden, alchemical hand, he whips his fur-lined cape off his shoulders and presents it to you in one swift motion. He lowers his gaze at you expectantly.

You shift your glance from the cape, to the Count, to Nadia. Her expression has dulled almost imperceptibly, but you can tell it’s not quite as warm as it had been earlier.

“Dear,” Nadia says, her voice cool and collected, “we would hate to trouble you so—”

“It’s no trouble at all,” he replies easily. The Count fixes his gaze upon you. “It’s been so long since I’d heard such laughter from my darling wife. So long since she’s had a—how would you say?—a gal pal! I simply want to thank our guest for showing you a good time.”

Before you could protest, the Count sidesteps past Nadia and flings the cloak out and around your shoulders, fastening it in front. You stand stark still, unable to believe what is happening.

“See?” He says, gesturing proudly. “A perfect fit!”

It isn’t. It hangs heavy around your shoulders, its bulk contrasting awkwardly with the outfit Nadia had given you. In it, you look like a child playing dress-up. Despite herself, Nadia stifles a laugh.

“Th-thank you, Count Lucio,” you say, bowing at the waist. “I appreciate this kind gesture.”

“Make sure you get it back to me,” he says, winking. “It’s my favorite.”

You flush. “Yes, sir.”

He smiles with satisfaction. “Do have a good night, then.”

With that, he turns on his heel and stalks back into the palace. If the cloak had still been on him, it would have whirled fantastically in his wake. Something tells you he did this often.

The crunching of gravel beneath carriage wheels snaps you out of your thoughts as it rolls up to the gate. Portia hops off the back of the carriage and waves. You glance back at Nadia. Her expression had flattened into annoyance. She eyes the cloak around you and sighs.

“Is it at least warm enough?”

“Yes,” you say, shifting it a little so it sits more comfortably on your shoulders.

She manages a small smile. “I’ll be sure to get you a nicer coat that suits your outfit next time. One that you can keep for yourself. Come, let’s not keep you out too late.”

Nadia moves her hand to the small of your back, guiding you away from the palace. She shivers a little and walkers closer to you, and you catch the scent of jasmine again, mixed with the smell of sun.

As you reach the carriage, she reaches out to open the door for you.

“I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have,” she says warmly.

You grin, your heart light at her sentiment. “I have. Thank you so much, Countess.”

“Please, dear… just Nadia.”

In one swift motion, she closes the distance between you two and presses a soft kiss upon the corner of your lips. The closeness, her scent, the feeling of her lips, her warmth—they all mix into a heady sensation that dizzies you for a moment. She chuckles softly as she pulls away.

“Let’s do this again sometime, shall we?”

You climb into the carriage and bid Nadia good night one last time. As you sit back on the plush velvety seat, your hand reaches up to touch the spot she kissed.

Just a normal, decent lunch.

Chapter Text

Nearly a week had passed since your visit with the Countess. You didn’t receive any new summons from her since then—just a simple, handwritten card thanking you for your company. The card smelled of jasmine, and you kept it by your bedside as a fond reminder of your afternoon together. Meanwhile, the Count’s cloak remained hanging on your bedpost, untouched since the moment you took it off.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Between your shifts at the shop downstairs you’d sometimes come up to your room for a break, and during those breaks you’d sometimes find yourself idly stroking the soft fur lining the collar. The cloak had its own unique scent—not as deliberate and easily placeable as Nadia’s jasmine, something deeper and earthier, sunk in through much daily wear. It really was an exquisite cloak, and you were positive you’d never own one like it in your lifetime. This must be why you spent so much time touching it, knowing you’d have to return it soon. 

Now, you and Asra are getting ready to head to the Palace for a day of Masquerade preparations. You bundle Lucio’s cape into a sack, careful to tuck it in as to not draw attention from the crowds as you and Asra walk through the city. The thought of damaging it in any way before it got to the Count fills you with dread. You make a mental note to return it to the Count as soon as you get to the palace. 

When you reach the palace gates, Portia is there to greet you and Asra. Before she could lead you away, you pause to ask if you could see Count Lucio. She falters, puzzled.

“Erm, I’m sorry, but I’m not sure where milord is,” she says. “Milady has instructed me to bring you both to assist with decorations in the rainbow room.”

“Of course, I’ll definitely be there,” you say quickly. “I just need to return something to the Count before I begin helping. I’d feel much more comfortable if it’s out of my hands by then.” You lift the sack helpfully.

Portia nods her understanding. “We’ll ask some of the other servants along the way.”

She motions for the both of you to follow her down the hall. The palace is bustling with activity as assorted servants, magicians, and other contractors move in and out of rooms, all preparing for the Masquerade. Every so often, she stops another servant to ask for the Count’s whereabouts. You all move on as each one in turn shake their heads, unsure of his whereabouts. Several minutes of this pass without any news. Nobody seems to know where he is today. 

Suddenly, a burst of commotion erupts from down the hall. The three of you whirl around to see two white blurs streaking down the hallway, dragging a frantic servant just barely able to stay on their feet. Your eyes widen and you step back, holding the bundled cloak high to avoid a collision. The white blurs speed closer, and you can tell that they’re large dogs—and they aren’t stopping. You shut your eyes, bracing for impact. A moment passes—no impact. You start to feel insistent nudging at your sides.

You crack one eye open, then the other. The dogs have stopped and are pressing their noses against your sides, inspecting you thoroughly. From this close, you can see just how large and fluffy they are, and can see their bright red eyes in stark contrast to their brilliant white fur. One of them whines and stands up on its hind legs, pressing its front paws onto your body for support as it reaches up to sniff the bundled cloak. It jerks back with a sharp whimper.

“I’m s-so sorry milady!” The harried servant says quickly, yanking back on the dog’s leash. “M-master’s sighthounds, haha! They’re wild ones! He asked me to walk them, but—”

“You know where Count Lucio is?” You ask him, a little too quickly.

He pauses. “Y-yes, I was just returning his hounds.”

“Will you please take me to him?”

“Yes, milady!” The servant sounded relieved. He gives the leashes a quick tug and jerks his head in the other direction. “Right this way!”

You give Asra and Portia a small wave before following the servant out. The dogs seem calmer than they were earlier and settle into a brisk pace, occasionally pulling back to sniff you.

Eventually you reach the outer grounds of the palace: a wide field surrounded by a high hedge and dotted with various shrubs and plants. The landscaping isn’t as lush as the garden where you met with Nadia, but it was still beautiful—and full of animals.

All around the field, you notice a variety of animals being tended to by several servants and caretakers. A large snake lounges in the high branches of a tree, a lizard sits stubbornly atop a rock feature, and an ostentation of peacocks harass a servant hastily trying to herd them around. Several other exotic animals inhabit the grounds, and you notice they all have one thing in common: they are stark white.

The servant who led you here lets out a yelp as the dogs zoom into the field. In his panic, he lets go of the leashes. You follow the dogs out until they finally slow to a halt beside Count Lucio himself.

“Ohhh, there are my babies!” Lucio bends to greet them affectionately. The dogs waste no time covering him with slobbery licks. “Did you miss Daddy? Did you?? Yes you did! Yes y- ahaha stop that, naughty dogs!”

He falls on his back as the dogs continue to assault his face and neck with affectionate kisses. As you approach, you can’t help but stifle a laugh. Seeing the Count in such a state was amusing and unexpected. Despite your attempts at discretion, Count Lucio’s head shoots right up at your stifled laughter. You straighten up and try to regain your composure.

“I, erm, my Count, M’-M’LORD—” you stutter, fighting back another wave of giggles. Get a hold of yourself! You bow awkwardly, thrusting the bundled cloak forward at the same time.

You hear him giggle and rise from the ground.

“Mmm, ‘my Count’ is just fine, I think,” he says, waving you to get up from your bow. As you do so, he takes the sack from your arms and pulls the cloak out. After giving it a once over, he nods his satisfaction and whirls it around himself, fastening it to his outfit in one smooth move. He strikes a dramatic pose in front of you and grins. You tighten your lips, trying not to laugh some more.

“Oh, do lighten up, magician,” he says, patting you on the arm with his golden one. “You’re allowed to laugh in my presence. In fact, I wish you would! It sounds cute.”

Did you hear that right?? Your face flushes before you can stop yourself. Your eyes dart all around as you act suddenly fascinated in all the animals. It isn’t that hard to do, it really is quite the menagerie. Lucio takes notice and clicks his tongue.

“Oooh, do you like them?” He says excitedly. “I can show you around!”

He bends slightly and pets the dogs again, finally giving them the attention they’ve wanted.

“We’ll start with these two rascals, Mercedes and Melchior. They’re excellent hunters, and even better cuddlers~”

Curiously, the two dogs reach toward your hands with their snouts. Instinctively, you turn your palms up to let them sniff you some more. Lucio’s eyes widen slightly.

“I uh, wouldn’t try that if I were you, they—”

You slowly turn your hands to the side and slide them across the side of each dog’s face. Mercedes and Melchior lean into your touch, shutting their eyes as they nuzzle your palm. A grin lights up your face as you stroke the soft, thick fur at their necks.

“Good dogs,” you find yourself murmuring softly, delighted. “Good, good dogs~”

“Huh,” Lucio muses. He leans back as he regards you, a stunned expression on his face. “They’re usually not this friendly to strangers.”

Is there a greater compliment than the affections of a picky animal? If there was, you couldn’t think of any. You look up at Lucio and can’t help but smile. Whatever fears you had surrounding the Count were slowly being chipped away by his relaxed demeanor and easy smile.

“They’re lovely,” you say with wonder, hands still buried in their furs.

He flashes you a grin. “There’s more where that came from.”

He clicks his tongue and Mercedes and Melchior immediately bound to his side. He turns on his heel and gestures for you to follow. You stay a few paces behind him out of respect, but when he notices, he makes it a point to turn and loop his golden arm around your shoulders. The cloak brushes you as he does so. Your face flushes at the sudden closeness. You feel a tingle of magic thrumming from his arm, a strange pulsing through the cool metal. You’d heard that some powerful alchemy was used to create it, but you’d never felt magic like this up close. He doesn’t give you much time to think about it before ushering you bodily toward another creature from his menagerie.

“See that beauty up there? She’s an albino python,” he says affectionately, pointing up a tree toward the large, white snake you saw earlier. The snake lifts its head slightly, turning it to the side to examine her new visitors. She flicks her tongue out and rests her head atop her coiled body.

“Took her off some red market trader from north of Prakra,” he says. “Had her in this tiny little cage. So small! Now that she’s with Daddy Lucio, she gets to roam this entire yard! Sometimes, she’ll disappear for days, then suddenly she’ll pop right out of a bush!”

Out of the corner of your eye, you see the attending servant visibly shudder.

The sound of warbling and cawing from behind you catches both of your attention and you turn to face the source of the commotion. A gaggle of white peacocks fuss and flap frantically at a large white cockatoo, fluttering just above their heads in a tight circle. The birds all take turns screaming at one another as a frazzled attendant tries to wrangle them with little success.

“Peacock wrangler!” Lucio barks, his voice sharp and authoritative. “What’s going on? Is this not your job, to wrangle the peacocks? Why are the peacocks not wrangled?!”

They wince at his command and continue trying to simultaneously herd the peacocks with an outstretched arm and shoo away the offending cockatoo.

“That’s Camio, by the way,” Lucio says, pointing at the cockatoo. “I’ve tried teaching him to speak, but he likes to scream inste—hey, where are you going?”

You disentangle yourself from underneath his arm and march toward the fighting birds. Watching them struggle had become unbearable, and you know you can do something about it. You step up before the peacock wrangler and fold your hands in front of you politely.

“Please, may I?”

The peacock wrangler gratefully steps away. As they do so, you call your magic to your hands and it answers you readily as you hold them up in front of you. Concentrating on the air around the peacocks, you slowly form a magic barrier around them, shielding them from the cockatoo. Camio reels back in surprise. The fully formed barrier shimmers with a magical gleam. The warbling of the peacocks within have muffled, and when they try to peck at the barrier, it shakes only slightly. Nodding in satisfaction at your work, you turn back to the peacock wrangler and Lucio.

“Where should they go?”

Count Lucio’s jaw hangs slack as he stares at you. The peacock wrangler answers by showing you toward a fenced pen. You nod and slowly move the barrier across the field, herding the peacocks inside it. Lucio follows along, dumbfounded. After the peacock wrangler shuts the gate and thanks you profusely, Lucio finally speaks.

“Whoa,” is all he can manage as he gapes at you.

You chuckle, shaking off your hands.

“Oh, heh, it was nothing,” you say modestly, though inside you’re giddy with delight. You got to show off your magic in front of the Count, and he’s impressed! “It’s a simple shield, one of the basics.”

Lucio rushes forward and takes your hands in his own. He holds them up for his inspection and rubs your palms between his fingers and thumb.

“That was incredible! You’ve got to teach me that some time,” he says, vibrating with excitement. He turns your hands over in his as though handling some exotic creature. “And you did it so quickly too, really quick thinking, that was so impressive!” The feel of his hands on yours coupled with the earnestness of his admiration sends a heated blush crawling up your neck once more, but his joy is so infectious you don’t pull away. You chuckle nervously, half-heartedly protesting his praises, and lift your gaze from where your hands touch up to his face. You didn’t notice him looking at you so intensely.

“Really, that was marvelous,” he says, stroking his thumbs over your knuckles. “I knew you were something special when I first saw you, and I was totally right.” His lips slowly part into a grin as he gives your hands a light squeeze.

The tender but confusing moment is interrupted by a loud shriek that echoes across the grounds. Several of the animals either hide or dash clear across the field, making their way toward the palace. You and Lucio turn toward the sound at once, your hands still grasped in his. A low rumble ripples out from beyond the far hedge wall. Its leaves shudder wildly. The wall begins to lurch forward, splitting through the middle in a series of sickening cracks. The hedge wall cracks open to reveal a large, slimy grey mass. It wriggles viciously back and forth, inching its way onto the palace grounds. Once enough of its body makes it through, you can see it for what it is: a colossal worm . The opening near the top must be its mouth, because when it opens, another deafening shriek rips through the air. Surely this can’t be a part of Lucio’s menagerie of exotic pets. When you turn back to him, you notice the change in his demeanor tells you it’s not one of his.

In an instant, Lucio leaps away from you, sword drawn. His lips curl into a snarl as his expression hardens in determination and disgust.

“Get back, everyone!” The Count announces to the panicked servants rushing around him. He flings his cape to the side and strikes a pose, gallant and proud. “I’ll deal with this foul beast!”

He tightens the grip on the hilt of his sword and launches forward, making a beeline for the great worm. It sways from side to side, knocking back the surrounding hedges and other landscaping features as it wails. Thankfully, no other animals are in the area, long having fled that corner of the field. As Lucio closes the gap between himself and the worm, he shifts his body and brings the sword down in a great slash. It opens up a gash in the belly of the worm, but nothing spills out of it. Its hide is too tough.

“You’re a tough, ugly beastie, aren’t you?” Lucio growls, his mouth twisting into a vicious grin that’s both playful and menacing. He’s enjoying this. Your heart races, beads of sweat dotting your temples as you watch him in action. Another high-pitched scream pierces your ears, but this time it isn’t from the worm.

“EEEEEEEEEE STOP! LUCIO, STOOOOOPPP!!!”

A tall figure swathed in a billowing black robe scuttles from the hole the worm tore through the hedge and plants itself between Lucio and the agitated worm. It takes you a moment, but once you recognize him, you realize that figure is Praetor Vlastomil: magistrate of the city and a member of the royal court, known for being particularly… eccentric, to put it mildly. A self-proclaimed “worm genius,” you’d only heard whispered rumors of his collection of pet worms, though you never imagined anything like this. He flails his thin, wobbly arms at Lucio, pale face forming new wrinkles as it twists in agony. Lucio remains in his low battle stance, edging back slightly.

“Vlastomil, what is the meaning of this?!” The Count demands, raising his voice over a brand new ear-splitting cry from the worm.

“You’ve hurt my Wiggler!! ” Vlastomil cries out, gesturing wildly to the gash on the worm’s belly.

“That thing is yours?! What is it doing here!”

“YOU said this was an exotic pet feature!!”

“For MY PETS, not yours! How is that even a pet?!”

The worm’s sightless head comes crashing down between them, sending debris flying everywhere. Lucio grunts, shielding his face with his golden arm as he readies his sword again with the other. 

“PUT THAT THING AWAY, YOU ABSOLUTE BRUTE!!” Vlastomil shrieks. “IF YOU HURT WIGGLER YOU’LL HAVE HELL TO PAY!!”

“Then HOW am I supposed to—”

Lucio is cut off as the worm thrashes its head at him, sending him flying down the field. He tumbles on the grass before skidding to a stop face down, hand barely clutching his sword. Your heart drops. The worm wails and whips its head about some more, wrecking everything around it.

You feel your feet urge you forth before your brain can stop you. You call your magic to your hands once more as you approach the worm. When you reach a good distance you raise your arms and try to form a shield around it as you did with the peacocks. Sensing your presence, the worm reacts with distress, its movements becoming more wild and erratic.

“You’d better not hurt her, filthy mage!! ” Vlastomil shouts, cowering behind a bush.

Your spellcasting is interrupted when the worm launches its head at you, and you can see its maw filled with rows and rows of razor sharp teeth. You practically feel your stomach fall through your body as you leap backwards, narrowly avoiding the full force of the worm’s wrath. When you pull back, your top is torn at the shoulder and streams of blood blossom from your skin. You curse under your breath, hastily pulling up what’s left of your sleeve. Think quickly! Enveloping the beast in a shield like the one you cast earlier would take too long, and it’s thrashing too wildly. Vlastomil doesn’t want the worm harmed, but it must be stopped. You need to act fast.

A small grunt from behind you makes you realize that you’ve ended up near where the Count had fallen. He props himself up on an elbow and lifts his gaze to you. You sigh with relief, knowing he’s still conscious. The worm drags your attention back to it as it screams, reeling its head back again, gearing up for another downward blow. Summoning all your magical energy, you throw your arms up, casting a large shield above your head like a wide umbrella. Your magic pours into it, willing it to become thicker and harder as you brace for impact. When you glance up to see the worm bringing its great head down, you thrust the shield up with all your might to meet it. 

The grey mass collides with your shield with a meaty thud . The impact sends vibrations through your body right down to your bones. The shock of it makes your knees buckle, and with the last ounce of your effort, you tilt the shield away as it finally cracks. You fall backwards as the worm rolls off your dissipating shield, its body finally unmoving. The dull ringing in your ears mixes with the distant sounds of Vlastomil continuously yelling about his worm. Unleashing that much magic at once left you drained, and you let yourself lie still on the grass as your vision blurs and blackens at the edges. Before you could succumb completely, the sky above you darkens. You blink a few times and realize it’s just Count Lucio hovering over you, expression lined with worry. Blood oozes from a gash on the side of his face, matting his blond hair with dark red. He says your name a few times, looking for a reaction. When you squint your eyes and give a small smile, he sighs with relief.

“Holy hell,” he breathes. “That was something.

You make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a grunt to show your agreement. Slowly, you pull your arms back to prop yourself up by your elbows. A sharp sting radiates from your shoulder and you collapse on one side, hissing in pain. Lucio catches you, wrapping his golden arm around your back to support your weight.

“Easy now, let’s get you taken care of,” he says, cradling you as he eyes your injury.

“You’re hurt too,” you say, raising your good arm to his face. He flinches slightly, but when your hand touches him, he stills. You draw in a slow breath, coaxing your magic to your fingertips. It’s weak after the worm attack, but it still answers your call. Your fingertips glow as small threads of light dance across Lucio’s wound, stitching it up and closing it. You move your hand over to your shoulder and try to perform the same healing spell on yourself, but exhaustion catches up to you and your magic fades to a whisper before you can complete your spell, leaving your wounds half-healed. You drop your hand and sigh.

“Did I tell you you’re incredible?” Lucio muses, touching the side of his face with wonder. “I feel like I was starting to, before we were so rudely interrupted .”

A blush warms your face and neck. He shifts his arm behind you and pulls you closer.

“I can’t thank you enough for being such a hero today,” he says, voice dropping low. “But I hope this will do for now.”

Lucio leans forward and presses his lips to yours. Time stands still as your awareness catches up to you, and you take in everything at once—the cool feel of his golden arm cradling you from behind, the warmth of his other hand resting lightly where your jawline meets your neck, the blush creeping all the way up to the tips of your ears, the tender feel of his lips on yours, Count Lucio is kissing you, Count Lucio is kissing you . The thought rings over and over in your head, like an alarm bell or a chant. The flutter of your heart and the heat that radiates through your body takes over all rational thought and you instinctively lean into his kiss. He takes the invitation and smiles into your lips, deepening his kiss with a satisfied hum. A low moan escapes your throat as you swim in this moment most surreal. The world begins to fall away around you both…

“A… ahem.”

A small cough snaps your attention back to the present and you pull away from the Count with a gasp. His face is flushed red, the pupils of his eyes large, dark, and filled with something like hunger. Swallowing, you turn your head to the source of the cough.

Portia stands a few feet away, wringing her hands in front of her.

“Mi-milady sent me looking for you.”

Chapter Text

The door to Count Lucio’s bedchamber swung open with a thick smack.

Count Lucio sat at his desk, scribbling away at a memo. Without turning around, he addressed his visitor.

“I don’t recall ordering room service,” he called out absentmindedly.

“A worm , Lucio?”

Countess Nadia’s voice had a hard edge that few ever heard. Lucio had the unique privilege of hearing it often. A smirk pulled at the corner of Lucio’s lips as he sat up and turned to face his wife. Her steely expression matched the hardness in her voice as she leveled a piercing glare at him, her mouth twisted in an uncharacteristic frown.

“A word? You wanted a word with me, Noddy?”

“I said worm . You know, like the worm you brought to the palace? The worm that wrecked half the grounds? The worm that injured the magician??” Nadia’s voice was cold as ice, and despite trying to play it cool himself, Lucio shuddered.

“Hey now, it wasn’t my worm,” Lucio protested, pressing a hand to his chest. “It was Vlastomil’s!”

“Don’t play dumb with me,” Nadia seethed. “You all but invited him to bring that ridiculous thing. And for what, Lucio? To show off in front of her?”

Lucio sucked on his teeth as he considered her. He did tell Vlastomil that he wanted to display exotic pets at the Masquerade this year. And he might have said, “Say Vlastomil, isn’t that Wiggler of yours an exotic pet? How interesting!” He may have told him where it would be, and perhaps given him the exact time window he knew the magicians would show up. But by the gods, he didn’t explicitly invite him and his dreaded worm to the grounds, certainly not to show the cute magician just how gallantly he can fight against such a hideous beast, making her swoon at his heroic act. Certainly not .

“I may have made a little oopsie,” Lucio said, flashing a grin to hide the fact that he’d just been figured out. 

Nadia let out a frustrated groan and threw her hands up, breaking the composure with which she usually carried herself. She rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers, trying to slow her breath enough to give Lucio more verbal lashings.

“Gods, Lucio, it is just like you to pull a stunt so remarkably ill-thought if it meant you got to look good doing it,” Nadia said, exasperated. “You couldn’t woo her properly, so you had to orchestrate this whole ordeal just to get her attention.”

Lucio balked. “ Excuse me? If I recall clearly, our encounter actually ended in a real kiss , not some send-off peck at the carriage! I’d call that a success! You need to step up your game, Noddy!”

“Oh, was that your goal? Just to get physical?” Nadia’s lip turned up in disgust. “At least I showed her a good time and didn’t nearly get her killed. That’s your problem, Lucio: you’re all flash and no substance.”

“I-I have substance!” The Count protested. “I showed her all my amazing pets! She showed me her amazing magic! M-maybe the worm wasn’t necessary,” he faltered as he admitted it. “But it sure ramped up the action, and you can’t deny my results!”

Somewhere in there, Nadia thought she had heard… an admittance to fault? Lucio conceding to her point? For a split second, she felt herself soften toward him. But the very inclination of doing so angered her more, and she pushed the feeling down, far away where it can’t surface again.

“I bet you couldn’t have gotten that far without that stunt,” Nadia said. She folded her arms and stalked toward him, hips swaying and eyes boring into his. “What’re you going to do next time, hm? Throw her to the vampire eels? Sic your dogs on her? And that’s if you even get a next time.”

“I’ll figure it out!” Lucio huffed, face red with frustration. Nadia smirked, satisfied that she’d managed to render him witless yet again. He had his arms folded across the back of his chair, his face half-hidden behind them, looking like a sulking child. Nadia almost felt sorry for him.

Almost.

“In case you need a reminder,” she resumed, her voice low. “I’m playing for keeps. And I don’t like sharing.”

“Oh look, something else we have in common,” Lucio pouted.

“And here’s some free advice for you,” she continued, stopping and bending at the waist so her face was inches from his. “I’m going to win because I’m going to make it worth her while. Because unlike you, I don’t need to fabricate some kind of danger to play hero for attention. Maybe it is you who needs to step up your game, Lucio.”

Lucio would almost be proud of the sneer that graced Nadia’s face were it not aimed squarely at him. Actually… even then, there was something about it he liked. The embers of a fire he rarely saw in her, even for all the quarrels they’ve had. He held her gaze, the tension between them palpable. So she thinks she has the upper hand, does she? Lucio thought, his eyes searching hers and finding only the fire of competition.

“I don’t know, Nadia,” he said finally, breaking the silence. “Scold me all you want, but from what I experienced, it seems our magician was quite the fan of danger.” He reached up with his golden hand and slowly, tentatively, brushed his knuckles against her cheek. She stiffened, but did not move. He saw her eyes smolder with a quiet fury.

“Perhaps you ought to try my method, too. Introduce a little… danger,” he continued, dragging the back of his metal fingertips down, down her jawline, coming to a rest at her chin. He placed one finger under her chin and tilted her face up ever so slightly. “You’re kinda hot when you’re angry, you know.”

Lucio pulled his hand away from her and let a smile spread slowly across his face. Nadia blinked. Her face had gone redder than he had ever seen. She pulled herself back up to standing and narrowed her eyes at him. She turned on her heel and marched toward the door, regaining her composure with each deliberate step. When she reached the threshold, she paused and turned to look back at him. To any passing servant, she looked like her normal self again—but the look in her eyes betrayed the passion Lucio had seen, the danger he knew she was capable of.

And he couldn’t wait to see how that played out in their little game.

Chapter Text

The days following the incident at the Palace were a blur. The only thing that reassured you that it happened at all was the lingering ache in your shoulder and the nasty scar that resulted from haphazard magical healing.

When Portia had discovered you and the Count, you saw the shock painted clearly on her features, but she had the good grace to recover quickly and rush you into the palace for medical care. Count Lucio tried to follow, but was quite literally dragged away by Vlastomil to deal with the inert Wiggler. You remember the last look on his face before you disappeared beyond the palace doors—a mix of awe and longing. Asra and Countess Nadia had met you and Portia halfway down the hall. Asra immediately began to fuss over your injury, working to stop the bleeding and heal you quickly, while Nadia launched into a full interrogation: What happened? Are you all right, dear? What caused this? Where was Count Lucio? A giant WHAT?! You’d never seen her so worked up before. Asra convinced her to give you space as you healed, and she stormed off in the direction of the outer grounds, muttering something unsavory about her husband.

Nadia had later urged you to stay at the palace while you healed, apologizing profusely about the situation, but both you and Asra took your leave that same day and he tended to your wounds back at the shop. By the time the sun had set on that day, the rumors about a giant worm attack had spread to your district of the city. As you made your way home, passersby eyed you curiously as you walked through, gingerly holding your shoulder.

At Asra’s insistence, you had spent the next few days resting instead of tending to the shop or helping with Masquerade preparations, both of which he went on to do without you. All that time alone had given you plenty of time to think and overthink your bizarre meetings with the Count and Countess of Vesuvia.

Count Lucio had kissed you. Really kissed you, full on the mouth after a rather unexpected battle with a giant worm. Every time you were tempted to think it was a dream, your scarred, aching shoulder reminded you that it all happened. Recalling the memory brought the heat rushing to your face, your lips, your chest, and between your thighs. You found yourself tracing your lips with your fingers, remembering the moment they connected with Lucio’s. Your heart fluttered at the memory. Sometimes, in your reverie, your memory would redirect to the night Nadia had also given you a kiss. You traced that part with your fingers, too.

Could it be that they…?

Every time you had the thought, you shook your head before you could let yourself finish it. No. There’s no way they could both be into you like that. They were royalty, after all, and you were just a common magician, one amongst many in the palace, let alone the city. And besides, even though you and everyone else were well aware of their open arrangement, you never knew them to take the same lover together

Not that you thought they were trying to take you as a lover. Maybe Lucio, with that kiss, but then, it could have really just been a thanks for saving him, and maybe that’s just how they do it in the royal court? Maybe that’s just how he did it?

All your thinking sessions ended this way: with more questions than answers, and a hot fire below your belly that had none of your permission to be there. You’d always gone through your days just fine without having to contend with such base desires, and yet here they were, pestering you on a daily basis.

In order to distract yourself, you threw your efforts into practicing your shield magic. Forcing yourself to focus on the less tantalizing parts of your time at the palace really helped draw the heat away from down south. Your shield was just barely enough to knock out that worm while protecting both you and Lucio, but it could always be stronger, and so could you.

And so, you practiced. And practiced, and practiced, and practiced.

The day finally comes when Asra lets you come back to the Palace with him for more work. He’d seen you practicing and figured that was as good an indication as any that you were itching to get back. The relief you feel from your restlessness is enough to distract you from your thoughts about the Count and Countess until you reach the Palace and suddenly remember whose home you were entering. You swallow hard and will yourself to act as normal as possible.

But the caution isn’t necessary today, for the Count and Countess are nowhere to be seen. Not even Portia is there to greet you. This isn’t particularly unusual—there were always days where you and Asra worked without seeing them as they attended to other aspects of party planning, but considering all that you’ve been through with them, their absence holds greater weight than usual. 

Between rounds of helping with decorations and assisting other magicians with rehearsals, you practice your shield magic with Asra. Under his instruction, your shield had grown considerably stronger, and you’re able to hold it for much longer before you start to wear out.

You are dissipating another shield when you hear a familiar and welcome voice from behind.

“That’s quite the magnificent shield,” Nadia’s voice calls out. You turn quickly to face her. She walks toward you and Asra, hands folded in front of her, smiling serenely. She looks as radiant as ever in a smart riding uniform and jacket, hair done up in a coiled braid atop her head. “I’d heard our dear Count Lucio speak of it after the, erm… worm incident. But I must say, it’s something else to see it in person.”

You will your heart to stop beating so fast as you manage a smile. 

“Nadia,” you say. “It’s good to see you again.”

A hint of a blush touches her cheeks. “I’m… glad you think so. It is good to see you, too.”

For a moment, she flits her gaze between you and Asra.

“May I borrow her for the rest of the day, Asra?” She says, gesturing casually to me.

Asra and I exchange a look. He smiles and shrugs, waving me away.

“Take as much time as you like,” he says. “I can handle things from here.”

Nadia holds her arm out expectantly. The warmth of her expression melts away the anxiety you felt earlier, and you gingerly take the invitation to link your arm in hers. Together, the two of you walk out and into the hallway.

“How is your shoulder, dear?” She asks.

“Much better now,” you reply. “Asra basically forced me into bedrest, so I’m all recovered.”

“Good,” she says simply. “You’ll be needing your strength for what I’m about to ask of you.”

Your unasked question hangs in the air between you as the Countess navigates you both down another hall before finally coming to a stop in front of a large set of double doors. She pulls out a single key and unlocks the door, pushing it open. The heavy door groans and a soft rush of air greets you as you and Nadia enter a spacious room. The room is much simpler than the others in the palace, sparsely decorated and with minimal furnishing. The floor here is different as well, all polished wood lightened in strips on one side of the room.

“This is our training room,” Nadia says, turning to lock the door. She releases your arm and makes her way to the far wall, where she opens a closet door and fishes for something inside. “We use it to practice dances for banquets and such, as well as other recreational activities.” She pulls a thin training rapier from the closet, holding it up for your mutual inspection. The sight of her in a smart uniform holding a sword was doing things to you that you could never admit in polite company.

But perhaps Nadia was not looking to be polite company today.

“I’ve been watching you work on that shield of yours between shifts,” she says, swishing the sword back and forth in the air with all the grace of a trained duelist. She brings the sword down at her side and steps toward you. “Perhaps you’d like to practice it in a more appropriate setting.”

A smirk plays across her lips as she makes her way toward one end of a lighter-colored strip on the floor and raises her sword in a ready stance. She looks stunning and regal. With the tip of her sword, she points to the other end of the strip, and you obey her silent command to take your place there, shedding your coat without being told. The fine hairs on the back of your neck bristle with excitement and anticipation of what’s to come. Perhaps the Countess inviting you to duel with her should strike you as odd, but by now you’ve learned not to question the eccentricities of royalty—and you couldn’t resist the idea of practicing your shield in action, and seeing her engage in a different setting than you’re used to.

“Ready your shield,” she says quietly now, her voice dropping low as she brings her sword back up. “I’m going to come at you.”

You raise your hands up and call your magic to them, materializing a shield in front of yourself. Nadia launches forward, her sword glinting in the light as it flashes toward you. You clench your fists and brace for impact, tilting your head down and away. You feel something sharp rap against the side of your thigh and you look down, startled. Nadia is before you in a low lunge, the tip of her practice sword tapped at your leg

“Bracing like a wall may have worked on the worm,” she says, standing again. “But I can assure you I’m much faster and more clever.” She reaches up with her free hand and uses her gloved finger to tip your chin up so that you’re looking her full in the face. Heat floods your cheeks as she levels a stern gaze at you.

“Pay attention to me,” she says. “Move with me. React to my attacks accordingly. A shield is nothing if it isn’t defending you properly.” With that, she turns on her heel and walks back to the other end. You ready yourself, bending behind your shield, as she raises her sword once more.

“Again.”

Nadia lunges forth and this time, your eyes lock onto her approach. The ferocity of her movement sends a shiver through your body but you will yourself to remain flexible, your shield at the ready. Just before reaching you, she leans slightly to the side and twists her sword askew, aiming just off your shield. You guide your shield in the direction of her attack. A loud clang sings in the air as her sword deflects. Just as quickly, the Countess twists to your other side and counters with a thrust. You stumble back and bring your shield up just in time to meet her again.

“Good, good!” She calls out. “You’re getting it!”

You regain your footing as she hits you with a new volley of attacks, each one met with a satisfying clang as your magic shield makes contact. By the time she halts, you’re still in a low stance, braced behind your shield.

“Good stance,” she remarks between soft huffs of breath. “Are you sure you’ve never dueled before?”

“I haven’t,” you say, panting. “I mean to say, I haven’t really… done battle before,” you say sheepishly, chewing your lip before continuing. “I-I saw Count Lucio bend like this. You know, when he fought the worm.”

The Countess stills, fixing you with an unreadable stare. For a moment, you assume the round is over, and begin dissipating your shield. With a sharp inhale, Nadia whips her sword back and runs at you, but her approach is different from before: her sword is held high and back, her movements telegraphed more obviously than before. You quickly start bringing back your shield, but she’s in front of you in an instant. She brings her sword down in a sharp arc, splitting your unfinished shield in two. Shocked, you surge your magic to your hands in a powerful burst, forming two smaller shields that hover over each of your hands. You bring them up defensively, heart pounding in your ears. A deep, throaty laugh escapes Nadia that you’ve never heard before.

“Such quick thinking!” She exclaims, advancing on you again. “I see my husband wasn’t exaggerating when he said your skills were most impressive!”

She swings her sword up from below and you parry it away with one shielded hand, bringing your other up to guard against her next attack. Nadia swings her sword without stopping, forcing you to retreat further back into the room. You can feel your magic weakening but urge it to stay strong as thoughts run wildly through your head. 

Did I say something wrong? Was it what I said about Lucio? Does she know that we…?

Your back hits the cold wall and you raise your hands up, shields flickering. But the next attack doesn’t come. Nadia stands before you, sword pointed down, panting as she looks you in the eye. Her hair is disheveled from your sparring and beads of sweat dot her forehead and temples. Despite all that, she’s still strikingly beautiful. You catch the faint scent of jasmine, mixed with the musk of her sweat. Slowly, you lower your hands, letting the magic leave your fingers as the shields disappear. Now you begin to notice just how close Nadia is to you, and the proximity brings a fresh heat to your lower abdomen. Your eyes dart from her eyes, still fiery from your session, down to her plump lips, parted slightly from the effort of her breathing. They curl into a smile as she catches you staring.

“Are you all right, darling?”

She reaches up with her free hand and cups your chin, turning your face this way and that. You’re sweating from all the sparring, and your arms are shaking slightly. You try to slow your breathing, but the pounding of your heart only increases as Nadia comes closer. There’s a tension in the air between you, a slight unease. You can feel her concern, but cannot forget the change in her demeanor after you mentioned Lucio. Swallowing hard, you decide to address it.

“Um, Nadia,” you say thickly, your head still in her hand. “Are you… mad at me? About… about Count Lucio?”

For a moment, Nadia is startled. Her eyes search yours and her gaze softens. She releases your chin and moves to caress your cheek—a move that brings you back to the first lunch you had together. She keeps her hand on your cheek and softly brushes it with her thumb. 

“I’m not angry with you,” she says softly. “But I do wish my husband had better manners. That’s no way to show someone such as yourself the appreciation you deserve.” She pauses, biting her lip as she regards you. Her voice comes out lower, barely a whisper.

“Will you let me show you how it’s done?”

A pause. Your body is taut as a bowstring, ringing with tension, itching to be unwound. You know what she means. You know the implications. 

Slowly, you nod.

Nadia winds her hand around the back of your head, pulling you toward her and capturing your mouth in a searing kiss. The softness of her lips upon yours contrasts sharply with the urgency with which she moves against you, hand twisting in your hair, teeth grazing your lower lip. You release the kiss to let out a low moan and feel her smile against your mouth. The sword drops from her grasp with a clatter and she brings her other hand up to cup your face as she dives in again, deepening your kiss, her tongue darting out to meet yours. Instinctively you snake your hands up her sides, feeling her tremble in response. She moves in closer and slowly presses more of her body against yours, ending with her knee nestled between your thighs. A hot bolt of arousal shoots through your body straight from your core and you twist your head away to gasp and moan.

“You poor dear,” Nadia breathes into your ear, planting kisses along your jawline. “Looks like I’ve really worked you up today. Allow me to make it up to you.”

She grabs you by the hips and guides you to a nearby chaise. She pushes you down upon it firmly and moves her hands up to undo your top as she presses her knee into your crotch, lighting up every nerve in your body as you swell with heat at her urgent touch. Instinctively you start grinding your hips against her in small, awkward circles, your body pleading to be touched right there , right where you need, where you’ve needed for days and weeks. Your desperation elicits a low chuckle from her as she picks off her gloves, shrugs off her jacket, and undoes her undergarments, sending her breasts spilling forth from their trappings. You’ve barely noticed that she had already stripped your upper half nude, too distracted by the sight of her, the smell of her, the feel of her soft, warm skin against yours.

Nadia sits up, planted firmly between your legs, and pauses to take in the sight of you. Her smile is intoxicated and intoxicating, her fingers ghosting lightly over your sides as you look up at her.

“So beautiful,” she murmurs, leaning down caress your cheeks with feather light kisses. You turn your head this way and that to reach her, responding with kisses of your own, still tentative, still somewhat unable to believe you’re with the Countess like this.

“I’ve wanted this for quite some time, you know,” she sighs, idly massaging the dip of your waist as she nuzzles your cheek with her nose. “I’d ask if you feel the same, but…” She snakes her hand down to your inner thigh, raking her fingernails up and sending shivers up and down your spine. “...I think I can tell just fine.”

Nadia dips her head to plant kisses down your body, stopping to take one of your nipples into her mouth. She swirls it with her tongue, massaging your breasts as she does so. Dizzy with arousal, you move your hands up to stroke her hair, encouraging her with strokes and moans and whispers of her name. She continues traveling south, marking you with small kisses and bites and trails of licks from her eager tongue. Her fingers move down and she hooks her fingers around your waistband to pull down your bottoms, underclothes and all, in a single motion. When the cool air hits your hot, wet groin, you hiss and moan, tilting your hips up instinctively, begging.

For a moment there is no further movement from her, only the piercing stare she fixes upon you as she watches you squirm. Delight dances in her eyes as she rakes her gaze over your naked body, glistening with sweat, shivering beneath her in anticipation, open, vulnerable, needy. With both hands, she grips your knees and drags her tight grasp up your thighs, massaging them, dragging sharp gasps of air from you as you ache to be touched where they meet.

“Tell me what you want,” says Nadia.

Your voice catches in your throat and whatever you wanted to say comes out as a strangled whine. You look her full in the face and think of all the times she sidled up close to you, the gifts, the touches, the lunch date, that first kiss. She wanted you. She really wanted you.

“You,” comes your reply, voice barely above a whisper.

Nadia spreads your legs apart and leans down, locking her eyes with yours. The sight of her is hypnotizing as she parts her lips to run the flat of her tongue along your slit, cautiously at first, watching for your reaction. Your eyes roll back in your head as you finally get the attention just where you craved. Her tongue sweeps in and out of your folds, exploring every inch of you, lapping up your arousal and making you wetter all at once. You find it difficult to keep your eyes open and locked with hers as ecstasy washes over you in delicious waves. Her tongue finds the sensitive bud of your clit and rolls around it lazily in wide sweeps, drawing a high-pitched whine from your throat as your hips buck of their own accord. Taking advantage of your open mouth, Nadia reaches up and presses two fingers against your lips expectantly. You take them into your mouth greedily, sucking them sloppily between pants and moans, feeling your own saliva drip from your mouth down her fingers. She removes her fingers, leaving you panting once more, and then you feel them pressing lightly at your entrance.

“Na… Nadia,” you groan, rolling your hips forward. “Please… please…

You feel her long fingers glide into your opening, slick with your saliva and arousal. When she reaches the edge she pulls them back to start again. Her tongue flattens against the hood of your clit, pressing it with a rhythm that matches the pace of her fingers as they pump in and out of your hot, aching slit. Your breath hitches in your throat as you gasp, rolling your hips in time with her. Your vision is hazy, your body attuned only to her and the incredible things she’s doing to you. She slides up to lay at your side, fingers still deep inside you, and offers her mouth to you. You crane your neck upward to meet her in a sloppy kiss. The taste of your own arousal on her lips and tongue sends new sensations flooding through your body, threatening to send you over the edge.

As if reading your mind, Nadia teases another finger at your opening before thrusting it in, using her thumb to press against your hooded clit, still sensitive from earlier. You cry out at the rush of stimulation, tears stinging your eyes as you feel your climax build. You faintly hear Nadia panting against your ear, panting your name, her voice thick with hunger and lust.

“Come for me,” she whispers, curling her fingers inside you.

Her word is a plea and a command all at once, one you obey readily as your climax rips through your body, unraveling you from your core. Your back arches, pressing your breasts against hers, skin sliding against slick skin as you ride wave after wave of your intoxicating release. Nadia is still gently sliding her fingers in and out of you, letting you ride out your climax around her like a storm only she can command. She rolls her thumb in small circles around your clit, slowing as you sink down into the soft cushion of the chaise, exhausted and spent.

You’re unsure of how much time passes. You’re afloat in a haze of post-coital warmth, the whole world faded around you save for Nadia’s hand gently caressing your hair as she holds you by the waist. Her touch is like an anchor back to the world, and when you finally blink your eyes open, you see her smiling down at you with fondness, her eyes dancing with affection.

“And that,” she says softly, “is how that’s done.”

Chapter Text

After Nadia had borrowed you for the rest of the day, she took you for the rest of the night, too. You were in no state to return to Masquerade preparations, and the thought of letting Asra see you like that was mortifying. Nadia sent word that you would be staying with her at the Palace for the night and that was that.

She had fed you, teased you, pleasured you some more, and you took your own turn at awkwardly pleasuring her as well (she’d laughed at the way you babbled your apologies). Your nervous hands had shaken with reverence and lust as you explored her body, learning how to draw out those delicious keens and moans from her husky, sex-drunk voice.

Morning comes, and you stir awake as you feel the soft bed beneath you shift. You blink away the haze of sleep to see Nadia seated at the edge of the bed, donning a robe that she’d discarded the night before. As you prop yourself up on one elbow, she turns around to face you. An affectionate smile lights up her face.

“Good morning, dear,” she says softly, tying the robe around her waist. “Did you sleep well?”

You nod sheepishly, rubbing your eyes. You suddenly become very aware of your nakedness and casually pull the edge of the sheet up your chest. Nadia chuckles at the gesture and leans forward to pull your hand out of the way, letting the sheet fall back to the bed. She plants her lips upon yours in a soft kiss as she caresses the curve of your breast.

“No need to be shy around me anymore,” she purrs. She leans in to deepen the kiss, stirring you awake with flickers of pleasure sparking down below your belly. Before you could reach up to hold her, she pulls away.

“I’m afraid I can’t be greedy with you this morning,” she says, eyeing your body with desire. “Due to yesterday’s… events, I’m afraid I must work to catch up on what I had missed.” Nadia smiles at you fondly. “You understand, yes?”

You nod. Despite your new… standing with her, the knowledge that she was several classes above you was never far from your mind. You simply feel privileged enough to be here.

“You may stay as long as you like,” she says, leaving the bed to change behind an ornate divider. “I will try to return for lunch, at which you may of course join me if you are still here.” You can hear the smile in her voice.

When she exits the divider, she is once again regal, sophisticated Nadia, Countess of Vesuvia. She is dressed in exquisite finery, all silks and jewels that catch the light and enhance her radiance. Poised as ever, she strides back to you and kisses your cheek. She gives you a little wave before leaving the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

As soon as she leaves, you flop back down onto the bed. Alone with your thoughts, you slowly take inventory of the events that happened leading up to this. Nadia must have become interested in you before your lunch, judging by her actions in hindsight and the way she told you she’s “wanted this for a long time.” The very thought makes you shiver. The lunch, the kiss, the practice fight… the last one gives you pause. Had she planned on seducing you this way? It seemed a little unlike her—not that it didn’t work, but you’d always known her to be more gentle and serene. There was a hint of danger to her then, masked by the intention to help you with your shield, and it took you by surprise. It reminded you a little of…

Count Lucio. Your cheeks flush at the thought of him, as though you’re afraid Nadia can somehow hear you thinking about him. You hadn’t forgotten him, even though he hasn’t tried to reach you since the worm incident. Just the other day you had wondered if he was the one interested in pursuing you, but now you think you may have misread the situation. You chew your lip, deep in thought, as you lie tangled in silk sheets.

Suddenly, the door to the bedchamber bursts open with a loud crack .

“Noddy, you CHEATED!”

The booming sound of Count Lucio’s voice cuts through the still morning air like a sword. You hear his boots clacking on the floor and alarm bells fire off wildly in your head.

“Swordplay was my thing and you used it on her? That’s TOTALLY unfair, I can’t believe you! This game isn’t fun anymo—”

Before you could scramble into a decent hiding spot, Lucio stops right at the foot of the bed. The sheets are tangled in your fist, twisted around your body but not completely covering it. A heated blush crawls its way up your neck as you uselessly try to smooth the sheets over yourself. Count Lucio stares at you in shock, his eyes darting down to your body and back up to your face, as though searching for any answer but the obvious.

“I—oh—hi,” he stutters, a blush tinting his pale face. “I was… Nadia, I was looking…”

You sink lower into the bed, willing yourself to disappear.

Lucio bites his lip, his eyes glistening. With one last look, he turns on his heel and marches back out. You hear the echo of his boots pounding on the floor as he storms out, the sound of the door slamming shut, and then silence.

*

You leave shortly after Lucio does. You hardly remember picking up your things and hastily tugging on your clothes as you hurry out of the Palace. You exit through the back doors of Nadia’s bedchambers, trying your best to avoid contact with anybody . The only thing you can focus on as you rush back to the shop is putting one foot in front of the other, never stopping until you reach the shop door.

You wave your hand to dispel the magic seal on the door just as Asra opens it from the other side.

“Oh,” he says with a start. “You’re back! I thought you’d still be at the Palace, I was going to meet you there. Today we’re helping the acrobats with their—”

“I’m not doing Masquerade prep today,” you say hurriedly. Asra’s brow furrows. Quickly, you give him a small, reassuring smile, hoping he wouldn’t pry further.

“I’m tending to the shop instead,” you tell him. “I’ve had some folks complain that we weren’t around enough, what with the Masquerade prep and all.” You fiddle with the strap of your bag, waiting for Asra to accept your excuse and go. He searches you with a gaze and you do your best to meet his eyes with what you hope comes across as sincerity and not desperation. Finally, he nods once, humming in agreement.

“Good call,” he says. “I’m sure you could use a break from the Palace anyway, seeing as you were there all day yesterday.”

You respond with a chuckle a little too quickly. 

Asra opens the door wide, gesturing for you to enter as he steps out to leave. You gratefully head inside the shop and shut the door behind you, pinning your back to it. You breathe in the familiar scents of dried herbs and incense and sigh wistfully, happy to be home, away from Palace drama where you can think calmly and clearly.

However, when you think about what Lucio had said, his words are anything but clear and you are anything but calm.

He clearly wasn’t expecting you there in Nadia’s room, and he had called her a “cheater.” You swallow hard, remembering the accusation. That doesn’t make sense though , you think to yourself, literally everybody knows their marriage is open . It didn’t make sense in the context of what he said next, either: “Swordplay was my thing and you used it on her ” and “this game isn’t fun anymore.” Swordplay? Game? Was he referring to your training session? How much did he know about that… and what transpired after?

You heave a frustrated sigh and release yourself from the door to put on some tea. The stove salamander stirs from its slumber as you gently coax it to heat the kettle. As it does, you take a stick of incense and light it on the salamander’s flames. When a small stream of smoke emerges from its tip, you place the stick on a holder and let its scent waft around the room. You pull out a jar of your favorite loose leaf tea and set it in a cup for yourself as you wait for the water to boil.

Before it could finish, you hear the light jingle of a bell as the shop door opens. You straighten up, smoothing the front of your top down as you instinctively flash your best customer service smile. Although your excuse to Asra was mostly just that—an excuse—you find yourself glad to be serving customers once again. You easily slip back into the role of magic shopkeep and settle there comfortably.

Word must have spread around your corner of the city, because after the first customer comes in, a steady stream of people make their way through your shop. Some bought various herbs, wares, and tarot reading sessions, but most came your way to gossip about happenings at the Palace. Is it true Count Lucio slayed a giant worm? Were you there? How is the Masquerade coming along? Could you tell us anything that’ll be there this year?   You field the questions with ease, careful not to spill any pertinent details and leaving most up to speculation and rumor.

The stream of customers slows to a trickle as the sun hangs low in the sky, hovering just above the horizon line, painting the clouds a dusty pink. After a significant amount of time passes without customers, you decide to close up shop for the day. The bolts slide and click into place as you lock the door. You nudge the stove salamander awake again, apologizing as you do, and get another pot of water boiling. The cup you’d filled with tea leaves earlier sits waiting for you on the counter, and when the water is hot enough, you pour it in, watching the leaves swirl in dark patterns.

When the tea is finished, you take the hot cup in your hands and drink it in, letting your eyes flutter shut. The familiar sensations of home fill you with a sense of tranquility that sinks deep into your bones, and you realize that you hadn’t felt this calm in a while. Ever since the incidents at the Palace had started, your mind and body had been put through the ringer as you navigated through bizarre situations with the Count and Countess.

Halfway through your tea, you pause to consider this. This all started with Nadia’s date . Nadia had been paying attention to you before then, sure, but after that day, everything else started happening so quickly: the date, Lucio’s cloak, the kiss, the worm incident, the other kiss, Nadia, Nadia , Lucio…

“This game isn’t fun anymore!”

The memory of his words echo sharply in your mind and you nearly choke on your drink.

Cheating.

Swordplay.

“My thing.”

Game…

The brief moment of calm you enjoyed is replaced with a quickened heartbeat and a hot blush driven by anger and embarrassment. Game . They are… toying with you, somehow. You’re not sure how yet, but the more you think of it, the closer it feels to a truth you didn’t know was being concealed. You set down your tea and pace around the shop, running Lucio’s words through your mind over and over, trying to match them up with all the incidents at the Palace. He talked of swordplay, and Nadia dueled me after Lucio battled the worm. She had changed when I mentioned copying his battle stance. And then we…

A faint whisper of magic tugs at the outer edge of your senses, putting a stop to your pacing. You still, straining as if to catch the last echoes of a far-off melody. There . You turn your head and your eyes land upon the tarot deck sitting neatly upon the round table in the curtained alcove where you gave readings. Slowly, you walk toward it, feeling the hum of magic grow stronger. Strange , you think. It didn’t do this earlier, and I’ve been giving readings to customers all day.

You seat yourself at the table and shuffle the cards. You feel its energy dance in your hands with renewed vigor. Perhaps… perhaps they have an answer for you and the situation you’re facing now. Perhaps the Arcana can give you direction. You draw in a deep breath, willing your body to find peace once again as you focus your thoughts. Magical instinct tells you when to stop shuffling and when to cut the deck into three. Carefully, you peel the top card away from the first deck representing the past.

The Devil. Your chest tightens. The Devil is a frightening card, but you know it holds meaning beyond its appearance. You sense him whispering to you, a thick, oily feeling that sends a shiver down your spine. 

Powerlessness. You had no power here, and you had no choice

Like a truth you didn't know was being concealed. 

You had the feeling, and this confirms it. The truth of it strums your magic sense like a harmonious chord and you feel the Devil’s agreement as you stare down at the Arcana’s red eyes, gleaming through its illustration.

You turn your attention toward the center deck that represents the present. Pressing your fingers atop the deck, you flip the top card over.

The Lovers . You nearly scoff at how obvious the card is, but something about pulls at your magic senses. Like The Devil, The Lovers represent more than what it seems on the surface. The Lovers can represent unity, attractiveness, and harmony in relationships. But the card before you tugs further at your magic, urging you to think deeper. Another meaning behind The Lovers is the concept of choice, particularly one between opposing forces. You feel a sense of rightness flood you as you land on this meaning and know right away that this is what The Lovers are trying to tell you: you face a choice between two things, and they are mutually exclusive.

Nadia and Lucio.

The thought settles into your bones, weighty and true. You chew your lip worriedly. The past told you that you had no choice and were powerless, and the present tells you that you now have a choice to make. It could be that your wild speculations were true—that they were both trying to pursue you, and had somehow made a game of it. The thought turns your stomach and sends a surge of heat crawling up your neck. You feel deeply flattered, embarrassed, and indignant all at once. You can’t wrap your head around the idea that both of them are trying to woo you and competing at it behind your back. You can’t wrap your head around the idea that you’d have to choose between them.

Your hand trembles slightly as you reach for the top card of the last deck: the future. The past told you what was, the present told you what is, and this card will tell you what is to come. You feel its energy, steady and strong, ready for you to pick it up and heed its message.

The Hierophant, Reversed . Your brow furrows as you stare at the card quizzically. The Hierophant didn’t show up often in your readings, especially not reversed, and when it did it didn’t say much. But now you can feel its message, solid and clear: The Hierophant Reversed speaks of rebellion, subversiveness, and regaining control through new approaches. Though the message is clear, you can’t seem to pick up on how this relates to your situation. The other two were rather obvious, but this? And you thought The Magician was vague.

Regain control. Think outside the box. Victory awaits those who choose the unorthodox path .

First you were powerless and without choice. Now, you are at a crossroads, set to make a decision between two things. But the future holds victory gained through unorthodox means, a fervent urging to buck tradition and do what is right for yourself. What could this possibly mean for you, Nadia, and Lucio? What other choice is there than to choose one or the other?

As you ponder over the final card, a sharp knock echoes from the door and sends you jumping from your seat in surprise. You frown. Didn’t they know you had closed early for the day? You glance outside the window and see that there is still light outside, barely dusk, and decide one last customer couldn’t hurt. The chair scrapes noisily against the floor as you get up to greet your last visitor. You undo the locks one by one and swing open the door.

There outside your shop, haloed by the setting sun, stands Count Lucio himself.