The Divine Couple are the template for the perfect marriage: lovers who fell for each other over the first of the light and remained true until the end of time.
— Marriage Under the Divine Couple
For the last twenty minutes, the smells of the docks had been seeping into the cracks of the rented carriage. The fishy scent was almost overwhelming but she could also taste tar, rotted plants, and sea water swirling together. It was an entirely loathsome stench that she had rarely needed to experience.
The cobblestones were also in poor repair. The wagon jostled violently as the single-horse carriage struggled to take her to her destination. She could imagine her hip was bruised after slamming against the insides of the carriage; she knew it wasn't true but it felt that way.
Her stomach clenched with anxiety as she considered her destination. She had no idea what mood Kendrick would be in. Would he be sullen or angry? Would she see that mask of rage that she spotted years ago during the ill-fated duel? Every passing second made her fear grow until she was shaking from her thoughts.
The carriage came to a rattling stop. She tensed, waiting for it start again, but then she felt the drive sliding off the seat and coming around.
Shifting forward to rest her buttocks on the edge of the street, she double-checked that she had her small tri-fold tucked into the waistband of her dress. It had a few jems and her identification, anything else would be risking pickpockets or thieves. She had also left her jewelry at home, no reason to tempt anyone. The only thing she wore that was fancy was a light yellow dress with flower embroidery along the ankle-length hem.
The driver opened the door and gave a short, sketch bow. “Kudame Kasin.”
Over the shoulder of the driver, she could see a pair of men watching her curiously from the eave of an empty stall. Both of them held large clay mugs in their hands. They wore mismatched suits that set her nerves on edge, the fabric of the jackets didn't mesh with the pants and they wore baggy shirts underneath.
With a flush on her cheeks, she stepped out of the carriage. Her shoe, a sensible one with a wide-footed heel, splashed into a deep puddle of icy water. She only had a second to register before stumbling forward.
The two men laughed.
Cheeks burning, she got up on the wet sidewalk and regained her balance. She looked around. When she saw a sharp line between wet and dry, she did a double take. With a gasp, she looked in the other direction to see the same circle of wetness was centered on the front of the public house. Slowly, she turned to the bar in front of her.
It was painfully obvious that Kendrick remained inside. Fog obscured the windows. Thick droplets of condensation ran down every surface, splashing into wide puddles. The double doors leading inside were ajar. The paint had bubbled away from where it had split, colored water still ran down the front before blending into the puddles on the ground.
Steeling herself, she headed for the bar.
“I wouldn't go in there, Lady.” It was one of the men watching her. He had a low, raspy voice.
“Yeah, there is some asshole mage ruined my favorite place for everyone. Kicked everyone out and none of us can get back in. Go inside and you'll get yourself rightly doused.”
She flushed hotter. “I-I'll be okay.”
They looked at each other and shrugged. Then, they smirked and held up their mugs in a mock salute.
Humiliated, she hurried across the sidewalk. The door trembled underneath her palm as she shoved it open, desperate to get away from the two men teasing her.
Inside, the main room was dripping wet. Sheets of water poured down from the ceiling and there was a large puddle where the bar used to be. Tables, chairs, and even the paintings were all soaked completely. Even the bar fared poorly with formerly empty glasses half-full of water and condensation forming over everything.
Kendrick sat on a stool in the middle of the room. His back was slumped as he balanced on the edge. From her vantage point, she could see the curves of his buttocks as the damp fabric strained over her muscular backside. His right arm dangled from his side, a half-full bottle caught between two rough fingers.
He sat in the middle of a cleared area in the main room. The other tables and chairs were pushed away from him. On the ground, deep gouges filled with water marked their passage.
It broke her heart to see him there, alone and isolated with only alcohol for company.
“Didn't you hear me the third time?” Kendrick growled as he lifted up the bottle. He didn't look back at her.
Lily opened her mouth to respond but he didn't stop.
He turned slightly, giving her an angled view of his scruffy beard and hard glare. “I told you shits to leave me alone!”
Kendrick chucked the bottle in his hand up above his head.
Reflexively, Lily looked up to watch it. When it began to glow with a rippling blue energy, her eyes widened and the breath froze in her lungs.
The glass instantly filled with water which began to bubble out of the top of the bottle. It started as a splash but then became a jet. A rapid heartbeat later, the bottle exploded into a ball of water rushing directly toward her.
Lily screamed out, but the water struck before any sound came out. It slammed against her face with enough force she staggered back. The icy liquid soaked her face, chest, and thighs in a continual wave of pressure.
The water caught on the back of her throat, splattering cold against it before dripping down her throat. She gagged on it, coughing violently but every time her lips parted, more water rushed in.
Desperate to clear her mouth and lungs, she backed away from the pressure and out the door. She could feel her heels catching on the boards of the walk but she couldn't see where she was going. Her eyes could see nothing more than the water sheeting against her face.
Then her outstretched foot caught nothing but air. With a gurgling scream, she fell back against the carriage.
The water pressure relented for more seconds. She could do nothing but grip the edge of the carriage door and the wheel as she fought the urge to cough violently.
Then, just as quickly as it started, the water pressure died down and a ton of water splashed across the boardwalk and cobblestones.
Lily looked back at the drenched building for only a second before she choked on the water from her lungs. Bending over, she coughed harder to clear her air.
A wet ripping noise filled the air and she felt the fabric of her dress tugging along her hips and thighs. There was nothing she could do about it while coughing, but she inwardly winched as the ripping grew louder and she felt cool water splashing against her naked skin.
When she finally caught her breath, she straightened.
The two men were laughing loudly.
“Told you, Lady. Ain't no pretty face going to get near that dick. You'd have better luck coming over here.”
The other guy smacked his friend with the back of his hand.
She reached back to inspect the damage to her dress but then another bout of coughing caught her. She sobbed as she struggled to breathe. With each wracking cough, more of the fabric ripped.
When she finally regained her senses once again, she could hear the two men still laughing.
Flushed, she looked down. The dress she had picked had not fared well with being soaked. The white material was almost transparent revealing the faint lines of her lace thong and her breast straps. Even the inner material was partially translucent and she could see the shadow of her nipples through the clinging fabric.
The rip was at mid-thigh, a ragged cut that exposed far more leg than any proper lady should ever reveal. The far end was caught on a screw from the wheel.
Grumbling, she freed the remains of her dress from the wheel. When she saw that most of it had ripped off, she carefully tore the scrap off. It left her thighs bare to the cool air and brought another roar of laughter from the bystanders.
She had to clutch the bottom of her dress to avoid it rising up on her ass. The color changed under her fingertips but no tint could hide the translucency of the soaked fabric. She gave up, leaving the fabric a dark blue.
Sheepishly, she looked toward the men watching her.
They laughed loudly as they held up the mugs to her. “Told you, Lady,” said the one who spoke the most.
Humiliation burned on her cheeks. She turned away to avoid looking at them and focused on the front of the bar. Kendrick had tossed her out without even looking at her. With her thoughts, she tightened her grip on her dress until she realized it was pulling up along her thigh. She tightened her jaw, clamped her hand on the bottom of the dress to avoid it riding up, and then stormed into the public house. “That was very rude, Kendrick!”
By the time she reentered the bar, Kendrick had turned around on his stool and was staring at the entrance with bloodshot eyes. There was also surprise on his face along with unexpected look of vulnerability and hope. His expression stopped her and she came to a stop.
Slowly, he lowered his gaze down her body. She could almost feel it caressing her skin, prickling the flesh underneath the translucent material. His look lingered around her hips and she tightened her grip on the fabric over her ass which caused the soaked fabric to stretch tightly over her barely obscured pubis.
Lily's nerves danced with the thrill of his look.
Kendrick finished sliding his gaze down her body and brought it slowly up, lingering at her bare thighs, belly, and breasts before focusing on her face.
Her skin tingled with his look and a welcoming flicker of heat danced along her erect nipples and between her legs. She gave up trying to speak and waited for him to respond.
He didn't say anything for a moment. Then, his eyes hardened. “Why are you here, Lily?”
She flinched at his accusing tone. Even if Relik hadn't told her, she could see that Kendrick knew about her night with Hasan. It haunted and pained him, a fresh wound directly into his gut. She clamped her arm tight against her hip to keep her dress in place. In a soft voice, she said, “You needed me.”
Kendrick waved his hand toward the door. “Just… go away.”
“You need me here,” she repeated.
His eyes flashed and the muscles in his neck tensed. “For what, Lily? T-to stab me again? To rip my throat out every time I think of you f-fucking that asshole?” His voice cracked. He looked away for a moment to take a loud, shuddering breath.
“Hasan is a good man.” She knew it wasn't an excuse but she couldn't think of anything else to say.
He turned on his stool and reached out for the counter. A few of the still-filled bottles began to rattle as they rocked back and forth.
“You are also a good man,” Lily finished. “A good man who needs help.”
“There is only one good man for you. Go warm his bed and leave me alone. This bastard should have stayed forgotten.”
She flinched at his words.
One of the bottles launched itself in the air, bobbing and weaving as it sailed into his grip. It hit with a thick smack. The cork popped out of the bottle in a spray of liquid. The spray stopped in mid-air and then sucked back into the bottle.
He stared into the neck before he said, “You knew how important you were to me. It was the only way I could survive prison. But when I told you how important it was, you just ran into that sheep-fucking man's arms. Just like that.”
Kendrick said the last one only inches from the bottle, almost whispering into it. He swung the end up and caught it in his mouth, draining the bottle in seconds. The rest of it went down his chin and splashed on his muscular chest and drenched undershirt.
She watched for a moment and then came around. She wrapped her fingers around the bottle and pulled it from his lips. “I'm here now, Kendrick. Right here.”
Kendrick's eyes teared up. He looked back at his bottle for a long moment before raising his blue gaze to her. “I know I said you had the choice, not me. I believe that. I just wasn't ready for you to make it.”
The guilt and frustration slammed into her. Lily let her other hand release her dress. The fabric rose up along the curve of her ass almost immediately but she ignored the cool air against her bare buttocks. “I haven't made a choice.”
Lily held up her finger to silence him. “I'm not ready to make that choice.”
His face darkened. “You already did. Half the neighborhood heard you make it.” His sentence in a low growl.
“Kendrick,” she said in an icy tone. Her grip tightened on his hand, forcing the bottle further away from his mouth. It would have been a useless gesture if he resisted, but he didn't. She said, “I haven't made a choice, not for my life.”
“So what was Hasan?”
She fought the tears in her eyes as she glared at him. “Does it matter? I'm here.”
“It matters because it was him in that bedroom.” He sighed and looked away. “He got you, not me. He won.”
He choked for a moment. “I should have pounded on that door. I should have stopped him.”
Lily shook her head and held him tightly. “No, I'm not a prize. This isn't between you and Hasan, not anymore.”
Kendrick started to say something, then stopped. A question furrowed his brow but he didn't ask anything.
She took a deep breath. “Nine years ago, you two fought over me. A house got burned down, you went to prison, and he was forced to leave me alone. We were all young. Now, I'm a kudame and—”
“Not a kudame,” he said quietly.
She lost her chain of thought for a moment with his response but managed to regain them. “You two are done fighting over me.”
When he started again, she squeezed his hand. “Yes, Hasan and I had sex.”
Kendrick's expression darkened.
“But it won't be more than that. He is married to a…” she struggled as a flash of Mindil's smile raced across her mind. “… wonderful woman and I won't get between them anymore. Our nights are over. There won't be a second night.”
A faint smile caught her eye. She could see the hope in his eyes again, the brief moment where the tension faded from his shoulders and his grip on the bottle.
Lily waggled her finger. “But, Kendrick, there are things we need to talk about.”
“Do you know why Hasan was there?”
“In your bed?” His expression darkened again. “Because he's a good fuck?”
Her attempts to be calm snapped, “No, you insensitive horse's ass! Every time I saw him, he made me feel wanted. He made me think I was pretty and special. Every time he talked to me, I felt like the most precious thing in the world!” She realized she was talking louder with every step but didn't care. “He didn't disappear every time I turned around! Every time I just think I'm falling in love with him, he didn't vanish like the Couple-damned rain clouds!”
When Kendrick stared in shock, Lily felt a prickle of fear. Did she go too far?
Outside the bar, the men laughed loudly. “That lady is schooling him,” one bellowed.
Kendrick's expression twisted in a scowl and she felt a surge of fear. In their grip, the bottle began to vibrate. Liquid surged out of it forming a jet of liquid. The pressure shoved the bottle from her grip but Kendrick tightened to keep it in place as the wine poured out even faster.
The stream of liquid spiraled around both of them and then shot out the front door of the bar.
The laughter ended with a thump. Seconds later, men bellowed with anger but faded quickly as they hurried away.
Kendrick released the bottle and reached out. Another bottle sailed across the room into his palm. He popped off the top and took a deep gulp.
Lily reached up and grabbed the second bottle. “Kendrick, please? This isn't good for you.”
He glared at her. “At the moment, nothing is good for me. That includes you.”
“I'm good for you.” She reached up for him, half afraid to touch him.
He shook his head. “I spent years thinking about what I would tell you. Practicing and memorizing. But when I see you, my tongue twisted up and my heart started pounding faster. I panicked. I shouldn't have. You were… everything to me.”
“I wanted you too.”
He froze, the bottle slipping in his hand. “What?”
With tears in her eyes, she stepped closer. “I've been dreaming about you too. At night, when I'm supposed to be working. Hasan wasn't the only… man in my fantasies, Kendrick. You were too.”
She rushed forward, reaching out for him. “I looked for you from my window. Every time it rained, I thought about you. On my walks home, while sewing, while… everything. You were there too. You and Hasan and….” Her voice trailed off, she couldn't admit to falling for Mindil also.
Lily sniffed as tears burned in her eyes. “I needed you, I really do. At this point, I need you to be here.”
Kendrick's lower lip trembled for a moment. He sighed. “Well, shit on me.” He looked at the bottom inch in the bottle and then drained it. “I shoved myself up a horse's ass, didn't I?”
He looked around at the destroyed bar and the empty bottles. “This was my big break, a chance to prove myself.”
“By buying me?”
He looked at her. “Your bride price? Yes, I got—”
“I'm a kudame, I don't—”
Kendrick stood up sharply and she flinched. “You are a bedame! Damn the Couple, don't give up. You are until those bastard rip it away from you! You can't roll over.”
She sniffed. “You did. You gave up.”
Slowly, he sank back down. Lifting up the bottle, he looked at it. “Yes, didn't I? I did then. I did now.”
“It doesn't have to be that way though. I still haven't made that choice. You can still be in my life, if you want.”
Kendrick looked hopeful. “Really?”
Lily wiped the tears from her eyes. “There is a lot going on in my life. Both of you have rushed in just when I thought it was over. I know Hasan is married, but… I still love him. I know you are struggling yourself with choices you have to make. If you are having trouble, why can't I?” She finally reached out and caught his hand, prying it off the bottle. “Kendrick, I want you in my life. I want to choose you too.”
She thought about Mindil. “He may not remain with me. I have… I can't leave what I did with hidden from Mindil. It isn't fair to her or him.”
He wrapped his fingers around hers, holding her tightly. “You still want him?”
She sighed. “He is a good man, loyal and hard working. When I'm around him, I feel special. Around you, I also feel like my heart is going to explode with how much I want you. I'll admit, I want both of you more than I can describe.”
They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment.
Kendrick leaned forward.
Heart racing, Lily did the same. Her body tingled with anticipation.
Kendrick stood up still holding her hand to his muscular chest. “Lily, I've been an ass but I'm not stupid.” He swayed slightly, his body shifting. “I-If you are willing to give me a chance, I'll do anything to stay in it.”
Lily hugged him tightly. “Thank you.”
He swayed even further. “I… I think I shouldn't have stood up. I'm going to pass out now.”
As he collapsed, she let out a scream.