Trapped Bird


#1

Originally posted in the OG Vainglory Forums by @TheGreatClockwyrm on 23 November 2015 and 10 April 2016
Archived by @ThePinkOtter 12 Feb 2018

So, this is the first part in a project I’ve been working on for a long time now. I really wanted to write a good backstory for Catherine and also to tie her early life into a lot of the unexplored themes and worlds in my main series, and also to expand the world of Vainglory a bit. I’d apologize for the length but you can’t put a stopper on creativity. So I do hope you enjoy Part One. WARNING: This is a fair deal more mature and darker than other works of mine, so just thought that I’d warn you. Love and best wishes from TheGreatClockwyrm!

Trapped Bird Part 1

My name is Catherine. Catherine LeBlanc. I am 18 years old. I have a sister named Jacqueline, and she is eight years old. We live in the Boiling Bay, a city on the southeast mainland. I live with my father. My mother died when I was ten, right after my sister was born. I don’t remember much about her. Black hair, like me, and violet eyes. Father often told me about her. How she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And how he had spent a good two years wooing her- visiting the bar she worked as a side job at every day, playing his violin, spending all his money tipping her, never ceasing to flirt and ask her out on a date, until one day, nineteen years ago, she agreed, and he proposed on their fourth date. I was born a year later, and Jacqueline followed ten years after. Mother died in childbirth.

Father has always been different since Mother died. He was fired from his job at the shipyard in less than a week, for accidentally setting the foreman’s yacht adrift to the Arathian Sea. Since then, I’ve been working odd jobs to sustain the household. Little Jackie helps where she can, bless her. She shouldn’t have to do this. She’s eight years old, dammit. Father is no help. He spends all his time sitting in his armchair before the fire, staring into their depths. He responds to nothing. No words, no gesture can rouse him from his stupor. His eyes are glassy. His skin is cold to the touch. Little Jackie doesn’t really understand. Every day I tell her Daddy just isn’t feeling well, and that he’ll be better soon. I’ve been telling her that for six years.

Hector Marrik came by the other day. He’s one of Father’s friends from the shipyard, and he stops by every month or so to check up on him, tell him what’s going on in the city. He’ll stay for a few hours, ask me and Jackie how we’re doing, slip us a silver kallit or two with a wink and a finger to his bearded lips as if he was doing us a great charity that he wanted to be kept secret. And with that, he’ll give Father one last pat on the hand before leaving. In his heart, he must mean well, but I have never cared much for him. He has a thick carnie accent; he elongates his vowels and skips most consonants. His stubbly brown beard doesn’t match his ruddy complexion, and his big, squashed nose looks as if it has been broken many times before. He is tall, very tall, and well-built from many years of working at the shipyard. He speaks loudly, and laughs like a drunken fool- although, I suppose that he is one. I knew that he had a son, a few months old when I last saw him, which was a year and a half ago. I realized that Marrik hadn’t come by in months- was something wrong? I hoped the baby was alright.

I got home from the inn about an hour ago. Mr. Barnaby lets me work there, doing odd jobs at the bar and in the back rooms, and I get paid a kallit an hour, which is very generous. I think he pities me and Father. He’s old, and has money to spare, so why not give it to helpless family down the road? I hate that. I hate having to depend on others. Too often they fail, and I am left to pick up the pieces of their mistakes. I am the one who has cared for Father and Jackie for nine years, working and slaving away at the inn, at the shipyards, in the seedy bars and makeshift road stands, scrimping and saving every kallit to pay rent and put food on the table. My muscles are strong from years of lifting crates barehanded at the docks. My tongue is sharp from years of listening to the petty woes of the sailors and thieves at the bar. My hands are rough from years of cooking meals and scrubbing floors.

Jackie is in bed. I am settling our debts on the rent for the ramshackle hut by the sea we’ve lived in all my life. Father sits in his armchair before the fire, his hands on arms of the chair, and the only sound between the two of us is the scratching of my quill and the steady crackle of the flames. This night is different from no other- I am working, and Father is stuck in his mind, and I cannot help but wonder what he is doing in there. Night falls. The room grows dark save for the stars shining outside and the ghostly glow of the fire. I pause in my arithmetic, and I hear a snuffling noise, as if someone were crying. I look up at Father, and by the weak light of the hearth, I see tears slowly rolling down his impassive face.

I drop my quill and papers, spilling ink over my loose cotton shirt, and rush over to my father, kneeling beside his armchair and placing a hand on his arm. I ask him what is wrong, and he turns his head to me. I study his features. His strong jaw, outlined by a thick black beard, and a slim nose framed by violet eyes. Bushy black eyebrows cast shadows over his face, accentuated by the flickering flames. He blinks once, and I flinch a little. I haven’t seen so much reaction from him in years. I look into his eyes, and pat his arm. “What is it, father?”

He blinks again, and then squints his eyes, waxy, yellow tears rolling down his cheeks and into his beard. He gasps, and his eyes open wide, then narrow to slits. He opens his mouth. “D-do you-,” He stops, closes his eyes again, and swallows. “D-do you w-want to know how y-you were n-n-named?” I blink away tears and smile. “Yes father. Tell me.”

He closes his eyes and sinks into his chair. “Your m-mother studied h-history at the university in S-Stromgarde, b-b-before I met her.” He makes a choking noise and his hands fidget. “She-she studied Hinterland history, b-before the G-Grangors became an e-empire, I think.” He pauses again, and winces. Each word seems to cause him pain, and yet he continues. “I-in the final d-days of one of the big clans, there was a wo-woman warrior, in the W-White Bear clan. H-her name was K-Katerin.

“That-that is your true name. Katerin.” His eyes open and he looks at me. All the world’s anguish and suffering seemed to be concentrated into those violet eyes. “We-we wanted you to be s-strong, and beautiful, like she was. A-and I am so h-happy to s-see that you are. It was said that she killed five- five enemy warriors that invaded her home before she died beside her infant child. H-her husband had been killed by a dragon years before.” I cover my mouth with my hands, tears falling from my eyes. I remembered my mother, and her quiet beauty and strength, and I knew Father was thinking of her as well. He looks at me with the fire in his eyes. “I love you, Katerin. I hope- I hope you know that.”

I nod, and smile, despite the tears trickling down my cheeks. “Yes, father. I know. I love you too.” He smiles, and sighs. “Th-that’s good, then. I-I almost though that- well, never mind that now. I must go now. She has been waiting for too long without me.” I am confused. “Father, what do you mean? Where are you going?” He closes his eyes and sinks back into his chair, but does not respond. I stroke his arm. “Father? Father?!”

I put my hands on his shoulders and begin to shake him fiercely. “Father! Wake up Father!” His eyes are closed, and his lips are curled upward in a sad little smile. His beard is more grey than black now, I realize- when did that happen? He makes no more movements of his own. I put my head to his chest, and I do not hear or feel a heartbeat. Tears are pouring from my eyes now, and my vision is blurred by the sheer quantity of them. I feel my heartbeat quicken, beating harder and faster than I can bear, I gasp, and collapse into my father’s lap, and weep into his beard, clutching my breast as my heart struggles to free itself from my ribcage. Each heartbeat is a singular note in a sad song, the song a trapped bird sings when it longs to be free.

The tax collector came by this morning. He wore a cheap black suit that was stretched too tight over his portly frame, and he kept nervously wringing his porkpie hat in his sweaty hands. He had watery, apologetic eyes and a long, curled nose that cast a shadow across his pasty face. He knocked on the door at exactly 9 o’clock AM. I ignored that knock, as well as the second, third, fourth, and fifth, until finally little Jackie, still in her nightclothes and clutching her stuffed Grangor, opened the door out of sheer irritation, and prodded me awake until I gave her one withering, surly glare and slouched into the living room to meet him. He sits primly on our moth-eaten couch, taking up as little space as possible, nervously taking off his hat and then putting it on again, wiping his sweaty face on a lacy white handkerchief. He looks up when I enter the room, and then quickly blushes a bright red. I smile savagely and sprawl out seductively across one of our armchairs. I intentionally angle myself so that I cannot see Father’s.

He turns his head nervously to the side, his eyes raking over my bare stomach, cleavage, and my long, white legs, which are propped up on one of the armchairs so that he has full view of both them and my ass. I blink slowly at him. “My eyes are up here, Mr. Dowage.” He jumps a little in his seat, then laughs nervously. “Y-yes, forgive me, Ms. LeBlanc. I was just, ah, wondering if you perhaps wanted to clothe yourself more……um……conservatively before we speak?” Those last few words come out as a squeak, and as I meet his gaze, he quickly looks down at his lap.

I shake my head. “Say what you have to say. If you can’t keep your eyes on mine, that’s your problem, not mine.” I make a lazy gesture with my hand. “Continue.”

Mr. Dowage looks at me stupidly for a few moments, then jumps a little again in his seat and pulls a few papers out of his suit. They are tightly rolled up and bound together by a rubber band. He mutters a few things to himself under his breath, and then unrolls the papers, taking one out. He looks at me, in the face this time, and hands me the paper wordlessly. I lean over and take it from him, my eyes scanning its contents. I scowl as I reach the bottom, then crumple it into a ball and throw it at his face when I am done. It hits him in his forehead and bounces off onto the coffee table. Instead of getting angry, he just sighs and picks it up, uncrumpling it gingerly with his fingers. “Ms. LeBlanc, we have to be reasonable here. Ronan LeBlanc has been d-“

“DO NOT SAY HIS NAME!” I scream, whipping my head to look at him, my features twisted in rage. I take a swipe at the air, and hurl a pillow at his head. He ducks, and winces, looking as if he is about to cry. “-has been dead for three weeks now, and while I have nothing but the greatest sympathy for you and your younger sister, it is time that you move on.” He takes a breath. “I was lucky enough to be able to find the address of your mother’s sister, who is still living near the Western Mountains.”

I sneer, and toss my head to look away from him. I cross my arms. “So? What makes you think I want to go live with her?” Mr. Dowage sighs, and sets the now-flattened paper back onto the coffee table. “The fact is, Ms. LeBlanc, that you haven’t paid the rent in those three weeks, and the landlord is getting very impatient. I have managed to keep him at bay for a while now, for young Jacqueline’s sake, but I cannot continue to pay for your home out of my own pocket any longer. As much as I hate to say it, but the only real power in this city is the crime bosses, and in a way, I answer to them. I would be putting both my own safety at risk as well as yours by continuing to pay your rent with their money.” He sighs, taking off his hat. “Your father was a friend of mine back in the day, even before he met your mother. I was deeply saddened at his departure.”

I don’t say anything, instead grimacing and turning away from him. He looks hurt, and a small part of me takes pleasure in that. With a deep breath, he rotates the paper with my aunt’s address so that it is facing me on the coffee table. He then places the bundle of papers on top of the address. “These are train tickets for River’s Breath, a little village near the Grangor Mountains. Your aunt lives a few miles east, closer to the foot of the mountains themselves. You will also find passports and some money for food and other necessities on your journey. The train leaves at noon tomorrow, from Grandport Station, five blocks from here. Take only what you need. This house will foreclose on the 13th, two days from now. I’m afraid that that is all I can do for you. I wish I could do more, but…….money is tight here in the city. I hope you will find a better life in River’s Breath.”

I look over at him, and though no words are exchanged, something passes between us. An understanding. After a long silence, he nods stiffly, stands, and returns his hat to his head, tipping it in respect to me. “I bid you a good day, Ms. LeBlanc. Say hello to your aunt from me.” And with that, he turns to the door and makes to leave.

“My name is Catherine, you know. You don’t have to call me Ms. LeBlanc.” He turns back to me, and I could have sworn a smile passed through his lips. “Good luck on your journey, Ms. LeBlanc.” He turns back around, opens the door, steps outside, and closes it behind him. I am left alone, half-naked, in my living room, for perhaps the last time.

I uncross my legs, scratching my collarbone, and stand. I slip off my undergarments and lay down on the carpet, completely naked, breathing heavily. I run one hand over my breasts and stomach, feeling how skinny I was. I could feel every rib beneath my skin, and with a nervous laugh I wonder how they could support my fat head. My raven-black hair spill out around my head, knotty curls and long, straight bangs all fanning out in a haphazard halo. I lift up my legs and look at my pale, dainty feet, wiggling my toes and bending my knees. I finger my nose and my lips, and pluck at my eyelashes and eyebrows, flicking away the tiny black hairs.

“Cathy, what are you doing? Why don’t you have any clothes on?” My eyes snap open, and I snatch a blanket from the couch and cover myself with it, kicking my undergarments under the coffee table as I scramble to my feet. Jacqueline is standing in the doorway to the kitchen, one finger absentmindedly twirling a blonde lock of hair. Her stuffed Grangor is clutched tight to her chest. She looks at me thoughtfully for a second.

I didn’t think it was possible for my face to get any redder, but I feel it flush hot, and I instinctively clutch the blanket tighter around my chest. I quickly walk over to her, turning her around and steering her towards the kitchen table. I put her in a seat, and sit across from her. The top of her head barely reaches over the table, so all I can see is her nose, eyes, and hair. I sigh, and go to the cabinet, taking out the wooden block we used for chopping vegetables. I motion for her to get up, and she does, and I put the block on her chair, then tell her to sit down again. She climbs up the spokes connecting the legs, and then takes a seat on the block. This time, she is visible. I give a forced smile and sit in the chair across from her.

She sniffs and smiles. “What were you doing on the floor, Cathy?” I look down at my hands, then back up at her, blushing furiously. “I……I was resting. I’m very tired, sweetie.” She accepts my answer. It is, after all, the truth. She props her stuffed Grangor up on the table and begins moving its arms back and forth, as if trying to make it dance. “What did the man with the suit want?”

I look out the window, and ask myself that same question. I get up and grab the papers from the coffee table, then walk back to the table, spreading them out before me. Jackie cranes her neck to see, and I can see her violet eyes moving rapidly from line to line, her little brow furrowed in concentration. Finally she looks up at me. “I didn’t know Mommy had a sister.”

I purse my lips. “She didn’t talk about her much to begin with, but Fath- Daddy never talked about her after Mommy died. They didn’t get along.” Jacqueline gives me an impish little grin. “Not as well as we do, right, Cathy?” I laugh, and tousle her hair. “Right.” With a jolt I realized that I haven’t laughed since- since it happened. For a second I feel tears threatening to spill down my cheeks, but when I see Jackie look at me funny I blink them away and put on a big smile.

She points to the passports. “What are those?” I pick one up. ‘These are called passports. They’re like official pieces of paper that let us go from one place to another.” Jackie nods slowly, then picks up one of the paper bills. “Is this money?” She crinkles her nose in disgust. I take the bill from her hand and tilt her chin to look up at me. “Yes, it is money. Why are you giving me that face?” Jackie shrugs, closing one eye slightly. “I don’t know. But isn’t it wrong to take money from strangers?”

I purse my lips. “Yes, but Mr. Dowage isn’t a stranger. He was a friend of Daddy’s.”

Jacqueline sniffs, almost haughtily, and wipes her nose with her hand. “So are we going to live with our aunt now?” I look down at the papers on the table. Two train tickets to River’s Breath, and passports to avoid legal issues. A wad of money to sustain us. And an address. It seems too easy. When I don’t answer, Jackie starts to hum to herself. I pick up the paper that had my aunt’s address on it. It is a legal notice, from a census or a job application, for a Mrs. Maybelline Charmant, 33, who lives on Blackburn Street, in the Artisan District. There’s a picture, of a young woman with chestnut hair and large, intelligent green eyes. She has a sort of harsh beauty about her, as if she is of Deinlandic descent. She is scowling slightly, which mars her otherwise beautiful features. The document was dated 25 years ago.

She does look a lot like Mother. Wrong hair color, and the cheekbones are a little too high, but the eyes are near identical, and they both had a harsh northern beauty to them. The small, perfect nose and the ears that are tucked in close to their heads. Mother’s maiden name was indeed Charmant. Juniper Ivory Charmant. A name as beautiful as its owner. I set the paper down and look at the tickets and passports. If they are fake, then the forgery is near perfect. Our names and ages are printed at the top, along with the date and train number, and the official registration codes. It all looks very proper to me. I look up at Jackie. “I suppose we are.”

Suddenly I hear a knock at the door. I look up at the clock. It reads 10:30. Who else would want to visit us this early in the day? I gather the blanket tighter around my frame and peek out the window next to the porch. My face goes white. I quickly hurry back to Jacqueline, gathering up the papers and money and shoving them into her hands. “Go upstairs. Do not come downstairs under any circumstances, unless I come to get you. But if I say ‘open the door, sweetie’, don’t open the door. Climb out the window and go to Mr. Barnaby down the street. Tell him your sister is in trouble.”

Jacqueline looks very scared. She looks up at me with wide eyes. “Is there a bad man at the door?”

“No, of course not,” I lie. I pick her up out of her seat and send her up the stairs, closing the door behind us. I sprint into my room and throw off the blanket, pulling on a pair of shorts and a buttoned blouse. As I button it up frantically, my fingers sweating, another knock comes at the door, this time, more insistently. I let out an exasperated noise and leave the three top buttons unbuttoned, and sprint down the stairs. I stand in front of the door for a second or two, and place my hand on the doorknob. Another knock comes at the door. I remember something.

In a sweet voice I call out, “Just a minute!” as I sprint into my father’s study. I snatch something off of his desk and put it into my pocket, covering the bulge with my shirt. I run back to the door. Assuming a neutral expression, I pull nervously on the collar of my shirt and open the door.

“Hello, Mr. Marrik.”

The last year has not been kind to him. A thick layer of stubble coats his lower face, and one eye is bruised, as if he had come out on the bad end of a fight. There is a long, red scar running from his left eye to his jaw, a scar that had not been there the last I saw of him. His hair is oily and slick, falling in a greasy curtain over his eyes. He wears a black muscle shirt and a brown leather vest, stained with some unknown substance. His long, baggy pants are torn and frayed. The only nice piece of clothing he wears is his black combat boots, shined to perfection. He smiles, and I notice he is missing three teeth. A gun is strapped to his thigh.

“Catherine, how many times must I ask you to call me Hector?”

I smile tersely. “At least once more, Mr. Marrik.”

He returns the smile, but there is no sincerity in it. He motions at the doorway. “May I come in?”

I give a pointed look at his gun. “Why do you feel the need to bring a gun into my home?” Marrik looks down at the gun, as if he had forgotten He gives a huge, fake laugh, slapping his other thigh. “A man’s got to protect himself, don’t he? Rough town, this is.” He strokes the gun with one finger. “This little beauty helps keep the baddies away.”

“You never carried a gun when you visited my house before, Mr. Marrik.”

He gives me a hard look. “Times change miss. And that’s not the only thing that has.” He gives me a funny look.

I place a hand on my breast, feigning offense. “Excuse me?”

He chuckles to himself. “You were a pretty girl, Catherine, but you’ve grown into a beautiful woman. A man must be frank when it comes to such things.” He scratches his jaw, and he makes no attempt to hide his blatant gaze at my chest. I scowl at him, and he smiles at me as if we share some secret between us, a secret no one else in the world knew.

I clench my teeth. “You’re a married man, Mr. Marrik.”

For a brief second something passes in his eyes, something primal and raging, a fire of fury. But as soon as it flickers into being it is snuffed out. With a sickly sweet smile, he shakes his head. “Nope! Poppy left me nine months ago. She took Pavel with her. They’ve moved to the Undersprawl.”

I incline my head. “I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Marrik. It seems fate has dealt us all a loss.” He inclines his head at my last comment. “Right you are, sweetheart, right you are. Funny how things like that work out, eh?” He scratches his chin again. “I ask again, may I come in?’

“And I repeat my answer: why?”

“To pay my respects, of course. When old man Barnaby told me Ronan died, ‘bout an hour ago, I hopped on the first tram to your street. I make a point of honorin’ the dead, miss. It ain’t proper to do otherwise.”

I give him a cold look. “My father died three weeks ago. How come you’ve only heard about it just now?”

Marrik scratches his chin, a recurring tic. “Look, miss, word don’t travel like it used to. Not in this town. And I ain’t been in the most happy of moods, you hear me? What with my wife gone and all. Takes a toll on a man when he don’t have a feminine presence in his life, you hear?”

“My father knew that all too well.”

Marrik backs away slightly, grinning like a madman, his hands up. “Oh, no offense intended, ma’am, no offense intended.” He mutters something under his breath and then moves towards me, roughly shouldering me out of the way as he enters my house. I whirl on him, ready to intend offense, but then I see him simply standing in the living room, looking up at the pictures on the walls. I move to stand beside him. “Mr. Marrik, I really must insist that you-“

Continuing to stare up at the photographs hanging up on the walls, he reaches over with one meaty hand and covers my mouth with it. Owlishly, he turns his head to look at me, a crazed expression on his face. He puts one finger to his lips and with the other, points up at a picture on the wall. It was of my father and mother, and him, along with another man I did not recognize. My father had his arm around my mother. It was apparent that it was their wedding night. Marrik was swooning drunkenly, but there was good-natured look about him. The other man was tall and skinny, with a shock of iron-grey hair that contrasted with his youthful features. A clean strip of black cloth covered his eyes, and he had a book clutched in one arm. Somehow, he looks strangely familiar.

Marrik removes his hand from my mouth, and I splutter angrily at him. He just shushes me again, and I recoil at his arrogance. “Hector Marrik! This is my home and I will not be treated like a child! You will leave at once, and never come back! Get out!” I give him a withering gaze that would have curdled milk.

Marrik cocks his head at me, his eyes glassy and unfocused. I realize with disgust that he is drunk. He leans in close, and I take a step back. His breath is stale and warm, and smells strongly of alcohol. He gives a leery grin, and staggers forward, almost tripping over the coffee table. He puts a hand on my arm, which I slap off, and then he scowls. “I’ll not be rejected by you too, Catherine LeBlanc.” He hiccups and gives me a crazed grin, his eyes alight with madness. “Will you marry me?”

I instantly go for my pocket, but Marrik is too fast. He snatches my wrist with one hand and snatches his gun from the holster with another. He presses the nozzle to my forehead, and narrows his eyes. “Where’s little Jackie, sweetheart?” I spit on him. He only laughs and wipes it off with his elbow, keeping the gun trained on me. “Whadda’ya say we go and get little miss Jackie and then be on our way? There’s nothing left for you in this dump anyway.” I snarl and knee him in the groin, then sprint for the stairs. I don’t get very far before he tackles me from behind, and I twist, pounding on his head with my fists. He growls and flips me over so that he is lying on top of me, and punches me hard and fast in the jaw. “Would you look at that,” he breathes. “This came much sooner than expected!”

I shove him off with the strength of years of work at the dockyards and in the home. He is surprised at my strength, I can tell, and lets out a surprised gasp as I roll away. In the struggle, his gun had fallen from his hands. I dive for it, quickly clasping my fingers around the handle as I stand, blowing my loose black hair out of my face. Marrik stands slowly, his hands raised, a cautious expression on his face. “Now let’s be reasonable, sweetheart. We both know you don’t have the guts to shoot me.” He gives another of his leery smiles, thinking he has won.

“Won’t I?” I smile, and Hector dives too late as I shoot him in the foot. As he hops around in pain, I crack the butt of the handle over his head and he keels over, unconscious. He is still smiling, and drool leaks out of his mouth. I bend down and inspect his foot for a moment. There is a clean hole near the toe of the boot on his left foot, and dark red blood drips from it. I curl my nose, and then drag him over to the chair in the kitchen table. Opening one of the bottom cabinets, I pull out a bundle of rope, and tie Marrik securely to one of the chairs. His head lolls onto his chest, drool dangling from his lip.

I sprint up the stairs, taking them two at time, flinging open the door and practically crashing into Jackie’s room. She looks up at me with surprise, her Grangor clutched tight to her chest as she lies on her bed. I rush over to her, taking her in my arms, breathing in her sweet scent and pressing my face into her blonde hair. She giggles nervously and gently pushes me away, looking into my eyes. “What is it, Cathy?” My eyes tear up slightly, and I smile sadly. “I love you, you know that, right, Jackie?” She laughs again. “Of course I know that, silly. Why are you crying then? Aren’t you supposed to be happy if you love me?”

Tears run down my face even more profusely. “Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you’re happy.” Jackie look confused. “Well, that’s stupid. I’m happy, and I love you. Why can’t it be like that for everyone?” I shake my head. ‘I don’t know, Jackie, I just don’t know.” I kiss her on the forehead and then stand, looking out the window in her room. “Pack your things. We’re leaving.” Jackie looks at me quizzically. “Why? Our train leaves tomorrow.”

I grimace. “This place isn’t safe for us anymore. We’re going to stay somewhere else tonight.”

“Where?”

“I might have an idea.”


#2
Trapped Bird, Part 2

We took only what was necessary. Clothes, supplies, a few of Father’s favorite books. I carefully wrapped a few of the framed photographs in paper and nestled them beneath the clothes. As I took down the wedding picture Marrik had showed me, the blindfolded man again catches my eye. I know that I have seen him somewhere before, but I cannot remember. It was infuriating. The ghost of a smile teases his thin lips, and his iron-grey hair is swept back in a neat, combed part. Something about him screams intelligence, an aristocratic scholar who looks out of place amongst my plebeian parents and the unapologetically drunken Marrik.

Suddenly, I remember where I can find out where this man is.

I carefully remove the photo from its frame and tuck it into my breast pocket. Standing, I hang the empty frame back on the wall, and look over to Marrik, who is still unconscious, tied to the chair. A surge of pity rolls over me, quickly replaced by loathing. Kill him, a voice whispers in my head. I shudder. Where had that come from? I look over at him again. It would be easy. A quick shot to the head, and he wouldn’t feel a thing. No pain.

Another voice speaks up. What would Father think? Would he really want to see his little girl turn into a murderer? I cover my mouth with one hand, blinking away tears. Oh, how I wish he were still alive, sitting motionless in his armchair, Jackie playing at his feet, I, reading a book adjacent to him. Oh, how I wish Mother were still alive. Back when we were a family. Back when things were simple, and easy. Too easy. Like killing him, the voce whispers again. Before I realize what is happening, I have crossed over to stand in front of him. His black eye is shiny and makes him look like half a raccoon. His lips are slick with drool and sweat, and his limp, oily hair is plastered to his face. The knuckles of his huge hands scrape the floor.

One hand inches to my pocket. My finger pries at the edge, lightly stroking the object inside. I start to pull it out. My hands tremble as I point it towards him. No pain. Too easy.

“Cathy?”

I whirl around, the gun in my hands, pointed out away from my body at a sharp angle. I find Jackie standing before me, holding a small suitcase in one hand, her stuffed Grangor in the other. Her stuffed Meekos is nestled in the crook of one arm. She flinches, and I see fear flicker through her eyes.

“Why are you holding Daddy’s gun at me?”

I blink. What? Was I holding a gun? I blink again, shaking my head, and look down at my outstretched arms, my fingers clenched around some foreign black object. My vision is fuzzy and my hands are trembling. Jackie takes a step back, slowly raising her stuffed Meekos in front of her face. I gasp in horror, dropping the gun to the floor, covering my mouth with one hand, and rush over to Jackie, taking her up in my arms. She presses in close to me, and I embrace her, drawing her in close to my chest. I feel hot tears drip from my cheeks and into her warm, soft hair. She shivers in my arms.

“Why is Mr. Marrik tied to a chair?”

I take a deep breath and smile, blinking away tears. I hold her out in front of me, staring into her beautiful violet eyes with my own. “Because, sweetie, Mr. Marrik needs a little rest, is all,” I say with a smile more genuine than the words. She gives me a wary look. “Why is there a hole in his shoe? Did you shoot him?”

I stand up and wipe my face with one hand. I turn to look in the mirror over the kitchen sink. My eyes are red and splotchy, and my black hair is ruffled and scraggly. There is a cut on my lip from where he had punched me, and I touch it lightly with one finger. When I draw it away, blood stains the tip. I turn back around to Jackie, and grimace. “Mr. Marrik needed some persuasion to get that rest of his.”

Jackie giggled. “I bet you showed him, huh, Cathy?”

I smile and nod, but my heart isn’t in it. “Are you all ready to go?”

Jackie nods. “Are you?”

I over at the suitcase by the couch. My mouth opens to say ‘yes’. Then I close my mouth, and look all around me at the house that has reared me since birth just as much as my two parents, if no more. It has certainly outlived them, I think with a bitter smile. I look at the table whose top left leg was just slightly shorter than the other three, so that it is tilted ever so slightly to the left. I look at the moth-eaten couch, and the staircase where every other step creaks, some louder than others. I look up at the centuries-old, chandelier that has supposedly been passed down for generations on my father’s side of the family. I look to my right, to the wall of photographs, years of memories. I look to the hearth, no flames crackling within. I look to Father’s armchair. It is empty, and it seems to sag, shadows flickering across its surface despite the abundance of morning light. The chair creaks, and I could swear that it was its way of sighing.

I smile, and look down at Jackie. “Yes.”

She jerks her head at Marrik. “Are we gonna leave Mr. Marrik all alone here in the house?’

I grimace. “Mr. Dowage said that the gang bosses will come tomorrow to foreclose the house. We’ll just leave Mr. Marrik here as a little going-away gift for them.” I smile devilishly at her, and she returns the grin impishly.

“Whuzzat?” He blinks on bleary eye at me, wiping out a dirty mug with an equally filthy handcloth. Squinting down at the photograph I hold before him, he points one craggy finger at the blindfolded man. “You want to know who this feller is?”

I sigh. “Yes, please, and I’m in kind’ve a hurry, if you don’t mind, Mr. Barnaby. Do you know who he is?”

Mr. Barnaby sets down his mug and motions for the frame, and I hand it to him. He pulls a cord hanging from the ceiling, and light suddenly illuminates the dingy inn. Muttering under his breath, he pulls out a decrepit old pair of eyeglasses and shakily affixes them to the bridge of his nose. He coughs up some phlegm, and then nods, taking off the glasses and handing the photograph back to me. Taking the eyeglasses off, he gives me a funny look.

“That right there is Silas Targaryen.”

I tilt my head forward. “And…….?”

Mr. Barnaby chuckles slightly and pushes through the swinging door to come to the other side of the counter. He sits down at one of the round wooden tables and motions for me to sit, his eyes closed, his tongue running over his lips. I take my seat warily, and Mr. Barnaby is quiet for a long time. His lank white hair hangs from his grizzled, aged face, drooping with skin. He looks tired, very tired, an old hound dog that needs rest. I feel a surge of emotion for this cranky old man I’ve worked for the last nine years.

Rubbing his jaw, he coughs and takes a deep breath. “Look, Cathy, you’re a smart girl. I’m just gonna tell you what I know, which isn’t much, and that’ll be that. I was sorry to hear your pops died, and I’m sorry to hear that you have to leave. You’ve been a good worker, so I’ll gladly do what I can to make sure you can find a new life.”

“At your mother and father’s wedding, which they invited me to, when I was a good deal younger, they had also invited this stranger none of us had ever seen before. He was quiet, and had that kinda bookish air about him, like a scholar, or an accountant. We all though he was their marriage lawyer or some crackshit thing like that. Anyways, after the ceremony, when everyone was plenty drunk, your father stood up to speak. The only one at that point that wasn’t completely out of it was the stranger and your mother, so we were all pretty out of it and I doubt many remember what happened next.

“Your father started by thanking everyone for coming and going on about how he would love your mother till the end of time and lovey dovey nonsense- no offense intended, girl- an then he started getting real excited and acting a bit odd- the drinks had probably gone to his head. He started talking about how great an honor it was for his old friend to be here- none other than Silas Targaryen.”

He clears his throat. “You’d be too young to know who that is, eh?”

I nod. “The name sounds familiar. Wasn’t he in the newspaper a while ago?”

Barnaby nods, removing his eyeglasses and rubbing his hands over his eyes. “You know of the Storm Queen? Ruler of Stromgarde?”

I give him an exasperated look. “Who doesn’t?”

“I never much paid attention to politics and whatnot, but from what I garnered, this Silas bloke was the consort of the Storm Queen at the time.”

“Consort?”

“Basically her gigolo.”

“Oh……I see.”

“The position’s pretty highly sought after, but the queen usually doesn’t choose, a commoner, for whom she feels a more……physical attraction to. He gives her children and lives to be a pampered old man.”

“So he has sex with the most powerful woman in the world and then gets the royal treatment for the rest of his life?”

Barnaby grins. “Now you’re getting it.”

I cover my face with my hands, rubbing them down my cheeks as I stare back up at Barnaby. “So you’re telling me this Silas is her consort, and that he knew my parents?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me where I could find him?”

“No.”

I sigh. “Well, I’d like to thank you for telling me what you do know.”

Barnaby nods, and reaches out a hand to squeeze my shoulder affectionately. I allow myself a smile in return, and place my hand over his. I turn to look at Jackie, who is sitting at an adjacent table, picking at the cooked fish Barnaby had whipped up for her. She looks up at me, boredom apparent in her violet eyes. “Cathy, when can we leave?”

“I was thinkin’ right about now, little missy.”

I whirl around to see Marrik standing in the doorway of the tavern, thunder illuminating his silhouette. His clothes are plastered to his skin with the rainwater, and his hair hands in a great wet curtain over his face. A gun is clutched in one hand. He smiles and cocks his head. “Looks like I win this round, Catherine.’

I snarl. “Get out, Marrik. Or I really will kill you this time.”

He staggers slightly, and gestures with his gun. “I bet you will, sweetheart. But not if I get my word in first.”

Barnaby stands up, his mouth set in a grim slash. He points an accusatory finger at Marrik. “If you’re here to threaten these girls I suggest you leave, Hector. I won’t tolerate it in my bar.”

Marrik considers his gun for a second. He raises it and points it at Barnaby. There is a loud crack. Barnaby looks down and red spreads over his shirt. He falls backwards with a crash against the wood floor.

My vision goes fuzzy, and I scream. I dive at Marrik, but he snatches my arm out of the air and twists it painfully. I scream and so does Jackie, and Marrik grunts as he bends my arm behind my back, putting his mouth to my ear. “What fun we’ll have with each other, sweetheart.” I feel his hot breath in my ear. “You’re coming with me.”

I hear him putting his gun in his pocket, and his hand grabs my hair, dragging me over to Jackie’s table. I claw at his hand with my own, but he simply shakes me like a doll by the hair and I hear Jackie scream. I bite my lip, tears swimming in my vision, and Marrik laughs.

“Leave her alone, Marrik! She hasn’t done anything to you!”

Marrik throws me to the ground, and the air is knocked out of me as my head hits the hard stone floor. I close my eyes as I see Barnaby’s lifeless corpse a few feet away from me, blood trickling from his mouth. Marrik crouches down in front of me, obscuring my view. He is holding Jackie with one hand, pressing a knife to her throat. I sit up. He grips her by the hair like a kitten, and shakes her. I single tear rolls down her cheek. I blink.

“Let her go, Marrik. She hasn’t done anything to you.”

Marrik sweeps his hair out of his eyes. He continues to hold Jackie by the scruff of her hair, and uses the knife to scratch a straight line across his forehead, wincing. “Yeah? Maybe sweet little Jackie ain’t up an’ done summin to me, but this whole damn crazy world has. My wife left me, she took my son. Gangs killed my dogs and torched my house. I was lucky to get out alive. Government closed my bank account. My dear old dad died three months ago, same dad that beat me as a kid because my mother left him when I was born.” He smiles, and blood from the wound drips onto his teeth, staining them red. “But Ronan was always good to me, and I wanted to return the favor to his beautiful daughters.” He chuckles, picking at his teeth absentmindedly with his knife, his eyes glassy as he gazes off into the distance. Thunder rumbles outside. Jackie looks at me pleadingly.

Suddenly, he jumps up, eliciting a yelp of pain from Jackie as he lifts her by her hair, allowing gravity to take full control of her body. I reach forward, grimacing. Marrik lets go of Jackie, and she crawls over to me, and I gather her up into my arms, whispering softly into her ear as she cries into my chest. My hair drapes around her. Marrik puts the knife back in the sheath he has strapped across his chest, drawing the gun from his pocket and tapping it against his temple, grinning maniacally. “I know now. I know.”

I glare up at him. “Know what?”

He continues to pace and talk, tapping the gun against various limbs and facial features, a beat of deadly, deadly potential. “I know why you said no. I asked you to marry me this morning, and you said no, and no is not an acceptable answer. So I asked m’self. Why she turn you down, Hector? Why she doin’ this to you? Ungrateful bitch.” I clench my teeth, and he continues. “No ring! No damn ring!” He waves the gun in the air. “So I came here to collect ya’ll, and here ya’ll are. So let’s go. Let’s go get a damn wedding ring.”

I shake my head. “You’re insane.”

He grins, and nods vigorously, “Funny how that works out, ain’t it?” He considers the gun for a second, and then yells, stamping his foot, then screaming again, hopping on one foot, and I realize that that was the foot I had shot him in. I allow myself a brief grin of savage pleasure. He rights himself and glares down at me, and shoots a round into the ground, making a clean hole straight through the floor. “SHUT UP!” he roars, stamping his feet like a child. I flinch and draw Jackie in closer to me, curling into a protective ball around her. Marrik squints his eyes shut, his face growing redder as he hops up and down like a child throwing a tantrum. “Damn snake! Take off the mask! Shut up! SHUT UP!” He puts the hand with the gun to his head, rubbing his wet hair in circles and tangling it up in his fingers and the barrel of the gun. He smiles, his eyes still closed, and nods five or six times before opening them, his face assuming an unctuous expression. “I’m terribly sorry, sweetheart. Damn snake wouldn’t take its damn mask off so I didn’t want to keep talking to it. You beauties are much more important to me.”

At this point I know something is wrong. One of his eyes keeps twitching, and his hands are shaking. As for the snake wearing a mask, I hadn’t the slightest clue.

“So what now, Marrik? Are you going to kill us?”

He shakes his head vigorously as he steps forward. “No, no no no no no. Of course not. We still have a wedding ring to collect.” He walks over and kicks the door out the frame, revealing the dark, rainy outside. Lightning flashes and the raucous yells and cheers of nearby inns and taverns fill the air. Marrik grins, crossing his legs and bowing as he gestures out the door.

“Ladies first.”

I shiver, and scoop Jackie into my arms, carefully standing as I inch my way towards him warily. He shakes his head exasperatedly. “Come now, sweetheart. I won’t bite.” I jerk my head at our two suitcases. “If I carry Jackie then you carry our stuff.” He nods. “Of course, dearest.” I shudder in disgust as he fetches our stuff.

I take one last look at Barnaby’s corpse before I leave, the glassy, unfocused eyes that will never see again. Already a lake of dark blood has pooled around his head. His glasses have fallen askew on his face and his stringy white hair fans out behind his wrinkled head. I whisper a quick prayer, pleading for proper judgement for him in the next life. Then I step out into the rain and Marrik follows, closing the door behind him.


#3
Trapped Bird Part 3

It’s still raining. I duck my head over Jackie to prevent her from getting wet but soon my long, dark hair is plastered to my scalp. I feel Marrik’s hand on my shoulder and I recoil in disgust. He laughs and spins me around, grabbing me by the jaw and tilting my head up to look at him. I jerk my head back and try to bite his fingers but he snarls and lets go, slapping me hard over the cheek. I stagger away and try not to trip amidst the rainy street, fearful of dropping Jackie. Marrik bares his teeth in a savage grin, his wild hair sopping wet in the rain.

‘You’ll soon learn respect, Catherine. If you don’t, I can teach it to you.” He smiles crookedly.

I blink away tears, rubbing my burning cheek against my shoulder, and hug Jackie even closer to my chest. “Where are you taking us?”

Marrik taps his gun to his temple, beginning to pace, a brooding expression on his face. “Now, let’s see. There aren’t none respectable jewelers open at this hour.” He begins to laugh uproariously, then quickly takes two steps towards me to loom above both Jackie and I. “But when’ve I ever been a respectable man!” I flinch, and he squints his eyes and laughs loudly again, throwing out his arms and giggling maniacally into the wet night air. A sliver moon hangs above. A crescent teardrop the night sheds now for me.

Marrik puts his arm around me and begins forcibly steering me down the street. I walk slowly and deliberately, taking strides two times larger than usual to keep up with him. He talks as he walks, but I’m not really listening. Already mental gears in my head have begun to turn and mesh together, formulating a plan to escape him once more. I draw up several blanks. He has a gun. He’s bigger than both Jackie and I combined. The first time I had overpowered him had been a fluke – he was drunk, and out of it. But now he seemed hyper-alert, every nerve on high gear. I could feel the tension in his muscles rippling against my neck and shoulders. I remembered what he had been rambling on and on about at Barnaby’s inn – snakes and masks and conversations in his head – he is insane. Something inside of his has snapped.

I don’t want to think about Barnaby. He was a good man – cranky and ill-tempered on the best of days, but well-meaning and gruff and like a second father. I know he pitied me and Jackie, and I hated every moment of it, but looking back I realize how much he did for my family. Jackie and I would have been forced to live out in the streets if not for him; our father put in an institution. It was him through the years who had provided for the family – I did the work but it was him who kept us afloat.

Marrik suddenly stops moving, and I cry out a little as his huge, rough hand tightens to keep me from moving, tripping over my own ankles and my head snapping forward before Marrik drags me back by the neck. I tighten my grip on Jackie. I close my eyes as I feel his hot breath in my ear. “We’re here,” he whispers. I open my eyes after a moment to see a large wooden building, a sign painted in silvery letters hanging above the door. Rybee’s Odds and Ends. A general store.

Marrik places a hand on the small of my back and begins to steer me towards the steps up to the door of the general store. I shrug him off but he places his hand yet again on my back and then opens the door. The place is dimly lit, rows of wooden shelves filled with produce and other goods. There are only two other patrons, excluding the clerk: an older man with red hair and a brown shawl filling his bushel with oranges, and a taller woman wearing a cloak, picking at a pathetic shelf of leather-bound books.

Marrik strides up arrogantly to the counter, where a bored-looking boy, a few years younger than me, is sitting on a stool, staring off at the wall. He looks up when we approach, his long blonde hair hanging over his eyes. “Rybee’s asleep upstairs, in case you were looking for him.” Marrik shakes his head. “Ya’ll got any rings?”

The boy’s eyes beneath his curtain of hair shift over to me for a brief moment, but I do not meet them. He turns to look back at Marrik. “We’ve got some jewelry. What kind do you need?” Marrik turns to look at me and runs his hand through my hair, and I shudder slightly. I cast a quick glance down at his belt and see the gun strapped there. Marrik’s fingers brush across my ear as he answers. “Ms. LeBlanc right here is about to become the new Mrs. Marrik, if you catch my meaning. Got any nice engagement rings you could spare for a pretty penny?”

The boy licks his lips, and then bends down beneath the counter, pulling out a long, rectangular box. He puts it on the counter and takes off the grey lid carefully, with both hands. Inside lay several necklaces and brooches, tangled up in a big, shiny mess. The boy sifts through them for a few seconds before drawing out two gaudy, boxy silver rings, each with a small yellow jewel inset on the head. He gazes up at us and holds them out. “These alright? Can’t really find another pair that mathces.” I keep my head bowed, so I have no way of seeing Marrik’s expression, but I hear his gravelly voice respond. “Those’ll do. Can we get going? I’m in a bit of a hurry, mate.”

The boy shrugs and puts them in his pocket, standing up from the stool. “Sure, man, let me just go get the register and wake Rybee. It’s regulation for him to be here for big, uh, transactions. We don’t get a lot of jewelry customers.” I cast my eyes up again to see him staring at me again, his mouth slightly open. I can hear both his breath and Marrik’s. He shakes his head, hair flopping around, and moves into the darkness of the back of the store. I hear the muffled sound of him going up some steps.

Marrik begins to pace, his brawny arms folded across his chest. He’s grimacing, and every so often he casts an awry glance at me as his breath slowly gets louder and more impatient. The boy has been gone for several minutes now.

I hear a voice behind me, and turn to see the woman, about half a head taller than me, her mouth pursed. The hood of her cloak hides the rest of her features so that I cannot see them, save for a few strands of curly auburn hair. Marrik has begun picking through the produce alongside the woman, and I see him pocket a few querrasos beneath his vest. I turn my head back to woman, who is tugging at my sleeve. “Can I help you?” I ask.

The woman speaks softly and quietly, with a hard tone. “Is this man bothering you?”

Goosebumps break out along the nape of my neck and down my back. My mind reels for an answer, fighting against itself over whether I should answer honestly and risk getting her into trouble with Marrik or lie so that she would go away. I blink slowly, and take a breath.

She raises one finger and speaks again, quiet and smooth like at a funeral. “You’ve told me all I need to know.” I open my mouth to warn her but she shushes me. “Hush. Do not alert your fiancée.”

She assumes a hunched back and hobbles over to where Marrik is, clearing her throat. Marrik looks down to sneer at him. “Excuse me, sir, could you help me? I’m blind, I can’t see which fruit is which. Could you show me where the fireapples are?” Marrik’s lip curls further into a cruel sneer. “Help yourself, crone. They’re somewhere over there.” He points in a random direction, and begins to turn away from her.

A hand shoots out from the cloak and catches Marri in the jaw, two fingers fused together in a vicious jab. Marrik’s head jerks back and he staggers backwards a few steps, pulling his gun out and shooting at the woman. She dives into Marrik, under the bullet, catching him in the gut and causing both of them to tumble to the ground. The older man lets out a small yelp and covers his balding head, running around behind an adjacent shelf. I crouch down and clutch Jackie close to my chest, ducking beneath the counter. I can no longer see Marrik or the other man, but I can hear scuffling noises, grunts, the sound of shelves being knocked over and produce being spilled. And then, another gunshot. Then there is silence.

“You can come out now. He has been incapacitated.”

I let out a large breath, one that I did not realize that I had been holding. With unsteady legs I straighten and see the woman carefully picking her way around several shelves that have fallen askew. She draws away her hood with both hands. Her face has an ageless quality about it, but it is much younger than I had expected. She has a widow’s peak, with high, proud cheekbones that flow upwards effortlessly from her lips. Her hair is almost as vivid a shade of orange as her piercing eyes, which she sweeps over me dispassionately. Her brow furrows as her cupid’s bow purses. I hear the sound of footfalls coming down the steps and turn to see a dumpy-looking man with a bandana wrapped around his balding head swing around the corner and into the space beyond the counter. His eyes widen as the cashier boy timidly follows. His eyes swing across the store as he opens his mouth, but the woman beats him to it.

“You will find a man unconscious on the floor near the produce, with several stolen querrasos in his vest. He is also in possession of a stolen handgun. He is mentally unwell and should be checked into the nearest mental facility at once. Phone the police as well, to settle his newly-acquired criminal record.”

The man, whom I assume to be Rybee, stands there with his mouth open like a fish, his face getting redder and redder, before finally closing his mouth, taking a huge breath, and then opening it to speak again. “My- my store- what….you……how?”

The woman moves up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder. “Ms. LeBlanc really should be getting back now, Mr. Rybee. I assure you, any lasting damages that I may have inflicted upon your store will be charged to that man’s account and paid for in full. But for now, we must be getting back to our apartment.”

Rybee takes a deep breath and leans forward onto the counter, rubbing his hands over his head so that he slips off the bandana. His shiny scalp contains only a few sparse brown hairs. He waves a hand over in Marrik’s direction. “You say this man stole some things?”

The woman nods, and begins to turn me away from the counter. I make no effort to resist. “You’ll want to be sure to call the police as soon as possible. Good day.”

She steers me towards the door, but before we can leave, the boy calls out, “Wait!”

The woman lets me go and waits at the door, giving me an impatient look. I turn to the boy and feel Jackie stir in my arms, and I press my face into her hair, making a soft shhing noise. The boy walks up and holds up one of the rings. He doesn’t meet my gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you with that man. I could tell you didn’t want to get married to him but I was too scared to help.” He looks up, his brown eyes barely visible beneath his mop of blonde hair. “I hope this can help you in some way. Sell it or something. You don’t have to pay. Rybee’ll never notice one of these go missing.”

Rybee is out of earshot, stalking through his scattered shelves and wringing his hands. I take the ring from the boy and give him a nod. “Thank you.”

He gives a small little smile and nods back, before turning and quickly scurrying back to Rybee, who begins to yell at him, gesticulating wildly about the store.

I turn back to the woman, who has drawn her hood back up. She beckons me with one hand, and I walk over. She speaks quietly to me. “I have little faith in either Rybee’s or the local polices ability to contain that man. He put up quite a fight, even for me.” She opens the door, and I can see the dark rain that has picked up again. “We must leave quickly. There is someone I want you to meet. Or rather, he would want to meet you.” She holds out my pack with the tickets and money, and points over to my suitcase filled with clothes and Father’s books. “Here are your belongings. Come with me.”

“Who are you?” I ask, shifting my grip on Jackie as I take the suitcase. The woman slings the pack over one shoulder.

“My identity shall remain secret for now. But I daresay you shall discover it soon enough. Know that I am a friend.” And without she ducks outside and begins to walk briskly across the street. I shake my head and follow.

She makes no effort to slow herself as I try to keep up, her long legs moving tirelessly in long, graceful strides. She keeps her head held high. We pass no other people on our way. No one wants to be out in the dark and rain in this area of town. Especially if that town is the Boiling Bay. She disappears from sight as she takes a turn into a dark alley. My instincts warn me not to follow. Sure, she had beat up Marrik, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be luring me into some greater danger. I’m smart enough to know that young women like myself shouldn’t be going into dark alleys alone. I wait outside, and call out to her. The rain pours around me and Jackie and I feel her stir and murmur slightly. She has been uncharacteristically silent through this whole ordeal. I wanted more than anything to get her into a warm bed and out of the rain and cold. On a train to our aunt. But it seems destiny wants it almost any other way.

The woman calls out from behind the slanting wall of darkness that blocks me from the alley. “You’re going to have to follow me if you want to meet him.”

I grit my teeth. This is my only option. With slow, cautious steps I tread into the alley.

I nearly jump out of my skin when a cold, smooth hand curls itself around my wrist, but I relax when I see her face, barely lit by the weak light of the moon. She places her other finger on her lips and pulls me over to a door set into the right brick wall of the alley. My eyes would not have spotted it. The shadows and gloom wreathed themselves into a curtain to cover it; there is a large chip in the green paint that looks like where a large knocker was once inset into the rustic wood. Most likely stolen. The woman pulls out a small key and unlocks the door, pushing it inward to open from the inside. She steps in and I follow.

As she closes and locks the door behind us, I set my eyes over the tiny entrance room. There is a small footstool and a lamp with several letters to my right and a coatrack to my left. The hallway diverges into two rooms on either side and leads up into a spiraling staircase. The whole place is narrow, with peeling teal paint on the walls and a high ceiling that extends all the way to the top of the stairs, where I can see a balcony overlooking where I am and a closed sunroof, illuminated by the faint, flickering light of two archaic gas lights above me. The woman calls out, kicking off her shoes and setting my pack on the floor by the coatrack.

“Silas! I brought you some visitors!”

A man comes out from the room to the right, a book one of his hands. The other is working its way down a page, rubbing and scratching at the paper in jerky, spastic movements. He is wearing a black button-down shirt and grey pajama pants, barefoot. He has a lean build and is roughly the same height as the woman, maybe a little shorter. His hair is iron grey, not the silver of old age but the healthy slate I would bet he’s had since birth. His face has an ageless quality, handsome but lined, a thin mouth and a strong, defined nose. His neat, tucked ears are pierced with small metal studs, fashionable and efficient. I blink, and gently set down Jackie, who clings to my leg, one hand absentmindedly stroking her scalp. A thin, clean strip of black cloth covers his eyes, running over his temples before being tucked into the space between the tops of his ears and his head… My mouth falls open slightly.

He closes the book with a snap, cocking his head slightly to the left. “So sorry if I don’t immediately recognize you, mystery visitors of unknown identity or quantity, but as you can see, I am a little lacking in the sight department. Gwen, would you please tell me who this is?”

She clears her throat. “Ronan LeBlanc’s two daughters, Silas.”

He makes a funny little jerking motion, a shudder that seems more an instinctive motion than a voluntary one. A small, knowing smile forms on his lips as he raises a hand to brush aside a strand of hair. “You can’t be serious, Gwen.”

“I am, Silas. I had to save them from some goon at the general store. Something about getting married to Catherine. He was a piece of work.”

He takes three steps forward until he is mere inches away from me. As he reaches out with one long, spidery hand, I close my eyes and feel his fingers run themselves along the length of my face, tracing the curve of my forehead and the ridge of my brow, over my eyelids and down the bridge of my nose. He curls around one nostril and traces the outline of my upper lip before sliding off of my chin. I open my eyes again to see him withdraw his hand and look over in Gwen’s direction. She smiles and shrugs.

He turns back to look at me, unseen and unseeing eyes settling onto my face. “We’d….we’d better go into the sitting room. There is a lot we have to talk about.”


#4
Trapped Bird Part 4

The sitting room is small, a carpeted rug and a hearth the barely leaves enough room to squeeze in two large armchairs by the flickering fire. A painting hangs above the fire of a man and a woman and a young girl, but the shadows of the room do not allow me to see their faces. Silas has settled himself in one of the armchairs and motions for me to do the same. Gwen has taken Jackie upstairs to bed.

Silas laces his fingers together and seems to be affixing me with as close as you can get to a hard stare for a blind man. He leans back, and the flickering flames, the sole source of illumination in the room, cast eerie shadows across his statuesque face, harsh and proud and beautiful. He has a saturnine air about him, regal and dark. His mouth opens. “I assume you have many questions to ask of me. I would not dare disallow you from exercising that right. Please, ask away.”

I lean forward, my hair hanging over my lap. “Did you know my parents?”

He nods. “Ronan was a close friend of mine earlier in life, and I taught Juniper at the college in Stromgarde. You can imagine my delight to hear that they were to be married, and that I was to be the best man. But the marriage came at a difficult time. I had been exiled from Stromgarde. I was a taboo figure in most areas of Demira’s influence. I had agreed to attend the wedding, and in return your parents promised to maintain my anonymity. But as palliatives tend to do, they clouded your father’s judgement and my identity was made known. I had to flee or risk punishment or ridicule. And I here I have dwelt, in plain sight, for many years.”

I lean back in my chair. My eyes water slightly, and I fight hard to keep my voice from breaking. “Have – have you kept up with my parents?”

Silas shakes his head. “I have had little to no contact with your parents since their wedding. All I know is that they lived somewhat nearby and that they had two daughters, you and your sister. But I couldn’t risk jeopardizing you all with my continued presence in your lives. I hope they are doing well, no? That shady character Gwen had to save you from didn’t cause them any trouble, I hope.”

I wipe at my eyes with one arm, sniffing. “My parents are dead. Mom died in childbirth eight years ago and Father was never the same. He died a few weeks ago.”

Silas stands up from his chair and takes several unsteady steps towards me. He is now almost completely in darkness, but I can still make out the faint shadow of his form as he crouches by the fire and places a hand on mine. “I cannot possibly express the sorrow and pain I feel in hearing that.”

I feel a tight knot of anger well up inside me. Black and frothing and hot and cold all at once. I jerk away from his cold, thin hands, standing up abruptly and throwing up my hands. “Everyone’s sorry! Everyone! But they can’t fix anything! They don’t know anything!” Words bubble up and I scream them out, clenching my fingers into talons and stomping around his room. He sits motionless on the floor, a knelt shadow by the light of the flames. “All my life I’ve been taking care of shit and shit happens to me, bad stuff and worse stuff and I haven’t had a break in ten years! I can’t breathe sometimes….My heart stops beating and my lungs don’t work and I can’t take in air and I choke and sob and- SHIT! Shit shit shit!” I fall to my knees, and my breath catches again as I choke and give a dry, heaving sob. My eyes are scratchy and red and tears pour out from them, tears for mother and father and Barnaby, tears for me and for Jackie and for Silas and Gwen and the whole world. I wrap my arms around my chest, choking and sucking in nothing but tears and nothingness in the vacuum of grief.

I hear a small movement beside me and feel arms wrap around me. I shake them away but they come back and envelop me, They shake as I shake and tremble as I do. I fall back a little, resting my head on his shoulder. A man I’ve known less than an hour. But I man my parents knew and trusted. What should that mean for me?

I hear soft footsteps and the second shadow sets the lamp on the table between the armchairs, illuminating a bare set of legs. Gwen’s voice, soft and measured, seems to echo around the room. “Do you need anything, Catherine?”

I slowly extricate myself from Silas’s embrace and stand up, stumbling forward slightly. Gwen’s arms shoot out to catch me. I mutter a quick thanks, wiping away at my eyes. “I-I’m fine. Tha-thanks, though.” Gwen nods, and leads me to the exit of the room. She’s wearing shorts and a loose white shirt, barefoot and her hair tied up in a messy bun. A studious pair of glasses rest on the bridge of her nose. Silas pulls himself up off the floor and settles back down in the armchair. “Gwen, why don’t you take Catherine upstairs for a change of clothes and a shower. We have hot water still, yes?”

Gwen nods. “I paid the landlord just this morning. We’re set for the next few days.”

“Is young Jacqueline asleep and well-cared for?”

“I gave her some milk and some cookies and put her in your bed. You can sleep in here tonight.”

Silas chuckles. “Good. Catherine, do you mind sharing a bed with your sister?” I nod timidly. “That’s fine.” Silas sinks back into his chair, sighing softly. “We can talk again after you clean up.”

Gwen takes me gently by the arm and leads me into the entrance hall, leading me up the stairs. It winds in a tight, narrow spiral. There are three other floors above the ground one – the one just above the first has just one door. I point to it. “What’s in there?” Gwen places her hand on the railing of the stairs and stops. “That’s the library, where Silas keeps all his books. He was a professor before he caught the Her Majesty’s eye – taught history at the university at Stromgarde. That’s where he met your mother. He keeps hundreds of books in there – big, circular room. Full of dust. I wouldn’t recommend it.” She continues up the stairs, as do I.

When we reach the third floor, she stops and points me over to where the stairs curl into the wood paneling of the floor. There are three doors on this floor. Gwen puts a finger to her lips. “Over there is Silas’s bedroom. Mine is right here. Technically, we have a guest room that you should be sleeping in, but it’s too full of crap to bother with. We haven’t had guests it years so it’s basically become storage at this point.” I jerk my head upwards. “What’s on the fourth floor?”

“A catapult, some high-grade explosives.” I chuckle. “No, really.”

Gwen affixes me with a hard stare. “Really. Silas has many enemies, including his former queen regnant. The catapult was uniquely designed by a benefactor of mine. It can fire in any direction – up, down, straight to the sides, with no loss of efficiency. We keep the explosives on the top floor in case they accidentally go off. The top floor is the least important to the integrity of the apartment.”

She looks away and opens the door in front of us, leading into a dark room. She reaches up and flicks a switch, and a gas light flickers on, illuminating a spartan room. There is a bed, a bookshelf filled with books, and a small desk with sheaves of paper and a large inkwell, with an ornate feather pen resting on top of one pile. She walks over to a closet and throws it open, and points one finger on the bed. I sit down on it, finding it hard and unyielding. I am not surprised.

Gwen throws a pair of loose pajama pants and a tank top at me, which I catch in midair with one hand. She turns to look back at me. Her eyes, hard and unflinching, soften slightly, and she moves over to sit next to me on the bed . “You look like your mother. But your eyes are like your father’s.”

“You knew my parents? But – you’re not much older than I am-“

Gwen laughs for the first time, a not unpleasant sound. “I’ve had my aging slowed, Catherine. I look like I’m 21, and I feel like I’m 21. But I’ve lived for many more years than that. All high-ranking members of the Stormguard have their aging slowed.” I give her a confused look. “So……you’re actually like fifty-something years old?”

Gwen shakes her head. “No. It’s more like I’ve been twenty-one years old for eight years. When you have your aging slowed, which is not a pleasant experience, mind you, every seven or eight years becomes like one. Effectively, I should live for many more times than a normal person could hope to. But it doesn’t make me invincible. I can still get killed in other ways. The process can lead to a weakened immune system, which can lead to higher susceptibility to diseases. A lot of people don’t ever undergo it, due to those side-effects. But I felt that it was a necessary risk to serve my queen.”

“Did she exile you too, like Silas?”

“No. I left voluntarily. I felt his banishment to be a great injustice and so I joined him out of protest. I had been in charge of protecting him and the infant princesses. I was one of the three heads of the Stormguard, along with Lena Balsyth and Laverne Kai. But I was always close with Silas, and so I left with him.”

“Are you two…you know……”

Gwen snorts. “Hardly. I love him dearly, as a brother, but we have never harbored amorous feelings towards each other. He still loves her, you know. Always will. Besides, I’m about as straight as his eyesight; I couldn’t be attracted to Silas if I tried.” We sit in silence for a few moments before she slaps her thighs with the palms of her hands and stands up. “Shower’s in the next room. Don’t be long, it’s a bit after midnight, and I think Silas still wants to talk with you.”

She leaves the room and leaves the door open. I wait a few seconds before leaving too, and I can hear her going back down the stairs. I open the door immediately to the right and find a small, clean bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower. There are several soaps and lotions on a small shelf hanging across from me, and a mirror above the sink.

I set Gwen’s clothes down on the counter of the sink and look at myself in the mirror. I recoil at the person I see before me. She looks exactly like me – violet eyes and a small, full mouth, long black hair that refuses to behave. Thin, slanted eyebrows that almost meet in the middle, and a pointed chin. Nose that is too small. I blink and so does she – my mouth opens and so does hers. She breathes on the same tempo as I do and her nostrils flare ever so imperceptibly every couple of breaths – exactly like mine. The resemblance is uncanny.

I close the door behind me and lock it, undressing and looking at myself in the mirror. I have lost weight, a lot of it, showing on the arch of my back and how I can almost count ribs. My hair scratches against my chest, and I realize how long it has gotten – draping down almost to my waist. I can see the new tiredness in the curve along my calves up along my spine and scalp because of Marrik. I splay my hand out on the mirror and look away, letting my hand drop from the smooth glass.

I turn on the shower and step in. The water is soothing and warm, and I don’t bother with shampoo or body wash. I let the spray rinse over my dirtless body, It washes over my skin and I imagine it as cleansing the dark knot of guilt and anger and desperation that has slumbered. It awakens and cries out as the water washes it away. I smile and close my eyes, running my hands through my hair which is hanging in a great syrupy mass from my head, in my eyes and mouth and and along the ridge of my spine. I turn off the water, and sink down into the tub.

I don’t really know how long I have been laying there in the coolness of the tub. All the water has long since drained out. I hear a knock on the door and in my hazy, water-vapor-induced stupor I call out in answer. Gwen’s voice responds, but I can’t make out words. She says something again and I answer again, not really forming words, more like a slurred kind of humming. The door opens and Gwen enters with one hand over her eyes. She talks again. I say I don’t understand but I don’t think she understands me. She sits down on the toilet and puts her face in her hands, and then pulls down a towel from the rack and covers my naked body with it. She uncovers her face and looks me in the eye. Her gaze is as hard as ever but her lips are teasing upwards into a small smile. She puts her hands on her thighs and stands up, then bends over me and picks me up, keeping me wrapped up in the towel and not allowing her hands to touch skin. She pries open the door with her foot and carries me out into the circular hallway. I feel her knees bend slightly as she reaches down with one hand to open the doorknob of a different door, and I see the vague outline of a small, sleeping form in the shadows of the bed. Jacqueline.

Gwen sets me down on the top of the bed and goes over to a chair in the corner and comes back with a large woolen blanket, which she drapes over me. I close my eyes. The last thing I hear is Gwen closing the door behind her.


#5
Trapped Bird Part 5

Sunlight filters in through the small window to the right, and although there is no harsh glare, I still find myself having to squint against the rays. I sit up, pressing the towel and blanket close around me with one hand, and look to the side. Jackie is still asleep, curled up under the covers with her blonde hair fanning out over the pillow. She looks so peaceful.

I look around Silas’s room. It is almost as spartan as Gwen’s, but with a second bookshelf and a larger desk. His closet is open and there are clothes on the floor. I stand up, the blanket trailing behind me, and move over to look at his desk. There are several opened letters, addressed in a messy scrawl, and a large, heavy blue book with its covers bound shut by a gold clasp. A picture sits in a frame on his desk as well, of him and a woman. She is wearing a fur coat and her black hair spills out from an ornate iron crown that seems to be sculpted straight up from her scalp. Silas’s eyes are uncovered and open – they are green like the foam of the sea. He is smiling and sits with his hands in his lap, the woman beside him. She is smiling as well, but something about the smile seems less than sincere. The backdrop is of a stone wall with a tapestry hanging behind them. I cannot make out the details woven in the fabric but it is very beautiful.

I see that the door has opened in the night and I go over to close it. I look around and see a neatly folded set of clothes at the foot of the bed. I throw the blanket over the bed, away from Jackie, and peel off the towel, which is still damp from last night. I put on the clothes (which are too big), and open the door, hearing hushed voices from downstairs as I step from stair to stair. Passing through the entry hall, I walk into the sitting room from last night. Whitewashed light spills in from the sunroof above and through the windows to the right. Silas is sitting in one of the armchairs, sipping from a mug of coffee. Gwen is in the other armchair, her hands folded in her lap. They both look up at me and I can tell they stopped talking at my entrance.

“You’re up early,” Silas says.

I make to sit down on the floor but Gwen shakes her head and gets up from the chair, pointing at the seat of it. I shake my head slightly but she gives me an exasperated look as I get up and we trade places. I respond to Silas as I settle myself into the armchair. “What time is it?” Gwen has lain herself out on the carpet, spreading her arms and legs out like she’s making a snow angle. Her curly auburn hair lies in a great billowy mess around her head. Her eyes are closed.

Silas swivels his head in Gwen’s direction, and she answers. “It’s about eight-thirty. You slept for a little less than eight hours last night.” I yawn, remembering something. “I’m still tired, but I didn’t get the chance to tell you guys last night. The tax collector came by our…well, father’s….well, it’s neither of ours now, but he came by the house and gave us tickets to a train that leaves for where our aunt lives. A town near the mountains, River’s Breath, I think. The train leaves tomorrow, at nine. Our tickets and some money he gave us are with my stuff.” I take a deep breath. “But I don’t want to go live with her. I want to stay and live with you two. “

Gwen sits up as Silas shakes his head. “Absolutely not. Believe me, nothing would please us more than to continue to share a home with the two of you. But the life Gwen and I lead is far too dangerous. We would only jeopardize the two of you further by allowing you to shelter under our roof. We have many enemies. Many people that would love nothing better than to murder the both of us in our sleep, quickly and quietly but not bloodlessly. I would never allow the daughters of two of my closest friends to join me in living this life.”

I open my mouth to say something, but Gwen interrupts me from the floor. “Silas is right, Catherine. We’ll be seeing you off to that train. You belong with your family – Jacqueline and your aunt. And you also belong far away from that thug.” She leans forward, trying to catch my eye. “Who was that man? Why was he trying to get married to you?”

Silas nods sagely. “We’re here to help, Catherine. Please, tell us.”

I swallow and bite my tongue. “His name is Hector Marrik. He used to work at the docks with Father before he went catatonic after Mom died. Then he disappeared for a year or two, after his son was born. Yesterday he popped up at the house, after the tax collector had came, and started acting really weird. He was talking about how his wife left him and how his house got burned down. I think he was drunk. Then he attacked me but I knocked him out and shot him in the foot with his gun. We went to stay with Vilag Barnaby but….but Marrik came and he killed Barnaby.” I put my face in my hands. “He was saying all these horrible things……I think he’s insane.” I don’t say anything else.

“And then he took you to this general store, to do what, exactly?” Silas’s tone was hard, but not unkind.

“Silas, he was buying engagement rings to marry her. He was speaking completely out of line. It was a stroke of luck that I was out buying you books at the time. If I hadn’t come…” I can see her glance awkwardly up at me from the corner of my eye. “Silas, he would have raped her or some awful thing like that. It was that bad. He was strong as a bull and twice as mean. I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

Silas sighs and mimics me, leaning forward with his face in his hands. “No, Gwen. If you had killed that man, then the number of killers in the world would have remained the same. He is most likely in police custody right now. The best course of action from here on out is for the both of us to make sure that Catherine and Jacqueline get onto that train safely and on time.” He looks at me, and despite the blindfold, I get the eerie impression that he can see me perfectly. “You needn’t worry anymore, Catherine. I will do all in my power to make sure that you live out the rest of your life happy and content with your remaining family, as will Gwen.”

I smile softly, and swivel my head to look from Silas to Gwen and back to Silas again. “I don’t think I ever really thanked either of you for taking us in. I….I don’t really know what to say. You two are amazing.” Gwen smiles, propping herself up by her elbows with her long, muscular legs stretched out in front of her. Silas holds up a hand, his palm facing towards me. “Don’t thank us. You didn’t deserve to be in a situation that needed the level of support that we have given you. Life has been cruel to you for a long time now, and most especially during these last few weeks since your father has passed away. Hopefully, life will be kinder from here on out.”

I see Gwen yawn and stretch her arms up beside me. She looks away and I take that time to inspect her more closely. She has even-set, almond-shaped eyes, a deep, pure shade of ochre I have never seen in another person. Her elbow-length hair is long and curls at the tip, falling in multiple shades of brown and orange like an auburn waterfall. Her lips angle forward ever so slightly, the top lip spilling off effortlessly from the bottom, narrow and swollen, each shaped like a tightly-strung bow in a perpetual pout. Her nose is centered perfectly onto her face, breaking out from her proud, distinct cheekbones that angle upwards in a delicate curve from the place where her two lips meet. Her pale skin is the purest shade of white, freckled and tanned on the forearms and the front of her legs. I can see the muscle and lean curves of her smooth, effortless body, the breadth and suppleness of her torso and the strength in her wide, muscular calves and thighs.

She stands, interrupting me from my thoughts, and stretches again, arching her back like a cat. “I’m going to take a shower. Catherine, after I do that, I suggest that we go down to the police station to see if they have that man in custody. Tomorrow we’ll bring you to the station.” I nod, and she stands, stretching her arms again as she yawns slightly. She turns and I hear her going up the stairs. Silas has picked up a book and is back to tracing the page with his fingers. I study him closely. He seems old and young at the same time, still having the boyish features of a young man but a face too lined to still be considered youthful. There is a lot of sadness, too, and I watch him closely as he reads. His mouth seems to be muttering the words silently, and I can see every blue vein popping out from the hand he is skittering across the page, the fingers contorting wildly. His head does not move and neither does any other part of his body save for his lips and his hand at the wrist.

I look up at the painting above the fireplace again and four figures- technically three. The man on the left who is undeniably a younger, seeing Silas is holding a young baby, maybe a year or so, with a shock of black hair and dimples. She is painted as smiling, with an open mouth to reveal one or two haphazard teeth and large, intelligent green eyes, like her father. The woman on the left seems to be the same woman as in the picture Silas has on his desk – proud and harsh, beautiful in the coldest, greyest sense of the word. A cruel iron crown with multiple horns and protuberances rises up effortlessly from her temples, and her long, black hair falls nearly to her waist in an elaborate braid. Both of her hands rest on a long, black scepter, crowned with a red orb which swirls with black and green. A young girl of perhaps five or six stands between them, barely reaching her mother’s waist. She differs from the other three in her fair hair, braided into two pleats on either side of her head; her ears are slightly pointed like her mother and she wears a modest white blouse that reaches her ankles. Her eyes are a stunning pink, tinged with violet, with long lashes and a sweep of bangs that almost falls over her left eye. Her expression seems much too old for her age.

Silas closes the book with a snap. “Are you looking at the painting?”

I nod, and then realize he can’t see the action. “Yes.”

He smiles sadly. “It’s not the original, of course, but I have my ways. That was painted about a year before I was banished.” He leans back in his chair. “Tell me. What color are Julia’s eyes? I’ve almost forgotten.”

I clear my throat. “Which one is Julia?”

He taps his chin, tilting his head up slightly. “The fair-haired one. The eldest daughter.”

I glance back at the painting, as if I could forget those eyes. “They’re….almost pink. Like a really pale shade of purple, or magenta. Long lashes.”

He smiles. “How old is little Deirdre? Am I holding her?”

“Yes. Are those your daughters?”

He nods, and smiles, showing white teeth. “Julia was born a couple months after Demira took me as a consort, Dierdre followed maybe four or so years later. I expect they’ve had their aging slowed by now. Julia would be a few years younger than you, Deirdre maybe Jackie’s age. You would have gotten along famously with Julia. She was the most vivacious little girl, adventurous and loving and gentle. I never really got to see Deirdre grow up at all.” His brow furrows. “Someday I’d like to meet them again.”

For a long while there is nothing but silence between us, the gentle pattering of the morning rain.

I fidget uncomfortably in my seat. “Silas?”

Lost in thought, his unseeing eyes gazing into the wall, he purses his lips. “Hmm?”

“Why did you leave that life behind? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking, that is, I mean, weren’t you -”

He smiles halfheartedly. “-banished? Why, yes I was, dear Catherine.”

“I mean, I completely understand if you don’t want to tell me, I’m sure it’s a painful memory-”

“It’s not.”

“What?”

“It’s not a painful memory. It happened so long ago now, and I have run it over in my head so many times now, that I’m confident in my ability to tell it. Would you like to know what happened?”

“Yes. I-I would.”

Silas sets his book aside and crosses his legs, lacing his fingers together. “Where to begin? I was a history professor at the college in Stromgarde, young and with a bright future ahead of me. Long story short, the current Storm Queen at the time, equally as young and just starting in her rule after the death of her mother Vereesa, came to the college to inspect its grounds. I like to think that she fell in love with me at first sight. She was young and impressionable, and I think she needed someone other than the palace servants to keep her content. I was simply in the right place at the right time.

“Before I knew it she had taken me as her consort, and I had a special room at Mont Lille all to myself; which isn’t entirely true; Demira was there at least as often as I was and I was in her room at least as often as she was. She was, is, a beautiful woman, and it was a privilege to be her consort but things never quite clicked for me then. I missed teaching and studying and it grew tiring being someone’s professional lover.” His face reddens slightly. “Before my role as her consort I was never the most sexually active man in Stromgarde. She always took charge and it was a tad strange learning most of my sexual education from a member of the opposite sex. But she enjoyed herself teaching me.

“I think she always thought of me more as an object of affection, an escape she could use when her duties grew too much for her. It was only a few months into our relationship that she began to request we attempt for a child, and Julia eventually sprung from those efforts. It all happened so terribly fast- one moment I was a bachelor professor, living in a shoddy apartment, the next, the Storm Queen’s personal sexual partner and father to the next Storm Queen. As time passed, I like to think that our relationship deepened into something that wasn’t purely physical, and we began to spend time with one another outside of the bedroom. She stopped her lesser relationships to devote herself exclusively to me, something very few other Storm Queens have ever done. Beneath the cold, intensely private exterior she had wreathed herself in through the years, there was a bubbly and wonderful woman that I soon fell hopelessly in love with. Deirdre was born during these happy few years.

“Demira grew increasingly bold with me, allowing me to sit beside her at court and even take part in politics, something the nobility did not approve of. I soon made many enemies for myself, and I begged Demira to stop antagonizing them, but she refused, insisting on proving the world wrong that a queen cannot love. It was admirable in the most naïve and foolish way possible, and it would soon cost us both.

“Multiple attempts were made on my life and it was during this time that Demira assigned Gwendolyn Mallory, a high-ranking Stormguard captain stationed at Mont Lille, to protect our daughters and I. She has since saved my life multiple times. The nobility soon realized that killing me would prove a fruitless effort, but they could do something that would serve to be just as effective. They were angry that a peasant teacher could achieve more power than them, the worst and vilest form of jealousy. Besides, I think that they also realized that killing me would be too messy, and result in both my martyrdom and their bringing of the Queen’s wrath upon their own heads.

“A former student of mine, very bright, approached me one day at court. He said that he missed having me as a teacher and that he would love to catch a drink with me some time. Gwen agreed so long as she could accompany me personally, and the three of us went out to a prestigious restaurant near Mont Lille. My former student and I both had our fair share of alcohol, and I only pieced together what happened next from later sources.

“My former student, once so bright and full of promise, had fallen into crippling poverty after I left, and the college had since failed to get enough funding from the city government to function. I later talked with him after my exile, and he had become a bitter and broken man, eager to bring shame upon the role model he felt had abandoned him. The nobles had bribed him and the waiter to spike both my drink and Gwen’s, and agents of the nobility dragged me off discretely to an undisclosed location.

“They drugged me and put me in bed with some other woman. Demira discovered us late into the night in each other’s arms in her own bed. She was outraged. The poor other girl, no doubt a prostitute or servant girl in over her head, was hanged and Demira had me banished. I cannot imagine the betrayal she felt. I broke her heart.”

“That wasn’t even your fault, though! You were framed!”

Silas shakes his head sadly. “I cannot say. Had I not been so quick to trust an outsider, had I heeded Gwen’s warnings, I may never have ended up in that situation.”

“You can’t possibly blame yourself-“

Silas holds up a hand. “I’m not finished yet. It gets worse. As I was saying, Demira banished me. Perhaps in some deep recess of her mind she coulnd’t bring herself to kill me, despite my deep betrayal of our love. She gave me two days to leave Stromgarde and told me face-to-face that she never wanted to see me again. She….she beat me after she had the girl dragged off. I was too delirious to fight back.” He reaches up a hand to rub his check, wincing. “Gwen pleaded with Demira, imploring her to reconsider, and trying in vain to make her see the truth. On the last day, to Demira’s irritation, she resigned and joined me in exile.”

“We were staying at a hotel trying to find a train ride out of the city when they attacked. Several large men in hoods, faceless entities that broke down the door and crashed through the windows. Gwen tried to protect me but they threw her off the balcony; later, she told me she only survived by catching hold of the railing and climbing back up. By that time the men had taken me away to a dark room in some seedy corner of the city. It was then that they revealed their true nature.

“They were zealots, the last remnants of the storm mage cult that has long existed as a dark stain on man’s history. Their eyes were sewn shut with black thread, to gain access to fel magicks, unnatural and perverse. They had heard of my crime and took their revenge in the only way they knew possible.”

I cover my mouth with my hands as Silas rolls up his sleeves. On the inside of each forearm a word is carved into the skin, ugly and reddish-black, the skin around it frayed and bruised even after all these years. On his right arm the word INFIDEL stands out in ugly, cruel letters. On the left it says WHORE in equally painful lettering. I look away as Silas unties the cloth from his head and lets it fall to the ground. My eyes flicker up to his, and then quickly dart away. I do not want to look.

Out of the corner of my eye I see him tie the strip of cloth back around his eyes and lean back into his chair, pulling down his sleeves. “Gwen and a few other friends found me and killed many of the zealots, only a few managing to escape. But the damage had been done. I was permanently blinded, and these grafts will remain with me forever. Gwen and I left the city after my wounds were treated. We have not returned since.”

He smiles sadly. “I’m so terribly sorry if that was depressing. I did not wish to-”

I cut him off. “No, no no no. Don’t apologize to me. You were the one who had to go through that.” I take a breath. “Thank you for telling me. It put some things in perspective.”

Silas shakes his head. “We are both soldiers of misfortune, Catherine. I have no right to make you feel as though your sufferings are any less than mine. We have both lost much. That is what makes you human, and good, and kind. Whether you have endured suffering or not does not define you. It is how you let that suffering impact you that makes you who you are, Catherine.”

I smile. “That got deep there for a second, Silas. Be careful.”

He laughs, lifting his legs off the ground. “I suppose it did. Sorry.”

I lean back into the chair, closing my eyes. I hear Silas shuffling around for his book, and then only the rustle of pages as he reads in his unique way. Then the twitter of birds in the morning air, the song of birds yearning to be free.