It was more than a dress. It was a force of nature.
Scarlett stared at it as she brushed the ringlets out of her hair. There had been many dresses over the years, but never one like this. Armored in the right places and loose in others, it looked like it could leap off the hanger to lead a dance or carry a fight all on its own. The greens and blacks complemented her blonde hair and emerald eyes, and the delicate gold brocade filigree matched the engravings on her blade.
Her hand paused mid-stroke. The colors also matched the tailored wools and silks of the man from the cave, the one who had called himself a god.
A crash echoed from downstairs, followed by cheers. She sighed and put the brush away. Her companions were celebrating their victory in what appeared to be their natural state: carousing. She had begged off their company, citing her still-healing wounds and general exhaustion, but in reality she wanted to cocoon herself in her room and try to drive away the chill that seemed to have settled in her bones. The fire eased her aching muscles, but whenever she looked at the dress, her mind drifted back to that place, and that man, and the ice returned.
She reached forward to stroke the fabric, running her hands along the lace collar and corseted seams. Hidden armor panels clinked with the movement. She’d told herself she’d try it on tomorrow, once she had had a proper bath to wash off her sweat--as well as the spattered blood from that strange paladin’s rituals--but the dress called to her. Something about it was...promising. The armor promised protection, the grace promised respect, and...something else promised to ease the equally-unexpected ache twisting inside her. It was nebulous, sliding from her mind whenever she tried to identify it, but for the moment, that part drew her the most. As she stared at the dress, one hand traced up her neck, reaching to unlace her chemise.
“Not in the mood to celebrate?” a voice said behind her.
She whirled, instinctively reaching for her sword, but it lay on her bed, foolishly out of reach, and between her and it was the man from the cave.
His clothes had changed. The simple suit she saw him in before had been replaced by something befitting a proper gentleman from her own homeland: a high-waisted coat with military details, embroidered in green and gold damask, black riding boots over black riding pants, and a silver-handled cane. Rather than loose and wild as it had been before, his dark shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a neat queue, and his skin had lost its subtle ice-blue pallor.
But the eyes were exactly as she remembered, glittering like the gold on her dress, like dying sunlight reflecting off snow. Surprise washed over her, but it left a vacuum in its wake, a hole that his gaze seemed to fill….
She drew herself up, clutching her nightgown close. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
He chuckled, a soft breathy sound. “Oh, but the answer to those questions is the same one. Do you not remember?”
She did. She also remembered how he laughed in the face of defeat, his eyes piercing her from across the cave, but outwardly she frowned. “You called yourself a god of mischief, but it is not so mischievous to enter a woman’s domicile without her permission; it is merely rude.”
“Then perhaps I am the god of so much more.” He spread his arms and bowed, the formal bow of the Catorian courts. “I am Loki, son of Jotunheim, heir to the throne of Asgard.”
She regarded him haughtily. “According to Mr. Nicholas, you are heir to nothing but a cell. How did you escape?”
His eyes glittered in the shadows of his face. “Who’s to say I did? Our dear Mr. Claus has many tricks up his ample sleeves, but every god has his secrets.” He turned and swung his cane in a loose arc. To her surprise it passed through the posts of the bed as if they weren’t even there. She relaxed slightly, but still kept an eye on her sword in case his corporeal status changed.
His coat-tails spun as he whirled smartly back to her. “But now, Ms. Lee, I have answered three of your questions, and you haven’t answered my one.”
That smile, that confident, calculating grin, sent a new wave of sensations through her. She took a steadying breath. “I didn’t feel like celebrating. A lady needs her rest.”
“Ah yes, it wouldn’t do for a lady to sully herself with such base entertainments.” He laughed and threw himself onto the bed, sprawling on his side like a courtesan. She noticed the sheets and furs didn’t rumple from his weight. “Such rough folk, adventurers. Spending their money on drinks and companionship when it could be put to much better use. Don’t you agree?”
She turned and fussed with her travelling bags. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean you. The dutiful daughter, out in the world to make her fortune so she can save her parents’. It’s very respectable, the proper thing for a lady of this age to do.”
She scoffed, reminding herself that, despite his attire, he was no more a Catorian gentleman than the feral druid she shared her room with. “What would you know about what is proper for a lady of ‘our’ age? You come from a world as far removed from mine as birds from swamp water.”
He grinned and twirled his cane between his long fingers. “Even birds can look down on the swamp and see the wretched things crawling there.” He gestured across the room. “But very few of them will look as fine as you in that dress.”
She glared at him but nodded tersely. “Thank you, sir.”
“Will you sell it?”
She froze. “I beg your pardon?”
He examined the the cane cooly. “Sell it. Like the others. The ones your father imported. Did you ever tell him? Or was the point rather moot by then, once he discovered the rest of the debt?”
Horror speared her, but she gathered herself to her full height and gestured to the door. “I do believe that is enough. Leave now, sir, or I shall inform the others. You may not be corporeal but perhaps the priest has a way of banishing your presence.”
He chuckled, still staring at his cane. “I think I’ll take that...gamble.” He glanced up to gauge her reaction, smiling at the heat spreading across her face. “Who is the one engaging in base entertainments now? Tell me,” he nodded toward her bags, “How much of that gold you’re collecting do you intend to send home?”
“I have sent all of it, sir,” she hissed.
“For now. How long until the itch becomes too great? How long until you start stealing from your companions like you stole from your family, like you stole from yourself, sacrificing your future all for one simple, nasty, unladylike habit?” He tsked. “It seems only fair to warn them, for all your sakes’.”
Silence descended on the room, broken only by the hiss and cracks of the fire. She stared at him, but her mind flashed elsewhere: the smoke and shaded lamps of the Catorian card parlors, the rush from beating even the finest gentleman at their own game, the desperation in the times when she, eventually, inevitably, lost. The ache inside her heaved and twisted into something more familiar: the drive for more, the hole that could only be filled if she went just one more round….
“Why are you doing this?” she whispered.
He was staring at the cane again, watching the carvings flicker in the firelight. “I said I had an interest in you adventurers, didn’t I?” He shrugged. “I merely wanted to see how it all turned out. No adventure is complete without the big reward at the end. And you haven’t yet fully claimed yours.”
He glanced up. She tensed, then followed his gaze past her to the dress. “You...want to see me wear it? Is that all?”
He grinned and gestured grandly. “What can I say? I love the color.”
She stared at him, sprawled nonchalantly over her bed, watching her with the same arrogance he had held in his natural domain. She considered damning his silken threats and calling for the others anyway…
...But found herself reaching for the dress.
His smile widened. She looked away. “A gentleman would leave the room while a lady is changing, sir,” she whispered.
He chuckled again. “I never said I was a gentleman, and I believe we have already established how much of a lady you actually are.”
Her hand clenched on the silk. He might look the part of a respectable Catorian man, but no man, god or not, had ever spoken to her in such a way.
It made her heart race.
She turned to the wall, reaching slowly to untie the neck of her chemise. The well-worn cotton slipped easily off her shoulders as it fell to the floor. She stood a long moment, exposed skin quivering despite the warmth of the room, the arch of her back daring him to speak. He said nothing, letting the moment linger, perhaps daring her to turn and meet his eyes instead. She hesitated, drawn by the force of his unseen stare, then hurriedly grabbed the dress and hoisted it over her head.
It slid over her skin like warm water. Each curve eased to allow the passage of her hips and shoulders, then drew in tightly to grip her like a well-worn glove. She ran her hands down her waist and sighed. Of course, she told herself, she should have expected nothing less from the gift of a demigod, but she still marvelled at the comfort and flow. The only possible flaw was the back, which closed with corsetry, but while unlaced plunged open nearly to the top of her buttocks. She would have to have assistance tightening that in the future, but for now it would do. She took a breath and turned.
He was there, inches from her, smiling haughtily, towering over her, and though she knew he wasn’t really present, she swore she could feel his breath on her skin. Her heart leapt, instincts kicking in, screaming at her to jab and punch if she couldn’t slash, but she wrestled them down, meeting his gaze evenly.
A flicker of approval crossed his face. “Lovely,” he breathed. “Shall you see?” He stepped back, gesturing to the full-length mirror on the side of the room. After a moment, she tore her gaze from his and stepped into view.
The dress wasn’t just hers, it was her. It had looked alive on the rack, but now it looked like something more, elevating her along with it.
He appeared in the mirror behind her, standing just over her shoulder, still smiling. Next to her like this, with his matching Catorian formal wear, they could be a young debutante couple, announcing their engagement at the height of the season and posing for a painting to formalize the event. She even had just the right amount of cautious aloofness in her face, and he the right amount of cruelty in his.
He leaned toward her. “And what do you think?”
She smoothed at her waist to cover her shiver. “It will do.”
“Well, then. You’re welcome.”
She met his cool blue eyes in the mirror. “What for? It isn’t from you.”
“Ah, but isn’t it? It was your gift for completing the rescue, a rescue which I helped orchestrate in the first place….”
“By kidnapping the person we had to retrieve,” she said flatly.
“Yes, but with the ultimate intention of meeting you, of course.” He reached up as if to brush a lock of hair from her face, then stopped, smiling, and let his hand fall down the line of her back. Cold brushed her exposed skin, coursing down to the bottom of the plunge. She gasped and arched from him, straining the front of the dress. He smirked triumphantly and clutched his cane once again. “I have no use for heroes, which is why I may have use for your friends.”
She froze as he leaned down again, hovering a hairs-breadth from her ear. “And while I have no use for ladies,” he whispered, “I may have a use for you.”
A shudder shot through her. The cold ache erupted into fire. She whirled to face him--
--But he was gone.