They’ll tell you about his voice, of course. Not quite a purr. Hard without being harsh, smooth without being soft. Eloquent, powerful, but never loud. They’ll describe his hair, brilliant, curling redgold, his strong arms, the white wings that jut from his shoulders and rather than producing a light of their own seem to scare the shadows away. They might mention the ash on his high, white cheeks, or the way that paint crawls up walls as if running when he passes it. When he’s showing off, at any rate.
Tithe Night, when all the city lights are left unlit. I walked the city streets under a clouded night sky, tears running from my eyes, and sat on the corner of the crossroad. I could still see the circus lights gleaming in the distance, but I had lost the boy who followed me half a mile ago. My feet ached from running on gravel, and I pulled one into my lap, eyeing the dirt with disdain. Perhaps it would be best to return to the castle and wash there – even if there were yet a few hours before dawn.
“Lost, Miss?” A voice asked, not harsh or soft. I looked up to see a pair of scorching violet eyes glowing in the dark and tilted my head, smiling slightly. A gentleman in something like a nobleman’s suit stepped from the darkness, a smug curve on his mouth.
“Never,” I replied. “Are you?”
“Never indeed,” he replied. “You’re not scared?” He added, his head tilting just so, inquiringly.
“Never that either,” she replied. His smile widened.
“Then why are you weeping?” He asked, raising a single dark brow.
“I… may have made a bit of a fool of myself,” I admitted, sighing. “I was trying to show off.”
“Pride doth come, all that,” he agreed, sweeping the dust off the seat beside me and settling down there. “What were you doing, then?”
“Juggling knives,” I replied.
“And then I got distracted by a boy,” I continued. “It just nearly missed his head.”
The man wet his lips. He sucked in his cheeks and lips, clearly trying not to smile.
“I could’ve killed him,” I informed the stranger. “I don’t think him or Selene are ever going to speak to me again.”
“My best friend,” I replied. “Sort of. She’s the only person who isn’t paid to stand me and does it anyway.”
“I see,” he paused. “You’re the princess, then.” He eyed my bare feet. “You’re the princess, and you’ve… snuck out. On Tithe Night.”
“Well, it ain’t like I’m superstitious,” I said. “And even if the devil did used to come, he hasn’t come for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’d be stupid to be afraid.”
“Not that you’re ever scared in the first place.”
“Fear is a useless emotion,” I agreed. He chuckled.
“You know, you are the only one I’ve met here who could meet my eyes,” he said absently, eyeing the night sky. “Everyone else looked down, as soon as they saw me. What do you think of that?”
“Maybe they’re embarrassed,” I suggested.
“Why?” He asked. “Have they all done something wrong, and I remind them of it?”
“Maybe just… Because you’re lovely,” I replied. The man’s face twitched for a moment then, in something like bemusement.
“Lovely?” He repeated. “Really?”
“Magnificent?” I offered. He nodded. “But also lovely. I usually look down when I see lovely people, too, but you looked much too interesting.”
“And what would you do,” the stranger asked, “if I were the devil?”
I thought, long and hard. I pursed my lip and chewed on it for good measure.
“Ask for your autograph, I s’pose,” I replied. “I’ve never met someone famous before.”
Again, the man restrained a smile. “I can give you that,” he decided, thoughtful. “But there would be a price.”
“Is it my immortal soul?” I asked teasingly. His eyes danced.
“Not exactly.” He reached out, one of his fingers glowing a brilliant red at the tip like a branding iron. I leaned back, putting up a hand.
“I don’t think—”
Flo stumbled down the street, his cornsilk hair streaming behind him. He had finally caught up, and I felt myself blushing again, the same sick feeling in my stomach. I crossed my arms and screwed up my mouth, my eyes narrowing.
“I already said sorry!” I snapped as he slammed into me, forcing his body between mine and that of the stranger.
“You stay away from her!” He said breathlessly. He looked up to meet the stranger’s eyes for only a moment before his eyes snapped down to the ground. His legs shook. The stranger rose, all smiles.
“And would you be the little princess’ victim?” He asked, offering a mocking half-bow. Flo swallowed, shivering against me. He reached back to put a hand over mine. The stranger tilted his head. “And you’re not what you appear to be, are you?” He reached forward to touch Flo’s face and for just a moment I saw something else where Flo should be, something… dark, and twisted, and fierce, a feathered face with teeth like splinters.
“You… don’t… scare… m-me,” he hissed, though I could feel his hand, wet with sweat, shaking in my own. The man raised a single eyebrow, then returned his attention to me.
“A pleasure making your acquaintance, Little Princess,” he said, offering me a full bow. I smiled at him.
“It was a pleasure meeting you too, Sir,” I replied. “Though I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m sure your friend will help you guess it,” he replied. “And I already know yours.”
“See you around, then?” I offered. Flo squeezed my hand hard enough that it hurt, throwing me a look I didn’t quite understand. His eyes had the flat, empty look of a bird’s, and I stared at him a moment, unsure of what I saw. His hair lightened and thinned as I watched, and I noticed that his teeth were sharper than they’d been before.
“Count on it,” the stranger replied. He grinned at me, a striking, feral grin, and offered me his hand. Flo tried to stop me but I let him take my palm in his, his fingers hotter than I could have imagined, and press his soft lips against the back of my hand. “I can’t wait to see how you turn out.”
“I’ll try not to… disappoint,” I said, but he was gone as soon as my eyes rose to find him. I looked around the square, surprised by his sudden absence. The torches caught fire as I watched, lighting from the square outwards, and the clouds began to move from the moon. “What a lovely man,” I murmured.
“That was the devil, Lilyan,” Flo whispered.
“Nonsense,” I replied. “He seemed perfectly pleasant.”
“Lilyan,” Flo hissed. “He was going to take you as the tithe.”
“Why would he want me?” I asked. Flo turned slightly, just enough to look at me, and raised a single eyebrow. “And… why did you… save me?”
Flo sighed, brushing back hair which was once again the color of cornsilk. His hand stayed on mine as he walked me home, back to the hidden door on the side of the castle. I hugged him tightly before I went in, enjoying the thick, warm scent of him. Flo always smelled the way I thought that home should.
“I really do prefer Lily,” I told him. My face felt warm, so I shut the door more quickly than I should have. I opened it again, blushing, to peak outside. Flo smiled, then paused, his eyes narrowing.
“Your hand,” he started. I glanced down, frowning, as he took my hand in his. “I thought I saw… Never mind.” He shook his head. “I’m imagining things… Goodnight, Lilyan.”
“Goodnight, Flo,” I answered. This time, I let the door close and looked at my hand in the dark. I could see it now, too – a single, curling L.
“Oh, hell,” I muttered, and the word seemed to make the mark glow just a little bit brighter.