Ahh, here we are once again: the second installment of Mark of Thorn. I feel proud that I've even made it this far! Now we get into the greater story. I have been doing a lot of thinking since the last book, and I've tired very hard to decide how I can give each book its very own feel. I believe I've started off on the right foot with this one. It'll certainly be different. Enjoy!
I don't know how often chapters will come; maybe every couple of days, but not likely everyday like before. Unless, of course, I just get an outrageous amount of love. Ahem. And do please review with anything you might like to say – speculations, ideas, questions and so forth. I do try to reply to everyone who offers me something. I hope for an even better response than the last book! Ahem, please?
For those just joining us, you'll want to read Book of Scars first. Though, if you want to start here, be my guest.
- Lani Lenore
Once, there was a beautiful young girl.
She was so beautiful that the sun, and the moon, and the stars held no glory in comparison.
She was chaste. She was innocent.
Then, came the beast.
The beautiful girl was introduced to a world she had never known – one that hardly had any room for beauty. But she was stuck in a dark place with a creature she feared, and there was not a day that her lovely face was not stained with tears.
The girl was cold, abused, naked, and terrified that each day might be her last. Days and nights passed, but the walls around her always looked the same.
But then, something happened within the girl. Her mind changed. She became stronger, and she grew into a woman.
She looked into the eyes of the beast, and she showed him no fear. The beast bowed down before her. He wanted her more than ever, but respect kept him from misdeeds, and shortly after, the woman that the girl had become decided that she would be good enough to love him.
After that, something occurred that she had not expected. Unbeknownst, she had lifted a curse, and the hideous beast before her became a beautiful man.
There was so much to life after that. The man, who was still a monster in so many ways, never acted evilly toward the beautiful woman, loving her with all his heart. Everything that he had was hers.
And everything was happy.
Everything was roses.
The Mark of Thorn
Book of Beauty
Rivenon was a city that never slept. The streets were lined with lamps, and public buildings were aglow with warm fire. All through the night, there were pleasures to be obtained for those who cared to seek them, and ventures did not take a man far. Openly advertised on the main streets, there was drink to be had, shared, and passed. There was a sort of woman to satisfy any man who came along the road – and then a few more. But one should not confuse Rivenon with some haven for villains and god-forsaken scoundrels. There were, of course, more substantial neighborhoods where nobles and military men had built fine homes – but when night fell, they too found themselves slipping off into the darker places of the city. Beneath a sheet of shadows, there was no code of morals, and whatever happened in the night remained in the night.
One such man who indulged himself richly in the endless kegs of the city's taverns was a great man indeed. He was a soldier – a captain – set in the city by the governing king along with a number of the guard to ensure civil behavior. Captain Hamilton Raulings was a wealthy citizen, with a great knowledge of the world, but the night knew his secrets, his lusts and debauchery. Still, he did not fret over it. The night was a good friend, and would keep these confidences. The naïve morning would be none the wiser.
The captain's favorite stop, The Jilted Damsel, was loud and full tonight, as it so often was. Raulings was sitting with a group of his men who always enjoyed holding this sort of council together when there was not active duty to be done. Shapes were hazy by now, though no one could say that the alcohol was the only thing to be blamed for blurred vision. The air was rife with smoke that drifted over like a low stratum of midnight fog.
It was a usual thing for the captain and his table to be surrounded by adoring women in scanty dresses, but since Raulings had entered the tavern, there had been one woman who'd stood out among the rest, and he'd banished all others to bask in her singular glory.
She was truly a rare, delicate, and unmatched creature. He didn't know where she had come from, for if he'd ever seen her before, he would have remembered. Her age couldn't have been more than twenty and five, at a guess. Perhaps younger. Still, she seemed very much a woman behind her youthful face. Her hair was like spun gold, cascading in lovely curls from behind her head. Her eyes were like a green sea. She'd stayed near him all night, her laughter like the sound of clear bells, her breasts like ripe fruits he wanted to pluck free from the corset that held them. He'd felt like the greatest man in the hall with her beside him – not that he was far from that besides. She'd caressed his leg beneath the table. The drinks kept coming.
Tankard after tankard, the captain had reached the blissful state where he was hardly aware of his own words, but he still was conscious of the woman, her mere presence drifting all around him like a heady perfume. It was wise to be wary of strange women. Others would have told him so if they'd been sober enough, but even if they'd tried, they probably wouldn't have gotten the man's attention. He was stuck on the beautiful woman's long eyelashes and gently smiling mouth.
Across the table and through the cloud produced by cigars and small, black cigarettes, someone told a joke which sent the group roaring into laughter – but Captain Raulings had not heard the punchline. The mysterious woman had leaned in close to him, her soft lips brushing the ridge of his ear.
"Take me home," she whispered to him, and her voice wavered like a dream within his mind. "Take me back to your bed. I want you to undress me."
What was the hour? He no longer cared. It was time to go home, as the woman desired.
The doors opened, and the captain coughed for the invasion of fresh air into his lungs to disturb the gray haze within. Oddly enough, when he'd begun down the street with the woman half-supporting him, she'd known the way to his home as well as he did, but his hand was resting comfortably on the curve of her hip, and he cared for nothing else.
Tonight will be one for records, he thought languidly as he moved on.
He was so much at ease that he didn't even notice the man following along behind them, casting a dark shadow along the street.
The inebriated Captain Raulings walked with his evening prize through the courtyard behind his two-story townhouse. It was his custom to enter this way, so as not to disturb his manservant. But of course it was not simple courtesy. The fewer details the servant knew of the women he brought home with him, the better. The captain was smarter than to bring all his conquests and exploits to his home; a man couldn't afford to be so careless. But there were just some women – and drinks – that caused a man not to be himself.
He unlocked the door and pushed it open to the cool corridor beyond, but it was not pitch dark, for a dim lantern had been left for him inside the door. Somehow, he still had enough good sense not to force himself upon the woman just within the doorway. That was not the proper approach. There were better ways to deal with such a specimen. He led the way inside, taking up the lamp, but not bothering to turn it up in order to spare his eyes.
Holding the woman by her arm, he led her up the stairs, pausing again only to set down the lantern and unlock another set of doors that led into his private rooms. He did not take his hand off the lovely one until they were inside, as if releasing her would allow her to escape or reveal her to be only an exotic dream.
The lounge was grand within, decorated with fine things and trophies of the man's accomplishments and honors. The tapestries set upon the sofas and chairs were of the finest quality. On the far side of the room, a pair of glass doors opened to a terrace, looking out over the town and the courtyard below. Doors set in the east and west walls led to his office and his bedroom, but there was no sense in opening those just now. He locked the lounge door securely away from the hall and then slid the key back into his pocket before turning to the woman.
She was standing across the room in front of the glass doors, and turned from looking out through them in order to gaze back at him. The moonlight shone around her, as if her skin itself was aglow. Where had this nymph come from – this female who filled him with such feelings of desire like he'd never felt before? Her loveliness: unfathomable. Her shape: erotic. She may have been a witch for the quality of the spell she'd put on him, but if that was truth, he didn't have it in him to care.
"You," he started, and then paused to attempt a better grip on his words, "never did tell me your name."
The young woman smiled coyly at him.
"Names are trivial, sir," she said. He liked the sound of that: sir. "If you know too much, you will lose your excitement for me."
The captain stepped up to her, and he heard himself chuckle at the ridiculous idea behind her words. He didn't imagine he would tire of her – not tonight, at least. She stood before him so steadily, and he was upon her now like a hunter who'd caught his prey. This beauty would be his.
The woman in the company of Captain Hamilton Raulings did, in fact, have a name, but it was not one she'd be willing to share with this man for any reason. She had accomplished what she'd aimed for, which was to get herself inside the captain's house, and now she needed to see to her business here. There was only one thing standing in her way, however, and that was the man himself.
She had no reason or desire to continue wasting time on this staggering lush, whose thoughts were now only coming from the slight bulge at the front of his trousers. He had approached her, and the only weapon she had on her body was a knife tucked away beneath her skirt, but she'd noticed that the captain carried a fine sword. Access to either would be difficult at the moment. She wouldn't retrieve them unless she had to – unless there was no option but to fight him. Cornelia would have to keep her wits about her.
Before the woman could speak again, so to further her plan, the man fell on her like a vulture, wrapping his arms around her so that her own were pinned to her sides, and he pinched her lips with his own. His dark moustache scratched her skin, and he pressed his mouth so roughly against hers that her lips shifted uncomfortably against her teeth. Worse than that, perhaps, was the smell – like a tray of burnt tobacco and the sickly-sweet aroma of a distillery. Disgusting to her. Cornelia didn't mind applying herself to the job when she had to – for she had no problem exploiting her sexuality to accomplish her aims – but this man's kiss was painful as well as clumsy. This was not how the plan was to flow. She hadn't had time to unlock the window before he'd turned his eyes back on her from the door. She had to get herself free of him so that she could gain herself another chance. Else, this scheme may have turned more violent than she'd intended.
His fingers were at the back of her corset, working at the row of strings that held the piece together, but this was a bit too much for her taste just now. When she'd told the man she'd wanted him to undress her, she certainly hadn't meant it. Men didn't have the right to take, and it was very rare that she gave.
Using a good deal of her strength, and very likely surprising the captain who was pressing nearly all of his weight onto her where she stood, she pried her arms up and pushed back on his chest, freeing herself of his harsh kiss. His grip still held, but just a little freedom became a lot in times such as this.
Raulings looked at her a bit puzzled – though what better look was there for a drunk to make her feel light inside – but she smiled at him to give him an ounce of assurance that there was no true problem. He smiled crookedly back at her, and moved in to kiss her again.
"I do believe I need just one more drink, darling," she said loud enough that he would be sure to hear her, managing to evade his lips. "Won't you oblige me?"
There was a tray of drinks on a bureau across the room that she had spied. If he would go to retrieve a taste for her, his back would be to the window. She could set things right hastily, and she would not have to go further with the man than this.
The man looked at her rather strangely a moment, but then a very ridiculous grin came over his face.
"I do believe I have room for one more drink myself," the captain said heartily, planting a rather painful kiss on her neck before retreating to the bar.
Cornelia curled her lip behind the man's back, fearing that he'd marked her with his lips just now and she'd have to remember him for a couple of days for the swollen, red blotch on the side of her neck. But that was a trifling concern. Making sure that the man was not going to turn back to her from his work at the drink tray, she passed around the edge of a sofa and moved quickly to the window.
She felt very fortunate that these doors did not require a key. While it was possible that some looter could climb up onto the terrace, she supposed it was a hopeful thought that none would. The idea amused her briefly, for these glass doors had been an immediate part of her own plan. Her fingers worked the latch quietly where it was fastened inside, and then the light of the moon was suddenly blocked out by a dark shadow.
She could see his eyes before she could make out the rest of him in detail. The orbs in his head were hazel in color, but the flecks of green in them reflected the light like an animal's intent gaze. He was a tall, looming shape – the sort of man one did not want to see lingering outside windows – but he was precisely who she'd wanted to find. He watched her, but the woman did not give him any further attention until the handle loosened in her grip. She opened the door silently.
The man of impeccable height – past midway to seven feet – sauntered soundlessly into the room, even in heavy boots. The light cast shadows around the depths of his strange eyes, and dark hair hanging past his wide shoulders caused further tendrils of darkness to appear against his face and neck. He was as rough and as dangerous as he looked – as his eyes promised – but not everyone knew that certain fact as well as Cornelia.
She looked up at him, glad, at least, that he'd been there waiting. All was well now; everything was under control. But she did not smile for it, or for him.
The tall man glanced at her as he passed, but then swiftly set his sights on the captain pouring drinks across the room. The end table beside the sofa held a small, marble statue of a curvaceous woman, and the muscular man slid his fingers around it firmly, lifting it up so that the rounded base emerged a few inches from the top of his fist. Cornelia watched him do this, and a warning went off inside her mind.
He moved to step forward, but she gripped his arm quickly, nearly flinging herself over the couch to do so and shooting him a glare when he'd jerked his head to look at her. Even without words, she knew he understood what she meant. They'd talked this over already, and he'd promised he wouldn't hurt the captain too much – and that meant she didn't want to see the man's skull cracked open with his blood spilling over the fine rugs. The small statue might have been fine enough for a blow to the head while in her own hands, but with Hendrik's fist wrapped around it, it would have been as lethal as if the hand of God had simply struck the man down.
At her accusing look, the tall man drew back his lip slightly and sneered at her, though also kept his peace, and put the statue down silently in its place. He leaned forward then and lifted one of the thick pillows from the sofa, holding it up toward her, and now it was her time to understand. He mocked her by this. She wouldn't allow him to use anything substantial, so he would have to put the other man out with a pillow.
She acknowledged it. She didn't appreciate it.
Cornelia glared at him fully, and as he stared back into her eyes, his vicious snarl turned into a little grin.
"What the devil?"
Cornelia was ripped free from Hendrik's gaze then, though she couldn't say that she wasn't thankful for it. But there were greater problems than her issues with the strong man's appeal. The captain had turned and spotted them, and if they didn't deal with him quickly, he could likely cause them trouble. Things were meant to tilt in ways that were a great distance from what she'd hoped, wasn't that right? It was because she was cursed – marked by dark magic. Still, situations remedied themselves more often than not. This was but one human man before them. He was not some cursed phantom or wild creature of the field, and therefore, he could be easily dispatched.
There were no heavy worries here; Cornelia felt confident in that. They would get what they'd come for.
Hendrik and Cornelia's attentions were both gripped by the man who'd now turned to catch them in his house – the tall, rather frightening man who had not been invited, and a woman who was obviously part of some wretched scheme against the captain. They watched Raulings attempt a reaction, both of them thinking that it was the other's fault that they'd been noticed.
The captain dropped the drinks in his hands, letting the glass shatter and the liquor stain the floor, but that was a matter to be dealt with later and by someone else entirely. He made a motion to retrieve the sword at his side – a weapon as well as a sign of his position – but he didn't get far in that action. Hendrik had made good use of what was accessible to him: the thick, tasseled pillow he'd been taunting the woman with.
He threw it forward as hard as he could, setting it to sail straight in its trajectory. It hit Captain Raulings squarely in his face, and the down stuffing inside made the object of comfort just heavy enough to stagger the man. It was too late for him then. He was likely the greatest fighter in this city's guard, but his surprise, his drunken state, and the superiority of his opponent overcame him.
The captain lost his balance and fell backward into the bureau, and just as he'd managed to lift his eyes, the tall man was upon him, sweeping his fist down into the captain's stomach. A nearly silent wheeze of air exited Raulings' mouth from deep within him, making him unable to cry out for assistance or make any sound at all. Hendrik caught him by his collar before his body hit loudly against the floor, lowering him down soundlessly. The captain's voice may have been unreliable now, but his eyes were fine. The downed man tried diligently to memorize the face of the one who'd attacked him, but a firm punch to the side of his head erased that particular attempt, and everything was black.
It was, perhaps, only by a moment of unfathomable kindness that Hendrik had not hit the man again, even though one punch had certainly done the trick. He seemed to hesitate on the thought for a moment, contemplating it deeply, but finally, he stood up and stepped back from the unconscious body.
Cornelia had hardly even glanced at Hendrik's work, stepping instead to the more important thing, which was to try to get into the captain's office. They'd had a look at the house before deciding to pull this stunt of theirs, and the woman was well-aware that the office was on the west wall – but at this time, it was locked. There was not much trouble in that, however; certainly the unconscious man on the floor had the key. The woman stooped down quickly to search.
"We should lock him in the closet anyway, I suppose," Cornelia said, searching hastily through the captain's pockets.
Hendrik made no reply to that, instead turning himself to the tray of liquor and lifting a decorative glass bottle that had not been spilled in the brief fray. He took a drink of the rich, brownish fluid, and then began to eye the bottle appraisingly, looking pleased.
The woman was not feeling a common satisfaction. Where had the man put his key? Cornelia hadn't seen him place it, too busy trying to move to the window before he'd caused her to stop. But it had to be close. If not within the folds of his clothing, then it must have been nearby on a table or desk.
"Hmm," she heard Hendrik hum thoughtfully. The deep quality of his voice might have been pleasing to her ears, but she did not halt in her task. "I think you should dress like that all the time."
Cornelia did not even have to stop and consider why he'd made this comment. From his position above her, he had a rather glorious view of what her corset displayed. His words hardly fazed her, however. He could look as much as he liked – anyone could – but she'd determined to herself that looking was all she would let him do to her. She didn't even glance up at him, continuing her search until she felt the key in her hand.
"I didn't hire you because I wanted your astute personal opinions," she said flatly, rising up and turning toward the locked door before her eyes had the chance to get caught on his.
"I know," the man said, taking another drink from the bottle. "It's one of my benefits."