Chapter Twenty Five
Jessamine watched the heavy Protector's coat slide easily off Corvo's arms. The hems of the coat whispered at his calves as the entire length of him was free from the confines of its bulk. It exposed the dark maroon of his shirt, which wrinkled around the flex of his arm as he folded the coat upon the courtyard bench.
Corvo took his time to roll his sleeves back onto his elbows, allowing the sun to kiss the skin of his forearms and hands. He kept his leather vest on, the fit of it hugging his lean chest. He looked almost slender, but no less… thick.
He glanced up at her from across the courtyard, his brown eyes light with easiness as he dressed down before her.
"I don't see how this is necessary."
He paused at that, hands waving in the air. She watched the gestures but looked at his wrists and skin.
"But not necessary." She argued and made a show to cross her arms. It helped to steel her heart from moving too fast. "I don't actually see the purpose of this. And I don't wish to waste my morning."
Corvo removed the belt which holstered his sword and pistol, unhooking it from his hips and laying it over the coat.
She hurried, as if to stop him from continuing. "I don't expect such things from you, Lord Protector."
But Corvo ignored her, treasonous though that was. His hands removed the tie of his small and messy ponytail, allowing the short dark tresses to fall forward and frame his face. She marveled quietly at how long he had allowed his hair to get and the sight of his thick fingers brushing it backward. He tied it once more, this time cleaner, so his face was free from playful strands.
His features were fully visible now and his expression was calm and casual as he approached her.
They were alone in the early morning, occupying the small and conveniently concealed patio of her courtyard where hardly anyone visited. She took breakfast here on occasion when she wished for isolation, which made this location ideal for their interaction. And she had been sure that Clara would see to it that they would not be disturbed.
Jessamine's lips pursed as he advanced. "I think perhaps this whole idea should be forgone."
Corvo shook his head. He was only a mere arm's length away, so she could see the lines and callouses on his fingers as he signed.
'You already agreed.'
Corvo had approached her the night before, after Parliament had relinquished. He had given her a day to rest from the trip into the city, help her arrange for Hamish's arrest, and instate the plans for a new water directive for her people.
And then he had asked to spend the morning with her, so he could teach her to defend herself.
He has signed for some time before seeing her off for the evening. He had explained his concerns as Lord Protector. After what had happened in the city and with Canavan, he wanted her better prepared.
She had agreed because his fingers had seemed… timid and his eyes genuinely worried.
Jessamine flexed her fingers on her arms.
But now his eyes seemed much darker, even in the light of the morning. And he stood with no coat, and rolled sleeves, and… Outsider's Eyes, she always forgot how tall he was.
The word she had finally acknowledged two days ago whispered into her mind once more.
It had been that word that had her hurrying to bed earlier and earlier the past two nights. That word that had her taking her meals alone, that had her avoiding Corvo's gaze and kept her busy with paperwork.
And now she had agreed to this… very unconventional morning. Foolish.
Corvo's hands began to rise toward hers and her shoulders straightened.
"I just don't see how this will matter if you are to be at my guard at all times."
As soon as she said it, she knew it was a ridiculous argument.
Corvo eyed her, hands half raised. His expression was curved in such an obvious disagreement, she wondered if he would even bother to sign.
'I am not always on guard.'
She knew that, of course. In fact – perhaps this was better. She would need Corvo to guard her a lot less considering… considering…
She was attracted to him.
His hands grabbed hers.
They were warm and gentle as they uncrossed her arms and brought her forward to him. She didn't move, but Corvo was a trained soldier and a very firm man, and despite her resistance his simple tender pulling was enough to manipulate her small frame into the position he wanted.
He settled their hands in between them and raised his own temporarily to sign. She had to blink her focus back to his words and not his body.
It was a harder task than she imagined, because all she could see was the tautness of leather across the expansion of his chest, and the narrow lines of his hips with his belt missing.
Looking at his face would be far more dangerous.
'First, I want to show you how to get away.'
Jessamine frowned at first before realizing that, of course, Corvo would be pretending to be her assailant.
He explained to her the most common way someone might grab her would be to snatch her hands and arms. And after a simple demonstration where she grabbed his wrists, he showed her how easy it was to get out by twisting his own arm straight out of her fingers.
He signed some small encouragement and she fought to ignore the feel of his hands on her skin as she mimicked the move he had shown her.
Callouses and fingernails gently sliding against her, Jessamine found herself blinking rapidly.
They spent several minutes practicing just that. Corvo would hold her wrists tighter each time and she would twist her arm far enough where his fingers were forced to let go. It was easy enough, and surprisingly effective. And for a moment, she thought that was all there was to this little session.
But then Corvo stepped forward, hands grasping her upper arms tightly, pulling her forward until her booted feet nudged his.
The action had her snapping her gaze to his face. Something she had been avoiding.
He was silent, looking down at her indifferently, seemingly waiting for her to respond as she stood, startled in his arms. He was practically looming over her and a cold chill shivered down her back as heat rose in her chest.
She could see the softness of certain planes of his face this close. His jaw and stubble were a rough contrast to the quiet plush look of his cheeks or lips and Jessamine found her eyes flickering about his facial features.
He was handsome. It wasn't the first or last time she had thought that.
Corvo had striking features. Dark eyes, heavy jaw, surprisingly high and flat cheekbones—his face alone would garner looks. Coupled with his demeanor and the surety of his movements…
She wondered at that, here in his arms. He was always confident. His hands were experts in intricate gestures and action. What would they be like in different applications? Would they falter or shake? Or would they be just as sure, just as gentle despite the obvious power and control he had reserved.
Jessamine wasn't sure which would be more exciting.
After a few more minutes of silence, Corvo's brows frowned and he took a small step back, raising a hand in confusion. The release shook her, realizing just how long she had stood there, staring.
'Get out of my hold.' He directed, obviously confused that she was not already trying to do that.
Jessamine tried to hide the sudden flush in her face by pretending to look irritated instead. "This is foolish!" She chided, not wanting to say it made her feel foolish, but protesting all the same. Heat was flooding her neck at the realization of the exact things she had been thinking of. Quickly she latched onto her annoyance.
"I'm not fit for this – I'm hardly dressed for… combat!" She indicated towards her clothes. And while she was indeed wearing pants and a fitted blouse, they were decorative and restraining. Jewels dangled from her ears and her elegant hair. And her heeled boots, short as they were, did not exactly inspire her to move fast.
Corvo seemed more amused than upset at her obvious distaste.
'I do not think you will be suitably dressed when you are attacked either.'
Damn his unspoken cleverness. And the smirk of it on his attractive face.
He stepped away from her, signing hands disappearing to push through his hair, despite it already being tied neatly away from his face. A gesture she found curiously endearing. He seemed to think for a moment, all the while eyeing her up in down in thought.
Jessamine breathed harshly and made it seem like a huff, looking away from his scrutiny.
"I simply think this is… fruitless. We should focus on preventing such situations for me to ever be in, rather than prepare for me being in them."
There was a sound of expelled breath and Jessamine turned to find Corvo smiling, close-lipped at her.
"What is it?"
'You will always get yourself into trouble.' The signing fingers spelled out trouble for her, before acting out its sign. His small smile did not leave him as he did so.
She should have been offended. But instead she found herself trying to contain her own grin, her laugh. Not just for her shared agreement to… but because smiling was suddenly contagious with heat seeping into her neck and chest. She pressed her hand forcefully to her mouth. But Corvo's gaze told her he had already seen it. So they smiled quietly to each other for a few minutes.
She watched him say her name, fingers measuring his heart. He didn't say it often, so the sight of it made her bite her tongue. Her mirth left her, the lightness of it expelling to the heaviness of her previous thoughts and feelings.
'Trust me.' A thick brow wrinkled his brow at the prompting, his long finger scraping his forehead before falling into his other fist. A humble gesture.
That wasn't really fair, but it got her to stop protesting. She nodded once, forcing her embarrassing thoughts away and Corvo once more came forward.
She couldn't think like this. It wasn't fair to him. She was being ludicrous, and only inhabiting both of them. It needed to stop.
She took a breath and steeled her nerves.
They practiced getting her out of holds again, this time twisting her whole arm when his reach was closer to her shoulders. He would nod in approval, signing encouraging 'faster' gestures as they worked. He even taught her how to grab him back, and press on his wrist keep him there, should she ever need too.
He explained to her that there were spots on the arm that were weak, that if she dug her fingers into them they would hurt anyone, even men much larger than her. She grew a little fascinated at the exercise, trying her best to memorize the precision of where those points where. Upon the wrist, in the crease of the elbow, just below the shoulder…
And Corvo seemed to enjoy teaching her.
He was ever careful, and while at times his grip had to mock firmness, she could feel the utterly cautious restraint in them. He looked similar to their times in her office when they shared a drink. Or similar to when she coerced him to eat small meals with her during a busy day. Relaxed, content.
Jessamine smiled secretly as she watched him explain different ways to properly grasp a person.
At the beginning of their time together, she had thought him lacking in most expressions. And while it was true that he was more reserved… she had witnessed many different emotions across his face.
And she took pleasure with the thought that perhaps she might be the only one to see them.
It was during this little thought when Corvo took up her hands again, only for his fingers to slide lightly over the entire length of her arms, to position himself neatly behind her. His looming body moving around her, abput her.
Her mind went a bit numb, and thought of quiet affection heated to something quite different.
Jessamine tried to turn, slightly shaken at the sudden change, but his hands grasped her wrists and she was effectively stuck.
Hands lifted before her eyes, his voice speaking in her mind as she watched his hands cross before her to a near embrace, a finger slid against his other hand, unintentionally bringing her back closer to his front.
His hands resumed their capture of her wrists. And suddenly, Jessamine couldn't wrap her mind around the order.
His tallness seemed accentuated from this new position. She could feel his head above hers, his mouth somewhere near the twist of her hair, the expanse of his chest cradling her shoulders. Her mind was everywhere. This was much too improper, she should stop it immediately. Should anyone see them—anyone—how long had it been since anyone had held her like this? Had anyone? Had she ever been so casually intimate with a man? She was no maiden, but even her trysts had been somewhat of a formal affair.
Jessamine stopped her line of thinking. This was no tryst. And this was not an embrace. This was her Lord Protector, and he wasn't holding her in any way that wasn't informative. She exhaled shakily.
Lamely, she tried twisting her wrists as she had been doing, but all that caused was Corvo's grasp to move with her and suddenly he was very fully enclosed around her. His back bent with the motion, and his head was next to her.
He shook it, indicating that it was a wrong move and also effectively making her psychically shiver. Her shoulders lifted with the sensation and her spine slid against his chest. If he noticed, she couldn't tell. And he didn't say. She doubted he would.
"I don't—" Jessamine tried, but her mouth was hot and her face was burning. It was so warm—he was so warm.
And gods, she could feel the shape of him now. The thin fabric of his shirt did nothing to keep the secret of the exact curves of his muscles. Lean arms corded around her and his hips pressed at her lower back.
Improper—unacceptable, absolutely not-
Corvo brought his hands close to both of them, trapping them together as he spoke.
It took much of her focus to retain her demeanor as he took her hands once more and she began to twist inward. It brought him closer, but eventually his fingers broke and she was free. She was about to step away and breath in all the air missing from her body when his hands snatched her wrists again, presumably to continue the practice.
"Corvo—please—" She began, before realizing she didn't really know what to say. Did he know how odd she was acting? Could he see how flushed her face was? Did she really want to point it out to him? Her dignity fought with her embarrassment and she rushed an excuse to simply put space between them. "It would hardly matter if I got free from that in this position anyway. They would just grab me everywhere else."
He shifted behind her, grip on her wrists slackening. Thinking.
Jessamine tried to lean forward, away from the mere heat of him, of the image burned into her mind of every dark wrinkle layering his chest, away from the heavy smell of leather.
His hands left her and she felt him step away. She breathed as he came around, signing as he did.
"Yes, well, I'm only being plausible." She rambled, her hands straightening her blouse, touching her stomach, fiddling at her hair.
This was to be stopped. Her mind was crawling with indecency. She had the sense to acknowledge that.
And she couldn't, it was madness. She was thinking too much of this man's dark eyes and the tangle of his hair, the softness of his lips and the sound his shirt would make as it slid off him.
Jessamine's brows increased in their intensity as her body grew taut like a cord about to snap.
"I think this is enough." She stated firmly at the Serkonan as he seemed lost in thought. "I… I don't wish to continue today."
Corvo looked up at her, his deadpanned expression obviously not in agreement. He shook his head.
'No, you agreed.'
"You know how busy I am with—'
'You're not.' He blatantly interrupted. Jessamine's hackles rose, the tenseness in her muscles and body fueling her frustration at his stubbornness.
"Corvo." Her voice took on the edge of authority. "As my Lord Protector, you must—"
Corvo stepped forward again and this time his signing was firm. Each symbol punctuated in the air. Slow and deliberate.
'No. This is important.' His eyes watched her steadily behind his moving fingers, piercing her through her heated mind. 'This is about your safety.'
Again, she should have been offended.
But instead she felt shame well in her. Her lips pursed as she swallowed her own guilt. It was her fault she could not perform this exercise with him without feeling… well. It was not a problem of his, obviously.
That thought alone made her feel worse. She tried not to let it show, looking away and touching her stomach quietly in her nervous resolve.
At her submission, Corvo didn't seem to waste any time for fear she may stop the whole lesson once more. He was in her proximity again, this time taking time to sign before claiming her hands.
'Let me show you one last thing.'
The fight to maintain professionalism began again.
Having agreed that twisting from grasps was effective but not always relevant, Corvo began showing her more weak points at joints and muscles.
It was straight forward enough, push hard enough into certain places in the anatomy and an assailant would give. The pain was guaranteed, no matter their size or stature. He had her practice pushing her fingers or knuckles into his shoulder or chest.
She did so, trying not to think how her fingers curled on those spots, or the odd and compelling contrast of soft skin on firm muscle.
At one point she balked when he kept encouraging her to press harder, to push him to pain.
"I don't want to hurt you." She had expressed, watching as he smiled, pulling her close to bring her hand into the center of his chest, forcing the pressure to increase.
Her lips pursed at the sight and he signed, 'I want you to.'
She knew, somewhere in her mind, that he needed to know she could hurt him enough that she could also hurt any possible assailant, but her thoughts had gone… elsewhere.
If she pained him, she could not tell, but Corvo would nod in approval after a length of time, or a length of her pressing into him. He showed her a few other simple things. Things she could focus on, like avoiding someone rushing to grab her, or how to hit someone enough for it to hurt, with her knuckle protruding from her fist.
He showed her how to get someone off of her completely by grasping her own wrist and using her forearm to push them off by their neck.
That took a bit more time to get right, with Corvo imitating his intention to snatch her while she practiced shoving him backward with her arm. Once, she was afraid she had pushed too hard at his throat, a sound ripping from his lips as she walked him backward.
But he shook his head immediately, hands rubbing his neck and smiling.
'Good. Good. Again.'
They must have been going at it for over an hour now. And Corvo announced to her, much to her relief, that they were almost finished.
But suddenly, his hands were on hers again, pulling her slim digits to grasp his neck.
His fingers caressed hers, sliding them into precise positions before abandoning her to the sensation of his hot neck and the small grazes of his stubble.
It was so soft here, rough and yet so vulnerable.
He was signing, but she couldn't see the words.
Her eyes were upon the vision of her own fingers, there upon his neck. She could feel the movement in his throat, the curve of his jaw and the tendon down to his collarbone.
Experimentally, she pressed her fingers very gently into him, and the action had her body rolling closer to him for a better grip.
Her fingers twitched on him and she saw his words form in the corner of her eyes.
Corvo was looking at her. Waiting, dark eyes considering her standing there before him with her chest nearly pressing against his, arms folded on him and fingers curled on his neck.
"I don't want to hurt you." She found herself repeating in a low whisper, pushed through parted and breathless lips.
'If you can't hurt me, you can't hurt anyone.'
She shook her head, and her fingers slid tenderly across his skin, dashing to touch timidly at the corner of his jaw near his ear. She couldn't hurt him, not when all she wanted to do was—
Corvo's hands were on hers again, replacing them back to the pressure points on his neck.
Her fingers began to press gently and suddenly a flutter beneath their padding had her stop.
The small and steady beat tattooed itself against her thumb. His was resolute and calm.
1…2…3… Jessamine's eyes traced the sight of her Lord Protector, trusting in her hands, awaiting her to hurt him.
His head was leaned backward to the sky, and she could make out his long lashes open and blinking. Waiting.
He was warm, warm against her chest, because she was close now. This position demanded her proximity, her form against his, leather vest against expensive cloth and his raised naked forearms casually draped near her hips.
She had him, had his skin in her hands.
A swallow. Not from her but from him and she felt a flare of greed rush through her body at the simple action.
Jessamine hesitated but pressed harshly into him, her breast pushing forcefully against his chest. Corvo bent to her will, her legs stepping forward, knee bending between his, friction against their thighs. And for seconds she imagined them in a heated dance.
Almost perfectly in sync with her thought, his hands came down to grasp her hips and the action startled her into squeezing his neck hard.
Corvo grunted through his lips, the sound guttural and low. She watched him wince slightly, and her fingers went lax on his throat.
"Oh! I'm sorry—"
Corvo rose, making her fingers brushing his jaw and cheeks, feeling the muscles in them tense as he smiled at her.
He shook his head, only causing her fingers to feel more sensations of his face. His chin, the brush of his hair at his nape.
She could kiss him.
Jessamine was within reach. His head was not so tall now, with her leaning against him, entangled at his neck and his hands holding her steady, keeping her unstable frame against his solid one.
Warm, warm, warm—it was all so warm. Like the heat in Karnaca, it was making her feel contained, coiled, like a gun ready to be shot.
She wanted to be shot – to be set fire to, to break this resolve and press against him hard, not to his throat, but to his lips. To press her fingers in the crevices of his collarbone, arms, spine…
Her fingers slid to the back of his neck, grasping him there. She felt fingers tense on her hips, felt her body collide on his.
He let her go. His dark eyes and composed smile disappearing as his gaze looked above her head with absent curiosity.
He stepped away completely from her, moving passed her to the courtyard door behind them. And Jessamine felt the cold of the air sting her skin and wash her face.
She couldn't seem to regulate her breathing, even as she heard her Matron speak to her Lord Protector.
So close. So dangerously and fatally close. And Jessamine couldn't discern if it was relief or regret welling in her.
"Forgive me Lord Protector, I know Her Majesty asked for privacy but I've tried to delay them time and they insist on—"
She righted herself. Shaking fingers smoothed away the heat from her belly and her wet lips pursed inward. She turned toward the both of them, and did not look at Corvo. She couldn't.
"What is it?"
"The Count, ma'am." Clara confirmed, the matron's tightly buttoned blouse making her appear even stiffer. "He's in the gallery, calling for your company."
"I'm not seeing any audiences today."
"I…have told him so Majesty…"
Jessamine raised a brow. The image of the Count of Tamarak took away any last bit of her ridiculous fantasies of her Protector.
…whom she could feel watching her, awaiting an order…so perhaps, not completely.
She gave a sigh, but nodded, more to herself than to Clara. She would have to deal with him. And with a gentle wave, she allowed Clara to lead her back inside the Tower.
Corvo followed without order, as always, and the feel of him behind her was not lost.
But the air of him and the courtyard outside was lost with the sudden contrast of the indoor hallways and their entrance into the gallery. Not only because of the cluster of furniture and drapery, or the lack of Corvo's heady smell and proximity, but because her portrait gallery was clamored with a full Tyvian entourage.
Jessamine was hardly ever caught off guard (Corvo notwithstanding). Yet here she was, quite suddenly halted with a full dozen of nobles adorned in whites, reds, and golds. The ladies were full of fans and furs and men were adorned with sashes and medals.
Tamir Moiseev stood at its head, bowing dramatically low before raising his hands in welcome, the poignant smile on his face sharp and excited.
"Ah! And she appears, Her awaited Majesty, a vision of the day."
Jessamine's eyes squinted at the crowd behind the Count and noticed her thin Secretary looking upset and anxious. Not an uncommon sight, but…
"Lord Moiseev… " She started, polite but a little wary. She could feel her Lord Protector's own anxiousness behind her. "This is unexpected, are you hosting a soiree—"
He cut her off with a laugh, one that rolled and reverberated. "No, no, no, I am not one for soirees so simple."
Jessamine didn't have the patience after the restraint of this morning. "Is there perhaps something you need to confer with me about? On behalf of Tamarak or Tyvia?"
The Count's smile grew much wider, looking down at her with an unveiled amusement that only began to irritate her, though perhaps that was because she had been frustrated for the better part of the day.
"You are a woman of your people, this I know." He nodded, raised a finger to emphasize the point and seemingly his accent. "I wanted you to know that I am a man of mine as well. Thus I bring them here today to witness my actions of passion."
Jessamine said nothing. She tried not to let her gaze dart to the many foreign faces standing about them, quietly shuffling on their feet impatiently. Foreign or not, she was their Empress too. And she could not show them her discomfort.
"I, like you, consider my life a… tribute to all Tyvians. I would not do anything without considering them or my country." He continued, eyes looking thoughtful but hurried. "That being said, I can not help but at admit as a man, that my actions today are selfish as much as they are selfless."
"Ah, Ah, give me a moment." He commented and Jessamine tried to give a patient smile back. His sharp grin mirrored his sudden jolting movements as he twisted, motioning to her secretary before twisting to kneel on the floor.
Jessamine took a slight step back just as Corvo took a full one forward to her side, both startled at the Count.
But he didn't seem to notice, his hands rising toward her and his smile constant. "I am here today to declare my official Courtship of Her Majesty Empress Jessamine Kaldwin."
There was a round of clapping and she could do nothing but stare down at Moiseev as he smiled, rolling his fingers towards hers. For an odd second she thought he was signing to her the words 'give me.'
"Lord Moiseev, I am… honored without a doubt—but declarations for courtship are better suited to days when I am holding court—"
"I have already cleared the details with your Secretary." He shook off, looking over at the man. "Isn't that right my good Cromwell?"
Jessamine watched Cromwell give her and odd expression mixed somewhere between confusion and helplessness.
"Besides, is it not better that we treat this as it is? Not just something political, but something of romance and intrigue. No?"
Romance and Intrigue.
Her lips parted to speak and she found that she could not. Jessamine felt a mixture of annoyance for this sudden issue. Because despite the Count's prose, this was a political step she needed to deliberate one just as she would any bill. And yet… it was almost kind of him, to want to treat it not as a matter of debate but one of romance, as it is for more privileged nobles.
She considered him.
The Count was… a handsome man. Dark hair and bright light eyes, like her own. His hair curled at his neck and appeared wet with some sort of cosmetic element. He was groomed. And his features were odd, with a long nose and prominent cupid bow lips to show his teeth.
He was not the subtle heat that Corvo was—
Beside her, she wondered if the Serkonan was baffled by this entire show. She tried not to smile at the imagined confused expression he must wear.
But that was just it, wasn't it?
Corvo Attano. Her attraction to him – this entire past morning.
She had spent so much time with the Lord Protector it was almost inevitable to think of him, handsome as he was, in such a way.
But she couldn't. Not him.
Jessamine's societal charm turned on like the flare of a gas lamp. She smiled demurely, her arm unfurling to place her hands (ones that had only recently graced Corvo's skin) into Tamir Moiseev's.
"My Lord you are full of surprises, as most Tyvians are, and while I would consider this under a more appropriate council meeting, I think it is fair for me to declare to you and my Secretary—" She nodded to Cromwell, "That I accept your invitation to a courtship."
"Ah! Wonderful!" Tamir smiled, leaned down to kiss the hand he had been presented, the sensation was chaste and slick. "Wonderful!"
Once more, the gallery filled with clapping.
And Jessamine gave curt nods to all of it, trying to focus on the sound of it all and not the heated silence that stood beside her, as it always did.
A/N: Ho ho, check that out. Two updates in one day. That totally makes up for the crazy long hiatus amiright? *wink wonk* Anyway. After that last boring chapter I thought I hit you guys with this one.
Once again, Viastealer on Tumblr made some AMAZING art of past chapters that you guys should check out! They are on my bio if you want to see em!