The whine of a leather thong cut through the crisp morning air, spiking icy terror through Catherine’s veins. The searing ache of open wounds and the scent of her blood barely distracted her from disbelief, despair, and anger defying 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, their absolute lack of expression crushing her. Pride forced her to control 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 the gaze mirroring her own. His teachings 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. He was 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? Why did it happen?
She learned honor, dignity, and pride at his hand, and his blood flowed through her veins, branding her with his strengths and weaknesses. He raised her to be the woman she was, yet knowing everything about her, meant nothing.
Eduardo turned his gaze away, no longer acknowledging her. She would have allowed the sob damming up in her throat to escape were it not for the eyes eagerly watching her every move. She missed the privacy offered by the dungeon where she could safely give in to her emotions.
He had disowned and disavowed her, denying that she was his heir or progeny. He had dishonored his teachings out of love for a fickle woman, a charlatan that blinded him to the truth and led him to trust an imposter. She never imagined this future and, arrogantly secure in her position, never saw the danger. Then again, how could she have foreseen it?
Her father’s tainted lover turned him gradually into a stranger she did not recognize. His lust for a woman who was nothing more than an expensive whore, had replaced his allegiances, honor, and wisdom. It went against everything he was to her and ripped apart the fabric of their relationship, mauling their love for each other. She hoped things would get better but barely recognized this cold, unrelenting, distant, and unreachable stranger that no longer resembled the hero she idolized.
The harlot swayed Eduardo into believing Hellenic instead of her. She made him accept his prodigal and second in command’s word over that of his child, and the pain in Catherine’s heart exceeded that of her flesh. If only she had acted sooner.
She believed Hellenic was a friend closer than a brother—a compatriot and a mentor—but he turned out to be none of those things.
He was the poisoned apple that cost her, Catherine Drake, her dreams, her place in their world, and her life, but her most significant loss was her father’s love and respect. He relished the destruction he caused, reveling in what he did to her. How had she not seen his evil until it was too late? It wasn’t even subtle. She had seen so many flashes of it over the years yet ignored it for her father’s sake. How foolish can one be?
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 her unprotected skin. The reality of her predicament dwarfed her discomfort. She usually admired its sheer beauty and basked in its familiar warmth, but she was no longer protected from its deadly heat. It reminded her that 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 can feed off the scraps.
“Murderer,” someone yelled, and she lowered her head.
The whip, wielded with such relentless expertise, reminded her of the metronome that taught her to play the pianoforte. Her tormentor allowed brief pauses between lashes for the previous wound to begin healing before inflicting the next. Textbook Hellenic.
“Whore,” another snickered. Her lips tightened, but 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.”
The cowards hid among the crowd, speaking their hatred only when hidden.
She had witnessed this same punishment being administered to quite a few of her father’s men, but never suspected she would feel the whip’s sting before meeting her end. She had seen what the staring crowd saw, which allowed her to see her punishment from their perspective. She understood their thoughts and feelings, which only 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 wished she could rip loose and teach them a lesson. During her father’s long reign, this fate befell only a dozen of his soldiers. Each occasion was marked by some unfortunate incident that precipitated their end.
“So, she can use them to strangle you, beat you to a pulp, and rip your head off?”
The blank faces of the nearest spectators were a façade. It hid their ever-growing bloodlust, anticipation, and satisfaction at witnessing her fall from grace as they savored every moment. They salivated at the thought of her demise and were almost frantic to hear her scream and plead before watching her burn.
Catherine ruthlessly cut off the last thought, unable to bear it. She had never allowed herself those feelings when she stood among the onlookers and found 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 woman for you?” This comment caused a slight 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. She had always been 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.”
Tears stung her eyes, and Catherine fought their weakness like a hated enemy: these beasts would not see her cry. She wanted to deny her father the triumph of proving she was just like any other woman: weak, fragile, and incapable of facing her fate with dignity. Hellenic will not see her broken, and she’d deny him the satisfaction of witnessing her final defeat, no matter the cost.
“Shut your filthy mouths!” Aldrich’s cold tones brought about instant silence, although the elder had not bothered to raise his voice.
She was no longer a girl, although she remained a child in her people’s eyes. This was her last chance to prove she was an adult capable of clinging to the last shreds of her self-respect. They often called her “too young to know her mind” and “too immature to make her own decisions.” Their words born 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 was no accurate reflection of 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 of stepping out of her father’s shadow and proving herself.
No one would intervene on her behalf, and there would be no miracle and no waking from this nightmare. Her acceptance ripped away the final shards of hope. Aldrich’s presence here briefly brought her hope, but alas, even he did not interfere in her father’s affairs, and he was simply a witness for the elder council.
Eduardo allowed the light to touch her knee, and 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 scent of cooking meat vied with the stench of burned fat.
“Let the bitch burn!” This was a female voice.
Catherine bit her cheeks to stop herself from screaming or pleading for either mercy or death. 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. It was a shriek 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. The silver shackles and iron chains kept her seated as if waiting for a beheading, with her naked body vulnerable to their sight.
She violently shifted backward, but the tight bonds securing her to that glacial block of stone brought her to heel. The sharp movement tightened her bonds, cutting into her skin, but she did not notice. The involuntary reaction prolonged her suffering and exposed her weakness to prying eyes. She could not curb her survival instinct—the animal inside was far too dominant and close to the surface. She was not ready to die but had no choice.
“Where are you going, honey? Are you trying to run away?”
She barely heard their taunts.