An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
“Can you see us?” Chester asked.
“Of course I can see you,” I said, removing my glasses so I could rub my eyes. “Damn it all.” And then my heart stumbled. “Why… how… am I bleeding?”
“It’s just a cut,” Chester said. “You must have given it to yourself when you fell. You scared the living lights out of me, chap.”
I stared at the little slice across the back of one finger. He was right, surely, but… an afterimage of the pain of a dragon’s maw shimmered through my mind, popping my elbow and hand into bright relief.
“What did you see?” the doctor asked, taking my pulse and staring at my pupils.
“A dragon,” I said. “And after that… voices. I couldn’t see them, though.”
“And the pattern?” he asked. “Are the episodes recurring more frequently or less?”
I didn’t want to answer that question, but, “More often.”
“Have you taken the poppy?”
“He did once,” Chester said. “It didn’t take him long to get past it, though.”
I shrugged. “It felt good while it lasted.”
“But not since,” he said.
I shook my head. “I can’t even remember…” I sighed. “What day it is. The hours seem fluid. Surreal. How long has it been since that night, Chester?”
He stared at me. “It was yestereve, Locke.”
“Only?” I asked. My bones insisted it had been days past. Should I be frightened? And yet all I felt was such a weariness. “Well, then.”
“You must take the doses regularly,” Stirley said. “If you don’t, we have no way of evaluating their efficacy. I know they’ll moderate pain, but what I don’t know is if they have any power to control the re-occurrences of these episodes.”
“I don’t–” I stopped and touched my fingers to the bridge of my nose. Even now I could still smell something alien in the air: almond milk and animal musk and ash. The long breath I drew in escaped me trembling. “I am not pleased at the prospect but I’ll make the effort.”
“Good,” Stirley said, rising. He returned with the satchel and the spoon. I noticed that he had adulterated the syrup as Guy had insisted was normal and wondered if it would have any effect at all diluted when a straight shot had worn off so quickly. But I took it as directed.
Stirley shrugged his coat back on and tucked his scarf beneath the lapels. “You’ll see me in a week?”
“I suppose,” I said.
Opening the door, he said, “You might consider informing your parents.”
Never. “I’ll do that.”
After he left, Chester remained next to me, watching me.
“I’m not going to break,” I said.
“I imagine not,” Chester said. His voice was too somber. I wanted to look away from him. “Did you think to protect me from something?”
“The illusion was quite convincing,” I said.
“You sent me away because you thought to spare me the sight of your shame,” he said.
God, to put it so baldly. “No,” I said. “In honesty, I sent you away because I thought the dragon would bite you.”
“A dragon bite, eh?” Chester said, grinning. “Bit worse than a dog bite, I suppose.”
I flexed my hand, feeling the cut split across my knuckle. “Quite a bit.”
He nodded and returned to the table and to my amazement resumed work. Truly a gem, Chester. I gained my feet and staggered after. If the poppy was working on me, I could barely feel its effects… certainly the smells lingered until the perfume of ink and parchment replaced them. But aside from a certain deliberation of thought, I did not notice the drug at work.
That should have scared me and did not. Many things had ceased to scare me that should have. But then it was hard to compare to a dragon threatening torture and demons eating one alive.
The sweet-voiced angels with their little tongues had my permission to come again, though.
An hour after midnight’s chime Chester was gone and I was in front of my chamber pot, losing another argument with my body. Since I didn’t remember eating I could only conclude that it had resorted to scavenging unnecessary organs for material. My attempt at sardonic self-amusement died abruptly when I noticed the blood, bright as a banner, amid the bile. I wasn’t supposed to be vomiting blood.
And then the nightmare began. First the seizures. And then the hypersensitivity. And the pain, starting with my dragon-chewed parts and flaring from there to encompass the rest of me. And when that episode released me, the circuit began again. In between episodes I dragged myself clear of walls and furniture, the better to save my flailing limbs from injury, or made feeble attempts to dump the chamber pot, or wished desperately and impotently for tea, alcohol, or for the damned poppy to work.
As my body and mind warred through the night, exhaustion blurred my thoughts into indistinct emotional gradients. Rage. Fear. Depression. At last a weary resignation without beginning or end inhabited my aching flesh. I was here. I would always be here, in this place without control, without hope.
Morning’s wan sunlight washed my sweat-stained face and pricked blood-sullen colors from beneath my closed eyelids. I stared dully across the floor at the hearth, feeling the twisted fabric of the rug beneath my ribs. I had no energy to rise. My entire body felt like a giant bruise mediated here and there by the sharp grasp of pulled muscles. The taste in my mouth was better left undescribed, though blood was the least of its flavors. I was parched–God, how I longed for water!–and weaker than a newborn foal.
Naturally, Cliffton chose that moment to arrive.
“Young Master Locke,” he said, standing very properly upright alongside my door. “Do you require assistance?”
I stared at him. Surely some dry witticism was required at this point. ‘Why no, dear fellow, it is my custom to take my leisure sprawled akimbo on the floor.’ Or perhaps, ‘Good gracious, man, whatever gave you such an idea?’
What I really needed, alas, was assistance. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it. So I said, “Why yes, Cliffton. It would be a great help to me if you could prepare some tea.”
“Of course,” he said… and left me there.
It was the one thing that saved me from hating him. My parents had many servants, most of whom had known me since childhood and were incapable of concealing their pity or restraining themselves from helping me. Alone among them Cliffton left me alone if I so requested. If I looked like hell’s dogs had been chewing on me, still he would take me for my word if I told him all I needed was for him to fetch me tea and biscuits.
Knowing he was here gave me the strength to force myself to my hands and knees. I did not suspect him of indiscretion; I had no evidence that anything he observed during his weekly visits returned to my parents. But I had no doubt if he found me in dire enough circumstance he would report it. He bowed to my need for privacy, but my parents paid his salary.
“While the tea is brewing, shall I see to the laundry?” he asked. “Or perhaps, the cleaning.”
I winced. I’d made as good an effort as possible to wash up after myself but I hadn’t had much time between seizures to do it properly. But if I gave him no direction, he would stand in the kitchen for the hour my parents required of him, motionless and inscrutable and yet utterly conspicuous. “As you have time,” I said. “The laundry first.”
“Of course,” he said and walked with stately stride into my bedroom. How he managed such poise with such a stout body I had no idea. But with him out of sight I could finish the agonizing process of drawing myself to my feet, using the kitchen table as a crutch. By the time he reappeared to tend to the whistling tea kettle I was upright and able to accept the cup with somewhat steady hands. My skin felt tender and new.
“Scones, young master?” he asked.
The thought of food nauseated, but I had to eat. “That would be pleasant, thank you.”
So he served me scones with clotted cream, which I ignored, and lemon marmalade, of which I made sparing use. Bite by aching bite I chewed my way through breakfast while he cleaned, washed and tidied. Such an embarrassment, to be so thoroughly accommodated. I knew that the rich had servants, but to me the need for them was an admission of weakness. I wanted nothing more than to be self-sufficient, to have the strength to clean my own flat with Cliffton’s casual ease.
I finished my meal as he unpacked the last of the foodstuffs he’d brought. “Does the young master require aught else?” he asked.
“No, thank you, Cliffton,” I said.
He nodded and bowed, and without another word saw himself out. I stared glumly at the closed door. So efficient. Would that I were so.
We are about to meet some very important characters in the next episode, so I hope we get to see it on Saturday! We are $15 or three reviews away…
And yes, I’m working on the archive site now!