“You can trust me, Ashleen. Everything you say in this room is confidential and off the record.”
“I told you. I don’t remember what happened.” Ashleen pressed her fingers against her eyelids and struggled to lose her headache in the swirls of blue and green. “It’s been six months, I don’t even know why we’re still doing this.”
“Your mother believes––”
“I don’t care! It doesn’t matter what she believes. I’m never getting out of here.”
“If you don’t remember what happened, why did you plead guilty?”
“There were witnesses.”
“Most of whom were drunk, and the few of which came forward all claimed it was self-defense.”
The woman across from Ashleen sighed, a frown deepening the fine creases on her face. “Ashleen, no one ever claimed the body. There was no case against you except the one you built.”
“I screwed up, alright?! I’m tired of hearing everyone make excuses for me. Just––leave me alone.”
The woman pressed her lips into a firm line and tapped her notes against the table to straighten them. “We’ll talk again in a week.”
“Sure. Whatever,” Ashleen said, watching the lawyer leave. She thought she spotted a grey strand or two in the lawyer’s short black hair. They were probably her fault.
A jangle of keys announced O’Reilly as she rounded the corner into the room. She beamed amicably. “Well, how’d it go?”
“She wants to see me again next week.”
A tiny wrinkle appeared between the stout woman’s brows, “I see.”
Ashleen tugged against the cuffs that anchored her wrists to the table. “Are you gonna unlock me or not?”
O’Reilly heaved an exasperated sigh and fished the keys from their place at her belt. “Miss Gallagher,” she began, “you ought to show more gratitude. I’m sure Miss Albrecht is doing her best to help.”
Ashleen grunted with disinterest. This was the third lawyer her mother had sent in as many months. She doubted this one would have anything to say that she hadn’t already heard.
“You’re absolutely hopeless,” O’Reilly chastised her as she released Ashleen’s cuffs from the table.
“That’s what I keep telling everyone,” she grumbled.
“Come on, let’s get you back to your cell. You obviously need a nap.”
On another day, Ashleen might’ve laughed. She and O’Reilly got along most of the time. Right now, everyone was getting on her nerves.
When the cell locked behind her and O’Reilly relieved her of her cuffs, Ashleen retreated to the uncomfortably small cot in the corner. She watched dust dance in the meager shafts of sunlight as they slipped through the grating on the grimy window and waited to fall asleep.
There wasn’t much to do these days besides sleep, though O’Reilly occasionally brought in books for her to read. The latest was the fifth installment in the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix. She’d read the series as a child, and when O’Reilly had brought her the first book, Ashleen had hoped to find some of her wide eyed innocence still caught in its pages.
She’d completed her third read through of The Order of the Phoenix yesterday, but she’d given up on finding her childhood. Instead, she heard echoes of herself in Harry’s growing frustration at not being heard.
She didn’t regret her decision to plead guilty, confinement was still her best option. That didn’t mean she enjoyed it. Ashleen did her best to avoid the other inmates, though they mostly left her alone when they realized she was stronger than they were.
She could have used that to her advantage and reigned over the prison yard, but Ashleen didn’t care about power. Her life behind bars had been dreary at best, but she preferred that over the constant fear of accidentally hurting someone she cared about.
Ashleen missed coffee the most. She didn’t mind it black, but everything they gave her in prison was watered down, scorched from sitting on the burner plate too long, and lukewarm. She’d almost made up her mind to switch to tea, but they’d find a way to mess that up too.
There was little entertainment, the prison was in the middle of nowhere and only three channels came through clearly on the television in the rec room. When she was little, she hadn’t believed anything could be more boring than the small town she’d grown up in. Now she knew better.
The only respite from it all was sleep, though she wasn’t sure if the nightmares she had could be considered respite. Ashleen had always struggled with bad dreams, but they’d grown more intense lately. The counselors kept saying they were a byproduct of the trauma, but Ashleen didn’t see how she had any right to be traumatized, since she’d been the aggressor rather than the victim.
Ashleen awoke to the clank of keys against the bars of her cell. O’Reilly had reappeared, whistling absently to herself as Ashleen sat up on the cot.
“Back for me so soon?”
“Your mom’s here!” O’Reilly chirped.
“Is it Friday already?” Ashleen didn’t want to see her mother today, but guilt denied her the option to say no.
Alice Gallagher was all alone now. Ashleen was an only child and her father, Connor, had been lost to them before she’d been much older than four. Alice never remarried, but it wasn’t common for people who’d lost their counterweight to do so without a blessing from the gods.
Ashleen blew a huff of air past her lips, displacing the brassy ginger wisps that had fallen into her eyes. She rocked up to her feet and dragged herself to the bars, passing her arms between them for the cuffs.
O’Reilly waved at her dismissively, “I can trust you, right? I don’t want your mother to curse at me again.”
Ashleen chuckled and pulled her hands back through. Alice could be quite vocal about how much she hated seeing her daughter in shackles.
As soon as Ashleen spotted her mother among the other visitors, she realized exactly what day it was. Silently, she thanked herself for coming, even though she hadn’t wanted to.
Alice’s eyes were puffy, any attempts at mascara or eyeliner she’d made earlier in the day were now hopelessly smeared. She had Connor’s covenant ring pressed against her lips.
“It’s your anniversary isn’t it?” Ashleen asked. “You didn’t have to come.”
Alice’s gaze jerked to her daughter as she snapped out of her reverie. The tears welled anew in her eyes. “You look so much like him,” she said weeping, her words catching in her throat. She stood and bustled around the edge of the table to cradle her daughter’s face in her hands, thumbs brushing over the freckles that crowded Ashleen’s skin.
Ashleen freed herself from her mother’s grasp to pull her into a hug. She rested her chin on Alice’s head. “You took the day off work at least, right?”
“Not quite, I was hoping it wouldn’t be so bad if I stayed busy.”
It would do no good to chastise her mother, Alice had been through enough as it was. She’d raised Ashleen on her own after her husband’s death.
Alice rarely spoke of Connor. When Ashleen was sixteen, she’d gone through her mother’s things hoping to find old photographs. Instead, she’d come across a letter. She could still feel the worn paper threatening to come apart in her fingers as she reread it in her mind’s eye.
Mrs. Alice Gallagher
I wish I were writing to you with better news. Just two weeks past, my garrison was brought low by a coup. We suffered many losses in the chaos, among them some of my best huntsmen.
While I’m sure you were kept in the dark as to the details of your husband’s work, I assure you he was one of our proudest hunters. He saved countless lives during his career and was respected by those who followed him. I am certain more than a few attribute their success to his guidance.
It is with an aching heart that I must inform you he was killed in the attack. I have my people working tirelessly to patch up the leaks in our security. Rest assured as soon as order is restored, I will put together an elite team to track down Connor Gallagher’s killers.
I am sorry to say that I can’t offer you the more direct vengeance you deserve, but in life Connor insisted that you did not have the skills needed to thrive within our ranks. Instead, I would offer you the option to send your daughter, Ashleen Gallagher, to be tested for eligibility to join us.
My people have reported that she takes after her father and bears potential to rise to the top of her class in a matter of months. With enough dedication, Ashleen could be present to deliver the justice Connor deserves.
I understand you will need time to recover, but please consider my offer carefully. Your daughter would be welcome among us. We could offer her methods for controlling her anger and she would have the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with others just like her.
My deepest sympathies:
Amaris Faustian, Archwarden of Alexandria
The letter had resulted in a fight that put Ashleen and her mother at odds for several months. She couldn’t understand why Alice wouldn’t send her to the Archwarden. Undoubtedly it was too late for her to help avenge her father, but if Ashleen could use her abilities to save lives, she wanted to go.
Alice had never given so much as an inch, and eventually Ashleen had come to accept the finality of her mother’s answer.
“I’m sorry.” Alice worked her way free of Ashleen’s arms. “I didn’t mean to project my grief onto you.”
“How are things going with the new lawyer?”
Ashleen heaved a sigh. “Mom…”
“You could at least give her a chance. It won’t hurt you to work with her.”
“I told you to stop sending lawyers a month ago!” Ashleen snapped with a bit more venom than she’d intended.
“And I told you I wouldn’t. We’re getting a retrial one way or another.” Alice planted her hands on her hips, and Ashleen swallowed a grin. Her mother had never been afraid of her. Alice often stood toe to toe with her daughter, never mind that Ashleen had almost a foot on her in height and was strong enough to snap her like a twig.
“I made my choice.”
“You shouldn’t be in here over self-defense!”
“It wasn’t self-defense. He was feeling up Prue, not me.”
“You weren’t there,” Ashleen swallowed a wave of nausea at the images that flashed through her mind. “You didn’t see what I did to him.”
“I don’t see how it matters. Some asshole tried to assault your girlfriend, I think retaliation is completely justified.”
“Yeah with intervention, not murder!”
“I’ve been doing some research. Technically you were provoked, and your condition could make this an automatism case. It was a party, it’s possible you could have been inebriated––”
“I wasn’t drunk Mom!” Ashleen barked, “Besides, you know as well as I do that it’s safer for everyone if I just stay here. They let me have books, the food is edible, I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine!” Alice’s tears welled up all over again and spilled fresh mascara stains down her cheeks.
Ashleen fought to keep her tone soothing, “I am fine. And we don’t actually have any other options, since you won’t even let me try Alexandria.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them.
It was the wrong day to bring this up, but bitterness had pushed the statement past her lips before she could stop it.
“Don’t you dare,” Alice began, her voice wobbling in time with the tears caught in her lashes. “That Raven-cursed pit of zealots took your father from me. I am not going to hand over my daughter on a silver platter.”
Ashleen felt imaginary hackles bristle along her neck and shoulders. “They’re not zealots! They could help me. If they have a way to stop the rages, then I could live a normal life. If you’d sent me there in the first place I wouldn’t be here!”
The sting of her mother’s palm across her face took Ashleen’s breath away. Alice had never hit her before, not even to spank her as a child. It was an unspoken agreement that likely protected Alice more than Ashleen.
She saw her own shock reflected in her mother’s eyes. The physical pain was almost nonexistent, but the sense of betrayal cut deep.
“Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean––”
Several of the guards started toward Ashleen, even though it was her mother who’d struck.
Ashleen pressed her lips into a line and sank to her knees, presenting her wrists for cuffs. These guards were afraid of her, she knew they’d jump to force if they saw even the barest reason to.
O’Reilly shouldered past the skittish guards and waved them off once she had Ashleen cuffed.
“We’re done, take me back to my cell.”
Ashleen waited until she was sure O’Reilly had gone before she let the dam break. She sank into her cot and sobbed for the better part of an hour. It was unfair. All of this was unfair. She hadn’t asked for any of it and she was sick of having to stifle herself to protect everyone else.
She’d spent her life trying everything from meditation to therapy to deal with the burning rage that lingered, barely constrained beneath her skin. Even medication hadn’t worked. Her metabolism burned through it too quickly for it to do anything.
It all had to mean something. The gods she’d grown up praying to had to have a plan, she just couldn’t see it yet. They couldn’t mean for her to languish here, stagnating with no hope of a future.
She’d been raised Ravenite, worshipping Muginn, the raven deity of death and balance. According to scripture, Muginn wasn’t directly opposed to murder in certain circumstances. Still, Ashleen couldn’t help but feel as if the gods were displeased with her.
She didn’t have access to the incense she normally would have burned to draw the Raven’s attention as she prayed. There’d been a recent bust on a band of inmates that had been sneaking in contraband disguised as religious items.
Her mother had always told her that Muginn did as she pleased, and was unlikely to make alterations to her grand designs without fair compensation. Usually where Muginn was concerned, that meant blood tithing.
Ashleen had tithed once or twice when things were dire, but she certainly wasn’t allowed any sharp objects now. Short of biting herself, there wasn’t much she could do, and she hadn’t reached that level of desperation quite yet.
Still, she closed her eyes and asked the Raven for a sign, something to indicate whether she was on the right path or not.
She fidgeted with the covenant ring on her pinkie, rolling its silver bands over and over each other. Muginn sent most people a unique band by the time they turned thirteen, which according to the scripts would eventually lead them to their soulmate. Not everyone believed in the rings, but Ashleen had always kept faith in hers.
She’d grown up isolated, fabricating numerous fantasies over the years of how her counterweight might have the ability to soothe her rage with a mere word. She’d thrived on the belief that they would compensate for her shortcomings, just as she would compensate for theirs.
She’d projected those fantasies onto Prue, her girlfriend before all this had happened. Even though her ring fit Prue’s tiny finger, it didn’t heat up like Ashleen’s mother said it would. Even if it had, the ring Prue carried didn’t even fit onto Ashleen’s smallest finger.
Ashleen tried not to think too hard about her hands. They were masculine to match her blocky, broad-shouldered build. Prue liked it, but Ashleen could barely stand to look at her reflection in the mirror. Coming in at five foot ten with almost no curves to speak of, her body had done nothing to help mask her threatening demeanor.
Prue had saved Ashleen, which only emphasized the sting of her silence since the events of her twenty-first birthday party. If Prue had shown up to testify, Ashleen might not have pleaded guilty. Perhaps if Prue had forgiven her, Ashleen could have forgiven herself.
There hadn’t been so much as a word from Prue since that night. Ashleen tried to write her letters for the first couple of months. Some begged for forgiveness, others irately accused her of cowardice, then more to apologize for the previous letters.
Even Ashleen’s mother hadn’t heard from Prue. It was as if the petite girl had dropped off the face of the planet. Perhaps she had. Ashleen wasn’t sure she would blame Prue anymore if it turned out she had cut and run.
The first thing Ashleen remembered after coming out of her haze was the blood spatter across Prue’s face. She’d looked as if she were about to throw up. The second thing Ashleen had noticed was the blood all over her hands, and the third was the misshapen remnant of a man’s head where he’d collapsed on the floor between them.
All at once it became clear that she’d expected too much of Prue. Still, Ashleen had hoped that Prue could one day forgive her, that she hadn’t driven away her first and only love.
When she drifted off that night, Ashleen dreamed of Prue. Faded memories of what it had felt like to kiss her in the dappled sunlight danced tantalizingly out of reach. Dream Prue threw coy glances over her shoulder as Ashleen chased her through the woods behind the house.
She laughed as they tumbled through the underbrush, stars in her eyes when Ashleen finally pinned her to the forest floor.
“Gotcha,” Ashleen chuckled and nuzzled her face into the crook of Prue’s neck affectionately. Prue giggled.
Something sticky clung to Ashleen’s cheek, but it didn’t smell like the lavender lotion Prue liked. She leaned back to ask about it. Ice stabbed outward from her stomach.
Prue’s throat was ripped open, her arterial blood soaking into the mossy ground. The expression on her face remained placid as she spoke, voice unchanged by the gaping wound.
“Don’t you realize, if I had stayed, you would have killed me too?”
Beneath her, Prue’s body began to rapidly decay, maggots hatching out and chewing away the edges of the gash in her throat. Her eyes went white and her cheeks hollowed as the corpse desiccated between Ashleen’s arms.
Ashleen jolted awake and rolled out of bed, barely making it across her cell to the toilet in time to heave into it. The imagined taste of Prue’s blood lingered in her mouth. She spat several times in an attempt to clear it, but it coated her throat in a pungent film.
Her head pounded, and she sat back against the wall to catch her breath.
“You alright in there?”
Ashleen whipped around so fast she saw stars. It was too early for visitors, but it wasn’t O’Reilly’s voice outside the bars.
She rubbed at her eyes, struggling to focus. Irritation sparked inside her when she recognized the new lawyer.
“Go away. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Bit too late for that, unfortunately.” The lawyer spoke with a slight German accent. Ashleen wasn’t sure why she hadn’t noticed it until now. “You’re being transferred.”
Ashleen pinched a pressure point in her wrist, struggling to quell another wave of nausea, “Transferred? Where?”
Ashleen peered at her through the grey light of dawn. “Birdshit. How do you even know that name?” Nobody she asked had any idea what she was talking about when she mentioned Alexandria, except her mother.
“I’m not sure we’ve been properly introduced. Hello, Ashleen. My name is Neele Albrecht. The Archwarden sent me to collect you.”