Curses Part II
(To read Part I, go here.)
My cell mates immediately fall silent. There is one set of boot steps, the jangle of chain. They’re here to move somebody.
The ward keeps humming. I don’t know what to do. As the steps near, I settle for sitting at the back of my cell, against the wall. Keys turn in the door. It opens.
Ears stands there, legs splayed awkwardly, squinting for me in the dim. His shoulders are hunched, gangly arms hanging, trailing a length of metal links. In his right hand he grasps a wooden pole which they use to keep me at arm’s length.
I shift so he can find me in the gloom. His adam’s apple bobs.
“Are you making magic back there?” he whispers, eyeing the ward.
“I feel unwell,” I lie, using my most piteous voice. I’m a bad actress, but it’s not hard to sound wretched through my cracked teeth and parched throat. “You should stay back.”
Straw crackles under his feet. He turns the wooden pole against the ground.
“I have to deliver you.”
“Back to Beto?” This time, there’s a hint of real tears in it. I can’t stand up to him again so soon.
“Will you come willingly?” Ears asks. He brandishes the wooden pole weakly. They never send a single guard to get me.
Raising my arms above my head, I back into the corner. If I can convince him I don’t mean to hurt him, he’ll unhook the ward. The last thing I want is for him to call in someone else.
“I’ll come,” I say. “But I can’t make it stop.” I rattle my right wrist for emphasis, swaying the wire to the ceiling.
He hesitates again, then approaches with the staff held in my direction. There’s a hook on the end of it that is looped with chain. Using the hook, he threads the chain to my manacles. Still keeping me at a distance, he removes a pair of shears from his pocket and snips the wire to the ward. My gasp echoes in the sudden silence.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“You won’t be coming back to this cell,” he says.
Why would he tell me this?
“Captain’s orders. You’re going to be a Finder.”
Heat flares across my skin and the prickles intensify. The hooded woman who came to our door, who brought the guards to me and Ashka. She was stooped and graying, but her eyes were young. So much hatred. Not for us, but for herself.
I look into Ears’ face, and he drops his eyes. He’s a tall, thin man, but the way he stands today it’s as if he’s lost a foot. Normally his face is sheened with sweat when he comes for me. Now it’s bone dry. I’m missing something.
“The new demon,” I say.
Surprise registers in the flare of his nostrils and eyebrows. He tugs halfheartedly on my chains, and I get to my knees. When I’m standing, he turns his back on me. The keys are still in the cell door.
“She’s a child,” he says. Swallows. The dowel isn’t on me. The chain is limp in his grasp.
I was a child, too.
With a leap, my fingers catch the spare chain and I let the prickles out, send a burst of energy through the metal. Ears jumps, reaches for his heart. The pole rolls out of his fingers. It’s only seconds, but it seems like forever for his body to stop rocking from the charge and go down.
My throat is raw and I feel feverish. I tug the chain from beneath him, gather the extra length into my hands. Trembling, I reach for the pole. He stirs.
I hit him over the head with it, a meaty clunk. My heart is galloping. Get the keys, get out, I tell myself. Then I’m pulling the door shut, turning the lock.
Next, the iron door. On the other side of it is a windowless hallway, the hall they’ve taken me down countless times to Beto’s door and the guard’s chambers. It won’t be long before they send someone else to look for Ears. About halfway, there is a slim corridor with a flight of stairs leading up. I take it.
The way is dark and musty, so tight in places that the walls reach for my torn shift. With my right hand I use the pole like a blindman’s staff. The keys and extra chain are coiled in my left hand. The stairs wind up to a landing, flickering light.
It’s quiet. I dare to peek around the wall and find myself in the servant’s quarters. The place looks empty, bedrolls tucked in a corner. There are bins of soiled linens, bundles of personal belongings and clothes. It smells almost like a home.
In a far corner there is a tall jar: water. I ladle gulp after gulp into my mouth, cool some of the fever in my body. Didn’t even hit Ears enough to kill him, but I’m so weak I could fall over. Still, my body buzzes mildly.
I want to take off my bloodied shift, but the wrist shackles will make it impossible. There’s no time to see if the key is on the ring. By the main door to the room are hooks with brown robes on them. I pull one around my shoulders and put the hood up. This might buy me a little time.
From the quarters are several branching, narrow paths. There’s no indication of where any may lead. I pick the middle, moving at a quick walk. It’s dim in here, and the hood is so deep it falls across my line of vision. Too late I hear pattering steps, and then I’m on the floor beside another body. The extra chain crashes against the stone.
I push the hood back and swing the wooden staff, stopping just shy of smacking a small boy in the face. He stares at me. Picking myself up, I take off at a run. The corridors are like a maze, and I choose my path instinctively. With each turn, the hum in my bones grows.
Finally, I come to a curtained opening and halt. There are no more turns. It’s out here or back. Over my panting breath I hear soft music, female voices.
Curiosity takes hold, despite the risk. I pull the cloth an inch aside.
Soft lanterns gleam from hooks, illuminating the most beautiful arches I’ve ever seen. But beyond them is a more beautiful sight: the night sky, with stars winking, and the peak of the mountain a dark mound. Tears rise in my eyes and I blink them back.
Movement and color return my attention to the courtyard. Women in silks of all hues, leafy greens, the bright orange of fruits, purple as evening clouds. Their skin is a rainbow of shades, too, from milk-white to obsidian. They wear veils across the lower halves of their faces. The king’s harem.
Trilling notes rise and I squint at a boy holding a stringed instrument. His mouth is open, brow furrowed, eyes closed. No, the hollows where his eyes should be go deep, the flesh of the lids sealed over emptiness. A blind musician. And he’s not the only one. There are older men, one with a tube he blows into, another plucking at standing strings. Are they guards, too? I see no weapons.
I can’t wait to find out. By now someone will have discovered that I’m gone and alerted the guard. The little servant boy will have told about me. It’s only a matter of minutes before they’re after me.
Stuffing the extra chain and the keys deep into a pocket of the robe, I step out with my hood pulled low and pole as a cane. I can stick to the shadows until someone sees me.
The women’s gossip and the gentle music calm my nerves a little. If only I were clean and lovely under this robe, I could slip out and join them.
The shadowed edges of the courtyard are only so deep. I’m maybe a third across when a chatting pair drop their conversation.
“Are you lost, amma?” one of them asks. She must think I’m an elderly woman.
I keep moving. I can be blind and deaf.
But I only make it a few paces before someone comes to take my arm.
“This way, amma,” says the first woman, tugging me back in the direction I left.
I shake my head and try to trudge onward.
“Where are you going?” she asks, amused.
Inclining my head in her direction, I can see the dark skin of her arm, braceleted in gold. Her robes are the color of sunlight.
I lift the cane and point forward, and she walks a few steps with me. Others have stopped their conversations.
“It’s alright,” she says to them. “I’ll just take her for a stroll around the courtyard.”
She turns back to me, “You should see the sky and feel the breeze on your cheeks. Let me tuck back that hood for you.”
I try to sidestep, but our arms are still linked, and I pull her with me. The woman gasps and recovers her footing. Her grip on my arm hardens.
“If you’re a servant boy sneaking around, they’ll put your eyes out with hot pokers,” she hisses. “You’d better go back to the quarters immediately.”
I shake my head again, and a tremor rocks my body. There is a single snap of a spark discharging where her hand touches me.
She recoils and flips back my hood. We stare at each other. Her dark eyes are kohl-lined, black hair fanning around her head in a perfect sphere. A subtle waft of perfume hangs in the air. My hair is unwashed, long and flat against my scalp. There is probably still blood on my face, my nose crooked, lips bruised. Dark eyes filled with cold terror.
A nearby woman exclaims, and the music drops off. I gather the length of the robe and run.
“Wait!” cries the first woman.
Then there is a rumbling sound of boots, men’s yells. A few of the harem scream. The guard.
I stare down the arches at the end of the courtyard, hoping the guards’ armor will slow them. Then I’m in the dark space and I go right, then a left. More corridors, but these are wider, lit by sconces. No more servants’ ways to hide in.
Behind me are shouts, fewer voices than before. They’ve split up. The whine in my bones is greater with every few paces, my panic disintegrating any last control I had. I’m sparking off like a firecracker. The air around me crackles.
To be continued…
A/N: Sorry, this turned out longer than expected! For (possibly spoilery) more of this character, here‘s a flash piece featuring her.
Anne answers the latest prompt on Monday. Stay tuned for Audrey’s No Rules Friday next week.