Lost in thought, I didn’t keep track of time or direction the soldier had taken. All I knew was that suddenly we stood in front of a building I had never seen before. Wide massive door turned on its squeaking hinges, uncovering a narrow hall filled with darkness. A gasp of fright froze in my throat when the soldier motioned for me to get inside.
Half-expecting that an angry monster would spring from the dark and devour me alive, I entered the hall with slow, unsteady steps. Distant clamor, the sounds of hurried footsteps and echoing forceful voices spread throughout the empty space and became louder and louder yet as the soldier urged me to walk further. Another door appeared before us, and this time he knocked and waited.
A tall, heavily built woman dressed in black opened the door, and surveyed us with an irritable glare.
The soldier pushed me forward and spoke to the woman, “An extra pair of hands.”
Thick eyebrows arched high on her wrinkled brow, uncovering bleak eyes that went on to study my length.
“This Sariyan slave?” She sneered at the soldier, and gave me a demeaning look filled with hatred. “I don’t know what gave you the idea that I should want her. Take her back to where she came from. I have no use for another rat.”
She started to close the door, but the soldier pushed them back.
“You have no choice,” he stressed. “She comes with the compliments of Commander Crane.”
The mockery in her expression was replaced by an instant frown of disbelief and a clear grimace of fear at the mention of that name. She paused and took another hard look at me as though she still couldn’t make sense of what she had heard. And—in all honesty—neither could I. The woman’s reaction alone was enough for me to know this was an extremely strange occurrence.
“What on earth am I supposed to do with her?” she asked, gaping at the soldier.
“That is not my problem,” he replied harshly. “I was told to bring her here and carry the message that she is to be treated no better than the others,” he said and added with a sardonic bite. “I’m sure you can handle a mere Sariyan female.”
The next instant he was gone, leaving me alone with that scary Nyrman woman.
The dark space filled with awkward silence. I wondered why I was brought there and what would happen to me, but didn’t dare to ask. The woman kept staring at me with transparent hostility as though she wanted nothing more than to put her hands around my neck and squeeze it until I was dead.
“Compliments of Commander Crane,” she repeated as if she needed to remind herself why she had been disgraced with my presence.
Suddenly, she expelled a heavy breath and stepped away from the doorway. The noise escaped the room I was supposed to enter, and—instead of taking her hint—I found myself stalling.
“If you are expecting a welcoming committee, you will be waiting for a long time, girl.”
The sinister undertone in her voice held that discernible weight of power typical for Nyrmans. Since I wasn’t in the position to defy that woman, I bowed my head and walked past her, trying my hardest to keep an impression of aloofness. It was of utmost importance that she should not notice my fear because that way, at least, I could manage to keep some of my dignity intact.
When I stepped over the threshold, the commotion stopped and the room went quiet. The sight that captured my full attention was the very last thing I had expected to encounter behind that dark hallway. There were no torture devices or evil soldiers preparing to cause me pain. All I saw were ovens, tables, large pots and an army of chefs dressed in black.
As I recovered from the surprise of finding myself in the middle of a huge kitchen, the overpowering scent of spices and inviting aromas of food invaded my senses, and I was unable to control the rumble in my empty stomach. The Sariyans had eaten nothing but that bland porridge in days, and though I knew the delicious food wasn’t meant for us, it was hard to sustain myself from jumping on it like a starved animal. Embarrassed and confused, I lifted my head and caught the astonished glances of the Nyrman staff.
“Nothing to see here.” The woman’s overbearing voice sounded behind me. “Get on with it. The dinner will not prepare itself.”
Some of them listened and returned to their tasks, while the others continued to stare. Being at the center of their scrutiny made me feel uncomfortable, so when the woman gripped my shoulders and spun me around, I was caught unprepared and didn’t react in time to stop her from seeing my injured hands. At first, her disbelief was apparent. Then, her grip tightened so much I wanted to cry out in agony. I didn’t have to see her face to know the revelation of my incapability displeased her greatly.
“An extra pair of hands?” A crimson red warmed her cheeks while she swore in fury and gritted through her teeth, “He cannot be serious!”
Her seething demeanor made it clear she waited for any transgression on my part that would give her the reason to lash out at me, but I said nothing. As it was—just like her—I had no explanation that made sense or held any logic as to why I had been sent there.
It seemed she had realized the uselessness of her inquisition because her painful grip suddenly loosened. The callous taunting slowly dissipated from her gaze and her face settled into an unreadable mask of coldness. She tilted her chin, and my eyes followed the movement as she motioned toward something behind me.
A petite girl who had to have been close to my age sat all alone in the corner amongst a pile of dirty dishes. Concentrating on the soiled plate in her hands, she didn’t notice we were looking in her direction.
“See that girl over there?” the woman asked, and I nodded, still waiting for her to look our way as the mean Nyrman commanded, “Rinse your hands and help her.”
In my desire to get away from her, I already took a step forward but she pulled at my shirt. “If you cause any trouble, I will make you regret you were brought here. Understood?” She twisted the fabric of the sweater even tighter and only when I mumbled my agreement did she push me away from her. “Now get out of my sight!”
Her impatient scowl made me hasten my step, and I found myself in front of that girl in a matter of seconds. At last, she raised her head and acknowledged my presence, but didn’t speak. I thought it was strange her black uniform missed the Nyrman emblem, but I didn’t dwell on it further. The girl’s curious eyes didn’t look away from me while I walked to the nearby sink to rinse the blood from my hands. The water burned my skin like fire as the river of red liquid spilled down the drain, leaving a nauseating metallic odor that emerged to the surface.
I sat down next to the girl who still stared at me with wide open eyes. Paying no heed to her act of wonder, I reached for one of the dirty plates, but her hand flew to my wrist, preventing me.
“You are Sariyan, aren’t you?”
The question was asked in a faint whisper, but since I was so tired of Nyrman abuse, I chose not to reply. The reserved act only seemed to have triggered her curiosity.
“What happened to you and...why are you dressed like that?” she asked curiously, and her voice softened when she spotted my arrested glance. “It’s all right. I am Sariyan as well.”
Taken aback, I quickly convinced myself her confession was nothing more than the Nyrman′s attempt to fool me into trusting her. But then I took the time to study her appearance, and realized her uniform and clearly dyed light hair could fool one for a moment, but her gray eyes and the contours of her face gave away her true descent. I could hardly believe it.
"Sariyan?" I muttered, and asked before I could stop myself. “How did you end up here?”
She hesitated, but only for an instant. “It is a long story, but to cut it short—it was a favor of a Nyrman soldier.”
“A Nyrman soldier helped you?” I gaped at her as though she had told me the most incredible fact that defied the very laws of nature. She nodded, but I still didn’t understand. ”Why would he do that?”
She shrugged and smiled mysteriously. “An act of conscience?”
"Nyrmans have no conscience.” My voice rang with bitterness.
“I agree with you for the most part, but Seth was different,” she said convincingly. “Although he hurt me, at least he did it with some consideration when he could have been cruel like the rest of them.”
“What do you mean?”
She came closer and whispered, “The first night I came here, he was the one who chose me and took me away. I was never more frightened in my life, but he assured me he wouldn’t harm me more than necessary if I chose not to resist. You see, all he wanted to do was to turn off the lights and pretend I was his wife and as long as I let him, he was gentle and patient. I think he even grew to care for me. When he had to leave, he made all the arrangements and had me transferred to this position.”
She spoke about that man with a sense of deep gratitude, as though he was her savior, and not the man who had violently taken her innocence. It was almost apparent she had feelings for that Nyrman soldier, and I found it difficult to imagine how that could be possible.
She could read the astonishment on my face. “You are judging me.”
“I might have taken the easy way out, but Seth never hit me or pushed me too far and even now, his claim on me keeps me safe from the others.” Her eyes hardened and flashed with a brief flicker of pain. “I am not ashamed of what I’ve done in order to survive.”
“I am not judging you,” I assured her, but on the inside I wasn’t entirely sure it was the truth, and I feared she could sense that.
“I don’t care if you are.” Her voice was decisive, but then it lightened. “You didn’t answer my questions. I can work out for myself that you were punished with a whip, but your clothes remain a mystery. No Sariyan has ever walked around this complex dressed like that.”
I wasn’t sure if it was the magnetic trust shining from her bright blue eyes or the fact she had already shared her story with me, but I found myself telling her about the incident that took place upon my arrival to Obsidian. When I finished, she observed me with transparent worry in her eyes.
“You should know the Commander is a very dangerous man.”
Her revelation didn’t come as a shock. If anything, his animosity had been apparent from the very beginning.
“Everybody fears him,” I stated the obvious.
“They have a good reason. It doesn’t matter which side you are on. Whoever dares to displease him—be it Nyrman or Sariyan—will live to regret it. Trust me—you don’t want to face his kind of vengeance.”
Her words were deeply unsettling. Even though I sensed I might not be able to handle it, I needed to find out how she had come to know so much about that man.
“Did... Did Seth warn you about him?” I asked with caution.
“He didn’t have to. I’ve experienced his cruelty firsthand.” She shook her head, and her eyes went distant like she was reliving a bad memory. “There was this girl...” She glanced around, and lowered her voice so much that even I could barely hear her. “I don’t know her name, but I know she was captured shortly after me. I remember she was very thin and looked so fragile. Every night, she kept having these panic attacks and she was crying, but nobody could get her to speak. The Commander came to the gym one night, and I was shocked because for as long as I had been there, he had never done that. Out of all girls he could have chosen, he wanted her and he wouldn’t relent. I will never forget her screams or the terror that was so great it made her speak for the first time. Though she stood no chance against him, she resisted and begged him to leave her alone, but he took her by force and practically dragged her to his quarters. She didn’t return for nights to come and we heard she was so desperate that she jumped from the window of his room. Her escape ended with instant death. They say she was completely naked and her body was covered in terrible bruises like she was tortured.” I gasped, aghast and disbelieving as she went on with the story. “Some think that he chose her by chance, but there are speculations that he wanted to hurt her because she was somehow associated with The Resistance. Nobody knows for sure, but the Commander was so displeased by the incident that he went berserk. In the weeks that followed, all hell broke loose in Obsidian and if we dared to even glance at Nyrmans in the way that displeased them, he gave them the permission to take our lives. It was that bad that once he demanded—"
The impatient voice of that Nyrman woman interrupted the girl’s story and it was then—as I looked up at the staff—that I noticed they were working with an exceptional hurry and highly uncommon restlessness. Something made them fearful and upset. I glanced toward the girl. Although she didn’t seem to know what might have caused the sudden turbulence, she was smart enough to remain quiet and swiftly return to her task, fading back into invisibility. I, on the other hand, wasn’t lucky enough to be left alone.
“How many times do I have to call you?!” The woman growled, and I realized that somehow she had materialized herself right in front of me, holding a tray filled with glasses and a bottle of wine. “What are you looking at? Get up! You have work to do.”
There was no time to think. Bewildered, I got up on my feet and followed her to the door at the other side of the kitchen, where she handed me the tray. Although it wasn’t heavy, my hands had trouble handling the lightest weight, and the sour expression on the woman’s face told me she was aware of that, but expected me to carry it all the same.
"Commander Crane announced he would be attending dinner with his soldiers after a very long time. He has also expressed the desire to experience the advantages of famous Sariyan hospitality.” I stared at her dumbly until she clarified, “You will serve them.”
The revelation hit me with the magnitude of an explosion, and I went weak in the knees. The glasses rattled on the tray as I fought to keep my balance. All of the chaos in the kitchen suddenly made sense. The staff was killing themselves to please him.
To my surprise, the woman steadied my shaking hand.
“Make sure everything is perfect. You will not live to see the light of dawn if he is not content.”
In a sudden somber tone, she went on to describe the details, and took great pains to ensure I knew what was expected of me. For some bizarre reason, she acted as if my failure would be her own, and it only added to my nervousness. Then—without further clarifications—the door opened, and I was sent away together with several Nyrman waiters who carried their trays of food and drinks with astounding ease while I struggled with my burden.
In a mere instant, we found ourselves in a huge hall that screamed with opulence and wealth. Everywhere I glanced, there were luxurious chandeliers, wide massive tables, chesterfield chairs and shining marble floors. Soft, relaxing music played in the background while the monsters who tortured my people during the day, indulged in the luxuries of the night. It seemed I had been transformed into a distant parallel dimension where the most unusual of things could have happened, and I remember thinking Nyrman insolence indeed knew no bounds.
The sight of countless black uniforms left me breathless, and I needed a moment to compose myself. Despite the woman’s instructions, I didn’t know what to do or how to act, and my eyes restlessly searched the room for answers. More than ever, I felt as if I were a small, helpless lamb trapped with a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. That sensation, buried deep in the pit of my stomach, grew wildly and threatened to devour me alive when I spotted their enigmatic leader.
Sprawled on a chair like a lazy wild cat, he sat at the head of the largest table as if it were a throne. Without a doubt, he acted every inch an arrogant king who was well aware of both his beauty and power. Infinite boredom he didn’t even try to hide settled on his face while the men around him obviously tried to impress him with their enthusiastic tales.
Then, suddenly, he peered up, and a glimmer of sheer disdain flashed in his black eyes as they locked with mine. It was almost as if he was immensely displeased to see me in those surroundings, even though he himself had requested my presence. Alarmed by the raw contemptuous intensity of his stare, I wanted to look away, but found myself paralyzed by those unfathomable eyes that mercilessly persisted on holding me their prisoner.
As if it wasn’t enough, the edge of his lips twitched in a triumphant sneer, and he raised his glass with deliberate slowness, as though making a demand and savoring every second of my discomfort in the process.
You will serve him. You will serve the Nyrman Commander who caused a girl to kill herself.
The words echoed in my mind over and over again as the Commander followed my awkward, uncertain steps that led me straight into his den. In my attempt to calm down, I encouraged myself to be brave and hide my fear, but the knowledge I was surrounded by murderers made it impossible to keep an act of indifference. The heated discussion at his table subsided when I finally approached it, and everyone’s attention shifted to me. For some reason, the Commander’s sycophants were interested in seeing me serve their master.
The determined way in which he observed my every movement, and the thought everyone except for me was aware of some hidden agenda that would shed some light on the mystery of the evening, made me clumsy and scared. When I lowered the tray and took hold of the bottle, I realized my hands were shaking uncontrollably. But this time, there was no one to steady them, and I made a mess out of pouring the wine in his glass. Perfection that was demanded and expected stretched a million miles out of reach when—in my turmoil—I ended up spilling some of the wine on the Commander’s hand.
Realizing what I had done, I mumbled a silent apology as my unsteady fingers brushed against his with the intention to minimize the damage, but the sudden feel of his smooth skin made me flinch and jerk away...as though I had touched a burning flame.
It was then, as his comrades started laughing at my crudeness, that our eyes met again. But, unlike theirs, his expression remained serious and entirely devoid of amusement. Everyone waited, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he seemed to be strangely interested in my reaction to him. And in all earnestness, I wondered how it was humanly possible for a man to cause such wariness within me without actually doing a single thing.
Someone in the background called for drinks. I looked away from the Commander, and reached for the tray as though my very life depended on it, only to feel the strong grip of a large hand on my wrist, holding me back.
Uneasiness spread over my entire body like a tidal wave. I gasped and closed my eyes, willing the shock to fade away.
“Thank you.” The words I wasn’t prepared to hear were spoken in a courteous, but icy cold manner.
A deep crude flush I was unable to control spread from my neck all the way to my face. As he released my hand, I replied with a curt nod, lifting the tray and leaving in such haste as if I was chased by the devil himself.
For the rest of the time, I served Nyrman soldiers, and didn’t look his way again. I knew I was there solely to please him. I knew he could be calling for me at any moment, but the need to keep my distance was inexplicably stronger than the fear of punishment. In the morning—I was sure—I would change my mind and curse myself for provoking him. But at that moment, nothing on the face of the Earth could make me face him of my own volition. Wherever I went, I felt his eyes burning on me. I could feel him waiting. Unbelievable as it might seem, I swear I sensed his growing anger at my refusal to indulge him.
And as the evening went on, almost every soldier got drunk, and the Nyrman army slowly turned into a group of savages that always barged into the gym in the dead of night. I ignored their vulgar comments and disrespectful stares, comforting myself they had yet to touch me with their dirty hands. Their verbal abuse got worse by the second, but I swallowed every insult and controlled my anger with success until my eyes rested on the face that haunted my nightmares.
My grasp on the tray faltered as I stared at the man I would recognize among hundreds of others. I heard the sound of glass breaking, and then I was collapsing. Torn apart by the vivid, traumatic memories of Mama’s suffering, I couldn’t stop the bile rising in my throat. Distant flashes of screams, blood and moonlight intertwined with the laughter of drunken soldiers, and I threw up right there on the expensive marble tiles, next to the chunks of broken glass and spilled wine...in the presence of my mother’s murderer.
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