Lost at Sea, Book 2: Drifters, Chapter 20, Part 1

“Bella!” A lilting woman’s voice called her name from the darkness. She jolted unexpectedly at the noise, then smoothed her skirts to sweep away the spike of worry. Her heart was suddenly pounding, which annoyed her. She sighed at her own foolishness. She was obviously still just jittery.

“Yes?” she answered back.

Jack’s tent was still lit from within and threw off enough light that Bella was able to recognize Doctor Kalfou’s form as she walked closer. The Doctor’s white clothing was fairly unmistakable in the dark. “Wanted to check on you, I,” she said, stepping close enough that they could more easily see each other. “Had any other incidents today, you?”

“That’s a polite way of putting it,” Bella laughed. “No. I have occasional moments, but nothing like earlier.”

“Moments like what?” the Doctor asked gently.

“Oh, you know, a little burst of apprehension and worry. I’d imagine a lot of people are having those today,” Bella shrugged.

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“Anxiety?” Doctor Kalfou asked. “Fear that seems new and sudden, and not proportionate to the things that are happening?”

Bella’s expression became pensive. “No, not new. It’s the same really, just more frequent today. I’m sure it will pass soon enough.”

“The same?’ Doctor Kalfou asked. “These feelings precede yesterday’s attack?”

“Oh, yes, they just get stronger for a while when dangerous things happen,” Bella answered in a blithe tone that belayed the gravity of the topic. “This is fairly normal for me. I tried to tell you that earlier.”

Doctor Kalfou seemed surprised and concerned, but nodded. “Seem to handle it well, you.”

“I’m used to it,” Bella reassured her. “I’ll let you know if it gets bad again.”

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Doctor Kalfou wanted to keep asking more questions, but she was also glad to have less work to do. After they were safely off this island, she could push Bella further about where her long-standing fears came from. Until then, letting Bella handle things the way she was used to seemed fine. “Please do,” she smiled.

“Oh, I’m actually glad you came by!” Bella said suddenly. A conspiratorial smile played across her lips. “Earlier, you said you wanted to learn more about my practice. I’m going to be performing a ritual tonight. Want to join us?”

One of Doctor Kalfou’s eyebrows lifted. “Us?”

“Will and I,” Bella answered, gesturing to their tent.

“What ritual, and what would you need me to do?” Doctor Kalfou asked, sounding curious, but a bit apprehensive.

“I’m only going to be gathering and storing energy. Well, transferring it too, but that’s basically the same in this context,” the witch shrugged.

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“How?” Doctor Kalfou asked, sounding like she already knew the answer.

“Sex,” Bella grinned.

Doctor Kalfou looked amused. “So, to be clear, asking, you, if I want to have sex with you, and with Mister Sterling?”

Bella nodded. “Mmmhmm.”

Doctor Kalfou stood in thought for a moment. Sterling did have a roguishness and a competence that she found quite attractive, and Bella was luscious. Still, there were things to consider. Bella was a patient, of sorts. So was Will, until his hand healed. Would this be a breach of professional ethics? She knew her professors would say yes. She also knew her grandfather would laugh at her for even worrying about it, and he was a more skilled healer than any of her old teachers could ever hope to be. Then there was the curiosity brought on by her other profession. This was an opportunity to learn a new form of magic. She simply could not pass that up. “Want to, yes,” she smiled. “First though, must tell you something, I.”

“Tell me what?” Bella smiled, excited to see where this was going.

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“Never been with a man, I,” Friday admitted.

“But you want to?” Bella asked.

“Yes, but not tonight,” Friday said firmly.

“Saving yourself for marriage?” Bella asked, deciding to keep her opinions on the concept of virginity to herself.

Friday laughed. “Not at all. Saving myself for the right ritual.”

“I don’t understand,” Bella said, tilting her head in confusion.

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“There is power in that blood, and it can only be gathered once,” Friday explained, surprised that Bella didn’t know.

“Ooooh!” Bella said, finally understanding. Then she pursed her lips in thought. “You know you don’t have to bleed, right? The maidenhead is pretty stretchy. If you’re careful, it doesn’t bleed at all. The whole idea that a woman’s first experience with penetration is some kind of painful right of passage is completely made up.”

“Oh, yes, know that, I,” Friday agreed. “Misunderstand, you. Want to bleed, I.”

Bella blinked, then nodded. “The power.”

“Yes,” Doctor Kalfu nodded. “So, not tonight.”

“I know a little about that aspect of blood magic because it overlaps with my own practice, but I never cared about it much,” Bella tapped her chin thoughtfully. “In my practice, the first time having sex is important, and power can be gathered from it, but the blood isn’t really necessary. I wonder where the differences come from.”

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“An interesting thing to discuss,” Friday said. “Another time.”

Bella chuckled. “Sounds good to me. Want to get ready?’

“What will we be doing?” Friday asked.

“For now, just drawing on each other, mostly,” Bella said with another wide grin. She pulled open the tent flap like a doorman.

“Mostly?” Friday asked as she ducked into the tent.

Bella bit her lip in anticipation. “Mostly.”

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Jack sat cross-legged, naked on her bedroll, enjoying the warm summer night air on her skin and listening to the conversation happening right outside her tent. She could hear Bella’s voice, and the doctor’s. She couldn’t make out all of what they were saying, but she knew Bella well enough to know when she was seducing someone. It was the same tone, the same forthright candor mixed with undisguised lust. It was what Bella had just done to Jack.

There was a part of her that loved it. It was so exciting, refreshing, familiar. It was Bella. She remembered being someone who was always proud and excited to watch Bella expertly draw someone in. She wasn’t that person anymore. Now, hearing Bella seduce another person hurt. It reminded her of what she’d lost, and the person she’d had to become.

It had taken her a very long time to get used to this new version of herself, and even longer to realize that she now possessed quite a few merits that the old Jack would have considered weak. It was strange how by forcing herself to become harder, she’d discovered the cracks in herself that had allowed her to become softer.

Now she didn’t know who she was.

She idly stroked the ring on her finger. That ring. The one that had changed everything. Quinn’s ring. Will’s ring. The one that bound them all together. She loved it and hated it. It was her greatest success, and her greatest failure. It was a loop of secrets.

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Quinn’s arms wrapped around her from behind. Anyone else would have caught an elbow in the face for that, but she could feel him. She knew he was there before he was really there. She leaned back into the crook of his neck. He tilted his head and kissed her on the temple.

“You are troubled,” he rumbled.

“I don’t know what to do,” Jack sighed.

“Mister Sterling, or Miss Fortuna?” Quinn asked.

“Both. Bella, currently. Will and I did fine today. It keeps flip-flopping. One of them will be supportive, and the other one will get mad. I think it’s the island,” Jack said, talking half to herself.

“I do not understand,” Quinn said.

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“On the ship, things felt normal and safe. So, after I pushed him a little, Will was willing to say what was on his mind, which, of course, led to a great deal of… discomfort. I expected it. Honestly, it was a good start. Bella knew that, and I think she decided to keep what she was feeling mostly to herself, so she could be supportive of both of us, and not give me both barrels at the same time,” Jack said, talking out her thoughts.

“Kind of her,” Quinn said.

Jack nodded and let her stream of consciousness continue. “Now it’s the opposite. This island is dangerous, so Will isn’t talking about our problems. He’s being cordial, and professional. Now, it’s a job. There’s no place for bickering when you need to work with someone to survive. Bella isn’t like that. This isn’t anything she’s used to, so she’s stressed and trying to find something to do with that tension. She’s looking for support, and also looking for a fight. With her, nearly everything is connected to sex in some way or another, so that’s mixed into both issues. It is all very tangled.”

“Which is the source of your current troubles,” Quinn said softly.

“It has been an emotionally trying few days,” Jack laughed mirthlessly.

“And now?” Quinn prodded.

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“Now we have to have sex to fuel Bella’s magic, so she can do some kind of divination in the morning before Will and I head out,” Jack explained.

“That does not sound terrible,” Quinn said, a hint of mirth in his stoic tone.

Jack sighed. “It just feels so separate now. She was here. There was so much… wanting. A closeness I’d missed so much was finally there again. Then she left, and now her wanting is aimed at someone else, and mine is still aimed at her, but not able to reach.”

“Jealousy,” Quinn said.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I think it is more like envy, really. I don’t wish Bella wasn’t doing what she’s doing, and I’m not upset at the people who are receiving her attention. I just wish I could be part of it,” Jack said bitterly. She leaned forward a bit and rubbed her temples.

“This is closer than you were,” Quinn reminded her. He reached forward with his strong hands and took over the work she’d started, rubbing his strong fingertips into her scalp.

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“That makes it worse. It is so much harder to ignore now,” Jack swallowed. She let herself relax, holding her face up with her hands as his fingers pulled the tension out of her.

“Is this not what you wanted?” Quinn asked.

“It is. I feel like steps in the right direction are being taken by all of us. I just want it to move faster,” Jack said bitterly. “This is the hard part.”

“The most satisfying victories are the ones hardest to win,” Quinn advised, moving his hands to her shoulders, massaging with the skill of a practiced expert.

Jack huffed out a small laugh. “Why do I find your insufferable warrior-poet nonsense so endearing?”

“Because it is,” Quinn said simply.

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Jack turned around, squirming into his embrace and straddling his hips. He helped lift her and settle her, his supernaturally strong hands lifting from beneath her toned thighs. “Careful of all the artwork,’ Jack said, gesturing to the sigils Bella had drawn on her body. Quinn nodded.

She took his face in her hands and kissed him tenderly. “You never judge me.”

“I do judge you. I judge everyone,” Quinn corrected. “You most of all.”

Jack rested her forehead against his. “Well, you never make me feel like you are judging me. You’re always supportive, and you always let me make my own choices.”

“How could I judge you properly if I were making your choices for you?” Quinn asked, beginning to massage her neck and shoulders again.

Jack sighed and relaxed into his touch, then her brow raised as something dawned on her. “Are you making fun of me?”

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“Never, Mistress,” Quinn said, his black eyes revealing a faint mischief. “I simply want you to have a full understanding so your choices are informed.”

“So you can judge me?” Jack said, a challenge in her voice.

“Yes,” Quinn said with a small smile.

His fingers probed her tense shoulder blades, threatening to distract her but she remained focused. She glared at him for a moment, then stopped. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out for a moment. Then she shook her head. “How did you do that?”

“You will have to be more specific,” Quinn said.

“Make me feel better!” Jack laughed.

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“I am a well-practiced masseur,” Quinn said.

“Not that,” Jack said in exasperation. “My mood.”

“Ah. Yes. I have noticed you react well to challenge,” Quinn said simply. “So I challenged you.”

“You did?” Jack’s brow furrowed. “When?”

Quinn “You claimed I do not judge. I informed you of the contrary. I challenged your statement.”

Jack rolled her eyes. “That’s all?”

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“Yes,” Quinn said.

“I am that easy to manipulate?” Jack asked, her tone challenging, but a bit afraid to hear the answer.

“Sometimes,” Quinn admitted.

“Alright. Why now? What makes me so easy to manipulate, currently?’ Jack asked, suddenly curious and still feeling a bit contrary.

“Currently, your convictions are not firm, Mistress,” Quinn explained.

“Use more words,” Jack said, a hint of command in her voice. “A lot more.”

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“Some of this is conjecture. I did not, and do not, know your mind completely,” Quinn prefaced. “Jealousy is out of character for you. I suspect you do not believe your feelings are justified, but were indulging in the melancholy because you feel you deserve it.”

Jack slowly raised one eyebrow. “Keep going.”

“You still feel the need to punish yourself. You frequently look for reasons to do so. When you cannot find reasons born out of convictions, you find reasons born out of interpersonal relationships. You do not bear Miss Bella or Mister Sterling any ill will, so when you say things about them that harbor resentment, I know they are not things you truly believe.”

“You don’t think I’m actually jealous, so it was easy to distract me from feeling that way?” Jack summarized.

“Yes, Mistress,” Quinn concurred.

“By challenging me? About something… pointless,” Jack huffed out a laugh.

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“Something without consequence,” Quinn corrected.

Jack looked down at Quinn’s chest, thinking for a moment. “That’s the clincher, isn’t it. I’m so tired of consequences.”

“Yet, you are still strongly motivated by challenge,” Quinn elaborated.

“I’m still impressed it took so little,” Jack said. “I didn’t know you were allowed to contradict me like that.”

“I would only presume to contradict when I believe doing so is the best way to serve you,” Quinn said.

“How does tricking me out of feeling bad serve my goals?” Jack asked.

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“I have observed that for many humans, guilt manifests as self-loathing. In some humans, those feelings inspire the desire to change. Admirable humans succeed in changing but, without fail, the transition from guilt to change requires a reinvention of the self. During that time, when a person is rejecting who they once were, but have not yet decided who they will become, humans become ungrounded. They lack conviction in all things, so-”

“So they do things, and feel things, that aren’t based on who they really are,” Jack finished.

Quinn shook his head. “Who they wish to be, mistress. Who they are, in those moments, is exactly what they are feeling and doing.”

Jack scowled. “Well, that is disheartening.”

“Is it not reassuring to know that the heartache you were feeling is unnecessary?” Quinn asked.

Jack closed her eyes in frustration. “Maybe, but now I know I was using it to fill in the gaps caused by having no idea what I’m doing.”

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“You do,” Quinn said firmly.

“I clearly do not,” Jack countered. “If I did, I wouldn’t keep feeling like this.”

Quinn shook his head again. “Untrue. You are mistaking the uncertainty of not knowing what choice to make with the uncertainty of guilt.”

Jack gave him a flat look. “I’d say in this case, they’re rather the same thing.”

“No,” Quinn said. “No more than clouds and rain are the same.”

“Can’t have one without the other,” Jack said pointedly.

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Quinn said nothing. What Jack had said wasn’t precisely true, but for the purposes of the metaphor, it was close enough. He waited.

Jack sighed after a moment. “So I need to get out from under the clouds.”

Quinn gave her a small smile.

“Alright,” Jack nodded to herself. “So I just need to focus on doing things that make me feel less guilty. I still somewhat feel like I should not have to feel guilty at all, but I do.”

“Your feelings of guilt do not come from your actions, Mistress,” Quinn said.

Jack squeezed her eyes shut like she was in pain. “No, they come from how Will and Bella feel about my actions. Because they don’t understand. And I can’t tell them. It’s so damned circular.”

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“What can you do about it?” Quinn prodded.

“Try to earn their trust back, without focusing on the past. Atone, I suppose. Help them,” Jack looked like she was finally coming out of her melancholy. She gave Quinn a small smile. “I can do that. Thank you.”

Quinn straightened a bit, looking satisfied. “You stated that tonight we will be assisting Miss Fortuna with a ritual.”

Jack looked at her green paramour for a long moment, her eyes slowly widening. “You were distracted me out of a bad mood and gave me something else to focus on, so that we could have sex?”

“Yes,” Quinn nodded. “Has it worked?”

Jack hit him with a pillow.

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“You have an… an Angel bound inside you?” Alexandra’s mouth was agape. She felt like she was dreaming. Even after hearing it from both of them, more than once, she couldn’t wrap her head around what they were saying. “How are you talking? How come you’re the one in control? I’ve known you for years! How are you still alive?”

“I’m not a Vessel,” Caine shrugged.

“Of course you are! If you are host to an angel, you’re a Vessel! That’s what being a Vessel means!” Alexandra said, flabbergasted.

“That’s not all it means, and it’s not the only way to do it.” Caine sighed. “Turns out, there’s better ways to do it than to resign some poor zealot to madness and death.”

“I’ll not have you blaspheming, Caine,” Alexandra admonished him. “Tell me without being insulting.”

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“Fine, but it’ll take longer,” Caine snarked. “Have you heard stories of Chimeric people?”

Alexandra’s brows knitted in thought. It had been a long time since she had studied soul theory as an Acolyte. She knew the basics though. “Yes. They are very rare. People that should have been twins, but are born with one body instead. Doctors claim one twin absorbs the other in the womb, but that seems far too sinister a description for my taste. From what I understand, sometimes they are born with patches of skin or hair that are different colors, or two different eyes. They usually have strange medical conditions, but are otherwise normal people. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Right. They’re one person even though they have two souls,” Caine said with a nod.

“I believe that is a matter of some debate among the Order of the Chalice,” Alexandra corrected. “They seem to have two souls, but those souls are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, much like their corporeal bodies.”

“Whatever,” Caine shrugged. “That’s not the point. You understand the concept, so can we move on?”

“Very well, continue,” Alexandra conceded.

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“It’s like that. I’m him. He’s me,” Caine shrugged, struggling to find the words. “We’re different people, but we’re the same too. Like you said, it’s impossible to tell where one of us ends and the other begins. Most of the time we’re together, but sometimes we separate. Usually, it feels like both. If we concentrate and meditate we can fully combine, or fully separate. Divinations force him to separate. It’s not comfortable.”

“Normally you are superimposed, but when I look at you with the Sight it isolates you both?” Alexandra suggested.

“Yeah,” Caine nodded. “Good word for it.”

“Like an out-of-body experience?” Alexandra asked, starting to understand.

“Something like that. Yeah, actually. That’s a good way to describe it, with one big difference. When we separate I can’t see through his eyes anymore.” Caine said. “Feels like being half-blind, and half deaf.”

“That is what is happening right now?” Alexandra asked, wanting to be sure.

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“Yeah. It’s not much fun,” Caine said.

“Why does it happen?” Alexandra asked.

Caine’s golden twin answered. “Because of how your Sight interacts with my metaphysical presence.”

“Being observed is all it takes to force you to separate?” Alexandra asked.

“More like being observed forces me to pick between being separated and being together. As uncomfortable as separate is, forced together is worse. Imagine being locked in a trunk with another person, and every sound echoes, and you can’t uncross your eyes,” Caine explained.

“This is difficult to follow,” Alexandra admitted, struggling to conceptualize what they… no- what he was telling her. “How did it happen?”

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“What do you know about possession?” Caine asked.

“Which kind? There are a number of types,” Alexandra asked.

“The usual kind,” Caine said. “A demon wearing someone like a raincoat.”

“Demonic domination,” Alexandra tilted her head in thought, surprised at what seemed like a non-sequitur. “It is rare. Usually the final stage of demonic infestation. It is a… parasitism of the soul. After a protracted spiritual battle, the host becomes unable to resist the demon’s presence any longer. The entity enters the host bodily, and overrides the host’s will. Through that, a possessing entity can use the body like a puppet. However, it is… imprecise. Where the soul can directly interact with the body it resides in, a possessor has to command the soul to command the body. Even the most weakened soul tends to fight the invading entity, so full, overriding possession is rare.”

“Alright, now what about the other kind?’ Caine asked.

“What other kind,” Alexandra raised an eyebrow, worried about where these questions were going.

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“The willing kind,” Caine said simply.

Alexandra pursed her lips in disapproval. “Diabolism. I’d rather not speak of it, but the short description is, it is when some misguided fool deliberately invites a demon in.”

“That’s good enough,” Caine said, holding up a hand. “What do you think would happen if one of those Chimeric kids got possessed?”

Alexandra’s mouth opened, but she said nothing for a moment. The whole question was simply bizarre. “They have two souls… so only one of them would be possessed? I honestly have no idea.”

“Last question,” Caine said. “Do you know how Holy Vessels work?”

“Of course I do, that was the first thing I…” Alexandra’s eyes slowly went wide. “I think I understand where you are going. This borders on Heresy.”

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Caine snorted. “Now maybe. Sure didn’t used to be.”

“So you’re a Holy Vessel with two souls?” Alexandra didn’t believe the words coming out of her own mouth.”

“No,” Caine shook her head. “Close enough though.”

“This is… complicated. Why? What is the point? Why would the Magistrate do this?” Alexandra asked.

“What’s the point of Holy Vessels?” Caine asked rhetorically.

“To give an Angel a voice. To allow us to speak directly with the most divine servants of the Warden,” Alexandra said, not really following.

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“And the Vessels themselves. What happens to them?” Caine asked.

“They… are martyrs,” Alexandra said sadly. “The body and mind are put under tremendous strain by allowing their body to be entered by an angel. Most can only do it for a short time, and all eventually go mad or die.”

“That’s true of all possession,” Caine nodded. “The soul isn’t meant to be used that way.”

“It isn’t possession!” Alexandra snapped. “Being a Vessel is voluntary! No angel would ever force themselves upon someone.”

“True,” Caine’s golden twin said silently.

“You think getting permission changes the toll it takes?” the other Caine asked. “It’s still possession, trust me.”

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“That is blasphemy,” Alexandra said flatly.

“Fine. I’ll accept that charge for the sake of getting on with this,” Caine sighed. “How about we just say that being a Holy Vessel takes a toll on the mind and body that is similar to possession?”

“Fine, I will concede that the physical and mental side effects can be similar,” Alexandra said, clearly not happy with the direction the conversation had taken.

“So again, what do you think would happen if a Chimeric person got possessed?” Caine asked.

“I have no idea,” Alexandra shrugged. “I suspect you can tell me.”

“Chimeric people are used to having an extra soul,” Caine said. “A possessing entity can’t just override the body or mind. It becomes a sort of… partnership.”

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“Symbiosis,” Alexandra nodded, following along.

“Good word for it,’ Caine agreed. “The point is, Chimeric vessels don’t burn out.”

“Why have I never heard of this?” Alexandra’s face twisted into confusion and disbelief. “This seems like the sort of thing that could change the entire structure of the church.”

“It did,’ Caine said. “We’re pretty damn rare to begin with, and then we had to be found and… indoctrinated.”

“Must you?” Alexandra admonished.

Caine looked at her incredulously. “Yeah. I must. This is my fucking life I’m talking about. Your church isn’t all hymns and charity work. They have done things that would make any diabolist look like a choir boy.”

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Alexandra opened her mouth to protest, but Caine cut her off.

“To me, Alexandra. They did horrible shit to me, and I did horrible shit in their name. Because they told me to. Don’t even try to tell me I don’t understand. Your Magistrate? Today’s church? It’s built on a history of blood, and most of it came out of people who didn’t deserve what happened to them,” Caine’s expression was fiercer than she’d ever seen, so Alexandra wisely kept her opinions to herself.

“Continue,” she said. “About the Chimeric Vessels.”

“There were never very many of us,” Caine said after a moment to collect himself. “But we sure did change the church. Think of everything that’s happened in the last two hundred years or so. The church went from being one of many religious institutions ministering to the people, to the Magistrate.”

“And you think that is because of you?” Alexandra asked, skeptical.

“Directly,” Caine nodded.

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“And there are others like you? How many? Why was I never told?” Alexandra was still grappling with the weight of what Caine had told her, and the enormity of the cover-up.

“I think you were, you just didn’t know what you were being told,” Caine shrugged.

Alexandra gave him a long look. “Speak plainly.”

Caine held her eyes and spoke slowly. “There were a hundred of us.”

Alexandra’s eyes went wide. “Oh. Oh, my.”

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Will blotted his face and chest dry with his shirt as he walked back to the tent he was sharing with Bella. The cold water of the lagoon had been brisk enough to take the sweltering mugginess out of the warm summer night. It was good to feel clean again.

His injured hand throbbed. Keeping the bandages dry while he bathed hadn’t been easy. Whatever the doc had put on it had definitely helped cut the pain and swelling, but it had clearly worn off. Still, he’d expected worse. Bites never healed comfortably. Bella’s healing ritual had gotten rid of the rope burns and most of the smaller scrapes and bruises, but the bite had been too severe for her magic to do much about. At least the rum he’d drank at the wake was dulling the ache.

As he neared the tents, he heard the muffled sounds of a woman’s pleasure, just for a moment. A small inhaled gasp, and an exhaled moan of pent-up tension. His brows furrowed. He knew that gasp. He also knew the tent next to his instantly, even in the dark. He’d spent countless nights in it. He’d sewed up a few tears in it himself.

He’d been able to mostly ignore the knot of tangled emotions that welled up inside him whenever he dealt with Jack, but unexpectedly finding her tent next to his, and hearing the sounds of her passion, were too much.

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself. Who’s idea was it to put their tents together? Was he seriously going to have to listen to her and Quinn going at it? He knew she had more sense than that. She wasn’t an exhibitionist at all. When it came to displays of sexuality, she was practically prudish. They’d discussed it a few times, and he knew she and Bella used to argue about it fairly frequently. Bella used to try to get Jack to show off, but Jack was always adamant. She called it ‘decorum.”

Will knew that if Jack was going to be having sex, she’d make sure it was as private as possible, so all he could guess was that what she was doing was deliberate. Why would she do that? Was she actually trying to upset him? She was prone to picking fights sometimes, but this didn’t seem like her style.

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He stood outside the tents for a minute, trying to process what was happening, and how he felt about it. He found himself thankful that the tent was thick enough, and the lantern inside low enough, that he couldn’t make out her silhouette.

He was angry, but he couldn’t really place why. They’d never been in a relationship. She’d been his friend, and his partner, and while they’d slept together often, they’d always been very clear about maintaining their independence. They’d both had other lovers, and neither of them was the jealous type.

So why was he mad now?

He found himself wanting to do something to disrupt her lovemaking, just to be petty, but he gritted his teeth and pushed those thoughts aside. He didn’t really want to make her pay, especially considering that she wasn’t really doing anything wrong, he just wanted to not care about it.

Why did he care? What had changed? Was it just the surprise of it? There was a lot of bitterness and frustration growing as he stood there. That wasn’t all though. Heartache was in there too. Loss. Mourning. Nostalgia.

He hadn’t seen their tents next to each other like that since they’d been on their first expedition together. They’d spent hours laying next to each other, only the two thin walls of the tent separating them, talking. They’d started out as rivals, but quickly became partners, then friends, then lovers. They’d never needed both their tents since.

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Until now.

Seeing the two tents next to each other was a brutal reminder of how much they’d lost. They were practically strangers again. He’d been hoping for some kind of reconciliation, but they were both such different people now. Was it even possible? She couldn’t give him answers, but she had finally given him an apology. Was it enough? Could it really ever be enough?

He wanted it to be, but it clearly wasn’t enough yet.

Was he jealous? He presumed it was Quinn in there with her. Did that matter?

“Fuck,” he repeated, less fiercely this time.

He hated jealousy. It was poison. It never brought anything but pain, and it ran completely against everything he thought love should be. Jealousy was the desire for control. It was the antithesis of love. It always came from wants or expectations that were full of problems.

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So what was his problem?

As soon as he asked himself the question, it was obvious, and just made him mad at himself.

He wished it was him in there with her.

He rolled his eyes at himself. After so long trying to shed his feelings for Jack, trying to let go, trying not to care, all it took was hearing her moan once and suddenly he was all tangled up again. He wanted her. He hated wanting her. He felt like an idiot.

Then he heard another moan of female pleasure. Lower. Throatier.

Bella.

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Was she in Jack’s tent? That idea made him a little angry too. Not really because he felt jealous, but because it made him feel like the rug had been pulled out from under him. Bella was sometimes impulsive, and tended to think that sex could solve everything, but this was different. She’d been very clear about what she wanted, and how she planned to get it. They were on the same page about how to handle the situation with Jack, or, at least that’s what he’d thought.

He heard Bella moan again and realized it was coming from his tent. Then he heard a muffled laugh. A third woman. One he didn’t recognize.

“What the hell?” he muttered.

His frustration and anger subsided as bewilderment took over.

The sounds of pleasure continued from both tents as he stood there in the dark wondering what was going on. To his surprise, in spite of the bizarre array of emotions moving through him, he found himself becoming aroused. He adjusted his pants and wondered if he should leave.

“When will he be here?” the third woman asked in a muffled voice.

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“Whenever the wake is done, I suppose. Why? Are you anxious or excited?” Bella asked, half-tease, half-worried.

“A bit of both,” the woman admitted.

He knew that voice. Her accent was unmistakable. What was Doctor Kalfou doing in his tent?

“Sure, you, that he will be alright with this?” the doctor asked.

“Pretty sure. I know he’s attracted to you. That’s obvious,” Bella teased. “I’ll just ask really nicely when he shows up.”

The doctor laughed. “Quite convincing, you.”

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Will rubbed his face with his hand. He should have known this was one of Bella’s schemes. He started silently laughing, in spite of himself.

“Are you almost ready?” Jack’s voice asked from the other tent. “I’m growing rather tired of this waiting.”

“We’re almost done. Just two more lines to draw. We just… got distracted,” Bella snickered.

“You have two minutes, and then I’m starting without you,” Jack said.

“I love it when she gets bossy,” Bella muttered to her companion.

Whatever conflict and anger Will had been feeling had mostly bottled itself back up again. There was too much here to interest him. Hearing Bella and Jack tease each other had been strangely compelling. It was comfortable and familiar, and gave him hope for himself. Then there was the mystery of whatever Bella was orchestrating this for. He wanted to know.

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The doctor’s involvement was the real clincher. Bella was right. He was very attracted to her, and didn’t want to let his bizarre tangle of feelings about Jack get in the way of an opportunity to explore that.

Then the second thought hit. Without the anger, he was able to more easily think about the bigger picture. He could imagine a hundred different ways this situation could become awful. It was exactly the kind of precarious thing that his curse was prone to making worse. He wondered if he should just walk away and go sleep on the beach. That would be the safe thing to do.

Bella gasped and giggled again, and Will paused. She was like a compass. Sometimes following where she pointed was hard, but she always pointed him the right way.

He took the last few steps toward the tent and pulled back the flap.

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Updated: July 31, 2021 — 3:14 pm
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