“a magnetism of the flesh. . .”
— encomiums to desire
pontine marshes, central italy
Even in the carriage, the heat was unbearable.
Toxic, seeping, squirming heat. Alike the buzz of the voracious mosquitoes Asphodel could hear just outside. Her mother scoffed at her visible discomfort. Apparently, a woman of class ought to be a Stoic.
“Mother, surely the Duchess needn’t admit us near the boiling evening?”
Her mother twitched.
“The Duchess de Courcillon is… very particular, dear. A tad unsightly, but trifling, ultimately — if you just keep your head up.”
Asphodel sighed in response. Her dress was stuffy enough on its own without the posture.
Amaranth de Courcillon—the mysterious and reclusive duchess—was the possessor of a vast fortune; this fortune, Asphodel’s mother, in their family’s current straits, sought the profit of. So doggedly, evidently, that she was willing to travel south to her putrid summer estate and get a chance at exclusive shipping rights before anyone else dared venture into the Duchess’ domain in the more hospitable autumn.
Asphodel, for her part, was just trying to avoid thinking about all the mosquitos.
The two sat in silence as their carriage bumped and thunked across the road, slowly coming to a stop.
“Lady Priuli,” the driver’s wheezing tone hacked outside, “we have arrived.”
Asphodel and her mother shared a glance as the carriage door was opened for them. They stepped out onto the Duchess’ estate.
The place was a veritable palace. Acres of elegant gazebos and raised walkways in a sea of tasteful wildflowers, imported Spanish moss festering luxuriantly on the branches of gnarled oaks and cypresses. And in its center, the ascending crown — the domed and embellished structure of the baroque summer residence de Courcillon. In the fiery sunset it was a bleeding mountain. Asphodel’s breath fled her, and she was lost for words.
Asphodel and her mother were ushered by a maidservant into the grand entrance hall through the stifling summer haze. It was a tad more comfortable. The servant whispered something to Asphodel’s mother, and then skittered down a side-hall.
“The Duchess will see us in but a moment,” her mother said. “Pay attention, and raise not a lick of trouble.”
Asphodel frowned, only to receive a hiss in response. She nodded.
Then the Duchess stepped into the hall.
If Asphodel could not breathe at the sight of her estate, the Duchess herself stole her very life in an instant — lighting her ablaze with wonder and enthrallment. Amaranth de Courcillon was stunning, consuming. With her deep, dark ocean eyes, her plump, lovely lips, lit with a hint of a smile — her skin of velvet alabaster, her glowing height. . .
Asphodel blinked away her wayward thoughts, a tint of pink on her cheeks. Her mother performed a curtsy, and she belatedly followed at an irritated glance.
“Your Grace,” her mother greeted.
“Lady Priuli,” the Duchess nodded. Then her eyes traced over Asphodel. She shivered. “And you…”
Asphodel opened her mouth to speak, but her mother hurriedly spoke instead.
“Asphodel, your Grace. My daughter.”
Recognition dawned in the Duchess’ eyes as she glanced between the two. “Lady Asphodel Priuli,” she purred. She took Asphodel’s hand in her own and pressed a slow kiss to it. Soft yet firm, lovely and languid. Asphodel’s breath caught.
Her mother’s eyes bulged out of her skull.
“Your Grace,” Asphodel murmured. The Duchess’ smile grew. Asphodel’s heart was drunk on it.
The Duchess looked back to her mother. “I apologize for the hour of our meeting, Lady Priuli. I have been taking dreadfully belated nights of late, and I find the fervor of evening agreeable to my mind’s workings. I hope you’ll not take it as a slight if I request we continue to meet at this hour.”
Asphodel’s mother blinked.
“Not at all, your Grace. I’ll have sufficient time to set my affairs in order.”
The Duchess smiled. “You have already eaten, I presume?”
Her mother nodded her assent.
“Then I shall see you tomorrow evening. Liane will see you to your quarters.”
The maidservant from earlier returned to the hall as the Duchess made to take her leave. At the last moment, she turned her head, eyes flitting over Lady Priuli to settle on Asphodel. The Duchess winked.
“Good night, my dears.”
Warmth pulsed through Asphodel’s veins. She grinned in response, and then the Duchess departed the hall. Asphodel’s eyes trailed after swishing scarlet hems a moment too long.
Asphodel could feel her mother’s eyes boring into her as the servant took them to the guest quarters. She resolutely ignored them. The second Liane locked them in for the night, her mother hissed with rage.
“What in the Lord’s name was that?! The Duchess is strange enough on her own, but to see my own daughter playing off her?! All I needed was you to remain silent.”
“Mother,” Asphodel began with a repressed huff, “surely it’s advantageous to appeal to her Grace?” She didn’t add that she thought the Duchess had been rather charming. And ravishing…
“Not in the grand scheme. It may play to this single shipping deal, yet still affect our relations with others. An unsavory sort gather around the House of Courcillon, dear. This is a matter of necessity, not sustainability.”
Asphodel said nothing.
“Well, no matter. You won’t be attending any of the negotiation proper. You need only remain here, and perhaps scrounge up any gossip you can from the servants we can sell on our return to Venice.”
Facing away from her mother, Asphodel scowled.
“As you wish.”
“That’s a good girl. Good night.”
Asphodel dreamed of soft lips and roving hands.
Asphodel’s mother had been gone from their quarters a long time. All Asphodel had to alleviate her boredom were the buzzes of insects outside the manor, and the scuttling of servants’ feet inside it — which were hardly better. She simply sat and read by candlelight. The words were becoming a haze of ennui when there was a knock at the door. A servant’s voice trilled from behind it.
Asphodel blinked. “Yes?” she responded.
“The Duchess wishes to greet you personally to apologize for the travail you’ve faced in coming here. Would that be alright?”
“My mother is already with her…”
Yet Asphodel’s heart danced beats of excitement in her chest.
“Oh… the Duchess meant you, alone.”
A rock skidding off a lake, her heart jumped. Yet…
“That’s hardly necessary, miss. If greatly appreciated. Please send her Grace my thanks.”
There seemed to be a smile in the maidservant’s voice, this time.
“Her Grace insists.”
A little grin found its way to Asphodel’s lips.
“Very well, then. I’ll… be out in a moment.”
Asphodel quickly dressed, quietly fumbling with stay-hooks accustomed to servants’ hands. In a few minutes, Asphodel found herself on a wooden walkway outside, in a dusky world under burning skies. Liane pointed out the Duchess beneath a gazebo, fanning herself, and departed.
The air was thick and stuffy with the sickly sweet haze of incense, casting its own aromatic clouds over the estate. Asphodel didn’t mind it; it kept the mosquitos away.
“Your Grace,” Asphodel greeted, curtsying.
The Duchess turned, and a gorgeous smile bloomed on her rosy lips. Asphodel’s heart stuttered, warm.
“Asphodel. I trust your stay has been tolerable thus far?”
“Of course.” Asphodel took a steadying breath. “I trust my mother has been tolerable thus far, your Grace?”
The Duchess’ laugh was like the tinkling of ancient bells.
“Please, call me Amaranth. I hope I don’t look much older than you, after all.”
Asphodel blushed. “I-I wouldn’t want to disrespect…”
“Darling, you hardly could.”
The Duchess smiled, a playful twinkle in her eyes that made Asphodel want to swoon.
“Alright…?” she encouraged.
“Alright, Amaranth.” An exhale. The name was silk on her tongue, like it was meant for her to say.
Amaranth winked. “Good girl.” A rush of pleasure surged through Asphodel’s blood. So different from when her mother. . .
“W-what did you come calling for, your—Amaranth?” she corrected, slightly breathless.
“I have spent far too much time debating the terms of far too complex a commercial interest. Is a lady not to see to it that all her guests are well and situated?”
“And after all, how could I be expected not to inquire after such a stunning girl staying at my residence? Please, tell me about yourself.”
A flush ran across Asphodel’s cheeks. She let out a little puff of air. “I hardly think I’m of much interest. There’s not much to say.”
Amaranth rolled her eyes, urging her to continue.
“My… father passed before I was born, so I never knew him. My mother manages our finances and our household. I… can’t recall many friends. The only concession my mother’s austerity made to me was an allowance of books.”
A sparkle fluttered into Amaranth’s eyes, and her grin seemed genuinely excited. “Really? What sort?”
Asphodel bit her lip, turning the words over carefully in her mouth. “The philosophers.”
To Asphodel’s abject surprise, Amaranth’s eyes burned only more alive. Asphodel noticed flecks of emerald swimming in their deeps. She was so beautiful.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve met a lady with a similar love of wisdom, darling. This is,” she almost seemed to shudder for a moment, “a most wondrous surprise.”
Asphodel let out a sigh of relief. She grew more infatuated with this woman by the minute. . .
“The more and more I hear of you,” Amaranth whispered, seemingly to herself, “the more I wish to keep you. How could I resist such loveliness?”
A queer heat, warm and wet, sank to the bottom of Asphodel’s stomach, and she let out a little gasp at the words, blood stuttering in her ears. “I—I…” she trailed off, leaving them in a haze of warm silence.
Amaranth turned on Asphodel, eyes soft. “Whom are you fond of, darling?”
Asphodel’s heartbeat hammered, a white-hot paroxysm. “P-pardon?”
“Which philosophers are you fond of reading?” Amaranth reiterated.
“O-oh,” Asphodel stuttered. “I particularly enjoy... the theories of the Duchess of Newcastle.”
Amaranth nodded, gazing at the darkening sky. “There’s something curiously displeasing in the adulation of reason. What ecstasy was ever derived of it?”
“I don’t disagree, but it seems a necessity for the proper conduct of men's affairs, does it not?”
With a breathy laugh, Amaranth turned her eyes back on Asphodel, half-lidded.
“As I look out on these grounds and these flowers and these trees, there is nothing that possesses a drop of reason. Yet, changing, they grow from acorns and seeds, arising where they will in strife and want, clamoring in such beautiful disparate tones, forming the world as we know it. Life is intoxicating, like a liquid flame. A revelation unfolding unto itself.”
Asphodel grinned. “So you are fond of Heraclitus?”
Amaranth winked. “Some time ago, I happened to acquire a most obscure manuscript of his.”
“Might I see?”
A smile. “Tomorrow?”
The next evening was similar. Near the end of her mother’s meeting with Amaranth, a servant brought her outside again, and she waited for Amaranth to arrive, soaking in the warm languor of the estate grounds on a bench, the sweet island from which she could admire the buzzings of frantic mosquitos. There was something tranquil and homely to it, having lived several days in their sound. . .
Asphodel’s mother was under the impression that she was discussing gossip and happenings with the servants in their hall in the basement. Asphodel knew it would do more harm than good to reveal to her the actual nature of her goings. She had never had a friend before.
Just then, Amaranth emerged from the manor, alone, cooling herself with what seemed to be an elegant painted paper fan, looking for Asphodel. When they locked eyes, Amaranth broke into a sudden smile. Asphodel grinned back shyly in response, going pink. Under her free arm Amaranth held a bound book.
“Amaranth,” whispered Asphodel, with a small curtsy.
“Darling,” replied Amaranth, sitting beside Asphodel on the bench. “I’ve brought the Heraclitus, as promised. I’ve been told it is derived from an ancient manuscript that has been in my… family’s possession for centuries. He and the Tenth Muse are personal treasures of mine. I hope you are enriched in the reading.”
“Of course,” Asphodel said. Then, fiddling with the lace of her bodice, “Perhaps you could read it to me? I… it’s been such a short time, yet I find myself yearning ever so much for your company.”
Amaranth’s returning smile was dazzling, setting her heart a-jitter pleasantly. “I’d love to, darling. I feel the same.”
“Though perhaps we could talk a spell before? I realized I hadn’t thought to inquire of your family, even after you asked after mine.”
Amaranth blinked. “My parents — the Duke and Duchess, naturally — died so long ago, it seems, I can hardly remember them. Hence my status. I have… relatives, of a sort, but their visits are few and far between.”
Asphodel frowned. “That sounds dreadfully lonely.”
Amaranth gave a huff of a laugh. “You’re no stranger to loneliness yourself, I understand.” Asphodel nodded. “Perhaps we should be lonely together.”
The warmth in her eyes left Asphodel spellbound. There was a strange, pleasurable tension between them; it was not uncomfortable, but that of magnets too long separated—an occult virtue. Asphodel needed to touch Amaranth, needed to feel her, to feel something. . .
She took Amaranth’s free hand in her own, stroking the palm with her thumb. Amaranth’s breath hitched. A moment of absolute stillness, save the calming motions of Asphodel’s thumb. But then, Amaranth shifted closer, resting her head on Asphodel’s shoulder with a contented sigh. Asphodel shuddered at the feeling of her breath on her skin, warm tingles racing through her veins.
“I’ve changed my mind, darling,” murmured Amaranth, wryly. “I’d like you to be the third of my treasures. You are simply too precious.”
Asphodel giggled softly, leaning more into Amaranth.
“Anything for you, your Grace.” Amaranth gave a distinctly unladylike (and horribly attractive) snort against her.
Amaranth guided their fingers gently to the cover of the book on her lap. “Shall we?” she asked. Asphodel nodded.
They read of the obscure fragments of antiquity to one another as the silver moon rose above unto the night.
So the evenings and nights passed on; lost in words and in each other. Seeds of white-hot flashes had bloomed into a pool of warm tingling connection within Asphodel. She was so immersed that the scoldings and directions of her mother hardly registered as they made their way to the dining hall.
“Remember. Speak not unless addressed, proffer the proper respect, and defer to my judgement. We cannot afford to lose face with the Duchess.”
Asphodel hummed in recognition. Her mother opened her mouth, but the servants leading them opened the doors to the hall.
Amaranth’s dress was a deep cobalt tonight — a clear day’s ocean, serene sapphire. Asphodel found herself fixed on her lips, instead. She hastily performed the proper curtsy before they were seated.
“I’m sorry to bother you so, your Grace. I thought it prudent to give my daughter some fresh air, on account of how… giving she has been with her time when, no doubt, she’d rather be home reading. Bookish, she is. How passing strange. . .”
Her mother’s droning faded away, as if cast underwater. Asphodel shared a gaze with Amaranth, smiling slightly. An amused glint shone in Amaranth’s eyes, though it was not exhaled as a laugh. The minutes passed like the wash of waves, an imperturbable tranquility. . .
“Well, Asphodel?” her mother asked.
She blinked. “Hmm?” she hummed, still staring at Amaranth.
Her mother scoffed. “Pardon her, your Grace. My daughter is yet to grasp the virtue of respect.” She leaned Asphodel’s way, hissing. “We were just discussing your father’s time in the Venetian fleet.”
Asphodel’s eyes flicked to Amaranth. “I meant no disrespect.”
Amaranth smiled warmly, the sun. “You could never.”
Asphodel seeped back into the conversation, offering the occasional comment. Before she knew it, their dinner was concluded, and servants were retrieving the platters and plates on the table. The three of them stood at a side-door.
“It’s always a pleasure,” her mother said airily. Amaranth smiled.
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you. Lady Priuli. Good night.”
“Good night, your Grace.”
Amaranth’s smile softened.
An ironic grin. “Amaranth.”
Time stood still a moment, before the furious gaze of her mother seared her flesh. She sputtered with rage. Asphodel flinched.
“P-pardon my daughter, your Grace! She is… irreverent, solipsistic, unwise. She knows nothing of proper courtesy, nor of what she says!”
Asphodel opened her mouth to speak, defend herself, anything, when the familiar, soothing hand of Amaranth settled on her shoulder.
“No, pardon me, Lady Priuli. Last night, I selfishly invited Asphodel on a promenade after our converse to chat. I asked her to call me as she did, for sake of familiarity. I hope you’ll excuse my presumption. I meant no harm.”
Asphodel’s mother’s fury bled into confusion, and then suspicion, her eyes flitting between the two. Finally, she sighed.
“Of course, your Grace. Asphodel, my dear,” she gestured to the door. “Let us depart for our quarters.”
Asphodel stiffened. Amaranth subtly squeezed her shoulder.
“Actually,” she said, “I was hoping Asphodel might accompany me. Her mind,” she explained with a hint of edge, “is so enthrallingly sharp. Our brief discourse last night was hardly enough to satisfy.”
Asphodel’s mother sucked in a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Very well. I’ll see you soon,” she nodded at Amaranth. “Asphodel.” And she was gone.
As soon as the door closed, Asphodel was gathered into Amaranth’s arms. She shivered there.
“I’m sorry, darling. I should have spoken for you more. But I didn’t know how without drawing her ire at our meetings. You are precious, shining, unique. An amorphous, lovely jewel.”
Asphodel sighed wetly against Amaranth’s chest. “You have already done more than any other has. I’m not sure how to repay you.”
“Your company is priceless,” whispered Amaranth. Asphodel sunk deeper into her embrace. They stood like that for a while.
“… If I might say so, darling?” Asphodel hummed an assent. “I mean no disrespect. Yet… your mother is a vile, narrow-minded woman. I’m completely befuddled as to how a lady such as her might have birthed one such as you.”
“The alternations of fate are so mysterious, my—Amaranth.”
Amaranth smiled into Asphodel’s hair. “Indeed.”
A quiet. “Might we… retire to your chambers for the night? I don’t want to… return to her.”
A novel, entrancing smirk. “Of course.”
Asphodel’s molten blood stuttered at that hint of a purr. They made their way to Amaranth’s chambers, hand-in-hand. When the lock clicked shut behind them, Asphodel just stared. . .
“You are so beautiful,” Amaranth husked, almost seeming in a daze as she ran her fingers along Asphodel’s, “and there are times I cannot breathe for wanting you, my darling.”
With those simple words, Asphodel’s heart became flame, and she panted, burned by longing.
“Amaranth. . .”
Their lips came together with a crash, mouths moving with blind, oceanic passion, losing themselves in the other. Tempestuous and inevitable.
Amaranth’s lips were so soft, so delectable. . . this was nothing like she thought kissing was supposed to be. It was wondrous, voluptuous. Asphodel let out a little moan.
“Beautiful. . . brilliant. . .” Amaranth groaned, winding her arms around Asphodel. Each word was met with a hitch of breath. Finally, they separated—exhales heavy, inhales sharp.
“It… it seems ineffable, my darling. . . that all things flow unto you. . .”
Asphodel could hardly speak — her lips and tongue and blood and body were aflame — so she just moaned again and dragged Amaranth’s lips to hers once more. She felt slender ivory fingers work at the laces and hooks of her bodice, her stay. . . she felt her own fingers unraveling knots and ties, removing hooks, casting azure water-sky dress away. . .
“When I saw you in this,” Amaranth growled, “I wanted to have you there against my dining room table.”
“Fuck,” Asphodel gasped.
They desperately tore at each other’s clothes, removing stays and petticoats and throwing off chemises. . . Amaranth’s pale hand against her breast drew another breathy curse from Asphodel’s lips.
“When I saw you tonight,” she panted, “I wanted to taste every inch of you. I couldn’t stop staring.”
“I recall,” smirked Amaranth.
They stumbled, wrapped in each other, into Amaranth’s bed. Amaranth pounced on her, laying kiss after kiss on breast and neck and lips. Asphodel tilted her head back into the sheets and made noises that were delicious even to her. Dextrous, warm fingers trailed down Asphodel, caressing her inner thigh, drawing out a mindless moan. . .
They hesitated there a moment — a question. Asphodel nodded, frantic, mad with need.
“Fuck me, love. Please. Fuck…”
“You’re so wet. . .” Amaranth murmured, almost amused.
And then she filled her. Asphodel throbbed with pleasure at the feeling, gasping Amaranth’s name. Two fingers pumped at her, at her core, bleeding all her senses together, slashing with each movement at the foundation of Asphodel’s universe. Lips like blooming revelation kissed her neck, melting her, undoing her. . .
And then a sharp flash of pain like torn paper.
Asphodel’s eyes shot open as Amaranth’s teeth — fangs — bit into her. But Amaranth kept fucking her, and the sudden sting and its panic dissolved into gushing, languorous pleasure flooding her up to her pores, thick like laudanum.
“A-Amaranth. . .” she moaned, hand on her hair, holding her on her neck. Amaranth’s tongue lapped at the weeping wound as she made a satisfied sort of noise, an animal getting a meal.
Asphodel’s orgasm was a bright, blinding fury, lost in herself, poured into Amaranth — blood, sweat and all. She made a long, strangled moan that sounded a bit like Amaranth’s name, mind growing fuzzier and fuzzier, burning and pounding. Asphodel panted, vision blurry.
“A-Amaranth. . . fuck. . .”
Her warm lover lapped at her neck a little longer, before curling into Asphodel. She removed her fingers from her, and licked them clean with a satisfied sigh.
Lethargy and melted pleasure were awash on Asphodel. The world sounded a bit scratchy. Her head hurt.
“Did you like it?” Amaranth whispered, a tad breathless.
“Incalculably so. . .” Asphodel moaned, head running clearer. Clearer. . .
She twisted atop Amaranth. The other woman let out a light gasp.
“So much so, I simply must return the favor. . .”
Amaranth’s fingers brushed a lock of brown out of Asphodel’s face, coming to rest on her punctured neck. She swallowed.
“Please, beautiful. . .“
la petite mort
“but becoming One feels so sweet. . .”
— instructions on emptiness
“I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine.”
the courcillon estate
Asphodel bled from dreams of languor into shuddering awareness. A warm body was draped across her stomach. Her head pounded as though she had drank too much gin. But she remembered.
Asphodel flushed, shifting under the covers.
She could only tell it was morning from the slightest hint of light beneath thick curtains. Brushing her hair from her eyes, she sunk into Amaranth’s embrace. Amaranth groaned in response, shifting farther into Asphodel. A brief quiet.
“… Good morning, darling.”
Asphodel smiled. “Morning. Are the curtains to keep you from harm?”
She felt rather than saw Amaranth roll her eyes. “Merely preference. You would surely not witness me admiring sunsets otherwise.” Amaranth’s fingers lightly brushed against Asphodel’s neck. She winced. Amaranth exhaled a wisp of a giggle.
They laid there together. . .
A meal was brought up from the kitchens. The servants feigned ignorance at their position. Amaranth reassured Asphodel as they left that they would not tell a soul. A flicker of remembrance shifted in Asphodel.
“That reminds me… I’m not certain if it was totally apparent, but my mother requested I try and spy on you in order to sell gossip back home.” She scoffed. “Absurd.”
“Every new tidbit about her blackens her name surer than flame. I’m hardly surprised,” mused Amaranth, leaning on Asphodel. She rested her chin on her shoulder, staring with a smile as Asphodel ate.
“So beautiful. . .” she murmured.
“And you, my eternity, are a goddess descended unto men.”
“Hardly men,” Amaranth drawled, smirking. Asphodel rolled her eyes, laying a gentle kiss on Amaranth’s nose. Then she sat thoughtful, mind churning through the dregs of last night’s deep waters.
“Last night was… everything. Even my soreness is a joy.”
“I quite agree. You are such a quick study, my darling. Stunning, as ever.”
Asphodel raised an eyebrow. “So this is not new to you?”
Amaranth shrugged. “Hardly anyone has ever stuck around after the first night. Such a pity, too — a sharp mind dulled by pleasure is one of the fundamental delicacies. . .”
Asphodel’s breath hitched when Amaranth laid a stinging kiss to her neck. Her blood ran warm and satisfied, a heart by its hearth. “T-true,” she stuttered. “I hope you enjoyed as well? I know I leave much to be desired…”
“Say not such drivel of yourself,” Amaranth frowned, “you have left nothing to be desired. You are a flame; you consume me, utterly. As I had never expected of another. You stay and continue to stay. A true marvel.”
Soft, Asphodel smiled. “How could I ever leave my darling amour? My best friend? No one has quite pierced to my core — nor approached it — as you have.”
“There was certainly piercing,” Amaranth agreed, mock-serious yet smirking.
Asphodel giggled. They finished their meal in silence. She snuck the occasional glance at Amaranth’s beautiful, enthralling shape. . .
Amaranth snickered. Then she blinked, and looked troubled. Asphodel ran a soothing hand through her hair.
“What’s the matter, love?”
“What are we to do of your mother? She hardly seems the type to permit… indiscretions.”
“She’s not,” Asphodel confirmed with a frown.
“I could have your things brought up?”
Asphodel shook her head. “No. That will only arouse more suspicion. I need to allay her concerns. Show her the docile girl she has nothing to fear from.”
Asphodel hummed assent.
“… Very well, then. But—if she lays a finger on you, I’ll. . .” Amaranth growled in warning.
Asphodel smiled, pressing a soft kiss to her lips. The growl became a pleased sort of noise.
“I know, Amaranth. I’d hardly complain.”
Amaranth kissed her then, warm but insistent. Asphodel smiled into her lips, returning the intensity. It grew languid, dragging on, and her stomach bottomed out into the seething ocean of her want. She moaned.
“You have filled me with craving that must ever be melted away. . .”
Amaranth bit Asphodel’s lip in response. Her breath hitched.
“… But perhaps we could remain in bed a few hours more? It is awfully early, by your standards,” she mused, wryly.
Amaranth drew her back under the covers with a smile. . .
Asphodel tarried a dozen hours more before returning to the guest quarters.
For this, she was paying the price. Her mother, for once, was waiting in the bedroom.
“Asphodel Priuli,” she hissed, dangerously level. Asphodel was plunged in cold ice, freezing.
“What,” she muttered, “is it precisely that you are doing? Defying my basic, simple requests? Seeing not reason, nor obedience to one’s parents in the light of the Lord? Consorting freely with strange folk in queer lands? Have your,” she shuddered — magma dripping from stone, “philosophers gone to your head? We may be in dire straits pecuniarily, but it is no excuse for taking with the wrong society.”
She sucked in a roiling breath.
“Tell me — my dear — what it is you are doing.”
“Mother…” she repeated.
“Seek not to placate me. Explain.”
Her blood chilled.
“I—her Grace,” she began, strangled.
“The Duchess,” her mother cut in, slitheringly.
“Her Grace is hardly the sort of lady you make her out to be. She is compassionate, giving, kind. . . she has cunning — but when has she used it for ill?”
Her mother’s expression darkened.
“Have you not heard?”
“… Heard what?”
“The reputation your wretched Duchess has? At the court of the French they know her as seducer, as tribade,” her mother spat. “Defiler of virtues, utterly separate from the heart of the Lord, even among nobles—who are already so inclined. She is unmaking you. It is the artist’s observation of their marble sculpture’s crumbling decay — simply horrible.”
“You what?!” she roared, at last aflame. “I am not unforgiving. I have indulged your silly pastimes, your insistence on solitude, your vile attitude, your lack of respect and of care. All of my hard work going unappreciated and the first friend you make —“ a crazed laugh “— one of the foulest women in all of Europe?! Perhaps I am the fool, for willingly coming here. I—”
“Mother!” Asphodel all but screamed. The woman glared, but was mercifully silent. “I don’t care what reputation Amaranth has — I’ve seen her, I know her, and there is nothing there for me to fear or hate! She has been all-too generous with us, with your finances, and all that she has asked of us is our time! I cannot abide by your slander,“ she shook in fury, “and your tirades. They are absurd!” She gestured wildly.
Her mother suddenly blinked. An instant of confusion. Asphodel stared, and she rose a shaking finger to point at her.
“What,” her mother whispered, “is that?”
Asphodel looked around at the room. “What is what?”
“At the hem of your collar. Purpling. Are those...”
Asphodel froze. “Mother, I…”
Once livid, her mother was in wrath. “Don’t you mother me, girl — they are! Marks from the mouth of that accursed Duche—oh, God!” she gasped. “You are despoiled—by vice! I…”
Frost worked its way through Asphodel’s heart, chilling her veins, icing her organs to a stop. “N-no, I c-can—“
“And you would still defend her?! I was a fool — a fool! I have let this travesty of a companionship go on far too long, I have been far too indulgent — we shall leave. Tomorrow. And when our ship reaches Venice I shall see to it to finally get you a proper husband, who might preserve our name. I have failed as a mother; it is the least I can do.”
Asphodel sobbed, liquid ice bleeding from her eyes. “N-no, mother, please! Anything but that! Anything!”
Her mother’s resolute look only strengthened. She opened her mouth.
But there was a knock at the door.
A spell of quiet.
“Lady Priuli?” came the voice of Amaranth de Courcillon.
Her mother stilled for just a moment. Just as Asphodel opened her mouth to speak, an icy hand slapped over it.
“Your Grace, what a… surprise,” she said, with barely suppressed disgust.
“Perhaps. I merely wished to inquire after—you, of course,” Amaranth said tensely.
“You needn’t bother,” her mother scoffed. “I have just received a letter from Venice. We will be leaving tomorrow. I apologize for wasting your time.”
There was absolute silence.
“Lady Priuli, I would like to come in. We should discuss this face to face.”
“I’m sorry, I must decline,” her mother—that woman said, hurriedly.
Another beat. “I must insist.”
The door clicked and swung open, and Amaranth treaded in, impeccable and imperious. Her gaze swept over the room, immediately gleaning Asphodel and her mother, the hand covering Asphodel’s mouth—and Asphodel’s tears.
“What,” she growled, fatally quiet, “is the meaning of this?”
Lady Priuli paled. “Y-your Grace. I—my daughter was simply in distress on learning of our sudden parting. I didn’t want to disturb you with her most wretched noises.”
The inferno of Amaranth’s eyes shifted to Asphodel, silent.
Before Lady Priuli could secure her chin, she shook her head no.
Amaranth took a step toward Lady Priuli.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to request, Lady Priuli, that you unhand my Asphodel.”
Lady Priuli flushed with rage. “ Your —“
“Do not,” Amaranth murmured, deadly quiet, “test me. Lest I tear you limb from limb as you deserve. Unhand her.”
A burning, frozen moment.
Lady Priuli let go.
Asphodel stood, statuesque. Amaranth’s eyes turned to her, the hellfire softening somehow.
“Darling. Come upstairs?”
A quiet nod. Amaranth reached over to her, but stilled.
Another nod. Amaranth held her hand. Lady Priuli seethed, face blotchy with bubbling rage.
“You vile, filthy despoiler! Tribade! Witch! May you burn in Hell for all eternity!”
Amaranth said nothing, tugging Asphodel along with her as she exited. Lady Priuli’s curses went unheeded.
“Liane,” Amaranth called. The maid met them, ever dutiful. “See to it that Lady Priuli is confined to her quarters. We can’t have her running to the Pontiff to the west.” The maid nodded, moving to lock and barricade the door. The smoke of a satisfied grin briefly crossed her face. Lady Priuli screamed and banged from behind. No one paid her any mind.
“Asphodel, darling. Will you be alright?” Amaranth whispered.
A slow, glacial nod.
Amaranth pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Alright.”
They returned to their bedchambers together. . .
Asphodel’s lips on Amaranth’s were sudden and desperate the second the door closed. She returned the kiss, slowing it before breaking them apart.
“Are you sure?” Asphodel nodded.
“Use me,” she whispered, feverish.
With practiced ease, Amaranth undressed her. Fumbling, Asphodel did the same. Both bare, Amaranth led her by hand to the bed. . .
Their lips and tongues met again and again as Amaranth crawled atop her. . .
Roving, exploring hands made her breath and blood stutter. . .
Fingers sheathed and unsheathed in her wet core, each movement eliciting a pair of groans. . .
Amaranth’s lips softly kissed her thrumming carotid, reverent. . .
She partook of her, blood and soul and heart and mind, lapping at her neck. . .
With a sobbing, blissful moan, Asphodel sank into the flow of her running dreams. . .
Weeks rushed by, a temporal waterfall.
Asphodel only heard its crash from behind a muffled haze. . .
Amaranth lovingly melted away the ice of nightmares distilled in voice, with fingers and lips and amorous whispers. . .
Asphodel smiled and moaned and little else.
“Such a good girl,” Amaranth murmured. . .
“. . . Sweetbitter—inescapable, crawling thing. . .”
A groan. A laugh. . .
“. . . Lavishly mingled with joys. . .”
Amaranth kept drinking.
Soon, the touch of her lips to Asphodel’s neck brought a lazy, ecstatic shiver to Asphodel’s blood. . .
“Oh, I love you, I love you. . .”
“Asphodel, darling. . .”
The buzzing of mosquitos outside could not reach them, could not touch them even if it could.
The raging bang of fists against a barricaded door touched them even less.
For they were submerged in another world. . .
“Amaranth, Amaranth. . .” Asphodel panted, grabbing at her ass, tasting her moans. . .
Asphodel wanted for breath, she could not stop wanting. . .
“. . . Overcome me with longing. . .”
They learned together of the contented purrs left vibrating in Amaranth’s throat after a night of languor. . .
Was there any room outside their boudoir? Asphodel couldn’t remember. . .
All that lived was warm ivory and lovely, raw, euphoric crimson. . .
Mists of spilling moans, clouding the air. . .
Asphodel came to love the iron taste of herself on her lover’s lips. . .
That simple perfection of the way a breast fits in another’s hand. . .
Asphodel clung to Amaranth, weathering the storm, the roiling maelstrom, of her own desire.
Amaranth fucked her relentlessly.
“Mine. Mine. You are mine. You shall be mine. . .”
That subtle way an orgasm seems alike to death. . .
“. . . Quenched your desire. . .”
Sometimes, Asphodel nipped Amaranth, too. It was only fair. . .
Days and days and weeks and weeks. Months? What was time anymore but the pleasure they gave each other. . .?
Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. The only clock Amaranth cared to remember. . .
“Yours, yours, yours. . .”
“Darling. I need you. Fuck. . .”
Their minds became vaporous, fluid need, and rising words like smoke. . .
What use was the outside, when there was their warm, delicious lover, soft and lovely, in their bed?
“Is a moan a prayer? No, I think it better. . .”
“Asphodel and Amaranth. The names sound so wondrous together. Poetic. Like they are meant to be intwined. . .”
“Baby. More. Drink more. . .”
The point at which the universe dissolves into the plenitude of being held in another’s arms. . .
Amaranth’s shaking thighs around her head were the only tether keeping her from a floating world.
They floated together. . .
A sort of buzzing in her head. Were those the mosquitos?
A pale hand on her thigh. Her heart stuttered. . .
The bedroom grew stuffy at the charring of summer to autumn. Asphodel bled to forget it. . .
Ferocious orgasms, leveling like cannonballs — alight. . .
“. . . The finer things . . . passion . . . light of life. . .”
Wine tasted like luxury. It went well with a fuck.
“Darling, darling. . . I live in you. . . you would die for me. . .”
“Yes, always, love, I love you. . . More. . .”
Languid and sputtering, the crimson flow.
Amaranth thought little of it, and fucked her harder. . .
“I love you, I love you. . .”
A timeless stream of pleasure. There was no universe. No form. Only hands and lips and love. . .
She shuddered in Amaranth’s arms, panting breathily, desperately. Her hands trembled on Amaranth’s shoulder, around her waist.
She was ablaze. Burning with lazy, needy satisfaction. . .
It was hard to breathe. But it felt so good. . .
The noises Amaranth made at her throat, her breast, her thigh were simply delectable, divine. Better than divine. . .
Her heart was beating weakly, sickly-sweet. . .
“More, more, I love you, fuck. . .”
Inevitable. . .
Stilling. . .
Oozing satisfaction. . .
Crimson-gash lips, but then the quiet. . .
“My—darling. . . please. . .”
“Back. . . come—back. . .”
“Asphodel. . .”
Her veins burned.
They were sluggish, filled with tar.
Slow. . .
Slow but alive.
Asphodel gasped. She flashed open her eyes. The dim light scorched her retinas.
“A—amaran—. . .”
Sobs. Wretched, dripping sobs. Her body seared as arms suddenly brought her unto them. She groaned.
“Shh. Darling, darling, darling, thank the blood. . . You’ll be alright…”
Her heart throbbed, pulsating. Every sense stung, acute, reborn.
Her head hurt in a new kind of way.
The bed was comfortable. There was an ornate dagger on the floor, its blade dried brown and black.
Her chest ached.
“Love. . .”
Wet cheeks pressed against her own. A sniffle.
“How long has it. . .?”
“Four days. Four vile, horrible days.”
“I was. . .”
“Gone. P-please, please forgive me, I can’t—I—” Asphodel cut her off with a slow, warm kiss.
“It’s alright. I asked you to. . .” she coughed. Amaranth’s eyes widened. Even wracked as she was, Asphodel thought it adorable.
There was a new kind of craving, a new kind of need in her. Stirring, nascent, newborn.
“Is—is this… do I…”
Mutely, Amaranth nodded against her.
“Blood. Living blood.”
Asphodel groaned. “Where…”
Amaranth looked thoughtful for a moment, then bit her lip.
“What is it?”
“I’m not certain I should say…”
“Who? The maids? I couldn’t. . .”
Amaranth blinked. There was a strange and sudden glint in her eyes, fierce and terrible. “Dissuade yourself of such delusions. You can, and no doubt you will. Eventually. The law of our strength and weakness is irresistible. There is no shame in craving—in devouring. . .” she shook her head, as though startling from a daze. “Sorry. Beside the point. We… have a viable victim downstairs. . .”
“My… Lady Priuli?”
A subtle nod. “If she would suit your need. . .”
She looked far-off for a second, plunging through an ocean of hazy opium dreams and moaning sighs through to the—
“Yes,” she growled. “She will do.”
Amaranth pressed a kiss to her forehead.
They left the boudoir together. . .
The walk was short. None of the servants disturbed them.
Amaranth held her hand.
The barricades were pried apart with a secret vigor. There was silence behind the door, but the smells. . . the sounds. . .
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
They creaked the door open.
Beyond was an abyss. Utter stillness, utter dark, complete quiet.
Amaranth squeezed her hand.
Asphodel stepped into room. She heard the soft flow of breath, a little shift of fabric, the beating. . .
“Who …” Vitriolic.
Asphodel stepped close. Shadows seemed but as deep water, abyssal yet transparent.
“Mother. . .” Asphodel crooned. A stiffening.
“What on earth are you doing, you ungrat—“
Asphodel lunged. Lady Priuli gasped in the dark.
The sweet song under her skin was so intoxicating. . .
Asphodel peeled it back to taste.
Flesh and sinews tore with a piercing scream, and Asphodel let out a huff of a laugh before lowering her mouth to Lady Priuli’s neck.
“May you burn in Hell for all eternity, ” she mocked, sardonic.
The taste. . .
The gushing vital wellspring. . . Sweet and enthralling, dripping, lovely scarlet ecstasy. . .
She groaned at the taste, all the while as old hands ripped at her, wrathful to the last.
The screaming resolved into a baneful call.
“You—no daughter of mine—you—vile—Vampire!”
Asphodel bit down harder, and her mother went silent.
A blissful relief.
Amaranth’s light, graceful footsteps followed her into the room. She remained silent. Asphodel could feel hungry eyes on her, tracing her form as she drank the last oozing drops of her kill from the corpse.
“So beautiful. . .” she murmured.
Asphodel rose, licking red off her lips. “For you.”
Amaranth smiled. . .
The return to their bedroom was hazy. Life, flowing Life, coursed through her veins so sweetly, filling each movement with energetic levity. She could not remember what she saw, what she heard, what she smelled, what she felt — even despite their fresh acuity. All she could feel was the blood. . . and her Amaranth, hand wrapped around her own.
The door shut with a click, locked.
Asphodel gazed at Amaranth. A white-hot moment passed between them, a flame conveyed by eyes.
Lips melted into lips. . .
Asphodel moaned and cupped Amaranth’s breast, thumb running around the areola.
“Asphodel. . .” Amaranth gasped.
They fell into bed together, terrible and beautiful. Slender fingers caressed Asphodel’s inner thigh. She gasped.
They burned together, as one.
Their hands were desperate, groping, entangled. . .
So wet. Wet and needy, wet and wanting, wet and. . .
Two fingers slipped into Asphodel. She gasped, bucking into them, trying to get them to her core — wet, white, hot, burning. . .
“Amaranth. . .” Asphodel moaned, long and wanting.
She wedged her leg in between Amaranth’s thighs, pushing her fingers deeper into Asphodel in their wet pumping. They breathed out the same keening, foggy moan, dissolved utterly in their lust. Gasps and the wet movements of body on body intoxicated the air, weighing it down with their adoration. Asphodel’s hand grasped Amaranth’s free one. A single desperate breath left two sets of lips, two names mingling together within it. . .
They died together.
Sweaty and spent, they lay in their bed, cuddling close. Amaranth’s loving fingers pet Asphodel’s hair with adoring care. Asphodel leaned into the touch, breathing contented sighs.
“I love you, my Amaranth.”
Amaranth pressed a kiss that was mostly smile into Asphodel’s hair.
“And I love you, my Asphodel.”
They bloomed into their new eternity together.