Bleed for Me

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Chapter 22 - Raines

Heartache.

At repeated loss, burned again into my battered flesh.

Terror.

For this boy that I love as he is tainted by a vicious world.

But most prominently, abject desperation. A sickness penetrating my very soul that I am helpless to protect and defend him, to comfort him, to cradle his suffering as my own burden.

2,606 steps. That’s how many times my feet fall to earth before I reach my destination. I know, because I counted every single one of them. I have to count them or I will break.

Kiptor is crowded. I find a crumpled paper in my grasp. Resting wearily in the shadowy nook of a building, packed dirt beneath my feet and strewn with hay, I take in blurred printed words smeared by exhaustion.

The Kiptor Tribune

After breaking through the defense sentries outside Rushes, a rogue troop of Trinovan soldiers charged into the Volcin plains in search of missing dancer, Calix Mandalia, the victim of a brutal attack several weeks ago. Young Mandalia was quickly becoming both a crowd favorite and the new face of the Caerinian Warrior Dance Team, replacing Rorik Titanfrë. Mandalia went missing from the sick bay almost two weeks ago. Ship doctor, Aleria Shadefury, claims she knows nothing and refused to comment for the tribune. We await the location and capture of Mandalia eagerly. He’s clearly cause trouble for both sides of this war already, and will be dealt with severely and

I stop reading. I’ve read enough to feel a chill permeating the very marrow of my bones. It aches. It reeks of my own panic.

They’re going to kill him.

If he can’t be controlled, they’ll kill him.

It is the first time I have ever wished to grow up without pacifism coloring Azurheim with kindness. If I had learned to wield a blade, I could protect Calix from the nations about to stamp a price on his head.

Running to the shore is easy, avoiding busied faces on Kiptor’s streets until the buildings turn to shacks and then to sand. Facing what’s next is hard. I’m about to ruin everything. But I don’t know what else to do.

A uniformed guard stops me at the gangway. “What’s your business here, son? Can I help you?”

“Yes, sir. I need to speak with Athro Teirnan, please.” It gets harder with every word. “It’s urgent.” My voice is tight.

“Urgent?” He squints at me, skeptical, but seems to see something truthful in my eyes. “I see. Follow me, hands at your sides please.” He gestures to another guard who takes his place at the base of the gangway as we start up the sunbaked boards. I knot my hands in the fabric of my tunic, twisting.

We step onto the deck. There are a select few crew members.

“I hope you’ve got a true reason to speak to the Athro. He’s desperately preoccupied and stressed with the whole Calix Mandalia thing.”

“Yes. It’s, um…. Related to that.”

“I see. Please wait here.”

I push close to the bow of the ship. A pale sky, a bright mist skipping over the waves. They seem unnaturally mirror-bright.

“Young man.”

Turning, I take in Cal’s master dance teacher, Caerinian master of ceremonies, Athro Tiernan. He is less imposing than I had imagined; a man of average height, with one graying braid draped over his green-clad shoulder.

“I understand you wished to speak to me.”

“Sir.” Fear floods me. It’s too late, this is too late to stop. “Sir, Calix Mandalia is my partner.” The Athro’s eyes widen imperceptibly. “And I know what’s happened to him,” I add. Practically an afterthought.

By the non-existent gods, what have I just done?

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Creeping flames of fear spiral up my back. My skin is hot, fingers tingling, although there is no fire lit in Athro Tiernan’s cabin. He is settled authoritatively across the desk from me.

“Young man, you know where my missing dancer is? Calix Mandalia?” He maintains a masterful composure, but cannot hide a note of hopeful desperation.

“I….yes. Yes, I do, he -”

“What is your name, young man?”

“Raines, sir. Raines Stargloom.”

There is a long pause. The Athro seems to be debating his next query. His hand restlessly folds and unfolds a corner of today’s paper.

“I was with him when he was captured by those troops.” I point to the rumpled Kiptor Tribune. “I don’t think he’s hurt, not much. Only knocked out. We were coming to you anyway. Well, I was not but Cal was. We - I need help. There’s a poster naming a price on his head. They’re calling for his Trial of Treason!”

“What?! That boy has been nothing but an asset! Although now….he’s becoming a liability.” The Athro trails off. My stomach sickens with a sudden wash of images. Of what the Trinovans could be doing to Cal right now. “Raines. You’re his partner? Calix’s?”

I almost shake my head, but I cannot deny him like that. And it’s too late to backtrack. “Yes. I am.”

“How long has this been going on?” His brain is working fast, all the lies clicking into place. I think back and consider our numerous months together. I confess.

“I see.” Athro Tiernan shuffles a few things on his desk, stands. “You may see yourself out.”

Rising along with the bile in my throat, I frown. A hesitant word drops from my lips. “Athro?”

“We have concluded our business here,” he remarks coldly.

“But what of Cal? I could lead you to the spot he was captured, describe the soldiers, I -”

“Enough!”

I jump, startled by the Athro’s sudden intensity. One of his hands is raised in dismissal, but I feel the fire of his amber eyes on me.

“The man you call your partner is no longer any dancer of mine. Calix is clearly a loose cannon. I misjudged him.” His voice drops to a brittle tone and he sighs. “I severely misjudged him.” But just as suddenly it’s back to claxon strength. “I cannot have him jeopardize Caerini’s success. The nation depends on it.”

“What? You’re not going to send anyone after him? He won you countless dances and you abandon him over this?”

I yell myself hoarse at this man, this heartless bastard who I thought would help. I am still seething and hollering when the guards grip my arms with too-strong hands. Still hissing as they drag me to the deck. Still sobbing when they march me down the gangway and deposit me on the rough, cold cobblestone in the shadow of the ship.

Still kicking myself for believing - no, naively praying - this man would help. If I had let his mothers keep him…. If I hadn’t been so sure we could win this war and fix this goddamned broken world….

He’d be sitting here beside me.

Cal would be safe.

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