A/N: Extra work hours, a work training, a move, house painting, and a writing conference later, the next chapter appears! So much for having more time to write in the summer… That writing conference super inspired me, though, to get my butt back in this chair and finish this thing! Shout-out to Brea Vinagh, who I hung out with at RWA 2016!

This chapter is quite long (fair warning), has a lot of plot hints and developments, and alternates regularly between Rome's and Bre's perspectives. As you may recall, Bre has been dragged away by the temple, and Rome has been poisoned, so, be forewarned that their psychological and physical states are having a definite impact! Also, Rome is in a general state of upset, so he's more prone to cussing in this chapter.

And to my new readers that I picked up, Welcome! :)

Let's get this party started!

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Disclaimer: Please remember that this story is not meant to reflect upon or point fingers at any religions or religious practices in real life. I (the author) do not claim to condone any practices herein. This is fiction, and should always be interpreted as speculative fiction.


Glossary:

cha: title for a commoner

ezekel berries

ha'second: half-second (archaic)

magister: one of the head priests over the temple; implies they are a high-ranking master wielder of Power

master/mistress (temple): a priest or priestess who has demonstrated mastery of skills within a particular division of the temple

sarobi: a man's shirt (usually refers to a long-sleeved V-neck style variation, especially formalwear)

second (temple): a member of the temple recruited by and apprenticed to solely one master as their potential successor; functions as a second-in-command; seen as a prodigy who might one day rival or replace their master

yea: yes (archaic)


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Chapter 20
Prodigal

Into the Temple: Part I

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The journey after I lost consciousness I know only as a jumble of images. Echoes of someone being called backward as bruising grips carried me forward. The sharp bite of cold on my limbs as my ribcage slapped into the strong scent of leather and horse sweat. My lashes batting away snowflakes, only to blot out my blurry vision with an opaque shield of white, sealing me in with the snowy ground like a warm unnatural cocoon.

The sudden halt of rocking bodies and crunching hooves, the ground still quaking mysteriously beneath their feet as the horses danced in place.

Arguing.

"It is coming from—"

"…Must return—"

"…Maiden….left behind…"

"…No time…"

The next time I phased awake, we were plunging full-speed at an imposing gray structure, a square hole of darkness sprawling open just in time for an impact that never came.

The sound of hooves skidding on cobblestones, metal shoes sparking in the dark. Instructions shouted over my back. Warmth disappeared from my side, and then I was down, crumbling to a heap on stone and hay. I was dragged by my bound hands, a dim blur that could have been stairs flickering in the torchlight ahead, and then I felt every single one of them. Through the door, and the relief of cold, worn stone soothed over my new bruises.

Through my haze the arches, though sideways, began to look familiar.

The temple.

I struggled, throwing my useless weight to the side, trying to drag off-course.

"Stop wrigglin', little fish!" one of the two girls dragging me grunted.

"She'sa wakin' up!" the other called back over me.

Boots thunked over from behind me, shucking wet slops of what was probably dirty snow. "Then move faster. Unless one of you has a newfound ability you would like to demonstrate?"

I could feel their shoulders hunch as if they were my own, so instinctive was the gesture. "No, Your Venerance."

"Then git!"

The girls launched back into motion, dragging with all their strength.

"Whuh did 'e mean by tha'?" one whispered to the other as soon as the bootfalls stalked down a different corridor.

I could tell her. The priest's "stab in the dark" about abilities was really about me. It was about the narrow margin of the population, the possibility so rare that it was generally ignored. The anomaly that unsettled the whole system:

A commoner with Power.

But there was no telling how they'd react to the idea of one of their own having Power. They'd probably think I was lying. And if they didn't, I'd be as anathema to them as I was to the maidens and the priests.

Still, it might be my best chance… "You know why he asked that, don't you?"

"Shhh!" the other girl hissed back, nervously glancing about. All along the main walkway, white skirts were pausing to stare at the scantily clad criminal being dragged down the thoroughfare—servants who knew better than to question, but knew where I was headed all the same.

It was their worst nightmare to be the dirty, ragged girl dragged in from the outside, dragged through the halls, her future uncertain and bleak due to some blunder of her own.

It was their worst nightmare to be me.

There was no way to keep your dignity when you got dragged for everyone to see. No posture to keep, no defiance to show. There was just you, the dirt, and your destination…and all the judging stares that followed you to a prison of your own making.

But even if they had somehow overheard what happened at Lord Alonza's mansion, and what happened in the village a couple months ago, none of them could have guessed why I was actually being dragged in here. Sure, they probably recognized me as the girl who suddenly disappeared: The Runaway. And they probably also remembered me as the immoral girl who got the skin flayed from her back for being caught red-handed meeting a boy.

They could never fathom how far that alleged immorality had gone in me. That I had served in an institution other than the temple—a sin against my vow. That I had fraternized with nobility, trained under a prostitute, pranced about in undergarments, lived unmarried under the roofs of two different men, pleasured a killer of men and received his pleasure in turn.

If the priests suspected half of what I had done, I would not live out the night.

That was if they hadn't been warned by a certain priestly witness that I had all but bedded a priest-acclaimed beast. That one alone would do me in for sure.

There was not much to do about it except lay and be drug like a sack of potatoes, staring up at the arched buttresses that had imprinted themselves into my childhood memory as if they were the supports holding up all of my memories, the walls keeping all of them inside. The stained glass of the highest windows as we passed through the open spaces looked so far away, their colors so far removed as to be figments of the imagination, hope out of reach. I remembered pausing to watch the sun set through those colors, wondering what it would look like from the outside.

I had certainly found out. It had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, chased by shadows in the dark, saved by a shadow of a different caliber than the rest—the night Rome and I met again for the first time.

Rome was still a growling menace; that much had not changed. But I could read him better now. Not perfectly, but well enough to wonder if I hadn't mistaken the camouflaged concern in his glowing eyes for malice and coldness.

Not for the first time, I wondered what might have happened if I hadn't gone with him. If I hadn't stayed with him. If I had returned to the temple of my own accord.

It all seemed so stupid now, now that I was again within these impregnable walls. I should have been able to find a way back into the temple. Should have gone to a temple contact, someone I knew from my errands. Someone who could get a message back within. You didn't just leave the temple. You didn't just leave a vow.

But there were things that made me not sorry. Things I wouldn't take back, even if everything were taken from me. Unearthly golden suns upon which the universe now rose and fell. Thrills dancing on the tips of ten double-edged knifepoints.

Not for the first time, I wondered what might have happened if I had stayed with him in the forest as a child, and never gone back to the temple. Could it have been different for us? Or was it always destined to end like this: him a beast, and I a sacrilegious offender in chains?

The arches—great stone branches, as Rome would have called them—wove together again, blocking out the light. I stared after the courtyard, watching it slip further and further beyond the toes of my dragging feet. Watching the natural rays of daylight slip out of my life for the last time.

I craned my neck backward, toward a set of looming doors carved in runes. Above them, on the likeness of a scroll carved from stone, scrawled words no one could read but every servant knew: "Wickedness enters, that the righteous may return."

The doors of the Correction Wing heaved silently open, birthing darkness between which and me only a lone figure stood: The priest whom Rome almost killed.

My eyes dropped away from his reproachful satisfaction.

Boney fingers clamped in a cage about my chin, cricking it up until avoiding his eyes meant closing mine. His whiskery voice scratched premonitions over the shells of my ears. "Welcome back."

"It is my honor to serve," I whispered automatically.

"Is it?" He wrenched his stiffened knuckles free of their clasp. "We shall certainly find out."

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I ran toward Bre's cry, but the hallway was endless. The horribly squishy turquoise carpet gave under my feet, slowing me down. And then suddenly I lurched to a stop in front of the door, feeling queasy as the world twisted around me like vapors. I tried to kick it open, but the door was made of glass. It shattered around me, stabbing icicles into my organs, wedging into my spine. Wind cycloned from the open-and-glass patchworked ceiling, funneling the darkness beyond down into the wretchedly stunning array of roses that stretched from one end of the atrium to the other.

"Lord Rome." Alonza's voice was nonexistent and close, like a breath in my ear, yet belonging to a form with his back to me. The dark coat standing in the middle of the room turned, turquoise eyes glittering triumph between his lapels and the dark fringe hanging just over his brows. A possessive, knowing smile curved up the cheek that was facing me.

And then he turned fully, and I saw that he held Bre in his arms. Hand caressing the far side of her face, which was forced upward toward him, his arm braced across her breasts, pressing them in. His other arm trapped her waist back against him, hand nestling right over her tantalizing wisps of curl.

I raced across the atrium, but the rose vines between us were thick and gnarled. They pushed against me, writhing and twisting around my ankles, sinking me to my calves in thorn and briar. The flowers drank in drops of my blood and spiraled bigger, soft and stinging against my cuts, pillowing and buffering my route. I tore through them, but the shredded petals only multiplied, noxious perfume bowing me nose-first to the petals.

By some miracle I stumbled into Alonza's proximity. I barreled into him, hacking at him. But he was already sticky and hot, sprayed with red above his smirk. Red slimed down his chest, down to a heap of marred soft flesh and soft curls dappling red over the turquoise blossoms at his feet.

No. Not one heap. Several. Scored with deep lashes that oozed red over bone and over deeper red.

From my shredded heart, my entire being erupted in an all-consuming agonic fury.

I tore him apart.

I tore the parts of him apart.

I shredded him until there was nothing but blood left. And I kept shredding, my claws gouging into the bark beneath as the red spread, in ripple after rippling wave, soaking into the briars and dying the petals red from their receptacles.

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"What in the seven winds—"

Bang. Bam.

"Violent winds, he's worse than she was!"

"There! In his shoe!"

"As if I can get near—"

"You have to! He'll die!"

"I hope you know what you're doing…"

"…boil a kettle…"

"—in the hearth…"

Cursing.

"…not much time—!"

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The holes in the glass roof opened up, pouring darkness down as the red beneath me darkened into black. And then I was standing, watching her get dragged away into that towering gray abomination that stole her from me.

My mind was a mess, my skull crushing down on fragmented pieces. I was in a headlock with the silver girl, though she held me with nothing but her forehead touched to mine. Icy sweat ran into my hairline, my teeth gritting with the effort. She smiled at me, like everything was right in the world, like my head wasn't about to cave in. I lifted my knees, but the snow had my feet trapped, bearing down like a boulder on my boots.

"You want to know what you've done by keeping her? Let me show you what you've done."

An icepick of images split into my head, chiseling away at my memories and warping them into images of Bre stripped and bleeding, her back to me, so I could witness every groove nick itself on her slender form, slicing through skin and separating muscle, laying her open until she doubled over.

"Tch, tch, tch, so selfish. So naughty. You might as well have done it yourself. —Oh wait!" She paused. "You did, didn't you?"

I heard a stifled cry of anguish. The timbre was my own.

"Oh come now, we both know you're thinking it. How you want her laid low, abased before you. Where she belongs. On hands and knees. I know it excites you. I know her blood excites you. Why don't you take a bite, my lord?"

I smelled the coppery iron of Bre's blood, tasted the herbal spice that was only hers beneath the salty feminine musk of her skin. Her blood tickled my fangs, trickling down the corners of my mouth. I gathered her feeble body heat against me, squeezing her, needing her closer, dipping into her blood, into her essence, stealing from her light, from her life…

She was too soft, limp. Disjointed and broken.

I had broken her. Oh God, I'd broken her…

A feral scream shattered my ears, hoarsened my throat. There was no more air.

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"Do something, Woman! He's bleeding from his eyes!"

"—hold him?!—can't get near—!"

"Winds, Woman—"

"—not breathing—seizing—!"

"Shit, give me that!"

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Day One. I think. I don't know how you could be sure in this place. I consider Day One a mark of hubris—first hubris.

That's what I'll call it: First Hubris.

It's always like that when you first go in. The Correction Wing is perpetually dark. After you go in, you lose all sense of time and space. You know there are four walls about you, but you also know you're in a maze. The four walls confine you. But beyond them lies a labyrinth of blocky twists and turns. No dead ends, but no directions either. Just walls that glow eerily for the Power-inclined. Servants like me needed torches to find our way out. And, this deep in, a guide.

I'd never been in this deep before. A person could die hanging from these chains, and no one would even know where to look. This deep in, in the darkness, people ceased to exist. There were only shadows and stone.

And the wooden horse in the corner.

It was in the corner of my mind like it was in the corner of the room. Simple, unassuming. Waiting to hold me up as my body wept toward the ground.

The bolt shot out of the lock from the outside—the first noise in hours, days. I had never been so glad to hear footsteps as when the visitor sifted into the tiny room. Mild warmth preceded her, like a cold sun casting brighter white shadows over the skirt of her robe.

Brown hem, with lines of interspersed gold. Master of Balance and Ration, Revenues Class.

"So this is the Runaway, then?"

"Yes."

"She does not match the description."

"Then the description was in err?"

"No." She sounded pensive. "I think not."

"There is only one Maiden missing. The other is a servant."

"Yes…"

"Which have we caught, then?" Her Second sounded perplexed. "Maiden or servant?"

I watched the brown and gold hem sashay to the corner of my vision, followed the light tap of footsteps circling behind me. Back around front…my chin was snatched upward in a stern grip.

"You can always tell by the eyes. See how they never lift?"

"But, Mistress of Scrolls!" Her Second sounded alarmed. "The reports said—"

"I know what they said. I heard them myself."

"Then, if this is not her—"

"The rumors have blended together. The Maiden is still at large." She turned to go. "Inform the Council of Extraneous Affairs." The light bobbed away.

"And the correction parameters?"

"Leave that to the Ministers of Justice. Your only concern is the re-acquisition of an asset."

"Will she still be an asset, Mistress of Scrolls?" My life hung in the hesitance strung between his words.

The light paused. "Will she, indeed."

The door swung shut on the world, leaving me in lightless silence.

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The moment my consciousness breached the surface of the bog of sludge in my mind, I bolted upright…and growled, bemoaning my head. Seven hells, was this what it was supposed to feel like to be hung over?! I rubbed at the suction sealing my eyelids shut. Sandpaper, that's what the insides of them were. Chafing off the surfaces of my eyes. I managed to pop one open, and got an eyeful of white in the nocturnal retina. My curses sounded more like degenerative snarls.

A meaty hand clapped me on the shoulder, nearly doubling me back. "Whoa! Not so fast! You've been almost-dead for a full day."

"Gian?" my throat gritted out. "The hells did you pour in my eye?"

"That would be your own blood."

I turned toward the voice, blinking the one eye furiously. "The hell did you pour blood in my eye for?"

His guffaw sounded slightly relieved. "Be glad the girl you brought didn't pour that tea of hers in your eye. You should have seen her aim; you'd be picking dregs out of your nose for days."

"Tea?" I coughed. "Don't be absurd. The only one who serves me tea is—" Bre. I launched out of bed.

"Nope." A giant tree branch of an arm smacked into my chest and catapulted me flat onto my back.

I growled at Gian, squinting through one eye. I could barely make out his shape. And that wasn't the only hazy thing about him. I couldn't make out his smell, either.

Fuck, I couldn't smell?! "What did you do to me?!"

"Sat on you and let the cha pour hot tea down your throat."

Well, that explained the raspiness. And the chest pain.

Gian eyed me critically. "What did you do to you?"

I grunted, trying to pry open my other eye without scraping a layer off my iris. "Move. I have to get Bre."

"You mean, get her from the religious fortress on the far edge of town? And I suppose you plan to just walk up and kick the door down?"

"Something like that."

He rose from his wooden chair with a sigh. I had no idea how that thing held him without him toppling off; it was a third of his size, and he wasn't exactly limber. He gestured to the edge of the bed with one upturned palm. "You're welcome to try. If you change your mind, I'll be in the kitchen."

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Second Hubris: Verification of Inquiry.

Recorded and processed, I lingered in the darkness, wondering which number I was on some scroll in the Office of Balance and Ration, and whether I was a very useful asset to begin with, until the sound of the bolt clacked in the silence. Light drifted in, with a somewhat hazy quality to it.

Pearly white hem. Master of Justice and Judgment.

"This is the ward, yes?" There was a decidedly haughty sniff. "I see little cause for question; immorality is written all over this one. Shall we veto the inquiry, Master Justice?"

The pearly hem ruffled forward, in one small loop, and then another. "Are you, or have you ever been, a ward of this temple, Girl?" The grandfatherly quality of his voice was startling.

Words surprised my parched throat. "Y-Yes, Your Venerance."

"Have you made an oath to this temple, Ward?"

"Yes."

"What is your oath, Child?"

"To serve the goddess only," I recited, scarcely needing to call the words to memory before they spilled from my lips. "To labor in her temple as unto the goddess. To act according to her ways, to adhere to the laws of Foundation, and to regard all life as sacred. To be loyal above all else, and to serve unconditionally."

"And do you take this oath seriously," he said sharply, "in all somberness and sobriety?"

"Yes." The response was unquestioned. Not even a flicker of doubt in my mind.

"You are charged as an oath-breaker. Do you understand what this means?"

I bowed my head. "Yes, Your Venerance." My voice was barely a whisper.

"Ward of the Temple," the justice addressed me formally. "Did you, or did you not, leave this temple without permission?"

My mind flashed back, too far. To a night of tears and lashes. To my last-ever memory of a human Rome. "Yes." I squeezed my eyes shut. "I mean no."

"Which is it?" barked the sniffler behind.

"Silence, Tertius. Do not interfere."

Calling a subordinate by name…This wasn't just a Master of Sentence addressing me. This was a magister. I could feel my odds of survival dwindling to almost zero.

"Ward. Did you or did you not leave this temple with no intention of return?"

"No." The single word was out of my mouth before I could even consider the ramifications.

But I felt them shortly, when a very un-grandfatherly hand forced up the underside of my chin. "Look me in the eyes."

My eyes startled up at the command, into crystal blue. The color of the bells in the tower that chimed with the morning ritual. Like sky blown into shape. Their twins stared back at me from slightly sunken sockets in a wrinkled face, between wiry white brows and half-moon smudges from days of responsibility and long nights of scrying. Intelligent, disciplined eyes in a face old enough that Power could no longer hold the lines at bay.

"You will tell me the truth, and I will know it."

I believed him. More than I wanted to.

"Did you run away from this temple?"

I weighed my answer. If I said no, they would want to know why I didn't return.

The orb floating next to him flared brighter white. I winced. "Answer."

My mouth opened a second, closed.

His blunt nails dug into my jaw. "Truth, Ward."

"No," I whispered finally, gaze trying to escape but failing. "I didn't run away."

The magister stared at me, his Power of perception nailing me in place. Then he said slowly, "She speaks truth."

"By her own standards, perhaps," the other chimed in. "Which appear tragically low."

The magister's gaze flickered over my attire, as if seeing it for the first time. "In whose care have you been?"

I lowered my eyes and clamped my mouth shut. No amount of jaw-cracking, shaking, or threatening tone would make me do otherwise. I knew what happened to anyone who helped a runaway—alleged or verified. I remembered the children and parents lined up in front of that hut, to be dragged off to punishment. Co-conspirators were traitors. Traitors were executed.

"She was found with the nobles," the sniveler supplied. "Reputed to be in one of their possession."

The magister studied me. "You are protecting him—this noble who housed you."

"And he has, what? Prostituted you out?"

My gaze snapped to the man behind, horrified. "He would never—"

The man baulked, and pointed at me. "She locked eyes with me!" he said, outraged. "This prostitute!"

"There are two versions of truth here, Ward." My gaze slunk back over to eye the magister uncertainly. "Either you ran away, and are responsible for your actions, including the insinuations of your recent company and your state of dress. Or, one of the noble class has overstepped his boundaries and stolen from the Temple, and is therefore accountable. Which truth is yours?"

No. No, those couldn't be my only options. "Lord Alonza," I offered hesitantly, on the slim chance it might work. "Lord Alonza tried to claim me."

"Convenient," sniped the other from behind.

"Tried," the magister said, eyeing me pensively, "but did not succeed."

I didn't respond.

"Tell me," he said, tone almost kind, but eyes decidedly not. "Did you have a hand in Lord Alonza's death?"

"No!" I gasped…and then fumbled. Remembering Lord Alonza atop me one second, and then pinned to the wall of his bedroom the next. Rome's hand inside him. Remembering what Rome said he had done to him. Remembering why he had done it. "Goddess, I hope not," I whispered, suddenly less sure.

"You saw something," the magister confirmed.

I raised haunted eyes to his, then looked quickly away.

"Who was it, Ward? Who took the life of Lord Alonza?"

I glanced at him, morality warring in my soul.

"Absolve yourself of guilt," he encouraged. "Let go of your sinful burdens, so that they might be purged. So that you might emerge righteous."

Sins?

Yes, I had sinned. I had made many faulty and misguided choices, and many outright against my better judgment. And Rome was certainly not without his own sins. Forceful and often unkind, he stalked men like prey, and he took life without remorse, and with little reserve.

But although I had no doubt murdering Lord Alonza like that was a sin, turning over Rome was another matter. I cared deeply for Rome. And, despite all that had happened, I was relatively sure that Rome cared for me. He was dangerous, and unstable half the time, but I didn't see him murdering people for fun. I saw his humorless smiles, the shadow in his eyes. I heard him call himself a beast, and dare me to call him anything different. The way he looked at his claws, surprised they could be used for pleasure, diligent in trying it out. Starting to question. Starting to crack open his heart.

Did I really want him to share in my fate?

Could I really live with myself if he did, knowing I could have prevented it, could have kept him out of it?

Did I really want him purged—of his wildness? Of me?

My heart clenched shut. "I won't give him to you," I whispered.

The magister looked a little taken aback. He studied me a second longer, and nodded, releasing me. "Let it be known that the Accused assumes responsibility for all charges leveled against her," he said, turning. "Instruct the healer to check for signs of immorality before commencing with correction—the healer familiar with her prior to the incidents at hand. Full notes are to be disclosed to me. If they match the correction patterns of techniques passed down by a noble House, I want to know about it."

"Of course, Your Justice. All will be done as you command."

"And Tertius."

"Yes, Your Justice?"

"Inform the Council and Revenue we have a Traitor of the Blood. Countermeasures to be effective immediately."

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I made it off the edge of the bed before my knees buckled. My legs wouldn't hold up on their own; and when they did, my knocking knees sent my claws gouging into the wood of the door frame. Damn human tricked me!

I hobbled down the hallway, sprawled grip scratching the wall in an effort to brace myself—A crutch I abandoned before the hallway opened up and spit me out into plain view of a square wooden table and chairs. My gaze skimmed past Gian's form hulking over the counter, to the door—unblocked, and only a few strides away. I planted one stiffened leg in front of the other. I reached for the handle.

"You're even worse than she is."

My neck snapped back around.

Gian's back was still to me. "Heading out that door as soon as you get here, no thought to your own well-being." He sighed, hefting a large iron kettle as he headed toward the table. "Worse with the dreams, too. She never told me that."

"She…?" She, as in Bre? My Bre?

"What a pair you make. Both dying to find the other. Like it's what the other would want."

"I have to retrieve her. You cannot stop me."

"I don't have to. Your own body is apt to do that." He poured lightly-tinted liquid into a handleless mug on the table. "Sit. Afore you fall."

I didn't have time for this. I had to go.

But my body felt at odds with itself. Like the joints weren't put back together right. I wasn't sure how far I would make it, in this state.

I took a few unsteady steps back and thunked down into a chair, sullen and bitter.

Gian pushed a steaming mug over to me. "Drink."

I stared at him, huddled over his mug. "I am not helpless."

"Didn't say you were."

I lifted the nearest mug, ignored the clay imprint burning into my hand. Cringed at the taste, and clapped it down onto the table. "We are wasting time."

"Are we now?" Gian's look gave me pause. "Have you any notion what the last day and a half with you has been like? You owe that girl your life."

"I didn't ask her to save me," I baulked. "I didn't need saving."

Spring green peered into me under lowered dark boughs. "You were screaming and seizing in your sleep. You stopped breathing twice."

Unease sloshed with the bitter, slimy tea in my stomach.

"The antidote was in your boot. You had it, and you didn't take it?"

My brows kept trying to knot. I refused to let them. "It smelled like poison."

"Of course it did." He stared at me incredulously. "It's the antidote."

"I did not trust the supplier," I snarled defensively.

"You should be dead right now," said Gian flatly, point-blank. "Then what would happen to Labriella?"

Every answer I could think of ended in Bre trapped and mutilated, if not dead. Shit. I looked away.

"Are you going to tell me what we're up against?"

I glanced back sharply. "We?"

Gian looked bemused. "You thought you were going to storm the temple by yourself?"

"You thought I would leave it to someone else?" I shot back, hearing the bite in my tone.

Gian shook his head ruefully. "Hardly."

"It's suicide!"

My head swung in the direction of the newcomer, all blonde frizzy hair falling into hazel eyes. She looked positively wild.

"That place is a castle! And that grey girl almost defeated you without even touching you!" She shuddered. "Wasn't a midnight blade enough?!"

"Midnight blade?" Gian's tone jumped with alarm.

"Yeah, he got hisself cut—"

"Healed," I pronounced. I didn't like where this was going.

"And then he got hisself stabbed—"

"Healed."

"And then he almost brought down the whole house—"

"That was not my doing."

"It was! All the nobles know it—the ones who survived, anyway…"

"Shut it!" I said, slamming a hand onto the table. My mug and the Wheat Girl both jumped. "Aren't you supposed to be a servant of some kind? What's with that damn tongue of yours?"

Her mouth snapped shut. Finally.

"What's this about dead nobles?"

"He killed—"

I gave her a hard look. She stepped back.

"Do I want to know?"

I turned slowly back to the table, stared into the dark liquid within, into the inky blackness of my rage. My throat thickened. "He tried to take her by force."

Gian sucked in a breath. "Who?"

"Hells-damned turquoise mongrel who tried to take her at the inn in the first place. When she begged me to claim her…You remember." He was there.

"And you killed him?"

My eyes snapped up to his. I felt my fang poking into my lip, too long. "Oh, I did much more than that."

Gian rocked back in his chair, aghast. "You can't just go killing nobles!"

"You didn't see him over her," I recounted darkly. "Carving into her with a blade while she called for you to save her."

Gian looked stricken. Angry.

"Tell me you wouldn't gut him yourself."

"Why would a man do something like that?"

"Because he was humiliated." The frozen Wheat Girl finally recovered from my account. "At his own party."

"You goaded him," Gian accused.

"He goaded me! Made out with my bitch in front of me! Fucking hands everywhere…"

"I think she made it pretty clear who she wanted," the Wheat Girl commented quietly.

Images of Bre's hands and mouth on me flooded my vision. I lost my tongue.

"Lord Rome?"

I cleared my throat. "Take the Wheat Girl. I will go after Bre."

"You think you're Powerful enough to take on the temple?"

My eyes narrowed on the Wheat Girl. She'd told him—what I'd done with Power, in our suite.

She threw up her hands in panic. "I didn't say anything! Honest!"

"She didn't have to."

My gaze revolved slowly back to Gian.

"Even if I hadn't overheard Labriella scolding you in the inn about using Power all those months ago, I have more than a few bruises from the miniature tornado in your room last night. Last time I checked, drawers don't fly out of a dresser by themselves."

I eyed him warily—my business partner, my ally second only to Bre—remembering how quickly the nobles turned on me only a few conscious hours prior. Remembering how quickly judgment and trial decorum had degenerated into self-preservative bloodlust.

"You know that temple would let you walk in with open arms, if you professed to join? You needn't break down the doors."

My upper lip curled. "It would be my great pleasure to tear that building down stone by stone."

Gian twiddled his thumbs over his mug's rim. "And you think that is what Labriella wishes? I have a hard time believing she'd let you just waltz in—"

"She is not a guest there, Gian. She is a prisoner."

"It's her home, Lord Rome. She values it just the same."

I gritted my teeth, feeling the sharp points chip. "I will not let her be flogged for me again!"

The room fell quiet.

"Again?"

I stared at my palm. Remembering Alonza's whip in my hand. Remembering the damage I wrought over the old with my own hand. This hand that I felt so estranged from. I ought to cut it off…

"Lord Rome."

My gaze lifted at Gian's stern tone. His expression was concerned.

"Ohhh," the Wheat Girl breathed out. She paced cautiously over to me. "I wondered. We all did. About how you could turn so quickly, like the rest of them. But you didn't, did you." Her gaze drifted up from my open palm to find my eyes. "You did it to keep her, didn't you. You whipped her because you care about her."

"What." For a moment, there was a dark cloud beside me. Then Gian nailed me to the chair. "You did what?"

I just sat looking up at him. Didn't even try to fight the grip suddenly at my throat, no matter the snarling of my instincts and the crackling of my blood. Because he wasn't cutting off my air yet. And because I knew I had done the unspeakable.

"Stop! Don't!" The Wheat Girl was pulling at his arm with all her strength, but it was useless. "He didn't mean it! He couldn't have! Not after what he did the night afore last!"

"Silence," I hissed. Stupid, stupid girl.

"She was mad, but she wouldn't want you to die! She gave herself up so they wouldn't catch you!"

"What did he do?" Gian's voice was guttural with calm.

"Don't—"

"He…He kissed her special place." The Wheat Girl's tone had gone quiet, meek, but it filled the place, laced the tension between us. "Nobody does that. Not to a servant. Not anyone. Never a noble."

I closed my eyes. Damnit, Wheat Girl. Foolish, oblivious girl. Telling him I did that to Bre, when he obviously still cared for her, more purely than I could ever hope to. Even I wouldn't go that far—even with his hand around my neck. He was justified in this, at least. Bre had been his once. Neither of us could forget.

"Is this true?" He was down to a gruff whisper.

I cracked my lids open just enough to glare sidelong at the Wheat Girl. "You had no right to tell him."

She cringed, but looked confused. "But it's no secret you're together. After the way you kissed and touched each other in front of everyone…"

"Stop. Talking." The look I shot wilted her, and backed her into the hallway.

"Yes, milord," she whispered.

Gian's grip loosened. His hand wavered. He tramped past her without a word.

Shit.

I dropped a fist on the table, bowing my face to the foul steam. Shit.

I shouldn't care this much. He was just a human. Just a business partner. He was my rival, dammit! I'd lost Bre to him once already.

Yet for some obscure reason, I actually cared what he thought. Cared what happened to him. Like whatever affected him would somehow affect me.

But that was just business-thinking, right? If he stopped buying pelts, I would stop selling them; I would stop storing up pelts altogether.

…I didn't need the money. I could live off the land.

Damn, why did this bother me so much?

"I—I didn't mean to make things worse."

"I know not to what you refer," I murmured, rippling breath into the dark pool in my mug.

"You're upset that he left."

"He didn't leave," I snorted. "He's just down the hallway."

"But he walked away."

I felt my shoulders hunching. I forced them back.

"You don't like it when people walk away, do you."

"Mind your own business," I growled, hackles prickling. I didn't like being read. I liked how close she was to the truth even less.

"What do we do now?"

"There is no 'we.' There is you, and there is me. Do whatever the hell you want. Just keep your mouth shut to Gian about Bre."

The soft pit-pat of bare feet on wood… One of the chairs scuffed out over the floor. She plopped down. "I want to sit with you."

I got a funny feeling in my chest. Like it was happy she'd sat down. I didn't like it.

"You didn't have to carry me," she said.

"I know."

"You could have just left me. You said you would."

"I thought about it," I said truthfully.

Her hands scrunched in the fabric of her lap. An actual dress. Hn.

"Thanks."

"'Tis in the past." I lifted the mug to my lips and drank. Disgusting. Like drinking algae in pond water.

"Not for me, it isn't," she said softly.

I glanced up.

The Wheat Girl was wriggling in place. "You said you'd leave me with him? While you, you know…go rescue that girl you're with?"

I arched a brow at her. "What else would I do with you?"

"Will you…come back for me? Once you're out?"

I eyed her curiously. "And do what with you?"

"I don't know…" She gave a nervous little half-laugh. "I made a pretty good distraction, didn't I?"

"You want to be kept," I slowly concluded.

She shrugged her bony shoulders, pink dusting her cheeks. "I…can't find my way home from here. Not with the cold set in. Even if I did manage, I'd just be another mouth to feed."

"What makes you think I can give you lodging?" I asked, leaning back in my seat, bowl-o'-slime in my paws.

"You're a lord. Lords always have extra rooms."

My brow arched higher. "You want a room?" That sounded a little permanent.

She fidgeted mightily in place. It was a wonder she didn't get caught in her skirt and wriggle right off that seat. "I can earn my keep. I don't need a…a room. Just a…a warm place to lay."

My eyes twitched wider. "You want to share my bed."

"If…" Fidget. Fidget. "If you want. I could. I…I know lots of things that could be enjoyable for you…"

I sat there stunned. I had just lost a battle, lost Bre, had my mind crushed, got stuck like a hunted boar, spent the last 24 hours in poisoned hallucinations because I'd lost a battle, then got my ass handed to me by Gian…and this bitch wanted to bed me?

I started to chuckle, and then laughed. Really laughed.

Until I saw her face. And then I felt a pinch in my chest.

Damn, where was all this sentimentality coming from?

"You don't want to be in my bed," I told her forthright. "You don't know what it means to be there."

Her lips parted in protest.

I held up a hand. "You know Bre once asked me for the same thing?"

"And you said yes."

"No," I said, eyeing her critically, "I did not."

"But I saw you two! At the party!" She was on the edge of her seat, looking ready to spring up at any moment.

I scrubbed the heel of my hand over my forehand, passed it over my eyes. "T'were extreme circumstances. It never should have gone that far."

"I saw the way you look at her," the Wheat Girl insisted. "The way she looks at you!"

"I do not accept females into my bed," I said directly. "'Tis not a matter of opinion to discuss."

Her head jerked back, expression doubtful. "You like men?"

I looked at her incredulously. Where in hells was she getting that? "That is not what I meant."

"Then what do you mean?" She looked perplexed.

"He means," —Gian's gruff voice rounded the corner— "that he's an ass about toying with remarkable women. But he's an ass who doesn't sow reckless seed." The heaviness of Gian's stare would have had my emotions roiling against the back of my chair even if his accusation hadn't struck me so hard. "But I shouldn't have throttled you for it."

I recognized the apology. "You didn't." Hardly even bruised me. Didn't hurt any the less for it. Just, hurt in the wrong place.

I heaved myself up out of the chair. "I need some air."

.


The next time the door opened, it was the orangey flicker of torchlight that illumined the doorway.

Red boots tapped into vision, too small to be a man's, every sway of the hem above elegant and precise. Red, the color of blood, worn only by emergency medics of the highest ancient order, who grew tired of the blood staining their white robes as they picked their way across the carnage of a bloody battlefield.

My neck sunk into my shoulders. I knew those boots.

"I wondered when ye might return."

I thought of how I must appear to her, dragged in from the snow in a mere third of the clothing I was raised to wear. Dragged across the stable floor, no doubt my bared skin had picked up a fair share of dirt, and I could feel stray strands of itchy hay irritating my skin in places my circulation-drained arms could never reach. Hair unraveled and untidy, falling all in my face. And she looked perfect no doubt, poised and regal, like a portrait right off of one of her scrolls.

"You…know her, Mistress Healer?"

Mistress Healer—this Mistress Healer—was the only person who had ever taken notice of me, who thought I could be more than a floor-scrubbing street rat. In a temple hierarchy teeming with lowly equals, she was one step higher. She was ancient wisdom. She was a literal life saver. She was the respected Powerless. She was ageless and beautiful and refined, what every maiden secretly aspired to be yet never attained no matter how much Power they inherited or sought, or mastered. No-nonsense and impossible to please, she was the most frustratingly elegant and exemplary mistress a servant could ever hope to have the honor of being entrusted to. And she had chosen to take me, of all people, under her far-reaching wing. Had chosen me when I couldn't speak using all of my consonants, couldn't read, and hardly even understood the concept of running an errand of actual importance. She had trained me, guided me, made a place for me by her side, gave me a purpose specialized from the rest. She had practically raised me.

She was the closest thing to a mother I'd ever known.

Silence weighted the air between us, recognition thick and unstable.

"Who canst say?" she replied finally, elegant tone withdrawn. "To look upon her thus, one couldst hardly believe the two akin."

My mentor's words cut me deeply. Deeper than any crass noble threats of usage ever could. It shouldn't hurt so much for her to say. I was unkempt. And different now. But…I bit my lip against a shuddering gasp, but couldn't quite hold it in. For once, I was grateful for my hair straggling over my face.

"What didst thou expect, child?" She'd moved toward me, a mere whisper of fabric and boots on stone. I dodged my head away from her questing hand, but her slender fingers snatched my chin out from my bedraggled curtain of hair. "Thou werst always of thine own mind, but filthy? Dressed as a harlot?"

I tossed my head away from the torchlight, away from her perceptive scrutiny. But I succeeded only in shaking a tear free just as my cheek was exposed to the light.

There was a beat or two of silence.

"Foolish girl." I might have imagined her voice just a tinge softer. "There is no place for those here."

"Yes, Mistress Healer." My lip trembled.

I could feel her intent gaze all over my face. "Werst thou whereat I thinketh thou wert?"

My chin dropped like a stone the moment she released it.

"I do hope thou art not hiding anything. I am to examineth every mite of ye, child."

My breath hitched as her words clicked in my head, like the right key in a lock. She knew about Rome; I had told her about him, as a child. I'd reported back to her, helped her research his lineage, leafing through records I didn't quite understand the significance of. She knew where I'd gone last time I disappeared from the temple without explanation or permission. I raised lids heavy with trepidation, forcing my hesitant gaze up to meet her steely gray. There was no compassion there, only rapt intelligence peeking sharply from a seamless mask.

Mistress Healer saw the truth; I was certain of it. She knew who I had been with the last several months.

She exhaled slowly, as close as she came to openly expressing exasperation. "All of the common sense I taught thee. Wasted." Her slender fingers smoothed quickly over the fabric clothing my body, and then inched over my skin with methodical tedium. She proceeded down my front first, and then skirted to my back, prying the fabric aside. Her deft fingers were such a contrast to Rome's, only the night before, that I shivered.

"You won't find anything new," I said finally, needing to break the silence. Rome had healed my lashes. And if Rome was one thing, he was very, very thorough.

"Ye shall understandeth me when I sayeth I cannot takest thy word for such.

Of course she can't. I was the criminal, the oath-breaker, standing here in the place of wrongdoing. But I hated how ill my mentor must think of me right now. I wanted her to know the truth: that I hadn't betrayed everything she stood for. That I hadn't intended to never come back from that errand she sent me on.

"I didn't run away."

"And I supposeth ye didn't returneth, either. Which is why thou art down hither, awaiting judgment in chains."

"I did return," I insisted, voice unsteady. "The door was locked. I couldn't get in."

"Lieth not unto me, child."

"I swear to you."

"Thy word meaneth only insomuch as thou keepeth thy word." Her hands traced up my arms, angled them to one side in the shackles overhead. "Robearta. Notate 3-inch bruises ringeth each wrist, perfect cylindrical pattern, mild metallic burn, no residue. Too much pressure for drag, indicateth struggle. She wast pulling back, quite hard." She rounded my front, coming into view once more. "Open thy mouth." She peered into my mouth, prodding gently with a metal tool. "Some irritation toward the back of yon throat, rawness indicateth abrasion, congruence with tonic of—" She paused, leaned her head back. Her eyes narrowed at me, studying me like she was trying to glean the meaning from one of her sourcebooks.

"Mistress…?" Robearta ventured.

"I didn't run away," I told my ex-mistress quietly, looking her in the eyes. Pleading in my heart for her to believe me.

The thoughts filed back from her eyes, safely back into the vast library of her mind. Gray scrutinized back at me. I might as well have pleaded with the stones enclosing me. "Thou understandeth I must checketh ye for indications of engagement in fornicative behaviours," she stated, all emotionless professionalism.

Virginity. She meant she had to check that my virginity was still in tact. My virginity was the mark of the goddess, the property of the temple. Defilement of virginal purity was not taken lightly. And here I was, dragged out of a notoriously sexual noble party in provocative clothes…

I swallowed, and gave a hesitant nod.

I was glad it was Mistress Healer who was shifting my skirt, glad it was the almost-coldness of her business-like movements as her fingers prodded places daylight never saw like she was cross-examining a choice polyp.

I sucked in a breath as the cold metal instrument was inserted inch by careful inch, prodding at my internal barrier. My maidenhood. Still there, despite the close calls.

The metal slid back out, and I let out a breath.

With a smack, my head snapped to the side. My stunned lips parted, my eyes widening. From beyond the doorway, Robearta gasped in surprise.

Mistress Healer had struck me.

Fingers clamped onto my chin like irons and swung my jaw back to face forward.

Appallment and apprehension glared back at me from her eyes' normally immoveable stony depths. "What hath thou done?"

She was holding up a finger. A finger that shone with moisture in the light of the glowstone clutched to her palm below.

With a sickening feeling lodging in my gut, I realized what she was really holding up: my come, left over from this morning.

Disbelief spread outward from where she watched my reaction. "Who wast thou with? Tellest me it wast not him."

I couldn't lie to her. I closed my mouth, and let my eyes speak for me.

She winced—actually winced—frustration and anger flaring in her normally calm intellectual eyes. This time I saw the back of her hand coming. Heat flared anew in my cheek. But that wasn't what made the corners of my eyes sting. It was the disappointment I had seen in her gaze. Like she expected better of me, and I had failed. Failed my temple. Failed my mistress. Failed myself.

And failed Rome. I could see it: She thought I had done wrong by him, not just by my temple. That I shouldn't have seduced him. Shouldn't even have involved him in any of this.

Her fingers brushed my neck, and I flinched bodily backward. I was at the end of my chains when her fingers found my neck again.

"What is this?" she asked softly, tracing in a horizontal line. "Robearta: Bruising in a line about the trachea, size and pattern indicateth partiality of a male hand…" She pushed my cheek suddenly aside, fingertips trickling over the side of my neck. I stiffened. "Small circular incisions occurrest at approximate two-inch intervals across the span of—" She lifted my hair away, and inhaled sharply, then pulled aside my neckline, stretching it down from my collarbone and across toward my shoulder.

The healer grabbed my chin. "Wast thou set upon by hound? Or by man?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," I mumbled.

"Yon marks! How long hast thee had them?"

"They'll fade."

"How long?"

"I don't know," I said, shoulders squeezing in toward my ears. "A few days…yesterday." I swallowed. "What day is it?"

Mistress Healer stared at me. Really stared. "Robearta," she said, turning. "Bring me every scroll we have on animal bites. Mythological or otherwise." She whisked out the door.

"But, Mistress Healer, those tomes are mostly in the possession of—"

"Dost as thou art told! Henceforth, they art in my possession. And a dalliant page girl shall not telleth me otherwise."

The door banged shut in her wake, plunging me back into darkness.

.


Outside, I leaned heavily against the railing of Gian's porch. Snow fell in silent torrents all around, cloaking the world in a thick coat of white. I hated this weather, but at least the air was moving, and full of elements, not stagnant and full of tension and reproach.

Whiteness. Empty whiteness, like the world was being blotted out with a false blanket of purity—like a forced do-over, a fresh sheet of parchment. I wished I could blot out my memories in the same way. Blot out my feelings. Roam the turf like a natural beast once more, where predators and prey worked their obvious advantages for survival, for purpose. Where games were shallow pools, and definition of power was left to corporeal claws.

Human intrigue was no arsenal of mine. It was certainly no place to dwell.

Yet, as I raised my sights above the snowy hill that sloped up to meet the wood, I noticed a lone wolf staring back at me from between the trees. Watching me. It locked eyes for only a moment before turning tail between the trunks.

Whatever lurked there wasn't finished interfering yet. And this time, there was no Bre here. This time, there was only me. My shoulders hunched under the strain of my sigh. I shouldn't be here, fraternizing with humans. I should be taking back my forest—keeping the wolves in their rung on the food chain, in their territory. I had to return to the forest, before it reached out to retrieve me again.

Maybe Gian was right. Maybe the temple was Bre's forest. Deep down I'd always known that. But I hadn't wanted to believe. I'd wanted her in my forest so badly, I suppose I'd always expected her to admit to being a part of it. Now her forest—her temple— had reached back to take her. If Bre didn't want to fight it, didn't want me to dismantle the place like I'd threatened, then what reason had I to interfere? I had my forest to return to. I had a way of life to go back to. A primal order to maintain. Forget humanity; humanity didn't want me. Humanity had scorned me. Forgotten me.

I remembered Bre's small hands clinging to my back, to my waist and hips, stroking down my chest, ruffling through my hair, sneaking across the back of my hand to play with my claws.

"I love you."

"Erohm." The way she said it like I meant the world to her. Like she was a breath away from nirvana, and it would only be real if I was there.

Ah, fuck it.

I waded down carefully into the snow. It was halfway up my shins, then up to my knees. I kept walking, trying to keep to the shallows.

By the time I heard Gian's voice, I was several houses away.

As I sunk one foot after the other into the snow, I was struck by the irony. Bre had always tried to get me to go to this place as a child, but I had always refused. Eventually she stopped asking. I wondered, now that I was aware of her scars, whether she had decided she no longer wanted me to see what her life was like.

The snow layer was thinner leading up to the temple, though not sludgy. This must be the path, untrodden as it was this far out. I contemplated the flight of stone steps from a few strides away, shallow basins topping the thick stone posts of the half-wall at every landing. Although bare of graven images, runes circled the rims of the basins and lined the thin arch framing the massive double doors.

I felt a warning prickle. Like a river current was flowing just past me, a river I could sense but not see.

I took a step.

White-hot pain flared up my leg. Runes ignited all up the stairs, their posts, the half-wall, the walls of the building, from the doors straight up to the turrets and battlements of the bell tower. Through the current buzzing in my ears, I discerned one strong impression as forceful as words: Keep out, Not welcome.

It could never be easy, could it. I could never just walk through the front door.

I stepped fully into the river current. It was like being struck by lightning again and again and again, ha'seconds apart. It felt like hours. I couldn't breathe again until it tossed me out.

I stood heaving in the snow, fighting not to collapse to my knees.

"Are ye alright, young man?"

My head swiveled. An elderly woman stood in the street, looking like she'd hobbled out from one of the storefronts farther down to see what was going on.

Ignoring her, I turned back to the current and plunged in. It crackled and threw me out more forcefully this time. Damn it.

"Go home, young man!" The woman was waving her cane in the air.

Home? Where was that? Back to a wolf-infested forest? Back to an empty house haunted by brutal, bloody memories? Those places were supposed to mean something. They didn't. Not without Bre. When had this become so twisted? When had she become the reason these things mattered? They had existed before her; they would continue to exist long after she did not.

Bre ceasing to exist… The pit of my stomach bottomed out. Damn priests. I pictured one in particular—the one who seemed content to leave Bre in a state of nonexistence. The one I still wished I'd killed. I wouldn't make that mistake a second time.

Snap. My entire body seized. The crunch of my knees hitting the snow jolted me out of hazy blackness. I didn't remember flying backward. I'd lost a few seconds—full minutes, maybe. A cloud of finely ground ashes sifted toward me from the invisible screen, floating like dust motes from the current. Probably my ashes. Some of them glowed white, like embers. Not good.

"HEY!"

The rude hollering snatched my attention for a brief second. A hooded feminine bundle was barreling from the squinting elderly woman, who had paused her cane mid-raise, toward my current fallen stance. Lucky me.

"HEY IDIOT!"

I eased up from my knees. They wobbled. But they'd hold. I approached the river. I could feel it clearly now, rushing and crackling. My eyes could almost see it, in the way the air wavered, like it was quivering in place…

"HEY!" A hand yanked me back by the bicep. Too drained to effectively resist, I swung in a jerky semi-circle.

"—You!"

The disbelieving tone had me glancing up despite myself. Damn, that was why she sounded familiar: Female Menace.

"What are you doing, throwing yourself around in the snow?! You're scaring that little old lady half to death!"

"Fuck off," I snarled, trying to shake off her grip. When Kit didn't let go, we both almost fell on our backsides.

"Would love to, Your Royal Bastardliness, but you're freaking out the neighborhood!"

"I'm not the one who put up the damn energy wall!"

"What?! What are you talking about? There's no wall! There's just you and your looney bin!"

I wrestled out of her grip, which was surprisingly clingy. "Then get the hell out of my way!"

Thick fleshy boughs hooked my elbows and wrenched me backward. "You shouldn't be here." I stiffened at the familiar gruff tone. "You haven't recovered."

"The hell I shouldn't!"

"Midnight poison doesn't leave your veins for three days," Gian informed me. "It's been one."

"The hell do you care?!" I twisted and pivoted mostly out of his armlock, paying for it in balance and tread. "A minute ago you wanted me dead, like the rest of them!" The words were out of my mouth before I could meditate on them. But every word rang true.

Gian looked aghast. "That wasn't it."

"We're rivals." I snatched my arm out of his grip, backing toward the current with a snarl. "If you want my life, just say it."

"If I wanted you dead, I wouldn't stop you."

"Then why the hell are you here?!" I exploded at him.

"Look," he said, clearly trying to keep his temper, "I care about her as much as you do. But you can't just barge into a Power fortress without a plan. You could make the situation worse!"

"They abducted her and dragged her into their fortress behind a Power current! How can it get any worse?!"

"Hold on!" Kit interrupted. "Are we talking about Ella here?"

"Stay out of this!"

"But, if Ella's in the temple, isn't that a good thing?"

Our heads swiveled to stare at her—I furious and incredulous, Gian's expression thoughtful.

"She could be right," Gian addressed me carefully. "There is greater risk of her being killed out here than in there. Since the temple got her themselves, they might readmit her. We can't know what's going on in there." Gian turned from considering Kit to look at me. He started when he saw my expression. "Lord Rome?"

My lip curled. "If you want to stand there and postulate while they break her again, fine." Residual poison dripped from my every word. "But do not expect me to sit in some cottage or stand in this godforsaken snow while the only fucking thing I care about is shredded into bloody ribbons like she was the last time she disappeared from my life!"

Gian looked like he'd been turned to stone.

"What…did you say?" Kit whispered.

"Ye!"

We all jumped. I almost lost my footing.

"What are ye?"

I stared down the length of the cane, at the wrinkled maw on the other end. "None of your fucking concern."

Fwap! She caned my shoulder, dropping me to a knee.

I raised my head and glared up at her, fangs cutting into my lip.

"Don't ye show those things to me!" Fwap!

My control slipped. My growl deepened, rumbling in my chest in the beginning of a roar. My eyes burned. "Careful, hag." The words felt rusty and foreign in my throat.

"Now look here, creature! Ye can die here as soon as those doors open. Or ye can come tell this old woman a story. And maybe I'll give ye some catnip."

My temper flared. My hands felt hot. Power jumped unchecked between my fingers.

Kit gasped and launched backward several feet.

The old woman's expression changed. "Ye're him, artn't ye. One of the Two. Walking amongst us once more."

My lip curled again. I batted the cane out of the way.

She studied me. The hairs on my neck prickled. "Ye don't know, do ye. It's been too many years; ye don't remember."

I climbed to my feet, ignoring her. I didn't have time for hags spouting riddles. Bre was only a stairway away. I'd be damned if I let some Power wall stand between me and her. I raised a hand toward the river current of energy and concentrated on my claws, watching Power bead on the tips. Yellow sparked back and forth between them.

"NO!" The old woman clapped a wrinkled paw over my forearm. "This way." She hauled me away, hustling faster than a little old woman with a cane should be able.

"Unhand me!" I snarled.

"Silence, Old One. They can already sense ye."

"That's rich, coming from you," I snorted.

"Thy manners art atrocious."

"So are yours!" I snapped.

She swung her cane backward in warning.

I caught it, and put a nice crack down the length. "Stop. Fucking. Challenging me. I do not have the patience left to keep from splitting you."

She eyed me over her shoulder, but lowered the cane. "Is that any way to treat a woman who just saved yer life?"

"I owe you no life debt," I growled.

"Good to know ye still keep account of those."

"Stop acting like you know me. I have never met you in my life."

"No," she agreed in that crabby old tone, as she ushered me through the carpet flap of the doorway behind a small storefront. "But I know of ye. There art only two of ye, after all. We old folk be keeping records. Best be recognizing ye Firsts when ye come."

"Baba, you shouldn't drag crazy nobles into your house!" Kit complained, ducking under the carpet after us. Gian crouched low through the doorflap a second after.

"Why have you brought me here?" My whole body was on edge. My eyes darted about between the two rough-hewn chairs and cracked weatherbeaten table on my right, and the runed stones ringing a small fire pit on my left.

"The cha lass is right." The old woman ambled over to grab hold of a stick and poke at the embers. "Ye cannot walk into yon holy place. 'Tis warded good an' strong. Ye need yon wards taken down to enter. Does n'one any good to keep fryin' ye-self in the snow."

"Your pardon, elder," Gian addressed cordially, still bent in half to fit in the low-roofed room.

The riddlesome hag shuffled to face him, as though charmed. "Yea, young man?"

Tch. More games. I barricaded my arms across my chest.

"I didn't observe anything that should be preventing entry. Is there somewhat—an obstacle of some sort—on the inside?"

The hag shook her head ruefully. "Don't have the Sight, do ye. Few do these days."

"So there is something."

"Something, yea. Protection wards. Strong ones, too. All cross-hatched and intertwined. Even bolstered of late. Like they're anticipating something." She peered at me out of the corners of her eyes.

I scowled back at her.

"What is it ye want with the temple, First?"

"Stop calling me that, Hag, and maybe I'll deem to answer."

She gave me the evil eye. "I thought the other one was like this, not ye. The silver one."

"I care not for your riddles, old woman. I have a bitch to retrieve." I moved toward the makeshift door.

"Ye have what?" the old woman said sharply, over Kit's protests against calling her friend a bitch.

"You heard me."

"Ye art certain she's there?"

I glared over my shoulder. "You think I'd be here if I was not?"

The hag actually looked troubled. "I have a contact inside. Sit ye down. Perhaps conflict can be avoided."

"Avoided?" I could not keep the scorn from my tone. "Know you how many men I have—"

"Lord Rome."

I flicked an annoyed glance toward Gian. His gaze shifted to Kit. She was watching me with an expression that would resemble a storm cloud if she didn't look so puzzled. She was trying to clue herself in. Gian looked back at me and gave his head a slight shake. He didn't think she should figure it out.

Kit followed my gaze to Gian, suspicion inching in. "Guys? What's going on? What are you not telling me?"

"Trouble with yon temple is to n'one's benefit," the hag said, and I realized she was addressing me. "Let me send a message. If'n she's there, my inside one will know."

"I already know she is there," I stated. "Your letter is inconsequential."

"Ye know not where to look," the old woman said, raising a bony finger that couldn't quite straighten. It was dyed yellow, as if stained by pollen. "Yon temple art a big place."

I couldn't afford to wait. Bre could be being lashed right now, as we stood around debating the derogatoriness of names. But the old human was right; Bre had never spoken of the layout of the temple. Once inside its high stone walls, I could only guess as to which direction to proceed. A wrong choice could cost me precious minutes before more mind-scouring silver girls intercepted my path.

"She spoke of correction," I said, drifting reluctantly toward a splintery chair. "I suspect t'would be where they have taken her."

Kit's breathing hitched. "What makes you say that?" she demanded.

I looked at her sideways. "She's a runaway. And she was snatched from a noble party, where apparently she got in her temple's way on purpose. Damn girl doesn't know the meaning of discretion."

"She did before you came into her life!" Kit accused, eyes ablaze and mouth pouty. "She lived for discretion."

I snorted. "And I suppose you did too?" This loudmouthed tumbleweed wouldn't know discretion if it hit her in the face. Which probably wouldn't shut her up. What did Bre see in her, anyway?

"What is that supposed to mean?!"

Actually, it was kind of fun to get her all riled up: wind up, and watch her go, all by herself. If she wasn't so damn annoying…

Shit, what kind of messed-up place had my mind just gone? My face twisted into a grimace.

Gian was appraising me critically. His expression read somewhere along the lines of Where do you stand?

Fresh out of Bre, that was where I stood. Impatient, drained, desirous, and selfish as hell. Not to mention absolutely useless against some priests' collaboration of a Power wall. A growl peeled from my throat. I shoved a hand through my hair.

"You should sleep."

I just looked at Gian. He had experienced firsthand what I was like when I slept. And he still made that suggestion?

"Yon cha lad is right," the old woman said. "It'll take time to get a note in there. Ye'll need thy strength for when the answer cometh."

I glanced sidelong at her. "You don't want me to sleep."

She cackled. "Have trouble sleeping do ye? Guess it gets to everyone, eh? Even the Power-struck."

My lip curled. "Believe what you like."

Gian approached me, still hunkered down to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling, as the women began to chat. "You need to rest. You can do so in my home if you don't want them to know of your…condition."

"It's not a good idea," I replied just as quietly.

"You can't recover fully if you don't sleep." His brow creased with concern.

"Last night was not just the poison. 'Tis been a lifetime since I slept well."

"Our host might have a sleeping remedy. I've heard she makes concoctions of some sort."

"'Tis beyond sleeping remedies."

"Try something," he urged. "You have to sleep."

"Gian," I said curtly, and then quieted my voice almost to a whisper. "I cannot sleep without her." His brows furrowed, and then they shot upward as he realized I was talking about Bre. "I'm too far gone. And with her absent, the things I see…" I barely repressed a shudder. "Do not entrust your life into my hands like that. I almost killed her, waking up—twice. The last time was…too close. I do not sleep around people."

Gian gave me an odd look. "You know she doesn't sleep well either…?"

"I thought that was over," I remarked, surprised.

He shook his head. "I had to wake her often, when she was in my care. She asked me to stay, some nights."

Jealousy flared up in me, rich and hot. I bit back fiery, possessive words.

Gian must have seen them in my eyes, because his upper body reeled back. "Easy, Friend. You know me better than that."

The voice inside me growled, but my muscles started to relax. Gian was right: I did know him, well enough to know he would have touched her if she wanted it, but he wouldn't hide it from me, or from anyone else. He would own to it, honest man that he was.

He studied me, and then shook his head, mystified. "You get so riled up, and yet you bring some scant-dressed foreign girl back to my house? Have you any notion what Labriella must think?"

"For whom do you think I saved her?"

Gian looked doubtful.

"Don't give me that look." I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. "Saving her was a pain in the ass."

"I heard her proposition."

I leveled him with a stern look. "Not my idea."

"You really turned down Labriella?"

I snorted, letting the table splinters catch under my claws. "Is it that surprising?"

"When you were going to gut me a minute ago for spending the night in the same room? Absolutely."

I dug at the table, and sighed. "'Tis complicated."

"No it isn't."

I looked up sharply, fangs peeping out to snarl a protest.

He bent down to my level, gaze solid with mine. "No. It isn't."

His straightforwardness caught me upside the heart; the simplicity of the solution stared back at me. He truly believed it. Truly thought Labriella and I could be together—should be together. My opinions blanked into silence.

"Boys?" Kit's annoying chirrup cut across the sudden lull in the single-room shack. "You done having your little man-fight?"

A lanky, reddish-brown-haired boy stood partway over the threshold, doorflap resting on the back of his hand as he ducked through the resulting triangle of light.

"Who in hells is he?"

"Meet the messenger," Kit proclaimed, with a grandiose introductory sweep of her hand.

The human boy blushed self-consciously.

"Not to worry about them, Everett. They art houseguests." The elderly human handed the boy a folded-up square of parchment. "Same as usual, there's a good lad."

The boy lifted one long-fingered hand to accept the note, thick-fanned doe eyes sweeping down in a subservient head-bow toward the old woman. "Of course, Mistress Elsa." She gave his shoulder an affectionate pat, and he ducked out the doorway.

"An errand runner?" Gian asked gruffly. "Can he be trusted not to share the contents?"

The hag waved off Gian's concern. "Everett is sensible enough. He'll never read it."

"I would," Kit said, crossing her arms, chin high. "Never deliver something if you don't know what it is. First rule of delivery!"

"Not to the temple, it isn't," the old woman retorted, like the crack of cane on knuckles. "First rule of anything is discretion. Drawing attention is dangerous. I suspect poor Everett knows that better than any." She shook her head, clucking.

"Why would Everett know better than others?" Gian asked, before I could ask why he was so poor a soul.

"Poor lad caught the eye of one of the priests. He lingers here sometimes, as a getaway. Keeps this old woman company."

Would rather stay with a hag in a hovel, than go back to that place? Didn't sound like he lived under-the-radar. "If he already has a priest's attention, his allegiance is compromised," I said, crossing my arms. "He cannot be trusted to carry the message through unread. Even if he refrains, this priest will see it."

"Stop thy worrying," the hag grumped, plopping down into the chair across the table. "It's tiresome."

"How long will it take?" I asked, steepling my fingers together. It was one of the few joint hand positions that brooked no danger of self claw-impalement.

"He'll be back tomorrow, I expect."

That was a long time. Too long. "And until then?"

"Rest up. Ye'll be scalin' those walls soon enough."

"Scaling walls?" Gian echoed.

"Ye didn't think he could get through the front doors, did ye?! It's the most heavily warded entrance—yon temple is warded all the way 'round. He'd flake to a crisp against that barrier—and not just his clothes." She nodded toward the newly threadbare patches on my sarobi.

"There's more than one entrance," I gathered.

The old woman nodded. "There's a hidden entrance in the back. But ye'll never find it from the outside. And even if ye did, it can't be opened from there."

"Then where…?" Kit started.

"The bell tower," the woman said with a small, self-satisfied smile.

Gian stared at her, bushman brows bunched. "That's a sheer drop. The bricks are flat."

"It's the least-warded entrance. It drops straight into the antiquated courtyard—still as the grave, and safely out of prying eyes."

"You mean, it'll be his grave, if he lands. Splat!" Kit smacked a fist into her palm. Thank you, Female Menace, for that painful-looking demonstration. "Assuming he doesn't get incinerated by those ward thingies, like you're saying."

I brought my head down to rub my steepled thumbs against the underside of my chin. "Are there wards within the bell tower?"

"They might take a few layers off ye, but—" She smiled. "I'm sure ye'll manage."

"Layers?" Kit drew out, chin underscoring. "Like skin?! Ick!"

"Not to worry, sunny girl. If he's who I think he is," the old woman said, nodding at me, "he's got a few to spare."

Kit swiveled to look at me. Her expression was all kinds of crazy. "You're not actually going to do this, are you?"

I could feel the heaviness of Gian's gaze at my left.

I shrugged. "Bre is in there. And I cannot get through the front. There does not appear to be another option to get inside."

Kit's jaw dropped. Gaped a couple times. "You're looney. Suicidal!"

"Would ye like to know why he cannot enter, Child?"

"Because he's a First, or whatever?" Kit shook her head, spinning toward the door. "I don't want to know." She threw up her hands. "You explain to Ella how her delinquent lord-master-boyfriend got his snarky noble ass charred."

"Ella?" Elsa's eyes alit with genuine interest. "The errand girl? In the temple healers' employ, yea?"

My gaze narrowed on her. "What of her?"

"Sweet girl," she said, jovial expression turning pensive. "Owes me a favour."

Bre was in this woman's debt? For what? I didn't like that. She could ask anything of Bre, and Bre would be forced to give it. "Name it." Whatever it was, I could afford it. Bre only had one life; I had infinity. Better left with me.

The old woman's eyes pushed back some of her wrinkles. "Ye would take her favour upon thyself?"

"Lord Rome…" Gian's tone held a hint of warning. He must see it too: the old woman's shrewd delight in asking her favour of me instead.

"Yea," I said, looking into her eyes. "Her favour is mine now."

Past her, Kit's eyes widened. She clearly hadn't expected me to agree.

"Lord Rome," Gian worded carefully, "in your position, I think you might reconsider."

I locked eyes with the old woman. "Name your price. I will pay it."

"Laird, was it?"

"I can't watch this," Kit whined, sounding like she would faint or be sick—or burst into hysterics; I didn't know her well enough to ascertain which. She swiveled and ducked out the door flap.

"Why don't ye tell this old woman a story?" the hag said, bustling back into her rough-hewn chair. From the shape, it had probably been beautiful once, but now it was haggard as she was.

I felt my brow arch of its own accord. "This is the favour you ask of me?"

"Non, that favour has yet to be determined."

She wasn't going to name her favour. Just hold it over my head until something big came along. Fine. I gave her a surly look. "I do not do stories."

"Sure ye do. How about how ye met Ella?"

I glared at her. If this wasn't the favour, then it wasn't story time. I didn't have to answer.

"My, it's going to be a long night." She folded her hands. "We have until this time tomorrow. Surely there must be somewhat ye can share with an old woman, to pass the time."

"We met," I ground out. "We separated. We met. Now here we are."

"Separated? What for?"

If she thought she was getting any free answers, she had another thing coming.

"I suppose all stories are the same, ne? Of the romantic sort, anyway." She shifted. "Suppose I tell ye a story, then."

"And what story would that be?" I asked skeptically. I suspected now that anything this woman said had an ulterior motive.

"Well, since ye have developed amnesia, the story of the Firsts seems appropriate."

"What are these 'Firsts'?" Gian inquired, settling on the floor between the wall and the fire ring. He didn't act at all bothered by the dirt floor—even managed to look moderately comfortable. Impressive, for a middle-class human.

"Ye art familiar with the Creation Story, yea?"

"Which one?"

"'The Divinity blew, and His breath was wind, and the heat of His wind forged the molten world, which He shaped with His own hands. He blew cold wind, and the world cooled. He breathed gentle wind, and life stirred. So He descended to the surface of this world that He had created. And when He saw that it was good, He stooped into the dirt, and He pulled out two, crafted in His image, to walk with Him. They were the First. Made in His image, they were fiercely loyal to each other, yet wild and free, created with the Power to rule—one wise, and the other shrewd.

"'Together they roamed the earth. But none could be found to laird over. So the two beings fought, one for lairdship over the other, and it was a great battle that decimated the earth.

"'So the Divinity calmed their raging hearts, and breathed on the earth, and shaped, and brought forth, and the Second rose arose from minerals, the trees, the flowers: Born of two forms, they chose whichever suited them. Soon after was born humanity, the Third, born of dust and gentle breath, with the wind in their sounds and the dirt grasped firmly between their toes—lovers of the ground. After, the world heaved, and released the excess breath of its Creator, and gave birth to all manner of creatures—some greater, most lesser. The Divinity appointed the Greaters to guardianship over treasures and wonders to come. And the Firsts were left to rule and appoint as they saw fit.

"'With no love of fighting between them, the Firsts divided the world's surface and creatures between them. Wild and fierce, they roved the land as fierce beasts of Power—one of silver, one of gold. Each laughed in the face of restraint. The Silver, ever cold and cruel, built kingdoms to rise and fall around him, seeing the creatures as pawns. The Gold attracted with his heat, took what he wanted, and disappeared without a trace, taking the heat of their company with him to burn into eternity.'

"Legend says the Gold existed thus until he wandered to a forest bordering on a certain village. There he came across a woman with Power. (All humans had Power back then, mind ye.) Taking interest, he took the form of a man, but found her resistant. Unable to seduce her, his lust claimed him, and he took her by force. Yet when he sought to leave, he found she had seduced him in turn. He bound their souls, and she remained his captive, subject to his whims until the world's end.

"But the woman, tiring of the unending demands of life dominated by a First, ended her own life. It was the last ever seen or heard of the Gold First. Disappeared without a body to bury, the villagers enshrined the woman as a deity who absorbed the Powers of the First, a goddess who would watch over them lest anything similar ever come for them."

Fist still implanted in my cheek, I glared at the old hag. "And you think this hated dead rapist is me?"

Her gaze drifted to my hand. "Thy colouring, and the shade of Power ye wield, thy dominance complex, and thy possessiveness of the temple girl, would suggest…"

"That I am a fatherless rapist and an epic-class world menace old as the planet?" I scoffed. "I think not. I was not born with this colouring. And I remember my father."

"And the fangs and claws?"

"Not original," I shot back. "Drop it, Hag. I am no First."

She didn't look like she believed me—petulant old sack of bones—but she nodded slowly. "Then ye should reconsider whether ye can survive admittance to yon temple."

I gritted my teeth, claws lengthening and digging into the wood. "I'll get in." I have to.

"Then ye should know," she said, "ye still must brave the wards on the wall, and climb upward. The bell tower is warded less, but nonetheless warded. And the young man is correct." She nodded at Gian, who appeared to have dozed off sometime in the middle of the story. Probably my fault, keeping him up all yesternight. "There are no handholds, no protruding bricks. Ye will have to make thine own way up."

I snorted. "I was born climbing."

She gave me a wry smile. "Well then. This 'old hag' is going to bed. So ye will have to brave thy sleepless night alone."

I gave her a stiff nod.

She rose from the table and ambled over to an old cot close to the fire, shuffling awkwardly under a mound of wooly blankets and furs. It wasn't long before her soft snores joined Gian's heavy breathing.

Right. Wait until morning, through 'til late afternoon. Wait for a location on Bre. Wait for Gian to try to stop me. Endure more of this old hag's horrible stories. Hope the Annoying Weed that I was prohibited from killing didn't stop by to join the protests against my journey. Wait for the old woman to name her favour…

Wait out here while the sun dawned on the third day since Bre had been abducted and taken into that fortress, that place she called "home" where those she served (under her suicide-committing "deity") had broken her already on my account, and were no doubt aiming to do so again, whipping her skin into bloody ribbons and lashing the muscle fibers from her bones.

'Rest,' my ass. Like hell I'd get any rest.

.


As a servant, you spend a lot of time reading body language, intonations, and patterns. You also spend a lot of time looking at the ground. And, much of the time, what is on the ground are people's feet.

Feet say a lot about a person. You can tell from the feet where a person has come from, where a person is going, whether they take good care of the things left in their charge, and—in the case of how they choose to adorn their feet, and their gait—what they think of themselves…which means class status.

A noble, for instance, fancies himself important, so he selects shoes that will draw attention, and never can they be soiled. A merchant's shoes, while perpetually polished over the worn patches, will always show traces of where he has been: a stray bit of grass here, or a caked bit of dried mud off the sole there. A commoner's shoes will always be dirty, and will only be replaced with new ones if they've had a recent strike of good fortune. A servant's feet are hardened and crusted with toughness; their feet are their shoes.

You can also tell the internal character of the person. Mistress Healer's boots were ancient. Rome's boots were surprisingly soft.

But it isn't just shoes that show the signs. It's how they stand, their gait, where they pause, any nervous ticks or impatient taps or lolligagging along the way. That is the most significant part of reading feet: the attitudes. You can always tell what kind of treatment you are in for, by the perpetrator's feet.

Fourth Hubris stepped up with that brusk, smug gait possessed only by a man who knew he had caught his lark. And those steps were familiar.

Of the two types of "familiar," these were most definitely Familiar Bad.

His standard white temple boots rounded forward in saucy demicircles, flamboyant and ponderous.

"So you are not the girl they are looking for. Tch-tch, what a shame. However." He paused, one foot perfectly aligned in front of the other. "You have crimes of your own, don't you Ward." He began to pace around me, in an uneven circle. "I am authorized to see to your correction—healer's inquisition notwithstanding. Indeed, I must see to it personally, for you have violated two very cardinal rules. First, you have strayed—under vow—from your purpose. Second, you have involved other people, sacrificing their lives to your own cause." His tone sharpened. "Don't think I do not know what you have done—what sacrilege you have offered up to that unnatural creature! That hateful, murderous creature! Nay, you have betrayed your goddess, betrayed the very sacredness of life!"

I could tolerate his descriptions of Rome no longer. "Is that 'creature,' as you call him, not also alive? Is his life not also sacred to the goddess?"

The priest backhanded me. I tasted blood.

"You are here because you are wrong. Because the seed of sinful curiosity you came here with, fostered by your healer mistress's strange ways and by your own malcontent, has flowered into a stalk of wickedness. You are here, because you have not only wandered astray; you have strayed of your own volition. Your chains, you ungrateful beastial girl, are of your own making." He crowded in on me. "You deserve every hour of what is to come. I will bear witness to your Purging with a smile on my face."

He sauntered away, stepped back and aside. His diagonal posture said he was now leaning back, presumably with is arms crossing his chest. "Strip her of those wretched garments," he barked. "Corrective undergarments only. Correcting this one is going to be a bloody affair."

.

I heaved in fragile breaths, belabored and igniting and stretching lines and tendrils of fire every time I made the mistake of breathing too deep. The splinters dug into my forearms and under my stubby fingernails as I fought to hold my torso up over this horrible contraption I was hunched over. Once a prime specimen in the semi-underground stable, the dark stone cells of the Correction Wing were where wooden horses came to die. Once, this had been the resting bench of a beautiful saddle. Now, the simple horizontal plank on four slanted legs held up me, woofed against the floor and nickered beneath my weight when the leather-leashed stone and glass shards flung me into the mental symbol of punishment again and again. The lashes had started slow, but they increased in speed and frequency and heavy-handedness, until I gave up breathing through the barrage. The backs of my legs were on fire, trembling under the strain of bodyweight and the shardless lashing my knees had given out under ages ago. This was the first time I could remember breathing since then.

I wasn't sure why the presiding priest—the priest Rome had almost killed—had stopped the corrector at this point. I knew the extent of my punishment was not anywhere near finished.

"I believe you need to say it," came my answer.

"My lord?" I asked almost deliriously. I didn't know what it was he wanted me to say.

He yanked my head back by my hair. "Do not confuse me with one of them!"

It was so ironic, I coughed a laugh.

"You find this funny, Ward?!"

"He—" I wheezed in a breath. "He said the same thing."

"He?"

"The 'creature' you hate so much." I cleared my throat, swallowed some blood. "He said…same."

"Do not compare me, an emissary of purity, to that murderous gremlin!" My breath of humor cut off with the strike of five points embedding themselves into my back.

"He is not your master! You serve this temple. You serve the goddess. And I will hear you recant this creature of night!"

"I serve the goddess," I ground out amidst the screams of my back against the sharpened stones. "I have always served the goddess."

"No, you do not. You serve that monstrosity parading himself under guise of a nobleman! You serve a demon in human form. And you will give him up." The stones ripped out of my flesh, and my nails scrabbling over the granite-lined wood did not find strong enough purchase to hold in part of a scream. "Or you will die."

"Orders commanded to stay execution of the Runaway, Master of Sentence," objected my corrector.

"—Yet. Not to execute her yet. Once they understand her entanglement with the night creature, they will see that she is beyond saving."

"That remains to be seen." I think we all startled at the new voice coming from behind.

"Your Venerance," the corrector addressed respectfully. "To what do we owe the courtesy and honor of your presence?"

"The Supreme Magister believes the ward is hiding more than she let on. Find out what it is?"

"Of course, Your Venerance. We will report all intelligence gathered to the Supreme Magister without delay."

"You will report to me," corrected the man who had my fellow wards drag me into this place—I knew him by his tone, already so familiar in my ears. "Krimsot, I trust your previous mishap where this Runaway is concerned is not a sign you are going soft?" Quiet footsteps signaled his departure, leaving us in the small stone room with an angry frustration I could practically feel radiating from my correction overseer.

"'Soft,'" he scoffed. "Soft, of all things!" He stalked back to the edge of the room, safely outside of the whip arc and (no doubt) blood splatter range. "She wants to play Noble-and-Servant? Fine. Break her."

"Master of Sentence, the Runaway already shows evidence of extensive Purging. By code 514 of article—"

"Are you capable of doing your job," the overseer snapped, "or is it you who needs to be in these chains?! I order you to break her! Do as you are commanded!"

The first fall of the scourge loosed a scream from my scratchy throat that deafened my own ears.

And it begun.

I wished so badly that I could black out. That I could lose consciousness, lose awareness of what was happening, lose all connection to this place, to this time. But part of being prepared for correction was being adorned with a collar of laurel steeped in ezekel berries and twisted together with reishi. It forced the wearer to retain conscious awareness, stimulating some kind of synapse…or so Mistress Healer muttered about a harvest season ago. For as long as correction endured, I was doomed to feel. And feel I did. Feel every fiber in my being scream out in agony. Feel sobs I couldn't hold in wrack my chest. Feel my skin peel back and my muscles tear. Feel my mind slip, until I couldn't understand the words spoken to me.

My mind looked for that place—that oasis away from nightmares of sleep and of reality—that circle of blankets and pillows in a meadow of possibilities, where a certain green-eyed half-nobleman showed me the world could be a different kind of place.

A half-nobleman who had taken a whip to my back, not so long ago.

I needed the world to be different. I needed to not picture Rome as the one correcting me, when my sobs dried my tears into heaves, when I stopped trying to stay upright and just covered my head with what I could of my arms, when all I wanted was him—to hold me, to make me believe things were different. That there was something more, something more precious than rules and regulations, something worth living and breathing and dying for.

Something deep within me sighed, in a barely-surfaced sort of way. You love him, don't you.

I can't…I can't let them purge him from me!

Shouldn't you be more concerned with your own life?

My life has never mattered. I'm just one in a room of others.

Is this how you truly think of yourself? As inconsequential? Ready to die?

I only feel alive when I'm with him. Everything else is like a living death.

I believe you to be right. I have watched you a long time.

Watched? That was…disconcerting. Even though I was only thinking to myself.

It is admirable not to fight back. Yet, sometimes, making a difference is yet necessary.

Remember who you're talking to? It's little old me. I was born to serve.

Yes. Perhaps you were.

And then the other me was silent, and left me to my despair.

.


White flashed before my eyes, a warning zinging through my chest. Something was wrong. Deathly wrong. Wrong like the last time I got this feeling, before I got to Bre in Alonza's chambers, his whip to her bare thighs, his knife wheedling into my marks on her throat…

I rose from the chair and stalked across the room, silent as death. Outside the snow crunched beneath my feet, an icy reminder I'd left Gian's house in a hurry, my boots discarded for the antidote they were robbed of the day before. A day I couldn't remember, except for its horrible dreams—its delirious visions of a dying Bre.

I approached the side of the temple, where the solid wall of gray brick shot upward into a bell tower that headed off the main street of the village. I stood still and concentrated. Every once in awhile, a shadow of a vein of white streaked across my vision, thin as hair. Like spiderwebs only visible in the right light. A far cry from a river current.

Perhaps it was possible.

I put one hand to the brick. A shudder wracked me, a current of invisible spiderwebs lancing through me like veins of liquid death coursing down my arms to the rest of my body.

Bearable.

I put my other hand and feet to the brick. It amplified threefold. I had to detach from the brick before I could gain my bearings enough to bear it. It set my teeth on edge, electrified every hair on my body, clenched every muscle. I dug my claws and toenails into the thin lines of grout nearly invisible between the brick, and began to climb. After five steps up the brick, my joints began to grind, ribcage creaking and groaning against each breath. Another five steps, and my muscles were clamped so badly I thought I was going to fall.

I didn't. I know not how I didn't fall, but I did not. I kept going, until the pain was all I could think about, until the pain felt like it was every fiber of my being magnified by one thousand. I hardly knew my own name, but I kept climbing. Like as long as I kept accepting the pain into myself, I could keep climbing. Climbing up this gray wall into this white-skied abyss, the snowflakes teasing me, laughing at me as they tumbled merrily downward all around me while I was forced to defy gravity in such an unnecessary way. It wasn't right, wasn't right that I should have to keep going up when they got to flow down…

There was a voice on the wind. I glanced down and caught sight of a dark shape in the whiteness below, but it was too dizzying to keep looking. Gian—must be. He'd woken up. But it was too late now, too late to call me down; I was already halfway up, over halfway.

Just when I grew faint—the kind of faint that makes your shaking claws detach from the grout and sends you plummeting backward far, far below—my claws scratched on something different. A slit in the rock… I scrabbled for it, eager for an actual handhold. A miniature explosion of white met my hand, deflecting my claws and rattling my limbs so that my feet slipped. For a split second, I hung by the claws of one hand, dangling in empty space, lungs devoid of air. And then my feet crashed into the unforgiving gray brick, and my toes scrabbled frantically until their nails caught on grout. Dear God, when would this end?

The answer came in a few arm pulls, when my next hand patted through empty space and slapped down on an uneven flat top. I scrambled up as quickly as my aching musculature would allow, convinced another not-so-miniature explosion of Power was going to send me crashing down from this much bigger handhold. Instead I tumbled over the battlement, and crash-landed onto a parapet. I made it!

But the static pain didn't go away. Which meant there was still white Power coursing through my veins, and lots of it. I wasn't sure how much more I could take. Already I was dizzy, and had come perilously close to blacking out several times. Thankfully, my subconscious seemed to understand that falling down a turret was not a good way to jeopardize my sanity.

However, leaning against one of the supports of the structure suspending the giant bell engraved with three or four rows of runes, and gazing down into the shaft below, I wasn't so sure my sanity would ever be safe. It was impossible to judge the distance of the drop. I suspected it had to be at least five levels—maybe seven. (I wasn't ready to say ten.) Down several levels from where I stood looked to be at least one opaque white shield, veins alive with Power. Above it, crackling and striking horizontal from one wall of the shaft to the other at unpredictably changing height intervals, was a sort of white Power lightning. There was nothing to deter me from physically jumping into the shaft hole and free-falling…But there was no way to guess how many pieces I'd be in at the end. And if the bottom was anything like the walls, I was in for a world of pain if ever I reached it.

Still leaning heavily on the bell support to keep me upright, I sighed so heavily I swayed. This was going to be worse than hell.

I stepped out into nothing, and fell.

.


"Cease! For the love of the goddess, cease at once!"

"What is this, Healer?" barked my vengeful overseer. "Your task here is done. You have no cause, no authority to interfere."

"No cause?" The urgency in Mistress Healer's familiar voice soured on a sharp note. "Thou wert not to commence correction until I had verified the results of my initial examination!"

"And wait for you to make excuses to delay the inevitable with your endless studies?"

"Thinketh ye commandeth the healers now, dost ye, Krimsot?"

"You so far disrespect me as to call me by name?!"

"For one as ignorant as thee? Yea. Corrector, lower thine instrument forthwith, lest ye risk the wrath of the goddess herself!"

"Corrector, do not! Healer, know your place!"

"My place, Priest, is to share insight on the medicalities as they pertain herewith. Truly ignorance hath overtaken thee, not to notice the marks all over the girl's throat and upper torso."

"Have you lost sense, Healer?! The only marks on this girl are from past wickedness!"

"These marks art neither human nor animal." A pause. "Ye already knew this." Her tone was accusatory.

"The little tramp has been fraternizing with that beastly creature. A demon in human form!"

"Ye should know better." Condescension dripped from Mistress Healer's tone. I cringed, unsure how much of that venom was directed at me. "Thou art familiar with the records. Ye knowest the Chronicle of Origins! Ye knowest what yon marks might mean!"

"Those are just legends! Revered stories! More likely she joined with one of the forest beasts."

"Sacrilege!" I had never heard her tone so lethal. "Thou best hope ye hath not murdered us all! Or art thou so certain, thou wouldst stake thy life on thy presumption?" There was a swoosh of fabric, and boot taps away.

"Wait! Healer! Where are you going? Healer!" The priest—Krimsot—hurried away in a flurry of fabric, sounding panicked. "Corrector, you are not to continue until I return!"

Well, my corrector wasn't about to stay in my bloodied cell with me.

I dangled limp over the back of the wooden horse, trying not to think about which would be worse: if I was a traitor, or if Rome was a forest beast.

.

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A/N: Alright, I'm starting up my blog again, and I have a Twitter account now! I will do my best to keep you guys posted on progress. I might even drop you a meme or two with lines from next chapter, so keep an eye out!

Seriah Black Sheep