Light streams through the window, bathing the room in golden light. I squint against the brightness as I roll out of bed. I step into the washroom and scrub at my body, removing the dirt and sweat of yesterday. I find that Ash has left clothes for me and I am grateful that it isn’t a dress. Half an hour later, I’m dressed in black leather leggings, a white blouse and the black boots. I step out of the room and into the hallway. I take the steps to the lower level with caution, unsure of what will await me.
My eyes find Ash immediately. He sits in a chair near the hearth. He is alone, but guards stand just a short distance away from him, should he need anything. I walk past them, worried they will try to stop me, but they don’t. Ash looks up as I am a few feet away and his expression is unreadable.
“Good morning,” I say, twisting my fingers nervously in front of me.
“Is it?” he asks, quirking a brow at me, looking me up and down.
I shrug, “I suppose it is as good as it can be,” I tell him.
“You shouldn’t be standing on that leg,” he says, looking at where my wound is, though it is covered by the pants.
His hand darts out quickly, taking hold of my wrist. He pulls me toward him and onto his lap. He keeps one arm around my waist, as if to keep me here. His eyes linger on the bandage covering the Vampire bite.
“Are you hungry, Lovely?” he asks, “I’ll try my best to keep up with your human appetite, but you need only let me know if you need something. I’ve not kept a human before, so it might take me a few days to learn your needs.”
I nod, “I’m quite hungry,” I say with embarrassment.
He gives me a tight smile then motions to a woman at the bar. She enters the room a few minutes later with a large tray of food. Fruits, meats, cheeses and bread are piled high. This is far more than my family eats in a week. I slip from Ash’s lap to sit on the floor in front of the low table of food. He watches in amusement as I eat some of everything.
“Thank you for the clothes,” I tell him once I am finished.
“My pleasure,” he says, inclining his head, “Are you ready to make the rest of our journey, or are you going to run off again?”
I couldn’t very well tell him that it wasn’t him I was running from, but the voice in my head. He would think me insane. He might even cast me out and I would be left to survive in a land crawling with Nokturns, specifically of the blood-sucking variety. I shake my head at him which seems to be good enough for him.
Nervous energy floods through me at the prospect of being in Mortem without my brother or any sort of support at all. I don’t trust Ash enough to confide in him or look to him for help. He is too unpredictable. He’s got an addiction to vika, as I haven’t seen him without it on many occasions. But now, I must put my faith in him to keep me safe. Somehow, deep down, I know that he will.
The rest of our journey is made in silence. I don’t know what to say to him. I could ask him about himself but that seems inappropriate. There is tension that radiates between us, as if each is waiting for the other to say something. Neither of us breaks, remaining quiet as we make our way out of Arcanum.
When we cross the border into Mortem, it’s as if the temperature instantly drops. It is frigid out and the glass of the windows frosts over. We come to a stop near the town square.
Servants gather our few belongings while we walk toward the Mortem castle. The streets are full of people, many gathered in the square. A Reaper stands on a large wooden structure, a human is tied to a pole, his back bare and exposed to the world. The cold alone is enough to severely injure this man. I realize the Reaper is listing the man’s crimes and I halt, listening closely.
“Jedidiah Hall is accused and convicted of crimes of treason, for he spoke out against the Reaper High Lord’s rulings in the court,” the Reaper says, “The punishment is forty lashes.”
Forty lashes? That was excessive, enough to kill a man. The Reaper takes up the whip and readies himself to deliver the sentence. Half of the crowd, the Reaper half, looks on in awe and sick excitement, while the human half is weeping and look frightened for their fellow man. How is this a way to live?
“Lark,” Ash says, trying to get my attention, “We must be going, we will be late.”
I look at him apologetically before I shove through the crowd, pushing my way to the front where the Reaper has already given five brutal lashes. Jedidiah’s skin now broken and bleeding, where he stands stone-faced. I climb up onto the structure and step between the Reaper and the man, holding my hands out in a protective gesture.
“Move, girl, or you can take the next lash for him,” the Reaper says.
“I hardly think forty lashes is a fair punishment for a man having an opinion,” I snap.
The whip strikes me quickly and unexpectedly, biting into my open palm. Blood oozes from the wound and I clench my fist as the tingling starts under my skin. It is not an unfamiliar sensation.
“Now, move, girl, or I’ll deal you another lash,” the Reaper says.
“Hold your whip,” Ash ascends the steps, shadowy smoke billowing from his hands.
It amazes me how well he can hold his composure when I know he’s completely pissed on vika.
“My Lord,” the Reaper bows in respect to the Mortem Lord.
“You’ve dealt your lashes most wildly,” Ash says, stepping closer to the lesser Reaper, “Do you know who this is?” he asks, pointing at me.
He shakes his head, “No, My Lord,” he says.
“That is my newly acquired human,” Ash answers, “She is MINE. No one is to touch her. No one is to punish her, except for me.”
The older-looking Reaper looks terrified of Ash, cowering in his presence. Ash looks back at me and I can’t read his expression. It almost seems like an apologetic look.
“Open your hand, Lark,” he demands and I do, wincing at the action.
His cloudy eyes light with rage and he turns back to the other Reaper, “What judgement would you see fit for damaging the property of a Royal?”
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” the Reaper chokes out, “I did not know who she was. She interfered with a public lashing!”
“Shall I give you forty lashes?” Ash offers, “Or shall I simply reap your soul here in the square?”
The Reaper’s eyes go wide then, backing away from Ash, “Please, My Lord,” he begs, his eyes darting to me, “My Lady, I apologize, please!”
“Ash,” I say, startled when he turns, his eyes glowing white, “It’s okay.”
“Okay? It’s okay that he struck you?” he asks, closing the distance between us.
“I don’t want any more trouble,” I tell him, “I just don’t think this man deserves forty lashes for having an opinion that doesn’t agree with the High Lord.”
“Your hand,” he says, his voice strained, his eyes turning back to the familiar gray.
I touch my uninjured hand to his cheek, “I’ll be okay,” I promise.
He tenses at my touch and seems as if he’s holding his breath. He turns back to the Reaper where he is kneeling on the wooden structure, as if awaiting his punishment.
“Free the human man and I will spare you,” Ash tells him.
“But, My Lord,” the Reaper begins to argue.
“That is my only offer,” Ash interrupts him.
“Yes, My Lord,” the Reaper says, hurrying to free Jedidiah from the post.
Jedidiah rubs at his wrists and winces with every movement. He looks at me with disbelieving eyes before dropping to kneel at my feet, head bowed.
“Savior, I pledge my undying loyalty to you for as long as I shall live. Your mercy is unmatched and undeserved. Thank you,” he says, surprising me by looking at me, and not Ash, who was responsible for his freedom.
“Thank you, Jedidiah,” I tell him, “See that you get to a healer before infection sets in.”
“Yes, My Lady,” he says, standing and stepping down into the crowd, his family and friends helping him.
As the crowd disperses. I descend the steps in front of Ash.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he asks, pulling me back to face him.
“I was thinking I was doing the right thing,” I say, defending my actions.
“You’re a human, Lark,” he barks, “You cannot just intervene in proceedings like that. You’re going to get yourself killed!”
“I’ll not hide my head in the sand and continue to tolerate the injustices I see happening around me,” I tell him, not backing down.
“You would be wise to learn to control your impulses. I can only protect you from so much,” he warns me.
“I won’t just fall in line and agree with what’s happening here,” I tell him, “I’m human. I was raised to fight and to believe in change.”
He lets it go, shaking his head in frustration before dragging me along behind him to the Mortem castle.
We rush to the entrance of the throne room, my hand hastily wrapped in a bandage until I can get to a proper healer. We step into the throne room where High Lord Allister Alsop awaits us with High Lady Neena Alsop. The High Lord does not look happy as we each bow before him respectfully. The rest of the Royal Court are seated around the throne room, witness to whatever is about to take place.
“I’ve just gotten the most disturbing news,” he says, “One of my servants was in the square this morning when this human girl made an unexpected appearance during the deliverance of a sentence.”
News travels incredibly fast in Mortem, apparently. My stomach does a flip with nervousness and dread pools inside of me, threatening to manifest itself in the form of vomit. I can’t even imagine the reaction I would get if I puked all over the Mortem throne room.
“I apologize for my servant’s unacceptable behavior, Father,” Ash says, “Please consider her upbringing and her compassion for humans. I assure you, this will not happen again.”
“I trust you will punish her accordingly,” High Lord Allister says.
“You have my word,” Ash says.
“You will deal her whatever punishment I see fit?” the High Lord asks.
My heart beats rapidly as Ash hesitates a moment before answering.
“Yes, Your Highness,” he finally answers, and I’m suddenly tense with nerves.
“Very well,” High Lord Allister says, “Twenty lashes and a day in the Dark Room.”
I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from speaking out and worsening the punishment. For it to be dealt by a stranger’s hand would be one thing, but now that it will be Ash delivering the lashes, I am far more ashamed. Still, I do not regret my actions in the square. Ash’s jaw is tense, as if he wants to say something, but is biting his tongue.
“Yes, Your Highness,” he finally says.
“I prefer you deliver the punishment now,” High Lord Allister says.
Ash seems to go paler than he already is, “Yes, Father,” he answers with much hesitation.
A human servant enters the room with a whip, placing it in Ash’s hands. A large wooden post is carried in and placed in an opening in the floor. The servants bind my arms around the post and fear courses through me, the tingling under my skin feels unbearable. They cut my shirt up the back, the cool blade barely brushing my spine. I hear a few gasps as my skin is exposed. I’ve had lashings before, the scars on my back proof of what I’ve endured at the hands of my uncle. He prepared me for everything, strengthened my tolerance for pain, in the event I was captured and tortured by the enemy. This isn’t far from that.
“It seems your newly acquired human has a tendency to be defiant,” the High Lord says with disapproval.
I keep my eyes trained on the floor, unable to meet anyone’s gaze. I feel Ash behind me, his cool hand grazes the scars on my back and I flinch.
“I’m sorry I have to do this to you,” he whispers in my ear, “I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me after.”
I don’t say anything and he backs away. The lashes don’t come and the anticipation is probably worse than the actual pain I will feel.
“Get on with it!” High Lord Allister barks.
Seconds later, the first lash licks my back, stinging the skin. It hurts worse than I imagined, probably because of the sensitivity of the already damaged flesh. The lashes fall faster than before and I can feel the warmth of blood as it trickles down my back. I vaguely wonder if other humans have been punished like this, or if I am the first to grace this stage.
When he reaches twenty, the servants unbind my hands and I collapse to the floor. Ash closes the distance, leaning down beside me. I push his hands away when he tries to touch my arm.
“Get away from me,” I whimper, “Don’t touch me.”
He retracts his hands and I cannot muster to courage to look at him. I am embarrassed and ashamed to be brought so low in front of him and so many other Mortem Royals. To them, I am no one. To them, I am human, an animal, something to be consumed. I know, deep down, that it isn’t his fault. I know that he had to deliver the punishment or probably end up dead for refusing his father’s orders. It doesn’t make the pain any less and it doesn’t make my emotions any calmer. Unfortunately, I still have to face the Dark Box, whatever that is. An older woman crosses the room with a boy around my age and they help pull me up, draping a sheet-like cloth over my shoulders to cover my back. She leads me to a side door and into an infirmary-like room.
“Bandages only!” High Lord Allister calls after us and I fight the urge to shoot him a murderous look.
Once behind closed doors, I weep, letting the hot tears sting my cheeks as the healer sets to work, spreading some sort of cream over the open wounds and applying bandages to my body. She rewraps my hand and gives me a look of sympathy as the young man stares at me with a look of intrigue.
He is tall and muscular with a scruff of a beard covering his face. His hair is the color of chocolate and his blue-green eyes sparkle like emeralds. He’s very handsome and very human, making him feel safe by default.
“What’s your name?” he asks, leaning against a table across from me and crossing his arms over his chest.
“Lark,” I tell him.
“The girl who escaped Arcanum?” he asks, a little in disbelief.
I nod, “One and the same,” I answer.
The old woman pours a clear liquid over the gash on my palm and I wince with the sting.
“Lord Sebastian has never brought a human into Mortem,” the boy tells me, “Why you? Why now?”
He is suspicious of me, that much is obvious.
“I wouldn’t know,” I hiss, “Perhaps you should ask him yourself.”
His stony gaze seems to soften slightly and he uncrosses his arms, “Listen, I’m sorry. It’s just really odd,” he steps forward, “I’m Kallum Mars.”
“So, what, you’re a servant here or something?” I ask.
He gives a lopsided grin, “Stable hand, to be exact.”
That would explain his muscular form.
“Fascinating,” I say with sarcasm, the pain of my wounds making me rude.
“You’re not like other girls, are you Lark?” he asks.
“Alright, clearly I’ve worn out my welcome,” he says, giving a nod to the healer, “If you find you have questions or find yourself feeling some human needs, feel free to seek me out.”
With a wink and a dip of his head, he leaves the room.