Chapter 75

Autumn was upon us and the leaves were changing colours. The light streaming through the window in Ceres’ room caught the colours of the leaves of the old deciduous tree outside it, casting dappled shadows throughout the room.

I watched Ceres happily humming under her breath as she busied herself with preparing tea for the both of us.

Her tails swayed in rhythm with her humming, there being no need to hide them in the confines of her own room.

When I had knocked on her door, I had expected – I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t her cheerful smile and energetic welcome.

Maybe I would have been more comfortable broaching the subject of our faded mark if she had been more confrontational? I don’t know – more uncomfortable in my presence?

While her mindscape was cracked, there was no danger of her turning Feral, so, I had been avoiding her.

Her wounded mindscape had recently healed and she had thrown herself into her training with great fervour, rivalling Phobos in her intensity and Deimos in her talent.

The things she could do with her fire – the things she could do with her smoke.

It was humbling to watch. Which confused me even more. Was losing a future pillar of the clan worth the trouble the Duchess was taking to enthrone me?

And even with all her efforts, the results were by no means guaranteed. Who was to say the same hadn’t happened to some other candidate in the other provinces.

Maybe this sort of secret web of patronage was part of the competition for the throne? That made a lot more sense considering the stakes these patrons had in the identity of the future Emperor.

Ceres set the steaming cup of tea down in front of me and took a seat across from me, nursing her own cup in her hands.

Blowing on her cup to cool the tea, she raised her eyebrow at me quizzically.

The sunlight fell on her hair, lighting it up in a fiery glow. Her face was parted equally by light and shadow, even as the steam rising from her cup shimmered as it passed through the light.

All my meticulously prepared lines were driven out of my mind by the beauty of the scene and I blurted out, “I want to paint you.”

The smile she gave me engraved itself into my mind.

As the day wore on, the light streaming into the room shifted with the sun, turning scarlet as it touched the horizon.

Our soft breathing and the sounds of the brush against the canvas were the only things that broke the tranquillity of the room.

When it grew too dark to paint any longer, with a swish of Ceres’ tails, the smokeless torches in the room came to life and lit the room in a uniform radiance, snapping me out of my reverie.

She stood and stretched, accentuating her attractive curves and working the stiffness out of her body after remaining seated in the same posture for so long. Making her way over to me, she leaned over my shoulder, tucking her hair behind her ear with one hand.

She smelt of smoked spice.

“Husband, it’s beautiful. Thank you.”

The painting was far from done, needing a few more sessions to reach completion. But, the overall outlook could be seen.

I had sketched her first before giving the canvas its primary coat of colour starting from her head to her feet. As a result, the lighting had changed as the day had worn on, leaving her face lighted by the rays of the noon sun and her feet coloured by the shadows of dusk.

It was an interesting composition. One of my best works yet.

Looking at her smile as she appreciated the painting, I couldn’t hold my thoughts in any longer.

“Aren’t you bothered by our fading bond?”

Her smile faded for a moment before it was back in full force.

“It bothers me. Of course it does… but there is little in my power to influence it. If words were enough to solve the problem, I’d have found them by now. The opportunity for action hasn’t yet arrived. I can only pin my hopes on time.”

She continued, “Your relationship with Phobos and Deimos is extremely strong and the shade of our bond bothers you whenever you compare. Yet, given the duration and nature of our marriage, our progress is quite considerable.”

Pointing at the picture of her, she said, “Just like this painting conveys its meaning despite its incompleteness, our bond, though imperfect, still connects us. That is enough.”

She smiled. “After all, introspection was one of the only things I could do as I convalesced from my wound. If I learnt anything from the experience, it would be to live each day as my last.”

Leaning in, she rested her cheek against mine. “Vita whispers in my ear tonight. Husband, help me stave her off.”

The torches dimmed under her influence and her soft body pressed against mine. Articles of clothing were shed as we made our way to her bed.

Her body was just as attractive to me as the first time. Her lips were as soft as I remembered. Her skin just as smooth. Her tails just as fluffy.

If anything, the weight she had lost during her illness lent a delicate cast to her body, making her seem more waifish, engendering pity in me.

Our union was gentler, more sensual.

As I left her room, my gaze went to my mark. It was already a bit darker than before. I smiled. Men were such simple creatures.

Her words reverberated in my mind as I walked down the lonely corridors. “Carpe Diem.” An injunction to live in the present and let the future sort itself out.

Why did those inspirational words sound so sad when she said them?


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