As Railtus finished his explanation, Julen nodded. He appreciated knowing exactly what about his comment had awakened such terrible anger. And in most respects, he agreed with Railtus -- it was a tragic thing when circumstances forced anyone, man or woman (from overheard comments, Julen had learned that the brothel employed both), to accept coins for an act that should only be bought with love and trust. Usually, on the occasions that Julen’s path took him near the brothel, he hurried past it with downcast eyes. Even if he hadn’t made promises to Rosemary, no known force would ever get him inside. And yet... And yet, sometimes, when no one else was around, when the absence of his wife was like a bleeding wound, Julen paused outside the brothel doors, and he wondered what it would be like to purchase a bit of comfort, an hour’s worth of forgetfulness.
And that, Julen realized, was the difference between him and Railtus. Railtus had never wondered. Or if he ever had, it had been too long ago for him to remember. That was why the joke hadn’t been funny. Most men laughed at such insinuations because it allowed them a release -- a socially acceptable way to acknowledge that yes, no matter how infrequently, no matter how much they would never act on them, they had these thoughts. Railtus didn’t. So to him, Julen’s comment had only been an insult.
Not vice, Julen noted. No jokes about vice. It’s not the same for him.
Grateful for Railtus’s offer to heal him, Julen extended his aching arms. Then, when that was done, he thanked his friend and wished him a safe journey back to House Anstrun. Briefly, Julen considered asking Railtus to give Phelan a goodnight kiss from him. In the end, however, he decided against it. The joke wasn’t exactly about vice. But it did touch on family, which might be another sensitive subject, and Julen didn’t feel like testing new ground.
After Railtus had left, Julen finished undressing, before lying down in bed. Sleep came almost immediately, sucking him down like a murky bog. But even buried in its sluggish depths, Julen’s mind still fidgeted, throwing out a strange combination of memory and imagination as he dreamed.
One. Two. Three.
Darkness. He was in a bed, but not his small bed at the bakery. The mattress beneath him was larger, stuffed to plumpness with soft feathers, and a variety of cushions had been scattered across it. He felt their textures tease his naked skin -- the chill smoothness of silk, the downy caress of velvet. And that wasn’t all that he felt. Someone else was in the bed with him.
Four. Five. Six.
At the edge of Julen’s awareness, the voice continued its unhurried counting. But Julen barely heard it. Reaching through the darkness, his fingers brushed against the arch of a hip, the round curve of a breast. Rapidly, a hunger awakened deep inside him. It had been too long. And the temptation was too sudden and too close.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
Now, each number was accompanied by a mild sensation, like someone flicking their finger against his back. Julen couldn’t have cared less. Blinded by the darkness, blinded by his own lust, he pressed random kisses to his partner’s body, as if that could help him draw a mental map of her terrain. And the sighs and moans with which she received the touch of his lips rose to a sharp gasp as he pulled her beneath him, making them one.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
Steadily, the force marked by each number had grown in strength, until it was more like a rod snapping across his shoulder blades. The pain made Julen wince. But he was sunk deep in the warmth of a woman, and for the first time in four months, he was so close. Gods, he was so close! Doing his best to ignore the invisible assault, Julen rolled his hips, hearing his cries of pleasure echoed in the darkness. Then, a pair of arms wrapped around him, yanking him closer, and Julen experienced sharp release. White light swept over the world. When it faded back to a reasonable level, Julen could finally see where he was -- a bedroom, decorated in the tawdry lavishness that he’d always imagined for a brothel. But that wasn’t what shocked him. Glancing down the woman he’d just had sex with, Julen saw, to his horror, that she wasn’t a stranger.
Smiling, she unwrapped her arms from around his body. And as she held her hands up before him, Julen saw that they were stained with his blood.
An insistent knocking jolted Julen from his sleep. Blinking in the morning light, Julen attempted to process the sound, and finally realized that it was Railtus, come to collect him for another day's training. “Just a moment,” Julen called out, forcing his body into a sitting position. He was glad that the necessity of getting dressed bought him a small delay. Julen didn’t want to face Railtus until that dream had faded completely from his memory.