CHICANERY

Prologue


Somewhere, far away, in a land of snow and ice, where angels roam and demons rule.

The cold enveloped him, creeping under his cloak and erecting the hairs on his skin. Shivering, he shuffled from foot to foot, trying to generate heat. He had always hated the kiss of ice. But for her, he'd endure it.

A sort of crushing grief seized him when he looked into the misty distance. Buried behind the fog, behind a large extension of pure, white snow, stood a dismal, black rock of a building. Its edges were not cut smoothly nor were they soft curves. They were jagged edges of a rock and some stones were stripped from places. Erosion had made the building constructed of black rock look like a thousand year old ghastly artifact. Smog circulated it, revolving around it ominously.

His heart ached when he thought of her. Thought of how she had to spend three years in this very building – a place that was even more horrific inside than it was out. He couldn't be sure – he had never had the misfortune of being inside. But he had heard stories; stories of the kind of people that resided in Black Rock. The kind of criminals and convicts sent there. The crammed condition of the small cells they were forced to sleep in. The torture carried out on the prisoners. The ordered rape and sexual harassment.

Fury gripped him and he started to grind his foot against the ice harder. If anyone had touched her, had laid even one finger on her – he knew he would lose it. Being crushed by anger that had no direction was one of the most painful things one ever had to endure. And he, Rabka Crowken, knew he was in for a lot of undirected rage.

He peered out into the distance, pulling his black, wolf's fur cloak tighter around himself. Through the hazy, amorphous mist and the falling snow, he could decipher a silhouette of two figures walking towards him.

One was of a tall, well built man. With broad shoulders and impressive height, he was grabbing on to the elbow of the figure next to him. It was a hooded figure, one that seemed abnormally thin, with barely any flesh on its bones. It was hunched over and walking with heavy steps, as if it did not possess the energy for the walk ahead.

As they came closer, Rabka realized with a jolt that it was her.

Vita Sakerose.

There was no mistaking the glow of her golden hair. There was no mistaking the pure cream shade of her skin. No mistaking the protruding jaw lines and the curves of her lips.

She looked ahead and her eyes locked with his.

Guilt flashed across Vita's eyes but Rabka did not notice that and would not pay any heed to it until a heated argument with her in the near future.

There was no mistaking the moss green eyes.

He took one step forward, towards her. She stopped in her tracks.

And before he knew it, he was running towards her. Running with the whip of the wind lashing at him, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Running with a vigor he had never known himself to have. And before the cold could freeze his muscles, he grabbed Vita into his arms and crushed her against his chest.

He buried his face in her golden hair, which was course and matted, a deviation from her usual sweet smelling strands of three years ago. He hugged her tightly, his arms going all the way around her waist. She did not hug him back; she stayed a limp and awkward body in his arms. She was too thin – simply a bag of bones and embracing her left Rabka with a fear of breaking her.

It was at that moment that the soaring joy captivating his heart left him and was replaced by a growing concern for her condition.

She was wearing rags. Clothes that had blanched with age, torn at some places, patched up untidily in others. Her legs were bare and the skin only seemed to stretch over the bones – the absence of flesh left her with a striking resemblance to a decaying corpse. Her once beautiful creamy skin was tattooed with blue and black bruises and it was no longer soft as it had once been.

He pulled back to look at her face.

His heart broke when he saw the lifeless features before him. Apart from a growing twinkle in her eyes, her face seemed to be set in stone, holding a quality that suggested that her somber and dejected expression had not evolved in quite a while.

It was only when she hesitatingly lifted a rough hand to cup his cheek and stroke it with her thumb did Rabka realize that tears were streaming down his face. That the shuddering gasps of air were his.

He took her hand and kissed it before holding it against his heart. She flinched at the contact. He looked deep into the moss green eyes and whispered abjectly, "I love you."

Vita blinked and with that tiny movement, with the touch of those words on her ears, her entire face changed. As if the ground had shaken after an earth quake, reforming terrains of the land and redefining boundaries. Her face became softer and just a little bit livelier. But the dead settings of her features remained.

He was overcome by grief, by guilt, by remorse and by love. He leaned forward once again –

- But suddenly, there was a hand on his chest, shoving him back. Rabka looked up in anger and shock, to see the tall and broad man standing next to Vita giving him the darkest glare that had ever been cast his way. She on the other hand, seemed to be oddly glad that Rabka had been stopped from embracing her once again. Rabka ignored the stabbing pain in his heart. Instead, he looked questioningly at the intruder.

"I think there has been enough of that," the intruder said, in a thick, foreign accent. Rabka looked him up and down, his impressive built acid to his eyes. He had a chiseled face, with a strong jaw line and cheekbones and grey eyes, with flecks of silver. Locks of black hair tumbling past his ears and almost reaching his shoulders with a casual elegance framed his pale face. His black cloak had a collar of expensive grey wolf fur and was flaked by snow. Rabka also didn't miss the expensive Driscol's sword that he was carrying by his side.

He was not from around here, Rabka decided with a frown. No, he was much too cultured and refined for the rogue state of Terradon. He was probably from one of the richer states – Thembourg or Qorevia. His accent was unheard of and his face, with its majestic eyes and sharpness, had never been seen within the boundaries of the lost state.

"Who are you?" Rabka demanded angrily.

He chuckled sinisterly. She suddenly flashed Rabka a look of concern, viewing the laughing man on her side with caution. He took a step forward until he and Rabka were nose to nose, his grey eyes boring into Rabka's sea blue ones.

He smirked at him. "Gray."

Rabka's hand slipped down to his sword. "And what is your purpose here? You have escorted her out of Black Rock and to me. You are no longer required."

"Lady Sakerose committed quite a crime," he said, all laughter evaporating from his face and leaving behind a deadly glare. "She has to be under my constant supervision until I deem it fit to leave her on her own."

"What nonsense is this?" Rabka hissed, glowering at Gray.

Gray smirked once again, visibly tightening his hold on Vita's bony arm. "King's orders."

"Which King's orders are these? Everyone seems to be standing up and claiming to be King nowadays!" Rabka made to grab Vita, who seemed ready to collapse because of the cold. "I'm taking her and if you fight me, Sir Gray, I'll be more than happy to match your sword with –"

"Don't even dare," Gray hissed, his voice thick and deep with his foreign accent. His gray eyes were clear and deadly, staring into Rabka's sea blue ones. "Vita, for as long as I see fit, is mine. Isn't that so, my sweet?"

Rabka's eyes shifted to Vita, whose dead expression made his heart sink to the pits of his stomach. Without hesitating, she nodded.

"Gray is to accompany me for as long as he deems necessary."

Her voice was cracked and hoarse due to lack of use. But clarity and confidence rung in her voice and it seemed that she was glad to have this strange, foreign character leading her. While she flinched at Rabka's touch, she seemed to find Gray's hand comforting.

It broke Rabka's heart.

"Now that that's settled," Gray declared cheerfully, running a hand through his dark hair. "I've arranged for some horses to take us to your residence."

"She's coming back to my quarters," Rabka said, shooting a look at Vita, silently beseeching her for her approval.

"I don't think so," Gray grinned, flashing his unusually sharp teeth.

"She's not a prisoner anymore!" Rabka suddenly burst, his voice echoing across the vast emptiness. "She can do whatever she wants!"

Out of Rabka's field of vision, Vita cracked a sarcastic, miserable smiled. It almost mirrored Gray's, whose arrogance and sharp features left him with acrimonious feelings.

Gray began to walk forward with Vita trudging by on his side. He looked back over his shoulder at a heart broken Rabka and chuckled. "Once a prisoner, always a prisoner."


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