A/N: I know it's been awhile, but please note that there has been an update before this one! I added on a section to the end of chapter 15, to bridge the gap between where it originally ended and the party scene the next day. If you think going back to read it would mess up the story timeline in your head, you don't have to. But I would really appreciate some feedback as to whether you think the addendum fits, or whether you think it makes the scene too long, etc. The added section starts at the last POV divider line before the end of the chapter! You might want to get a running start, because it picks up in the middle of a scene.
Thank you to purple-wolf-howl for sending me a private message about the next update! It got me out of my non-writing funk, and brought me up to the task of finishing this chapter. :)
To Spazthemagicbeanstalk: I'm so glad you can understand where the characters are coming from! That was one of my main reasons for writing this story in first person, whereas I normally prefer third person. Without being privy to their thoughts, I was afraid this would be a very different story!
To Bookworm: You're thinking on the right track! But I'm not going to say any more than that! ;) Can't give it away! :O
On to the chapter at hand! Remember that Rome is now human!
lau: title for a servant
sarobi: a man's shirt (usually refers to a long-sleeved V-neck style variation)
sire: the father of someone of enviable bloodlines, i.e. the noble father of a child
yea: yes (archaic)
Into the Temple: Part III
The whip handle was too big for my hand. My fingers, only half the length of Father's, threatened to slide from the ridges in the braided leather.
This was the tool of a man, not a boy.
I wouldn't tell him it was too big for me. I wanted Father to know I was ready for more. That I was ready to know more secrets. That I could be responsible like he always talked about being important. I wanted him to trust me like I was not a child.
"You are the heir to our house," my Father had said as he lifted the hilt and long leather tail almost reverently from the hooks on the wall, far above my height. "To each heir is passed down the right and responsibility to keep order. This," he said, turning with the length of leather draped between his upturned palms like a limp snake, "is the symbol of that order. It is a tool, to be used for the greater good."
It wasn't my first time seeing the whip; I knew what it was for. I knew it punished people, and animals who misbehaved. Whenever I lifted my eyes and encountered such a scene, I wanted to look away. But Father had noticed when I did. He made me watch. Now I knew why.
"Take it, my son."
I had stared at it with ill favour. But, in the end, it was only leather. And I took it. And Father, though solemn, was proud.
Following Father up the underground dungeon stairs, through the house, everyone paused to look. Not at me. At the thing in my hands. And then, slowly, up to me. Then quickly away, going about their business.
In the span of a few minutes, I was no longer a child, to be played with and entertained and snuck sweet treats. No longer the bastard child to be pitied and spoiled.
I was the Whip Bearer. The Punisher of Servants.
Now, in the grass, a ways out from the house, I did not want to come out from behind Father. Because I did not want to know what—who—was on the other side.
My father stepped to the side, drawing back the curtain of his tall, broad-shouldered form to reveal a female servant with her head bowed, hands tethered above her head to the short post that had once been part of a corral.
"What did she do?" I whispered.
Father didn't scold me for questioning. Instead, he was quiet a moment, then said, "Always ask yourself that question, Eralynerohm. If you have no answer, the whip is not yours to hold."
I shivered. I did not want to hold it. I did not want to be that person. I had seen the visiting nobles with the whip in their hand. The way they laughed at the screams that followed. I could not be like that. I did not ever want to be like that!
Father turned back and knelt down to my level. "You have a kind heart, my son. This will be difficult for you. You must find a way to separate your personal feelings from what must be done. Disobedience begets disorder; disorder begets bloodshed. You must put an end to this rebellious spirit in a manner that garners respect. Do not confuse this with malice."
"But Father," I protested, "I have seen what can happen when a whipping goes awry! I am untrained! I cannot possibly—"
He put a hand to my shoulder. "There is a technique. It belongs to you; I will teach it to you, as my heir. However, it can only be taught with use. Use is no good without control. You must be in control of yourself always. Control of yourself, of your emotions, of your movements. Of the situation. Of the perpetrator. Then, and only then, can you have mastery of the whip."
"I do not want to, Father."
"I know," he said simply, looking into my eyes. "This is how I know you are ready."
He wrapped his hand around mine—around the handle of the whip—and led me forward. "This servant has been caught stealing."
"Stealing what, Father?"
"Stealing knowledge. Learning the secrets and mysteries of our house. She has used her knowledge of you, and knowledge gained by you, for personal gain amongst the servants. Thankfully, our other servants remain loyal, and perceived the danger before the information was allowed to leave our house. Because of their diligence, your servant's folly can be treated as an indiscretion."
"Raise your face, child."
The female servant raised her head.
It was Sare. Sare, whom I played with. Sare, who had persuaded the older servants to give me sweets. Sare who passed me crudely folded paper cranes during my lessons. Sare whom I excitedly told about the secret tunnels Father showed me on occasion.
Sare, whom I had never even supposed might turn against me. Who seemed to never have thought of me as a bastard child.
She couldn't hold my gaze.
Clenching my teeth, I looked away. With all the adults who sneered at me and scorned me, why did it have to be her? My playmate. My companion. The one who was closest to me.
"You must deal with this infraction yourself, Eralynerohm. Because it is against you. And because she is close to you."
I stepped forward, refusing to look at her. The whip trailed after me through the grass, dead in my hand. "What must I do?"
"Position her…" Father began, and I followed the rest of his instructions one by one in a trance. Position hands, position body, remove or adjust clothing just as much as necessary. Sare began to whisper to me, once her back was to me, urgently trying to redeem herself, to explain, to try to get me to reconsider. I kept silent. I did not wish to speak to her. There was nothing either of us could do to change what was coming.
My knuckles clutched the hilt so hard they shook. I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. I raised my arm, let Father position it. I don't want to do this. Reeled it back. I don't want to do this. Snapped it forward.
Sare's cry was immediate.
It hurt. "How many times, Father?"
"As many as it takes."
I bowed my head, and reeled my arm back again.
"You must look where you wish the lash to land. Elsewise, you might cripple her."
My hand shook, and lowered. I wanted to cry.
I looked up, narrowed my eyes against the sick feeling roiling in my gut, and snapped the whip forward. It cracked this time, and the next. And the next.
The cries changed. The breathless whispers stopped trying to persuade. They weren't for me to hear. She was trying to hide them, to keep them from coming out. Secrets. She was spilling secrets. Her back was bleeding, the tail of the whip serrating itself into a jagged edge, cutting through her creamy skin like butter, connecting new lashes to old, peeling back her flesh. My heart ached, thrashed in my chest. What I was doing was wrong. It was wrong to whip her. Wrong to punish her for doing the right thing. For coming to me. She trusted me. I wanted to drag her into my arms, bury my face in her neck, beg her to forgive me for this horror, for this atrocity, for daring to flay the skin back from something so pure I felt sure she would burn me up from the inside. I was screaming inside, agonizing, shattering. And a sultry male voice was behind me where my Father should have been, laughing, laughing as I hewed my Bre to pieces in the name of saving her life…
I heaved awake, hands fisting in the robe before my eyes.
"Finally, thank the Lady of the Morning," muttered a gratingly familiar alto.
It took more than a moment for my panicked vision to clear. The light of a single glowstone set to the robe owner's hair like moonlight on silver.
"Ye couldst have warned me."
"Warned…what…?" I heaved.
"That thou art the worst sleeper that this world hath ever seen."
My breaths were starting to slow. "Healer?"
"'Tis Mistress Healer to ye."
I noticed finally the healer's casual state of dress—plain, voluminous robes beset by a gray sash, hair in a low, loose tail that had dropped over her slender shoulder. Much of her severity was forced away in this state, retained only in her rapt gaze and the stern purse of her lips. Suddenly it wasn't so difficult to understand why the captain of the guard spoke to her in the manner he had. Though not at all charming, she did have a sort of allure.
"Ye can let go of mine robe now," she said wryly.
I quickly released the folds of fabric. "I meant nothing by it, I assure you."
"Ye put on such a fight in thy sleep that yon guards sent a servant to wake me."
"'Tis nothing of concern," I said, rising into a full sitting position. "Merely dreams."
"Dreams?" she echoed skeptically. "More liken to night terrors, at the very least."
I snorted. "What concern be it of yours?"
"Thou wert yelling in thy sleep, clutching at thy chest."
I leveled her with an even look. "You waste your waking hours on me. Is not sleep a precious commodity to you humans?"
The healer looked at me oddly, as though partially affronted. "Thou art not accustomed to sleeping?"
"I avoid it as often as possible."
She walked toward one of the herb shelves. "I canst create an elixir for insomnia. However, thou must tellest me the cause of thy ailment."
"I could tell you," I said. "But it would not help."
"Telleth unto me regardless." Her eyes stayed perusing the shelves.
"The past," I said quietly. "The past haunts me at night."
The healer paused. "Yes, tragedies undealt with often find their paths back unto the surface."
Tragedies? "How much do you know?" I asked directly. "About my past."
"Enough," she said simply.
Well that was certainly vague "enough" to be unsettling. I had no standard upon which to gauge what she would do, how she would react, if I could not find out what she already knew.
I watched her measure and mix for awhile, before I finally said, "It won't work, you know."
"That remaineth to be seen."
"You're missing the main ingredient."
The healer shot a look over her shoulder. "Dost not assume ye knowest that which I keepeth herein my personal supply."
"I know this ingredient cannot be here."
"Oh? Why canst it not?"
"Because it is elsewhere in this accursed building."
"Thou dost not knowest enough of this structure to knowest that which it doth and doth not contain."
"Yet I know it contains this."
"And where doth we keepeth this 'special ingredient'?"
"In the Correction place. Where it doesn't belong."
The healer paused in pouring. Almost like there were healing ingredients kept there. "To which element doth thou refer?"
"Nothing you would deign to give me."
"Lord Eralynerohm," she warned tersely.
"Bre," I answered finally. "It won't work without Labriella."
"What are you suggesting?" the healer dismissed. "That the girl is some sort of tonic?" When I didn't answer, she wheeled to study me. "Ye art serious."
I scoffed a laugh. "Does it matter? You wouldn't let me anywhere near her. Not as I was before, not as I am now." I wanted to blame her for that. I couldn't—not knowing all that I had done to Bre: whipping her, biting her, her being broken by the Temple on my account. Not knowing all that I could yet do to her, if she was somehow miraculously returned to me. Certainly not after that dream I just had… Bile notched in my throat, burning like the acid on my heart. I deserved every minute of it. Deserved every minute of torture that was coming to me. It may not come now, but it would come, eventually.
"Comest with me."
The silver healer didn't answer, only looked at me sideways and made for the door, through the overnight patients' sleeping quarters. We wove in and out among several rooms, and when we emerged for only a moment to round a corner, I realized we had been following alongside the main path. We turned down the new corridor, and down some stairs, into another. We passed through a vast network of storage rooms, and then veered out into the corridor. It was deserted, but somehow I got the feeling we were not alone.
"Is it wise to be out in the open here?"
"These rooms art heavily warded," the healer responded in a hushed tone. "We canst not pass through undetected."
I heard a faint groan. "What is down here?"
"People and things that ought not to be disturbed."
"You keep people down here?"
"Hush, lad!" she warned. Then paused a moment, listening. The air was still, stuffy, thick. "I keepeth nothing down herein. Now, come." She hooked a finger in my sarobi and dragged me after her down the hall.
"Would you keep me here? Once you have turned me over to your Temple."
"Thy suspicion ist tiresome, even if warranted." The healer stopped before a doorway, listened, and then turned to me. "The next hall ist populated. From herein on, thou art a manservant. Thou shalt not speak. Thou shalt lower thine eyes. If they see thine eyes, thou shalt be detained. If thou speaketh, thy heritage wilt betray thee, and thou shalt be detained in one of thy favourite warded rooms onst this block. Dost thou understand?"
"Do I have any choice?"
"Thou may turneth back."
Go back? Back to that accursed room of "healing" I had been cooped up in against my will for two days, hiding from anyone and everyone, pretending like her assistant wouldn't rat me out the second she thought up a good reason to escape correction? Go back, no closer to finding Bre? Yea, no thank you. "I understand. But know this, Healer: If this is a trap—"
She was already unhooking her finger from my person. "Then thou shalt be trapped." She ignored my glower and waltzed around the corner on her right, through the arch.
I growled. Seethed. I can't believe I'm doing this… I whirled around the corner after her, blank mask of indifference in place. Harder to maintain as a human, but still viably passable.
The hall before us was indeed populated, though it was hardly a crowd. It was the middle of the night, and the only people up and standing about were guards. The occupants of this place didn't like to be up and about when it was dark. I had even overheard someone reference the night as "the ungodly hours." I wondered how they could even tell which hour it was, or how much sunlight had passed, within their towering stone walls. But the servants scurrying about during the day seemed to determine the hour from sunlight filtering through the high stained-glass window slits just fine. I had even overheard references to courtyards other than the one I landed in. How quaint. I wondered if they were just as uninhabited as the place of my arrival.
I was unaccustomed to looking anywhere but up and forward, so keeping my eyes trained on the floor as I walked proved problematic. Mostly I was fighting not to stride straight into the back of the healer. If I veered too much to the side, I risked a collision course with walls and columns.
Thankfully, the stretch we walked was not the entire length of the corridor. The healer halted in front of a set of double doors. They looked unnecessarily solid.
She knocked twice.
I had an odd sense of whatever lay on the other side of this door. Little pinches arose all along my arms; the hairs were standing on end. "What is this place?" I murmured.
"Stay close," the healer murmured back, right before one of the doors hauled open. Blackness yawned beyond. She raised her glowstone, letting the soft light faintly illumine the walls. They tapered closer together from the doorspan, as if leaning to touch one another. I startled when the door thudded shut behind us and I heard a cough.
The guards were on the inside.
I didn't like this. I didn't like this at all.
"Healer," I began, my voice extremely low. I was not overly fond of echoes…
She started down the path of tapering walls. Shit. Keep up or get left behind.
The tunnel wound right, wound left, and stretched straight, and for the first time I began to comprehend why humans so averted to the dark. The inky black extended indefinitely, erasing the shape of the world even as the walls pressed us from both sides. I disliked confined spaces. Greatly disliked. But there was something charmingly familiar about underground tunnels. Something that made me think perhaps I had not always disliked them. I admitted to myself that having a wall to one's back, or a hidden solitary route, might be comforting. But a wall on either side meant being forced in a particular direction, and there were only two ways to go: forward into a trap, or backward into the guards.
…That was, until there were forks in the path. At each one, the healer's hand coasting along the wall paused, searched for something, and then she continued.
I placed my hand on the wall, at the same height. It zapped me.
The healer turned at my hiss. "Not so easy, ist it," she mused, before continuing on. "Ye wouldst do well not to stray. Ye might not findeth thy return."
"How can you find it?"
"The wards channel in a particular direction," she answered. "Amidst yon chaos, therein lies order. The stream flows through the ocean, and the gates unlock for it."
I have no idea what that means.
"For the present, I suggest ye refrain from singeing another layer of skin off ye. These walls art made to learneth thee and preventeth thee from escape. All those with the Gift canst be tracked thus."
"You mean the walls are tracking you." That was alarming. But not a completely foreign concept to me. My family home had properties of its own.
"Didst I sayeth unto thee that I possesseth the Gift?"
"You could not know how to channel Power, and instruct, unless you have channeled Power yourself."
"Canst I not?" I could picture her brow raising with that tone. "'Tis a Power training facility, 'tisn't this? Why shouldst it be surprising?"
"More like 'Power-harbouring,'" I grumbled. "'Power-controlling.'"
"Control ist not a sin, child. 'Tis in how the control ist utilized. To what end."
"And what end does this Temple have, that is not 'sinful'?"
"Labriella was found at a noble party, onst a noble estate. From yon gathering, I presume thou canst hypothesize that which might transpire if nobility retaineth the Gift for themselves."
"And your Temple is any better?" No sooner had the words left my mouth, than a crushing force pressed in on me from either ear. I hissed, and bent, almost forced to take a knee.
"Be thou careful what thou sayest. We art nearly to the Correction Grounds. The Obedience Wards herein runneth deep. Thy words may invoketh penalty."
I thought of Bre, cowering before the whip. Touching me in spite of it. Her whispered denials and refusals to a perpetrator I could not see. The way she hyperventilated when I asked her questions, coaxed her to reveal her secrets from years ago. The effect still upon her, still demanding her allegiance to this place, calling her to refuse to call her priest a liar even when she disbelieved his words.
How could Bre survive in this place? How was she able to survive and still disagree?
Maybe she didn't disagree. Maybe, for some reason, she was holding onto me, even though she believed I was a monster.
We rounded a corner, and came upon a reasonably wide hallway. One with actual doors on either side, close together like stalls, and even a few storage boxes in the middle fitted together into a makeshift table. One of the stalls looked to have been converted into an overseer's office. Two guards and a servant were seated at the table.
The servant jumped up immediately upon sight and scurried to the background. The guards stood to come to attention. I remembered at the last minute to concentrate on the floor.
"The grace of the goddess be to you, Mistress Healer," the guards chorused.
"'Tis the mid of the night! What art ye doing herein?"
"By order of the Master of Sentence, two persons must be stationed to keep watch over the Correction Grounds at all times.
"To guard yon Runaway, ye meaneth to say."
Neither guard responded.
"Wary of a child, is he?" The healer's tone was condescending, almost sour, like the offender's actions left a bitter lemon taste in her prim mouth. She started forward, but the guards failed to move out of her way.
"Requesting your pardon, Mistress, but we are under direct orders to deter any visitors to overnight correctees."
"Art thou not also responsible for the well-being of those under thy charge?"
The guards glanced discreetly over their shoulders. It was barely a twitch—a twitch in the servant's direction.
Damn, I was not supposed to be looking. Eyes back on the ground.
"Ye there. Lau Everett, was it?"
"Yes, Mistress? How can I be of service?"
Everett? The "noticed" weasel-boy whom I was supposed to wait for outside of this impregnable fortress? Who failed to mention anything about being personally responsible for guarding or attending to Bre? My hand knotted itself into a ball.
"Art thou the one assigned to the Runaway?" The healer was playing like she didn't know him. But she did. She had to. He'd brought the hag's message to her, after all.
"I merely bring food and drink, and clear away the wastes, Mistress."
"Then thou art the one with whom I am herein to speak."
"M-me, Mistress?" He sounded somewhat alarmed. Nervous.
You should be more than alarmed, Weasel. When I get my claws on you…
"The Runaway ist to be kept alive, is she not?"
"Ist she consuming the food thou setteth before her?"
"N-no, Mistress," he said quietly. "She does not look to it."
"O-of course, Mistress."
"Forgive us, Mistress," spoke up one of the guards, "but we canna let ya visit the transgress'r."
"Oh?" Her tone lifted like the edge of a knife blade. "And I suppose ye wouldst like to explaineth unto thy master that ye allowed thy charge to starveth herself unto death?"
A low growl vibrated up into my throat. It didn't resound the way it used to, but I still made sure my lips sealed over it.
"Forgive us Mistress, but our orders—"
"Art to deny access to the healer assigned to thy charge by the Prime Magister himself?"
I heard muffled stamping…They were shuffling. Shuffling meant they were uneasy. Who was this "Prime Magister"? I logged his name into my memory banks. Anyone who had the dominance to assign this healer anywhere was an alpha worthy of opposing—a being to be held directly responsible for what had happened and was currently happening to Bre. The male to oppose, if this Temple were to be forced to stop hunting and tracking Bre.
"We mean no disrespect, Mistress—"
"This 'tisn't about disrespect. 'Tis about performing thy duty. Must it be spelled out for ye that which thy guardianship of thy charge entails? Wouldst thou be guarding well thy charge, if thou wert to let thy charge harmeth herself? To perish of preventable illness in thy care?! From what dost thou guard thy dying charge? From aid? Lau Everett!"
"Yes, Mistress!" That weasel-boy must have snapped to attention. I almost smirked.
"Thou shalt leadeth me unto the Runaway afore she averts the remainder of her correction by committing the sin of negligent suicide!"
"Y-yes Mistress! At once, Mistress!"
Damn. Remind me to never get into an argument with her. That was one smart-mouthed bitch.
The guards must have stood aside, because a second later I was following the healer's white-robed back and red boots down the remainder of the hallway, and into another tunnel. Closed spaces, closed spaces…There, it opened up again. Closed again, open again. A turn. Another hallway. A turn. We stayed in this tunnel a long time, past several perpendicular hallways. Static raised the hackles on my arms, on the back of my neck, disappearing as suddenly as it came. And then the tunnel widened slightly into a hallway. It looked like a scarce-used tunnel that had been converted into a storage room. There were irons in one corner, with wooden horses stacked near. Wooden crates pyramided in the center; a few paces in, two posts came into view behind.
Whipping posts. Far enough apart to restrain two prisoners side by side, to have one watch while interrogating the other. Close enough together to string one person up between the two. The floor sloped slightly from either post, to a single small drain strategically placed between the two posts. A blood drain.
This place was meant for prisoners of war.
Who the hell was this Temple at war against, that they would lock up a runaway servant girl for treason like she was a deserter?
The weasel-runt approached a door in the middle. A lone torch burned in the bracket outside the door. Like someone was expecting us…or like someone had just been here.
"A moment, please, Mistress," the scrawny male said, lifting the torch out of the bracket.
"Now, child," the healer pressed. "I wouldst see the state of yon correction chamber in its true condition."
The boy nodded. "As you please, Mistress." His eyes flickered back to me. His gaze was sharper than I had given him credit for.
I met it head-on. In this lone hallway, just the three of us, I could take him.
"I have not seen this man before, Mistress. He is not cleared to enter."
The weasel messenger didn't recognize me?! Well that explained why he was acting so bold…Wait, no claws, no fangs. I was human. He didn't recognize me because I was human.
I wondered if my glare could still back him into a corner.
I was about to try it, when the healer said, "Never thee mind about him. He owes me a favour."
Like hell I owed her anything.
"Art ye wont to open yon door, or shall I?" She made it sound like opening it herself would be an affront.
The servant gave me a last hard look before he reached for the two-and-a-half-foot metal bolt.
My shaky fingers ventured toward the stone wall yet another time. The feel of the rounded rectangular-cut stone beneath my calluses had become familiar long before the hundredth trace. I needed it. Needed to know that it was there. Needed to know something was there. Even if it was only a wall.
Third Hubris felt a lifetime ago. Yet it stood out clear in my mind from the other questionings. Dozens of times replayed in my head, like the loop of a noose, and yet, different words, different order, they didn't matter; each loop came back the same. Each loop landed me in chains.
Each loop landed me in this corner.
I liked the corner. It was predictable, and it was solid, and no matter what they did to my back, I didn't have to face them. No part of me was safe. But they didn't like trying to pull me out of the corner to talk to me. They'd try, and it'd hurt, but after awhile they'd give up and go away.
They brought the light with them when they came. Sometimes they'd bring simple food. Bread. Porridge.
I didn't want it.
I'd stopped trying to avoid their questions. Who is he, Why take you, Explain how you got those marks. I was done making up near-misses; I was done pretending. I was done speaking.
I wished I was done thinking. My mind didn't shut off, even without food. It sent me stronger, bolder memories. Things to take up space and form in the dark. Whispers, ghosted touches.
I liked the corner. I could feel the walls, and know the pictures were not real.
But every once in awhile, when I saw the pictures, when I saw Rome…I wished they were.
And then I found myself wishing I was being lashed, because at least then I wouldn't feel this pain in my heart. Like the distance from him was unbearable. Like never seeing him again was unbearable. Like I almost wished he'd get caught too, just so he could be here with me.
No. No, I didn't wish that. I just…wanted him here, with me. To make this place better. To be my big strong wolf who scared all the other wolves away. I wanted him to lick my hand and kiss my neck and whisper how foolish I'd been, to block out the rest of the world with his broad shoulders and make me believe that he was real. For all the words, all the questions, to cease to matter, because he was going to do something that was going to blow everything else out of the water. I wanted that teasing smile, that crooked finger, that invitation to come into his other world, where the natural rules of law and order and oath did not apply. Where being with him could be a commitment unto itself.
Not that he saw it that way. Not that he even thought of me that way. Maybe that priest who was here before was right. Maybe Rome didn't care about me. Maybe he was using me, to get what he wanted.
Maybe I was just a thorn in his side.
It didn't matter. Not in here. He wouldn't come in here. He never came here before; he wouldn't come here now. I was in too deep, in far over my head. There was no one to help me now.
No one would save me.
I was dying inside, I could feel it. My will to live was almost sapped. My interrogators had started to mutter to one another in the hall about how long I'd last and whether or not I could be motivated to cooperate, like baiting a bird with seed. They didn't even bother to close the door.
I might be executed soon.
I wasn't afraid to die.
...Yes I was. It terrified me. Like the darkness nibbling at me in my little sturdy corner. Death was that darkness. Death was an abyss looming over my corner, waiting to swallow me whole. If I turned my back to it, it didn't exist. There were just these walls. There was just this corner. Just this corner, until time was up.
They'd been talking about forcing me to eat. Like making my time longer would somehow make a difference.
That was what came to mind when the bolt clacked out of the lock, and my corner of world emerged from the shadows.
The light was golden. It flickered on the gray. My eyes gravitated to it, watching it dance.
"Labriella." I flinched. The voice was a familiar. "Ye cannot starve thyself like this. Ye must keep up thy strength!"
There was nothing to keep up strength for. I was done.
When I didn't turn, didn't respond, she sighed. "If'n thou wilt not listen unto me, perhaps thou wilt hear another."
Footsteps: slow, dragging, unsteady. They tripped to a stop next to me. Fabric rustled. The voice was quiet, so quiet. Hesitant. "Bre…?"
My heart stopped. My eyes dared not blink. That voice. I knew that voice. That voice from an age ago, when it stole my girlish heart.
It's not real. It's not real.
"Bre, it's me."
I started to tremble. I couldn't believe.
"Skies, Bre, look at me."
I shook my head, biting back a whimper. I couldn't look at the voice. If I looked, my eyes would betray me. If I looked, the darkness would catch me.
"Speaketh unto her, boy."
"What do you think I'm doing?!" The whisper was harsh, frustrated. My shoulders hunched up, shielding my ears.
"Hath thee no bedside manner at all?"
A hiss of air through teeth. Then, "Speak about what?"
"Have you nothing in common? No shared experiences?"
It was quiet. Dead quiet. So quiet, I thought they'd left.
"What a hopeless, useless fool thou art." The boots tread away. Silence settled in their wake. But the wall still flickered.
"You were the most hopeless, scrawny little human creature I had ever seen."
"You had absolutely no sense of danger; no sense of direction. I had to blatantly leave footprints in the pine needles for you to follow. And that was when you were only a couple yards behind me."
I let my head sink. Wait…When would I have been lost? I knew the Temple, even if there were areas I hadn't explored. And…pine needles?
"You were never supposed to see me; humans never look up. They just bury their heads in their troubles and stumble onto our feeding ground. But you." He sighed. "You had to look up, didn't you. You had to chase me. You had to entice me and groom me and trick me. Even when we were young. Twisting your fingers in my hair…'Let me twist and tie your hair!' 'I need to practice braids!' Like I was your damn doll. Like I was…" His voice got whisper-hoarse. "Yours."
…Mine? But I didn't have anyone. At least, not…
No, I wasn't going to question. Wasn't going to think. He was tricking me. This hallucination, this interrogator, this whoever-he-really-was was trying to make me think so they could try to get more out of me again. Using Power to trick my senses into thinking he was really someone else.
Well, I wasn't talking.
"You weren't supposed to choose me. You weren't ever supposed to choose me. Not when you saw me. Not when I saved you. Not at the wedding. Not—"
"Not over Lord Alonza?" The words scratched and strangled in my throat, a muddled mess.
No answer. Then, "What…did you say?"
Stupid. Stupid me. I'd broken my silence. I'd actually said those words aloud! Now they had fuel. Now they had something new to torment me with. Now they had something new to get out of me.
A hand landed on my shoulder, and I shied. The hand quickly receded. "I…I won't touch you, if you don't want—" The voice was cracked, faint. "I didn't…What the hell…?" A sharp intake of breath. "Blood reigns, Bre, what the hell have they done to you?!" Razors cut through his soft tone like the shards of the whip. I cringed into the corner; I couldn't cram enough of me into it.
Fingers traced over me, featherlight. Exploring. Stinging over my wounds. I chomped through my lip in my attempt not to cry out. I failed against a whimper.
"I'll kill them for this."
Shock set me rigid.
They wouldn't know that. They wouldn't know the real-life owner of this voice would want that—not in response to me being hurt. That was the kind of thing I even blocked out of my own head, my own memories.
Slowly I lifted my head. It took most of my strength. But I had to get my eyes out from behind my arm. I had to see…
An unruly waterfall of dark hair fell into a tail at the crook of a lean shoulder, dematerializing from there into the shadows. He was on the wrong side of the torchlight, and it was hard to get a good look at him. From this side, this angle, he looked like the Prince of Shadows himself.
"Who are you?" I rasped.
"Do not jest. I passed through hell to get here."
Hell?! Coming for me? "Why?" I whispered, terrified. I didn't want anything to do with that!
"You cannot seriously be asking me that. Look around you! You are in a prison cell. There are chains hanging from the ceiling!" His tone ground to gravel. "You're bleeding—starving—in a corner. You can't stay here."
This Prince of Darkness wanted to take me with him back to Hell?! I knew I had done wrong in the eyes of my temple, knew I was in line for execution, but Hell was too far! I wouldn't go into the darkness with him! He'd eat my soul!
"No!" I shouted. The dark one startled. "Go back to Hell! I'm not coming with you! Even if I die today, I'm not coming with you!"
"Bre…" He said, voice pained, cracked, pleading.
"Don't call me that! You have no right to call me that! I know what you're trying to do, and I won't go with you! I'm not that far gone!"
It was silent for a beat. Two. The creature's dark mane fell forward. "I see." He rose, dark and formidable against the backdrop of light. "Your temple always was more important to you than I was."
His hand balled into a fist. "You want to starve and bleed to death in a corner, fine. I can't make you leave."
The silhouette swiveled and marched brusquely back toward the light.
The door groaned closed on its own. Before it shut out the last of the light, the Prince of Darkness turned his face aside, as though addressed.
The face he wore was unforgivable. Not just unforgivable: impossible. A youthful face of long ago, chiseled into the sloping contours of a man.
The sliver of light left the door to prick my heart with doubt.
I couldn't let them get to me. It was just another mind game. But…They shouldn't know that face.
What if they had Rome? Or…
What if Rome was already dead?
"Giving up already, art ye?"
I glanced askance at the healer, and let her see every ounce of hatred I had for her in that moment. "What you have done to her is an abomination."
"The Mistress has done nothing but kindness to her! You have no right to speak ill to the Mistress! Be careful, lest it be you in the cell next to her."
My gaze rounded on the weasel slowly. "Was that a threat?" My voice was deadly soft. "Please say that was a threat. I could use a fight right about now."
"Era—" Static crackled through the air. Raised the irritating-as-rain hairs on my arms. Felt like tree ants had mistaken my arms for branches.
"—Lad, think rationally. The Runaway is not in her right mind."
"And whose fault is that, pray tell?"
"Not mine. Not Lau Everett's."
"You think I know not that you are but pawns? You think this patience is for you?" Patience was for the hunt. The hunt was not over.
The silver healer stared hard at me. "Everett. Keep your silence. Return to the guards. There is nothing to see here."
I slipped a long metal stirring stick out of my waistband and threw it. It struck into the door of the cell next to him. He jumped away from it, back into the main part of the hallway. "Oh, I think the weasel can stay. I have unfinished business with this untrustworthy messenger of yours. Fucking information leak is what he is."
"Now is not the time to play noble, Boy."
"Why ever not?" I said, cocking my head, twirling a second stick. I had been practicing. My dexterity was weakened, but my fingers were starting to remember. A good throw could cover a multitude of weaknesses, even if my aim was terrible. I never was good at horseshoes. Or dagger throwing. "We have all the elements here. Noble bitch," I said, indicating her with the stick. "Whipping posts. Prison cellar. Servant. Only thing we need is a traitor…Oh wait." I revolved partially at the knee, averting my eyes to implicate the stage-frightened weasel. "We have that too."
The silver bitch took a step toward me. "Be not sore, just because ye didst not receive the welcome thou desired."
"'The welcome I've desired?'" I scoffed. I glowered at her. "You have no idea what the hell I desire."
"Silence, Weasel. The adults are talking."
"What is it, Everett?"
"The guard will change soon, Mistress."
The healer and I both glanced at him. He looked like he was trying not to cringe under our combined attention. But I wasn't really seeing him, and I doubted the healer was either.
The fact of the matter was Weasel-boy was our only shot at getting in and out of that cell, and all three of us knew it. The weasel might not have recognized me from the outside-of-Temple world, but he sure as hell was going to remember me now. However, that meant nothing but trouble without the silver healer present to shoot off venom with her silver pronged tongue. My hand's brief contact with Bre's shoulder was all I needed to know her back was an oozing ruin. Any further injury—any additional flogging—and she might die. One meal too many without food, or without water, and she would die. One bad report from this snarky weasel, and she might die.
Bre might not want to leave here, and especially not with me. But if she didn't, she would die.
I couldn't do that. I couldn't leave her to die, even if she wanted me trapped in that Bell Tower Hell for eternity.
I strode toward Bre's cell door.
The healer's hand caught mine over the bolt. "What art thou doing?"
"What in hell do you think I'm doing?"
"This is not why I brought thee herein."
"No," I agreed, "you brought me here to torment me. If not to throw me in the next cell over." I glanced into her eyes, almost an eyeroll. "I didn't come along for you."
"Wilt thou not stop brooding on thy misconceived woes for even one moment? This art bigger than thee!"
"I think not. I may be estranged from your society, but I am not so ignorant as you think. And I am not willing to be your dirty little secret any longer."
"Ignorance?! Thou dost not even understand that of which thou speakest!"
"Enlighten me," I deadpanned.
"Not herein," she murmured, actually glancing around.
Not a dirty little secret, my ass. She was filled with dirty little secrets. This whole place was. I was done being one. "Get out of my way, bitch. Before I forget myself and you find yourself bearing a new hole."
"Use reason! Thou canst not acteth upon a whim!"
"Premeditation is not a whim. Unhand me!" I shoved my elbow at her, but she wrestled my forearm.
"Control thyself!" she hissed, voice urgent. "Thou canst not breaketh her out of this Wing!"
"The hell I can't!" I seethed. "Watch me!"
"Listen to me, thou hardheaded savage! Thou must leaveth her for now!"
I growled, eyes narrowing. "Over my dead body!"
"That very well might be the case!"
"What the hell do you care? I'm just a fucking obstacle to you!"
"Man up, Boy! There is more at stake here than your childish whims. She is but one piece! If thou art half the strategist thy sire was, thou shouldst be able to see that clearly!"
My cheeks blazed with anger. "You are fucking with the wrong goddamn piece!"
"Set your lust aside and think, Boy! Think!"
"I've had e-fucking-nough of your deranged Temple games! I have no patience left for you —You can thank that fucking cur Alonza for that!"
"Alonza. Lord Alonza? He wast killed by thee?" She was staring at me, and I didn't like that realization dawning in her steel eyes. "Oh dear Lady Above. Thou art the new House Head."
"Beg pardon?" I bared my teeth, affronted. "How dare you associate me with that—"
"Thy sire. Thy sire resigned as House Head. T'was chaos for a while. Dost thou remember?"
"Your mind betrays you, Healer. I haven't the faintest idea what you are talking about."
"Silence, Everett." The healer shot ice over my shoulder. "Not a word. Not a breath. Dost thou comprehend? Speak!"
"Y-Yes, Mistress! O-Of course, Mistress!"
The healer clasped both of her slender, iron hands about my bicep, razor-rapt attention again targeted upon me. "Art thou the natural-born son of thy sire? Think carefully. Art thou of his line?"
"I don't have to think about that!" I seethed. "I know my own damn father!"
"Yet thou art not human. Think!"
"I am a bastard noble!" I hissed in her face, unable to completely catch my wince. "Not a bastard commoner!"
"Those of your household, and others—visitors—they didst not treat thou different?" She was studying me carefully.
"Of course they did!" I spat. "I'm a half-blood!"
Her eyes softened a fraction. "But there wast never question. About thy parentage. About from whom thy heritage might originate."
My brow furrowed. "Of course not!"
"And thy mother was fully human."
"Go check your Temple records, if you're so damn curious!"
"I have." She was looking at me strangely. "If the records art complete, thou canst not be an heir and a First."
"Then look for your damn First elsewhere! I've had enough of this 'First' shit. I have a bitch to save!"
"And that is exactly," she said sternly, "why I am concerned."
"Let someone else bear the brunt of your 'concern,' Silver Girl!"
The healer sighed. A deep, exhaling, exhausted sort of sound. Her hand found my chest, and she pushed.
My vision went grayscale. Shadows became light, lights became shadow. I hear a faint, muffled scream. It wasn't mine.
I was being shaken by a white-haired being with a black face. "What hath thou done, thou fool?!"
I couldn't move. Couldn't blink. Couldn't breathe. My lungs were paralyzed. I'd been turned inside out.
Power. The bitch had Power after all. Scary Power. I'd never been so petrified in my entire goddamn life.
She slapped my cheek. "Wake up, lad. Wake!" Slap. "We have to go. Wake! Now!"
I could feel my will to wake up drifting, drifting. Began to sink under.
I felt a prick. A tug. Needle-sharp pain lanced like a whip through me, lifted my hand. Pain blossomed and burned on my fingertips, gathering…released. My whole body shocked to the ground.
"Are you okay, Mistress?!"
"Yes." She sounded out of breath. "Assist me to get him out of here, Everett."
"But Mistress! He tried to kill you!"
"I disagree. I think his body is trying to free itself of mine influence. Get him unto his feet!"
"But Mistress, if he is a First—"
"Thou never heard tale of a First, ye understand!?"
"But Mistress Elsa said—"
"Y-yes Mistress." He didn't sound happy about it. I wasn't happy about it either. But there was not much either of us could do—a beast-turned-human and a servant, trapped in a prison catacomb with a life-stopping silver girl.
A/N: Betcha didn't see THAT one coming! :O Mistress Healer, the not-so-Powerless?!
A little blending of 2 separate memories of Rome's in the opening flashback/nightmare. Hopefully it gives you some new insight into how Rome feels about whipping and about his noble heritage, plus another look at Rome's father.
Catch you next chapter, if not on Twitter!
~Seriah Black Sheep