The sand had fashioned a resting place for the galley, its oarsmen lost to the rhythmic song of their captain as they brought the vessel to its berth, tugging at ropes to secure its place. A large brutish man with dark skin, The Captain wore a simple tunic tied together with leather thongs that skirted his back and sides and held a large, wooden drum in place before him.
The Captain’s thick, muscled arms fell hard on the skin of the drum, the ox-hide pulled taut, reverberating beneath his dexterous hands where warm boils had formed from the exertion. These did not weary him, the pain lost on a body that had toiled once in slavery and had grown strong because of it. Physical pain was of no consequence when his thoughts lingered on the task his crew had been charged with.
The Nubian’s brow had merged as the sun dipped below the horizon, heralding the maudlin merriment of his oarsmen too long at sea. He would not join them ashore, preferring the slow rocking of the grounded vessel as his night companion in place of a giddy, inebriated mind or a giddy, inebriated whore. Atop the vessel, named Nefer for its striking beauty, The Captain felt at home and at peace, yet ever since she had departed their last post, a quiet anxiety had risen in him, and he had wanted to inspect her thoroughly for any damage, lest their task was compromised somehow.
The galley had remained intact for the most part and The Captain's only real concern had come from the youngest seaman who had decorated a section of the deck with his own bile three days out to sea. Now, the days had grown longer and his crew of thirty had been at sea a month, wearied by the task of ferrying precious goods across the Adriatic and the dizzying zest of triumph had been theirs as Golgos, the second-in-command had cried out at the sight of land two nights before. Their duty was almost done and rewards awaited them in place of their exertions, however, The Captain was still unsettled. This last voyage had seemed too simple, particularly for goods so valued and he was a cautious man.
"Beloved Thera!" Golgos had shouted, the spray of the sea lining his burly legs as he hoisted himself up onto the deck and came to stand by The Captain's side, his arm outstretched, pointing to a spot East of the galley. At such a distance, the island seemed nothing more than a fixed speck, but for those upon The Nefer, it was enough to stir the strength in their arms and the fire in their hearts. "It has been a lifetime since I last saw her! I tell you, I will kiss the ground when we reach land!"
"How many years has it been since you returned home, Golgos?" The Captain was pensive, his stern voice was soft and his gaze was lost on the white speck in the distance, his thoughts detached, wandering.
"It has been a long time. Too long. Twenty years. Thirty, perhaps. A lot longer than some of these termites have drawn breath!" Golgos had replied, a hearty chuckle resounding from deep within his throat. The Captain managed a smile and Golgos clapped him hard on the back. "It's a pleasant thought, isn't it?"
"It's a sobering one," The Captain said, his smile growing. "If my men were not here, you would be the one bringing Nefer in to port. All on your own," he added, clapping Golgos on the back in a similar manner, his expression grim for a moment before the smile returned.
"Should I go tend to the dogs in the hold then?" Golgos replied, his eyes bright, lips spread in mirth. It was a rare thing to see the Nubian smile, but Golgos had befriended him long before taking up the mantle of second and knew how to draw laughter from beneath his lips. The Captain gave a small nod, a thought passing through his mind, leaving his brow to furrow a moment.
"Check on the boy first. Make sure he hasn't fallen asleep at his post. Then make sure the rest are still capable of a day's labour. I would hate to have you squash out a mutiny this close to shore," his smile had disappeared. "And then tend to our cargo. No doubt she'll want to stretch her legs a little bit. Don't give her the chance,"
"Princess? Are you awake?" a man asked, his ear pressed up against the curtain that sealed off the royal quarters. He searched for a sound, his ears straining for a hint of her stirring, of the sound of her breath, of anything that might ease him, but he received no such thing and he grew only more apprehensive. Lutus pulled himself away from the curtain and sat with his head in his hands.
"We will dock very soon, princess. We are not too far from shore, and soon, we will receive word from those that await you," he gave a sigh, his voice trembling. "I know it is not my place, princess...but will you not say a word? Surely nothing could trouble one so beautiful," Lutus' hands were shaking as he spoke, and he tried to steady them, but the silence he met with did little to comfort him. It had been long since he last indulged in the pleasure of female company, and he felt as terrified and as lost as a young child. Lutus sighed again, raking a calloused hand through his hair, becoming impossibly still when he heard something stir behind the curtains.
He saw a shape, an indistinct shadow emerging from the place he stared at now, and he felt his heart quicken its pace. For a long while, nothing happened, and instead, he stood, his heart pounding so hard against his chest he thought it might easily break through its ossified casing. Slowly, a jewelled wrist reached forward and parted the curtain. Although her face was veiled, Lutus could not deny that this was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her eyes were of a piercing grey and held him trance-like for a moment, his throat dry.
"Princess," he said, breathlessly, trying to regain some power over his wits. "Do you need anything?" The princess did not speak, but offered her palm up to him, a gold rope within and removed the veil. Lutus froze. "You're not...!"
Theodora woke with a gasp, covered in sweat.
Today is your birthday. I hope that fate has brought you more joy than it brings me on this day. I miss you, terribly, my beautiful, little girl.
I wonder is your hair still as red as it was in your childhood? Are your eyes still as blue?
I wish I were there to count each strand that crowns your lovely head. I wish I were there to take my finger and connect the freckled skin of your cheeks to the corners of your mouth like I used to do when you were small. Do you remember, my dearest love? I wonder, do you still look like me? I dream of you as I pray you are; beautiful, small and bright, but with a spirit far stronger than my own.
I do not expect your forgiveness, sweet girl. I do not deserve it, but I wish for it all the same. I want you to know why I chose this. I fear what you must have been told or the reasons why you believe I left you. It is not as you think it is; the story does not belong to this world, nor to me, as it is far older than I am. I have loved you so very much and that you should never doubt.
It is true, though, that I fell in love with a man. It is truer still that this man was not your father. I did all I could to feel affection for the Earl, that you must believe, for he gave me my children. He gave you to me, my love, but how long can one remain immune to callousness one did nothing to deserve? Forgive me, Cecily, for I was weak. I was a mother and a wife, but I was but a child and I did not know the world as well as I thought I did.
How can I tell you what it is to be held by one who loves you as much as the stranger loved me? It is true that I had not known such tenderness in all my life and that I loved him like a woman is made to love a man. I know that it is no excuse. I know that some things should be hidden from children, no matter how old they are. It is shameful for a mother to admit such a thing to her child, but I cannot lie to you. I loved the man and I could not be swayed. Not even when I learned what he was. I went willingly.
I followed my loneliness. I knew that he frightened you. In truth, he frightened me too, but I followed my heart as it led me, hidden to reason and drunk with yearning for a life I had never known before; a life I used to dream would be mine. He made me happy, filling me with such joy. But I was selfish to think I could be happy without you, without my own children. I was foolish to think that I could forget you, that I could live through eternity at peace with abandoning you, with what I allowed to happen.
But you must understand that I had no other choice. I could not have stayed with you after what I became. I was a danger to both you and your brother. I was a monster and a monster I have remained. You understand, don't you? You stayed free because I left you, because I was gone.
My world is plagued by darkness. It is not a life for one as lovely as you, and has never been. You have a future without me and it is so very bright, my precious child gifted to me by the All-father. My sweetest love, forgive me that I cannot be with you on this most joyful day. Forgive me that I was not with you on so many others.
I know that I have been forsaken and that you are hidden from me forever. Even now. Even in death. I know that I shall not enter Odin's halls at Valhalla. I know that I shall never see you again. It is my punishment and it is just. The earth has held your bones for eight hundred years and yet, still, I remember the day I held you to my breast and you took your first breaths. This day, so many summers ago, when I too was but a child.
You must understand a mother's love. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you yearned for the embrace of your own children when they grew tall and your eyes grew dim and you wished they were small again and you could hold them to your heart. Are they with you now, wherever you are? I wish above all things that they are, that you are surrounded by those that love you, those that were there when I was not, those that chose you above all else when I couldn't.
Joyeux anniversaire, Cecily. May you be forever blessed.
Having made Paris home for the last two years, Gemma could only truly appreciate London for its hustle and bustle when the sun went down. And now, rehearsals for Nell Gwynn had brought her back over the pond permanently. Rehearsals were always an endless creative endeavour, of trying new things, working with the director for more than eight hours a day and realising the character. There were moments when she wondered if she'd bitten off a little more than she could chew, but it was only now, in the last few years that her career had begun to reflect the type of work she was actually interested in and she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
In that same vein, the decision to invite Aidan out had been one she'd been ruminating on for weeks. Initially hesitant, convinced that his answer would be no, she had been a little too elated at the prospect of an evening out with him. That feeling soon manifested into a nervous fluttering in her belly as she waited under a polka-dotted umbrella by the edge of Horseferry Road, sending him a quick text that she'd arrived. The rain wasn't heavy, but her hair reacted far too easily to the damp and she didn't want to look like Weird Al by the time they got to the karaoke booth.
Once she was under shelter, she closed the umbrella and secured it under her arm, keeping an eye out for her dinner companion, the dark wood decor of the restaurant like a siren song as she imagined how warm it must be inside, tugging her coat closer to her as she waited for Aidan to arrive.
Truth be told, it was a little ridiculous to see how quickly he could flit from brooding concentration as he crossed the street, to infectious mirth with that boyish smile. If she wasn't careful, she'd be pinching his cheeks at the earliest convenience and demanding to know just how he managed to be so handsome. It was a question she was sure half of England wanted the answer to and she was so very pleased at herself for not staring at him when he joined her beneath the overhang. "Hello!" she greeted with a warm smile. "Oh. Most definitely," Gemma chuckled, winking at him in a purposely exaggerated fashion as she entered the restaurant. And a gentleman as well, look at that! "Thank you," she said, slinking against him to keep from walking into the door, realising that she'd swiped Aidan with a little too much hip and breast as she walked past.
A self-confessed karaoke fiend, Gemma had discovered the restaurant by accident one evening during rehearsals for Made in Dagenham. It was always bittersweet to discover that ones old haunts had shut down and such had been the fate of her favourite place to sing for a laugh. As fate would have it, it was the same place she had waited tables as she put herself through drama school. The karaoke rooms were bigger than the apartment that she was living in at the time and the central heating was far better, too. The revamp was impressive, though, the interior transformed from the dive bar she remembered from a decade ago. Gemma guessed that none of the waitresses had to pacify angry guests with the love theme from Titanic like she had done so many times, either.
The hostess greeted them once they were inside, taking Gemma's umbrella and leading them to the private booth that had been reserved. It wasn't the sort of place where they were likely to be recognised, but she figured Aidan appreciated anonymity as much as she did. Gemma shrugged off her coat, folding it neatly before taking her seat at the booth., thanking the hostess with her best pronunciation of "Arigato," and a killer smile when she brought them the menu and two glasses of complimentary saké. "Cheers," she toasted, holding up the small glass to clink against his. "May the best chanteuse win,"
There was a playful smile on Gemma's lips as she watched Aidan scurry to return the toast, taking a small sip of the sharp rice drink with her eyes still on his. It was with a cheerful nod of agreement that she followed the path of his gaze around the restaurant again, to properly appreciate their surroundings now that they were seated. There was certainly a sense of warmth about the place that she guessed had little to do with the décor and more with the company one kept. "I was thinking long and hard about that on the way here, actually," she replied matter-of-factly, playing with the menu in her hands.
She began to count against her fingers. "First, I decided very early on that neither of us could be trusted to be fair or honest. Secondly, I'm also far too sore a loser. Then, I thought why not get my granny on the phone to judge us? But I realised she'd probably throw me under the bus to get in your good graces," Gemma deadpanned, though it was clear she was holding back from chuckling. "And then it hit me. The beauty of this place is that they have a whole host of Korean and Japanese pop music too. The lyrics show up on the screen phonetically. I thought that might be an appropriate test of our talents," she explained. "I do expect us both to fail terribly because there's no way to cheat,"
Gemma, herself, had always had a habit of sitting straight, even now as she perused the menu she sat tall, though her shoulders hunched forward at his compliment, a chuckle escaping her throat. Her speckled nose scrunched up as she shook her head gently, feeling her ears burning pink. "That is... an incredibly flattering thing to say, though so very untrue," she replied, unable to keep her lips from curling into a smile at the sight of his. It was strange and oddly endearing to witness as Aidan complimented her so plainly, then followed up his remark with words that were less bold. Had his own question embarrassed him? Gemma had often heard things like that (mostly in the industry, from men who were far too old for her and far too concerned with what they could gain when she was just trying to do her job). But Aidan's words lacked perversity and she found herself feeling almost meek in their wake. Meek! "Well, you should know," she quipped with a grin, remembering herself. "I think you single-handedly revived the lost art of shirtless scything," It wasn't exactly subtle, but for Gemma, it certainly beat choking out the words 'I fancy you a lot,'
Aidan's laugh elicited another bright chuckle from her, though this time Gemma hid her mouth behind her hand to keep from snorting loudly. For a moment, she became distracted by way he drew his lip between his teeth, remembering herself when he sat forward in his chair, causing their tabletop to rock gently between them. "I don't," she replied knowingly. "But, I do think we'll have fun. Don't you?" Her smile was coaxed out again as she looked over her menu, deciding on her dish, peering above it for a moment to glance at him, before placing it back onto the table. "Speaking of Gran," leaning in toward Aidan, she tapped a finger gently on his nose. "She asked me to pass that on," It was a lie, of course, and the smile on her face was obvious enough, but she couldn't help herself. His smile was contagious and she wanted to witness it again.
"You charmer," came her retort and she looked over the menu again, pointing the third page out to him. "This picture of a bento box, surely,". Gemma knew he wouldn't let her off the hook, but she was enjoying herself too much to resist making the joke; watching, waiting for that now familiar display of teeth and the throaty laugh that would follow. And she got her wish. Resting her cheek against he hand, she studied him. It was a little too long perhaps, but it didn't bother her if he noticed. In fact, a part of her hoped he would. "I'd say so. You have most of England in an uproar," It was amusing to see him hide behind the sake then, though she wondered just what thought had popped into his head. "Would I have to be shirtless?" It was low, even for Gemma, to ask such a thing, but she was intent on hearing that laugh and seeing that smile as many times as she possibly could that night.
Before he could answer, their hostess returned to take their orders. Gemma gave hers. "I'll have the edamame, vegetable dumplings and stuffed lotus leaves for a start and the duck with crispy yam for the main, please," and waited for Aidan to give his, pressing the glass of sake to her lips again to take another swig. The hostess asked if they wanted more and she quirked an eyebrow at Aidan. "Another round?"
A charmer indeed. Gemma quirked an eyebrow when he spoke, wondering what Aidan intended that she pass on, guessing correctly a split second before he'd leaned in to press a kiss to her cheek. Her face flushed with heat and she let out a soft chuckle, sure that her ears were burning crimson. "I'll be sure to relay your message with the utmost care," It was clear that he had no intention of indulging in any of her ploys to deflect his compliment, so she relented instead, holding her hands up in a display of surrender. "I still think you might have a screw loose, but thank you anyhow," Another smile from him and she found herself grinning back with mirth.
It was so pleasant to get along with him so well in person, and though it had something to do with Aidan's attractiveness, she was delighted by his sense of humour and self-assurance. He was not arrogant, nor did he simper, and Gemma was glad for it. There was nothing worse than having dinner with a man that she intimidated. Aidan seemed to match her for each quip and each jest, coaxing out so many of her smiles that her cheeks were beginning to ache. "You won't hold it against me?" she enquired. "Will you still be this forthcoming when we go head to head?" It wasn't intentional, but as soon as the words had escaped her mouth, Gemma heard the entendre as plain as day, changing tack to comment on his meal choice so that she might avoid metamorphosing her face into a beet. "You can trade or share, but if you steal, I'll have your head," she said "With these," Gemma picked up the chopsticks to the left of her and held them in hand, snapping the ends at eye-level, playfully threatening him with a snap of the sticks.
"It is, I suppose I thought I might get off on a technicality," Again, her words seemed laced by euphemism, struggling to keep her expression even at the sight of his dimpled cheeks. There was no denying that she could feel something. A spark. A chemistry that had her sitting at the edge of her seat. Catching his wandering eyes, Gemma squared her shoulders, further emphasising her figure. Although it was a habit of keeping good posture, she caught herself feeling a little licentious, agreeing with him about the sake with a nod. "I am more than okay. I plan to let my hair down and fly the old freak-flag. And a few rounds of sake always gets the party started. How about you? Are you looking forward to your crushing defeat?"
Ben didn't want to be here. Not anymore. Four years ago when his parents had shipped him off to boarding school and he had almost begged them to let him stay, he never would have wanted to have been anywhere else but in this house. But now he was a different person. And he fucking hated Christmas. It wasn't a secret that the 25th of December was also his birthday. His mother had always gone on about his birth being a miracle. How they had to rush to doctors and fertility specialists just so she could get pregnant. It figured as much. His dad was pretty useless. It made sense that he couldn't even manage what nature intended. His mother's family had owned half the town before they had even met. And by the 80s, his grandfather had a hand in every other business. Years later, they'd all find out that his methods weren't always exactly legal, but Ben's family didn't seem to mind when they were living off the royalties. And huge parties like this one were just another way to show off their riches. But it was a joke.
Ben had his own money. The trust had been from his grandfather and it had been held until his eighteenth birthday. He had never been frugal, but he knew the difference between ignorant spending and making investments. By 25, he already had an impressive real estate portfolio along the East Coast and a garage full of luxury cars that he called by name. He didn't want much for anything else. The irony of being this rich was that people gave you things for free. Designers lavished clothes on him so that they could get a mention in a magazine or on an online blog. Endorsement deals came from left, right and centre and he hadn't even done anything of note in the last four years. His basketball career had ended at 21 when he tore the ligaments in his knee and couldn't train as hard as he used to. He'd stayed on in New York, tending to his pride with women and the occasional hallucinogen, but was otherwise bored with everything. There was nothing to do. There was nothing to see.
The sound of celebrating downstairs was deafening. He could see the reflections of countless people passing a huge, ornate mirror in the hallway and he wondered what would happen if he grabbed one of the marble busts by the staircase and sent it hurtling into the mirror. Would they run away? Would they scream? The thought lingered in his mind as he scanned the crowds from his place on high, picking out random faces and judging what their reactions would be. Screamer. Crier. Aneurysm. Angina. The game amused him enough to stay on the balcony above, a glass of champagne in his hand though he didn't drink it. But that too, quickly got boring and with a resigned sigh, he padded down the corridor to the game room, where he might be able to find some peace from all the noise. "Happy Birthday to me," he groaned, lying down on a large, black leather couch and closing his eyes. He napped for a little while and the dream entertained him. In it, he had powers that could silence a whole room of people. He just had to outstretch his hand and then... Ben woke at the sound of the door shutting loudly, but when he looked up he didn't see anyone. He could hear a lot of grunting and he pushed himself higher off the couch to see what was going on. It was too fucking early to have to yell at some drunken pair of idiots in love fumbling around in the darkness. He saw a pair of pale legs kicking about, but quickly realised it was just one girl as she stood up and ambled toward the pool table. It didn't take long to recognise her and his eyebrow furrowed when he saw her turning around to look in his direction. "You have terrible aim," he said, lying still on the couch, watching her from under his long mane of black hair. "And no shoes,"
He always knew when he had an effect on other people. It was an odd kind of feeling that he couldn't quite explain, but could always count on. And it was always that much more potent with the opposite sex. It wasn't any different now. But he hadn't had the pleasure of putting it to use with Rey for years. He knew he got under her skin at school. That whole period of his life had been a game. Most things still were, really. He needed the outlet and people were just too entertaining to ignore. It was easy to manipulate them, to see how far he could push their boundaries. It wasn't always out of malice, at least, he'd grown out of that in high school. The anger was easier to control now, but it had been harder then and greasy-faced nerds were such easy prey.
His parents had believed his child psychologist uncle who refused to treat him any longer for his ADD. According to Uncle Lucas, it was inevitable that he would become a delinquent, and so they had sent him away, to prep school for a year and then to Dartmouth against his consent. It hadn't been hard to get him a place there with all their connections, even if he'd been failing all his classes on purpose. It was only Basketball that lent some semblance of legitimacy to his being at the Ivy League school. Sports he enjoyed. It was a way to be competitive and part of a team and sometimes, rarely, when they could be bothered to take time out of their 'busy' schedules, his parents would come to a game. When his knee gave out on him that entire future disappeared. Now he didn't give a shit about what he did, as long as he was having a good time. As long as he had something to do.
Ben was impressed by her ability to send the balls into the pockets despite being clearly inebriated, but he never would have said so. It brought a smile to his face that she would be so defiant even now when she could barely stand. He supposed some things never changed. But there was a new disdain in the way she regarded him, and he was sure it was thanks to her new apprenticeship with his father. He might have been in New York for four years, but he wasn't entirely ignorant to what had been going on back home. He knew all about his father helping her find work as an apprentice. Ben supposed she had listened to him whine about how much of a disappointment his son was, and the old bastard probably warmed to her like a surrogate child. It was pathetic.
He grunted in reply to the well-wish for his birthday. As far as he was concerned, the date had never belonged to him anyway. "I haven't seen them for four years," he countered, watching her still from his place at the couch as she fumbled with the shoes. "You're truly graceful," he said in jest, though there was nothing in his voice to suggest whether he was serious or not. The rising hem of her skirt didn't go unnoticed, neither had the barb about him being a vampire. "Funny," he replied, deadpan. "This used to be my bedroom. But it was more important to my parents that their guests had a place to play pool and insult me," he added, rising fully from his place on the couch when he saw her struggling with her shoes. He kneeled down by her side, offering her a hand, though she didn't take it. "It's okay. I've already fed for the night. I won't bite you,"
Ben saw her face fall at his words, but he remained unchanged. He didn't want her sympathy, it was just the way things were and how it had always been since he'd come of age. He'd given up hope a long time ago on receiving the welcome home that he truly wanted, but she didn't need to know about that, even if she probably wouldn't remember this conversation come morning anyway. His father would have his own story anyway and she would believe it. For some reason a lie from that gruff man was perceived as truth. If there was one thing Ben admired about his old pop, that was probably it.
"Maybe they were counting on it," came the rebuttal, but he changed tack quickly. It didn't serve anyone to dwell on his tense history with his parents and he wasn't about to let Rey into that part of his life. He laughed softly, which seemed anathema to the deep, baritone he used in conversation. "Sure," he replied, though he seemed to soften for a moment. "You're allowed to like him. I know he's done a lot to help you out. That's admirable," It was the best compliment his father Hans was going to get. "But it's different see, when you're not his kid," he smiled, reaching out as she closed her eyes to push a strand of hair behind her ear. "I know he's not a bad guy," he whispered to her as she clenched her eyes tighter. It was the truth. He didn't hate his dad, but there had been too much said between them, too much had happened and they could never go back.
"Sure," He was not convinced, moving as she did, quicker though, with more grace in his suit than she managed against the pool table. Ben had a hand at her waist to steady her, his body flush behind her as she leaned over the pool table. His mouth was at her ear, voice low as his grip on her tightened. "Do you need a countdown?" The scent of champagne was on her breath as he lingered against her. The better part of him thought it would be best to scoop her up and lie her on the couch to sleep it off, but there was something else, drawing him closer to her. A feeling he couldn't place, that he only felt when he had those dreams at night; dreams of being in the snow, in the desert, with a black mask covering his face, commanding a strength more powerful than any he'd ever known. Ben hadn't planned what happened next as he brushed another loose piece of hair away from her face. He didn't expect to feel that rush of power once again as he touched the back of her neck with a warm hand, nor the sudden tightening in his belly. Fuck. He wanted her and there was no way, even in this inebriated state that Rey wouldn't notice.