An Offering of Moonlight
I wish to offer you moonlight in a handful — Zhang Jiu Ling
[This takes place in Chapter Nine of Clockwork Prince, entitled "Fierce Midnight. The scene in which Tessa and Jem first kiss from his perspective.]
The first thing Jem did the moment he entered his room was stride to the yin fen box on his nightstand.
He usually took the drug in a solution of water, letting it dissolve and drinking it, but he was too impatient now; he took a pinch between his thumb and forefinger, and sucked it from his fingers. It tasted of burned sugar and left the inside of his mouth feeling numb. He slammed the box shut with a feeling of dark satisfaction.
The second thing he did was to retrieve his violin.
The fog was thick against the windows, as if they had been painted over with lead. If it had not been for the witchlight torches burning low, there would not have been enough illumination for him to see what he was doing as he wrenched open the box that held his Guarneri and took the instrument from it. A snatch of one of Bridget’s songs played in his head: It was mirk, mirk night, there was no starlight, and they waded through blood to the knees.
Mirk, mirk night indeed. The sky had had been black as pitch down in Whitechapel. Jem thought of Will, standing on the pavement, dizzy-eyed and grinning. Until Jem had hit him. He had never hit Will before, no matter how maddening his parabatai had been. No matter how destructive to other people, no matter his casual cruelty, no matter his wit that was like the edge of a knife, Jem had never hit him. Until now.
The bow was already rosined; he flexed his fingers before he took hold of it, and drew in several deep breaths. He could feel the yin fen surging through his veins already, lighting his blood like fire lighting gunpowder. He thought of Will again, asleep on the bed in the opium den. He had been flushed, his face smooth and innocent in sleep, like a child with his cheek pillowed on his hand. Jem remembered when Will had been young like that, though never a time when he had been innocent.
He set the bow to the strings and played. He played softly at first. He played Will lost in dreams, finding solace in a drugged haze that muffled his pain. Jem could only envy him that. The yin fen was no balm: he did not find in it whatever opium addicts found in their pipes, or alcoholics in the dregs of a gin bottle. There was only exhaustion and lassitude without it, and with it, energy and fever. But there was no surcease from pain.
Jem’s knees gave out, and he sank to the trunk at the foot of his bed, still playing. He played Will breathing the name Cecily, and he played himself watching the glint of his own ring on Tessa’s hand on the train from York, knowing it was all a charade, knowing, too, that he wished that it wasn’t. He played the sorrow in Tessa’s eyes when she had come into the music room after Will had told her she would never have children. Unforgivable, that, what a thing to do, and yet Jem had forgiven him. Love was forgiveness, he had always believed that, and the things that Will did, he did out of some bottomless well of pain. Jem did not know the source of that pain, but he knew it existed and was real, knew it as he knew of the inevitability of his own death, knew it as he knew that he had fallen in love with Tessa Gray and that there was nothing he or anyone else could do about it.
He played that, now, played all their broken hearts, and the sound of the violin wrapped him and lifted him and he closed his eyes —
His door opened. He heard the sound through the music, but for a moment did not credit it, for it was Tessa’s voice he heard, saying his name. “Jem?”
Surely she was a dream, conjured up by the music and the drug and his own fevered mind. He played on, played his own rage and anger at Will, for however he had always forgiven Will for his cruelty to others, he could not forgive him for endangering himself.
“Jem!” came Tessa’s voice again, and suddenly there were hands on his, wrenching the bow out of his grasp. He let go in shock, staring up at her. “Jem, stop! Your violin — your lovely violin — you’ll ruin it.”
She stood over him, a dressing-gown thrown over her white nightgown. He remembered that nightgown: she had been wearing it the first time he had seen her, when she had come into his room and he had thought for one mad moment that she was an angel. She was breathing hard now, her face flushed, his violin gripped in one hand and the bow in another.
“What does it matter?” he demanded. “What does any of it matter? I’m dying — I won’t outlast the decade, what does it matter if the violin goes before I do?” She stared at him, her lips parting in astonishment. He stood up and turned away from her. He could no longer bear to look her in the face, to see her disappointment with him, his weakness. “You know it is true.”
“Nothing is decided.” Her voice trembled. “Nothing is inevitable. A cure —”
“There’s no cure. I will die and you know it, Tess. Probably within the next year.I am dying, and I have no family in the world, and the one person I trusted more than any other makes sport of what is killing me.”
“But Jem, I don’t think that’s what Will meant to do at all.” She had set down his violin and bow, and was moving toward him. ”He was just trying to escape — he is running from something, something dark and awful, you know he is, Jem. You saw how he was after — after Cecily.”
“He knows what it means to me,” he said. She was just behind him: he could smell the faint perfume of her skin: violet-water and soap. The urge to turn about and touch her was overwhelming, but he held himself still. “To see him even toy with what has destroyed my life — “
“But he wasn’t thinking of you —”
“I know that.” How could he say it? How could he explain? How could he tell her that Will was what he had devoted his life to: Will’s rehabilitation, Will’s innate goodness. Will was the cracked mirror of his own soul that he had spent years trying to repair. He could forgive Will harming anyone but his own self. “I tell myself he’s better than he makes himself out to be, but Tessa, what if he isn’t? I have always thought, if I had nothing else, I had Will — if I have done nothing else that made my life matter, I have always stood by him — but perhaps I shouldn’t.”
“Oh, Jem.” Her voice was so soft that he turned. Her dark hair was unbound: it tumbled around her face and he had the most absurd urge to bury his hands in it, to draw her close, his hands cupping the back of her neck. She reached out a soft hand for him and for a moment, wild hope rose up in him, unstoppable as the tide — but she only laid her hand against his forehead, careful as a nurse. “You’re burning up. You should be resting —”
He jerked away from her before he could stop himself. Her gray eyes widened. “Jem, what it is it? You don’t want me to touch you?”
“Not like that.” The words burst out before he could stop them. The night, Will, the music, the yin fen, all had unlocked something in him — he barely knew his own self, this stranger who spoke the truth and spoke it harshly.
“Like what?” Her confusion was plain on her face. Her pulse beat at the side of her throat; where her nightgown was open he could see the soft curve of her collarbone. He dug his fingers into the palms of his hands. He could not hold back the words any more. It was swim or drown.
“As if you were a nurse and I were your patient,” he told her. “Do you think I do not know that when you take my hand, it is only so that you can feel my pulse? Do you think I do not know that when you look into my eyes it is only to see how much of the drug I have taken? If I were another man, a normal man, I might have hopes, presumptions even; I might —” I might want you. He broke off before he said it. It could not be said. Words of love were one thing: words of desire were dangerous as a rocky shore where a ship could founder. It was hopeless, he knew it was hopeless, and yet —
She shook her head. “This is the fever speaking, not you.”
Hopeless. The despair cut at him like a dull knife, and he said the next words without thinking: “You can’t even believe I could want you. That I am alive enough, healthy enough —”
“No —” She caught at his arm, and it was like having five brands of fire laid across his skin. Desire lanced through him like pain. “James, that isn’t at all what I meant —”
He laid his hand over hers, where she held his arm. He heard her indrawn breath — sharp, surprised. But not horrified. She did not pull away. She did not remove his hand. She let him hold her, and turn her, so that they stood face to face, close enough to breathe each other in.
“Tessa,” he said. She looked up at him. The fever pounded in him like blood, and he no longer knew what was the desire and what was the drug, or if the one simply enhanced the other, and it did not matter, it did not matter because he wanted her, he had wanted her for so long. Her eyes were huge and gray, her pupils dilated, and her lips were parted on a breath as if she were about to speak, but before she could speak he kissed her.
The kiss exploded in his head like fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ Day. He closed his eyes on a whirl of colors and sensations almost to intense to bear: her lips were soft and hot under his and he found himself running his fingers over her face, the curves at her cheekbones, the hammering pulse in her throat, the tender skin at the back of her neck. It took every ounce of control he had to touch her gently, not to crush her against him, and when she raised her arms and twined them around his neck, sighing into his mouth, he had to stifle a gasp and for a moment hold himself very still or they would have been on the floor.
Her own hands on him were gentle, but there was no mistaking their encouragement. Her lips murmured against his, whispering his name, her body soft and strong in his arms. He followed the arch of her back with his hands, feeling the curve of it under her nightgown, and he could not stop himself then: he pulled her so tightly against him that they both stumbled, and collapsed backward onto the bed.
Tessa sank into the cushions and he propped himself over her. Her hair had come out of its plaits and tumbled dark and unbound over the pillows. A flush of blood spread over her face and down to the neckline of her gown, staining her pale skin. The hot press of body to body was dizzying, like nothing he had imagined, more fierce and delicious than the most delirious music. He kissed her again and again, each time harder, savoring the texture of her lips under his, the taste of her mouth, until the intensity of it threatened to tip over from pleasure into pain.
He should stop, he knew. This had gone beyond honor, beyond any bounds of propriety. He had imagined, sometimes, kissing her, carefully cupping her face between his hands, but had never imagined this: that they would be wrapped so tightly around each other that he could hardly tell where he left off and she began. That she would kiss him and stroke him and run her fingers through his hair. That when he hesitated with his fingers on the tie of her dresssing-gown, the reasonable part of his brain commanding his rebellious and unwilling body to stop, that she would neatly solve the dilemma by undoing the fastening herself and lying back as the material fell away around her and she looked up at him in only her thin nightgown.
Her chin was raised, determination and candor in her eyes, and her lifted arms welcomed him back to her, enfolding him, drawing him in. “Jem, my Jem,” she was whispering, and he whispered back, losing his words against her mouth, whispering what was true but what he hoped she wouldn’t understand. He whispered in Chinese, worried that if he spoke in English, he would say something profoundly stupid. Wo ai ni. Ni hen piao liang, Tessa. Zhe shi jie shang, wo shi zui ai ni de.
But he saw her eyes darken; he knew she recalled what he had said to her in the carriage. “What does it mean?” she whispered.
He stilled against her body. “It means that you are beautiful. I did not want to tell you before. I did not want you to think I was taking liberties.”
She reached up and touched his cheek. He could feel his heart beating against hers. It felt as if it might beat out of his chest entirely.
“Take them,” she whispered.
His heart soared, and he gathered her up against him, something he had never done before, but she did not seem to mind his clumsiness. Her hands were traveling gently over him, learning his body. Her fingers stroked the bone of his hip, the cup of his collar. They tangled in his shirt and it was up and over his head, and he was leaning into her, shaking silvery hair out of his face. He saw her eyes go wide and felt his insides tighten.
“I know,” he said, looking down at himself — skin like papier-mache, ribs like violin strings. “I am not — I mean, I look —”
“Beautiful,” she said, and the word was a pronouncement. “You are beautiful, James Carstairs.”
Breath eased back into his lungs and they were kissing again, her hands warm and smooth against his bare skin. She touched him with hesitant, curious strokes, mapping a body that seemed to flower under her ministrations into something perfect, healthy: no longer a fragile device of swiftly diminishing flesh lashed to a framework of breakable bones. It was only now, that this was happening, that he realized how sincerely he had believed it never would.
He could feel the soft, nervous puffs of her breath against the sensitive skin of his throat as he drew his hands up and over her body. He touched her as he would touch his violin: it was how he knew to touch something that was precious and loved. He had carried the violin in his arms from Shanghai to London and he had carried Tessa, too, in his heart, for longer than he thought he remembered. When had it happened? His hands touched her through the nightgown, the curve and dip of her waist and hips like the curve of the Guarneri, but the violin did not give gratifying gasps when he touched it, did not seek his mouth out for kisses or have fascinating eyelids that fluttered shut just so when he stroked the sensitive skin at the backs of her knees.
Maybe it had been the day he’d run up the stairs to her and kissed her hand. Mizpah. May the Lord watch between me and thee when we are parted. It was the first time he had thought that there was something more to his regard than the ordinary regard for a pretty girl he could not have; that it had the aspect to it of something holy.
The pearl buttons of her nightdress were smooth under his fingertips. Her body bowed backward, her throat arched, as the material slipped aside, leaving her shoulder bare. Her breath was quick in her throat, the curls of her brown hair stuck to her flushed cheeks and forehead, the material of her dress crushed between them. He was shaking himself as he bent to kiss her bare skin, skin that most likely no one but herself and perhaps Sophie had ever seen, and her hand came up to cup his head, threading through the hair at the back of his neck . . .
There was the sound of a crash. And a choking fog of yin fen filled the room.
It was as if Jem had swallowed fire; he jerked back and away from Tessa with such force that he nearly overbalanced them both. Tessa sat up as well, pulling the front of her night-dress together, her expression suddenly self-conscious. All Jem’s heat was gone; his skin was suddenly freezing — with shame, and with fear for Tessa — he had never dreamed of her being this close to the poisonous stuff that had destroyed his life. But the laquer box was broken: a thick layer of shining powder lay across the floor; and even as Jem drew in a breath to tell her she must go, that she must leave him if she were to be safe, he did not think of the loss of the precious drug, or of the danger to him if it could not be retrieved. He thought only:
The yin fen has taken so much from me: my family, the years of my life, the strength in my body, the breath in my lungs. It will not take from me this too: the most precious thing we are given by the Angel. The ability to love. I love Tessa Gray.
And I will make sure that she knows it.