Cages Made of Gold

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Chapter Five

Prisoner 168 dodged muddy puddles and cigarette butts, dancing on her toes.

This could be a dream, she decided. This could be a dream, filled with eerie streetlights and glowing mystery. And then I’ll wake up, just my luck, and it’ll all be gone.

The thought made her want to punch something. Her only options were a brick wall or Mark, and neither seemed pleasant.

A few hours out, and you’ve come to expect pleasantry. Dave’s voice echoed in the back of her mind. You’re losing your nerve, girl.

David Blackmore was the closest thing she’d ever had to a father.

Her only friend with the Travelers, as she fulfilled her role as his darling, his ward. The healer of scraped knees and heavy hearts, the man that held back her hair when she’d needed it.

During the day, at least. Which was was she couldn’t grant him the role of her guardian - though guard her he did, before she’d been thrown to the wolves.

David had armed her, though. Their nights were cold and cruel, filled with gruelling training and tricky exercises. He’d taught her everything; how to throw darts and knives, to kill a man with a simple smile. Gifting her bruises when she failed - she’d rather have him than pretty lies and blood money.

It had been one of those nights, the angrier ones, when she’d been named.

She’d been training for forever, her muscles told her. She deserved this; she’d give everything she’d had, and damn Blackmore if he still wouldn’t let her fight.

The ring was everything. A chance to build a reputation, to make her name, to win glory.

You do not fight to lose. He’d said that morning, setting down his fork, his voice matter-of-fact. You will leave victorious, or you will leave as a corpse.

It had made sense, especially at the time; she would die if she lost, at her opponents hand or his. David Blackmore, The Broken King, only fed victors - he did not care for failures, and he wasn’t about to start with her.

Blackmore did not want her to die. She’d forgotten to be relieved, as she begged him for a spot, forgotten to be fearful when he’d said yes.

The roar of the crowd had lit her blood on fire - the next few hours were nothing but a blur.

The jangle of chains, shouts of pain, the sight of blood mixed with dirt.

She had been ready, a hand on her dagger.

“I present,” shouted the announcer, tall in his top hat. The carnival flames flickered, the stands filled with people; vendors and children and cheering spectators. “The Could-Be Queen, Princess of Carrion, Daughter to The Broken King!”

His daughter. He named me his daughter. Her heart beat triple time as the announcer continued. The crowd cheered, boos scattered throughout. “Her opponent, The Lord to War, Skull-Crushing King, The Undefeated Trave-”

Pop.

She barely heard. Her eyes remained sharp, as heads turned. Silence flooded the arena, excluding a calm, male voice. “Wait.”

Her heart stopped and fell to her boots, a stomach close behind. A gunshot sounded in the distance; people screamed. The music had stopped; hushed whispers echoed throughout the hall, moths trapped in a bottle.

Blackmore held a black pistol, smoke leaving the end. “She will not fight him.”

Tears filled her throat, and someone choked - she was dying, gasping, silently screaming; a ship capsizing, swallowed whole by the sea . Blackmore pointed to the door on her left, his smile cruel. “She will fight him.”

Silence. Then a creak, a door being pushed open, as a wisp of a boy emerged.

Her audience exploded into laughter, their mirth frightened and glad, leering at the child before her. Barely any muscle; about to piss himself as he shook. Bruises painted his face, his cut-up lip wobbling. They can’t be serious, She thought, horror running through her. He’s just a little boy.

“What’s your name, boy?” A slap on the shoulder. He’d started to cry, his tears silent. Soft - afraid of being heard, instead of seen. “Let’s call him-”

“I won’t fight him.” She was about to puke; her voice said the very opposite. “I forfeit.”

“You forfeit…” A pause; the boy’s eyes’ widened as Blackmore spoke, his voice slow. “Well.” He rose. If jackass went for the boy, he’d have the Princess of Carrion to contend with. “How old are you, girl?”

She stood on her toes, raising her chin. “Eleven, sir.”

His gun was tossed to the side, sand spraying upon impact. “You, boy?”

“Seven.” She coughed in warning, as the King’s eyes’ narrowed. “Sir.”

“Seven…” His voice trailed off, ending in a laugh, gasping as he chuckled. “You afraid of a baby, girl? You afraid of getting your ass handed to you by a baby?”

The crowd murmured, giggling to themselves, hopelessly amused. She stayed quiet, as his hand hand shot forward - landing a punch to her neck.

They screamed with laughter as she fell to the floor, another kick to her stomach.

“On your knees,” He spat. “I did not save a coward.”

Tears ran down her face, clearing the caked dirt. She held her tongue.

“The boy.” She her a scuffle, a yelp, as he was brought to her knees beside her. “You will kill him. You will kill him, or you will be sent to the gallows.” Her hand tightened around her knife.

The in between moments stretched like taffy, sickeningly sweet.

And so, she crawled towards him, her heart broken. Her stomach flipped as she reached for the boy, squeezing his hand. “I’m sorry,” she’d whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”

He cried, as she pulled him towards her. Loud, painful sobs, gasps as he screamed, begging for his life, begging for mercy, and she was suddenly reminded of how unfair the world was. How she’d lost from the moment she stepped foot in the arena. How she’d prepared herself for a fight against a warrior, and lost to a monster, lost to herself.

She plunged the knife deep into his chest, as their whispers turned to cheers.

The girl did not remember rising, the hand on her wrist, as she stood. Did not remember leaving the tent, being put to bed, nothing more than a husk.

She only remembered waking, tired as anything, stalking towards the door. Opened it, and found Blackmorer, waiting in the hall.

Only remembered the way he grabbed her chin, how cold his eyes finally became. How much he looked like a shark; dark, glassy eyes against pale skin, a trained predator. “I name you.”

She did not move.

“I name you…” He continued, “I gift you the name of queens, of knights and witches. I name you after courage herself; I name you Reilynn. I name you Child of War, a Scarred Blade, the Queen of Ruin.”

And that was when the screaming started.

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