The pike had proved more useful than Florian could have expected.
With it, he had been able to barter passage out of the servants' kitchen: He would spare the lives of the servants if they'd provide him with safe passage out. While he doubted that the servants were afraid of him, they were certainly afraid of losing their lives, and had agreed readily once he showed them the business end of the pike a few more times.
With their help, he had gotten his hands untied, and himself escorted out to the unguarded back stables. Safe, he dropped the pike, lest anyone be looking for the rather obvious weapon, and was currently eyeing one of the horses tied up in the stables. A freckle-faced stable boy was currently engaged in tying down one of the mounts, and Florian watched as the boy laced the ropes through. Not too tight, the journalist noted. He counted to a hundred once the boy started walking away, and then made a break for it across the yard to the stable.
Thankfully, the horse did not protest his seizure with a whinny, and before Florian really was aware of what he was doing, he was cantering from the yard, his pace fast, but not so fast that it would attract attention.
He had to get to the Orchards in short order, though. Aisaro would surely have returned home by now, and Florian had no wish to prolong things for either of them. He would meet Aisaro at his home again, and he would kill him, given the opportunity and the means to do so. The man would try to spook him again, but Florian would not fall for that a second time.
He whistled through his teeth to spur the horse on, drawing deep breaths to try and calm himself as he moved through the streets of Frestadt City. It was day, and so a horseman did not draw much attention. The cowl that he had taken from the servants helped as well; he could avoid being recognized with at least some degree of facility.
The city guards did not seem to be searching for anyone; apparently, word of his own escape had not yet traveled to the Watch yet. Either that, or Aisaro wanted to handle matters by himself. Florian certainly did not intend to begrudge the aristocrat that opportunity.
His heart was in his mouth as he rode, though. Fear had overtaken him, and he dug his heels into the horse's flanks as if an attempt to outpace the feeling. He could not allow it to overtake him. He would not allow it to overtake him. He could be afraid of Aisaro, yes, but he could not allow that feeling to consume him entirely.
That was why he had to go unarmed, too. If he went with any sort of weapon, he might think back on today and figure that the only reason he survived, if he even survived, was because he had a weapon and Aisaro had not. He could not allow doubt, just as he could not allow fear.
His hands were clammy on the rein when he reached the beginning of the Orchards, and he knew he had ridden the horse a bit too far and a bit too hard. The creature was starting to falter now, and so Florian dismounted and turned the horse back towards the city, giving it a light swat to send it ambling on its way. The irony of the situation was not lost on him: For all of the stories he had read about heroes dashing to the rescue, here he was striding up to the villain's house to confront him, unarmed, and without a means of getting away save his own two feet.
If I were a storyteller instead of a fact-teller, I'd be disappointed in myself, he thought, eyeing the grass as his boots left imprints of where he trod. Not wishing to attract notice, he avoided the cobblestone path, moving quickly and quietly through the rest of the grass, keeping a sharp eye on the manor house for any sort of movement.
None came, and slowly Florian crept forward, his attention on the manor.
Nothing happened. The house was still.
Florian was surprised that no servants were outside, but he did not dare question the spot of good fortune he was having. He sidled against a long, low garden wall, watching the nearest door to make sure it was not suddenly thrown open, and he was not spotted in his one-man attempt to lay siege to the manor. The stillness sunk into him, seemed to lay heavily on his skin.
The grass was still wet from the morning's dew and crunched underfoot as Florian trod upon it, sounding to the journalist like so many small firecrackers going off beneath his boots. He half-wondered if the grass alone would sound suddenly and give him away.
The quietness gave him the opportunity to pay more attention to himself. His hands seemed on fire, and they seemed to hurt more the closer he got to the manor. It was strange – he had not noticed them when riding through the town, but now that he was drawing nearer to Aisaro, he could feel them start up again.
His breath turned shallow from the pain, and he stumbled once or twice, cursing himself as well as the bad footing of the garden path. Whatever Aisaro had done to his hands, it was definitely something magical – Florian's atheism should not have allowed him to think that, but he did, despite his professions. Just as the fellow's mask was magical, so too was whatever he had done to Florian.
The bruises on the journalist's fingers were reappearing, too, angry red and sullen black. He stared at his outstretched hands for a few moments, wide-eyed and feeling panic beginning to well up in his chest. If they're this bad right now, then how can I possibly hope to fight Aisaro, if I can't even handle a sword or pistol? He tried to quell his worries, but it was a difficult task indeed, for the closer he got to the manor house, the more fiercely his hands stung.
He rested against the wall of the manor, trying to gather both thoughts and breath, before swinging around sharply towards the door, hoping to catch the guardsman by surprise. Much to his own shock, though, there was no sentry posted at the door; he flinched away for a second.
Clearly, Aisaro was expecting him.
Why was he, though?
Florian stared for a moment, even reached a mottled hand out to ensure that there was nothing invisible but corporeal before him, and then started to slink along the entranceway, his hands now making him grit his teeth in pain. He couldn't yell aloud. The baron would hear it, or at least his guards would. He could not let on that he was here.
In an effort to distract himself from his hands, Florian glanced around him at the portraits hanging on the wall. One caught his eye. It was Aisaro, but in older, less fashionable clothes. The man was the same age, however, and yet there were three other relatives in between the first picture and a recognizable, more recent depiction of the baron.
Either he's a perfect image of his great-great-grandfather, Florian thought, or there's something going on here that's even stranger than I had suspected. He was suddenly willing to lay bets on the second possibility. It just seemed like it would fit, with all the strange things that had recently taken place, with Baron Graize as their epicenter.
He wondered what it was, but supposed he'd probably have the chance to figure out before the baron. Logic told him that Aisaro would want him to know what he had inadvertently gotten himself into; though logic could tell him little else of the situation, he at least trusted that.
Allowing a brief sound of pain to escape from between supposedly-grit teeth, he sunk against the wall after he had passed those portraits, drawing a few breaths. His legs were unsteady again, and he stared down the hall towards the dining room that lay just beyond. There was plenty of food there, from what he could tell.
Aisaro must be in there, eating.
Ignoring his hands, which now pulsed with pain, he winched himself away from the wall, moving for the dining room in what he knew must look like a drunken stumble. Aisaro would laugh at him when he saw that, but Florian was past the point of caring. He had to know what the problem was with his hands – and with the baron himself. Only if he knew the latter, he suspected, would he be able to solve the former.
As he crossed the threshold to the dining room, he heard a girl's voice, murmuring compliance. He knew the voice, although its mumbling tone was wholly alien to him. He looked for its source, and found it at the other end of the table; likewise familiar blond hair told him that Nina was here, and as he fell against the wall he glimpsed the girl's entire form, collapsed against one of the dining room chairs.
Aisaro was holding onto her, but as Florian hit the wall and sunk downwards, the baron turned around, all but releasing the girl. Florian noticed from the sharpness of his features that he had been in the process of revealing himself to Nina; from the reverent, amazed look the girl gave the aristocrat, she no doubt was already taken by him, just as Florian had almost been in the spare larder.
"Well, if it isn't Master Lisel himself. I think he's come to rescue you, Miss Demallo, although currently it's hard to tell."
Had he been in any other situation, Florian might have smiled at that, caught the humor in the situation. As far as he could tell, however, there was no humor to be had.
The baron seemed amused enough by the situation, though, his boots ringing on the brightly tiled floor as he took a few steps towards where Florian had collapsed. "No sword, no gun, no knife, and I'll bet," Aisaro added, leaning over the journalist, his hands resting lightly on his knees, "he can't even make a fist to punch me, right?"
His voice was light and almost joyful, and Florian wanted nothing more than to wipe the smile off his face with a pummeling. He tried to form his hand into the necessary shape, but yelped as pain stopped him, uncurling his fingers and inadvertently proving Aisaro's statement.
Aisaro seemed poised to attack, but when Florian crumpled against the wall, he stepped back, amused by the turn of events. Florian let his attention wander to Nina, and he tried to meet her eyes. She stared towards him, glassy-eyed, looking like she had just been struck by lightning. There would be no help from her, he knew. He looked back towards Aisaro, trying to find words to counter the other man. His hands felt brittle now, as if the bones had been broken anew.
He struggled for breath, gasping out, "Let Nina go, Aisaro. Let her go, and you can hang me, whatever you want." He had not come here to negotiate that bargain, but desperate times seemed to call for a radically different solution. "I didn't tell her to come here. She doesn't deserve to get involved in this – whatever it is."
Aisaro looked back towards Nina, and then took a few steps back towards the girl, tossing over his shoulder, "But she is involved already, Florian. There is nothing I can do to change matters. I would rather not hurt her, either, but if I must, then I must."
Florian was about to argue that, but Nina's shriek stopped him from any sort of argument. He looked towards her, but the glint of metal caught his eyes, forced him to look away. It was becoming painful to see, now, and something buzzed in his ears, distracting and confusing him.
Over the calamity, Aisaro's voice continued, calm, honeyed, and Florian felt his head start to swim. "All you need to do, Master Lisel, is to agree with me, to say that you'll help me. I can make that pain in your hands disappear; I can clear your senses; I can help you just as much as you can help me. Surely you want to agree with me." Florian did not even think to argue the point readily enough, and so Aisaro added easily, "Exactly. I know you do. Just give in."
It would be far easier if he did submit. Florian knew that much. He would be free, and Nina would be as well, and all he had to do was to just nod his head, not even speak. He glanced upwards to see Aisaro casually backhand Nina, saw her fall to the floor. Whatever had transpired between them, Florian hadn't caught, but he knew that Aisaro was walking back towards him. He couldn't move, too pained to make any sort of break for freedom, but yet Aisaro did not seem willing to assault him.
Why would Aisaro hold back from attacking him when he was so easygoing about his violence to Nina? There was something he had that Aisaro wanted; he was not dead yet, and that was certainly proof enough. Florian could not say what it was, though. He could not imagine anything that remained unknown to the baron and known to him.
He stared blearily towards Aisaro's boots as they moved incrementally closer to him, and then glanced up towards the man's face. Aisaro was almost gleeful, and Florian fought to control a shudder that swept through his shoulders, tried to keep from looking away again. For some reason, he knew he had to hold Aisaro's glance. He could not look away – that would be as good as surrendering.
Florian's lips felt cracked; his tongue was thick and fuzzy; he tried to spit out words nonetheless. "What... what are you? Y-you're not human. You're a monster. What sort of m... monster are you?" It was not the most eloquent of interrogations, but it was all he could manage.
His throat started to burn up, too, and he swallowed, trying to keep the pain down. His hands were blackened now, the bruises developing into even bigger discolorations, his fingers locking up, motionless. He sat there like a statue, not daring to move, not wanting to tempt fate and risk the likelihood of more pain. The less you act, he thought, the more you obey him. He was giving in even as he sat there, and he flinched at the sudden realization.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Aisaro knew exactly what Florian had just realized. The baron's broad grin, cool and emotionless, stung him all the more. Compared to that lack of feeling, the laughter that came from the golden-voiced throat was easy to ignore, as was the pain of staring at Aisaro's razor-sharp face. "Why would I tell you that? That would only mean more rumors, more lies."
Florian tried to smile, but his face was frozen into a mask. He crumpled further against the wall, his glance finally breaking from Aisaro. At that point, he felt claw-like nails dig into his shoulder as the baron jerked him to his feet. He could only stare, his eyes beginning to water.
The man's face was even harsher than Florian could remember having seen it, almost alien in its severity. An uncannily steady gaze was leveled on the journalist, and it was all Florian could do not to instantly look away. His voice was somewhere between a stammer and a scream: "Let us go, you bastard, and then I'll do what you want. I promise. All you have to do is let us go."
His voice was broken-sounding, and he hated himself for it, doubly so upon seeing the newest smile that spread across the baron's face, broad and utterly delighted. "Just let us go! I'll promise to whatever you want. I swear!" He tried to catch Nina's eye, but he could not see at all now, let alone look directly at her.
The baron shook his head, calm and even as ever. "Not the way I'd thought to do it, Florian," he remarked, his voice smooth. Florian was amazed that, even through the noise that was in his head, the aristocrat's words were eminently audible. "See, what I was thinking is that you would agree, and then I'd let the two of you go. If I let you go first, how will I know that you've followed through on your promise?"
He reached out to set a hand on Florian's head, and Florian felt very much like a schoolchild scolded for recalcitrance by his tutor. As Aisaro's hand settled upon his hair, though, Florian felt an explosion of pain inside his head. It seemed to come from the baron's fingers and blast its way through him; he jerked in pain, his limbs trembling, his face going slack. It was a hot, unbearable burst, as if the baron had set off a firework inside his head. Sparkles of pain flickered before his eyes, and he couldn't think to back away or fight off the hand that had twined its way into his hair to steady itself.
He heard Aisaro's voice, again crystal-clear, seeming to slice deeper in tandem with the pain that had suddenly asserted itself. "I don't want any more trouble from you, Master Lisel. I don't like doing this. Believe me."
That was a lie, and Aisaro did not even try to hide that fact, the velvety tones all but dripping with sarcasm. "I just want the same peace and quiet as everyone else wants – as you and Nina want. Agree with me, and I'll give you that same peace and quiet. I'll give you a little cottage out in the woods, and you'll never have to bother with me or with any of the aristocracy ever again. It won't be much of a bother for me, and I'd certainly like it more than doing this."
As if he needed a reminder of what the baron was doing, Florian was again overtaken by another painful burst, if a weaker one, inside his mind. His teeth chattered fiercely, but he could not force any words through them yet.
Don't trust him, he told himself, gaining some clarity with the increase in pain. It was all that Florian could do to summon up the nerve enough to shake his head against Aisaro, and he hoped that it would be enough of a denial. Breathing hard, his nerves still shaky, he stammered out, staring blindly at what he hoped was the baron, "I c..." His voice died for a moment, before reasserting itself. "I can't."
The refusal must have enraged the baron, for the hand moved off his head and Aisaro took a step backwards, glowering at him.
I'm going to die, Florian thought.
The baron looked ready to kill him, his face bleak, his eyes cold and hard. "I have a wish for you, Master Lisel," he proposed, his voice curiously even and flat. "Do you want to hear it?"
The coldness in his eyes had changed to something that, even if it was no warmer, was certainly more unreadable. Florian blinked a few times before dropping his glance onto the floor again. Aisaro proceeded, though Florian hadn't had the strength to nod his agreement. "I hope that, in your next lifetime, you don't receive this curse. May the Twins protect you from that."
If he'd had the strength, Florian would have questioned Aisaro as to his statement. He did not have it, though, and all he could do was stay curled up as pain threatened to overtake him. His body shook in pain as he tried hard to focus, tried to force out a final few words. Clearly, Aisaro was planning to kill him. He had wanted to die at sword-point, if he had to die, but that seemed not to be the case.
"Why?" His voice trembled.
"Because," Aisaro responded, his voice strangely gentle all of a sudden, "nobody deserves this. Not even you." Through the haziness of Florian's vision, he was aware of a sudden revelation; the baron reached through the clouds that had overtaken his sight, and was stretching a hand towards him, apparently offering something.
"You see," Aisaro continued, "you and I are more alike than you might suspect. I can teach you what you want to know. You and I have something in common that the Twins themselves would be jealous of. You're just like me, Lisel. You're one of us. Just take my hand, and I can teach you what you need to know. All your life you've been consumed by this immediacy – I can help you control it, for your own benefit. By the Twins, you need me."
Florian was not so sure anymore what he needed. His conscience screamed at him not to accept whatever the baron was offering, that it was a trick, but it seemed much easier to just lay there and let the hand reach him.
Its touch was cool, a welcoming contrast to the hotness that had seared him for the past few moments, and he sighed in relief, waiting for the hand to reach him fully, to take him in to whatever future awaited him. There was a threshold, he knew, and he was more than willing to cross it, if his only other option was this pain. "Just say – "
The words broke off, the sudden silence hitting Florian like a pistol shot. He fell back against the wall, his head singing in pain, brilliant light suddenly breaking through those clouds as well. He was staring at the chandelier, he realized, and his eyes were on the baron, who had toppled down before him, a dinner-knife sticking out from his neck. The handle was emblazoned with triple birch trees, snaking their way over the hilt. A small glaze of honey had worked its way from the knife, down the baron's throat, and onto the floor beneath.
The pain slowly receded, and as Florian glanced down at his hands, he saw their normal color returning, felt the pain recede. He glanced across the body to see Nina standing before him, and it was all he could do not to break down. He searched for the right words, his voice nervous. "Nina – you – you stabbed him. Th-th..."
He could not quite get the thank you out, but she didn't seem to mind. Cradling him, she shook her head, remarking, "Don't say anything. Can you stand?" He had to hold onto her hand far more sharply than he would have liked, in order to drag himself to his feet and take a few tottering steps. Nevertheless, he was glad she was there. "We'll talk later," she said, her voice all business. "For now, we run."
Only later did Florian think to ask Nina if they could stop running. The sea threatened to swallow his voice entirely, though, and the crashing waves that dotted him with mist were more competition than he had wanted.
She heard him though, and smiled at him, drawing closer. Her hands went to the blanket that he had wrapped around himself, and her voice, firm, even and utterly sensible, seemed to try to ground him all by itself. "Run from the baron all you like, Florian, but you'll have to find out what he meant. You'll have to face that sometime. He's due to come after you, too, if he was telling you the truth. There's no way that you can keep running from that – especially if it's already within you."
You're one of us, the baron had said, and extended a hand towards him – to kill him, or to help him? Florian could not be sure anymore. He drew away from Nina, staring at the waves for a moment. "Whatever I am, Lords, I'm not him, Nina. I can't be like him."
Even though compassion was on her face, disagreement was in her eyes. "He wouldn't have told you that if it weren't the truth, Florian. Whatever you might be, whatever he might be," she finished, drawing close to him, "I'll love you anyway."
Strangely enough, he was now not so sure of that. He smiled wanly towards her, nodding briefly and hesitantly, a damaged hand moving to cling at the blanket. "Save your promises until we find out," he advised her. "I can't promise you anything until then, either."
That hurt her; she said nothing, but he knew it in the way that she turned away from him and faced the ocean wordlessly. He was about to apologize to her, leaning on the railing heavily, when the voice broke into his thoughts: I'm still here, Lisel. You can't run away so easily. The Twins would be disappointed in you, and I am as well.
Florian grew pale at that, trembling, and she noticed, placing a hand protectively on his shoulder. "Don't – don't touch me." He brushed her hand aside, his expression ashen and terrified, his jaw slack. He barely even noticed the stunned look on her face, or the hollowness of his own words: "We haven't finished, Nina. The trouble has only just started. It was too easy – we knew it, and so does the baron."
Even as they kept the blanket close, his hands had started to bruise again.