Maria Lucita de Moncada spurred their horse on, the sun beginning to dip in the sky as they approached the gates of the estate. Their companions rode alongside them, the horses exhausted and hungry. Maria's own brown mare gave a tired neigh and Maria brushed their hands over her neck, rubbing gently and murmuring gently in German. "You'll rest soon, my friend," Maria's voice was soothing, the horse's ears twitching as if she understood them.
The estate was less than a mile off now. Maria could see the gates, the windows and the pale buildings. A smile spread over their face as they allowed the horse to slow to a trot. "We're not far off!" They called to their companions. Federico slowed his own horse by them, the others doing likewise.
"Milady Maria?" He asked. Maria answered with a soft smile.
"We have hours of daylight left, far off from any retribution," they said in Spanish. Speaking their mother tongue always felt the most natural, Maria reflected with pleasure. "We may as well give the horses a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery."
They were thrilled to be back on Iberian soil after the past year spent all over Europe. They had been forced to bury their dead in the countryside of Poland months before, Father de Ruiz consecrating the otherwise unmarked ground where their comrades now lay. Maria had mourned with the other members of the Brotherhood, but the mission had been successful. The monsters they had hunted had been caught and destroyed, Maria beheading the monstrous Strigoi with their own sword.
The warm Aragon breeze, the rustle of the fields and the whisper of the leaves did Maria good. They planned at least several weeks at home now, and the thought of a handsome, beloved face came to their mind as a smile spread over their lips. Perhaps Lucian is back…
Maria and their husband had parted in France. Lucian had decided to handle a final job himself, as well as handle matters with an old werewolf friend of his. Business had diverted Maria briefly to Calais with their fellow hunters, but that had been dealt with swiftly enough. Perhaps Lucian's own business had led him back to Aragon quicker. They had separated in Europe before, with promises to meet up many times. Never once had they disappointed the other.
The thought of Lucian made them ride a bit faster, still mindful of the horse. Maria felt a sudden surge of longing to see their husband again, to spend a night in their own bed, to walk in the gardens together, to lay their swords down and be husband and wife for just a few days with no responsibilities.
They were spotted by the guards at the estate, Maria's own trainees in the Brotherhood once. Maria smiled as the group approached, allowing her horse to stand still as the guard approached. The young man looked up, gazing at them. Maria's skin was light, their eyes green, white-blond hair hanging loose about their face now, the dirt from the road covering their body. "My lady," the guard said mildly, lowering his head.
"Philippe," Maria said. They knew the name of every hunter, every guard, every servant. "The road has been long and we desire to rest. Please tell Ferdinando to prepare rooms and food for everyone."
"Of course, Lady Maria," the man said. Maria spurred their horse on to the estate, dismounting once the hooves touched the cobblestones. One by one, the other hunters slipped from their mounts and Maria saw the stable boy arrive. "Luis," Maria nodded calmly. "Please see them given food, water and much rest." They pat their mount's head. "They have more than earned it."
"At once, my lady!" Luis said. Maria looked over at the estate, already longing for their own bed. By now, everyone in the household was well used to Maria's masculine form of dress. With their skill in battle and their high-ranking position in the brotherhood, few paid it any heed. All of them knew Maria well.
Federico approached Maria as they took their pack. "A long ride, Maria," he said. Maria glanced up, a light smile touching their lips again.
"Indeed," Maria agreed. "Accept my hospitality tonight, Federico. All of you," they glanced to their seven comrades. "My home is open to you. I shall have food and drink sent for. I would face a Zmei for a good Aragon wine about now," they added, hearing their comrades chuckle.
Maria shook out their cloak, looking to see Herman again. "Ah, Herman," they said. "Has my husband returned?"
"No, my lady," Herman shook his head. Maria hid their frown at that and gave a nod.
"Please keep a watch for Lucian then," they said softly. They knew they should not worry, just as surely as Lucian knew not to worry for them. Neither could ever help it, especially now that Maria was closer to their fortieth year than their thirtieth.
By the grace of God, I made my decision, and I would make it again, Maria thought sternly. Lucian had been Maria's husband for well over a decade now, and Maria trusted him beyond doubt, just as Lucian trusted them. Maria knew what he was, and it was impossible not to note he did not age as they did. The strain of years of combat took their toll at points upon Maria's body, as swift as they still were, while Lucian never seemed to slow, tire or even scar. How many years, though, Maria thought, would it be before strangers began to mistake him for Maria's son? Or even, one day, their grandson?
Maaria banished the doubts as surely as they shook the dust from their cloak. That was a bridge to be crossed another day. I had long accepted this. Listen to me. I am getting old, they thought with an amused chuckle.
"And I believe I shall have a bath," Maria added.
Within half an hour, Maria was undressed, reclining in the basin, filled with warm water. The grime and dirt of the road were washed away, their pale hair scrubbed clean. Their clothes had been taken to be cleaned and all Maria had kept was their crucifix placed upon the nearest table. Maria leaned back and sighed luxuriously. "I needed that," they said, staring at the ceiling. Outside, the sun was still descending, Maria noted through the window.
They weren't truly surprised Lucian had not returned yet. He would doubtlessly tell Maria more upon his return and there were enough letters to write and household matters to see to. Maria had inherited the estate from their own parents years before, minor nobles in the Kingdom of Aragon, and supporters of the Brotherhood.
From an early age, Maria had been different from others there. They had preferred different pursuits than other young women of similar station, and while Maria had never mind silks and lace, they far more appreciated the tunics and simple clothing of hunters. Maria had never truly felt as a woman was supposed to, they knew. They did not truly respond to being called man or woman. It was something most could not even conceive up, all over Europe or beyond, and so Maria raised no objection to how others addressed them.
But to Lucian? Lucian had understood, a product of his own upbringing. The two had been comrades first, hunters together in the forests of Germany against living nightmares. Maria's parents had raised them as a warrior. That much they understood as Maria's calling, even if Maria had never confessed their own true self to them. They had died of illness before Maria had met Lucian. Good people, still, and Maria had mourned them deeply.
But Lucian…he had lit a fire in them like no other had. After years of traveling together, living together, sharing battles and joys, passions and love, Maria had proposed marriage. He had even, despite his nature, acquiesced to marry in a church.
That had been a long time ago, Maria reflected, and if anything, the passing years had only deepened their bond. Maria loved him more than they could say; the first Maria had ever been able to confess to concerning their sense of self.
"To the world, I may be a woman, but that is not how I feel in my soul. I know God makes no errors, and so I accept myself for who I am. But while others call me a woman…can you accept me as I am, Lucian? Does this matter to you? That deep within, I am no woman?"
"Ever and always. Woman, man or neither, you are forever Maria to me, my love. No matter what."
Maria thought of his hands on their body, lips upon their own. Maria thought of him at their side as they faced their enemies, thought of loving and intimate gazes they shared. Maria smiled and rose, naked and soaking from the cooling water.
They rotated their arm calmly, then their neck. Their sore limbs felt refreshed thanks to the soak, their hair hanging damply around their shoulders. Maria took the time to dry their body, dressing and tying their hair back.
The sun had gone down after Maria's evening meal, the estate reinforced and guarded. Maria took the time to walk amidst the garden when Ferdinando found them. "Lady Maria! Lucian has returned! Your husband has been seen approaching!"
Maria felt their heart sing. Dressed in tunic and breeches still, they tore part him, racing through the gardens to the entrance. They saw the horse approaching, coming to a stop. Luis stepped forward to take Lucien's horse as he dismounted. Maria saw the handsome, youthful face, the white hair, the purple eyes, the silver ring upon his right index finger. Several glanced over, eyes lingering on Lucien, Maria's eyes following them for a moment before they smiled at their husband.
"Darling," Maria reached out a hand and Lucian gripped it.
"Maria," he said graciously. "Forgive me for being late."
"I have only been waiting hours," Maria said. "It is no great thing, my love. Come in, won't you?"
"Of course," Lucian said. Maria clapped their hands.
"Give us a moment, everyone! Take the evening, rest and recover yourselves, get some food if you need!" The others had soon left them alone as Maria led their husband within. Lucian stepped forward and leaned in to kiss Maria's cheek.
"Shall we retire, beloved? The road has been long," he said with a smile, hands to their shoulders.
"Patience, my love, patience!" Maria chuckled, green eyes dancing. "If you want me so bad, you know how much I enjoy making you wait sometimes."
His eyes flicked to the cross around their neck and Maria caught the briefest frown. Lucian had little love for mortal religion, let alone Catholicism given his own origins, but he respected Maria's faith and conviction in it. They did make an odd pair.
"I feel you let that come between us too much," his voice took on a teasing edge. Maria gave a silky laugh.
"I promise, I shall be worth the wait, beloved," they threw their husband a wink. "Come, it is a lovely evening. To the garden. How was Burgundy? You completed your business there well enough with the werewolves?"
"It was a trifling matter," Lucian waved a hand. "A rampaging Vargulf that need be put down with the help of the Jaegers," he stepped alongside Maria calmly as Maria led him through the grounds, to the gardens. How Maria loved the flowers there, the trees, the beautiful evening scents.
Maria could still remember their wedding. He had stood across from them, the one time they had ever allowed themselves to wear a gown in years. They had spoken their words, embraced as one in the eyes of law and church, and had never separated since. Even now, their deep care for one another, their endless fire, had never dimmed. When was the last time they'd had their time together, Maria wondered idly. Ah, yes, nearly a year and a half ago, after a great sojourn to Portugal, and from there to northern Africa. Upon returning, they had banished all thoughts of the world, their hunger for one another a fierce, ferocious thing. They had lingered in bed for days on end, pausing their passions only to rest and eat. Maria could remember laying against him for hours, for days upon end, feeling that the whole world was merely the two of them for those sweet days.
"It is a good thing we handled that cursed Strigoi when we did," Lucian said as they walked alongside one another.
"I quite concur," Maria said. "Rodrigo de Nostrad certainly made us chase him for some distance. It is a shame the beast of Wisborg still eludes us."
"Indeed," Lucian said. "But that will not be forever. Ah, look at the sky. You are beautiful in the moonlight, Maria…"
"You flatter me," Maria chuckled. "Come, this way. My favorite tree….remember when we stood beneath it on our wedding, Lucian?"
"How could I ever forget?" he laughed softly. "I remember how radiant you were in that gown…" He reached for Maria. "Shall we retire?"
"Soon, darling, soon. Perhaps wine first?" Maria gestured to the goblets they had saved beside the tree, along with the bottle they had left there for just such a happy occasion as Lucian's return that evening. "I'm afraid the wine was a bit watered down, but I would hardly wish you drunk quite so quick," they teased.
"I would be delighted, darling," Lucian said. Maria smiled and poured the goblets first.
"You mentioned our wedding day, my love," Maria said. "You made me the happiest woman on earth then…"
"And me the happiest man," Lucian said. "When I saw you, the strongest woman on the face of this world…I could only think how I could make her happy forever…"
"I am glad to hear you say that, my love," Maria raised their goblet after passing Lucian his. "To us, then."
"To us," he smiled. Maria drained their own, waiting until Lucian finished, before they walked calmly behind the tree.
"Maria-" Lucian sounded confused. There was the rasp of steel and Maria came out, sword they had stashed there flicking up to Lucian's throat.
"I would request you kneel down to allow me the leverage to behead you swiftly, 'my love.' It would make this less painful for you," Maria's voice hardened.
"Maria, stop playing about-"
"I am most serious, I assure you. Your fatal folly was attempting this little scheme. The only question remains as to how you depart this world, my 'dear.'" Maria's eyes lit with emerald fires, their voice frigid in contrast to the normal warmth. "You did the job properly. Mostly. The appearance, the horse, even his mannerisms. But where you erred? For starters, my husband's ring? It conceals his true appearance from others, and I did note the glances. You didn't know that, did you? Of course, he does sometimes forget to focus upon it if he sees me again after a while, so it did not wholly give the game away. You also did seem quite eager to get me to bed…granted, I'm hardly innocent of not wanting to rush him to our chambers myself after an absence sometimes," Maria gave a low chuckle. They looked into those shocked features.
"The next mistake you made? Lucian's business was in Paris, not in Burgundy. Of course, hunts do take time and he might have been forced to pursue his quarry elsewhere, so it was not in of itself the conclusion I required. But your true fatal error, Strigoi?" Maria's eyes narrowed sharply. "No matter what else? Lucian would never refer to me as a woman."
The creature with Lucian's face shifted suddenly, the fingers extending into claws, the features changing to something monstrous and batlike, the hair turning black. A Strigoi Viu-a sorcerous, black-hearted creature using an illusion spell had believed it could fool Maria Lucita de Moncada? They were insulted by this.
The creature hissed. "I would have had you, hunter…and drained you in bed wearing the face of one you-" Maria slashed their blade over its face, dodging its attacks nimbly as they maneuvered through the garden. A Strigoi was fast and strong, and Maria was not as young as they once had been, not to mention still being tired from the long trek.
Which is why they had prepared accordingly for something like this long ago.
The Strigoi paused suddenly, clawing at its stomach. "What is-" it doubled over with a squeal, steam rising from it.
"I said the wine was watered down," Maria twirled their sword, the one they had saved in the garden for just such an emergency. They had been wearing several daggers about their person, but better safe than sorry in the end. "Water from the nearby stream. Father de Ruiz blesses it himself," Maria added as the strigoi fell to its knees. "Are you de Nostrad's? Seeking to avenge him?"
"You…hunter….bitch…" the creature moaned, doubling over in agony. "I am Mihai Kraan…the Count….shall avenge-"
"I have heard this before," Maria swung down, beheading the creature with the silver-edged Toledo blade, leaving its head rolling in the dirt. They heard footsteps, Federico first to arrive.
"Lady Maria!" he shouted, seeing the Strigoi's headless body. Maria produced a cloth to clean the sword. "Have it burnt," they said calmly. "I'm going to bed."
The days ticked by, Maria spending the time handling final trade details, troop deployments and reading missives and poetry in between drilling and practicing in the garden. Their mother, a wealthy merchant's daughter from Toledo had taught them a great deal, as had Maria's hunter father. They smiled to themselves, thinking of Bernardo and Isabella de Moncada, who had left them this home, who had accepted them as best as they knew how, as nobody else did save for Lucian. Maria hoped they had made them proud in heaven.
The announcement was made several days later and Maria stepped out to see Lucian arriving, a smile on his face. "Maria!" He called out, rushing to them. Maria ran to meet him, seeing the truth already writ in his eyes, seeing the way he gazed upon them.
They met in a furious embrace, kissing forcefully as they pulled their faces to one another, holding the other in place, heedless of who saw. They separated and Lucian gazed at them, purple eyes shining. "Maria…were you waiting long, my love?"
"Oh, I passed the time," Maria said idly. "Things were well in Paris?"
"Thorunn sends her best," Lucian said. He brushed her cheek with a thumb. "And Calais?"
"An easy enough affair," Maria said. "Thankfully, things are well in hand throughout the continent. I do believe we have time to breathe, Lucian."
"A relief," Lucian said. Their green eyes remained on his violet, remembering his words.
"Man, woman, or neither? I love you, Maria. Body and soul, I love you." Lucian had seen them in ways no other had; a woman's body perhaps, even if their mind and soul was different.
But then again, who was a Devil to talk? Maria shared a soft laugh with him and leaned up to kiss him again. "I'm growing older, love. Nearly forty. Surely you've lost interest by now."
"How do I prove to you otherwise?" Lucian grinned coyly at them. "That you're still the most beautiful human being on the face of this world? I thought of you constantly on the voyage to Iberia, and all I could think of was 'what can I do for them when I return?'" The Strigoi's Spanish had been poor, using feminine pronouns for Maria while Lucian's were more gender neutral. Another thing Maria loved about their husband.
"Well, my love…" Maria grinned coyly. "Perhaps, we can see if I am up to the challenge of several days in bed as I once was?" they added slyly, so only he could hear.
"Challenge accepted," Lucian whispered back. The two shared a laugh and took one another's hand, exchanging smiles with one another as they walked inside.
"But a bath first," Maria added. "Get the dirt of the road off of you."
"I just can't please you, can I, darling?"
"Let's not speak too soon. I insist you make your best effort after that bath, my love."