MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It’s been minutes.
A day maybe.
Since I lay at the foot of the Coliseum altar, as all the world crumbled down around me.
My eyes are swollen.
My jaw is on fire.
My body broken.
My heart? It’s not much more than a shell of something resembling a heart at this point. I do know it continues to beat because everything has its own throbbing pulse. Each thump pains me more than the one before.
My mind? A blur. Strange snippets of memories and nightmarish images haunt me day and night. I can’t begin to pull reality from fantasy from dream.
All of that and the best I can do—the only thing keeping me sane—is run my tongue along the jagged tooth in my mouth. The one Arlen cracked with his boot.
It’s sharp. Pricks my tongue with the point of a thorn. Draws a bit of blood.
It’s a different sort of pain than the throbbing. It’s the kind that stings up into my ears and reminds me I’m alive.
I didn’t die like Raevald wanted. I ruined his big finale. It’s the only thing that almost, barely pulls the corners of my mouth upward.
My Offering was stalled by my fighting, then slowed by Nico, and ultimately hijacked by the Night.
The Night … my dear people.
The same ones who left me on the bloodstained gravel of the Coliseum floor as they dragged Nico away.
With an arrow through his back.
A different pain consumes me now. The worst kind. It’s the one that has no cure. No amount of adjustment or consoling will quell it. This pain reaches from my toes to the top of my head and then down into the very deepest depths of my being.
But I can’t get lost in those depths. Not now. Not anytime soon.
It’s futile, but I try to shake my head. Toss the thoughts, the terrible pain out because if I dwell too much on Nico … that arrow … I’ll fall down a horribly dark hole. I’m already surrounded by enough darkness—I can’t take any more.
I have no idea where I am.
The ends of the earth where all is darkness.
I do know one thing: I will not die here.
I’m certain Raevald isn’t too far away, and I refuse to give him the satisfaction of my death.
Some wounds heal.
I gain a semblance of time and space and realize where I am, how much time has passed.
Twelve days ago, Nico lay in my arms bleeding.
An unforgiving arrow stuck out his back.
The Coliseum, all of Bellona, crashing down around us.
A mere twelve sunrises ago my hands were in his, and then they weren’t.
Eleven days ago I woke up on fire.
I’m still surrounded by darkness, but instead of hiding behind the safety of swollen eyes, the black space squeezing in on me is now reality. Drowning and ever present.
The prison floor is cold and callous. Forever damp and smells a mix of mildew and straw. There’s no window. Not even bars. No fresh air or sunlight or moonlight.
Nothing but four walls, a door, a small grate in the ground, and a single lamp. It’s lit what I assume to be each morning and burns for six hours give or take. Once it goes out, the only light in my world comes in unpredictable flickers from a crack underneath the cell door. The space—a few inches tall—is just wide enough for a meager tray of food to slide under. Twice daily—morning and night—I’m fed. Once daily—midday, I’ve convinced myself—I’m allowed to bathe. The time of day is arbitrary, I know this, but I’ve lost all concept of night and day. So even if I’m wrong, thinking there’s some structure to the endless hours brings me a stitch of comfort.
And every once in a while a cold gust snakes under that crack in the door. Then something—what I’ve come to refer to as Death’s shadow—shuffles its way across the floor in front of my cell like a broom. It clicks and swishes, breathes a deep sigh, and disappears as mysteriously as it arrived. I’m convinced it’s either the ghost of someone who met their untimely and gory end down here or, more likely, Death himself checking to see if I’m ready to take a journey.
The cell door unlocks. Creeps open.
Instinctively I scramble to the side, push my body against the equally cold, damp wall.
I don’t want to meet Death just yet.
A dim bucket attached to the same Imperi soldier who’s tended me since I awoke from darkness comes into view. All shadows, bright lights framing her form from behind, she enters like a dark apparition. The guard sets the bucket on the ground beside me. Cold water overwhelmingly scented of lemon and pine sloshes over the side.
When the dark silhouette turns to leave, I ask her the same thing I asked yesterday and the day before.
“What’s your name?” Gingerly, unsure of her reaction, I crawl forward just enough so the light from the hallway shines across my face. I need her to see me as human. As a girl and not a traitor. As a person and not the evil that is the Night.
But she stays still. Eyes on the door.
As I do every meeting, I give her a small measure of myself. “Each year, on the Night of Reckoning, I used to bake a loaf of sunrise bread for me and my grandfather. I’d layer the middle with candied lemons so when we cut into it there was a lovely ribbon of bright yellow.” For the first time in forever, a smile makes its way to my face. It sends a wave of pain across my jaw but it’s no matter, because the memory is too sweet to spoil with agony. “Poppy would always try to gobble it all up in one sitting, but when he couldn’t, we’d cut it into slices and share it with the neighbors. Of course, not before he’d dig into it and pull several candied lemons out, hide them in a cupboard. Such a sneak. But he loved those sticky lemon slices.”
I expect her to ignore me, tuck her short, dark hair back behind her ear, and leave and lock the door behind her as she always does. But today she’s stopped. Stayed long enough to actually let me finish my story. This afternoon, she’s paused momentarily in her automatic actions. Halfway to the door, her back to me, she looks over her shoulder.
I chance moving an inch closer, making eye contact.
The soldier—an officer, I notice for the first time, or maybe she’s only now wearing her red sash—stares. There’s hate and anger in the way her eyes set on mine, unblinking, narrowed. But then, as she scans me up and down, her expression wavers. Softens for the briefest of moments. Curiosity? Pity? I can’t be sure.
Copyright © 2020 by Jessika Fleck