The discussion of plans had gone for much of the day, and preparations were still being made. For now, the group decided it was best for everyone, Claudia in particular, to rest completely and get started the next morning.
“There’s not a lot of space here,” Brinne said, once she and Claudia returned to the room she woke up in. “But this room should serve.”
“What about me?” Rat asked.
Claudia pushed past Brinne and stared at the man in the doorway, waving as if looking at a mirror.
“Yes, I’m back. Come here.” This time, he hugged her, spinning her around in the air. She had not realized he was that strong.
“I take it that if you’re back, Merrian is taken care of,” Brinne said, dusting off a sleeve.
Rat set Claudia down and nodded. “Merrian will never hurt anyone again.”
“Rat…” Claudia looked down and withdrew his blade, holding it by the pommel and exposing the bloodstained steel.
“I didn’t kill her,” he said. “Merrian, more than anything, fears imprisonment. I forced Cloverra to absorb her. Unless she can muster up as much resistance as Sallith did, we don’t have to worry about her.”
“Even if she did,” Brinne said, “she wouldn’t be ejected until nearly 400 days.”
“Maybe she’ll get some kids of her own on the way out, just like she always wanted,” Rat said with a sneer. “Anyway, I doubt she can use her mind-reading power on me from inside Cloverra. Even if she could, she can’t do anything else. I’m free.”
“Well, nicely done. We’ll have you brief the others tomorrow. As I was saying, I don’t have any more free room for you of this quality,” Brinne said.
“No problem, I’ll take this one again,” he said.
“Again?” Claudia asked.
“I was using this room before you arrived here,” he said. “Might be a tight fit, but if you don’t mind, I don’t either.”
“Not at all—I mean, it did smell good when I woke up. I, er…”
“This conversation is making my head hurt. I’ll return in the morning,” Brinne said. “Rest well, Claudia, because I have a lot of training to put you through.”
“So, what did I miss?” Rat asked, once the door closed.
“Well,” Claudia said, tilting her head up to remember, “the plan is to defeat and capture the Fey before Glaradalle can catch on and use the laxxar. With the Fey hostage, I think we’re guaranteed to out-bluff the elf.”
“I would have made the same plan. Excellent.”
“But to do that, it will need to be an overwhelming attack, and I’ll need to be in full control of my abilities.”
“I’m here to help,” he said. “Reconnaissance, scouting, whatever. I can’t read the Fey’s thoughts, so I wouldn’t be much in a fight.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she said, plopping onto the bed.
“It feels so good to be able to talk to you,” he said, landing next to her. “Really talk, privately.”
“I can’t imagine that kind of revelation,” Claudia said. “I’m sorry, Rat. I wish there was some sort of way I could have said it sooner, but the others had to know.”
“You made the right move,” he said. “You know, even though I never really knew Merrian’s power, I had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched, all the time. Now, it’s all gone.”
“Congratulations,” she said, taking his hand in both of hers, “and thank you.”
“There was nothing else I could do,” he said. “Brinne told me your wounds, what Merrian had done to you. Add to that the revelation of her power, and I just snapped. I had to be rid of her.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
He explained his hostage trick, and what he had learned from it: the elves’ desire to recreate the Fey named Latalla, and the strange idea that the Ven Quari supposedly desired a shapeshifter. Although, the latter could not be substantiated beyond cultist hearsay. The entire time, Claudia rested her chin on her hand.
“You are a genius,” she said. “Even without your power.”
“You aren’t disgusted?” he asked.
“What you did was difficult. You threatened children. But think of the children we will save when we stop this cult’s plans.”
She put her hands on his shoulders. “Now please, tell me what Merrian did. I’ve gone long enough not knowing.”
He looked away. “Is there any point now?”
“I will never judge you. That’s the point.”
Thus, Rat explained his history with Merrian West, including his days serving as her guide in Rose Amon, and how easily they connected.
And people call me a whore. To her relief, Rat was fine with such a remark.
“So you moved to Mirek, in that home I visited?” Claudia asked. They were laying together now. Any other position was too exhausting.
“Yes. It cost me a lot, but I didn’t care. I was going to eventually marry the girl of my dreams. We began meeting, doing business, forming an acceptable public relationship, albeit not romantic yet. When it was acceptable to meet her family, I had never felt more optimistic. I didn’t see it for what it was. You see, right after meeting with them, she finally got in bed with me again. And when it was over, she asked about the thoughts of her family and connections. I told her everything.”
“What an insect,” Claudia said. “She only wanted you so she could figure out who her allies and enemies were, then?”
He looked up at the domed ceiling with wet eyes. “One night, she asked me to follow her somewhere. We went down into a basement in a property she had bought. At the bottom were ten people, bloody sacks over their heads and hanging on ropes. They were the ones I had warned her about. Some were political enemies, some were just people she disliked. Four of them were children. Most of them were family members who stood in the way of her goals. The bodies were found and blamed on mad demihumans, like evil cultist mages. They weren’t far from the truth. And she was proud of what she had done. Said it was the best use for someone with my abilities. That’s why she wanted me to see.”
“Oh, Rat…” Claudia put a hand over her mouth, but did not shy away from his frigid stare.
“I realize now that if she really wanted to live a humble life, she could have been outspoken about us. That would get her disowned and she could do whatever she wanted. But I think the Elven Collective had gotten to her before she even met me. If she were to become a part of their attack on the city, she had to stay royal, and remove her obstacles. I was such a fool, I didn’t even wonder why she hadn’t used her own power to spy on her family. I thought our powers were the same, or at least close, and that she wanted to make a point.”
Claudia rubbed his shoulder, making it bulge awake in a sudden flex.
“No, please. I like that.”
She continued, and so did he.
“If I told the truth to the authorities, she’d give my secret away to everyone she could, so I left Mirek for almost ten years. Traveling the world, always moving after completing some new venture that helped people. So many would ask me to stay wherever I was, but I couldn’t. To stay anywhere was to risk someone becoming another Merrian.”
“So why did you come back?”
“Truth? I heard of you.”
“I heard you were a great rising jurist, and you were far away from Merrian and her aristocratic connections.
“Word spread that fast?”
“I was in circles that would tell me about any interesting new legal talent. When I heard about you, I told myself there were no more places to go. But really? Mirek needed my help. I would do good that overwhelmed whatever dark plans she had. Too bad by the time I returned, Sallith had upended the Mirekian legal world.”
“But you stayed?”
He put his arms around her back and pulled her closer. “I couldn’t leave. Your thoughts, and something deeper that I sensed, fascinated me.”
Claudia couldn’t tell if she was blushing, or sharing his heat.
“When you came up with the spectacle matches plan, I wanted it to succeed so badly that I thought I could use Merrian to find good fighters.”
“You risked going back to her just to help me? I’m not sure what to say…”
“You will see this through and never let anyone take advantage of your powers,” he said, “just say that.”
“What if I can’t control them?” she asked, her head now lying against his chest.
“You will,” he said, his fingers going through her hair.
“I don’t know. Everything is different now. We’re working alongside Sallith, and more people are suffering.”
“Listen,” he said, lifting her chin, and he saw her eyes turn from green to a blazing orange. “Seers, your eyes are incredible.”
“That’s what you have to say?”
“But that’s only when I’m… angry.”
“I think it’s when you’re very excited, regardless of emotion.”
“Yes, that makes more sense. I’m very…”
She looked up at him. They had progressed from simply looking at the ceiling together to holding each other at their sides.
“In less time than it takes for the moons to loop around Veminox, the King of Mirek has promised to renege the throne. I know things are chaotic, and people are getting hurt. But our goals have not changed, and we are closer than ever.”
You’re damned right about that, Claudia thought, kissing him. She felt his tongue and moved away, trying to stand up. Her arm was caught in his soft, but secure grip. His gaze was the most unfamiliar thing to her: a lustful man who looked her in the eyes.
“When I saw you, half transformed and unconscious,” he told her, “I thought to myself, ‘That is the most beautiful, feminine thing I have ever seen.’”
“Nonsense… er, well, really?”
“Get your sweet body in here, and I’ll show you.”
With strength that was becoming less foreign to her, Claudia broke free, gripped her slip and peplos at the collar with both hands, and tore her way to unabated exposure.
Anyone watching from afar would have trouble telling if it was mating, or a kind of furious naked battle. All Rat knew in the moment was that he didn’t feel lucky this time. Her body was so magnetic that it scared him. All Claudia knew was the pleasure of a man’s hands on her body, pushing, holding down, positioning. When his fingers clamped over the scars at her lower back, she screamed for more, no, for all.
“Claudia, your nails!”
She looked down as she rode atop him and gasped. Not only had her skin tinted itself a mossy green, but her hands had turned a fiery gold and vicious texture, like hawk talons, and the nails certainly matched that description as they sunk into his biceps. Still, he gripped her hips, which were far more voluptuous than she remembered.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, letting go. “We have to stop!”
“You sure about that?” he asked, quickening his pace. Her head rolled back and she cupped her enlarged breasts, finding the poke of her talons irresistible. She moaned, clawing her unbreakable skin all over.
“Do it, Claudia! Let yourself go!”
She felt him plunge faster than ever before inside her. She had brought him to climax, and that was the last push she needed. With a rush of fire through her body, her head suddenly felt lightweight, supported on all sides. Rat slowed down, his member softening and his hands appreciating the dual hills of her thighs.
“Holy Seers,” Rat said, gasping. “Look in the mirror, my queen.”
She expected to say ‘I’m scared,’ but in the moment, she wasn’t.
Claudia hopped off of her lover and walked to the Vanity. Before her was an emerald goddess coated in tiny scales. Atop her head, instead of hair, were over twenty long, intertwined serpents. Some watched where she looked, inspecting the scene with the same awe. Others had more independence, looking all around the room with the sluggish pace of a reptile.
Rat looped his arms around her midsection from behind, smiling at her image in the mirror. He rested his head on her shoulder, and the nearby snakes nuzzled against his cheek and tussled hair.
“I told you, you look beautiful.”
Claudia couldn’t say anything. Tears ran down her face and narrowed chin, and she laughed.