Cloak is already awake and sitting at his desk when I walk into his chambers for another round of counseling. He hardly acknowledges my presence and grips onto a piece of parchment tighter to avoid looking at me or granting me the ability to exist in his realm of thought. At least he isn't face down on his bed, cuddling an empty bottle as he did the day before.
The parchment scattered over the surface of his desk has no organizational value, and I spot the dripping end of a quill pen clutched between two of his meaty fingers. This is a good start, I suppose. Since he's awake and of sound mind, I might get some answers out of him and further the false healing process set in place by the queen of Rivian.
"Good morning," I chide.
He muffles something short of a grunt and squints at the faint words scribbled over the sand-covered surface. Like he's trying to soak into the parchment and disappear entirely. I drop my satchel onto the floor and gather parchment of my own, as well as a similar quill pen to the one he grasps. My movements don't halt his focus in the slightest.
My back strains to stand straight once more. I managed to sleep, but not without tossing and turning on the rough cot and earning myself a stiff back. The crack in the roof of my room was taken care of by a servant once I gathered the courage to ask her for assistance—leading to shoving a clump of daub within the open slit of stone. For the next few hours, my mind was at ease and I gained the much-needed sleep I missed on my first night in the palace.
Cloak scribbles something on the parchment. His handwriting glides over the page with little effort, like a fine prince. I smirk to myself, and for the sake of ignoring me, he doesn't notice.
"We should get started," I try once more. "We have a long day ahead of us—full of questioning and learning about your condition."
Still, he chooses to ignore me. I walk over to the sofa, covered in an array of clothing items, and shove aside a surcoat to sit on the armrest. It's not ideal, but my notes aren't for the eyes of anyone else. They're for me, and me alone, to study late in the evening to decide what the hell I'm supposed to do with a stubborn prince.
So far, the conclusion to this story isn't complete. I have no idea how I'm supposed to get this beast to cooperate with what needs to happen, and there's little motivation if he doesn't care about my life. And his mother is too smart to believe I healed him in a matter of two days, only to have him fall back into a similar routine once I depart back to Gudgeon Docks.
I stare at the back of his head and wait. Cloak is doing everything in his power to believe I'm not here, at his back, waiting for him to swivel in the chair and provide full, undivided attention.
"Cloak," I say. He doesn't turn. I wait a moment, then try again. "Cloak, we need to get started." His shoulder tenses, but that is the only reaction he gives.
He responds well to a rough hand.
Internally, I beat myself down for what I'm about to do. If Setsuko's advice gets me killed, at least I can say I stood up to someone that works closely with the Raven Queen. In my afterlife, I can share stories with my father about what I experienced about the palace, and I have the opportunity to debunk many of the false stories he told over the years. If only he was alive for me to return home and tell him he wasn't right about the tales of royalty.
Cloak doesn't hear me coming, or he decides not to. I round the side of his desk, stopping at his shoulder, and grab the parchment in his grasp. As he doesn't except such a bold move, the silky surface slips through his fingers and folds into mine, fluttering into the air before I fold it behind my back in a shaking clasp.
For a moment, he doesn't move. Cloak's entire body remains perfectly still. Hands aloft, stare straight ahead towards the invisible words behind my back and breathing steady. Then, his lips curl away from his teeth and he pivots, standing from the chair so fast that I hardly have time to react. A deep growl rumbles from the depths of his throat and he towers over me, staring down the bridge of his nose at the woman that possibly made the biggest mistake of her life.
My instinct is to step back, but there's hardly enough room. The wall barricades me into the corner of the room and I'm trapped, all with a looming Cloak inches away from my face. His voice is hushed when he speaks. "How foolish are you?" he hisses. Those autumn eyes narrow. "I strongly advise you to never—" he reaches behind me and snatches the parchment "—do something like that again."
I tip my head back to meet his stare straight on. Although he hasn't had a drink since the night before, possibly hours ago this morning, his breath still reeks of what clings to his tongue. I can't say that's something I've never experienced before—the fishermen were the worst when it came to chugging bottles on the open seas and drowning themselves in dehydration surrounded by saltwater. The many thrown overboard never arrived back at the docks after going insane and threatening their crew. Left to the sirens, their bodies never returned in one solid piece.
"If you haven't yet discovered, it's very dangerous to go against me." As good a threat as any.
"This will be easier on both of us if you cooperate," I offer. He growls again and my body tells me to cower, but I stand taller than I have in a long time. "Listen to me, do as I ask, and this will be over before you know it."
He stares at me for a long moment. I take this chance to study his features—the harsh scar cutting from his mouth and to the middle of his cheek, the old wounds plaguing the rest of his face in rough patches and harsh lines. I see why people fear him so much, why the Luminaries or anyone sane runs in the other direction when they see the notorious Cloak coming to terminate lives. It's the horns, the scars, the harsh frown—everything—that gives him the edge.
"Fine," he grumbles.
I'm so in shock by his acceptance that I take a few seconds to move away from the wall after he plops down onto the sofa and sends clothes seeping into the crushed cushions. He pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes like a headache is already forming despite only sharing a presence with me for a short time.
The seat he vacated is warm. I dip my quill into the inkwell and prepare a clean, white sheet of parchment to write on. This is a matter of getting something done as quickly as possible before Cloak snaps and decides this isn't worth his time. If I was desperate, I'd barricade the door and order the guards on the other side not to let him through until I'm done asking the necessary questions. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if he took his chances with the windows.
Satisfied with his acceptance, I straighten my spine.
"Ask what you desire," he says from the sofa. "But I make no promises to cooperate, or give you the answers you seek."
Fine by me. At least we're speaking to each other.
My memories take me back to the day before. I sat in the dining hall, watching Cloak train with Gustus for what felt like hours. I couldn't tear my eyes away from their swift motions, the rapid rise and fall of their chests as they tried to catch their breaths after falling into a bout. In the end, Cloak was the winner but Gustus took his loss as an opportunity to fault his brother for all the things he failed todo right.
Neither of them came out the winner when Cloak threw his sword at the wall and stomped off. The blade remains lodged between the cracks until enough guards can test their strength with pulling it out.
"Tell me about your hobbies," I begin. An easy question, and nothing that toes the line between what is acceptable and what will start a fire in his skull.
"I like to sword fight and meditate—alone."
As if I would want to do either of those things with him. My persistence to wiggle into his life stops after these meetings. I scribble those notes onto the page, also noting his anger with thoughts of improvement from the day before. Possibly why he finds himself unable to comprehend the value of life—someone is always trying to make him improve when it's unnecessary. I scribble down that it's possible he doesn't see himself as being 'good enough' in the eyes of his family or fellow fighters.
"All right, what about your lifestyle? Do you wish to have a different occupation?" I question. "Maybe a different life altogether?"
He sighs. "I don't...no, I don't wish for a different occupation or life. I suppose there are factors I wish I could change, but—"
I cringe when he stops himself short. Two questions and terrible answers are not what I plan to get out of this. I need more for the queen to decide I'm worthy to keep around.
"My lifestyle is fine, to say the least. In fact, like every other day, I don't have time for this. I need to prepare for departure tomorrow."
"What for?" I whirl to face him, finding that he's still lying there with no intention of rising. This is just his way of making me leave when it's unnecessary.
"My forces received word of a possible Luminary in the capital. It's a close case, but dangerous considering my spies have a strong superstition that the Luminary plans to use their power to go after the Raven Queen," he explains in a dull tone. How can he be so calm about this? Right, it's not his life on the line.
No one else in the land is willing to protect Luminaries. We fight for ourselves and die at the hands of those that didn't expend the effort to protect us. This could be it, my chance to help. I know little about depression or loss of interest hindering life, but I can gather the smallest kernel of resemblance to what Cloak is feeling.
I lost sense of what mattered after I realized there was no removing what the Void Queen instilled in me. Long nights spent fearing for my life turned into days of no sleep and shaking hands. I lost weight, couldn't eat or keep any food down. Reaching the lowest of lows, I lost consciousness and waking to find Castiel's frightened stare was enough to make me turn the page.
Other Luminaries have endured the same struggles and having the Panjandrum Corps search for them to end their life is another trial entirely.
I cap the inkwell. "Great, I'll go with you," I say.
At that, he raises his head off the sofa.
"I'll help you find the Luminary. I despise magic as much as the Panjandrum Corps, so I think I'd be a good fit to provide my expertise, considering I possess magical abilities as well."
Cloak laughs outright. His eyes crinkle as he tries to hide a chuckle, failing miserably. I shoot him a warning look and he smothers the laugh, though a smirk still plays on his lips. He clears his throat and says, "In no way is that happening. I will not allow a weak member of society to infiltrate a serious operation such as the Panjandrum Corps. That's not happening."
I display my best frown and prepare to retort. But like many of these meetings, I'm interrupted. This time, a muffled knock at the door keeps me from defending myself from the one beast in the palace I'm meant to befriend. Everyone else, Gustus included, is here to push me along and offer suggestions on how to dance around the subject of Cloak's condition. They've ignored it until now.
Cloak doesn't receive the chance to ask who is knocking, for the door opens and a woman peeks her head in. I recognize her from the day before; she was one member watching Cloak and Gustus go through their training routine while angry steam rose from their bodies.
Like Cloak, she's a feliram. The gentle wave of her horns swim from the base of her platinum blonde hair and stop at the back of her skull, pointing straight out to whatever floats behind her. She's not an ordinary friend, or even a woman coming to tend to Cloak's needs. Her armor tells otherwise, as does the lean frame of her body, ribbed with noticeable muscle and a toned jaw. She strides into the room on thick thighs, looking between the two of us with a sense of confusion that can only be described as what my association might be with the prince.
I'm not here to tend to his nightly needs. That's the last reason I'm here.
Like it's a child and not a slab of leather, she clutches a folder in her grasp, folded into the crook of her arm, and grabs it with two fingers to extend towards Cloak. All the while, she keeps her rust-brown eyes on me. "Here's the final report for tomorrow," she says to no one in particular. More to me than the man acting like a child on the couch. "I'd like you to look it over and ensure corrections aren't necessary."
That answers the question of her association, then. She's a member of the Panjandrum Corps, same as Cloak, and someone high on the list of who he trusts. As she wouldn't enter the chambers of a prince without proper identification first. If the guards didn't stop her and ask for her business, then she must come here often. I look between the two of them, but Cloak reveals nothing as to their association with each other. If they're beyond friends or associates that can't stand to be in the same room.
In the dark of Cloak's chambers, a shadow cast by closed curtains, her magenta skin is darkened to near black. Sprits of it catch in streams of sunlight breaking through the cracks of velvet fabric, but the hardness of her face remains mostly under cover. Protected against the strange woman she has yet to encounter.
Cloak sits up with a grunt and hunches over the folder now spread in the palm of his hand. The woman turns on me completely, ignoring her associate, and places her hands on wide hips.
"Keaya Bonesworn of Panjandrum Corps," she introduces, pairing the statement with a jerk of her sharp chin. "And you are?"
I glance back at Cloak, but he's too involved in the report to care whether Keaya plans to throttle me. It wouldn't matter—better my blood is on her hands than his. That way, the Raven Queen can deem my death an accident and give my family a former apology instead of a living, breathing body.
Cloak won't allow me to go with them tomorrow. But if Keaya has a different notion in mind, I must cling to her. I stand from the chair and extend my hand out towards the strange woman that would crush my bones in any other sense. I make myself stand taller than she might think. "Marie Rithorne," I say. A confidence blossoms in my chest and my voice does not sound like my own. I'm someone of importance when I speak, not a fish cleaner from Gudgeon Docks.
She gladly shakes my hand with a grip much firmer than I can muster. "I'm one of Cloak's closest protectors," she goes on to say, eyeing me carefully. I take that warning with a grain of salt. "What are you doing in his chambers?"
Secrets are secrets. And something as serious as what Cloak is going through shouldn't explode into the world without his permission first. So when I look back at him, finding he's already staring at me, I realize he doesn't want this known. I'm not the healer assigned to rid him of a mental struggle. Other positions in the palace are more believable, anyway.
"I'm a palace servant assigned to cleaning his chambers," I say quickly. "I just started and I'm here to learn of Your Highness's customs."
At that, he snorts quietly enough that only I hear it. A sneer razors across Keaya's face, thin and sharp. "Hopefully you'll stick around longer than the last."
I don't know what that means, nor do I want to. What happened to the previous servants, including the current one, that tended to Cloak's chambers? I search for an answer on the top of his head, but he makes no move to acknowledge either of us. Heat stains my cheeks, but I shove down that dread and sense of being in danger. That happened the moment I stepped onto the palace grounds; this is no different.
I brace myself for whatever horrible truth will come my way by doing this. Keaya continues to watch me like I'm a beast uncaged and she is waiting for me to snap and attempt to kill them both. Technically, I could, simply with a wave of my mind, but I've never accessed that sector of my Luminary abilities before. I do not kill until my life, or the life of someone I care about is on the line.
"She asked to go with us to the capital tomorrow," Cloak reveals. He scratches at his chin as he reads the second page of the report.
Keaya, taller and much more intimidating, stares down at me. She holds a cold and intimidating smile, betraying her warm and friendly tone. "It might be fun to show someone just how terrible our occupation is," she counters. "Besides, we haven't had a lowly servant carry around our supplies in years."
In the dark, I can hardly see the outline of her face, but her hair is a different story. The frizzy edges puff around her head and drop to her collarbones—thick and untamed. Though she adorns a layer of armor meant to protect against those stupid enough to go against her, I can tell by the lack of a break in the fabric that she's flat-chested. It's all the training, and muscle, that keeps her body in a healthy and unbreakable form. She's as much of a soldier as Cloak and Gustus.
I rock back and forth on my heels. "I think that is a splendid idea. Every operation needs an extra hand, and if I could be anything of value to your efforts, then why not?"
"Great!" Keaya claps her hands together. I notice that her nails are sharpened into points. "We'll meet up tomorrow and head into the capital, then." She nudges me before heading to the door and jerks her chin silently at Cloak, expressing a silent conversation I have yet to learn.
Judging by his reaction, a quick shake of his head, their silent promise is nothing that'll come to my benefit. I won't be surprised if I'm tossed into a ditch and left for dead.
The door shuts behind Keaya, a powerful beast leaving us to it, and Cloak is grinning wide when I turn back towards him. His white fangs gleam in the glow of morning's light. "This should be an interesting ordeal," he purrs.
I open my mouth to speak, hesitate, and mull over my thoughts for a moment. Is it possible I just made a terrible mistake? I know nothing of the Panjandrum Corps or Cloak's operation besides the basic facts. They kill Luminaries. I'm a Luminary. I'll be surrounded by an entire legion of killers searching for what hides within their forces.
If Gustus can do it, so can I. Instead of balking to that intimidating stare, I square my shoulders and tilt my head, scrutinizing every inch of his face. Cloak will not get the best of me, Keaya won't either. I'll get back to Castiel soon, not before I save one more Luminary from the cruel clutches of the Raven Queen's order.