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'cause she tastes like you

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“Camilla the Sixth!” says the Duchess of Rhodes. “What a lovely surprise.”

Camilla takes one step into the room and, at Dulcinea’s light gesture, closes the door behind her. The Seventh quarters are expansive and bright, all armchairs bleeding stuffing and end tables crowded with vases that are, in turn, crowded with dying roses. The whole room smells like dying roses, and a little like blood, and beneath the cloying sweetness is another, sharper tang, faint but still perceptible. Something medical and astringent, the sterile veneer of the hospital room laid over the moldering glory of Canaan House.

In the center of the room is the bed, and in the center of the bed is Dulcinea Septimus, propped up on about forty pillows and dressed in a gown that appears to be mainly sheer, seafoam-green fabric and lace. Camilla’s gaze slides off of Dulcinea’s illness-thin form, every sharp bone visible through the translucent fabric, and lands on the faint depression beside her, where the sheets have been twisted and pushed aside. 

“I’m looking for the Warden,” she says.

“Oh,” Dulcinea says, and laughs. The laugh turns into a cough, and then she’s holding a blood-spotted handkerchief to her lips in a weak attempt at concealment. Camilla looks back at her, sees that the gown has fallen open to reveal the hollows beneath her collarbones and the xylophone ridges of her sternum, and looks away again. “You just missed him,” Dulcinea says, once she’s gotten her breath back. The bloody handkerchief vanishes, and she returns to a Seventh House ideal, a dying girl wasting away in a bed far too big for her, tastefully draped in just enough chiffon to keep from veering into Third House obscenity.

Camilla already has a hand on the door, because if Palamedes isn’t here there’s no reason for her to linger in this bright, stifling room with the Duchess of Rhodes, who is half-dressed for reasons she’d really rather not think about, but before she can turn the knob and leave Dulcinea says, “Oh, don’t go yet, Camilla the Sixth. I was hoping”—another cough—“I was hoping that you and I might get a chance to chat.”

There was a time when Camilla would have accepted an invitation to chat with Dulcinea Septimus without hesitation, but it’s not now. Not with the Warden unaccounted for. Not with his presence still lingering in this room. But she, much like her necromancer, has never been able to deny Dulcinea Septimus anything, so she turns around to meet that electric blue gaze straight on. Dulcinea pushes herself further upright on a thin arm, fawn-colored curls tumbling artlessly over her bare shoulders, and holds out a hand in conciliation. “Please?”

“Where is he, Lady Septimus?”

“Surely we can dispense with that little formality,” Dulcinea says. Camilla doesn’t respond, and Dulcinea sighs and lets her hand fall back to the sheets. “I sent him straight back to you, I promise. To be honest, I didn’t think you’d let him come at all…but I’m glad you did.” She smiles, revealing a thin line of blood along the inside of her lower lip, and for a moment she looks like a wolf after the kill, bright-eyed and sated. “Awfully selfish of you, keeping him all to yourself like that.”  

The bed, the thick, sweet scent of decay, the gossamer fabric, the knowing tilt to Dulcinea’s mouth—it’s too much, and Camilla flushes, heat creeping up the back of her neck and staining her cheeks. She reaches for her rapier, just for something to hold onto, and grips the hilt. Dulcinea notices, and her smile widens.

“I thought so,” she says. “I made your Warden two offers, Camilla the Sixth. You’ll be glad to know that he only accepted one of them…well, perhaps I shouldn’t assume.” Her hand grazes the open line of the dressing gown, shifting the fabric just enough to reveal the edge of a breast. “He turned the second one down, quite firmly—those eyes, though I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you—on your account.”

But not the first, Camilla thinks dully. She doesn’t know what the second offer was and she doesn’t care, but there’s no mistaking Dulcinea’s tone, and no way to ignore the flimsy gown and the messy bed. And in one sense it doesn’t matter, because Camilla proofread every letter Palamedes sent to the Seventh House and leaned over his shoulder to read every response; he’s never bothered to conceal any aspect of himself from either of them. They were love letters, after all. She knows the lengths that her necromancer went to as he built his entire life around the woman in front of her. And it didn’t hurt in the beginning because they were too young, and by the time she’d realized, in the manner of being very slowly boiled alive, how she felt, it had been too late. The ache is constant and lingering and largely ignorable. Camilla is very good at ignoring it.

But in another sense—things are different now. The balance shifted when the Warden’s suit was rejected, and again when they came, all three of them, to Canaan House. For twelve years Dulcinea Septimus was nothing more than ink on flimsy, a theoretical amalgamation of struggling organs and metastasizing cells and whip-sharp commentary on Seventh House social circles—a puzzle to be solved, and a window into another House, but never, despite the inherent physicality of her illness, despite the Warden’s obsessive study of cells and tissues and blood samples, fully realized. Not for Camilla, anyway. Palamedes loved her with the single-minded intensity he turned on anything—anyone—that caught his interest, but she’d always been remote, unapproachable, impossibly distant. A dream, or an ideal.

Until now.

“Is that what you wanted to discuss, Lady Septimus?” Camilla says flatly.

“No,” says Dulcinea, shifting restlessly on her mountain of pillows. “Well, yes. Could you—” She closes her hand around the edge of a pillow. “Could you help me with this, first?”

She doesn’t want to go anywhere near the bed, but she can see the look that the Warden would give her if he ever found out that she’d let Dulcinea struggle, so Camilla, ever the cavalier, crosses the room in ten steps and stops at the edge of the bed. Dulcinea is pulling at one of the pillows behind her back, trying to prop herself up higher. She pauses when Camilla approaches, breathing a little too rapidly, and flutters a hand at the offending pillow. “I just can’t keep myself up for that long,” she says. “Would you—”

Camilla takes the pillow and adjusts it among its fellows, then takes a step back, returning to a safe distance. But when Dulcinea tries to shift herself back into a more comfortable position her arms tremble with her own weight, so Camilla moves closer again and, at Dulcinea’s breathless nod, gently sets a hand on her back to support her as she settles against the pillows. Her scapulae jut out like blades beneath her skin, and Camilla’s calluses catch on the thin fabric of the dressing gown. Dulcinea pats her hand once she’s settled and then pats the edge of the bed. “Sit down, won’t you? You remind me of Pro, looming like that.”  

Camilla sits.

Up close Lady Septimus is just as pale and fragile-looking and undeniably ill as she is from a distance. The only difference is that from here Camilla can see her veins, blue lines that seem to sit too close to the surface of her skin, visible even through the sheer fabric of her gown, and that with her shoulders beneath Camilla’s hands and her cool, dry palm against Camilla’s arm, she’s no longer an abstract or an ideal. She is very, very real.

“What I wanted to ask you,” Dulcinea says. She touches a finger to her lip thoughtfully. “Oh! Yes. The second offer. I couldn’t manage to talk him around. I would love to see you try to change his mind, I don’t think anyone else could—but he was quite adamant about it. He cares about you very much, you know.”

As if Camilla needs Dulcinea Septimus to tell her that.

“But I think,” Dulcinea continues blithely, “that if he had asked you, you would do it for him. Am I correct?”

Obviously. 

Camilla says, “Do what?”

Dulcinea pats her arm again, fingers feather-light against her wrist. “I don’t think the specifics matter, do they?”

Obviously not. Camilla would do anything Palamedes asked of her, because she knows that he’d never ask her to do anything she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do. If he thinks she can do it, she can. If he doesn’t—

“Maybe,” Dulcinea muses, “maybe you could —” She’s interrupted by another tearing cough, one that makes her entire body bow in on itself. She grabs at Camilla’s arm, leaning into her as she gasps for air, and her grip is surprisingly strong. For a moment, as the coughs are fading, she presses her forehead against Camilla’s shoulder, and her fingers brush against the inside of Camilla’s arm as she relaxes her grip.

When the coughing fit finally subsides, Camilla hands her a clean handkerchief. Dulcinea takes it and presses it to her mouth, leaning back once again on the pillows, eyes closed. When she opens them again, the blue of her irises is as bright as an electric shock. She tucks the bloodied handkerchief away somewhere, probably with the other one, buried somewhere in this enormous bed. “I really hoped this would be more of a dialogue, Camilla,” she says, with a slight wheeze.

Camilla shrugs, but she’s having to force the neutrality now. A smile flashes across Dulcinea’s lips, just for a moment, and for that brief second the rest of her face matches the ruthless intensity of her eyes. Then everything softens again, her smile and her gaze, and she strokes Camilla’s arm again.

“Is that it?” Camilla says.

“It’s not,” Dulcinea says sweetly. “I’m sure your Warden will tell you all about my second offer, so I won’t bother with all the necromantic details. Nothing the two of you couldn’t handle, I don’t doubt that. But the first…” Camilla shakes her head, very slightly, before she can stop herself. The pressure of Dulcinea’s fingers on her arm increases, just a bit. “It only seems fair that you be aware of the extent of our…arrangement.”  

Their arrangement ended a year ago, when Camilla returned to their room in the Library after three hours of combat training to find Palamedes hunched in the corner where the bed met the wall, glasses discarded atop a carefully folded piece of flimsy, as though an inability to see the words on the page might undo his unwilling memorization of them. She’d climbed onto the bed and held onto him while he shook, trying to keep him in one piece through sheer force. Palamedes has loved Dulcinea too long and too hard for Camilla to ever hate her, but she will never forgive her for breaking his heart.

“You’re curious,” Dulcinea says. She brings a hand up to her throat, brushing a mass of artfully tangled curls away from her collarbone. The skin of her throat is marred by an unmistakable purpling bruise. “Inappropriately so, I think.”

She can’t stop him from getting his heart broken again, not without resorting to depths too shameful to even consider. He has always had a tendency, when burned, to stick his hand back into the fire, the better to assess the potency of the threat and the nature of the damage.

“I’m sure he’ll tell me,” Camilla says, hoping for once that he won’t.

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Dulcinea says. “I’m sure he’d write you a report if you only asked. But I can do one better than that, I think.” Her fingers brush against the inside of Camilla’s wrist. “I can show you.”

Camilla freezes, and another bloom of heat spreads across the back of her neck.

“Would you like that, Camilla the Sixth?” Dulcinea asks. She shifts against the pillows, a seemingly casual movement that makes the open edges of her gown fall away from her sides completely. This time Camilla doesn’t look away, because if she does she’ll be forced to think about what Dulcinea is saying. It’s easier to study the stark blue veins that map across Dulcinea’s hips and thighs, at least until Dulcinea extends a hand and cups Camilla’s chin, forcing her to look up and meet that anoxic blue gaze. She does. The experience is not, Camilla thinks dizzily, unlike catching the Warden with his spectacles off—a gaze that seems to pierce through skin and muscle and bone.

“Let me show you how he kisses,” Dulcinea says.

And Camilla, God help her, nods. She can’t do anything else.

Dulcinea’s hand slips from her chin to her cheek, delicate, almost reverent; she brushes her thumb across Camilla’s cheekbone and leans forward, and Camilla is shifting to meet her before she can stop herself. She closes her eyes as Dulcinea’s lips touch hers, almost chastely, papery and cool. She does not open them when Dulcinea pulls back an inch and says, “Just like that, to start. Very chivalrous, for a necromancer.”

Camilla opens her eyes at this, and Dulcinea continues, “To start, I said. Now, once he knows that you want him to continue…” And she leans back in, tilts Camilla’s chin down, and kisses her again. When her lips part the taste of blood is unmistakable, but Camilla barely notices. Dulcinea kisses her with a focused intensity that is deeply, achingly familiar to her, because she’s been the target of it before. Her hands drop to Camilla’s waist and undo the fasten on her weapons belt, which breaks the illusion for a moment because Palamedes would somehow manage to stab himself at least twice in any attempt to divest Camilla of her weapons, but Dulcinea manages the buckles and fastens with surprising dexterity. The sword and dagger clatter to the floor.

“Just like that,” she murmurs again, returning her attention to Camilla’s mouth. Camilla shifts, pulling a knee up onto the bed and catching Dulcinea’s lower lip between her teeth. Dulcinea lets out a breathy laugh that turns into a moan as Camilla kisses her neck, and the illusion wavers again—the Duchess of Rhodes smells like her room, like blood and roses, and Palamedes smells like Sixth House soap. But Dulcinea’s hands aren’t so different from his, thin and long-fingered and surprisingly dexterous, and the Warden regularly forgets to eat, so Camilla could count his ribs beneath her palms just as easily as she can Dulcinea’s. 

She knows this is a game, and she knows she’s losing, but if she can’t have him at least she can have this. Dulcinea maps the careful grace of Palamedes’s hands, the focused attention of his mouth, onto Camilla’s skin until she’s braced on her elbows above her, breathless and dizzy, her tunic discarded on the mountain of pillows.

“Oh, he would like that,” Dulcinea murmurs, running her fingers across Camilla’s stomach. Her muscles tighten involuntarily, and Dulcinea’s lips twitch into a smile. “I couldn’t manage it, you know, but—”

Cam cuts her off with another kiss, a weak attempt to regain control, and Dulcinea hums in approval. Her hands trace back up, along Camilla’s ribs but no further. When Camilla finally pulls back, breathing raggedly, Dulcinea is smiling again. Her lips are dark and full, like a slash of blood across her skin.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says, her hands still laid lightly, teasingly, against Camilla’s sides. “He would never presume, surely you know that—he needs prodding, if you want something from him—” She chokes on a gasp as Camilla palms her breast, rolling her nipple between her fingers.

“Like that?” she says as Dulcinea squirms beneath her.

“Just,” Dulcinea gasps.

“Good,” Camilla says. She works a hand between Dulcinea’s legs, pulling another moan from her, and leans down to put her mouth on her throat, right over the mark that Palamedes left on her skin. Dulcinea shudders, and Camilla grazes the bruise with her teeth before pressing another kiss slightly higher, then another, until she can whisper into Dulcinea’s ear. “Show me what he does next.”

 

 

She knocks on the door to their quarters, six short knocks and then six long, and it seems to take forever for him to pull back all the deadbolts and open the door.

“Where have you been?” Palamedes says, stepping back to let her inside and closing the door behind her. “I thought I was going to have to call in a favor and send the Ninth cav after you.”

Camilla slams the deadbolts back into place, shucks off her weapons belt on her way to the bedroom, and deposits rapier and dagger on the low cav bed before meeting the Warden’s eyes. This is a mistake. She can hold his gaze because she’s built up an immunity to it, but after a full second of contact with his clear gray eyes she wants to confess, apologize. She pulls off her robe and fidgets with her sleeves, pushing them up to her elbows. She’s afraid that if he touches her he’ll be able to read Dulcinea’s signature on the cloth, an echo of her skin.

She says, “Looking for you. Septimus wanted a word.”

He’s been shifting from foot to foot, as is his habit, but he goes still at that. “About what?”

Camilla, equally unable to stand still and desperate for something to occupy her hands, fishes around in her pile of weapons for the tin of metal polish. “She said you…refused an offer that she made you.”

“Oh.” Palamedes relaxes, a minute shift in his stance. To Camilla, it’s as obvious as a shout. “She brought me down to the labs to get a read on one of the challenges.”

“I should have gone with you.”

“You should have.” Camilla pauses in the middle of opening the tin of polish. “If I had known that was what she intended, then I would have—no matter. The key in Lab Eight is on the other side of an entropy field overlaid with a senescent barrier, Cam, a hundred meters at least. Dulcinea’d figured out how to get across, and offered to share the key if I did the actual walking.”

“And you refused?”

“I refused,” he says.

“Why?”

Palamedes drifts over to the flimsy-covered table by the blackout curtains and picks up a stack of notes, his long fingers shuffling through the pages. “There’s no way around the field—no way but through, that is. I would have had to siphon your thalergy if I’d wanted to make it more than ten meters.”  

Camilla considers that, rolling her neck until it cracks. They’ve made it through almost half of the challenge rooms so far; she’s had him inside her head for the winnowing challenge, guiding her movements. Siphoning is different.

“I would never, Cam.”

“I know,” she says. She cracks her knuckles one at a time, still thinking. Palamedes turns around, hands full of flimsy, and waits for her to continue. She thinks it through carefully, weighing the potential ramifications, feeling out a suspicion that’s been lingering in the back of her mind since she left the Seventh quarters. Unfounded, she’d thought, and chalked it up to jealousy. Now she’s not so sure.

She unsheathes one of her short swords and turns it over in her hands. “I know,” she says again. “But she didn’t?”

Palamedes’s eyes flick up from the flimsies, and he meets her gaze over the rims of his glasses. “No,” he says slowly, “she didn’t.”

Camilla wants to say Then she doesn’t know you at all; she wants to say Dulcinea Septimus wants something from you that the girl we wrote to never did; she wants to say This is not the person we thought we knew. Look at the facts, Warden. But she cannot pull facts from the wreckage of her own emotions and she knows better than to expect Palamedes to do the same. His strict Sixth rationality breaks down when it comes to Dulcinea; she’s been watching it crumble for twelve years.  

She wants to say I know you never would have asked, but if you had, I would have said yes.    

She says, “She thought I could change your mind.”

“You won’t.”

“Wasn’t planning on trying.”

He smiles at her, the brilliant smile that transforms his entire face, and holds out a couple of the flimsies. “I knew I could count on you. I ran the calculations anyway, to see what it would take to complete. Check my math?”

She accepts the notes and moves to stand beside him at the table, a careful half meter away. With the ghost of Dulcinea Septimus’s hands on her skin it’s all too easy to imagine what they must have looked like. She shakes her head to clear it and focuses on the calculations in her hands.

“Are you okay?” Palamedes asks, noticing, because he always notices.

She’s not going to ask. She’s better off not knowing.

“Yeah,” she says. She spreads the notes out across the layer of flimsy already papering the table. “I will be.”