The sun’s golden yellow rays chased the darkness across the inner courtyard at an alarming rate, and if it continued its arc for just another foot, it would touch Catherine's unprotected skin.
The reality of her predicament dwarfed her discomfort. Although she usually admired its sheer beauty and basked in its familiar warmth, she was no longer protected from its deadly heat.
This was no ordinary day of chores, tasks, and duties, but her last.
The fast-dissipating shadows destroyed her illusions.
Eduardo Drake would not grant her leniency or mercy—not with his friends and enemies surrounding him like hyenas and vultures waiting for the lion to kill its dinner so they could feed off the scraps.
“Murderer,” someone yelled, and she lowered her head.
The whine of a leather thong cut through the crisp morning air, spiking icy terror through Catherine Drake’s veins.
The searing ache of open wounds and the scent of her blood barely distracted her from the disbelief, despair, and anger that defied description, understanding, and hope. Challenging her belief in all she held dear.
The skin-splitting studded leather licked across her back like a dragon’s tongue a fraction of a heartbeat before the explosive slap reached her sensitive ears.
Eduardo’s eyes bored into hers, and their absolute lack of expression crushed her.
Pride forced her to restrain herself before the man whose opinion mattered more than any other, although his disloyalty broke her heart and destroyed her spirit.
Blood spattered from the wound, trickling down her back, but she dared not give in to weakness or expose her vulnerability before that gaze which mirrored her own. Because his teachings were too ingrained in her psyche.
Her father’s change in attitude baffled her.
Eduardo was the master for whom she slew their enemies and would have gladly sacrificed her life. He was the sire who allowed her to be more than a mere woman and the king who enabled her to be more than a chattel or broodmare to some underling.
Yet he judged and condemned her without mercy, remorse, or doubt.
How was this possible, and why did it happen?
At his hand, she learned honor, dignity, and pride. His blood flowed through her veins, branding her with his strengths and weaknesses, and he raised her to be the woman she was. There was nothing about her he didn’t know, and yet none of it mattered.
Eduardo turned his gaze away, no longer acknowledging her. If not for the eyes eagerly watching her every move, Catherine would have allowed the sob damming up in her throat to escape.
The situation made her miss the privacy of her dungeon. At least there, she had the luxury of giving in to her emotions.
Her father lifted his hand, and Marcus paused at his command.
“I, Eduardo Drake, disown you, Catherine Drake. From this day forth, you are no longer my heir or progeny. The scribes will strike your name from my lineage, and your name will never be spoken in this house again,” his voice rang out without feeling or remorse.
How could he dishonor his teachings out of love for a fickle woman, a charlatan that blinded him to the truth and led him to trust an imposter?
Catherine had never imagined this future for herself and, arrogantly secure in her position, never saw the danger.
Then again, how could she have foreseen it?
In all the years she watched this punishment administered to the unruliest of her father’s men, she never expected to feel the whip’s sting on her own hide.
Having seen what the staring crowd witnessed this day allowed her to see her punishment from their perspective. The thoughts and feelings guiding them were no mystery to her and intensified her shame.
“Such a waste; she’d make a good sidepiece,” another jeered.
“She’s too dangerous, Phillipe; she’d rip your balls off and feed them to you.”
“That’s what chains are for!”
She’d teach them a lesson if she had the power to rip loose from these chains.
“Poor Hendry, you’d be dumb enough to give her chains so she can use them to strangle you, beat you to a pulp, and rip your head off?” Another taunted.
“Continue, Marcus,” Eduardo said, glaring at the speakers with annoyance, and it took everything inside of her to remain silent.
The whip, wielded with such relentless expertise, reminded her of the metronome that taught her to play the pianoforte as her tormentor allowed brief pauses between lashes for the previous wound to begin healing before inflicting the next.
“Whore,” another snickered.
Despite the tightening of her lips, she did not answer their taunts, nor did her father silence them.
The metallic odor of her blood left her torn between feral hunger and gagging.
Drops of red chilled and congealed on the frigid cobblestones, changing from vibrant red to a duller reddish-brown.
“Finish it, Hellenic,” some coward yelled from among the crowd, speaking their hatred only when hidden.
Her father’s tainted lover had turned him gradually into an unrecognizable stranger. Lust for a woman, nay, an expensive whore, systematically replaced his allegiances, honor, and wisdom.
It went against everything her father was to Catherine and ripped apart the fabric of their relationship, mauling their love for each other.
Hope that things would improve waned as he became this unrelenting, distant, and unreachable stranger who no longer resembled the hero she had idolized since childhood.
The ache in Catherine’s heart exceeded that of her flesh.
If only she had acted sooner.
For most of her life, she believed Hellenic was a friend closer than a brother and saw him as a compatriot and a mentor, but he was none of those things.
Instead, he turned out to be the poisoned apple that cost her her dreams, her place in their world, and her life, but the most significant losses were her father’s love and respect.
Hellenic relished the destruction he caused, reveling in what he did to her. How had she not seen his evil until it was too late? There was not even any subtility to it. Had she not witnessed so many flashes of it over the years yet ignored it for her father’s sake?
How foolish can one be?
The blank faces of the nearest spectators were a façade, hiding their ever-growing bloodlust, anticipation, and satisfaction at witnessing her fall from grace while savoring every moment.
The thought of her demise made them salivate and almost frantic with the anticipation of hearing her scream and plead as she burned. Catherine ruthlessly cut off the last thought, unable to bear it.
She never indulged those feelings when she stood among the onlookers, finding no difficulty in it. The suffering of others never exited her. Punishment was a tool to retain order, not a sport for the gratification of an elite few.
“Give her to me, Hellenic. I will teach her to be a good little girl. Perhaps she was too much of a woman for you?”
This comment caused the slightest hesitation before the whip ripped into her skin more harshly than before. If Hellenic knew who said that, he would have his vengeance eventually.
Humiliation burned brightly alongside volatile, dark emotions she could and would not control. Since birth, she was a motherless child, but in her final hour, she was a fatherless daughter, the blameless guilty, and a sacrifice ensuring victory to her conqueror.
“I like my whores a little spirited—it makes breaking them so much more fun,” another jeered.
Tears stung her eyes, and Catherine fought this weakness like a hated enemy, refusing to let these beasts see her cry. Every fiber of her being wanted to deny her father the triumph of proving she was like any other woman: weak, fragile, and incapable of facing her fate with dignity.
Hellenic would not see her broken. No matter the cost, she would not give him the satisfaction of witnessing her final defeat.
“Shut your filthy mouths!” Aldrich’s cold tones brought about instant silence, although the elder had not bothered to raise his voice.
Although she remained a girl in the eyes of her people, she wasn’t. This was her last chance to prove she was an adult capable of clinging to the last shreds of her self-respect.
Some called her “too young to know her mind” and “too immature to make her own decisions.” The words were birthed from the perception of those who watched the rise and fall of the human mass while remaining ageless and unchanged. Yet, their estimation of her did not accurately reflect her worth or growth as a person.
None of them knew her or what she was capable of, and now they never would. Hellenic had robbed her of the opportunity to step out of her father’s shadow.
No one would intervene on her behalf. These men feared her father too much, and no miracle would allow her to wake from this nightmare.
Acceptance ripped away the final shards of hope fostered by Aldrich’s presence. Even he did not dare interfere in her father’s affairs, simply acting as a witness for the elder council.
How foolish of her to believe her father would reconsider and spare her life at the last minute. Until that moment, she had found it difficult to let go of the memory of the man she idolized.
Her heart had refused to accept that in a matter of months, her beloved father had become a heartless monster that would condemn her to death.
The bitter ashes of her disappointment were the last remains of a lifetime at his side as Eduardo allowed the light to touch her knee.
Every previous pain shriveled to nothing as her smoldering skin erupted into flame. Words failed to describe the firing of seared synapses, fat boiling, and muscle shriveling as the aroma of cooking meat vied with the stench of burned fat.
“Let the bitch burn!” a female shouted.
Catherine bit her cheeks to stop herself from screaming or pleading for either mercy or death, clinging to her pride.
The taste of metal invaded her mouth as she failed to contain the unearthly howl of a trapped animal suffering pain it did not deserve or understand. A shriek that was reminiscent of a tormented spirit or the cry of a banshee with an undertone of raw, boundless anger in its hidden depths.
The humans flinched, shivering in horror as bright red blood spilled from her mouth, flowed down her chin, and dripped on her chest, but she didn’t even see them. With her naked body vulnerable to their sight, the silver shackles and iron chains kept her seated, as if waiting for a beheading, but she’d receive no such kindness.
Violently shifting backward tightened the bonds securing her to that glacial block of stone, bringing her to heel and cutting into her skin, but those were the least of her concerns.
The involuntary reaction prolonged her suffering, exposing her frailty to prying eyes with the animal inside her far too dominant and close to the surface to curb her survival instinct.
She was not ready to die after barely having lived. How had Hellenic’s oily charm and lies convinced all these people? Was she the only one open-minded enough to discern the truth? Even these thoughts couldn’t distract her from her suffering.
“Where are you going, honey?”
“Are you trying to run away?”
The taunts barely registered.