Heavy iron thunders and I’m conscious, bit by bit and then all at once. From a corner of my stone-walled cell, the scent of burning violet flowers chokes me. My stomach curdles. I try to roll away from the corner with the incense stick, and my ribs sear with pain. Right. Beto kicked me so hard I couldn’t breathe.
At the thought of the guard captain’s name, I want to spit, but my lips are mashed. The inside of my mouth and half of my face is bloodied. With my tongue I probe the slanted edge of a front tooth. The exposed roots tingle. Guess they’re done using me for my looks.
Footfalls sound heavily at the end of the hall, and I relax my body against the crackling straw. If they think I’m waiting for them, planning something, they’ll do worse than break my ribs. Then voices banter, muted through the stone and wooden door. Shift change.
The newcomer is the basso voice, the heavyset guard with piggy eyes. Replacing the young one with the deformed ear. The one who sometimes gives me a little extra food or water. Slitting my eyes, I see he’s put rations through the slot for me. If only I can get to them before Piggy realizes I’m awake.
“What’s happening outside?” asks Ear, stopping too close to my cell. “I heard the sound of troops, horses leaving. Are we at war?” His voice cracks.
“Cool your heels. We’re not at war,” Piggy grunts. His loud steps pause a few cells down. Taking in the suffering of my neighbors. He gives a single chuckle in the back of his throat. “We might not have to worry about war for a very long time.”
“What do you mean?”
Piggy shuffles onward and pauses again. Then, under his breath, says, “They got another demon.”
I play dead, but my skin prickles. Any stronger and the ward will start to hum. System’s rigged to warn them if I’m channeling my curse. With the incense, I can’t get up enough of a shock to hurt anyone, but the ward goes off at even a mild current.
“It’s another girl. She leveled her village,” Piggy continues.
“And they’re bringing her here?” Ears’ voice rises with panic. I don’t know how he ever made the cut for the guard. He’s too innocent.
“The King wants to meet the Child Who Shakes Mountains.” Piggy comes to stand outside my cell. “Besides, she’s a weapon we can use—”
He’s seen me through the high grated window.
“Nemyeh,” he curses. “Thought this one was still with Beto.”
“Oh,” stutters Ears. “They brought her back about an hour ago. Out cold.”
I will myself to relax, to release the buzz in my veins. If the ward goes off now, it’ll be back to Beto. I’ve heard too much.
Piggy hocks in disgust. “Looks dead to me.”
A hinge whines as he prods the door slot.
“Guess she won’t be needing those rations.”
The bowl scrapes across the stone, clumsy, like he’s using a stick to drag it. Water sloshes. My stomach clenches. Ears stutters.
Cloth claps against cloth, and when Piggy speaks again, his words are retreating. Ushering Ears out of the cellblock.
“They won’t have much use for this one now that they’ve got a new toy, eh?” he asks. Saliva infuses his speech as he chews.
“Guess not,” Ears mutters. Then they’re too far away to be heard. The iron door grinds open.
I taste the metal tang in my mouth, lick my lips and they burn. Beneath me the straw itches and the stone sends a cold ache up through my bones. The fire in my ribs remains banked if I don’t move. The prickle of my flesh is soft but insistent. It means I’m still alive.
If Piggy is right, I should cherish every sensation left in my hide. Another demon taking my place means I’m disposable.
Hours later a low whine wakes me. I’m buzzing, my forehead hot, mouth completely dry. Someone will come and get me. They’ll kill me now, or hurt me until all my charge is gone.
Slowly I roll to my side. The manacles at my wrists jingle. There’s wool between the metal and my flesh, except for one wire that loops through the right manacle and up to the ward, hung high above my head. Shut up, I think. But it’s only singing because of me. I can’t stop the tickle of power running over my skin.
Moments pass. No one comes. My breath loosens and then I notice the smell is gone. The incense is completely burnt.
Wincing, I get to my hands and knees and crawl to the door. The water bowl is still inside, about two inches left in the bottom. I drink slowly so my trembling hands don’t spill even a drop.
It’s enough to clear my head, enough that I realize no one’s on guard.
“Psst,” I put my face by a slit in the wall between my cell and the next.
“Get away, demon,” the man cries. “I’ll call the guard.” Something clangs against his side of the vent.
Stupid traitor. He’s in here for treason, and he’s scared of me. Should have expected that. I creep to the other side, try again.
The woman is babbling to herself. I whistle, as quietly as I can, a song I’ve heard her sing. She quiets. Straw prickles.
“Who, who, who,” she mumbles.
“Guards?” I ask.
“No, no, no. No guards but the chain sings. The girl is in danger. Girl better stay quiet.”
Her breath is sweet through the vent. I used to wish it was Ashka in there, the closest thing to a mother I ever had. She took me off the streets and gave me food and a bed. They hauled both of us in, months ago, maybe. I’ve lost track of time. The last I saw of Ashka they were stripping her clothes off, beating her. She screamed and screamed.
Now I just hope Ashka’s dead. Because I can only imagine the things they do get worse when you’re a full woman and they don’t fear you’ll zap them.
“Singing for hours,” the woman continues. “So loud.”
The ward’s not that noisy yet. It’s the low buzz I learned how to control early on. Why I can’t today, I’m not sure.
“I’m sorry,” I tell the woman.
“You will be,” she warns me. “They’ll come back. Back. Back…” she returns to her mumbling.
I retreat to the center of my cell. If no one has come in for hours, it means something big is happening, an attack or a royal summons.
Or the arrival of a new demon.
A thrill rises up my spine when I think, Maybe she’s killed them all. Warmth surges through me and the ward really does sing for a moment. Then the iron door opens.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Jen. Return next Monday for Audrey’s answer to this prompt.