The clock next to phury ticked over so that the digital readout formed a pattern of toothpicks: eleven eleven in the morning.
He checked his stash. It was getting a little low, and even as cooked as he was, he got a case of the cardio-shimmies. As he worked the math, he tried to smoke slower. He'd been dipping into the open Baggie of red smoke for about seven hours now... so if he did some extrapolating, he was going to run out around four in the afternoon.
Sun went down at seven thirty. He could be at ZeroSum no earlier than eight.
Four-hour dead zone. Or, more accurately, four hours that he might live a little too clearly.
If you'd like, the wizard said, I could read you a bedtime story. It's the dog's bollocks. Male models self after alcoholic father. Ends up dead in an alley. Is mourned by no one. Classic, practically Shakespearian.
Unless you've heard it before, mate?
Phury turned up "Donna non vidi mai" and inhaled hard.
As the tenor's voice soared according to Puccini's dictations, he thought of Z's singing. What a voice that brother had. Like a church organ, his range went from liquid highs to basses so deep they turned your marrow into an ear-drum, and if he heard something once, he could replicate it perfectly. Then put his own spin on the melody or think of something entirely new. Everything was his forte: opera, blues, jazz, old-fashioned rock and roll. He was his own XM Radio.
And he always led the chants in the Brotherhood's temple.
Hard to fathom that Phury would never hear that voice in the sacred cave again.
Or around the house, come to think of it. It had been months since Z had sung anything, probably because worrying about Bella didn't put him in a Tony Bennett kind of way, and there was no telling whether his impromptu concerts would return or not.
Bella's destiny would be the decider on that.
Phury took another hit off the blunt. God, he wanted to go see her. Wanted to reassure himself that she was okay. Visual confirmation was so different from an abundance of no-news-is-good-news.
But he wasn't in visitation shape, and not just because he was toasted. Reaching up, he put his hands to his neck and prodded the residual injury from that chain being wrapped around his throat. He was a quick healer, but not that quick, and Bella's eyes were working just fine. No reason to upset her.
Plus Z would be with her, and going eyeball-to-eyeball with his twin was way too bullet-to-chamber, considering the way things had been left in that alley.
A rattling sound from over on the bureau brought his head up.
Across the room, the Primale medallion was vibrating, the ancient gold talisman acting like a beeper. He watched as it moved around on the wood, dancing in a little circle as if it were looking for a partner among the silver brush set he'd put it next to.
He was so not going over to the Other Side. No way. Getting bootlicked out of the Brotherhood was enough for one day.
Finishing his blunt, he got up and left his room. As he stepped into the hall, he looked to Cormia's door out of habit. It was slightly ajar, which was unusual, and he heard a flapping noise.
He walked over and knocked on the jamb. "Cormia? Are you okay?"
"Oh! Yes... yes, I am." Her voice was muffled.
When she said nothing further, he leaned in. "Your door's open." Well, wasn't he Einstein. "Do you want me to close it?"
"I didn't mean to leave it like that."
As he wondered how she'd gotten along with John Matthew, he said, "Mind if I come in?"
He pushed the door wide¡ª
Oh... wow. Cormia was sitting cross-legged on her bed, braiding her damp hair. There was a towel next to her, which explained the flapping, and her robe... her robe was open in a deep V, the soft swells of her breasts in danger of being fully exposed.
What color were her nipples?
He quickly looked elsewhere. Only to find a single lavender rose in a crystal vase on the bedside table.
As his chest grew tight for no good reason, he frowned. "So did you and John enjoy yourselves?"
"Yes, we did. He was quite lovely."
Cormia nodded as she wrapped a white satin ribbon around the end of the braid. In the dim light of the lamp, the thick rope of her hair glowed as if it were gold, and he hated to see her wrap the long stretch in circles at the base of her neck. He wanted to stare at it some more, but had to take solace in the wisps that were already appearing around her face.
What a picture she made, he thought, wishing he had some paper and his quill.
Strange... she looked different, he thought. Then again, maybe it was because there was color in her cheeks. "What did you guys do?"
"I ran outside."
Phury felt his frown get deeper. "Because something frightened you?"
"No, because I was free to."
He had a quick vision of her racing over the grass in the backyard, her hair streaming behind her. "And what did John do?"
Before Phury could say anything, she continued, "You're right, he's very kind. He's going to show me a movie this evening."
"He taught me to use the television. And look at what he gave me." She extended her wrist. On it was a bracelet made of lavender beads and silver links. "I've never had something like this before. I've always just had my Chosen pearl."
As she touched the iridescent teardrop at her throat, he narrowed his eyes. Her stare was guileless, as pure and lovely as the rosebud across the room.
John's attention to her made Phury see his neglect all the more clearly.
"I'm sorry," she said in a quiet voice. "I'll take the bracelet off¡ª"
"No. It suits you. Beautifully."
"He said it was a gift," she murmured. "I should like to keep it."
"And so you shall." Phury took a deep breath and looked around the bedroom, catching sight of a complex structure made of toothpicks... and peas? "What is that?"
"Ah... yes." She went over quickly, as if she wanted to shelter whatever it was.
"What is it?"
"It's what is in my head." She turned to him. Turned away. "It's just something I've started doing."
Phury walked across the room and knelt down next to her. With care, he ran his finger down a couple of the links. "It's fantastic. It looks like the frame of a house."
"You like it?" She knelt down. "I really just made it up."
"I love architecture and art. And this... the lines are great."
Her head tilted as she considered the structure, and he smiled, thinking he did the same thing with his drawings.
On impulse, he said, "Would you like to go down to the hall of statues? I was just going to go for a wander. It's past the top of the stairs."
As her eyes lifted to his, there was a knowledge in them that took him aback.
Maybe it wasn't that she looked any different, he realized. It was that she was looking at him differently.
Shit, maybe she'd really liked John. As in liked John. What a wrench that would put into the mix.
"I would like to go with you," she said. "I should like to see the art."
"Good. That's... good. Let's go." He rose to his feet and extended his hand for no apparent reason.
After a moment, she slid her palm into his. As they tightened their grips on each other, he realized that the last time they'd had any physical contact had been that trippy morning in his bed... when he'd had that erotic dream and woke up with his hard body all over her.
"Shall we," he murmured. And led her to the door.
When they stepped out into the hall, Cormia couldn't believe her hand was in the Primale's. After she'd wanted some private time with him for so long, it was surreal that she finally had not only that, but actual physical contact.
As they headed for where she had already been, he dropped her hand but stayed close. His limp was barely noticeable, just a slight shadow in his elegant gait, and as usual he was lovelier to her than any piece of art she could possibly behold.
She worried for him, though, and not just because of what she'd overheard.
The clothes he had on were not the ones he wore to meals. The leathers and the black button-down were what he'd been fighting in, and they were marked with stains.
Blood, she thought. His and the race's enemies.
That wasn't the worst of it. There was a fading streak around his neck, as if some damage had been done to the skin there, and he had bruises, too, on the backs of his hands and the side of his face.
She thought of what his king had said about him. Danger to himself and others.
"My brother Darius was an art collector," the Primale said as they went by Wrath's study. "Like everything else in this house, these were all his. Now they're Beth and John's."
"John is the son of Darius, son of Marklon?"
"I read of Darius." And of Beth, the queen, being his daughter. But there had been nothing on John Matthew. Odd... as son of the warrior, he should have been listed on the front page with the Brother's other progeny.
"You read D's biography?"
"Yes." She'd gone looking for information on Vishous, the Brother she'd been originally promised to. Had she known who the Primale would turn out to be, however, she would have checked the rows of red leather volumes for the ones on Phury, son of Ahgony.
The Primale paused at the head of the hall of statues. "What do you do when a Brother dies?" he asked. "With his books?"
"One of the scribes marks any vacant pages with a black chrih symbol, and the date is noted on the front page of the first volume. There are ceremonies, as well. We performed them for Darius and we wait... with regard to Tohrment, son of Hharm."
He nodded once and walked forward, as if they had discussed nothing of particular import.
"Why for do you ask?" she said.
There was a pause. "These statues are all from the Greco-Roman period."
Cormia drew the lapels of her robing more closely to her neck. "Are they."
The Primale bypassed the first four statues, including the fully nude one, thank the Virgin Scribe, but paused by the one with the missing parts. "They're a little beaten up, but considering they're over two thousand years old, it's a miracle any part of them survived. Er... I hope the nudity doesn't offend you?"
"No." But she was glad he didn't know how she'd touched the naked one. "I think they're beautiful no matter whether they are covered or not. And I don't care if they are imperfect."
"They remind me of where I grew up."
She waited, acutely aware of how much she wanted him to finish the thought. "How so?"
"We had a statuary." He frowned. "It was covered in vines, though. The gardens all were. Vines everywhere."
The Primale resumed walking.
"Where did you grow up?" she asked.
"In the Old Country."
"Are your parents¡ª"
"These statues were bought in the forties and fifties. Darius went through a three-dimensional stage, and as he'd always hated modern art, this was what he bought."
As they came to the end of the corridor, he stopped in front of the door into one of the bedrooms and stared at it. "I'm tired."
Bella was in that room, she thought. It was obvious from his expression. "Have you eaten?" she asked, thinking it would be lovely to head him in the opposite direction.
"I don't remember." He looked down at his feet, which were in heavy boots. "Good... God. I haven't changed, have I?"There was an odd hollowness to his voice, as if the realization had emptied him out. "I should have changed. Before we did this."
Reach out, she told herself. Reach out and take his hand. Just as he reached out for yours.
"I should change," the Primale said quietly. "I need to change."
Cormia took a deep breath, and, extending her arm, she clasped his hand. It was cold to the touch. Alarmingly so.
"Let us go back to your room," she told him. "Let us go back there."
He nodded but didn't move, and before she knew it, she was leading him. Or his body, at any rate. She sensed his mind had gone off somewhere else.
She took him into his room, to the marble confines of his bath, and when she stopped him, he stood where she left him, in front of the two sinks and the wide mirror. While she turned on the spray chamber they called a shower, he waited not so much patiently as with unawareness.
When the rush of water was warm enough under her hand, she turned back to him. "Your grace, it is all set for you. You may wash."
His yellow eyes stared straight ahead into one of the mirrors, but there was no recognition of his reflection in his handsome face. It was as if a stranger confronted him in the glass, a stranger he didn't trust or approve of.
"Your grace?" she said. The stillness in him was alarming, and had he not been upright, she would have checked the beating of his heart. "Your grace, the shower."
You can do this, she told herself.
"May I disrobe you, your grace?"
After he nodded a little, she stepped in front of him and raised tentative hands to the buttons on his shirt. One by one she freed them, the black cloth gradually parting open to expose his broad chest. When she got down to his belly button, she tugged the tails free of his leathers and kept going. All the while, he stayed still and unresisting with his eyes locked on the mirror, even as she parted the two halves of the shirt and pushed them off his shoulders.
He was magnificent in the dim light of the bath, putting all the statues to shame. His chest was enormous, the width of his shoulders nearly three times that of her own. The star-shaped scar on his left pectoral looked as if it had been engraved on his otherwise smooth, hairless skin, and she wanted to touch that place, to trace the spokes that radiated out from the center of the marking.
She wanted to press her lips to him there, she thought, press them over his heart. Over the flesh badge of the Brotherhood.
Laying his shirt out on the edge of the deep-bellied bath, she waited for the Primale to take over the undressing. He did nothing of the sort.
"Shall I... remove your pants?"
His head nodded.
Her fingers trembled as she worked loose his belt's buckle, then freed the button of his leathers. His body eased back and forth under her tugging, but not by much, and she was struck by how solid he was.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, he smelled fantastic.
The copper zipper went down slowly, and she had to hold the two halves of the waistband together because of the angle she was working from. When she let go, the front burst open. Beneath the leathers, he wore a tight loin cover in black, which was a relief.
The bulge of his sex in it made her swallow hard.
She was about to ask him if she should continue when she looked up and realized he was gone, for all intents and purposes. Either she kept at what she was doing, or he was going under the water partially dressed.
As she tugged the leather down his thighs to his knees, her eyes stuck to the male flesh that was cradled in soft cotton. She remembered what it had felt like when he had come up against her body in his sleep. What she was looking at now had seemed much larger then, and it had been stiff as it pressed into her hip.
That was the change of arousal, wasn't it. The previous Directrix's stern lecture on the mating ritual had detailed all about what happened when males grew ready for sex.
Had detailed too the pain females bore from that hardened staff.
Forcing herself to stop thinking along those lines, she sank into a kneeling position to do away with the pants and realized she should have taken the boots from his feet first. Fighting her way through the folds of leather at his ankles, she managed to get one boot off by leaning into his legs and forcing him to shift his weight. She went to work on the other side... and found the foot that wasn't real.
She kept going, not pausing even a moment. His infirmity didn't matter to her, although she wished she knew how he had been injured so badly. It must have been in fighting. To sacrifice so much for the race...
The leathers came off the same way the boots did: with an awkward series of pulls that the Primale didn't seem to notice. He simply stood on whichever foot she let him have on the marble, as steady as an oak. When she finally glanced up again, there were but two adornments on his body: his loin cover, which had the words Calvin Klein around the waistband, and the metal rods and foot that filled the gap between his right knee and the floor.
She went over and opened the door to the spray chamber. "Your grace, the falling bath is ready for you."
His head swiveled to her. "Thank you."
In a quick surge he swept the loin cover off and walked toward her, naked.
Cormia's breath stopped. His massive sex hung soft and long from its base, the blunt head swinging slightly.
"Will you stay while I shower?" he said.
"Wha... ah, is that what you wish?"
"Then I...Yes, I shall stay."