During my first few weeks as the Gentle Lord’s wife, wandering cluelessly through my husband’s castle, the house had seemed to me like a gilded birdcage, as lovely and terrifying as my captor himself. But now, with my husband by my side, our cage became a never-ending paradise. Every day was spent exploring, and every day we discovered something new. Today we’d already visited three of Ignifex’s favourite rooms, and as he ushered me down an unfamiliar hallway towards a green door I’d never seen before, I knew that this room would be something special.
The heat hit me first. Almost as soon as we entered, sweat beaded on my forehead and the back of my neck, causing my thin white dress to cling uncomfortably to my skin. I’d taken to wearing looser garments of late – much to my husband’s enjoyment. On some days, I abstained from dressing myself altogether; I had shocked Ignifex on the first morning after our coupling in the Heart of Air, when I’d arrived downstairs for breakfast in nothing but one of the gauzy nightgowns I’d discovered on my first evening in the Gentle Lord’s castle. Ignifex had also started dressing down in my presence, although I had yet to persuade him that clothing was entirely unnecessary. Today he wore his usual uniform; dark coat, dark trousers, and a white cotton shirt with lace edging, over which the criss-crossed key belts were strapped against his chest like armour. But his shirt was unbuttoned and he was barefoot like me; we’d both left our boots in a previous room, where the floor was covered in a soft, downy layer of feathers. I had loved watching my husband barefoot and grinning as he kicked up feathers like a schoolboy. It had been an intimate experience, somehow more intimate than sharing a bed.
Ignifex’s fingers sent sharp pinpricks of heat through my skin as they found my neck, stroking lazily. He brushed my damp hair back over my shoulder, pulling me from my thoughts. “Well,” he said as he stepped closer, closing the door behind us with his free hand. “What have we here?”
The room was as large as it was stiflingly hot. I breathed in and tasted a fragrant, flowery scent in the air that reminded me of the perfume Astraia wore. A familiar pang of guilt pierced thought me at the thought of my sister, but by focusing on my husband’s hand now tugging me further into the room I was able to bury the pain almost immediately.
“Where are we?” I asked Ignifex.
“I don’t know,” my husband replied. “I expected that door to lead to an apple orchard.” This wasn’t unusual. The house was almost as much of a mystery to Ignifex as it was to me. “This prison holds as many rooms as there are stars in the night sky beyond Arcadia,” he’d once told me, but I couldn’t imagine the heavens possibly being so vast, no matter what the stories said.
We appeared to be in a bathroom styled in the ancient fashion. I’d been to a bathhouse similar to this one before although, as usual, no ordinary room could quite compare. A deep rectangular pool spanned the length of the room, filled with steaming water. The liquid was a bright unnatural shade of green, which glinted in the midday sun as though a thousand emeralds lay trapped beneath the surface. The stone walls curved upwards in a magnificent barrel vault arch where steam from the bath seemed to rise and disappear. Usually in a caldarium the water would be heated by a furnace below the floor, but when I stepped forward to get a closer look at the sparkling green pool I saw a sigil etched into the stone slabs, shimmering beneath the surface of the water.
“It’s Hermetic –” I began when I felt two strong hands at my hips, and before I could say or do anything more, I was thrown forwards and hit the water with a splash.
Despite its unnatural shade and perfume, the water was apparently harmless and I surfaced immediately, spluttering and coughing. My hair hung wetly over my face, but through it I could see my husband standing on the poolside where I had stood, smirking gleefully, his red eyes twinkling with unsuppressed mirth. I scowled up at him.
“My poor lady wife,” he said in a voice like melted butter. His hands were busy undoing the gold clasps of his coat and key belts. “You really must be more careful. Luckily, it appears you can swim.”
My eyes narrowed. “You couldn’t have checked beforehand, oh darling husband?”
His smirk widened as he tossed his coat aside. “Maybe I was hoping I’d get to play the hero.”
I pursed my lips, considering my options for payback, when his hands fumbled on the clasp of his trousers and I realised that his eyes had dropped down towards my chest. In the water, the sheer fabric of my dress had become nearly transparent.
“Like what you see, my lord?” I teased, raising my arms up over my head under the pretence of sweeping my hair out of my face, and further exposing my chest as I did so.
He was naked in the next instant, shedding the rest of his clothes at an inhuman speed. I bit back a smug grin, turned my back on him, and began to swim to the other side of the pool. I hadn’t had many swimming lessons as a child – visiting the local baths was a pointless luxury, a distraction I couldn’t afford – but I could swim well enough to make it halfway across the long pool before I heard the splash that meant my husband had dived in after me.
I glanced back as I kicked my feet up and down as best I could, and knew at once that it had been a mistake to challenge him. He was clearly a strong swimmer. He was on his front, gliding almost lazily towards me, his shoulder muscles taut as his arms pulled through the water. I gave up attempting to move forwards and ducked down under the water as he approached.
The water was shallower at this end but it was deep enough for me to swim beneath him. I started back the way we’d come, hoping that Ignifex hadn’t seen my manoeuvre. I didn’t get very far. A hand wrapped around my ankle, tugging me upwards. I kicked out with my free leg but underwater my attempts to escape were slow and sluggish. I felt his hands move to my lower back, and then I was propelled to the surface, once again spluttering in an undignified manner.
Ignifex was swimming on his side, his arms wrapped around my waist to keep us both afloat. He wore a pleased smile. The smug bastard didn’t even look out of breath.
“We’re supposed to be searching for your name,” I reminded him, trying unsuccessfully to tug myself free. “I don’t think we’re likely to find the answers in here.”
He snorted. “And the feather room was promising?”
We were at the edge of the pool now, and he grasped the side with one hand, spinning us both until we were vertical. His arms still encircled me, but the water was shallow enough for us both to stand and I could easily escape now if I wished to. Part of me considered making a break for it… but there were other ways to challenge him and win.
I reached out, running a hand over his chest and trailing my fingers up towards his neck. He let me touch him, watching coolly with an expression that gave nothing away. His eyes were almost black in the dim green light of the pool, only a thin oval of red surrounding the pupil. I dipped my hand lower, beneath the warm water. When I found what I was looking for he let out a soft sound almost like a purr and closed his eyes, tipping his head back as he arched forward into my hand. So trusting, as always. I couldn’t believe how easy it would be to kill him now, if I still had the inclination to do so. Not that my hands were a danger to him anymore. I doubted I could still wield the virgin knife successfully.
Ignifex leaned forward again, his head drooping down to meet mine. Our foreheads bumped together clumsily, and then our lips met, and then we were kissing. His lips were too slow against mine, his hands cupping my cheeks unbearably gently. I pulled away, easily kicked up from the pool floor and wrapped my legs around his hips, my hands now clutching his biceps. He stumbled back a few steps, obviously startled by my sudden move. I smirked against his mouth, shamelessly pressing my lower body against his. Ignifex’s hands left my face and grasped my thighs, lifting me higher, fitting my body more securely against his. His mouth left mine to trail a line of kisses down my throat and I pulled on his hair, encouraging him to kiss harder.
“You really are trying to kill me,” he gasped against my skin, and I was pleased to hear that he sounded out of breath.
“My darling lord,” I simpered. “Aren’t I always?” Ignifex laughed against my throat and thrust his hips forward, pinning me to the side of the pool. I felt his erection hard against me and I smirked in satisfaction, running my hands through his hair.
His lips met mine again with bruising force as one of his hands found my breast, cupping me over the material of my dress, teasing me with soft, lingering touches. In the water it felt as though there were no barriers between us at all, like my dress had become a second skin. A mad, impatient hunger consumed me. When his hand drew back I bit down hard on his bottom lip in protest. He snarled back at me, and I saw a single drop of blood slide down his chin. Perhaps he was immortal, but he could still bleed.
A new hunger lurked behind his cat-like eyes now. He drew his swollen lip between his teeth, sucking on the wound and I felt a stirring in my stomach. Some terrible, twisted part of me liked that. It wasn’t that I liked watching him bleed. I had long since made peace with the fact that I could never hurt my husband, despite his cruelty. But I liked knowing that he wasn’t entirely invulnerable. I liked knowing that he could bleed. And he seemed to like it too. His tongue flicked out, swiping at the blood on his chin.
Slowly, carefully, as though approaching a wounded animal, I leaned back towards him, pressing my lips against his chin. My sharp impatience was gone; all I wanted to do now was kiss my husband. I kissed his chin and his sore bottom lip and his nose and his forehead, and like a cat, he closed his eyes and leaned into my kisses, rewarding my gentleness with his own. It seemed impossible that just a few minutes ago we’d been close to tearing at each other. Now we were nothing but tender.
As I kissed him all over one of his hands left my hip to brush between my legs. His long, pale fingers were as gentle as my kisses, stroking me so agonizingly slowly and carefully that I let out a whimper, resting my forehead against his cheek and arching my back. His caresses lulled me into complete surrender as the water slopped against us, still warm as a steam-heated bath. It felt strange to do this half-submerged in water, although no stranger than our first time in the Heart of Air.
“I’m ready” I whispered after a few more endless minutes of his touch. “No more waiting, please.”
He removed his hand and the next moment he was inside me. No matter how many times we did this, I still marvelled at how good it felt, how right it felt. For years I’d dreaded bedding my future husband; I’d assumed that it would be sickening, that a monster like the Gentle Lord would show no mercy and take his pleasure from my pain. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I gasped as he entered me and he cupped my chin, looking down at me through heavily-lidded eyes, watching my reaction as he withdrew slowly. I let out a shaky sigh of pleasure at the sensation of being filled by him once more, and apparently satisfied, he dropped my chin, hands returning to my thighs, supporting me as we fell into a natural rhythm against each other.
The stone edge of the pool was digging uncomfortably into my back but I didn’t care. I wrapped my arms around him, pressing my fingers into his lower back. My eyes fluttered closed and my lips found his jaw. The impatient hunger was back and I thrust my hips up to meet his. I wanted to memorise this feeling. I wanted to tear him apart and heal every wound. I wanted every last bit of him to belong to me – every sinister thought, every bitter word, every depraved act. All his gentleness and all his darkness. All his kindness and all his cruelty. I wanted it all, and I wanted him to take it all from me too.
I told him as much. I whispered every wicked word against his jaw and he groaned his agreement, thrusting into me with more force. Pleasure swirled in the pit of my belly, soft and spiky and sensual. Ignifex was breathing heavily now, his eyes squeezed shut in concentration. I watched him, entranced by the vein pulsing in his forehead and the sweat trickling down the side of his face as we moved faster, gasping and moaning in unison, gripping each other with shaking fingers, as though worried the other might disappear. The heat made me feel dizzy and I could hear my heart beating frantically in my chest like the beat of a drum. I was barely able to breathe, barely able to think. My insides tightened and the pleasure in my stomach seemed to surge and squirm like a wild thing, desperate to escape.
Ignifex opened his eyes, and his narrow gaze met mine. Without slowing his thrusts, my husband snaked a hand around my hip and under the fabric of my dress. I mewled in frustration as he teased me for a while, tracing patterns along the inside of my thigh. When my fingernails dug into his back he finally relented, moving his fingers up and pressing hard against my core, applying the perfect amount of pressure exactly where I needed it most. His gaze on mine and his fingers circling in time with his thrusts caused a sob to rise in my throat and my eyes rolled back as my body jerked against his, contracting around him as I trembled wildly. Pure pleasure rocked through me and I cried out, clutching at my husband’s arms, neck and back as he guided me through my high, murmuring my name. My head fell forward onto his shoulder and moments later he groaned my name as if in pain; then he tensed, every muscle straining beneath my fingertips, and I felt his own release.
He clutched me as he came down to earth, shaking and gasping for breath. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, brushing his dark hair tenderly away from his eyes. He always looked so vulnerable in these moments. So human. I leaned forward to kiss his nose and he laughed breathlessly, adjusting me in his arms and bending closer to nip at my nose, and my cheek, and my lips –
And then, as if the Kindly Ones themselves had heard my thoughts and sought to mock me for believing that my husband was anything but a monster, the ominously cheerful chime of the bell echoed through the bathroom, summoning him to curse whatever poor, deluded soul sought audience with him.
Ignifex froze, the grin melting away from his face. He leaned down to peck me once more on the mouth, and then pulled back. My feet hit the floor unsteadily and he’d launched himself out of the pool before I’d even had time to register what the bell meant.
“You might as well dress for dinner,” he said in a painfully calm voice. “I’ll deal with this and meet you there.”
I felt as though I was being dismissed. I grasped the side of the pool, my heart still hammering in my chest. “Ignifex –” I began, but there was nothing else to say.
He had tugged on his trousers and was pulling his arms through his now-damp shirt. I wondered what this client would make of him – the fearsome Gentle Lord barefoot and soaking wet, with a bruised lip and the faintest tinge of pink still visible in his pale cheeks. I smiled despite my misgivings, and my husband managed to smile back at me, the tenderness returning to his gaze for a long moment.
The bell chimed again.
“Go,” I told him. He strode back to me, bent down and pressed his lips firmly against mine. And then he was gone, leaving me alone in the steaming pool, which felt suddenly much colder than it had been before.