The Duke studied him a moment from behind this dark, opaque lenses. Then, without warning, the hard line of his frown broke into a harsh, chesty laugh. “Kid, if you could toss away a maiden as easily as you could that drink, you wouldn’t even be here. It’s a good job, for your sake, that Elixir isn’t half as rare as they are, though. I mean, we haven’t had no genuine maidens round these parts since you were play fighting with a wooden sword.”
He tapped something into the back of his hand. “You ever hear the story of the Adels, kid?” he asked. Dante gave the slightest shake of his head—just enough to avoid spinning his brain around inside his head. The Duke huffed. “No, guess they wouldn’t care to teach you that, would they? Well,” he stubbed his cigar into the centre of the table, “we used to have a family of maidens down here, you see. Beauty perfected, all of them, gifts from the Cities for us lesser beings to worship.” His face creased with lines of bittersweet memory. “They had themselves a temple, but you only knew where it was if they wanted you to know. It was safer that way.” He raised his flask. “As I said, some people’ll do some fucked up shit to get themselves a taste of paradise.”
The Duke’s bare-chested companion approached the table with a large bottle of burgundy liquid. She smiled at Dante and he noticed the tips of tapered ears beneath her hair, relics of the tribe who gave their life for his mother. With nothing to stop them, memories from that night flashed before his eyes, images of bodies bloodied and boughs burning, of figures in dark suits and rainbow dresses. The night everything changed. The night he wanted to escape.
The Duke poured the drink into an offered glass, then passed it on to Dante. “This is a traditional Donaran mead,” he said, lifting his own glass in toast. “May their beauty never fade.”
Feeling the woman’s eyes upon him, Dante gulped back a mouthful of his drink. He could taste the Donara, the sweetness of their fruits, the pulse of their energy as the liquid slipped down his throat. It wasn’t quite the perfection of the Elixir, but it was as close as any human would ever come.
The Duke’s eyes followed his companion as she left their table with a smile and a swagger. “It’s a shame,” he said. “Were I any other man, I’d be happy with what I’ve got, but, once you’ve tasted paradise, there’s no turning back—and, for one night, I tasted paradise like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Her name was Aliyah,” he said, lighting another cigar. “Aliyah Adel. She was the oracle—capital ‘o’—and head of the family. I went to her a boy and came back a man, with nothing more than dreams to remember her by. I had to join the war, you understand. That was my trouble, see, and she taught me to deal with it.” He leaned back with a devious grin. “She taught me a few other things, too…”
Dante sipped at his mead. Instinct told him this wouldn’t end well, but since when had he ever listened to instinct? And, even if he did, how could he possibly excuse himself from this man, who had shown him such understanding and hospitality?
The Duke took his own glass in hand and slouched back into his seat. “I spent fifteen years fighting those damned Apostles,” he said, “and the only thing that kept me going was the memory of that night. I told myself that, if I survived, I could see her again. Hell, I told myself I’d even chop off my own bollocks and become one of her bloody eunuchs if she so much as offered me the chance.” He laughed, a short, bitter cackle he soothed with a toke on his cigar. “But, like I said, you can only find them if they want you to, and I never saw her again.”
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This guy sure likes to talk!