Ridiculously, childishly, Molly had waited impatiently for every mail caravan from Atherton, hoping for word from “Selina”.
She’d kept her vow, although the excitement of meeting her idol had been almost too much for the seventeen-year-old. Bellica Anala had been the reason she’d wanted to join the military. Since childhood, she’d been entertained with tales of the Empress’ best bellicas. Yarrow’d done little to impress her: a princess-turned-bellica was a boring story, told too many times. Anala, by contrast, had humble origins, in Harbourtown. While the rest of the bellica’s past was shrouded with a thick cloak of mystery, the knowledge of her rising from the bottom to the top had enchanted young Molly and given the girl hope.
That hope had been dashed when the recruiters had refused her crippled body for service. They’d not said it, but to them she was unfit for any service a woman or man in Athering could perform. It’d been clear in their eyes.
She’d given up healing. Her town needed her abilities, meager as they were, but through her bitterness she could not bring herself to care. Besides, she was sure another healer would come along eventually.
I wasn’t sure, to be fair. I hoped, so I would not have to take up that mantle again.
That hope had been answered, and within a year of rejection by the military, a new healer had come to town, Lorrie of Two-Sides. Upon her arrival the woman had made a professional visit to Molly and had committed the mistake of offering to fix the ex-healer’s leg. Molly had screamed at her to get out, and they’d not spoken since.
It was just as well. Molly had cut off her life. Her main contact with the outside world was through her work in the tavern, or her brother, Luis.
It was true she had been adopted by the tavern owners, a childless family at the time. Apparently the arrival of Molly had galvanised a previously recalcitrant fertility, and in 4003 Luis had been born.
Molly loved her brother. Luis was the one who had taught her to play and who had broken down her seriousness. She had protected him when they were kids. When her accident had happened, Luis had not left her bedside until she could walk again.
Luis was the only person with whom she could relax and be herself, and she was the only person he trusted with his secrets.
No wonder her blood boiled now.
Among her many vices and habits of ill-repute, Duchess Danika had a penchant for young men. It was rumoured that her harem had boys as young as nine years of age, drugged up on ailina, an expensive import from the Jasmine Isles, so they’d be ready to service her at any time of the day or night. She selected them from the townspeople and, once they were too old or broken to attend to her needs anymore, they were thrown into the streets, too abused to be any good as workers. The number of beggars on Aeril’s streets had risen exponentially since Duchess Danika’s…ascension.
Periodically she made rounds of the town, hunting new playthings. Today Molly had needed something from the Market and Luis had volunteered to go in her stead so that she could wait for the mail. Luis was sixteen, healthy and quite good-looking. He’d not escaped Duchess Danika’s gaze.
He’d been permitted to go home to deliver his market goods, but not without an escort that waited just outside. Luis would not try to escape, Molly knew. Thatt would endanger his family, something he’d never do.
“You can’t go,” Molly said, the futility of her words sinking into her shoulders like claws.
“I must.” He was putting away the goods as slowly as possible, to afford time for a goodbye.
“How do you expect to survive?” Thunk-step, thunk-step as she limped over to grab his arm. “You’ve seen her used toys. You’ve seen what happens….” She broke off, a lump in her throat, salt stinging her eyes.
Luis looked at her with the same sadness. His words did not match his expression. “The results of years under her, Mo,” he said, using her childhood nickname. She had to bite back more tears. “I’ll survive. I don’t expect to be there that long.”
She caught the meaning of his words. How did he expect her to stage a rescue, as crippled as she was? They both knew no rescue would be possible without a rebellion, which Molly could not pull off by herself.
“You’ll have help,” he said, their familiarity letting him answer questions she didn’t say. “Selene told me so.”
“You’ve been talking to the moon again, I see.”
“I am a man of faith, Sister.”
“You’re a boy of faith. And it’s wasted. No Goddess worth believing in would allow the cruelties of this world to persist.” She could not resist the tears now, and wanted to hit herself in anger when she felt the wet trails they left down her face. Luis shook his head and embraced her, letting her silent sobs soak his shirt.
“Dear sister…think you life will not get better?”
“It never has.”
“Was my coming so unimportant, then?”
A pause. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. But we’re trapped in this world, caught under the pressure of injustice until it crushes us to dust.”
“No, no, dear one,” he responded, stroking her hair soothingly. “The Goddesses speak to all of us. We’ve just forgotten how to listen. The time has come for us to remember, and I know things will get better.”
She pulled away from him. “How do you know?”
He smiled, but there was no joy in it. “Because if I do not, I can not continue. I will believe in our survival because I can believe nothing else.” He glanced to the door. A shadow crossed his face. “My time is over. We will see each other again, Love.” He bent slightly to brush his lips to hers, and then was gone from her arms before she could hold him fast.
She watched his retreating back until the late day sun swallowed his figure up. Then, not caring who saw or thought what, she flung herself on the ground and sobbed, wishing all of herself to be cloven in two along with her heart.
When she’d lost consciousness and how she’d ended up in her room she did not know. She could only guess her parents had managed it..
It was late, past midnight. She could see no stars from her window, for the street lanterns of Aeril obscured the wonders of the night sky from view.
She felt emptied, her soul spilled out and washed away with the rain of her tears. Luis was gone. That was her only reality right now. Luis was gone, and without him she no longer wished to live.
He was as good as dead in Duchess Danika’s clutches. Molly knew this, he knew this, anyone with two eyes and half a brain in Aeril knew this. No one escaped the Seraglio intact. No one.
Yet he’d seemed so optimistic. What did he know that she didn’t? What had she missed? She tore through her brain, searching for an answer and finding none. In despair, she turned over and closed her eyes. She was tired of thinking. She wanted to sleep and not wake up.
With a sharp intake of breath she was awake. Predawn light rested on the eastern horizon. She’d dreamt of Luis.
“What?” she pleaded of him. “What have I missed?”
He shook his head, almost laughing, and turned away from her. She cried out and ran after him, but he was gone, going into the arms of….
“Damien,” she whispered aloud. Of course.
Part of Luis’ reason for going to market had been a meeting with Damien, away from his family’s eyes. There were a few secluded alleys in Aeril’s ghetto. They stole time in those alleys.
Damien must have been at market when Luis had been chosen. She guessed he would have offered to go in Luis’ place, pleading Luis’ family obligation. Danika would then have taken them both. Two young boys for the price of one.
They were all free to the Lady. If she had to pay for them, Aeril would be rich and she broke by now. How unfortunate it is just the opposite.
She relaxed into her pillows and stared at the dawn for a while. Now that she’d figured it out, she felt a bit better. Not much, but enough for her to breathe – to live – again.
Luis would be expecting her rescue. She should begin planning. Did she dare risk a letter to Selina?
A yawn took her by surprise, and suddenly she felt very weary. Planning can wait. Unrested minds make fatal mistakes.
She turned again, wriggled for comfort and closed her eyes. She dreamed no more that night.