Excerpt from The Last Amanuensis

My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I've learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.

He's reached that point now. I straighten from my awkward position, crooked over his bared buttocks, and set the gleaming apparatus down on the bedside table next to the flickering candles. With Preceptors on patrol twenty four hours a day, we dare not risk the gas lamps.

“Some water, sir?”

Moving with care so as to not to smudge my work, he twists to take the glass from my gloved hand and drains the contents. “Thank you, Adele.” The weariness in his voice sets up an ache under my sternum. Seeing what it costs him, I would dissuade him from this endeavor if I could. I've also learned, though, that it is useless is to argue with the professor when he has set his mind on something.

Sweat has plastered his snow-white hair to his forehead, but his ice-blue eyes are clear as ever and his firm-set lips warn me against any protest. “Continue, please.” He stretches out once again upon the sheet, his night shirt up around his waist. “Let's get this over with.”

He's less scrawny than you'd expect of a man his age. There's still some muscle in his lean thighs, and his sparse-haired chest has been spared that sunken quality so common in older men. The flesh hung on his rangy skeleton hardly sags, although the powdery surface feels delicate as onion-skin.

When we began, I was terrified it would tear under the needle. I couldn't bring myself to push the steel nib all the way through the epidermis to the pigment-loving layer below. With admirable patience that made me ashamed of my timidity, he instructed me in the proper methods, offering his forearm as my practice canvas.

He told me once, at dawn neared and the candles sputtered out, that I was the most skilled of all the secretaries he has employed over the years. I remember his praise on the nights he does not require my services, when I lie awake thinking about him and our perilous enterprise. It almost melts the lump of cold fear that has taken up residence my chest.


“Sorry, sir.” Picking up the instrument (one of his many clever designs), I apply the needle once more, resolutely ignoring the tiny gasp that escapes him. “Just three more words,” I add, tracing the pointillist curve of an S on the still unmarked spot below his right kidney.

He remains silent. Unutterably brave. I check the scrawled page spread out on the table, just to be sure – the ink is unforgiving of mistakes – then bend again to his pale flesh. Blood wells up from one of my punctures, glittering like a ruby in the snow. When I wipe the surface with an alcohol-soaked napkin, he quivers upon the mattress. Probably he is reacting to the sting, though I like to imagine it is my touch affects him thus.

Though I know he'll be angry, I cannot stop myself from stroking his naked arse, tracing the lines of text that march up the swell and down into the hollow between his legs. Some are written in my neat, squared hand. Others are unfamiliar. All are beautiful, a thousand words in reds, greens, purples, opulent as some medieval manuscript.

My employer shifts again, spreading his thighs a bit so that I glimpse the dusky, wrinkled mass of his sack. His living warmth penetrates the rubber of my gloves. I nearly tear them off, just so I can feel his skin against mine. My fingers tingle, drawn to his illumined flesh like steel to a magnet.

“Adele!” There's no fatigue in his voice now, no trace of weakness, nothing but iron determination. I flush with shame at my irresponsible distraction. “Finish the bloody poem.”

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