Jaded Touch By Nola Sarina
Release date: August 6, 2013Three is tormented by the branding scars on her back, broken memories of her fallen creator, and the looming consequences of her secret friendship with Sychar - a male of her kind - a high crime in her world of serpentine guardians.
Then along comes Jack - the human train engineer she saves in an explosion. His touch weakens both her knees and her sense of duty. Now Three must choose between her immortal duties, her forbidden friendship, and her human lover.
With every choice comes a cost, but not every cost is hers to pay...
A thump on the top of the train pulled me from concentration and I slipped the little pouch with all my beads and leather cords beneath the pillow of the lounge car. I sat upright and listened. Who else was out, at this time? The Original Child’s transfer was tomorrow, so there was little time to waste.
I peered out at the open side door of the car that made my lounge bay – every train in our company had a car like this one, with sliding side doors and a couple of cots bolted to the floor for us to rest upon during the blistering daytime. Feet slid down from the roof of the train and in swung a man in solid leather clothing, his movements seamless as he dropped into the car. He stood and tilted his head at me, and the way he moved – his motions just a touch quicker than was normal for Vespers – gave his identity away.
“What are you doing out?” I asked him. Sychar knew better than to sneak out this close to transfer duty! But after all this time, my best friend still chanced it to come socialize on the trains he was supposed to avoid.
Sychar unzipped the black, leather hood of his daywear from his collar and slipped it off over his head.
“I could ask you the same,” he said with a smirk, and I laughed. Sychar was easily the most rebellious of the Gents, as I was of the Maids. It was a natural, though forbidden, friendship we indulged: meeting upon trains for some social time when we weren’t supposed to be out at all.
I pulled my beading pouch out from under the pillow – no need to hide it from Sychar – and got back to work. My sisters would make fun of me for keeping a hobby, but Sychar was just that kind of guy: non-judgemental, kind, and understanding.
He tossed himself into the neighboring cot and stretched out, his hands clasped behind his head. I shook my head and forced myself to stop admiring the intricacy of his black veins along his temples and brow. Something had been awakened in me thanks to Jack, and I had to keep pressing down the feelings that surged whenever I thought of him. Sychar’s presence wasn’t helping to keep the desire at bay. Though he was just a friend, he was one hell of an attractive friend.
“Actually, when we heard about the train accident, Levitiqas blew a gasket about his Child’s safety on the transfer,” Sychar said. “He sent Festus and me to accompany you Maids on the journey tomorrow. But I’m at least twelve hours ahead of him.” He grinned, proud as ever with his superior speed.
It was true: he was fast enough to cross the country on foot in a day’s time, if he needed to. Trains only slowed him down, contrary to how ordinary Vespers like I needed them to increase our speed of travel. So if Sychar was on this train, it was because he wanted to see me regardless of the penalty for his tardiness, and my heart swelled with appreciation.
“I was on the train when it went off,” I said. “Had to wrench myself out from beneath the heavy thing. If I hadn’t been trapped, I might have gotten to the train men sooner.”
Sychar sighed. “Yeah, we thought it was you. Dispatch wasn’t sure who called. Are all the guys dead?”
I shook my head. “No. Jack’s alive.”
“He’s the young one, right? Been with us about six months?”
I nodded. “He was hurt, so I got him home. Gash in his arm and a head injury. I probably should have taken him to the hospital, but I was worried he might be out of it and spill something.” I’m worried he’ll tell somebody that I kissed him. And more. So much more. I wanted him to control me, and it seemed so contrary in the presence of another Vesper that I frowned. I wondered if the female praying mantis ever let the male think he would be the one to survive mating, only to dash his hopes and tear off his head at the last sorry second. Or in my case, swallow him whole.
“Was he breathing?”
“Of course he was breathing.” All over me.
Sychar hummed and glanced at me, an eyebrow lifted. “Then he’s probably fine. Humans are more resilient than they give themselves credit for. Have the train staff send someone to check on him. Maybe they’ll send a girl.”
I flinched internally and hoped Sychar didn’t catch it. Be cool, Three. “Yeah, we don’t let the poor hoggers get enough action.” Understatement of the year goes to me, the Maid who reciprocated nothing but a painful squeeze to her forbidden human consort’s precious jewels.
Sychar grinned at me, but his gaze was scrupulous and I wondered if he suspected I was hiding something.
“You cut your hair,” I noted. Sychar’s brown hair was short to his scalp, though last time I’d seen him it was nearly touching his shoulders. The cut accentuated his Italian features, bringing out the angles of his jaw and nose… Damn. My newly-sensitive femaleness was heightened to the point that I was noticing even Sychar’s manly attractiveness, and that was creepy. Even mere friendship with a Gent like Sychar could prove deadly if we were discovered. Any contact barring that which was required by our duties was forbidden.
“Yeah, it was driving me nuts, because it curls when it’s long and pokes me in the fucking ears. I got my hands on a pair of diamond-edged clippers last week. Stole it from one of the other Gents.”
My eyebrows shot up. Though the only way to cut Vesper hair was with such a strong blade, I could imagine the beating Sychar would earn for stealing from his elder brothers. His boldness never ceased to impress me. “Nice!”
“You can borrow them, if you want to do something about… that.” He made a show of cringing at my black curls, twisted around my shoulders in an unruly mess. It got out of hand when it grew long, and I couldn’t really help it, so I grabbed my pillow and whipped it at him. He laughed when it exploded into a spray of feathers as he blocked it with his iron forearm.
“Crap,” I said, surveying the mess.
Sychar pulled the pillow out from under his head and tossed it more gently at me, and I caught it. He brushed feathers off his cot and interlaced his fingers behind his head again.
“Thanks.” I breathed deeply of his scent, always grateful for his generosity. This little mood Jack put me in in was a dangerous one. I couldn’t really blame myself. Jack was good looking, and so was Sychar. But Sychar’s good looks resonated with me on a different level. One of platonic care, as though I was his sister in more than just immortality. I put the pillow on the cot beside me. Huh. Something was off about his usual, familiar smell: the sleek aroma of a steel man, a Vesper.
“What happened to your shirt?” Sychar asked me.
Crap. I’d forgotten that I wore only a tank top the whole time I was with Jack. I reached over my shoulder and stroked my fingertips over the top scar on my spine, and sighed. One of the three giant branding circles that ran down my spine – the same three that earned me my Vesper name of Three - peeked out from beneath the top of the shirt, and Jack had surely seen it. The other two were evenly spaced down the center of my back, low enough that the white fabric hid them.
“I tied off Jack’s arm with it.”
He cringed. “How low does that one dip in the back?”
“Too low.” I chewed on my lip. I hated when my sisters saw my scars, which they certainly would once I got home dressed like this. The scars were sensitive to touch, and even the cool air irritated the markings.
“Shit, Three, here.” Sychar sat up and unzipped his leather coat, and then peeled off his long-sleeved, black shirt. He tossed it to me and had his coat zipped back on before I even caught it, he was so damn fast.
I hesitated. “You don’t have to,” I started, but he waved me off as he lay back down.
“It’s fine, Three. I don’t want you getting any more shit than you already do from them. It’s bad enough when the guys tease me for my age, I can only imagine what the other Maids put you through.”
I blinked, surprised by his generosity. He gave me the shirt off his back. Sychar was truly one-of-a-kind. That unique way of being both offhand and generous at the same time was why I cherished his friendship so much… why he was the only one who knew the story behind my scars, besides my Lady. I’d never trust anyone else with the tale. So I stuffed my arms into his shirt, slipped it over my head and tossed back my hair. I breathed in again, watching Sychar smirk at me while something a little bit arrogant – but still cute – tugged at the corners of his mouth.
But as I inhaled, I caught a whiff of something unexpected. I sniffed the air again. “What is that?”
Sychar frowned at me, and then sniffed his armpits, and I laughed. Vespers didn’t have body odor, but the gesture was boyish and hilarious anyway.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“It smells like perfume.”
Sychar shrugged again, but a ghost of something suspicious danced across his features. He covered it well, and that was when I realized that my best friend had a secret.
I kicked my legs off the bed and leaned forward. “What is it? You’re hiding something.”
He snorted. “What are you, Levitiqas?”
“Just because your master can detect any lie you tell him doesn’t mean I’m anything like him, and I’d appreciate if you didn’t refer to me as such.” Such an insult was usually reserved among the Vespers for the harshest of arguments. No one wanted to be like Levitiqas.
Sychar held up his hands, his solid-black eyes showing me genuine apology. “Out of line. I’m sorry, Three.”
I glared at him. “What are you hiding? What did you do?”
Sychar tongued his fangs as we stared each other down for a moment, and then he sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees, blowing out a harsh breath of stress. I furrowed my eyebrows.
“How are you at keeping secrets from your Lady?”
I shook my head. “She doesn’t interrogate us like Levitiqas does to you boys. I can keep a secret, if you need me to.”
“But are you willing to keep the secret, if it’s so against the rules I could be killed for it, or worse?” The sudden darkness in his tone sent a thrill of fear through my chest. What had he done?
I swallowed hard, my heart thudding in my chest. “You’re my best friend, Sychar. I’d never tell anyone the things you confide in me.” Over the years, Sychar had confided in me often, as I’d done with him. Not a breath of any tale had crossed my lips after he told it.
He peered up at me from under his lashes, his youthful face showing a level of stress I didn’t expect. “I’ve got this tucked away in my head. I don’t think Levitiqas could torture it out of me if he tried.”
“What do you have tucked away?” The suspense was killing me. Sychar had a secret, a dangerous one… one more dangerous than friendship with me.
He rubbed his temples and sighed again. “Look, it’s unnatural, the way we live in such solitude. The abstinence is ridiculous. I kind of… met someone.”
I blinked, and my heart dropped so hard with fear I thought I would vomit, if Vespers were capable of vomiting. My mind recoiled from the news, though not out of envy. Did Sychar know how dangerous this was? “You met someone?” My voice curled up on the end as I forced enthusiasm into the question.
“A human someone.”
I froze, my body completely rigid. Oh, no. No, no, no. My fallen creator wasn’t the only Gent to endure such a tragic end as penalty for his crimes with a human woman. My Lady told us what had happened to Nycholas… how he took a human mistress and was killed for it, and the Gents spent five years stalking down the human girl until Levi finally caught up with her and ended the chase. But my Lady also told us that the Gents might not know they had killed their brother: Levitiqas, the cruel bastard he was, wiped it from their memories so they wouldn’t remember that they were forced to murder a comrade.
Of course, my Lady tampered with my memories too, but to soothe the grief for the creator I’d lost and give me a chance at living life without him. Not because she was cruel. This was too dangerous for Sychar, and somehow my fear swelled into anger that he would dare it, when he knew what was on the line.
And yet I’d kissed, groped, and played with a human being tonight. And enjoyed it. A lot. I stuffed down the anger and forced the red from my vision. Hypocrite.
I swallowed and tried to smile. “That’s nice.” And with the repression of anger came a surge of unexpected envy that Sychar laid his hands on a woman and hadn’t even asked me if I wanted to, first.
Why should I care? Damn Jack. I didn’t want Sychar, not the way I wanted Jack. Right now, I just wanted anything, anyone who would touch me as Jack did, and fill the void in my heart. It was as though I’d run on empty, stripped of touch, for so long that I needed it like an alcoholic needs gin.
“That’s nice?” Sychar parroted as I stared vacantly at him, dwelling on the magnitude of this secret, and my fears that tumbled forth at the revelation. “I tell you I have a human girlfriend – something so against the rules it would be safer for me to fuck you, Three, and you tell me it’s nice?”
He said fuck. In the sexual way. In the same sentence as my name. I would have giggled if the topic wasn’t so dire. I threw up my hands, my frustration bubbling over, and I couldn’t hide my emotion. “What should I tell you? That you’re going to die for this, and that I don’t want you to, and that you’re a stupid idiot for breaking the rules knowing all that you know?” I tried to ignore how much of my anger was born of sexual frustration brewing deep inside my body, ignited only a day ago with the kiss of a fading man in a ditch. Crap.
Sychar’s expression sobered. “I’m sorry. I know. But you asked, and you deserved the truth. I respect you too much to lie to you because you’re the only friend I have.”
The truth of his words and the intensity of his solitude resonated within me as he spoke. The Gents didn’t socialize with each other as we Maids did… they weren’t allowed. Levitiqas squashed any sign of joy he saw, and I sighed. I might have been a little scared, and a little jealous, but yes, I was also his friend. “I think Levi’s your friend, too.”
“Levi is too busy with whatever Festus tells him to do to bother with a little shit like me.”
“You’re not so little anymore, you big boy with a girlfriend.” I tried to cover my wounded feelings with jest. “What are you, pushing sixty, now?”
“Pushing seventy,” he corrected with a smirk, “but sixteen for eternity.”
Sixteen. Way too young when Levitiqas bit him and stole his mortal life. I was lucky to be twenty when I was bitten, and the extra age gave me an edge of wisdom over Sychar that I tried to impart where I could.
Sixteen and seventy. I was a little bit older than him, at twenty and seventy.
“So, what’s her name?” I shook off my momentary lapse of composure. Friend. Supportive friend, almost equal in age but wiser in suffering. That’s what I was to him. His choices were his, not mine.
“Samantha,” he said, his black eyes widening as he whispered around the syllables. Oh, he loved her. I could see it in his eyes that he loved her, and though fears still bled into my mood, I was also so delighted to see true happiness on his face that I thought my heart might burst.
I smiled, genuine mirth pushing away my anger. “How old is she?”
“Uh, eighteen, I think. I’m not sure. I thought it would be rude to ask, since she’s mortal and all.”
“Smart move. So, you love her.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to.” Huh. I wondered if my emotions showed as plainly on my face as his.
Sychar sighed and stared out the open door at the night blasting by. “Yeah, I think I love her.”
“And you’ve… been with her? And not killed her?” I didn’t know if I could do it, actually do it, if it were me and Jack. Jack! There was his name in my lusty thoughts again.
He winced. “Do we have to talk about this?”
I laughed at his discomfort. “Yes. Were you safe about it?”
“What the hell does that even mean, for Vespers?”
“It means did you eat first, so you wouldn’t accidentally mummify her?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, I ate first. Can we be done with the safe-sex talk now?”
“Sure. So how was it?”
“Oh my God, Three. Seriously? It was fine.”
“Fine?” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Just fine, or more than fine?”
He threw his hands up and shook his head. “I don’t know, it was fine! I hope it was fine, anyway.” He rose to his feet and planted his hands on his hips, pacing in that invisible, fast way of his. I could barely see his movements. “I don’t want to discuss my sexual prowess, or lack thereof, with you. It’s like talking about sex with my sister.”
I snorted. “I’m sure you did very well.”
“How do I tell that? It’s not like she’s going to tell me I’m a fumbling idiot, what with her being afraid of me, and all.”
I thought of my parting gift from Jack and something clenched inside me, deep down. “You should make her not afraid of you, if you’re going to continue seeing her.”
“I’m not sure how to accomplish that. She knows I kind of want to eat her, too.”
I sighed. “You’re sure you can hide this from Levitiqas?”
Sychar stopped pacing and his shoulders sank a little bit. “I have to. He’ll kill her if I don’t. It’s not like he’s dealt with his Gents taking a human mistress before, but I’m sure it wouldn’t end well for any of us if he found out.”
I ground my teeth together at the way he spoke. How damaged the minds of the Gents were, thanks to Levitiqas’ cruelty. Sychar didn’t even remember Nycholas, or the brutal chase that ended in his death.
But it wasn’t my place to tell him. My Lady ensured we understood that… that their burden to bear was life with Levitiqas, and we could not interfere with the way he chose to discipline his subordinates. All I could do was support him, my best friend, who needed me as a friend more than anything else. I reached into my pouch and pulled out a two-layered brown leather cord with jade beads stitched into it – the same shade of jade that reminded me of Jack’s eyes - and tied a quick slip knot. I held it out to Sychar. “Here. Start with this. Give her a few nice little things, show her you care about her for more than the sex, and the fear of your fangs will dwindle away.”
Sychar blinked at my generosity and took the bracelet. “You think it will help?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never had a boyfriend. But that’s how they do things in movies and books...” I trailed off.
Sychar watched me for a moment, his eyes narrow. But he didn’t out me on the lie, didn’t mention that I’d had a lover once – almost a lover, anyway - so long ago it was dust in history. He knew it would set me into a foul mood if he brought it up, so he kept quiet and tucked the bracelet into his pocket. Then, he reached out and took my fingers in his. “Thanks, Three. For everything. Your support, your friendship… I’d be lost in this life, without you.”
I shrugged and squeezed his hand, and then let go of him. “It’s nothing, really. Tell me how it goes though, okay?”
Sychar nodded and slipped his hood back over his head. “I will. See you at transfer duty?”
“Yep,” I said with a smile I hoped didn’t convey the feeling of melancholy that settled into my soul. “See you tomorrow night at the Defensor.”
“Later, Three.” Sychar nodded his head at me, a little bow, and sprang out of the train door, vanishing into the night at a speed my eyes couldn’t catch.
“Later, Sychar,” I whispered as he was gone.
Sychar had a secret. A dangerous secret. And he couldn’t even remember how dangerous it was because Levitiqas was such a sick overlord. It was so unfair to my friend that a familiar rage brewed with my frustration, my surprise, and my own personal solitude. I stuffed the beading pouch into the cargo pocket on the side of my pants, and rose to my feet, shaking, red peeling across my vision.
And then I ripped the cots from the floor of the train and swung them high over my head, smashing them into the floor, the walls, denting the train car itself, crushing the frames of the cots into crumpled balls of steel. I screamed at the top of my lungs as I destroyed the lounge car – screamed until my throat hurt and my jaw unhinged with the hunger for violence - my frustration bubbling over into a mess of fury and fear. I raged until no inch of the lounge car remained undented by the cots, or my fists, or feet… blind with wrath, I lost track of the damage. I didn’t bother to clean up my mess. I just dove headfirst out of the train and ran with feet pounding furiously on the ground toward home.
Sychar had a secret girlfriend. And though she was an innocent human, she would probably get my best friend killed.
And here I dared to judge him, with the taste of a human man still upon my lips. Low, Three. Lower than the serpent crawling upon the filthy ground.
a Rafflecopter giveaway