Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 25

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.

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

Episode 25

      When I woke it was to a clinging humidity and a gray cast to the cabin interior, to the heavy hum of rain. My body had stiffened, the snarl of angry aches already in my hips and shoulders. More of that to come, I knew. With closed eyes I reached up to press my palm against the vial, to trap it between my coat and my breast. Poison. It didn’t take long to make a poppy addict. I could wait.
      There was nothing to see outside the carriage’s glass window. As distraction I set myself to sorting the tangle in my lap. Chester’s belt was meant for broader hips than mine; my fingers lingered on the supple leather and the buckle holes, tracing them, chafing against them. As the first rash of gooseflesh traveled up my arms I bowed my head to the inevitable, and when the sensitivity bloomed I was at least unsurprised. The velvet touch of the rain, hot and enclosed. The beads of it clinging, almost imperceptibly heavy, in my hair. The musk perfume of the oil I could feel, slick and thin, against the edge of the crossguard. I pulled the sword free of a few inches of its sheath and lost myself in the maze of gray and silver reflections on that rectangle of steel. I could not help but reach for my own face, the blur of a gray eye—
      —bright God Almighty, the fire of flesh parting—
      My thumb flew to my lips and I suckled on the cut, so narrow I could barely feel it against my tongue. The sour iron of my blood, so thin, so hot…
      I shuddered, and for the briefest of flashes I could understand Kelu… and knew with passionate intensity that I never, ever wanted to be seriously hurt with my skin throbbing just at the wetness in the air, just at the touch of the living air. Just this one slice…
      Hard to tell. It hurt so much, but I felt it so intensely… was this pain or rapture? My eyes closed against the confusion of scent and sight and pain. It would get worse. It would get worse and I would turn to the vial.
      But not yet. I turned bleary eyes back to the silver-and-gray smear beyond the window and sank into bleak contemplation.

      By the time the carriage and its attendant carts had come to rest for the evening, I had to accept help to step down to the muddy courtyard of the hostel. I stood in the dark, gathering myself and trying to straighten my screaming body in the shifting black rain, the buildings surrounding us reduced to hulking sullen silhouettes, slick and drooping. Gray mud, lead-colored puddles, the gleam of the harnesses turned muddy silver… the only warm things the steam off the backs of the horses and the blush hidden beneath the stringy wet falls of my hair. They had to help me to the door because I couldn’t get there on my own.
      I had thought on the long ride that the poppy would be worse than the pain. It was. But I wasn’t sure about the poppy versus humiliation. The pitying look the driver shot me before shutting the door on me was almost more than I could handle without screaming.
      That was before I turned and looked at the inside of the hostel.
      “There’s room in the corner still,” the master of the house drawled.
      I stared aghast at the bodies carpeting the floor. “No private rooms?” I asked.
      “Lord no, sir,” the master said. “Afraid not. Rain’s driven in all the carters who’d normally sleep with their beasts and the cargo.”
      I would have to sleep on the floor. On the floor. I thought about turning around and marching straight back out to the carriage, but there was no room in it for me to stretch the length of my body.
      “I see,” I said… and allowed myself to be pointed to one of the last remaining spots in the room. It was near the door; I could not have chosen a spot farther from the fire if I’d tried. Grinding my teeth I stepped carefully to the bare boards and stared down at them. My joints growled warnings. I ignored them and heavily went to my knees, then down to my side. With my back to the wall and the blanket I’d packed tightly curled around my shivering body, I closed my eyes and prayed, prayed that come the dawn I would be able to walk.
      When my eyes flew open the following morning, I knew that no one had been listening.
      “Master Locke?”
      “Stop touching me,” I snarled, because the fire under my skin stripped all mortal courtesies from me.
      The driver yanked his hand back. “Apologies, Master. We need to leave if we are to make our schedule.”
      I closed my eyes, shaking, almost fevered with how much I hurt. “Yes, yes, I’ll be along in a moment.”
      The mud-spattered boots crouched next to my head didn’t move. I heard the door open on the wind-scoured morning, close, open again… wondered when the driver would go so I could drink the damned poppy and be done with this whole charade of strength and normalcy.
      “Does the master require help?” the driver asked.
      Damn it all—”I’ll be along,” I said through my teeth.
      I could almost hear the shrug. The leather creaked as the driver rose; I could hear individual folds straightening. Everything too bright, too intimate, and my body—God… how could I still be alive?
      As soon as the door closed I turned to face the wall and groped inside my pocket for the vial. My fingers skidded on the glass, so smooth, so vicious. I worked the cork free–ah, the scent, so bitter! And took a quarter of the contents in a gulp, fighting back the taste, trying not to gag on the misery of my future.
      By the time I’d forced myself to sit up the world had begun to fall away from my touch.
      By the time the hostel-master brought me a cold roll and dried apple I could smile at him, almost like a civilized creature.
      By the time the driver reappeared at the door I could walk myself to the carriage and step into it, not feeling the tapping of Chester’s sword against my knee and hip.
      By the time we found the road again I could look outside at the gray and blustery day without understanding or even caring, and it felt good, so very good. And I knew, feeling that euphoria, that casual apathy, that I should be very very afraid, and I couldn’t manage that either. Wrapped in my blanket with my head resting against the wall of the carriage, I drifted through the gray of the day, observing the crisp edges of a world shone to high polish by the rain that fell, now and again, like an afterthought from a careless sky. And I smiled without pleasure or humor, for that I had no attachment to it, none at all. I had come adrift…
      That night I walked myself to the hostel’s door, wrapped in the blanket as in a royal mantle, and if my gait reflected my disease it no longer reigned unmolested; the usurper poppy battled for me and won. I smiled down at the master of the hostel with my pupil-drowned eyes and this time they had a room and I repaired to it with all the slow dignity of a prince.
      I think there was food, but I don’t remember eating. I only remember the bitterness of the second dose, acrid and welcome, and the flood of bliss that followed close on its wake. I curled up on the rough bed and was lulled to my drug-softened sleep, and the blanket it drew around my senses was no less muffling and warm than the one around my shoulders.
      … until I felt the licking. Insistent, raspy, hot, tickling me despite my dulled sense of touch there just below the angle of my jaw.
      “Master,” Almond whispered. “Master, Kelu needs you.”

***

And then the vampires come! And lo, they are cute and furry. >.>

I forgot to schedule this one, so it is up a few hours late! Sorry about that. Anyway, thanks to Rose Point’s second review (squee!), we are only $10 (or two reviews!) away from Thursday’s bonus.

Reading these as I prepare them for posting makes me realize that one of my focuses (foci?) for this book was sensual-but-not-erotic. There are a lot of asexual or platonic relationships in this series.


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