Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…
The betrayal and flight of Riff threw the Hargreaves estate into a state of confusion and dismay, and left no member of the household unaffected.
Oscar pursued the path of research, interviewing the traitorous manservant's former acquaintances and delving into old documents in the hope of uncovering knowledge that could be used against Riff and Delilah.
Merriweather cultivated a happy countenance in the hope of cheering her desolate brother. Like Oscar, she believed in the power of knowledge, and so she put out inquiries to her old network of street performers, beggars, and vagabonds. She read the tarot daily, but only in the morning. She could not bear to view the card of the shattered Tower in the dark of gathering night.
Crehador, who had imperceptibly become part of the household, helped Cain with his efforts to rally London society against Delilah. When he was not engaged in those pursuits, he retired to the library to contemplate their options.
Cain too engaged in research, persuasion, investigation, and planning. But the periods when he sat in a black study grew longer each day, and so too the times when he locked himself in with his poison collection. When he emerged, he often seemed ill: feverish, bright-eyed, sweating, and faint. Merriweather, worried that his sorrow was overcoming his frail body, urged him to rest and eat. But Crehador, who had learned much of Cain during their relatively brief acquaintance, grew suspicious. Utilizing the skills he had acquired in his trade as a false—and sometimes true— medium, he picked the locks and hid himself within a wardrobe.
He did not have long to wait. Before Crehador's joints had time to grow stiff and cramped, the Earl of Hargreaves opened the door. He moved with a surety of purpose which Crehador had not seen in many days, toward a cabinet of obscure poisons whose labels ranged from English to Arabic to Chinese, and a few in scripts which Crehador could not identify. Some had drawings rather than words: a certain flower, perhaps, or a dark design whose meaning the medium dared not guess.
Cain's silken hair fell across his face as he bent over a lower shelf. He removed a vial with no label at all, whose contents resembled liquid amber. A tiny white object was suspended in the thick fluid, but more detail than that Crehador could not see. Cain took out a pipette and withdrew the smallest minim of liquid. He regarded it with none of the proper apprehension any man might feel when observing something venomous, but with a dreadful anticipation. Hypnotized by this strange sight, Crehador forgot the terrible suspicion which had brought him to this place, and watched as Cain, with a languorous sigh, let a single drop fall upon his small pink tongue.
Then Crehador was roused to action! Leaping from his place of concealment, he grasped the eggshell bones of Cain's delicate wrist.
The vial shattered against the marble floor. The white object slowly rose to the surface of the amber pool. (As Cain knew though Crehador did not, it was the skull of an embryonic shrew.)
"You fool!" cried Cain. "That was a rare and precious drug!"
"The antidote, quickly!" demanded Crehador. "Which is it?"
"There's no need for that." The pink tongue flicked out again as Cain licked his lips. "It's not a deadly poison. Nothing on that shelf will kill— at least, not in small doses."
The yellow liquid began to ooze toward Crehador's shoe. With a shudder, he stepped back, and pulled Cain away with him. The Earl's body slumped across his chest, loose-limbed as a rag doll. His skin was hot and damp to the touch.
Crehador looked around for somewhere to lay Cain down, but he was afraid the drugged man would fall from the upright chairs that were the room's only furnishings, apart from the cabinets and closets and armoires of lethal substances. So he backed into a corner that was as far from the spilled and possibly vaporous liquid as he could go, and settled down on the mahogany boards, cradling Cain in his arms.
"Why have you been poisoning yourself?"
Cain did not answer at once. The poison which weighed down his limbs freed his thoughts to drift on each passing current of memory or dream. It was difficult for him to concentrate, yet he needed to observe the effects of the drug, or this experiment would go to waste.
A sunflower bloomed against the wall, petals opening wide and bright against its black heart. Then teeth spiked out, concentric circles of fangs surrounding a gaping maw, and the yellow-haloed face of a lamprey snarled and gnashed, seemingly inches from Cain's eyes. Though he knew it was an illusion, he couldn't prevent a shudder.
"Is it from grief?" Crehador asked, more gently.
The words spilled from Cain's lips, even as he tried to lock them together. He had not meant to tell Crehador so soon. "It's my plan to bring Riff back to me. Back to himself. I need to render him compliant, so I can kidnap him."
Crehador was greatly relieved that Cain had not gone suicidally mad. "Don't you already know the effects of your poisons?"
"Yes, but this is for Riff. I have to be sure it will work. And—" Cain twisted his uncooperative body as well as he was able, and buried his face in Crehador's solid chest to prevent any more truth from emerging: Too much will kill. A trial was necessary to establish the non-lethal dose. And how can I give Riff anything I haven't tried on myself first? I must share his experience, his pain. If nothing else, it will bring me closer to him.
Beneath the hazy overlay of the poison, Cain realized another truth, sharp and clear. Because of the poison, he blurted it out. "This is the one I'll give Riff. It makes you weak, makes you hallucinate, makes you unable to deny another person's will. Makes you tell the truth. It's perfect."
Crehador looked down at him as the young Earl spoke. Cain's skin glistened with sweat, and his bright eyes were unfocused. The otherworldly expression on his face reminded Crehador of the time when his beloved Sheila's spirit had possessed the other man, and Cain's next words did nothing to tamp down those memories.
"Delilah's Riff told me that his other self—my Riff— was dead. But you speak to the dead. You bring the dead back. And Riff's body is still alive. So whether my Riff is dead or trapped or lost, you can call up his spirit. And if we drug the other Riff until he'll agree to anything, maybe we can transplant my Riff's spirit back into his body."
Rubbing his cheek once more against Crehador's velvet frock coat, Cain added, "I used to do this with him. I loved the scent of his clothes. I went looking in his wardrobe, but he'd taken everything when he left. He didn't even—"
Cain clapped his own pale hand to his mouth to stopper the flow of words. As Crehador looked on in horror, a trickle of blood slid down Cain's slender wrist.
"I'll get him back for you," said Crehador impulsively. "I promise."
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…
The means to capture Riff came from a most unexpected source: little Merriweather. Her request for information of any actions by the Delilah organization and its minions or merely of bizarre and unexplained occurrences had spread through the streets of London, and from the streets to more respectable venues. An altar boy by the name of Edward Welthorpe, who might otherwise have had nowhere to turn with his worries, arrived at the Hargreaves mansion with an urgent message. When Merriweather heard what he had to say, she immediately rang for tea and cakes, and also for her brother Cain. He arrived in the company of Crehador, with whom he had been consulting.
Between mouthfuls of seedcake and clotted cream, the altar boy told them a horrifying tale. The elderly priest of his church, Father Lucanus Revelation, had been a kind and holy man. Several weeks ago young Edward had found the good father sprawled dead and cold in the confession booth. After a spell of weeping, he had run to inform the nearest adults. But when he returned in their company, the body was gone. So, Edward noticed later, was Polycarp, the white dove that had been Father Revelation's special pet, and which he occasionally released during a sermon to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
Several days later, Father Revelation returned with Polycarp upon his shoulder. He explained that he had been taken ill and fainted, and then wandered away in a delirium. Some charitable folk had cared for him, but it had been some time before he had recovered enough to remember his own name.
The other members of the church believed this tale, and assumed that Edward had mistaken an unconscious man for a dead one. But Edward, who had touched his beloved Father's stiff and pulseless throat, observed the returned man with a wary eye. There was a gray tinge to his skin, and eldritch shapes could at times be seen writhing beneath his cassock. He had acquired, and now never removed, gloves of black leather and high boots with thick rubber soles. Worst of all, no longer was he the gentle man who had treated Edward as a beloved son. Now he was short-tempered and brusque, and once even struck an altar boy with a thurible. Even Polycarp had changed: feathers grayed, eyes dull, she refused to eat, and flew at Edward's eyes when he offered her a handful of grain.
Moreover, strange men had begun lurking about the church: a dark-haired man with glasses who often carried a riding crop, and a slim fair-haired man whose finely chiseled face would have been beautiful had it not been so cold and empty. (Here Cain could not repress a start.) Edward had hidden and listened to these men speaking with Father Revelation, and heard them discuss a fiendish plot: at Mass that very Sunday, Father Revelation and the blonde man were to poison the entire congregation. The flaxen-haired man, posing as a worshipper, would substitute bread baked with ground glass for the holy Communion host. The men seemed to have no reason for this evil plan other than to strike horror into the heart of London.
"I knew Scotland Yard would never believe me," whispered the trembling boy. "But you do… don't you, Lord Cain?"
"Of course he does!" exclaimed Merriweather, who had been told of her brother's plan for Riff and knew how delighted he must be at this opportunity. "No one will be poisoned… that is to say, no one will be killed. "
Cain cast a golden glance upon Crehador, who drew in his breath. Now their plan must be readied.
"Tell me," said Cain to Edward. "How many altar boys are in your church? Would it attract a great deal of notice if there was one extra?"
All the king's horses and all the king's men…
Cain waited with the cruet of Communion wine in his hands, into which he had already dissolved a measure of the precious poison. It had been easy enough to obtain the vestments of an altar boy and join as "Edward's cousin." But now he kept his head bowed and stayed behind Edward, who was tall for his age, lest he be revealed. He could still catch an occasional glimpse of Riff, formal and poised in a black coat, stationed so that he'd be first to receive Communion... and substitute deadly wafers for holy ones. Averting his eyes, Cain saw Crehador, with his top hat pulled down to hide his eyes, lurking near the rear of the church.
Father Revelation stepped forward, and Cain presented him with the cruet of wine to put in the chalice. Cain noticed that when Revelation himself seemed to receive the Eucharist, he did not let the wine touch his lips, and with his black-gloved hands, he deftly slipped the wafer into a cunningly concealed pocket in his cassock. But Cain noted this only in passing; his attention was on his beloved manservant, whom he had sworn to destroy if he could not be saved.
With inhuman calm, Riff moved toward the undead priest. Positioning his body between Revelation and the congregation, he tipped the true host into a satchel he carried, and slid a stack of identical-looking rounds on to the tray. Then, with a mocking smile, he accepted a sip of wine.
So far everything had gone according to Cain's plan. But before it could be completed, by Crehador shouting orders that everyone exit in a quick but orderly fashion due to the small brush fire outside, a different person's voice cried out.
It was young Edward who had stepped forward. Wiping his eyes, he said, "This is wrong! You know it's wrong! Father, confess, if there's anything left of the good man you were!"
As the congregation murmured in surprise, Riff clutched at the pew in front of him. Droplets of sweat began to dew his face and hands.
Father Revelation faced the altar boy. With a violent gesture, he flung away the poisoned wafers, and stamped them into crumbs beneath his thick-soled boots. The crowd cried out in shock, but the priest's gray lips twisted as he tried to smile at Edward. Then Father Revelation turned to the congregation.
"Everyone, leave!" Father Revelation shouted. "There is evil in this place. Begone!"
The congregation made haste to flee, as did the other altar boys. Within minutes, only Crehador, Cain, Father Revelation, Edward, and Riff remained—the last of whom had slumped down on the pew, and hidden his face in his hands.
With his gloved hand, Father Revelation removed the host which he had placed within his cassock. "As you must know, my son, I have been dead for several weeks. This evil man and his friends used my body to create the unholy doll you see before you, and sought to make it their puppet. They twisted me and hypnotized me. I cannot walk on hallowed ground without rubber soles on my feet. Until you called on me, I had forgotten who I was. But I see that you have foiled their plot, and that justice will be done."
A dove flapped heavily down from the ceiling, and perched upon the priest's black-gloved wrist.
"Now that my church is safe, I will go where I should have gone long ago." Father Revelation placed the holy wafer between his lips.
Instantly, he burst into flames. Cain and the others threw up their hands to protect their faces from the furnace heat. But in a moment, the fire burned itself out. Nothing was left of Father Revelation and Polycarp but a pair of singed leather gloves, two tall boots whose rubber soles had melted into the flagstones of the church, and a handful of grayish feathers.
Edward stumbled out, weeping.
Cain turned to Crehador. "Please guard the door. I mustn't have anyone interfere when I take Riff home, or the poison might wear off before we can finish. I'll meet you in the library."
"Be wary of him," warned Crehador. He was reluctant to leave Cain alone with the treacherous manservant, and was tempted to refuse to do so.
But the imperious set of Cain's shoulders sent the message that he would brook no argument. And from what Crehador had seen of the effects of the poison, Riff was surely in no condition to either resist or run. Crehador headed for the doors.
Riff had not moved or looked up, not even when the undead priest had gone up in a pillar of flame. Cain stepped close enough to feel the fever-heat radiating from Riff's body. He put his hands on his man's shoulders and pushed him until he sat up straight.
Riff's fine hair was matted against his forehead. His glassy eyes stared past Cain, at some vision of fear or wonder, then slowly focused on his master's face. "Am I ill?" he murmured. "I feel so strange."
It was not the icy voice of Delilah's Riff, but the gentle tones of his own devoted manservant. Unable to speak for longing, Cain stood as still as if he had gazed upon a gorgon's face, and turned to solid stone.
Riff glanced downward. "Your shoelaces are untied."
He slid off the pew and tried to kneel at Cain's feet. But his muscles gave way, and he would have fallen if Cain hadn't caught him.
"I'm so sorry, my lord," said Riff. "I can't perform my duties. I do nothing but make trouble for you."
"No, no." Cain smoothed Riff's damp hair back from his face. "It's my cursed bloodline that's made trouble for you."
He helped Riff to his feet. "I'm taking you back to the mansion. You can rest until you're better, and until then, I'll only wear shoes without laces."
They made their way down the aisle, Riff leaning heavily against Cain's narrow shoulders. As they passed the altar, Riff stumbled and lurched against it, dragging Cain with him. Instinctively, Cain moved to protect Riff from its hard edges. He was utterly surprised when a wave of cold liquid dashed against his face. His mouth opened, and he tasted wine. Too late, he remembered why he shouldn't swallow.
Riff loomed over him, holding the empty chalice.
"You are so pathetic and predictable." Riff's harsh laugh echoed around the walls of the church, and returned to Cain in shattered fragments.
"B—But…" stammered Cain. "You drank the wine. I saw you drink it."
Riff sneered. "So I saw some things that weren't there. So I feel a little dizzy. Is it taking you harder, lord of poisons? I weigh more than you. I'd need a larger dose."
"Cain!" Crehador's black cloak floated out behind him as he hastened toward the altar.
Riff's hand shot out. The heel of his palm connected smartly with Cain's solar plexus. Cain fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Riff stumbling away, Crehador rushing toward: the figures blurred in Cain's vision, then blurred together, though they were running in opposite directions.
Covering his face with his arm, Riff threw himself through a stained glass window. Fragments of the Garden of Gethsemane rained down behind him. Judas saith, Master, Master; and kissed him.
Crehador stood over Cain, fuming at the wreckage of their plan. The treacherous Riff had befooled Cain, that was plain to see; played on the young Earl's sympathy and fondness for him, and upon his desperate desire to regain the companion he had lost. Crehador knew well how easy it was to trick people who wanted to believe.
Cain knelt in a pool of wine, one hand on the altar for balance. His altar boy vestments were spattered with drugged wine, and it was clear that he had swallowed some. Cain's weakness put all of London at risk, but there was no point remonstrating with him now. Crehador lifted the swooning Earl into his arms, and carried him to their waiting coach.
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
By the time they arrived at the Hargreaves estate, Cain had recovered greatly. Refusing any assistance, he jumped lightly from the coach and beckoned to Crehador with an arrogant flip of one wine-stained hand. "Come. I already prepared my bedroom for the séance."
Crehador hesitated. "You still wish me to summon Riff's spirit? How can we put it in his body, without his body present?"
"I'm not giving up. Next time I'll succeed. But we may as well test the summoning, as I tested the poison."
Cain began walking toward the mansion, not looking back to see if Crehador was following. But Crehador followed. In truth, his apparent surprise at Cain's decision to proceed with the séance had been feigned; everything he had seen of Cain told him that the young lord would not give up his plan so easily. But Cain's determination was also his downfall: he was so intent upon regaining his beloved manservant that the false Riff could manipulate him with ease. Even after this latest betrayal, Crehador thought, all it would take would be one bewildered glance and a murmur of "Lord Cain? Is that you?"
But Crehador too was a determined man, and his mind had not been idle as he had ridden in the wine-scented coach, with Cain's burning body pressed against his. Cain's faith in Riff must be broken, or all the world would pay. Crehador followed Cain toward the bedroom, sure of his purpose.
Cain gave orders that they were not to be disturbed, then locked the bedroom door behind them. Though his balance and strength had recovered, and the impulse to blurt out intimate truths had faded, he was still flushed and hot, and fields of solid black, like Crehador's cloak and hat, had a disconcerting tendency to reveal images if he looked at them too steadily. Their nature could not be discerned, as they were dark upon dark, but Cain did not like the way that they seemed to pulse and breathe.
Perhaps it would be best to postpone the séance.
But Crehador had already drawn the circle upon the floor. Cain stood irresolute, trying not to look at anything black. The medium lit the candles, then signaled to him to be seated. Cain sat. As Crehador began to chant in Latin, Cain wondered if his own obedience was a remnant of the drug.
Crehador's chant became slurred, then he fell silent. There was no sound in the room but that of their breathing, Crehador deep and slow, Cain quick and shallow.
"Riffael Raffit!" Crehador called, in a voice more commanding and deep than he used outside of the séance circle. "Dead or prisoned or lost, I summon you!"
Slowly, the medium's bent head straightened. His face was still Crehador's face, his body Crehador's body; but the clear gaze and graceful poise were not his, nor was the voice in which he spoke. "…Lord Cain?"
Cain swallowed. "Riff?"
The man laid the back of his hand upon Cain's forehead. "Lord Cain, you have a fever. You should lie down."
Cain caught the hand and held it between his strong slim fingers. "Yes… Yes, help me to the bed."
"Of course, my lord." Crehador did not pick him up this time, for he had done that in his own persona and feared that Cain might notice some similarity. Instead, he took Cain's elbow and guided him as a gentleman might escort a lady.
But when he laid Cain down upon his luxurious four-poster, the younger man did not release his hand. Instead, he lay back and stared up at Crehador with huge shadowed eyes. The sound of his breath seemed very loud. It was time and gone for Crehador to sink a few more hooks into Cain, to heighten the pain and shock of the betrayal to come, but he had expected Cain to question Riff's spirit about the details of his predicament. Without prompting, Crehador's normal invention deserted him. Or perhaps it was the distraction of Cain's hot touch upon his skin, of the sight of that adult body within the stained and rumpled vestments of an altar boy.
Cain drew Crehador's hand toward his face. Crehador expected him to lay it again across his forehead, to cool his burning skin, but Cain only brushed Crehador's fingers across his temples, then pulled the hand toward his lips. That small pink tongue flicked across Crehador's fingers, then applied gentle suction to draw one into his mouth. It was very hot inside.
Now it was Crehador's own breathing that sounded loud in his own ears. And yet he was not entirely surprised. He was no innocent, unaware of the secret lives of men. Indeed, he had wondered about Cain and Riff before. Upon occasion, he had even imagined what they might do in the privacy of Cain's bedroom. But he had not expected to be pulled into that forbidden intimacy.
The tongue curling around his finger made him feel as feverish as Cain. Surely this was the moment to betray Cain in the persona of Riff. Or was it too soon? If Crehador's plan failed now, it would never work again. Perhaps it was better to continue a while longer. He wouldn't have to do anything himself. Riff was a servant. Riff would only stand still and obey.
The young lord reached up and unclasped the chain which fastened Crehador's cloak. It fell around his feet in a heap of silk. His hat seemed to have already fallen off.
Cain slowly pulled Crehador's finger from his mouth. He ran his tongue around it in a spiral pattern on the way to its release. "It is not my job to undress you, Riff. Take off your clothes."
Crehador unwound his silk cravat. It flowed softly against his throat. Only then did he remember to say, "Of course, my lord."
Cain took it from his trembling hands. The young earl lifted it to his face and inhaled deeply.
If Crehador felt any pang of apprehension then, he ignored it, intent upon his plan. Cain must be cured of his trust in Riff, and Crehador was the only man who could do it, no matter what sacrifice it entailed. He removed the rest of his clothes, as quickly and smoothly as he imagined Riff would. The best imposters almost believe that they are real, and nothing but the best would fool a man like Cain. Nothing that followed would seem strange to Riff.
Crehador stood naked beside the bed, and felt no shame.
Cain grasped Crehador's shoulders with hands still fever-hot and drew him down to the bed. It was very soft, so much so that it would be a struggle for any man less light-boned than Cain to arise from it. For a moment they lay side by side. Crehador could not resist turning toward Cain's warmth, as a flower stretches to meet the sun. But even as Crehador's bare skin touched the rumpled cotton of the vestments Cain still wore, the Earl rolled aside.
"No—" The protest came involuntarily to Crehador's lips. Then he clamped his teeth together against such a show of neediness.
Cain, now sitting beside him, gave him a long slow look of consideration, as a man might evaluate the best way to break an untamed horse. But Crehador did not care what Cain might be plotting, even if Cain did plan to whip him like a colt. He imagined the thong of a whip slithering through Cain's fingers, and could not suppress a gasp.
Holding the silk cravat in one hand, Cain settled himself atop Crehador's naked hips. Crehador's skin was touched by rough cotton in parts, and smooth flesh in others. He longed for Cain to lie atop him, to cover Crehador's entire body with his own, and yet he could not conceive that anything could be better than that first shock of contact.
Cain slowly flexed the silk cravat between his hands, now letting it dip low, now pulling it taut enough to quiver. Crehador's attention was so captured by the movement of the pale silk in Cain's long-fingered hands that he fancied it was some new form of hypnosis. It reminded him of a matter which he did not care to dwell upon— especially now, as he lay helpless beneath the arrogant young lord.
"So still, Riff?" asked Cain. "This is no time to play shy."
So Riff was not a passive vessel for his master's needs. Thus given permission in the form of a command, Crehador reached up and worked his hands beneath Cain's vestments. His fingers slid along the cage of the other man's ribs, and the smooth skin that covered it. All the while that Crehador caressed him, Cain was silent, loosening and tightening the silk between his hands. Crehador could feel that Cain's breath did not quicken, nor his heart beat one whit faster— though the same could not be said for the medium.
Then Crehador's finger met a curving ridge along Cain's side, the scar from some accident or ill-use. Before Crehador could explore further, Cain dropped the cloth and shoved Crehador's hands away.
"You betrayed me, Riff." Cain's voice was low, and thick with anger and pain.
"Not I, my lord."
"Your body betrayed me. Your body must pay."
In the dark room, Cain's eyes were black as a pond in midwinter. You could break through the ice, and drown.
Reaching below the mattress, Cain pushed on a hidden catch in the mahogany bed-frame. It snapped open, allowing a drawer to open. It was out of Crehador's line of sight, unless he sat up or rolled over. But Crehador found that he was less desirous of knowing what Cain had inside than he was of watching the flicker of yellow candle-light on Cain's impassive face, of listening the slow clink and rustle of unknown items, and of imagining what they might be.
The earl took his time in going through the drawer. But eventually he took out four smooth short ropes. When he brushed their tarred ends across Crehador's chest, the medium could not repress a start.
"Do they frighten you?"
"No, my lord."
Cain bound the medium's wrists and ankles to the bedposts. His knots were as expert as a sailor's, the bindings finely calibrated to hold but not constrict.
Crehador pulled. The ropes were strong, and held him fast. Then Cain tied the cravat around his eyes. There was now no sensation left to Crehador but the sound of Cain's voice, the scent of wine and candle-smoke and Cain's fever-sweat, the mattress so soft beneath him that he felt that he was falling, the bindings about his limbs, and the heat-trails of Cain's fingers and tongue, which touched him here and there, without warning.
Those feather-touches, so light and fleeting, left Crehador desperate for more. He tried to reach his body up into them, but always Cain pulled back, and always the ropes held tight. Crehador had no control any more, over his body or mind; Cain held it all. It was a curious sensation, like being an infant again; a state which tasted of both comfort and fear.
"Please—" Crehador said, without volition, as if he had drunk Cain's drugged wine. "Please!"
Sharp teeth sank into Crehador's shoulder. At the same moment, Cain's hands stroked along the delicate skin of his inner thighs. The contrast of pain and pleasure, light touch and hard, was so intense that if Cain had not quickly removed his hands and mouth, Crehador might have spent then and there. But Cain withdrew, and for long minutes, there was nothing: no touch, no sound.
"Cain?" called Crehador uncertainly.
A drop of liquid heat fell upon Crehador's bare chest. When he recovered from the surprise, he recognized the scent as that of his own séance candles. A stream of hot wax poured on to his throat, and Cain traced the liquid with his fingers as it dripped down, as if he were painting with his fingers.
Crehador did not recall crying out; for some unknown, dizzy stretch of time, he recalled nothing at all; but when he came to himself, his throat was hoarse and raw.
"That was no cry of pain," came Cain's voice. "I should leave you where you are, and not touch you again."
"No, don't!" Crehador protested. "I'll do anything!"
"Will you now?"
"I will. Whatever you want!"
Cain tore off the blindfold. Even dim light came as a shock. Cain crouched above him, holding a candle. His eyes were filled with golden light, and brighter than the flame.
"Perhaps we may make a bargain." Cain's lips curved into a cruel, sensual smile. "You will make your confession to me. And then I will do what you want. iWhatever /i you want."
The promise in his tone made Crehador dizzy. "I accept."
The smile vanished from Cain's lips. "I want to know your purpose in performing this entire farce. Other than the obvious, iCrehador."/i
In truth, Crehador himself had forgotten. But the anger and pain in Cain's voice restored his senses. For the first time, his shame was unmixed with guilty pleasure.
"I meant to betray you in the persona of Riff," he admitted. "You trust him so deeply, even though he's turned traitor. It will be the ruin of all our plans. The only way I could think of to break that trust was to persuade you that even the Riff you knew before never loved you. And, Cain— you know that's very likely true. He betrayed you, and still you trust him. He was probably playing a game all along."
Cain was silent for a moment. Then he slowly traced a finger along Crehador's cheek. Crehador shivered.
"I did promise," mused Cain. It would have been easy enough to make Crehador confess without any bargain made, but when Cain had spilled the wax upon his throat, the medium's reaction convinced him that Crehador had secret cravings that perhaps surpassed Cain's own. He was curious to learn what they were.
In the icy detachment of his plotting, Cain had nearly forgotten his own needs. But despite the boyish vestments he still wore, he was a man, and his body was not fully ruled by his mind. As he settled in closer to the man he had promised to satisfy, Cain's rampant shaft brushed against Crehador's side. Crehador reached out toward it, but his wrists were held tight and far away.
"Spend in me," begged Crehador. "However you please."
"That's not for you!" spat out Cain. He raised one hand as if to strike a blow.
Crehador had a mind to argue, not caring whether he would persuade Cain to give in or to claw him with those short sharp nails, but a strange sensation came over him. His arms suddenly jerked against his bindings. The silk cracked tight as a sail in high winds , then fell loose again as Crehador collapsed back against his yielding prison, breathing in great gasps, eyes so wide the whites gleamed bright.
"My cheek—my body— everywhere you touched me, there's trails of fire! What did you do to me?"
"What do you think?"
Crehador's thoughts leaped immediately to the undead priest burning away to nothing. But then his rational mind prevailed. "Some poison on your fingertips. Is it deadly, or is it from your special shelf?"
"Do you care?"
The sensation of burning was curiously distinct. It was as if Cain's fevered touch was still on his body. Everywhere on his body, in streaks the exact width of his fingers. Crehador was so dizzy with it, it was some moments later before he recalled Cain's question. Even then, he was not sure if he had answered aloud or no. But he must have pleased his master, for he was rewarded. Cain leaned down and laid his mouth upon Crehador's. It was hot as the lines of fire upon his skin; perhaps from the ointment, or perhaps only from body heat. When he pulled away, the medium could still taste the poisoned wine.
"Confess again," said Cain. "What do you desire that you've never dared tell a soul? Understand, Crehador: if you tell me, I will do it you."
Perhaps even that tiny, transferred dose had an effect. Or perhaps it was merely that it requires no special effort to extract truth from people who are desperate to reveal it. Crehador confessed.
"Sheila told me of a friend of hers who was the mistress of a powerful man. He liked to have her strangle him with a silken scarf. One day she pulled too hard, and he died. The judge didn't believe her story, or didn't care. They hanged her. I pretended to be horrified when she told me—I was horrified, truly I was—but I couldn't stop thinking of the silk…"
"And the rope of hemp?" asked Cain.
Cain picked up Crehador's cravat, which he had formerly used as a blindfold, and wrapped it snugly around the bound man's throat. Leaning in close, he whispered in Crehador's ear, "You needn't worry. I'm an Earl. No matter what happens to you, I won't hang."
Cain began to draw the silk taut. Crehador could no longer distinguish between the heat of Cain's poison and the heat growing elsewhere in his body. Cain had control of the very air he breathed. Crehador had no choice but to abandon himself to sensation. His body grew light, and he felt as if he was floating above the bed. It was a glorious feeling to be both captive and free. As his breath grew short, he wondered if he was dying. The thought excited him. Then ecstasy exploded throughout his body. Before it could wane, he felt himself fall into darkness.
Cain watched Crehador's back arch and his eyes roll back in his head as he spent. He immediately loosened the scarf. The medium still had his uses, and he was Cain's creature now, bound by shame and pleasure. It was not in Cain's interest to let him die. And it would be annoying, without Riff's help, to dispose of a body.
As Cain unwound the cravat from Crehador's throat, the other man's eyes opened. The silk fell from Cain's trembling fingers. Though the body had not changed, Cain knew the truth, as surely as he had known of Crehador's masquerade. The man before him was not Crehador.
"Lord Cain," said Riff. "I've been looking for you."
Cain could not speak or move. Riff jerked his wrists, snapping the ropes. He had always been very strong. Then he pulled Cain down into his embrace. His mouth closed around Cain's, and the young Earl almost wept at the familiar heat and passion. With one hand, Riff gently traced the scars on his master's back, up and down and around, in a hypnotic pattern. Then he closed his other hand around Cain's prick.
"Too soon—" gasped Cain. "Let me—"
"I only have the time that this medium lies unconscious," said Riff. "Let us spend it wisely."
Indeed, Cain had not wished his manservant to withdraw his touch, but had only desired to prolong the moment. His heart sank to hear how brief their time together would be. But it seemed that Riff understood, for his hands ceased their gentle motion that Cain might not be too distracted to hear his words.
"I will come back to you, my lord," said Riff. "I promise."
Then Riff resumed his caresses. Cain closed his eyes, trying to commit the sensations to memory: strong fingers soothing the pain of his scars, hot mouth melting into his, and an ecstasy long-denied building throughout his body and mind. Whether it lasted seconds or minutes or years, Cain could not tell. He knew only that he longed for the moment of glory, and longed for it to never arrive, for this instant of time to continue forever. Like Crehador had before him, Cain cared not if he died in truth. Surely he was in Heaven already. Cain called out Riff's name as he expired in bliss.
When he came to himself, Riff's familiar touch had changed to the coarse fumbling of a stranger. Cain pulled away and opened his eyes. Crehador blinked back at him. The two men stared at each other, exhausted and shaken.
Crehador's wrists were abraded and bleeding, with broken ropes still tied around them. He stared at them in confusion. "I… did something happen? Did I break the ropes…?"
Cain recovered his wits enough to give Crehador what he hoped was a scornful stare. "Yes, during your little death. Well, that was an intriguing experiment. We must try again as we planned originally… but now you must be gone, before Merriweather comes looking for us."
Crehador hastily dressed. He did not tie his cravat, but stuffed it into his pocket. Before he left, he spoke to Cain. "If you learned nothing else from this day, please learn this: the man you love does not exist. I don't believe that he ever existed. Do not trust him!"
With that, Crehador fairly ran for the door.
Though the day's adventure had only been partially successful, Cain reassured himself that having Riff's body present and Crehador making a sincere effort, would work the desired effect. And with all Cain knew now of the medium, he could certainly bribe or coerce him into performing a real séance. But if the other Riff was too strong, perhaps there was another place where his Riff's spirit could find refuge.
All a spirit needed was a welcoming home, and Cain had been possessed once before. If he couldn't get Riff back into his own body, Cain could always give up his.