“I've met someone else. Someone special.” Jared’s voice cracked, turning ‘special’ into an unintelligible squeak. He coughed, thumped his chest, and repeated his declaration. The muscle below his left eye twitched.
He scowled at his reflection, tilted his head from one side to the other, then ran his hand over the hollow curves of his cheeks, along the firm, hard lines of his chin, and down his long, narrow throat. Several days’ worth of stubble scratched his fingers, a rough reminder of his time on the road.
Morgain would approve. ‘Fashionably rugged,’ she’d called him the first time they’d met. How many years ago had that been? Four? Or was it five?
He frowned and lowered his hand. Dropped his gaze to the sealed courier pouch lying on the bed.
He had no idea what messages it contained. In truth, he didn’t care. His clients hired him because they trusted him not to open their correspondence. He accepted to give himself an excuse to visit Morgain.
Not that she would want to see him again after today.
“Watch yourself with that one, my boy. She may have the beauty of a winter rose, but underneath all the glamour, she stinks like a midden heap covered in manure.”
He shivered at the recollection of his cousin’s oft-given warning, closed the room’s tiny window, lifted his shirt from its hook, and slipped it on.
He’d chosen sky-blue silk to match his eyes, gold-embroidered collar and cuffs to complement his deep tan, and mother-of-pearl buttons to catch and reflect the light. A foolish exercise, perhaps, but calling on Morgain without proper preparation would be akin to walking the corridors of the household naked. His clothes were his armour, his jewels his shield. Without them, he’d be leaving himself exposed.
He buttoned his shirt, pulled at the bottom hem to remove the wrinkles, unfastened the top two buttons, puckered his lips, and fastened them again.
He retrieved his jewel box from his travel bag and set it, open, on the dresser.
“I’ve met someone else. Someone… special. I can’t breathe when I’m around her. Can’t think of anyone else when we’re apart. What we have, it’s been good, but what I have with Elise—”
The muscle beneath his eye twitched again.
He scrubbed at his cheeks. Morgain wouldn’t be pleased by his proclamation, but couples parted ways all the time. Surely she would understand?
He pawed through his jewel box, picked out a gold, leaf-shaped brooch, held it to his chest, shook his head, and dropped it back in the box. Too much gold. He wanted to emphasise the blond streaks in his hair, not overpower them. Perhaps an earring instead? A simple gold loop to catch the light and draw the eye. He picked out his largest one, pressed it against his ear, swapped it for a smaller one, and nodded.
He checked his reflection one last time, paused to straighten a few stray hairs, snatched up the courier pouch, and marched outside.
Gravel crunched beneath the thick soles of his knee-length boots. Wisps of ethereal vapour clouded his breath. The walls of the household and its boundary combined to trap the path in lingering shadow, leaving it as chilled as the bottom of a sunless canyon. He glanced at the ice-blue sky and shivered. Autumn had arrived.
He tightened his grip on the courier pouch and walked faster, heading for the hedge dividing the formal gardens from the lush front lawns. Leaves and tiny twigs brushed his hair as he ducked through the sprouting archway. Warm sunlight washed over his face when he emerged on the other side. He squinted against the sudden brightness and turned onto the flagstone path leading to the household’s front door.
A long, skinny shadow stretched across the path, its edges as harsh and uneven as a delimbed tree’s. Wind gusted, wood creaked, and the shadow danced.
Jared looked up and stumbled to a halt.
The scuffed soles of a pair of boots dangled overhead. He stepped back and traced the path of the boots’ crisscrossing laces up to a pair of uniformed legs, past the buckle of a thick, leather belt, to the flapping lapels of a rumpled jacket. His gaze froze on the grey-blue skin peeking above the neckline of a white tunic for an endless heartbeat before shifting to the body’s head.
A young guardsman hung from a roof beam, his elongated neck trapped in a noose, stretched like sap oozing from a shattered branch. Icy sweat crawled down Jared’s neck.
Another gust spun the body in a half-circle. Jared stared into the dead man’s bulging eyes. His pupils were narrowed to pinpricks, the whites marbled yellow and red. Fear lingered beneath their surface, a dark, rippling shadow captured in the moment of death.
A cough shattered the stillness.
Jared ripped his gaze away from the corpse and sucked in a breath. He blinked several times before the figure in front of him came into focus. Another guardsman; this one alive and staring back.
“What did he do?” Jared raised his hand, not quite pointing at the dead man.
“Fell asleep on duty. Had the misfortune to be caught by Lady Morgain. You Jared?”
“Yes.” The sweat crept lower, chilling Jared’s back. He eyed the corpse again, the body not yet swollen, the face free of decay. The tip of the dead man’s tongue protruded from his grey-white mouth in a fixed expression of eternal mockery. “This happen last night?”
“Aye. The poor bugger woke up just as they tightened the noose around his neck.”
The sweat turned hot and clammy, soaking every inch of Jared’s skin. He doubled over, gulping in huge mouthfuls of air to keep from vomiting. “Is Lady Morgain—?”
“In her study. She’s expecting you.”
“Thank you.” Jared spat bile and wiped his mouth. He straightened, nodded to the guardsman, and continued on shaky legs.
Another guardsman stood to attention outside the household’s towering oak doors; a grey-stubbled, grizzled veteran with puckered lips and a permanent scowl welded to his brow.
Jared lifted the courier pouch, ensuring the seal faced the guard. “Message for Lady Morgain.”
“You carrying any weapons?” the man asked, his voice as gruff as his appearance.
The guard’s scowl deepened. He stepped forward a pace. “Arms out. Feet apart.”
Jared complied, holding himself motionless. The guard conducted a rough but efficient search, stepped aside, and waved him past.
The household’s main doors opened onto a grand entrance hall three storeys tall. Broad, sweeping stairs rose from a marble-tiled floor painted in a dozen liquid colours by the light filtering through the stained-glass windows above.
Jared paused inside the doorway to check his reflection in a highly polished column and frowned. His hair stood up in spikes, burrs clung to his breeches, and a sheen of condensation marred the rows of brass buckles on his boots. He flattened his hair, dried the buckles, brushed off the burrs, and headed for the stairs.
Three more guards waited there, two at the bottom and one at the top. Jared nodded to them as he passed, keeping his gaze low and his pace steady, assessing each man with a hooded glance. If it came to a fight, his height would give him a reach advantage, but he would soon be overcome by their strength—not to mention their daggers, short-swords, and spears.
He reached the first-floor landing and turned left, following the walkway to the front of the entrance hall and the second flight of stairs. The guards on the second floor subjected him to a more thorough search then waved him on. He squeezed between their tense, rock-like bodies and entered Lady Morgain’s private quarters. The last door on the left gave access to her study.
He raised his hand to knock and froze.
There’s something I need to tell you. I’ve found someone else. Someone special.
The door blurred, the whirls in the oak melting and reshaping, taking on the form of the dead guardsman’s bulging eyes. He hesitated. Half-lowered his arm.
One of the guards snickered.
Jared raised his fist and knocked.
“Come,” Morgain called, a sharp edge to her light, lilting voice.
Jared opened the door.
Morgain occupied the chair behind her desk, facing the door. Pale light flooded the room through the skylight, painting white highlights in her thick, black hair, their shifting patterns as mesmerising as sunrays playing across the surface of a lake. She looked up, a faint smile on her lips. The skin around her large, commanding eyes crinkled.
Jared’s gaze jumped from the luscious lashes framing her nut-brown eyes, to the stray lock of hair dangling over the bridge of her nose, to the small triangle of sienna skin visible at the neckline of her dress. He curled his lips in appreciation of the ruddy blush rising on her cheeks, looked away when his own blood warmed in response, and coughed. “My lady.”
“Jared.” She set aside the paper she’d been reading. “Come in.”
He approached her, his boots clicking on the tiled floor. A foot from the desk, he dropped to his knees and bowed, buying himself a few seconds to compose his features before he straightened. “Replies from Lords Mattan and Sinshay.” He placed the courier pouch on the desk. “Plus letters from Lady Vanra and Godsman Ralmain.”
Morgain’s eyes appeared to dance as she retrieved the pouch with her left hand and signalled with her right.
Jared started to rise.
Ice-cold metal pricked the back of his neck. A heavy weight pressed into his spine, grinding his flesh like a pestle. Hot breath warmed his cheek as its owner’s rough lips brushed his ear. “Don’t move.”
Jared turned his head towards the speaker, but the blade pressed harder, digging into his skin. He looked back at Morgain. She met his gaze, her expression flat. He opened his mouth to speak, found no words, and closed it again.
The hot breath vanished, the weight lifting from his back. “Put your hands on your head.”
Jared obeyed, his eyes still locked on Morgain’s, searching for some sign of her intentions.
Her expression never changed.
Hands grabbed his left arm and twisted it behind his back. Metal, rough and cold, snapped around his wrist. A second band locked around his upper forearm. He jerked against its bite.
The blade drove deeper, drawing blood this time.
“Well, this is… new.” More hands grabbed his right arm. He locked his muscles, fighting their pull. “I know the messages I carry can be unpleasant, but I’ve never been arrested for delivering one before.” He forced a smile.
Morgain lifted her gaze over Jared’s head, propped her elbows on the desk, rested her chin on steepled fingers, and nodded.
More manacles snapped into place, pinning his arms together at elbow and wrist. “Morgain?” His ankles came next, manacled to each other and then chained to his wrists. He shuffled towards the desk, gaining less than an inch before the blade switched from the back of his neck to the front. He froze, barely daring to breathe as its edge shaved his throat. “At least tell me what I’m supposed to have done.”
“You are a spy,” Morgain said.
Heat prickled Jared’s face. He licked lips as dry as scorched scrub. “I would never—”
“Admit it? But you will.”
“Enough.” Morgain smacked the desk. “I’m not interested in excuses. The only thing I want to hear from you is the truth.”
“The truth? But I’m telling the truth. I haven’t—”
Fingers pried his jaws apart, and a hand shoved a large, iron ball between them. The straps used to secure it cut into the corners of his mouth.
Morgain stood. “I have to leave. Think hard whilst I’m gone. The longer it takes for you to confess, the worse this is going to get.”
She picked up the courier pouch and swept past him, her shoes clacking on the floor. The door swooshed open and banged closed. Leather creaked. The unseen guard coughed. Only Jared’s ragged breathing disturbed the silence that followed.
Sweat soaked Jared’s hair and the back of his neck, beading on his forehead and the tip of his nose. He shook his head and flexed his hands. The rough-edged manacles dug into his flesh, rubbing with the voracity of sandpaper on stone. He swallowed a yelp and fresh blood seeped onto his tongue, adding its bitterness to the rusty, metallic taste in his mouth. He swallowed again, and the iron ball scraped his palate.
Prehen Damis, help me. What does she think I’ve done?
More sweat soaked his armpits and the backs of his knees, seeped down his trousers and squelched between his toes.
His clothes were ruined, as filthy and tattered as a soldier’s armour after a day on the battlefield.
Except my battle is just beginning, not nearing its end.
He closed his eyes.
She’d called him a spy.
He’d never spied on anyone in his life.
His clients trusted him. He’d thought she trusted him.
And she went from sleeping with me to this?
What had happened? Why would she think—?
He’d done nothing. Could think of nothing. Unless…
Unless someone accused me to save her own neck.
“The longer it takes for you to confess, the worse this is going to get.”
Worse? What could be worse?
Spasms rocked his legs. Pins and needles stabbed his feet and hands. He shifted his weight and ice lanced his spine.
The room grew too hot, the air too thick. He couldn’t breathe past the gag in his mouth.
The room swayed.
He closed his eyes.
Felt himself falling.
Heard a distant thump.
A heavy weight smashed into his ribs.
He jerked forwards, cracking his knees on the corner of the desk, and rocked back to stare into the face of a scowling guard.
The guard lifted his foot and kicked him again. “Nobody gave you permission to sleep.”
Jared braced his hands against the floor, curled his shoulder, and rolled.
The guard grabbed him by the hair, jolting him to a stop, and hauled him back to his knees. Fire wracked his body, a volcanic explosion sending fresh waves of agony through his hands and feet. He screamed.
“Filthy spy.” The guard bent forward and spat in Jared’s face.
Jared flinched and would have fallen if not for the guard’s hold. He concentrated on breathing, sucking air in through his nose, expelling it through his mouth.
In through his nose.
Out through his mouth.
In… and out.
His heartbeat steadied. His pulse slowed. He stared at the patterns in the marble-tiled floor.
The splodge next to his knee looked like a maple leaf. The veins to its left resembled a horse’s head. Closer to the desk, a monkey stood on its back legs.
The fire in his limbs faded. His mind cleared. And still the question loomed, unanswered.
What am I going to tell Morgain?
He suspected it wouldn’t matter; that she’d already accepted his guilt. Even so, he would need to think of something. But for now?
For now, it was enough to breathe.
The rain had started an hour ago. A gentle shower at first, it rapidly built into a driving storm. Raindrops pounded the skylight with the force of chippings thrown by a cartwheel, their reflections dancing across the floor. Jared flinched every time a gust drove the rain harder, imagining the skylight shattering, showering him with glass. He flexed his tongue and swallowed. It did nothing to ease the dry tickle clawing the back of his throat. The pain had passed, at least, replaced by a creeping numbness spreading from his hands and feet into his arms and legs.
A pity he still had no idea what to say to Morgain.
The guard shifted behind him, the creak of leather barely audible over the storm. A huff of air might have been a sigh.
If you’re bored, we could always trade places. Jared laughed and almost choked.
A rhythmic tapping sounded on the door, a hollow parody of a soldier’s marching cadence. Hinges creaked, admitting a rush of frigid air, and footsteps clacked across the floor.
Something brushed against his shoulder.
He started, his shriek muffled by his gag.
Morgain’s laughter filled his ears. “Hush. It’s only me.”
“Does that mean you want to confess?” Morgain placed one hand on his shoulder and used the other to trace the curve of his neck. “Or do I need to give you some extra incentive?”
Something tugged at the straps holding the gag in place, releasing them.
Morgain stepped around him and wiped a fresh trickle of blood from his chin. She tilted her head, her gaze raking his face, and prised the iron ball from between his teeth. “Well?”
“I…” Jared wet his lips and swallowed. “I have… no idea… what you’re talking about.”
“No?” Morgain cupped his chin with her fingers and wiped his lips with her thumb. “Are you sure?”
Morgain looked over his shoulder. “Remove his restraints and help him stand.”
Jared had experienced pain before. He’d cried when his cousin spanked him for stealing. Shrieked when he’d dislocated his shoulder falling off a horse. But nothing—nothing—came close to the agony that roared through him when the guard loosened his restraints. He screamed—a bellow loud enough to drown out the storm—and screamed again when the guard hauled him upright. Fiery spikes stabbed the soles of his feet. He teetered and toppled sideways, weak as a sapling before a storm.
Morgain caught him by the shoulder. “Fetch a chair.”
“Morgain.” Jared braced his legs and closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness. “Morgain, can’t we talk about this?” He opened his eyes and blinked her into focus. “Surely there’s been some misunderstanding? Some mistake?”
“My poor, naïve Jared. Don’t you understand the trouble you’re in?” She laid an open hand on his chest and leant forward, her eyes narrowed. “Spying is a form of treason, and treason is a capital offence.”
Jared’s legs buckled. He thunked onto the chair and dropped his head into shaking hands. “So is falling asleep, apparently.”
“You saw my guard?” Morgain gnawed on her bottom lip, a twitch that might have been a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “That man was responsible for the safety of everyone in this household. I had to make an example of him or risk the rest of the guard growing lax.” She crouched in front of him and gathered up his hands. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’m doing this to keep you alive. But if you want to live past the end of the week, you need to confess.”
“Confess to what? I didn’t do anything.”
“Very well.” Morgain dropped his hands and stood. She stared at him for the length of a heartbeat, her back straight and her expression hard. “You will confess to me, or you will confess to my torturer. You have until tomorrow to decide which it will be. In the meantime, you will remain in my study. Your guard will be armed with a crossbow. If you move from this chair or turn around, you will be shot.”
Morgain strode past him, her arm knocking against his shoulder.
Jared shivered at the touch; at the cold indifference of the contact. He lowered his head to his hands and peered at the floor through splayed fingers. She wanted him to confess to keep him alive? But confessing would be akin to signing his own death warrant. At least the truth would give him some chance. Some hope.
If he could survive the torture.
He shuddered. How many times had he listened to the older boys’ whispered stories as a child? Huddled under his blankets as they regaled each other with tales of the rack, the rat cages, the mock drownings—
I’m dead. Oh, dear gods, I’m dead.
He squeezed his eyes shut and smothered them with the heels of his hands.
The rain had ended hours ago, the clouds burnt away by the late afternoon sun. Then the sun, too, had fallen beyond the skylight’s edge, to be replaced by an umbrella of stars. Thick glass dimmed and distorted the once brilliant sparks, giving them the appearance of gnarled embers.
Jared sought out the constellation of Prehen Damis and whispered a brief prayer.
‘Don’t waste your breath.’
He jumped and barely stopped himself from turning. Had the guard just—?
No. Of course not. Then what—?
‘The Gods never answer. Prayers are a waste of time.’
“Who—?” Jared bit off the rest of the question and held his breath. There were people outside, laughing and talking. Had he overheard their whispers and misunderstood the words?
He looked away from the skylight and massaged his arms.
It was possible. Weariness had been pulling at his eyes for hours, and there was precious little else for his mind to focus on. Apart from the obvious. But once he’d overcome the initial shock, he’d avoided thinking on that. Not that ignoring the issue helped. He needed to find a way out of this trap.
He had to.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes.
Why had Morgain told him confessing would save his life? What did she expect him to say? Surely she didn’t believe he was guilty. Surely—
Surely nothing. Confess to her or confess to the torturer, those were his only choices now.
But confess to what? Spying? Spying on whom? How?
His stomach cramped, gnawing on nothing. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned. He wanted to get up and pace the room. Shake his arms. Stamp his feet. Do anything—anything—but sit here and wait.
‘Then turn around.’
He snapped his head up and peered into the semi-darkness. There was no-one there, and yet—
‘Stand up. Turn around.’
I did not imagine that.
‘One guard. One bolt. If he misses, you walk out of here. If he doesn’t…’
…at least my death will be quick. He’d been thinking the same thing not long ago. Was that all it was, then? Just an echo of my own thoughts? My strained subconscious latching onto stray ideas and echoing them back?
‘You know you want to.’
Yes. Yes, he did. But only part of him. The part that couldn’t face any more pain.
And the part that wanted to escape.
“No,” he whispered. “No. I’m not ready for death.”
The quiet words irritated his sandpaper-dry throat. He ran his tongue across his teeth, but the tiny drop of moisture it produced did little to soothe the pain.
‘You could always ask for a drink.’
He shook his head, looked sideways, and squinted at the books lining the nearby shelf. Perhaps if he focused on them for a while. Distracted himself.
The silent whispers continued. The cramps in his stomach intensified. The gnawing turned into the gnashing of rats’ teeth slicing through his insides. He leant forward, elbows on knees, and jiggled his legs to gain some relief.
Damn Morgain for all eternity. Now he needed to pee.