Caius toys with Aro's words and Sulpicia's worry, disliking what he has heard. News has spread through the south, a rush of dark wings, that the Dacians with to meet with Aro's little coven, the term used with adequate scorn.
Perhaps they are merely curious. Power grants them that right.
Else, they hold suspicions of motives and means, an inkling of the game Aro plays.
The notion slicks Caius' throat with the iron taste of fear. His brother has no skill at subterfuge, and his sisters have never needed to acquire it. Placing faith in Marcus is reasonable, but that ploy may be insufficient. His youngest brother, didactic diplomat though he is, cannot rein Aro with words alone. A false step and—the statement is best left unfinished.
Only inside his chambers does he realize that he will have a handful of weeks with Athenodora and the marked absence of his siblings. That should change little, but he finds himself biting back a smile.
"Were you eavesdropping?" he asks her, although he knows the answer. She cannot keep boredom's bite at bay for long; if there is nothing to amuse her, she will invent diversion from the scraps of conversation that carry through stone.
"Blatantly, yes." Her smile is a flight of wonder, a play of light on wings.
"You could accompany me, you know," he says, settling beside her on the low window-seat she favours.
"I could," she agrees, "but I do not want to."
His disapproval is hummed into her hair, but he knows that the quirk of his mouth, a contented brand against the blue pallor of her throat, reveals his utter lack of condemnation.
"It's perfectly reasonable," Athenodora insists.
For a heartbeat, he wishes to see as she does, unfettered, unwilling to wander into Aro's battlefield of whispers and wiles. It frightens him, her dizzying desire to watch and know without acting.
"You have heard, then, that Aro and Marcus will be departing soon with our sisters," he says, keeping his voice unblemished by worry. The shadows are stirring around them, and he wonders if she knows how perilous their position is. A misstep, a mere stumble upon Aro's part when he is in the company of the Dacians, and all of their deaths will follow in graceful retribution.
Athenodora hides her sentiments well although her fingers, fine as lace, tighten upon his arm in silvery shackles.
"So much time," she murmurs, her voice silken, shimmering. "Whatever shall we do with it?"
She is beautiful when she wears the mask of one who is not afraid.
Athenodora prefers Caius when he has no-one to command. She could fancy herself a gentle soul who favours a kinder lover, but the truth of it is cutting, a bare and lovely blade. He belongs to her, wears her finger-marks pressed upon his heart, when he has no brothers to oppose and obey.
The days stretch, slow and sweet as tawny strands of honey pulled from a jar. Amidst the empty chambers and laughter, raw sparks of delight in defiance of the winter wind, she finds herself content. She has her mate, after all, who would wound and warp for her. It isn't precisely the definition of love, though it should be.
She cannot remember when her hair was neat last, unruffled by death-battered hands. That does not trouble her; nothing seems to. The pale sunlight has wormed its way beneath her skin, deep into the marrow below, burning and gleeful and maddening.
"I'm eighteen," she insists at night, her sharp little chin resting delicately upon the former home of his heartbeat, the awkward jut of ribs and scars. "I am allowed to be—"
In love is not the correct term, too pretty for blood-eyed creatures that splinter stone if their minds wander, and besotted seems dismissive. She will not whip him with incautious cruelties anymore, she has decided. He has no need of fresh scars, painful constellations on a pale field.
"I know," he agrees. "What is my justification?"
She kisses his throat then, white hair clinging to her lashes like snow. The scent of flame engulfs her whole.
On occasion, Athenodora untangles herself from Caius' side and wanders to the library, the chamber beautiful and haphazard as ever. Its corners and crevices are familiar to her, but she seeks what she has not yet explored, the sort of texts that demand silence and solitude.
It is not difficult to find Aro's histories, heavy scrolls penned in seeping, staining ink that holds its venomous shade for centuries. He leaves his handiwork on slanting, solitary shelves, almost incautiously, and Athenodora wonders at his intentions. Surely there are better places to keep one's ruminations, but then, she holds no illusion about sharing space with Sulpicia.
Perhaps he only pens lies.
The notion is swiftly dismissed; Aro is no consummate weaver of elaborate falsehoods. Deception in the details is his domain. It is far more likely that he presumes his siblings have no interest in the workings of his mind, and wishes to dispel curiosity.
Her grin is mischief as she chooses a curl of cold parchment and thanks the gods for Aro's pretensions.
The beginnings of the coven are dull, she finds, described with the opulent sentimentality that only the young possess. Columns of rhapsodic prose are ignored as she searches for familiar names and discovers Didyme.
The ink-haired girl is her brother's obsession.
Such a suggestion is bitter and biting as bile in Athenodora's pristine thoughts, but she continues, seeking another conclusion with drowning desire. Around her, the words unfurl in ashy ribbons, binding her wrists and throat until she forgets to fight their pull.
Aro overlooks the truth that his sister is no great and tragic beauty, painting pictures of her loveliness with phrases sensuously frail as tumbling feathers. The wonderment of a newborn immortal, her eyes rounded by the promise of a blood-bright world to be tasted and shattered, is scrawled so accurately in letters losing their precision along the way that Athenodora finds herself half in love with the lyricism of it.
If she were wise, she would return the parchment to its place and leave, seeking Caius' touch in the lingering splashes of afternoon light, dyed crimson by the shadow of a storm.
Oh, but the story turns intriguing, for little Didyme finds herself coveted. Everyone, it seems, is in love with her, and Aro cannot quite say whether they lust for the insinuation of her flesh or the scraps of her spirit. His hurt oozes black and blurred as the ink, as he crucifies himself between a brother's duty and something Athendora cannot name.
Didyme's heart is coveted terrain for paragraphs, though her brother calls her a sweet child more often than not, and muses about her firefly-flimsy gift in the most disparaging of tones. Marcus escapes all mention. That is clever enough, Athenodora supposes, for scientific curiosity is a sterling excuse for this collection of memories. Envy transcribed into florid prose would be unbecoming, a word that tastes of Aro.
She thought, once, that she understood madness.
Too hastily, as though she knows that she will be caught, Athenodora gathers the parchment in her arms. Stumbling fingers roll it into shape and shove it into its cranny on the scarred shelf. Perhaps the spiders will mist it with silver before Aro's return, hiding her transgression for a little while.
Athenodora finds her Caius, fissured and stern, and twines herself around him, close as clinging ivy. His scent slips like raw silk over her skin, and she cannot help but thaw, icy edges blurring and softening.
"You can say hideous," Athenodora says lightly. Uncertainty makes her no lovelier.
"A more tactful variant of that, perhaps," Caius agrees.
"I'm thirsty," she decides, her defence simple. If he were to inquire further, she would have no answers to offer him.
"An original explanation."
She thanks him for not calling her a liar outright.
"Come on. Hunt with me?"
"Of course," he says, holding her too tightly for a moment. It is a childish gesture of comfort, but she drowns in it nonetheless.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I found out that 'A Thousand Stairs' was one of three stories that won the 'Best Other Coven Romance Series' award in the Hopeless Romantic Awards. I'd like to thank you, my readers, for nominating and voting. I'm still in absolute awe that a fic about an obscure pairing in a huge fandom has found itself an audience, but I'm even more amazed at how awesome all of you are. I wish there was a better way of conveying my gratitude.
(I will add that the award graphic is a golden apple. I enjoy receiving golden apples. It makes me feel like a girl in a myth, with the added bonus that nobody is throwing the aforementioned golden apple at me as a means of winning my hand in marriage. Is this terribly nerdy? )
On another award-related note, my fic, "Of History and Wisdom" was nominated for an Emerging Swan Award, in the Short Story category, under the subheading of family/friendship. I'd like to thank the anonymous nominator, and if you feel so inclined, please go and read all of the nominated stories at emergingswanawards(dot)blogspot(dot)com.