Tully had told me to keep my head about me, but it was getting harder. Every time she came back inside, in pain, cold and naked—Every time I saw that look of terror on her face when they came in for her—Every time they came for her… I was just letting it happen. The treatments they gave me were different; I couldn’t even stand beside Tully, or with the other girls, young girls who didn’t do anything to deserve this madness.
“What to they do to you when they take you?” she asked one night, curled up in my bed with me. If we were being punished for being together, then we saw no reason to do something that determined we deserved it.
“The same things they do to you, I suppose.” I wondered if she felt me cringe at the question.
“They return you with similar injuries, but they never lead you toward the places they take us. It’s always the same routine… but they lead you toward the overseers office.” Those bright blue eyes turned up to me, and I tried to ignore the way they bore into me. Questioning. Insisting. “You’re lying, Phae. Why?”
I heaved a sigh, my body tight as I tried to keep the nonchalance as apparent as possible. “We’re in a detention camp, Tully…. What do you expect they’re doing to me?”
A pause, and finally she lowered her eyes. I relaxed as her head fell back on my chest. “It just seemed odd.”
I squeezed her gently—always gently—and twirled my fingers slowly through her hair. It was left at that, and I was grateful.
“Phaedra!” The bark startled me, and everyone else, from sleep, and I bolted upright in bed, eyes wide.
“It’s really too early for this,” I muttered, rubbing my bruised forehead as I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Tully clutched desperately at my shirt, the fabric pulled taut as I tugged away. I heard the faintest, muffled sob, and I knew she was crying into the pillow. It had become routine at this point. No matter how many times I heard her cry, it never hurt any less to know I had to ignore it.
“Get moving,” the guard seethed, his words a growl, lips pulled back over his teeth.
“The overseer’s dogs truly are out in full force today,” I flashed him a smile, “Commendable.” The stars that flashed before my eyes were expected, the chain mail gloves he was wearing were not. I could hear Tully’s screams… somewhere muffled in the back of my head… My vision blurred and the stars cleared, and I realized I was on the floor. Forcing myself to my knees, I looked for her, searching in a disoriented sweep of the room. She was on the bed, Fiona and three other girls pinning her to the wall as she slumped against them, giving in to the restraint.
“She’ll be fine,” Fiona whispered, but Tully’s hysterical sobs didn’t cease.
Hauled to my feet by an iron grip, I felt the world spin beneath me as I fought to gain my footing. Not that I was offered much of a chance to do so before I was shoved forward by that same mitt-like hand. As soon as it released me, the floor slipped from under me, and I went to my hands and knees, hissing at the pain. My knees were already bruised, and now the heels of my hands would match them. Pushing myself up without any help, I staggered onward until my head cleared and I could walk without incident. It was a small victory.
Trudging across the boards that were laid over the muddy ground, I followed the trail to the overseer’s office, a gun muzzle pressed into my back. These games were getting old. These power struggles and taunting, the guns and knives, the screaming residents of Blackford Hill….
No. Not residents, victims.
There were those who deserved their place here, certainly. Rapists, child molesters, those sorts of people. A woman cheating on her abusive husband may have been a moral threat, but how could those who sympathized let her be imprisoned? Was she not entitled to happiness? And the men and women like Tully and me, what moral threat did we pose? We don’t breed like rabbits. There’s no “man of the house” to keep we “silly women” in line. No dutiful wife to cook and clean in a household with two men. The reasoning was asinine, and frogs would rain from the sky before I let them take Tully from me.
“Phaedra Trowden, bastard daughter of Lord Adrian Trowden of Kersa.” The overseer’s voice rippled through me, and I thought my skin might slough off. The chair turned, and a woman in her early fifties stared back at me. The day I’d met the Overseer, I was stunned that it was a woman who could commit such atrocities against good people—I had wanted a fight that day. But she didn’t say a word to me.
‘Take care of her,’ was all she said to my guards. The thought they’d break me. They thought it would be that easy. Since then, every beating and interrogation had been worse than the last. Even lying perfectly still hurt like hell at this point. Though I never let them get the better of me, and when I looked at the overseer, chin tilted up, she glared at me and stood.
“You don’t deny this?”
“Should I? Adrian Trowden has no part in my life. But I was his accident, yes. What are you getting at?” My eyes narrowed, and she met them with equal force, the hatred bubbling between our gazes had even the soldiers shifting uncomfortably.
The overseer stood stiffly and tugged the hem of her jacket to straighten the front. “Let’s not play childish games, Ms. Trowden. You and I both know that you have no claim to any titles, and yet you still carry your father’s surname. There are two reasons a bastard child retains the family name of the father: to be sacrificed as penance to the clergy, or to be sent into the guard. We both know you hardly fit the bill for a life of piety.”
My eyes rolled themselves in an involuntary criticism of her stupidity, and my hands found my hips. “You’re implying I’m an agent in the city guard? I spent a short time in the capital while I was helping my companion recover—“
“You mean your lover.”
“I mean my companion. She was ill. We live above a bakery in Shand, we work for the man who owns it. I’ve never been in the city guard.”
“The King’s guard?”
“No. Nor the local guard, the reserves, or the Holy Order.” My glare never faltered. I didn’t have to know this woman to hate everything about her. Even her eyes were hard. “Whatever reason my father had in giving me his name are unknown to me. I’ve never met the man, and I don’t particularly care to.”
The overseer drew a breath, hands tucking together at the small of her back. “Take her to her knees.”
I knew what was coming, but I didn’t fight it. The butts of two rifles struck each of the back of my knees, and I hit the floor, refusing to go to my hands. It took all of my strength to hold in the moans of pain that welled within me, but she didn’t deserve the satisfaction.
She saw that. And grinned. “You seem well trained to handle interrogation.”
“Am I? And here I thought I was acting out of spite,” I returned, my voice quaking just slightly.
“I want to know who you are, Ms. Trowden. This is your last opportunity to offer the information freely.” She began pacing slowly around me; I watched her feet taking slow methodical steps.
“Go to hell.” I closed my eyes when I spotted a soldier stalking toward me, rifle raised.
“Not her head!” The blow didn’t fall. “I want her conscious for this, imbecile!”
I relaxed just slightly, and let my eyes flick open. The soldier had fallen back to his position.
A laugh burst from me, and I lifted a hand to cover my mouth. “Madam? Honestly?” She stared flatly at me, and I dropped my eyes to the floor as I snickered. “A ‘madam’ is the woman who runs a whore house, am I wrong? It does seem fitting, given the nature of this place. How many whores are here, exactly?”
My laughter was not going over well. The woman made one motion before clasping her hands behind her again. The same soldier came behind me and caught me across the back with… I glanced back, coughing, gasping, spittle coating my lower lip. The object was a short wooden club like night patrolmen carried. Outstanding. This was going to be a long session.
“You say you work in a bakery. What do you tell your employer when you have to take long absences?” She leaned close to my face, despite the fact I was still choking while my lungs tried to remember their purpose.
“For what?” I wheezed. The club hit me again, striking my side and I doubled over, clutching my ribs.
“You know.” She smiled. “You know good and well.”
“I work… in a bakery…”
“For an old man who doesn’t know which end is up most times, yes, Ms. Trowden, I know. I’ve done my research. I’ve been giving you the opportunity to be honest with me. And I also know the only reason you’re allowing these treatments—“
“—is to avoid giving us motive to harm your—what did you call her? Companion?”
My stomach sank. It was only a matter of time before they would use Tully against me, I knew that. I was just hoping I could stall a little longer. They would hurt her. I knew they would. And not like they hurt me. Tully was disposable, but they had dug up enough dirt on me to make me interesting. If I was interesting to them, then I was worth torturing an innocent person over. Not that that was anything new.
“I’ll tell you everything.” My voice felt disconnected from my mouth. “But not yet. I want Tully’s injuries taken care of by a real doctor…. And I want three days to recover.”
An exasperated sigh sounded above me, but I knew she was contemplating it. “You’re in no position to be making demands, Ms. Trowden. Do you think this is a game?”
“Isn’t it? I’m not asking for much…. Full disclosure in exchange for three days and a doctor. You’re interested… because you know what I’m tied to…. you just need to hear me say it.” I shakily forced myself to stand, knees weak and wobbling, one arm protecting my ribs. When I was finally at her height again, I saw the amusement in her face, and the satisfaction that I was backed into a corner. “Kill anyone you want. I’m not saying a word without those three days and that doctor.”
She laughed. I wanted to vomit. “Fine. Take her back to her barracks and summon a doctor. Your friend will be tended. You have no right to the doctor’s services, so I hope you can recover enough in three days to speak. Once you’ve disclosed your little story… I reserve the right to beat that girl to a pulp if it doesn’t satisfy me. Understood.”
“Yes… Madam.” Still I afforded a grin…. and her smile disappeared as she gestured the soldiers to drag me out.