THE WIZARD HAD RETURNED.
Phury closed his eyes and let his head fall back against his headboard. Ah, hell, what was he saying. The wizard had never left.
Mate, sometimes you take the piss out of me, the dark voice in his head drawled. You truly do. After all we've been together?
All they'd been together... wasn't that the truth.
The wizard was the cause of Phury's driving need for red smoke, always in his head, always hammering about what he hadn't done, what he should have done, what he could have done better.
Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.
Cute rhyme. The reality was that one of the Ring-wraiths from The Lord of the Rings drove him to the red smoke sure as if the bastard hog-tied him and threw him in the back of a car.
Actually, mate, you'd be the front bumper.
In his mind's eye, the wizard appeared in the form of a Ring-wraith standing in the midst of a vast gray wasteland of skulls and bones. In its proper British accent, the bastard made sure that Phury never forgot his failures, the pounding litany causing him to light up again and again just so he didn't go into his gun closet and eat the muzzle of a forty.
You didn't save him. You didn't save them. The curse was brought upon them all by you. The fault is yours... the fault is yours...
Phury reached for another blunt and lit it with his gold lighter.
He was what they called in the Old Country the exhile dhoble.
The second twin. The evil twin.
Born three minutes after Zsadist, Phury's live birth had brought the curse of imbalance to the family. Two noble sons, both born breathing, was too much good fortune, and sure enough, balance had been wrought: Within months, his twin had been stolen from the family, sold into slavery, and abused for a century in every manner possible.
Thanks to his sick bitch mistress, Zsadist was scarred on his face and his back and his wrists and neck. Scarred worse on the inside.
Phury opened his eyes. Rescuing his twin's physical body hadn't gone far enough; it had taken the miracle of Bella to resurrect Z's soul, and now she was in danger. If they lost her...
Then all is proper and the balance remains intact for the next generation, the wizard said. You don't honestly think your twin will reap the blessing of a live birth? You shall have children beyond measure. He shall have none. That is the way of the balance.
Oh, and I'm taking his shellan, too, did I mention that?
Phury picked up the remote and turned up "Che Gelida Manina."
Didn't work. The wizard liked Puccini. The Ring-wraith just started to waltz around the field of skeletons, its boots crushing what was underfoot, its heavy arms swaying with elegance, its black shredded robes like the mane of a stallion throwing its regal head. Against a vast horizon of soulless gray, the wizard waltzed and laughed.
So. Fucked. Up.
Without looking, Phury reached over to the bedside table for his bag of red smoke and his rolling papers. He didn't have to measure the distance. He was the rabbit who knew where its pellets were.
While the wizard whooped it up to La Boh¨¨me, Phury rolled up two fatties so he could keep his chain going, and he smoked while he readied his reinforcements. As he exhaled, what left his lips smelled like coffee and chocolate, but to put a dull on the wizard, he would have used the stuff even if it had been like burning trash in the nose.
Hell, he was getting to the point where lighting up a whole fucking Dumpster would have been fine and dandy if it could get him some peace.
I can't believe you don't value our relationship more, the wizard said.
Phury focused on the drawing in his lap, the one he'd been working on for the last half hour. After he did a quick catch-up review, he dipped the tip of his quill into the sterling silver pot he had balanced against his hip. The pool of ink inside looked like the blood of his enemies, with its dense, oily sheen. On the paper, though, it was a deep reddish brown, not a vile black.
He would never use black to depict someone he loved. Bad luck.
Besides, the sanguinary ink was precisely the color of the highlights in Bella's mahogany hair. So it fit his subject.
Phury carefully shaded the sweep of her perfect nose, the fine lashes of the quill crisscrossing one another until the density was correct.
Ink drawing was a lot like life: One mistake and the whole thing was ruined.
Damn it. Bella's eye wasn't quite up to par.
Curling his forearm around so he didn't drag his wrist through the new ink he'd laid, he tried to fix what was wrong, shaping the lower lid so the curve of it was more angled. His strokes marked up the sheet of Crane paper nicely enough. But the eye still wasn't working.
Yeah, not right, and he should know, considering how much time he'd spent drawing her over the last eight months.
The wizard paused in mid-pli¨¦ and pointed out that this pen-and-ink routine was a shitty thing to do. Drawing your twin's pregnant shellan. Honestly.
Only a right sodding bastard would get fixated on a female who was taken by his twin. And yet you have. You must be so proud of yourself, mate.
Yeah, the wizard had always had a British accent for some reason.
Phury took another drag and tilted his head to the side to see if a change in viewing angle would help. Nope. Still not right. And neither was the hair, actually. For some reason he'd drawn Bella's long, dark hair in a chignon, with wisps tickling her cheeks. She always wore it down.
Whatever. She was beyond lovely anyway, and the rest of her face was as he usually depicted her: Her loving stare was to the right, her lashes silhouetted, her gaze showing a combination of warmth and devotion.
Zsadist sat to her right at meals. So that his fighting hand was free.
Phury never drew her with her eyes looking out at him. Which made sense. In real life, he never drew her stare, either. She was in love with his twin, and he wouldn't have changed that, not for all his longing for her.
The scope of his drawing ran from the top of her chignon to the top of her shoulders. He never drew her pregnant belly. Pregnant females were never depicted from the breastbone down. Again, bad luck. As well as a reminder of what he feared most.
Deaths on the birthing bed were common.
Phury ran his fingertips down her face, avoiding that nose, where the ink was still drying. She was lovely, even with the eye that wasn't right, and the hair that was different, and the lips that were less full.
This was done. Time to start another.
Moving down to the base of the drawing, he started the curl of the ivy at the curve of her shoulder. First one leaf, then a growing stem...now more leaves, curling and thickening, covering up her neck, crowding against her jaw, lip-ping up to her mouth, unfurling over her cheeks.
Back and forth to the ink jar. Ivy overtaking her. Ivy covering the tracks of his quill, hiding his heart and the sin that lived in it.
It was hardest for him to cover her nose. That was always the last thing he did, and when he could avoid it no longer, he felt his lungs burn as if it were him who would no longer be free to breathe.
When the ivy had won out over the image, Phury wadded up the paper and tossed it into the brass wastepaper basket across his bedroom.
What month was it now... August? Yeah, August. Which would be... She had a good year left of the pregnancy, assuming she could hold it. Like a lot of females, she was already on bed rest because preterm labor was a big concern.
Stabbing out the tail end of his blunt, he reached for one of the two he'd just made and realized he'd smoked them.
Stretching out his one whole leg, he put his lap easel to the side and brought his survival kit back over: a plastic Baggie of red smoke, a thin packet of rolling papers, and his chunky gold lighter. It was the work of a moment to roll up a freshie, and as he drew in the first hit, he measured his stash.
Shit, it was thin. Very thin.
The steel shutters rising from the windows calmed him out. Night, in all its sunless glory, had fallen, the arrival bringing freedom from the Brotherhood's mansion... and the ability to get to his dealer, Rehvenge.
Shifting the leg that had no foot or calf off the bed, he reached for his prosthesis, plugged it on below his right knee, and stood up. He was toasted enough so the air around him felt like something he had to wade through and the window he headed toward seemed miles away. But it was all good. He was comforted by the familiar haze, eased by the sensation of floating as he walked naked across his room.
The garden down below was resplendent, lit by the glow from the library's bank of French doors.
This was what a back vista should look like, he thought. All the flowers blooming with health, the fruit trees fat with pears and apples, the pathways clear, the boxwood clipped.
It was not like the one he had grown up with. Not at all.
Right beneath his window, the tea roses were in full bloom, their fat, rainbow-hued heads held up proudly on their thorned spines. The roses brought his train of thought to another female.
As Phury inhaled again, he pictured his female, the one who he rightfully should be drawing... the one who, according to law and custom, he should be doing a hell of a lot more to than sketching.
The Chosen Cormia. His First Mate.
Man, how the hell had he ended up Primale to the Chosen?
I told you, the wizard answered. You're going to have children beyond measure, all of whom shall have the enduring joy of looking up to a father whose only accomplishment has been letting everyone around him down.
Okay, nasty as the bastard could be, that was a hard point to argue. He hadn't mated with Cormia as ritual required. He hadn't been back to the Other Side to see the Directrix. He hadn't met the other thirty-nine females he was supposed to lay with and impregnate.
Phury smoked harder, the weight of those big-ass nothings landing on his head, flaming boulders launched by the wizard.
The wizard had excellent trajectory. Then again, he'd had a lot of practice.
Well, now, mate, you're an easy target. That's all there is about that.
At least Cormia wasn't complaining about the dereliction of duties. She hadn't wanted to be First Mate, had been forced into the role: On the day of the ritual, she'd had to be tied down on the ceremonial bed, splayed out for his use like an animal, utterly terrified.
The moment he'd seen her he'd gone into his default setting, which was full savior mode. He'd brought her here to the Black Dagger Brotherhood's mansion and put her in the bedroom next to his. Tradition or not, there was no way in hell he was forcing himself on a female, and he figured that if they had some space and time to get to know each other it would be easier.
Yeah... no. Cormia had kept to herself, while he went about his daily business of trying to keep from imploding. Over the last five months, they were no closer to each other or a bed. Cormia rarely spoke and showed her face only at meals. If she went outside of her room, it was just to the library for books.
In her long white robe, she was more like a jasmine-scented shadow than anything made of flesh and bone.
The shameful truth of it was, though, he was okay with the way things were. He'd thought he'd been fully aware of the sexual commitment he was making when he took Vishous's place as the Primale, but the reality was far more daunting than the concept had been. Forty females. Forty.
He must have lost his damn mind when he stepped in for V. God knew, his one shot at trying to lose his virginity hadn't been a party¡ªand that had even been with a professional. Although maybe trying things out with a whore had been part of the problem.
But who the hell else did he have to go to? He was a two-hundred -year-old clueless celibate. How was he supposed to climb on top of lovely, fragile Cormia, pound into her until he came, and then hightail it to the Chosen's Sanctuary and make like Bill Paxton in Big Love?
What the hell had he been thinking?
Phury put his blunt between his lips and jacked up the window. As the summer night's thick perfume rolled into his room, he refocused on the roses. He'd caught Cormia with one the other day, one she'd evidently taken from the bouquet Fritz kept in the second-floor sitting room. She'd been poised next to the vase, the pale lavender rose between two of her long fingers, her head bent down to the bud, her nose hovering over the fat bloom. Her blond hair, which was as always up in a twist on her head, had let loose delicate wisps that fell forward and curved in a natural curl. Just like the rose's petals.
She'd jumped when she caught him staring at her, put the rose back, and quickly gone to her room, the door shutting without a sound.
He knew he couldn't keep her here forever, away from all she was familar with and all that she was. And they had to complete the sexual ceremony. That was the deal he'd made, and that was the role that she'd told him, no matter how scared she'd been at first, she was prepared to fulfill.
He looked over to his bureau, to a heavy gold medallion that was the size of a large fountain pen. Marked with an ancient version of the Old Language, it was the symbol of the Primale: not just the key to all the buildings on the Other Side, but the calling card of the male who was in charge of the Chosen.
The strength of the race, as the Primale was known.
The medallion had rung again today as it had rung before. Whenever the Directrix wanted him, the thing vibrated, and theoretically he was supposed to poof his ass to what should have been his home, the Sanctuary. He'd ignored the summons. As he had the other two.
He didn't want to hear what he already knew: Five months without sealing the deal on the Primale ceremony was pushing it.
He thought of Cormia holed up in that guest room next door, keeping to herself. No one to talk to. Away from her sisters. He'd tried to reach out to her, but he made her jumpy as hell. Understandably.
God, he had no idea how she passed the hours without going mad. She needed a friend. Everyone needed friends.
Not everyone deserves them, however, the wizard pointed out.
Phury turned and headed for the shower. As he passed by the wastepaper basket, he stopped. His drawing had begun to unravel from the ball he'd wadded it into, and within the crinkled mess, he saw the ivy overlay he'd added. For a split second, he remembered what was underneath, recalled the upswept hair and the wisps that fell on a smooth cheek. Wisps that had the same curl as a rose's petals.
Shaking his head, he kept going. Cormia was lovely, but¡ª
Wanting her would be appropriate, the wizard finished. So why in a million years would you go down that road. Might ruin your perfect record of accomplishments.
Oh, wait, that would be fuckups, mate. Wouldn't it.
Phury cranked up Puccini and hit the shower.
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