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~ Previous Chapter ~
(If you’re having a crappy day like me, this might not be the best update for you.)
DARKNESS, ALL AROUND. He could feel the walls too close, the ceiling too low. They were closing inwards, trapping him inside an ever smaller space, coated in darkness. He curled up, hoping to last a little longer, but the wall was cold at his back, pressing harder, pressing closer. He took a shuddering breath, then another, trying to slow his panicking heart. His brothers were out there somewhere, laughing and waiting for the darkness to crush him.
He couldn’t let it. But the walls were so heavy. They were squeezing the air out of him, crushing his very life. Trapped, he was trapped. Cold bands weighed down his wrists and ankles, chaining him to the gloom.
“Mouse.” A whisper from the dark.
He ignored it. His brothers liked to play games, like to tease, to offer hope before snatching it away. It was all Mouse could do to keep breathing. Just because he was small, didn’t mean he liked tiny spaces. It had started as a way to hide from the bigger and stronger ones, until they found ways to shut him in. To crush and trap him till he screamed.
His breathing hitched, his heartbeat skipping fast.
“It’s all right, Mouse. You’re not alone.”
“Dark,” he muttered through chattering teeth, unable to resist the hope offered by the gentle voice. His brothers were never gentle. “Trapped. Walls. Closing in. Trapped, dark. Can’t breathe.”
Something shifted in the blackness, metal scraping across stone. Mouse flinched. There couldn’t be anyone else in here, there wasn’t enough room. There wasn’t enough air. “No.”
“Hush,” the air stealer murmured, coming closer, taking up space. “It’s all right.”
“No.” His body shivered uncontrollably, the wall pressing harder against his back.
Cold, clammy fingers closed about his foot and Mouse screamed.
* * *
WILLYM WAS ACTING strangely. Even more than usual, Yullik thought, watching the former lieutenant as he gave his report. Spine straight, arms behind his back, Willym was the epitome of an aristocrat with a military upbringing; his voice clipped and precise, his hair swept severely back from his face. It hadn’t escaped Yullik’s notice that Willym thought highly of his birth and looks – and used both to his advantage. Not that Yullik cared. Willym could sleep with the dogs or have been raised by pigs, just as long as he remained amusing.
His latest escapade was particularly humorous to Yullik’s jaded tastes. A spy. He smiled at the stupidity. Did Willym really think Yullik wasn’t aware of every last thing that happened within the citadel? He might have started out cautiously, for Yullik hadn’t heard the original conversation that recruited Willym to the pirates’ cause, but since then he’d made mistake after mistake. Just because Yullik appeared to rarely leave the tower, didn’t mean he was oblivious.
“… lost another four sentries this quarter-moon alone. I believe the admiral is concerned.”
Concerned. Yullik smirked, enjoying the understatement. Akavia was out for his blood. It was a shame Yullik’s blood was so powerful, else he might let her spill a little to shut her up. As it was he had far more important uses for it. And his time.
Bored, he held up a hand. “You’re being very conscientious today, Willym.”
The former lieutenant’s jaw clenched. “You requested a report on the activities of Aquila, my lord. I merely aim to please.”
“How delightful,” Yullik murmured. Unusual too. Normally Willym’s resentment was so thick the boy practically choked on it. The only person he ever aimed to please was himself. Yullik both recognised and approved of the goal. If only the boy was worthy of being pleased. “I should have guessed it was so when you began on the kitchen supplies. How thorough you are.”
Willym’s eyes tightened in a momentary wince, but his expression remained otherwise still. An accomplished liar, he was finding the art of subterfuge quite easy. There was still a lot for him to learn, though, as the overabundance of mundane details proved. “I aim to please, my lord,” he repeated, making Yullik wonder what else the boy might be up to.
“I do so enjoy being pleased,” he agreed, hearing footsteps on the stairs, “but I have company. Show them in on your way out.” He waved a lazy dismissal, just as his new guests knocked on the door.
Willym pulled his spine even straighter, raised his haughty chin and snapped off a salute. It was a masterful performance of affronted arrogance. Yullik almost applauded. “As you will.” A sharp turn on his heel and the boy stalked to the door. The faces on the other side brought him to a sudden halt.
“Captain Riame and Captain Rion, how good of you to come,” Yullik purred at the pirate twins, while Willym struggled to regain his composure. “Willym was just leaving. Were you not, Willym?”
He was staring at Riame, who smirked, while her brother’s eyes met Yullik’s. The young captain was amused. “Lord Willym.” He nodded and walked into the room.
His sister brushed her shoulder against Willym in passing. “Always a pleasure, my lord.”
Willym’s fist clenched and he left abruptly, slamming the door behind him.
“Such a dear boy,” Rion said, sitting down and reaching for the drink Yullik had poured for him. “But terribly highly strung. Was he was spoilt as a child?”
“I believe so,” Yullik agreed languidly, offering a drink to Riame as she roamed restlessly around his study. “It’s clear why you picked him to be your spy. A superiority complex combined with that level of resentment adds a certain piquancy to the endeavour.”
Over by the bookshelves, Riame dropped the Worlds End rock she had been studying, while her brother calmly sipped his wine. The seated twin savoured the taste before swallowing with a smile. “Such delicate flavours balanced by a pure, deep tone. The merchants of Lansbrig have done well by you, my lord.”
“It helps when one knows precisely what one wants.”
Riame crossed the room to drain her brother’s glass. They both looked at Yullik, blinked, then smiled. “How right you are, my lord,” they said in unison.
It was one of the creepiest things Yullik had seen, but he didn’t allow it to unsettle him. He never allowed these two to see how disturbing he found them. It would pleased them too much. “Subtlety, I find, is a luxury one rarely achieves without a measure of bluntness. Coarse, perhaps, but necessary.”
“And once the game begins,” Rion said, taking the glass back from his sister for a thoughtful sip, “the shifts in balance are what keep things interesting.”
“Then let us be blunt,” Riame said. “Do you wish to begin the game anew?”
Yullik’s smile revealed his teeth. “Far be it for me to interrupt just as things grow interesting.”
* * *
“MOUSE. MOUSE!” THE fingers on his ankle turned to strong hands on his shoulders, pulling him upright. Chains clanked and rattled, cutting through his panic as he was enfolded into wiry, safe arms and a familiar minty scent. “It’s all right, Mouse, you’re all right. You’re not alone. The walls aren’t closing in.”
Feeling the undeniable presence of another person snapped Mouse out of the nightmare of memory. His brothers were far away; those days were behind him. He was no longer the undersized youngest to be bullied and picked on. He was at Aquila.
Where the kaz-naghkt had invaded.
“Healer Nehtl,” he whispered, his breath finally slowing, his heart steadying.
“Yes, Mouse. I am here.”
And that was when he remembered. This wasn’t the torment of his brothers – it was worse.
Caught, taken, imprisoned. Shut away in the bowels of Aquila by former-lieutenant Willym.
“May the Gods have mercy.”
A light flashed into the darkness as the door creaked open – and there he stood: traitor, tormentor. Murderer.
Willym smiled, raising his torch to make them flinch away, shielding their sensitive eyes. “How touching, but I doubt the mighty Gods waste their mercy on mice.”
Stepping inside, he placed the torch in a bracket and locked the door. “Time to play.”
Feel free to plot Willym’s downfall. I find it a soothing exercise.
More on Sunday, which’ll have cliffhangers galore, so brace yourselves accordingly.
Thanks for reading.