Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 22

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An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 22

      “What do mean?” I asked.
      “After we’re done with all this,” she said. “What will you do?”
      “I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t. My sickness had narrowed the focus of my life to day-to-day survival, and the surcease of learning, the escape of knowledge and books. Some part of me hadn’t been certain I’d live to finish the work. But because she deserved an answer, I said, “I suppose I’d follow my father’s footsteps. The city council, politics.”
      “Reasonable,” she said. “Even respectable.” She sighed. “Better than anything open to me.”
      “Some would argue that to be a wife and mother is to have more time for contemplation,” I said, not looking at her but oh so aware of her warmth at my side.
      “Those someones have never raised children, then,” she said with a huff. She pursed her lips, then rolled the lower one beneath her teeth. I hadn’t thought she could be any more endearing until then. “It’s not that I don’t want to be a mother. It’s just that… I feel like… well, there’s something more than this. Do you ever have that feeling?”
      “All the time,” I said. Her own world of health and life was that something beyond my reach. I couldn’t imagine what she imagined beyond hers, but gray melancholy brushed me at the thought that there was apparently never any respite from desire, even when one was so blessed.
      “I’ll be sad when it’s over,” she said.
      “I’ll still call on you,” I said.
      She smiled at me, and there was something regretful in her eyes, and fond. “I hope so.”
      Greatly daring, I reached for her hand. Her fingers laced in mine and squeezed.
      She leaned toward me—
      —just as the first ripples of nausea washed down from my head to soak my body in sweat.
      Not here. God, not in this moment.
      The first scintillant wave of pain.
      Her voice, muffled by the sudden noise in my head. Was that my name? Was I still holding her hand? Were those my fingers jerking in hers, uncontrolled? Were those her screams or the sound of the rain?
      The pain overtook the nausea and threw me to the earth. I tasted bitter soil and bile and grass. It mixed with the convulsions and the nausea and the pain, and the hallucinations wiped the sky from my eyes and everything condensed into a knot of suffering and ending, a grand killing culmination…
      …and I survived.
      I survived and sat up to find myself slicked in cold mud in a groove made by my flailing limbs, alone in the rain beneath an oppressive gray sky. A spray of wildflowers had wilted, just out of reach, forgotten on the ground. They were out-of-focus, smears of steel-gray and purple. I righted my glasses, but the lenses were streaked, distorting everything.
      Ivy. God, God, Ivy.
      I stumbled to my feet and fell again, the mud sucking at my clammy hands and aching knees. Where had it come from? I couldn’t even remember, the episode had felt so cataclysmic. There were limits to the flesh and I seemed to have found them. And I found them again on my second attempt to rise, which dumped me onto my elbows and knees. The pendant detached from my wet skin and slithered out through my collar, falling with a squelch onto the mud. It glinted there, sullen and accusatory, the rain spilling into the gullies between the raised symbols and shimmering there.
      Thunder again, heavy over my curved back. I twisted my head painfully to one side and curled my lip at the sky. Bad enough for my world to separate at the seams… was the mud really necessary? How pedestrian. How trite. Before I could stop myself, I yelled at the clouds, “CAN’T YOU DO ANY BETTER?”
      And then my voice broke and I gagged on my first sob. Another, just as bitter. They burned coming up, like vomit, wrenched me so hard my ribs ached. Everything had gone cold except my throat and eyes. Cold clothes. Cold skin. Cold wet slime beneath my clenched fingers. Cold world.
      I had to escape.
      How long it took me to totter to my feet and into a carriage home I couldn’t say, not with my body knotted. How many times I fell I couldn’t count. The mud was bad enough. Collapsing up the stairs to my flat… white shock up my knees, sparks from my wrists. Trying to catch myself. Failing. Smacking my head at least once against the edge of a step and losing my vision, conscious only of the relentlessness of the rain.
      I clawed the door open and fell inside.
      A ray of sunlight spilled warmth over my body. Gentle hands, small and delicately clawed peeled my clothing from my skin. Worried whispers, a furred cheek rubbing against mine, comforting. The lumps of ice in my joints began to melt. The nausea subsided. My vision cleared. I was in Almond’s arms on the floor by the fire, Kelu sitting at my head and untangling my hair.
      My first attempt at speech came out as a croak. Almond looked up at me, and I managed intelligible words on the second. “H-how long?”
      “Three hours,” Kelu said behind me. “Since you staggered in. What possessed you to go out in the rain?”
      “It wasn’t raining when I left,” I said huskily.
      “You were gone so long,” Almond said, rubbing her nose against my chest. “Master, we were worried. You’re not well.”
      Not well. What a… what a marvelous understatement. I could barely encompass the magnitude of it. Not well. “How long is this voyage to your home?” I asked.
      They both looked at me then. At each other and then back at me. Kelu said, “It’s a month or so. We’d have to get to the port, though, that’s another week.”
      I drew in a long breath, pressed my arm to my brow. My entire body felt raw, abused. I thought of wildflowers wilting in the mud. “I should pack.”
      “M-master?” Almond whispered, ears slowly rising. “You’ll come home?”
      “We’ll leave tomorrow,” I said. “I’d say we should leave tonight, but…”
      “Tomorrow is fine, Master,” Almond said, lapping at my collarbone. They hadn’t dressed me, I realized, only thrown a blanket over my hips and legs.
      “I’ll start packing for you,” Kelu said, rising.
      “I should—” I began and then trailed off. As if I had the energy to follow her. Had I only a few days past been priding myself on my lack of self-deception?
      “Sssh, Master,” Almond said, licking my neck. “Rest. We will take care of everything.”
      Will you, Almond? I wanted to say. Will you give me my life back? My health? A future with a wife and children and family and friends who didn’t pity me?
      But I didn’t say those things. I let her tongue tranquilize me, let the heat of the fire and the heat the genets seemed to spread beneath my skin lull me, and I slept there before the fire, clasped in furry arms.

      “—ster, Master… shall I open the door?”
      I heard the knock then and sat up on my elbows, groggy. How long had I been out this time?
      “Master,” Almond said, round eyes on mine. “Shall I? It’s the second time since you’ve been asleep.”
      “God!” I said. “Who—” And then I realized. “It’s probably Chester.” I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. The grip of my ambivalence was so intense I knew it was hiding tumult beneath it, and I didn’t want to be drawn out. Rude to leave him at the door, though. I sat up, wrapping the blanket around my waist and strode to the door, and I took it for granted that I could move without pain. Even after the afternoon I’d had, I still expected it after being cared for by the genets.
      I opened the door for Chester, surprising him yet again mid-knock. His eyes raked me from bare toes to bare chest, lingering only a moment on the blanket and the pendant. Then he said, “I came at a good time, I hope.”
      I sighed and stepped back. “Come in.”
      He entered cautiously, as if expecting to find the entire occupancy of a zenana in various states of dishabille strewn around my sitting room. He saw only Almond, holding her knees by the fire.
      “A little irregular,” he said at last.
      “I’m leaving,” I said.
      He stopped to stare at me, then set his folio on my table and gripped the back of the chair. “Locke?”
      “I’m going with them,” I said. “To wherever it is that their elves live.”


There’s always a turning point.

Mirrored from MCAH Online.

About M.C.A. Hogarth

Genderqueer sci-fantasy writer, animal geek, conlanger, pyrographer, painter, doodler, jewelry artisan, web designer, Kemetic, and musician. Snake-crazy.
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