Molly awoke to the sound of dripping water. It was not the first time. The dungeons were dank, dark, and full of noises associated with the characteristics each held. And the smell — damp, wet, like clothing left on the line during the rain and then piled in a corner, left to rot. She’d been here long enough that the smell had become part of her olfactory senses; the darkness, her sight; yet the dripping woke her. She caught what little sleep she could, but inevitably her dreams crawled towards the ‘drip drip drip’ that permeated her very existence in this cell.
At least the cot was not terribly uncomfortable and the cell not terribly cramped. Small, sure, but with nothing but a cot and a chamber pot to occupy it, she had room to stretch. Someone had done her and Jester the small courtesies of pillows and blankets, which was more than she could say for the other prisoners she could see — wretches who’d been there so long no one knew what for anymore, their clothing naught but dark rags, their hair long and lanky, their bodies atrophied with years of bad food and no exercise, their skin pale with the lack of light.
She was sure she didn’t look much better — at least as bad as Jester, who was sallow-skinned, stringy rope an excuse for her once lustrous hair, shadows under her eyes testimony to the quality of her sleep. Sitting up and leaning back against the wall of her cell, Molly breathed in the damp air and looked at her companion, her partner in insurrection. Jester — or Autumn? Molly wasn’t sure what name was preferred now — slept curled up on her side, looking for all the world like a little girl. Strange, considering how maturely the woman had addressed the problem of whom to take back to Atherton as a rebel leader.
“You need someone who looks the part so you can leave someone who can actually lead back here to keep things calm. Take me, then,” she’d said in the hacienda.
“Whoever goes will be in extreme danger, you realise,” Yarrow had responded. “I cannot guarantee to keep you from execution, though I’ll do my damnedest.”
Jester had merely shrugged. “There is nothing more for me here. Let me help the cause,” she’d said with a note of finality. Then she said nothing else for over a sevenday.
Molly assumed it had been a sevenday. The passage of time was meaningless in the dungeons — her days were punctuated only by the meal-times she’d given up on a while ago, the increasing tension in the castle’s denizens, and the changing of the guard. So far, she only recognised one, the lieutenant who’d guarded them from Aeril on, which was confusing because he was part of Yarrow’s regiment; so why he was assigned dungeon duty was anyone’s guess. For her part, Molly assumed it was part of Yarrow’s attempt to protect the fugitives. Occasionally the lieutenant replaced the torches when the fires grew dim. The tension was on gradual increase, something that would end soon. It was not so much a measure of how long she’d been there but of how long she would be alive.
The Birthright Ceremony was the knell of her doom. Whatever Bellicas Yarrow and Anala were doing to protect Molly and Jester now would become far less powerful when Zardria became Empress.
Not that it mattered much to Molly, anyway. She and Jester had chosen this role because they were ready to die. Jester had not said it so succinctly but had made it clear that she felt there was nothing left in life for her. This saddened Molly for reasons she could not explain — after all, she felt the same. Should she not be happy someone would walk to the noose with her? Besides, Jester was older than she was; so it was not that Molly felt sadness over the loss of a young person — a legitimate excuse. People always found it tragic when young people died, no matter the character of the deceased.
She glanced over at the sleeping woman again, and thought how their lives would have been different had Lady Danika not taken Luis and Damien. She and Jester would have become sisters-in-law, or at least sisters in love. Their respective parents never would have allowed the union between the two boys, for it would have been shameful for someone so poor as Damien to be with someone so middle-class as Luis, but the four of them could have escaped to another town, where no one cared about caste so much as people did in uptight Aeril. Or perhaps right out of Athering altogether — life had to be better in other countries. Maybe we could have lived with the gypsies of the Southern Desert, Molly thought with a grim smile. Now there was a thought. The gypsies certainly had no love of Athering, but Molly wasn’t entirely sure what their view was on boys loving boys, girls with girls, and everything in between. She’d heard their views were…strange, differing from the norm. They might have been just as ostracised there as in Aeril.
That was neither here nor there. Damien and Luis were…dead, she forced herself to think as the tears invaded her eyes and the lump in her throat choked her breath from her again. Dead, and Jester would never be Molly’s sister — not in reality or her wildest dreams.
Jester hated her, she was sure. It had taken Jester’s yelling at her to snap her out of her catatonic state following their finding of the harem, and Jester had kept things going when she and Lucy were completely useless. Molly would hate herself, too.
Did hate herself, truth be told. She’d had time to think about things. To come to realisations about the truth and depth of her feelings for her brother. His death had made them clearer to her and the thought of them made her sick. Her love for him was not what a sister’s love should have been. Her love for him had been a lover’s love, and that was forbidden by Athering traditional custom. Disgusting.
It was strange, because, had he been a cousin or a sister, there would have been no problem — not for her, not for Athering. Because she was his sister and he her brother, however, she felt sick to her stomach every time she thought about it. If anyone else knew the truth she was sure they’d have much the same reaction. If only she’d been born a different gender! Then Luis and she would have been free to love.
But would he have loved me that way? She closed her eyes and felt a fresh tear run down her cold cheek. Two wracking sobs came and went and left her shuddering on the cot, salt stinging her eyes and cheeks. The one piece of information that could save me, purify me of my wickedness, I’ll never be privy to. And so am damned to Tyvian.
She sniffed, as silently as possible, and opened her eyes. The darknesses behind her closed eyes and before her opened ones were similar but soon she could see as well as before. Using her not-so-scratchy-as-it-could-have-been blanket, she dried her eyes gently, resolving not to cry any more. With difficulty she moved into a prayerful position beside her cot, one knee bent, her bad leg stretching out behind her straight, unable to genuflect as fully as she’d like to.
Since waking up in Aeril, she’d started to pray, pointless though it may have been. Would the Goddesses listen to one damned as she was? Doubt it, she thought, placing her hands together and resting her forehead against them. Breathing in deeply, she started praying to the Goddesses — any Who would listen, but mostly Muerta for mercy, and Althea for cleansing. And this time she said an extra prayer, one for Jester.
Amora, Compassionate Lady, hear my plea. I care no more for my life — I know I am doomed, and accept this fate calmly. Someday I’ll have another chance, and that is enough for me. I pray for my sister who never was, I pray for the sister of my brother’s lover — Jester, or Autumn, who is in the cell beside mine. Please, Compassionate Lady, cover her with Your cloak and protect her in the days to come. I can go to my death peacefully if I know she will be protected, and given another chance at life.
Her prayers finished, she crawled back onto her cot and curled up under her blanket, facing Jester. Looking at the tension on the other woman’s face, she hoped her prayers were heard and answered. She did not know why, but she felt strongly that despite Jester’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards her own life, the woman did not want to die. This was why Molly prayed — Jester was in here because of her. She deserved another chance under a more benevolent leader.
The unanswering silence that met her prayers every time did nothing to ease the sinking feeling in her stomach.