A woman discovers that some secrets are worse than others.
Laelia was too comfortable to move when she opened her eyes, so she stayed motionless, luxuriating in the warmth around her. The flesh surrounding her was better than any mattress, the skin as soft as satin and yet firm because of the yards of muscle beneath it. Still curled up on her side, she ran her fingers along the familiar field of skin, retracing the curving slopes. It was impossible to ignore the fact that she was stretched out on a living person — her body rose and fell in time with his breaths, and she could feel each tremendous beat of his heart.
She glanced upward, past the enormous ridges of his collar bones. Aelius’ head was turned slightly, the long auburn tangles of his hair laying across his neck and lower jaw, but she could see most of his face. The baron was a beautiful man even though some of his features clearly weren’t human. His dark lips were parted and sharp teeth gleamed from within his mouth. Those teeth were one of the reasons why he rarely smiled, or when he did, it was an awkward half-grin.
“You don’t have to hide them from me,” Laelia had said to him, and reluctantly he had removed his hand from his mouth, revealing his jagged, sharklike teeth. Each milky-white tooth was longer than her arm, and she understood why people feared his smile…and him. Everyone knew about the baron, and those who lived on his lands treated him with an uneasy respect.
Laelia was the exception. She didn’t regard the giant with horror; perhaps it was because she was one of the few people who had seen beyond his ferocious exterior. Despite his size he had been exceedingly gentle with her, as careful as a man holding a hummingbird. In fact, that was one of his nicknames for her. “My little hummingbird,” he would say, and he gave her dresses that were as bright and breathtaking as bird feathers. Dresses made of turquoise silk, or scarlet and gold brocade, or indigo cotton. Laelia had worn all kinds of gorgeous clothing when she had been a dancer, but even her fanciest garments looked shoddy compared to Aelius’ gifts.
It surprised her how lucky she was.
Every so often Laelia wondered what would have happened if she had stayed with the dance troupe. Most likely she would have continued to perform for wealthy merchants or members of the nobility, moving from town to town. Dancing until she grew too old, and then what? Her future may have been grim if Aelius hadn’t noticed her.
She recalled the night when the troupe had performed for the baron. Emilia and the others had been intimidated by the colossus, who had been taller than a cathedral and eerily silent. The gold-filled chest, more money than they had ever seen in their lives, had been the only reason why they hadn’t fled. A payment that huge was almost incomprehensible, and they would have been fools to turn it down. So they had performed for the baron, and during the entire performance the giant’s eyes hadn’t left Laelia. They had been such odd eyes, sometimes black, sometimes deep brown, sometimes violet. She had found herself drawn to him. And although his smile had been little more than a tight, dark line, she had sensed the warmth there. When the rest of the troupe had left, Laelia had stayed.
I made the right decision, Laelia told herself. Beneath her the field of flesh moved and heaved as Aelius stirred. Although his eyelids fluttered, he didn’t wake up. He seemed to be caught in a dream, and from the way that he grimaced, it obviously wasn’t a good one. Laelia stared at him, wondering what to do. She didn’t have to wonder for very long; Aelius’ eyes snapped open, and she saw such profound confusion and alarm in his expression that it startled her.
With a rumbling groan, the giant rubbed at his face and sat up, sending Laelia sliding down the length of his abdomen. She landed near his thigh, dazed; by the time that she recovered, Aelius looked composed. Whatever nightmare had invaded his thoughts had left. His dark eyes — brown or purple or whatever color they were — gleamed with affection as he reached down to stroke her with a fingertip. Through the sheer material of her nightgown she felt the warm pad of his finger, and she leaned into his caress, wrapping her arms around the digit.
“Are you alright?” Laelia asked, and she saw the slightest hint of a muscle twitch in the giant’s face. Then he smiled, his smile shy and small as usual.
“I’m fine, hummingbird.” His melancholic tone contradicted his words.
Laelia knew what would cheer him up, and she let go of his finger. She still had the lithe body of a dancer, and she moved with a natural and effortless grace, twirling and dancing on his thigh. The giant watched her, as mesmerized as a cobra. Her gossamer nightgown floated around her as she swayed and dipped, and at the end of the performance he lowered his hand so that she could climb into it.
Her bare feet dimpled the flesh of his palm as she clambered up onto his hand. Aelius lifted her toward his face, slowly and carefully so that she didn’t lose her balance and fall. He kissed her, his lips brushing against her entire torso. Although his lips were soft and pillowy, she could feel the hardness of his teeth behind them. Running her hands along the enormous mouth, she felt one of his incisors, longer and sharper than a sword.
Aelius had been human at one time; Laelia had heard the stories of the mage who had overthrown the former baron and claimed the other man’s land as his own. Even the King and his army couldn’t fight against such a powerful being, and so Aelius had ruled here without contest. But who had he been before the magic had changed him? He spoke about his past infrequently, and even then, he avoided most of her questions.
Who are you? Is Aelius even your real name? Laelia silently asked him. She wished that he would open up to her more. Trust her more. And yet she understood his need for privacy. There were small secrets that she kept from him as well, including the origin of the scar across her left breast, whitish-pink against her freckled skin. One of her former clients had become too interested in her after a performance, and she had broken his nose, but not before he had tried to stab her. She thought about telling Aelius, but whenever he ran his pinkie tenderly along the scar, she couldn’t open her mouth.
Maybe someday they would both share their secrets.
The giant stood, still holding Laelia in one hand, and walked across the room. Everything in this castle was vast beyond belief, suited to Aelius’ scale rather than the scale of normal-sized people. From what she could tell, this place was magical and existed on another plane entirely. How much power that required was beyond Laelia’s comprehension, and she got the impression that this was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Aelius’ abilities.
He brought her to a marble pool in the adjoining room. To him, it was as big as a bathtub; to her, it as large as a lake. Gargantuan candles surrounded it like a pale forest, and with a magical word and a quick gesture, Aelius lit them all. He helped her to undress, gently pulling off the nightgown with almost supernatural dexterity. As Laelia stood there, warmed by the heat of the mammoth candles, the giant recited another spell and the pool filled with water.
Aelius washed her first, his fingers simultaneously massaging her limbs and torso and neck. The water was pleasantly hot, and she relaxed her entire body and allowed herself to enjoy the sensations. In his cupped hands she felt so adored, so safe. He dried her, the towel exquisitely soft against her skin, and then he presented her with yet another dress, this one silvery-blue and intricately embroidered. Laelia pulled the dress on as he disrobed and slipped into the pool, sinking down into the water like a humanoid leviathan.
She admired the rich fabric of her dress, wondering if he bought these gifts, or whether they were as magical as this castle. More questions bubbled up within her mind, and she asked as casually as possible, “What was the last baron like?”
The giant stopped washing his hair and peered down at her. “Horrible.”
“He took whatever he wanted from the peasants, and if they spoke up against him, he imprisoned them. My own father disappeared one night. The baron’s men came to our house and dragged him away, and I know that he eventually died in one of the baron’s cells. That was why I took up magic. Not because magic fascinated me; I wasn’t like the other scholars who wanted to pore over spells all day and figure out the inner workings of the universe. No, I was tired of feeling so small and helpless, and I swore that I’d get revenge by any means necessary.”
So you became this, Laelia thought. Although it doesn’t seem like that terrible of a trade. You gained land, power, revenge. You got everything that you wanted.
Aelius seemed to be considering something, but whatever it was, he didn’t tell her. He finished washing himself and got out of the pool, the floor shaking beneath his heavy footsteps. She admired the powerful sleekness of his body as he dressed before her. His choice of clothing was as elegant as her own dress: white shirt and black trousers, a greatcoat with silver buttons as large as dinner plates. The rings that he wore over his gloved hands probably had more gold and gems than the King’s entire treasure vault.
As he inspected one of the gigantic ruby rings, the scarlet jewel glittering and flashing, he said, “I need you to stay in the castle tonight.”
“But why?” Laelia asked, concerned.
“Because,” Aelius said, and there was a sharp edge to his voice, so agitated and angry that it frightened her. He took a breath and said in a calmer voice, “It’s not safe, hummingbird.”
She didn’t press him for additional details, but as he finished getting ready, she wondered about this danger. Was it raiders? An invading army?
Or something far worse?
Aelius sat by the fireplace, and although the fire had been reduced to smoldering embers, he didn’t bother to add wood to it. The hunger consumed his thoughts. Hunger and such sharp, unbearable pain. As usual, he had tried to soothe the hunger with food — bushels of fruits and vegetables, enough beef to feed a village — and as usual, it didn’t help at all.
“You’re so hungry, aren’t you, Aelius? It hurts, doesn’t it?” Someone asked, and he recognized the voice instantly. It was soft and raspy and laced with malevolence. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the black ichor seep out of the floor, oozing out from between the floorboards. Gradually it took on the shape of an older man with a striking face. This wasn’t the thing’s actual face, of course; Aelius wasn’t sure what it actually looked like, but he imagined that it wasn’t human in the slightest.
The first time that he had seen the entity was when he had cast that spell years ago, the spell that hadn’t come from a book but instead had been tattooed onto a mummified corpse. The other mages wouldn’t even consider such a spell, but he hadn’t been like other mages. He had craved vengeance, to the point that it had occupied his thoughts constantly, and he had been more than willing to summon the eldritch being in exchange for power.
“Ah, you’re ravenous,” the thing had said during their first meeting. “I can feel it.”
And he had been.
Now, as the last of the fire died in the fireplace, Aelius studied the being who had brought him such hope and despair.
“You’ve been holding off, I see,” the entity commented, staring back. It was the size of a normal person, but despite the fact that Aelius towered over it, its presence filled him with fear and disgust.
“What do you want?” He demanded.
The creature laughed. Or tried to laugh. Its weird, barking imitation of a laugh was unsettling, and the skin on the back of Aelius’ neck crawled.
“What do I want? To help you, my friend!” The thing’s features shifted as if they were made of wet clay, and suddenly it was a woman with long blonde hair that was almost the same color as Laelia’s. “I’ve helped you before, haven’t I? I was the one who gave you the power to destroy your enemies, including the previous baron.”
At the mention of the previous baron, Aelius swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry. He remembered how much he had loathed that man and how much satisfaction he had felt when he had him trapped, squirming, in his fist. He had savored the baron flailing in his mouth even more, and the tiny man had been so delicious, better than anything that he had ever tasted.
What have I become?
“Yes, and you didn’t tell me that I’d turn into…this,” Aelius said, leaning forward in the chair. Unlike most others who saw him, this creature didn’t cower. It just stared up at him with an odd cheerfulness, and he noticed how its dark eyes matched his own, not quite black or brown or purple.
“Everything has a price, and you have to admit that it was a good trade. You’re unstoppable; no army can take you down. You’re wealthy. Feared. Oh, and you even found a beautiful woman. What’s her name? Laelia?”
Aelius gritted his teeth so hard that they ached.
Again the being’s face changed, the nose and mouth warping and stretching and reforming. Now it looked like Aelius, back when he had been a mortal man. “Speaking of Laelia, what does she think of this? Oh, but you haven’t told her, and I know why!”
“Leave me alone,” Aelius growled.
“You love her!” The entity sounded absolutely delighted. “How wonderful!”
As if by its own free will, Aelius’ foot swung around and slammed down onto the entity with earthshaking force. If it had been a person, the creature would have exploded messily; instead a foul-smelling smoke leaked out from around Aelius’ boot, and when he removed his foot, nothing was there.
He rubbed at his jaw, which throbbed from clenching it so hard. But that pain was nothing compared to the hunger gnawing incessantly at his insides. He would have to do it tonight; there was no way that he could wait another day. The thought filled him with revulsion and a strange and terrible joy.
With a novel in her hands, Laelia curled up in a normal-sized chair. She tried to read, but she couldn’t concentrate and her eyes kept skipping over the paragraphs. All that she could think about was whatever threat was outside the castle, and as her curiosity grew, she glanced upwards. High above her was the window, and she could see the dark night sky through the panes. Aelius was out there somewhere, and she hoped that he was safe.
Laelia heard the approaching footsteps and shifted her gaze away from the window. She didn’t recognize the servant; the woman was middle-aged, her features plain. Yet there was something odd about her. As Laelia studied the servant’s round face, she realized that the woman had eyes that resembled Aelius’. In the back of her mind she wondered about this unusual coincidence.
“The baron needs you, ma’am,” the woman told her, and Laelia stood up.
“But he told me to stay here!”
The servant laughed eerily. “I’m just relaying his wishes, ma’am. He told me to come and get you.”
Laelia hesitated, but only for a moment. Then she brushed past the servant, who was staring at her with an unnerving intensity.
She has such dark eyes, Laelia thought as she rushed out into the hallway. The servant didn’t follow; in fact, she seemed to have vanished into thin air. If Laelia had had more time, she would have pondered this, but she was too intent on getting outside and finding Aelius.
The heaviness of her dress slowed her down as she left through one of the human-sized doors, out into the cool spring night. She paused outside of the castle, trying to decide which way to go. The decision was easy to make; there was some sort of commotion in one of the nearby villages, and she saw smoke rising in dense plumes. Screams rose up as well, frightened and frantic. Every instinct told her to go back, but she also worried about Aelius. What if he was injured? What if he couldn’t hold off the invading force?
Steeling herself, Laelia sprinted toward the village.
Fleeing people barreled by her on foot and in wagons, but her attention was on the thick trails of smoke. She couldn’t see much, not even when she ran past the first buildings. Somewhere there was a fire, or more likely, multiple fires. Gasping, Laelia took in lungfuls of smoky air and tried to make sense of the chaos. Villagers shouted and bolted like panicked animals, and one burly man slammed into Laelia, spinning her around. That was when she saw the mammoth form surrounded by smoke. He was crouched over, the black wool of his greatcoat illuminated by the flames, and she was certain that it was him. No being was as colossal as Aelius.
“Aelius!” Laelia cried, and his head swiveled in her direction. Her focus was suddenly torn between the giant’s hands and his face. Several villagers thrashed and wiggled between his gloved fingers, their distant howls reaching Laelia’s ears. Worse than that was his face, however. The shy, awkward smile had been replaced by a grotesquely-wide grin, Aelius’ razor teeth and crimson gums on full display. And his eyes, which had been so loving, shone with a primal and insatiable hunger. Nothing about him looked human anymore, and it horrified her.
He raised the handful of people to his mouth and uncurled his fingers, allowing the villagers to fall between the sharp triangles of his teeth. Shocked, Laelia watched the tiny bodies fall, limbs flailing, into the yawing abyss of his mouth. The giant didn’t bother to chew; he swallowed with the ravenous greed of a starving man. Laelia backed away, her eyes locking with Aelius’. It was as if he didn’t recognize her, as if someone else was inhabiting his body. All that she saw was that monstrous hunger.
Once again the dress slowed her down, and as the booming footsteps crashed behind her, Laelia realized that she didn’t have time to take it off. And even if she could have shed the dress, there was no way that she could outrun someone so huge. A quick glance over her shoulder showed Aelius’ enormous legs striding after her. Desperate, she darted into one of the buildings that hadn’t been smashed into rubble.
She fumbled blindly in the darkness, almost tripping over a footstool by the door. As Laelia’s eyesight adjusted, she saw faces peeking out at her. They may have been the owners of the building, or villagers who had sought refuge here; whoever they were, she wouldn’t know. Laelia didn’t dare to talk to them or otherwise make a noise. Standing motionless, she strained her ears. She heard faint noises, the scraping of shoes on the floor as the others shifted their weight, the rapid, shallow pants of her own breathing.
Then the entire building shuddered and she heard loud tearing noises, wood cracking and shingles breaking. Everyone in the room glanced up as the gigantic hand plunged down through the ceiling, bringing a storm of dust and debris with it. Aelius grabbed for a woman, his fingers knocking aside furniture. The villager was too terrified to move, and she would have been snatched up if Laelia hadn’t reacted, shoving her out of the path of danger.
Aelius’ hand closed around her instead.
Laelia to protest, but his fingers were constricted around her chest and she couldn’t breathe properly. As the giant lifted her through the massive hole in the ceiling, she twisted and fought for air. It was only when she was outside that he relaxed his grip. Laelia wheezed as she hurtled toward his gaping maw. The same mouth that she had kissed so often had transformed into something horrifying; it now looked like a dark, ominous cavern, and she remembered what had happened to the villagers earlier.
Terror flooded her senses. “Aelius! It’s me! Don’t!”
The gargantuan hand paused in its ascent. Aelius’ expression changed abruptly; it was as if someone had slapped his face without warning. He didn’t speak, just regarded her with stunned confusion.
“Aelius?” Laelia kept her voice very low and gentle, her gaze hovering on his mouth. She was only a few feet away and his teeth were so intimidating, gigantic and glistening with saliva. “Please put me down, Aelius.”
He was breathing hard, and each exhalation was like a gust of hot, humid wind. To her dismay, he wouldn’t acknowledge her plea and instead raised her closer to his lips. Laelia couldn’t even see his eyes anymore. Only the underside of his nose and the curvature of his cheeks were visible at this angle.
His tongue slid out from between his dark lips, and since her arms were pinned tightly to her sides by his fingers, she couldn’t fend it off. The slimy mass of muscle rolled over Laelia, the rough, bumpy tastebuds scraping against the exposed parts of her skin. She struggled futilely as he licked her, tasted her. Closing her eyes so that saliva wouldn’t leak into them, she tried to turn her face away. Aelius’ breathing had become even more labored, and it sounded almost like choking sobs.
“I can’t control it anymore,” the giant gasped, his fingers tightening around her torso like titanic anacondas. Laelia’s eyes popped back open, frightened. “It tricked me!”
She couldn’t ask what “it” was; she found her breath cut off once more, and this time, the incredible pressure didn’t abate. Blackness crept into her vision from all sides, and Aelius’ agonized face gradually disappeared along with everything else.
When Laelia regained consciousness she found herself surrounded by warmth and darkness, and for several nerve-racking seconds she feared that Aelius had devoured her, that she was trapped in his stomach. Then the world seemed to move around her and dim light revealed her surroundings. As the giant peeled away his fingers she saw that they were still outside. Wisps of smoke lingered in the air, gray against the orange and gold morning sky.
Slowly her eyes traveled to his face. Gone was the mindless, ravenous hunger. The Aelius that she loved — the one who whispered sweet praises to her while she laid on his chest, the one who touched her with such gentleness and adoration — had returned, although he wouldn’t look her in the eyes. His gaze was on the nearby village, which was now little more than ruins.
Oh Aelius, what have you done? Laelia’s mind reeled at this atrocity.
She began to shiver uncontrollably, teeth chattering. Aelius shifted his attention back to her and placed one of his fingers against her cheek. The beautiful blue dress, his newest gift to her, was smudged with soot and dirt and dried saliva.
“I’m so sorry, hummingbird,” he told her, and she believed him. And yet she had seen what he was, what he was capable of doing. Trying to reconcile his kindness and cruelty was proving to be an impossible task. His finger stroked her disheveled hair with such a tenderness that she almost wept, and she finally stopped shaking.
What else are you hiding? She wondered.
This was going to be the difficult part, the part that she dreaded. Gathering up every ounce of courage that she could, Laelia looked up at Aelius and tried to ignore the large beads of sweat that dribbled down between her shoulder blades.
“We have to talk,” she said.