It occurred to me at some point that I wished the Oneroi would only send me false dreams.They hurt – no question – but there was a very, very small comfort afterward in knowing they hadn’t really happened.Yet, my next few dreams were true ones, and I was forced to keep reliving the past.
One memory brought me back to fifteenth century Florence.
At first, I felt a small blossoming of joy at repeating this. The Italian Renaissance had been a beautiful thing, and I’d been in awe watching the ingenuity of humans reawaken after the last few depressing centuries. Things were made that much more interesting because the Church was always pushing back against this artistic flourishing. That kind of conflict was what my kind thrived on.
Another succubus and I had shared a house, living luxuriously off of a textile business we ostensibly managed while our merchant uncle (an incubus who was never around) traveled. It was a good setup, and I – going by the name of Bianca – was the favorite child of our local demoness, Tavia, thanks to conquest after conquest.
It all started to go awry when I hired an eccentric and extremely good-looking painter named Niccol?° to create a fresco for our home. He was flamboyant, funny, and intelligent – and had been attracted to me from the first day. Nonetheless, a sense of propriety and professional boundaries made him keep his distance. This was something I intended to change, and I frequently stayed with him while he worked on the wall, knowing it would only be a matter of time before he gave in to my charms.
“Ovid didn’t know anything about love,” I told him one day. I was lounging on a sofa, caught up in one of the literary discussions we so often stumbled into. His ability to engage in these talks added to his allure. He looked up at me with mock incredulity, pausing in his painting.
“Nothing about love? Woman, bite your tongue! He’s the authority! He wrote books on it. Books that are still read and used today.”
I sat up from my undignified repose. “They aren’t relevant. They were written for a different time. He devotes pages to telling men where to meet women. But those places aren’t around anymore. Women don’t go to races or fights. We can’t even linger in public areas anymore.” This came out with more bitterness than I intended. The artistic culture of this time was wonderful, but it had come with a restriction of female roles that differed from those I’d grown used to in other places and eras.
“Perhaps,” Niccol?° agreed. “But the principles are still the same. As are the techniques.”
“Techniques?” I repressed a snort. Honestly, what could a mere mortal know about seduction techniques? “They’re nothing but superficial gestures. Give your ladylove compliments. Talk about things you have in common – like the weather. Help her fix her dress if it gets mussed. What does any of that have to do with love?”
“What does anything have to do with love anymore? If anything, those comments are particularly applicable now. Marriage is all about business.” He tilted his head toward me in a speculative manner that was typical of him. “You’ve done something with your hair today that’s extremely pretty, by the way.”
I paused in return, thrown off by the compliment. “Thank you. Anyway. You’re right: marriage is business. But some of them are love matches. Or love can grow. And plenty of clandestine affairs, no matter how ‘sinful,’ are based on love.”
“So your problem is that Ovid is ruining what love is still left?” His eyes drifted to the window, and he frowned. “Does it look like it’ll rain out there?”
The zeal of this topic seized hold of me, making his abrupt interruptions that much more annoying. “Yes – what? I mean, no, it won’t rain, and, yes, that’s what he’s doing. Love is already so rare. By approaching it like a game, he cheapens what little there is.”
Niccol?° abandoned his brushes and colors and sat down next to me on the couch. “You don’t think love is a game?”
“Sometimes – all right, most of the time – yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t – ” I stopped. His fingers had slid to the edge of my dress’s neckline. “What are you doing?”
“This is crooked. I’m straightening it.”
I stared and then started laughing as the ruse revealed itself. “You’re doing it. You’re following his advice.”
“Is it working?”
I reached for him. “Yes.”
He pulled back. This wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d only intended to tease me, proving his point with a game. Averting his eyes, he began to rise.
“I should get back to work….” He was rarely thrownoff, and I’d disarmed him.
Gripping him with surprising strength, I jerked him back to me and pressed my lips to his. They were soft and sweet, and after a few stunned moments, he responded, his tongue moving eagerly into my mouth. Then, realizing what he was doing, he drew away once more.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
I could see the longing in his eyes, the desire he’d held back since working for me. He wanted me, but even a roguish artistic type felt it was wrong to do this with an unmarried, upper-class woman – particularly one who’d employed him.
“You started it,” I warned in a low voice. “You were trying to prove me wrong about Ovid. Looks like it worked.”
I put my hand behind his neck, pulling his mouth back down to my own. He still initially resisted, but it didn’t last. And when his hand began slowly pushing up the folds of my skirts, I knew I’d won and that it was time to retreat to the bedroom.
Once there, he abandoned any attempts at decorum. He pushed me down onto the bed, the fingers that so deftly painted walls now fumbling to release me from my complicated dress and its layers of rich fabrics.
When he had me stripped down to my thin chemise, I took charge, removing his clothing with a brisk efficiency and delighting in the way his skin felt under my fingertips as my hands explored his body.
Straddling him, I lowered my face and let my tongue dance circles around his nipples. They hardened within my mouth, and I had the satisfaction of hearing him cry out softly when my teeth grazed their tender surface.
Moving downward, I trailed kisses along his stomach – down, down to where he stood hard and swollen. Delicately, I ran my tongue against his erection, from base to tip. He cried out again, that cry turning to a moan when I took him into my mouth. I felt him grow between my lips, becoming harder and larger, as I slowly moved up and down.
Without even realizing what he did, I think, he raked his hands through my hair, getting his fingers caught up in the elaborate pinning and carefully arranged curls. Sucking harder, I increased my pace, exalting in the feel of him filling up my mouth. The early twinges of his energy began seeping into me, like glittering streams of color and fire. While not physically pleasurable per se, it sparked me in a similar way, waking up my succubus hunger and igniting my flesh, making me long to touch him and be touched in return.
“Ah…Bianca, you shouldn’t…”
I momentarily released him from my mouth, letting my hand continue the work of stroking him closer to climax. “You want me to stop?”
“I…well, ah! No, but women like you don’t…you aren’t supposed to…”
I laughed, the sound low and dangerous in my throat. “You have no idea what kind of woman I am. I want to do this. I want to feel you in my mouth…taste you…”
“Oh God,” he groaned, eyes closed and lips parted.
His muscles tensed, body arching slightly, and I just managed to return him to my mouth in time. He came, and I took it all in as his body continued to spasm. The life energy trickling into me spiked in intensity, and I nearly had a climax of my own. We’d only just started, and I was already getting more life from him than I’d expected. This would be a good night. When his shuddering body finally quieted, I shifted myself so that my hips wrapped around his. I ran my tongue over my lips.
“Oh God,” he repeated, breathing labored and eyes wide. His hands traveled up my waist and rested under my breasts, earning my approval. “I thought…I thought only whores did that….”
I arched an eyebrow. “Disappointed?”
“Oh, no. No.”
Leaning forward, I brushed my lips against his. “Then return the favor.”
He was only too eager, despite his weariness. After pulling the chemise over my head, he ravaged my body with his mouth, his hands cradling my breasts while his lips sucked and teeth teased my nipples, just as I’d done to him. My desire grew, my instincts urging me to take more and more of his life and stoke my body’s burning need. When he moved his mouth between my legs, parting my thighs, I jerked his head up.
“You said once that I think like a man,” I hissed softly. “Then treat me like one. Get on your knees.”
He blinked in surprise, taken aback, but I could tell something about the force of the command aroused him. An animal glint shone in his eyes as he sank to his knees on the floor, and I stood before him, my backside leaning against the bed.
Hands clutching my hips, he pressed his face against the soft patch of hair between my thighs, his tongue slipping between my lips and stroking the burning, swelling heart buried within. At that first touch, my whole body shuddered, and I arched my head back. Fueled by this reaction, he lapped eagerly, letting his tongue dance with a steady rhythm. Twining my hands in his hair, I pushed him closer to me, forcing him to taste more of me, to increase the pressure of his tongue upon me.
When the burning, delicious feeling in my lower body could take no more, it burst, like the sun exploding. Like fire and starlight coursing through me, setting every part of me tingling and screaming. Imitating what I’d done to him earlier, he didn’t remove his mouth until my climax finally subsided, my body still twitching each time his tongue tauntingly darted out and teased that oh-so-sensitive area.
When he finally broke away, he looked up with a bemused smile. “I don’t know what you are. Subservient…dominant…I don’t know how to treat you.”
I smiled back, my hands caressing the sides of his face. “I’m anything you want me to be. How do you want to treat me?”
He thought about it, finally speaking in a hesitant voice. “I want…I want to think of you like a goddess…and take you like a whore….”
My smile increased. That about summed up my life, I thought.
“I’m anything you want me to be,” I repeated.
Rising to his feet, he pushed me roughly against the bed, holding me down. He was ready again, though I could see the effort it took. Most men would have collapsed after that loss of life energy, but he was fighting through his exhaustion in order to take me again. I felt the hard press of him against me, and then he pushed – nearly shoved – himself into me, sliding almost effortlessly now that I was so wet.
Moaning, I shifted myself up so that he could get a better position and take me deeper. His hands clutched my hips as he moved with an almost primal aggression, and the sound of our bodies hitting each other filled the room. My body responded to his, loving the way he filled me up and drove into me. My cries grew louder, his thrusts harder.
And, oh, the life pouring into me. It was a river now, golden and scorching, renewing my own life and existence. Along with his energy, he yielded some of his emotions and thoughts, and I could literally feel his lust and affection for me.
That life force warred with my own physical pleasure, both consuming me and driving me mad, so that I could barely think or even separate one from the other. The feeling grew and grew within me, burning my core, building up in such intensity that I could barely contain it. I pressed my face against him, smothering my cries.
The fire within me swelled, and I made no more attempts to hold off my climax. It burst within me, exploding, enveloping my whole body in a terrible, wonderful ecstasy. Niccol?° showed no mercy, never slowing as that pleasure wracked my body. I writhed against it, even as I screamed for more.
Doing this might make Niccol?° immoral in the eyes of the Church, but at the heart of what mattered, he was a decent man. He was kind to others and had a strong character whose principles were not easily shaken. As a result, he had had a lot of goodness and a lot of life to give, life I absorbed without remorse. It spread into me as our bodies moved together, sweeter than any nectar. It burned in my veins, making me feel alive, making me into the goddess he kept murmuring that I was.
Unfortunately, the loss of such energy took its toll, and he lay immobile in my bed afterward, breathing shallow and face pale. Naked, I sat up and watched him, running a hand over his sweat-drenched forehead. He smiled.
“I was going to write a sonnet about you…. I don’t think I can capture this with words.” He struggled to sit up, the motion causing him pain. The fact that he’d managed all of this was pretty remarkable. “I need to go…the city’s curfew…”
“Forget it. You can stay here for the night.”
“But your servants – “
” – are well-paid for their discretion.” I brushed my lips over his skin. “Besides, don’t you want to…discuss more philosophy?”
He closed his eyes, but the smile stayed. “Yes, of course. But I…I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I need to rest first….”
I lay down beside him. “Then rest.”
A pattern developed between us after that. He’d work on the fresco during the day – his progress slowing significantly – and spend his nights with me. That twang of guilt never left him, making the experience doubly exciting for me. My essence drank from his soul while my body enjoyed the skills of his.
One day, he left to run errands – and didn’t come back. Two more days passed with no word from him, and my worry began to grow. When he showed up on the third night, there was an anxious, harried look to him. More concerned than ever, I hurried him inside, noting a bundle under his arm.
“Where have you been? What is that?”
Unwrapping his cloak, he revealed a stack of books. I sifted through them with the wonder I’d always had for such things. Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Ovid’s Amores. Countless others. Some I’d read. Some I’d longed to read. My heart gave a flutter, and my fingers itched to turn the pages.
“I’ve gathered these from some of my friends,” he explained. “They’re worried Savonarola’s thugs will seize them.”
I frowned at this reference to the city’s most powerful priest. “Savonarola?”
“He’s gathering up ‘objects of sin’ in order to destroy them. Will you hide these here? No one would force them away from someone like you.”
The books practically shone to me, far more valuable than the jewelry I’d amassed. I wanted to drop everything and start reading. “Of course.” I flipped through the pages of the Boccaccio. “I can’t believe anyone would want to destroy these.”
“These are dark days,” he said, face hard. “If we aren’t careful, all knowledge will be lost. The ignorant will crush the learned.”
I knew he spoke the truth. I’d seen it, over and over. Knowledge destroyed, trampled by those too stupid to know what they did. Sometimes it happened through forceful, bloody invasions; sometimes it happened through less violent but equally insidious means, like those of Fra Savonarola. I’d grown so accustomed to it that I barely noticed anymore. For some reason, it hit me harder this time. Maybe it was because I was seeing it through his urgent eyes and not just observing it from a distance.
“Bianca?” Niccol?° chuckled softly. “Are you even listening to me? I’d hoped to spend the night with you, but maybe you’d rather be with Boccaccio….”
I dragged my eyes from the pages, feeling my lips quirk up into a half-smile. “Can’t I have you both?”
Over the next few days, Niccol?° continued to smuggle more and more goods to me. And not just books. Paintings accumulated in my home. Small sculptures. Even more superficial things like extravagant cloth and jewels, all deemed sinful.
I felt as though I’d been allowed to cross through the gates of heaven. Hours would pass as I studied paintings and sculptures, marveling at the ingenuity of humans, jealous of a creativity I had never possessed, either as a mortal or immortal. That art filled me up with an indescribable joy, exquisite and sweet, almost reminding me of when my soul had been my own.
And the books…oh, the books. My clerks and associates soon found their hands full of extra work as I neglected them. Who cared about accounts and shipments with so much knowledge at my fingertips? I drank it up, savoring the words – words the Church condemned as heresy. A secret smugness filled me over the role I played, protecting these treasures. I would pass on humanity’s knowledge and thwart Heaven’s agenda. The light of genius and creativity would not fade from this world, and best of all, I would get to enjoy it along the way.
Things changed when Tavia showed up one day to check in. The demoness was pleased at the report of my conquests but puzzled when she noticed a small sculpture of Bacchus on a table. I hadn’t yet had a chance to hide the statue with my horde.
Tavia demanded an explanation, and I told her about my role in protecting the contraband. As always, her response took a long time in coming, and when it did, my heart nearly stopped.
“You need to cease this immediately.”
“I – what?”
“And you need to turn these items over to Father Betto.”
I studied her incredulously, waiting for the joke to reveal itself. Father Betto was my local priest. “You can’t…you can’t mean that. This stuff can’t be destroyed. We’d be supporting the Church. We’re supposed to go against them.”
Tavia raised a dark, pointed eyebrow. “We’re supposed to further evil in the world, my darling, which may or may not go along with the Church’s plans. In this case, it does.”
“How?” I cried.
“Because there is no greater evil than ignorance and the destruction of genius. Ignorance has been responsible for more death, more bigotry, and more sin than any other force. It is the destroyer of mankind.”
“But Eve sinned when she sought knowledge…”
The demoness smirked. “Are you sure? Do you truly know what is good and what is evil?”
“I…I don’t know,” I whispered. “They seem kind of indistinguishable from one another.” It was the first time since becoming a succubus that the lines had really and truly grown so blurred for me. After the loss of my mortal life had darkened me, I’d thrown myself into being a succubus, never questioning Hell’s role or the corrupting of men like Niccol?°.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Sometimes they are.” Her smile vanished. “This isn’t up for debate. You will yield your stash immediately. And maybe try to seduce Father Betto while you’re at it. That’d be a nice perk.”
“But I – ” The word “can’t” was on my lips, and I bit it off. Under the scrutiny of her stare and power, I felt very small and very weak. You don’t cross demons. I swallowed. “Yes, Tavia.”
The next time Niccol?° and I made love, he managed a tired but happy attempt at conversation in his post-sex exhaustion. “Lenzo’s going to bring me one of his paintings tomorrow. Wait until you see it. It shows Venus and Adonis – “
He lifted his head up. “Hmm?”
“No. Don’t bring me any more.” It was hard, oh God, it was so hard speaking to him in such a cold tone. I kept reminding myself of what I was and what I had to do.
A frown crossed his handsome face. “What are you talking about? You’ve already collected so much – “
“I don’t have them anymore. I gave them up to Savonarola.”
I shook my head. “No. I contacted his Bands of Hope this morning. They came and took it all.”
Niccol?° struggled to sit up. “Stop it. This isn’t funny.”
“It’s not a joke. They’re all gone. They’re going to the fire. They’re objects of sin. They need to be destroyed.”
“You’re lying. Stop this, Bianca. You don’t mean – “
My voice sharpened. “They’re wrong and heretical. They’re gone.”
Our eyes locked, and as he studied my face, I could see that he was starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, I spoke the truth. And I did. Sort of. I was very good at making people – especially men – believe what I wanted them to.
We dressed, and I took him to the storage room I’d previously hidden the objects in. He stared at the empty space, face pale and disbelieving. I stood nearby, arms crossed, maintaining a stiff and disapproving stance.
Eyes wide, he turned to me. “How could you? How could you do this to me?”
“I told you – “
“I trusted you! You said you’d keep them safe!”
“I was wrong. Satan clouded my judgment.”
He gripped my arm painfully and leaned close to me. “What have they done to you? Did they threaten you? You wouldn’t do this. What are they holding against you? Is it that priest you’re always visiting?”
“No one made me do this,” I replied bleakly. “It’s the right thing to do.”
He pulled back, like he couldn’t stand my touch, and my heart lurched painfully at the look in his eyes. “Do you know what you’ve done? Some of those can never be replaced.”
“I know. But it’s better this way.”
Niccol?° stared at me for several more seconds and then stumbled for the door, uncaring of the curfew or his weakened state. I watched him go, feeling dead inside. He’s just another man, I thought. Let him go. I’d had so many in my life; I’d have so many more. What did he matter?
Swallowing tears, I crept downstairs to the lower level, careful not to wake the sleeping household. I’d made the same journey last night, painstakingly carrying part of the horde down here – a part that I didn’t give to the Church’s minions.
Splitting the art and books had been like choosing which of my children had to live or die. The silks and velvets had been mindless; all of them went to Fra Savonarola. But the rest…that had been difficult. I’d let most of Ovid go. His works were so widespread, I had to believe copies of them would survive – if not in Florence, then perhaps some other place untouched by this bigotry. Other authors, those whom I feared had a limited run, stayed with me.
The paintings and sculptures proved hardest of all. They were one of a kind. I couldn’t hope that other copies might exist. But I’d known I couldn’t keep them all either, not with Tavia checking in. And so, I’d chosen those which I thought most worth saving, protecting them from the Church. Niccol?° couldn’t know that, though.
I didn’t see him for almost three weeks, until we ran into each other at Savonarola’s great burning. History would later know it as the Bonfire of the Vanities. It was a great pyramid stuffed with fuel and sin. The zealous threw more and more items in as it blazed, seeming to have a never ending supply. I watched as Botticelli himself tossed one of his paintings in.
Niccol?°’s greeting was curt. “Bianca.”
“Hello, Niccol?°.” I kept my voice cold and crisp. Uncaring.
He stood in front of me, gray eyes black in the flickering light. His face seemed to have aged since our last meeting. We both turned and silently observed the blaze again, watching as more and more of man’s finest things were sacrificed.
“You have killed progress,” Niccol?° said at last. “You betrayed me.”
“I’ve delayed progress. And I had no obligations to you. Except for this.” Reaching into the folds of my dress, I handed over a purse heavy with florins. It was the last part in my plan. He took it, blinking at its weight.
“This is more than you owe me. And I won’t finish the fresco.”
“I know. It’s all right. Take it. Go somewhere else, somewhere away from this. Paint. Write. Create something beautiful. Whatever it takes to make you happy. I don’t really care.”
He stared, and I feared he’d give the money back. “I still don’t understand. How can you not care about any of this? How can you be so cruel? Why did you do it?”
I studied the fire again. Humans, I realized idly, liked to burn things. Objects. Each other. “Because men cannot surpass the gods. Not yet anyway.”
“Prometheus never intended his gift to be used like this.”
I smiled without humor, remembering an old debate of ours about classical mythology, back during our sweeter days. “No. I suppose not.”
We said nothing else. A moment later, he walked away, disappearing into the darkness. For a heartbeat, I considered telling him the truth, that much of his treasure was still safe. I’d paid well for it to be smuggled out of Florence, away from this mad destruction.
In fact, I’d actually sent the goods to an angel. I didn’t like angels as a general rule, but this one was a scholar, one I’d met in England and tolerated. Heretical or no, the books and art would appeal to him as much as to me. He would keep them safe. How ironic, I thought, that I would turn to the enemy for help. Tavia had been right. Sometimes good and evil were impossible to distinguish from one another. And if she’d known what I had done, my existence would probably be over.
So I couldn’t tell anyone. The secret had to stay with me and the angel, no matter how much I wished I could share it with Niccol?° and comfort him. I had to live with the knowledge that I had taken his life, soul, and hope. He would hate me forever, and it was a sting I would likewise carry with me forever – one that would slowly make my existence more and more miserable.
My world dissolved into darkness. I was back in my box, still cramped and uncomfortable. As usual, I couldn’t see anything, but my cheeks were wet with tears yet again. I felt exhausted, even a little disoriented, and my heart ached with a pain that I could never put into words. I didn’t see the Oneroi, but something told me they were probably around.
“That was truth,” I whispered. “That really happened.”
As suspected, a voice answered me in the darkness, and I suddenly knew the real reason they kept showing me true dreams.
“Your truths are worse than your lies.”