"I couldn't if I wanted to," she replied, and looked defiantly past the rifles now leveled at her chest.
The man with the lantern laughed. He stood just behind the armed men, and his jacket showed an ornate insignia. Pearl buttons and silk trim shone in the light as he stepped past his team and crouched in front of her. "And why is that, my sweet?" His tone dripped honey but he prowled like a coyote in the darkness.
Lea looked away from his predatory gaze. "I think I twisted my ankle."
"Oh, you've done more than that," the leader said, and took a firm hold of her jaw. He maneuvered her head to examine her injuries. Lea could feel the blood matting her hair from the gash in her scalp, but she pulled away from his false concern; the nearest peacekeeper nudged her with the rifle and she froze.
"Leave it," the man whispered over his shoulder. "Well, sweets," he said, swiveling his attention back to her, "you've done quite a number on yourself here. It begs the question why you'd come up to such a dangerous place at this hour."
A part of her wanted to remain difficult, to spit in his face or refuse to talk. But her mother's voice whispered in her mind, 'There's a place and time for boldness, Leanda, but sometimes you need to be smart first and bold after.' No, resistance wasn't the right move here. Lea had a duty to her father; she couldn't let the elder Theodor go on wondering what became of his children. She couldn't let this cursed occupation claim her too. Not for sheer stupidity, at least.
"I...I came to find my brother." Lea told him the whole story, then. How she invited a friend over for a shoulder to cry on, then snuck out of the house while Aurela was sleeping. She told him her intuition where to look, and then about slipping on the rock when she heard the patrol coming. "All I... all I wanted was closure."
She didn't dare meet the leader's eyes should he see through her half-truths. Her tears were real, called up from suppressed depths of emotion she hadn't tapped since Theo first disappeared. For his part, the man and his lackeys stood quiet for a long moment; the two peacekeepers lowered their rifles and stood back as she sat crying in the dirt.
"Still, " he eventually continued, a feral grin slipping back onto his face as he shook off his disgust, "Sneaking about, middle of the night like this... I can't leave that unpunished."
"I understand," she whispered, and dared to meet his eyes.
His grin remained, and in the lantern light his shadowed face hid his true thoughts. But Lea saw an unnameable change in his demeanor then, a flicker of something new. "What's your name, sweets?"
She nearly gaped at him before she caught herself. "Lea."
"Just Lea? Such a small name...?"
"No, I'm... It's Leanda. Peri."
"Leanda Peri, then." He held out a hand and helped her to her feet; Lea wobbled on her bad ankle but he pulled her close and stood her upright. "Come along, Leanda. The night is almost over and we have places to be at sunrise." The two peacekeepers flanked them, while he remained at her side with a firm grip on her arm. "Now. Lead the way home."
The patrolmen set a grueling pace toward the road. Lea was grateful for the peacekeepers' laziness, then, since the road was a far easier route than she had taken. She could walk at a brisk hobble, but soon her ankle burned with a constant fire and she felt a vise-grip on her skull.
The march continued as fog rolled in with the approaching dawn, blanketing the slopes in mist. Lea knew the ridge was close but she couldn't see it. Her sight was limited to a few steps in front of her feet and the coolly composed man on her right, strolling as if this march was the most natural thing in the world.
She smelled the village before she saw it. Woodsmoke wafted toward her, bringing the soft scents of morning meals to her nose. Lea felt an upwelling of emotion at the reassuring smell, a promise that home and an end to this nightmare was very near.
But a touch of dread quelled her relief. She was nearly at her cabin after hours of arduous travel, but was this painful march her only punishment? Lea eyed the man at her side. His uniform told a tale of dozens of battlefields and his youthful face proudly declared his rapid rise through the ranks. It was plain he knew how to make shrewd decisions, and she didn't figure him as one to bestow quiet mercies.
They marched straight up to the village square and her stomach sank when the leader stopped her and whispered a brusque command to the two peacekeepers to knock on all the doors. As the two of them stood alone in the square, his hand clamped on her arm and breath hot in her ear, he murmured, "I never introduced myself, did I? Sergeant Riker Bosch, but you can call me Riker, sweets. I want you to know this is not personal."
Lea studied the surrounding cabins with feigned interest as the ridgegoers woke to the sound of peacekeepers pounding on their doors. A crowd began to assemble. "What?"
"This could have gone much easier for you, but an example must be made. If it was up to me we would have returned in the night and this could have been our little secret. But," and she heard the smile in his voice even with her eyes looking anywhere but his direction, "it seems that was not meant to be. I just want you to know I have a great deal of respect for you. In spite of what follows."
Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes again; Lea blamed the blow to the head and told herself to stand tall. But she couldn't deny the ice pounding in her veins at his words. She knew the punishment for her actions. Dread buzzed in her head as the last few people filed into the square. Her eyes found Davan leaning heavily on Aurela in the back and his face bore a pained apology; Lea looked away first.
She stared past the crowd, at the trees and the morning sky. A falcon drifted above the ridge, circling the little clearing, oblivious to her problems. She traced its path across the sky. The sergeant's voice droned in her ear as he told the villagers her crime and the peacekeepers dropped her to her knees and stripped away her coat and shirt. She knelt naked in front of her neighbors as one reluctantly presented the enforcers' cat. Riker inspected the whip and handed it to one of his underlings, stepping aside to watch the proceedings.
"Twenty strokes, if you would," he instructed, and the first blow fell.
Lea set her jaw against the pain but focused on the falcon as the cat struck again and again. Five, six. Each stroke burned more than the last but she shuddered through the sting and kept her mind on the sky. Nine, ten. Clouds drifted into her vision and the falcon flickered in and out of view. At long last, it folded its wings and dove after its prey, vanishing from sight. Sixteen, seventeen. Lea closed her eyes and bit back her cries as the whip struck the last three times and the peacekeeper stepped away.
The sergeant unceremoniously threw her clothes back to her and Lea clutched them to her chest. With the two peacekeepers close at her heels, he marched her the rest of the way to her cabin and left her at the gate.
"No more roaming about now, sweets," Riker chided with a grim smile, and the patrol strolled back up the ridge as she bit back a sob and collapsed on the front steps.
Aurela found her there a little while later, tended her wounds, and helped her into bed. Lea lay on her belly, and stared at the wall until the ache and weariness drove her to fitful sleep.