It was a good morning, all things considered. No hair on the pillow when he woke up, birds singing at just the right volume outside his window, and sweet, sweet Nadia waiting patiently at his bedside with his morning wine.
"Dear wife," Lucio said. "How nice of you to join me." A dank cough tried to rattle its way loose, but he forced it down. "Wine. Now."
Nadia's elegant lip curled.
Lucio grinned and clicked his tongue. "Now, now, Noddy. Do I need to go over our vows again? Did you forget the bit about sickness and health?"
"You repulse me," she said, snarling now. Lucio forgot the thick phlegm in his throat, and the fever blistering the edges of his brain. She was feeling feisty today. Good. Always got his blood going to get her riled up.
He ran his dry tongue over cracked lips. "Wine, or a kiss. Your choice." He smirked as she recoiled. "Aw, what's wrong? Feeling shy? Don't let a little thing like the plague come between us, Noddy. Just a little kiss for your darling husband, that's all I ask."
She shoved the goblet against his mouth. Lucio winked at her, though his eyes were swollen and sore enough to make even that an agony. Still, worth it to watch her cringe.
Warmth pooled in his stomach. Nothing like visiting a little tender humiliation on your loved ones to make you feel like a man again. Just for funsies, he stroked her bare arm with a finger.
Nadia dropped the goblet and backed away, her face twisted up in revulsion. "You're swine, Lucio. Utter swine."
"Oh, shut up." Servants whirled around his bed, mopping up the wine and patting his sheets dry. The wine was no great loss, a shit vintage from Nevi-something or other, good only to stuff full of herbs and medicine. Or so Julesy claimed — oh, Count, drink this, it'll ease the pain, it'll help you sleep.
It seemed like he'd been telling the truth. Too bad; planning how to punish failure would have occupied the morning. Oh well, couldn't have everything. But his mind was clearer, the dizziness fading, and while he didn't quite feel strong, Lucio did feel well enough to have some fun.
He looked around the room, considering his options. Ten guards were present — just the bare minimum acceptable, so he'd have to say something about that — but they were too stoic to be much fun. There was always Noddy, trembling with such fetching, barely-restrained disgust, and —
"Where's Jules? And my sweet magician? Why aren't they here?" When no one replied, Lucio slapped the mattress, gratified when everyone flinched. "They're supposed to be here. They know this. How many times do I have to explain it to you idiots? You come here, you talk to me."
"They're working," said Nadia, with the lifted chin that told Lucio, clear as day, she was lying. "On a cure, for you, Lucio. Leave them be."
"God, were you born this boring, or do you work at it?" Lucio shoved his legs from under the covers and glowered up at her. He'd been in such a good mood when he woke up, and now they were trying to ruin it. All he wanted was a little fun, a little attention, while he was sick. Why was it so hard for these morons to understand? "It's simple. If they're not here, they're not helping."
"They are." Nadia stepped in front of him, hands held out like she wanted to push him back into bed. "Lucio, lie down. You're not —"
Lucio slapped her hands away. "Noddy, Noddy." He shook his head. How had she turned into such a disappointment? "Protecting them, are you? Naughty, naughty Noddy." He stuck his tongue out at her, and levered himself to his feet. "Looks like I'll need to go investigate."
"Don't," Nadia said, quietly now. A warning.
Lucio turned to her, hardly able to keep from screaming in her stupid, elegant face. "If they're really working," he said, leaning close enough to smell the smoky hints of tea on her breath, "then they've got nothing to hide, and no reason to mind a visit. Yes?"
He waited for her to answer. She looked away first, and the last bits of warmth in his gut erupted into pure, burning joy. He could still salvage his morning, still have a little fun. Who would begrudge him that?
"Perfect! Let's go."
He leaned on Nadia all the way down the stairs, sniffing at her perfume and complimenting her on choosing something different from all the fucking jasmine.
"It made you smell like a funeral," he said at her ear. "But I like this new scent. What is it? Lilies?"
She didn't answer. He didn't mind. So much to look forward to, just down a few more flights of stairs.
But first — the elevator. He had to go down alone — he liked lilies, and he liked watching Nadia's face get all twisted when he shoved in close, but his chest ached and he needed to save his energy for the next game.
He could always count on Jules for some real fun.
Soon enough, they were in the dungeons, all soft red lights and distant croaking moans, with the skittering of many tiny, perfect feet underneath it all. Valdemar was the only doctor in evidence — lazy bastards, the lot of them, but at least Lucio could depend on good old Valdemar — but they were too busy rooting around in a torso to notice his approach at first.
"Hard at work, I see," he called, then burst into coughing. Red spattered down his bedshirt, violent, happy red — he even managed to get a bit on Nadia's gown, just enough to make her squirm. "Sorry to interrupt."
Valdemar turned around like an adder, a blazing smile etched across their face. "Oh, it's no trouble at all, my Count." They wiggled their fingers in his direction, each one tipped by a tiny scalpel. "I'm simply testing out a few new tools. Such fine cuts — and you know how I value precision in my work."
"I do, I do. Mind if I take a look?"
"Not at all." Valdemar stood aside and waved him toward the stumped body lying on the gurney. "Merely a routine case, I'm afraid. Doctor 034 is as unremarkable in death as they were in life."
"Aw, too bad." Lucio nudged Nadia to bring him closer. "That is fine work, Valdemar. Fine work. I love it when people take pride in what they do. I've always said that. Haven't I, Noddy?"
She was breathing hard, each exhale ragged and weak. Oh, silly him, they hadn't stopped to grab masks and aprons. Well, her dress had been a waste of fabric anyways. Wouldn't kill her to have to throw it away.
"Did you have an errand, my Count?" Valdemar pushed a thin tissue of viscera back under the ribs. "I am, as always, at your service. And it is a slow day."
"Now that you mention it, I am looking for Doctor Jules. He didn't come to breakfast, and I'm worried about him. It's not like him to miss out on time with me. Any idea what he's up to?"
Valdemar tilted their head to the side. Their thin, razor-tipped fingers tapped together, ringing out like tiny bells. It sounded delightful. "Doctor Jules? I don't — oh. Doctor 069. He's in his office. My apologies. I locked him in there when he experienced a grotesque emotional outburst."
Lucio hissed. "What for? He has everything he needs. A job, a bed, food, a patron." He cackled at his own joke, and spat a fresh mouthful of blood onto the floor. Valdemar examined it with interest. "What's eating him, then?"
"You would have to ask him, my Count." Valdemar sniffed. "Utterly unprofessional, if you ask me. This is a refuge for science and research, not for carrying on."
"Quite right, quite right. Let me get to the bottom of this." Lucio wheeled Nadia around, gasping when something gave in his chest, and gestured to a guard to unlock the door. Once that was done, he cupped his free hand around his mouth. "Jules! Julesy! Get your gangly ass out here."
"Shut your gorgeous mouth, Noddy," he said, beaming at her. "That kiss is still on the table."
Nadia shut up. She was shaking now, fine tremors running up and down her arms. Lucio sighed and let his head loll on her shoulder. "Juuuuuuuuuuuuules, I'm waiting."
The door didn't open. He'd have to handle this the hard way, then.
"Jules! You leech-fucker, get out here or I'll let Valdemar eat your eyes."
Valdemar clicked their fingers together. Pretty, pretty bells.
The door creaked open. Jules had to fold himself down pretty tight to creep out, and he stayed folded once he was in the dungeon proper.
"Jules," said Lucio. "How are you? Everything all right? We missed you at breakfast. You and Asra. Keeping busy, you two? One way or another?” He winked -- finding out that little tasty piece of information had given him material for weeks. Always nice to have new ways to get Jules all flushed and in-denial.
It was good, Lucio decided, that Asra wasn’t around. They’d have to have a chat or two later about expectations and trust, but he wasn’t nearly as much fun as Julian when it came to the games.
Julian looked up through a heavy sheaf of hair. "We’re busy.”
There weren’t nearly enough bodies to make that lie anywhere near believable. “I know you’re always working hard, Jules, but where’s your better half?”
For some reason, Julian flinched more than usual. Lucio leaned forward, ready to get his teeth into that, but Julian firmed up his shoulders and kept talking.
“Asra went to pick up a few things," he said, almost too low to hear. "He'll be back."
Lucio strangled the urge to scream. Why was everyone lying to him this morning? "Oh, all right," he said. "That's good. That's very good. That's what I like to hear, that he's working away on a cure. Since that's why you two are here, after all."
Julian nodded. God, he looked so pathetic, that long, long body broken into sagging angles. Like a rotting house. Boring, just as boring as Noddy. "I should get back to work," he said, already turning toward his office.
Now, normally Lucio would have let him go. It was very near and dear to his heart to have this little plague thing wrapped up immediately, if not sooner, but the way the three of them protected each other rankled. Nadia tried to protect Jules, Jules tried to protect Asra, Asra protected them back. It was so sweet he wanted to rip out all their teeth. And what did they need protection for, anyways? He was the one who was sick. They owed him.
Jules would have to play a little longer.
"Let's see what you're working on," Lucio said. "Since you missed breakfast, and all. Or were you too busy having…what was your phrase, Valdemar?"
"A grotesque emotional outburst, my Count." Valdemar shook their head. "He was weeping, I believe, over some notes."
"Oh, we can't have that, can we? Let's see what got you all teary. Maybe we can help."
The best part about Julian was how bad he was at hiding anything that mattered. He went still, and pale, and wild-eyed. Had a spine like one of his precious leeches, Lucio loved that about him — but a moment after all the paleness and stillness, Julian shook his head.
"They're private," he said.
Oh, now, Lucio couldn't have that. He pulled away from Nadia and staggered toward Julian, who held his ground adorably, even if Lucio could see him shaking from a mile away. Valdemar drifted along behind him.
"No, Jules. They're not." Lucio grinned up at him, fighting to focus through a blossoming headache. He smoothed down the front of Julian’s shirt, straightened his collar. Jules would be so lovely if he just made a little more effort. "You work for me. So, everything in your office, in your notes, in your brain? It's mine. Show me."
"Allow me, my Count." Valdemar stepped around Julian, neat as could be, and snatched up a handful of papers from his desk. Julian made some hilarious choking noises and tried to snatch them back, but Valdemar flowed around him like water and spread the notes like a hand of cards before them.
At least there was someone he could depend on. "Thank you ever so much, Valdemar. You're a treasure."
"I live to serve, my Count."
Now, to see what had gotten under Julian's skin. Lucio flipped through the pages — notes, notes, and more notes, all of it illegible and scribbled over, but here and there were letters, written in a fine, flowing hand.
Doctor Devorak, I hope your research is going well…
Doctor Devorak, We are running out of lungwort, and I don't have any substitutes…
Doctor Devorak, We lost the entire Draben family today.
On and on, a dozen letters or more, dated weeks back. Julian, amazingly, went paler as Lucio read each one — but there wasn't any thing to get pale about in them, just dry old reports about some moldy clinic and sick people. What was the big secret? Was Jules really so weak these would get to him? Knowing Jules, probably.
The last letter was different: a messy scrawl instead of gentle loops, ink spatters everywhere.
Julian, I'm sorry. The boat is here for me.
Oh, right. He'd had an assistant back at the clinic. Someone who knew Asra. Another magician, maybe? Jules’d told him, and he hadn't cared. Looks like she finally kicked it.
“Well, there’s one distraction taken care of.” Lucio shoved the papers back at Valdemar, who began to slowly, precisely shred them. Julian's face crumpled, his eyes narrowed and mouth slack.
"Really, Jules? This?" Lucio waved at the tiny slips of paper sifting to the ground. "Don't you have work to do? A cure to find?"
An unfamiliar shadow fell over Julian's face. "I do," he said, calmly, patiently, biting off each word. "But not for you."
Nadia whispered his name in warning.
Oh. Oh. So it had been worth coming all the way down to the dungeons after all. Lucio licked his lips, considered his options. You had to be careful with Jules; if you got too rough with him, he'd just go inward and that ruined all the fun. So —
Inward. Now that was an idea that had legs. Lots of lovely, tiny legs.
"You know," said Lucio, grinning again. "I think what we're looking at here is…a lack of incentive. You're clearly distracted, bawling over your little magician friend. And since we're looking at just a few days left, I think you need a little push to get back up to speed. I’m just the man to help."
"Go to hell."
"Oh-ho! Where's all this coming from? Usually I can just count on you to fold the second someone looks at you wrong, but maybe you're going to surprise me." Lucio headed for the cistern in the back of the room, snapping his fingers at the guards stationed at the stairs. "You two — go hold the good doctor down for me, will you?"
"Lucio, no!" Nadia shouted, rushing after him.
He grabbed her chin. "Another word, and it'll be your turn, Noddy. Valdemar, the lid!"
Julian roared behind him, and the guards swore.
"Hold your horses, Jules!" he called over his shoulder, limping toward the cistern. "Don’t rush me, I’m doing you a favor.”
There they were, bright and seething, ruby red and rich as blood. Lucio picked the fattest beetle out of the teeming mass — only the best for his number-one doctor, after all — and trudged back to the far side of the dungeon. It struggled in his grip, hot and full of juice, and when he held it up to the light, it glowed.
"An excellent choice, my Count," said Valdemar, pulling the lid back into place.
"Thank you, Valdemar. Now, Jules? Julesy? Look at me."
One of the guards helpfully lifted Julian's head. His eyes glittered, hot with hate. How predictable.
"You like magic," said Lucio. He took careful hold of Julian's nose and pinched it shut. "Let me show you a trick. I'm going to make this beetle disappear."
Nadia cried out. Julian's eyes bulged as he fought to hold his breath, but Lucio was happy to wait. He couldn't hold it forever.
Always full of surprises, Jules. In the end, he held his breath for just over a minute. Then his lips opened, he sucked in air — and Lucio shoved the wriggling beetle into his mouth.
Julian bellowed. Slick red fluid dripped out of his mouth as he tried to spit the beetle free, but Lucio clapped a hand over his mouth and tutted.
"Now, now," he said. "Don't ruin my trick. I've only got the one. For the moment."
Nadia's fingers clawed at his neck, and she screamed something that she no doubt thought was very important and powerful, but Lucio ignored her, and let Valdemar drag her away. He just waited, smiling patiently down at Julian while the doctor's jaw strained and locked.
The slow creep of seconds went by. Eventually, Julian's head dropped, and his throat worked, and a deep, gutted moan tumbled out of his mouth.
"It's gone!" Lucio staggered back, arms wide, bowing to Valdemar's applause. "Just like that! Did you like my trick? You can let him go now, guards."
Julian dropped like a felled stag, all loose muscles and heavy bone. He scratched at his throat, sclera already flooded red, drooling a little fresh blood onto the stones.
"Three days." Lucio patted his head. "Now get back to work, Jules."
A wonderful morning, all things considered.