In Serein

3-3-5 For Practice Purposes

On the first morning in my new prison, I killed one of the servants.

I didn’t mean to do it.

All I did was to reach across unexpectedly and pull the mask off her face.

When our eyes contacted unshielded by the glass lenses in the mask’s eyeholes, the woman simply went limp and died instantly.

There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t heal her, nor turn back time.

He should have told me of the brandings he put in place.

He could have told me but he didn’t, he had left it so I would find out for myself.

I sat for a moment by her side and looked at her plain face, a woman about my mother’s age and not unlike her in the dried aspect of her skin and the deep groves around her mouth and forehead which seemed to fade with death even as I stared at her.

Three further servants then came swiftly enough to let me know that I was being observed at all times and wordlessly, dragged her body away. I remained on the floor and watched them do this, then close the door.

After that, they stayed even further away from me. I didn’t blame them and wondered how much room for decision he had left them in their minds.

The morning passed and I spend my time looking at the lake and dropping into a sense of timelessness that was an inheritance from him. I was glad of it.

Once in a while I would resurface and change my posture a little.

During these times it occurred to me to try and call up some of his memories deliberately. It was very different to do this in this silent space and when I remembered things they did not have the immediacy nor the clarity I was used to.

The servants brought food for the midday meal and just stood until I moved away from the table; only then would they approach and place the dishes down.

At some time during the afternoon, when I sat on the ground and looked out at the lake again, the door opened and I heard his voice.

“I brought you a pet,” he said. “For practice purposes.”

I turned my head and froze.

Lucian stood in the doorway, looking relaxed and cheerful, and by the scruff of his shirt, unconscious or dead by the looks of it, swung Cyno.

Little Cyno from Headman’s Acre.

Oh dear creator.

Lucian strode across to where I was sitting and deposited the boy’s body unceremoniously by my side.

I reached towards Cyno’s pale neck with my fingertips and found a faint pulse.

I looked up at Lucian and waited for an explanation.

“Well?” he said. “I thought you would be pleased.”

Against my will, I had to say, “You didn’t kill him.”

Lucian smiled brightly and went to sit on my bed, a shadow contrast in black to the pale golds and whites of the room. He leaned on his elbows and said, “No, indeed. I found no need to.”

I considered what that would mean.

“And this pleases you?”

He stopped smiling and looked at me, hard. Yet in the absence of magic, it did not entrance me as it would otherwise have done without fail.

“Yes,” he answered slowly. “It does. Does it please you?”

Once again, I had to think for a while before I could respond. My thinking was not as clearly focussed as I would like it to be and also, I had no wish to actively displease him, nor did I wish to not answer truthfully. In the end, I said, “It might be a very good thing. It might answer the question of how you would feel about a child of your own.”

He nodded seriously. “I thought the same. I would practice on this one. It would be not entirely truthful to say that I do not experience – certain imbalances – with regards to his kind.”

I looked down at Cyno and touched his golden hair. I could not imagine how he would feel, being here in this prison, cut off from the Serein collective in this way, unable to find his magic and his purpose being a practice object for my husband.

Very carefully, I said, “And what about the others at Headman’s Acre?”

“Ah,” he said and smiled again. I wasn’t sure I liked all this smiling. It wasn’t like him and I usually found little humour in his amusements, at the best of times.

“Now this is something I would discuss with you.”

He stood up and flexed his shoulders, then walked across to stand right in front of the central window. He continued with his back to me, “I would have you be present at the ceremonies in Pertineri. However, I will need certain – assurances from you with regard to your conduct before I will consider this as an option.”

My heart started to beat faster.

He would let me out of the circle?

I didn’t trust him. He surely must know how I would run to the ends of all the known worlds the instant he gave me the chance.

“What assurances?”

He turned around and said carefully, “That you will take the herbs I will give you; that you will speak of our arrangements to no-one, that you will not try to escape in any shape or form, and that you will return here as soon as this is requested.”

I shook my head, not quite comprehending what he was saying. “And you will trust my assurances on the matter?”

He smiled a little sadly. “Let us say, I have considered a number of safeguards to – encourage you to keep your word.”

I looked down at my bound wrists and flexed them. “What are these safeguards, Lucian?”

“Your dependants from Headman’s Acre. Including Catena.”

I felt like crying. “What have you done with them?”

He came closer, bent towards me and held out his gloved hand. I took it automatically and he pulled me easily up into a standing position. He put my hand to his lips and closed his eyes as he kissed it. Against my wishes, a small pulse of energy travelled from the back of my hand up my arm and into my spine.

“My lady,” he said, keeping hold of my hand. “Your dependents are alive. They are in reasonably comfortable circumstances and will be returned to your house in Merina when you have returned here after the ceremonies in Pertineri.”

I sighed deeply. “Reasonably comfortable? Hanging in chains somewhere in the dark, Lucian?”

He made a small sideways movement with his head, released my hand and stepped back.

“My dear,” he said and looked at me straight on with his pale eyes near colourless from the light of the window behind him. “I would say that to hang in chains is indeed, reasonably comfortable. The problem with you is that you have never experienced either real pain or real suffering, and so your standards to judge such things accurately are sadly skewed.”

I heard him say it and from somewhere, it clicked into my mind how I had been mistaken in thinking that he failed to perceive my suffering in the cell below Manoranta Keep. For a moment, it took my breath away to realise that he had been entirely aware of how much it had hurt, and how it had frightened me. I had considered his behaviour to be insane but he was not. He would have, no, he did consider it nothing more than a minor inconvenience to be left by yourself in the dark for a tenday. It was truly nothing in comparison to what there could be on a scale of pain.

Slowly, I said to him, “It hurt more because it was you who did it to me. It hurt more than you can imagine.”

His eyes widened fractionally before he made a short gesture with his flat hand, as though he was slicing something invisible in half. He came over to me, put his arm around my shoulder and led me to the table by the first window, slowly to allow for my bound feet to complete their tiny steps. He sat me down and took a seat himself on the other side, placed his elbows on the table, folded his hands and finally looked at me.

“It is possible that I have underestimated how this would affect you at this time. I have a tendency to take a long term view on situations, a longer term view than you would be used to taking. I know that you are upset, and angry, and likely plotting various types of revenge. I would even say that this is a natural response to a  perceived injury –“ he took a deep sigh and looked down at his folded hands before continuing – “which I may have – misjudged.”

I looked at him and felt extremely confused. Why was he saying this to me? Why was he offering what appeared to be nearly an apology for his conduct?

“What is it you want from me, Lucian?” I asked him.

He looked up at me and even in the absence of magic, I felt something spark as our eyes met. Damn you, I thought and felt my jaw muscles contract. In response, he sighed, leaned back in the seat and looked out at the lake instead.

“What I want from you? Ah, what can I say. A few hundred added years of experience? More common sense? The understanding that I wish to safeguard and protect you in all the ways I can? To give you – us – the time we need to come to terms with –“ he stopped there and I wondered what exactly it was we needed a few hundred years of me being locked up here in this semi-death so that he could come to terms with it.

I sat and waited for him to say more and couldn’t help but look at him, framed against the great glass window with the light diffuse yet ultra bright, making him crystal clear in every detail, marking him out clearer and sharper in the absence of any magical interference than I have ever remembered him to be. It was uncomfortable and unfortunate, but I still found him irresistible in his stillness and containment, in his physicality and his presence, and damn it, I still loved that forsaken creature.

I nearly cried then with anger at myself and with my own stupidity and my inability to control this emotion, my inability to find the anger and the rage and the hurt and use it to smash it into fragments and not feel that way any more, my inability to cut him off and be clear and away from him in heart and mind, at least.

What had my companion in the desert said? I would never let anyone do this to me. I would kill him. She was right and I was wrong. I was wrong to maintain any form of attraction or affection or love or even understanding for him. I was wrong to not be his mortal enemy.

And so I sat and looked at him, my bound wrists on my lap, still and pale against the soft blue fabric of my robe, and I was wrong and there wasn’t thing I could think to do about it.

He turned back to me and frowned fractionally when he saw my expression.

“Your dependants are not in chains, nor are they in the darkness,” he said with a slight hesitation, as though by offering me this information he might restore me to a state of more tranquility.

I said, “Do you not find it disconcerting that you can’t know what I am thinking about?”

The sudden change in topic unbalanced him enough to raise his head sharply and look at me more closely.

“You may confine my body here, and you may look at me and try to guess, but truly, in this – cage here, I am a deal freer from you than I would ever be on the outside. I can think about anything I like, I can dream, I can fantasize, and you will never be able to be sure about anything again.”

If I knew him at all, these words would hurt him. I leaned back luxuriously on the soft material of the upholstered bench and watched his lids flick and the minute movements of muscles beneath his eyes and at his temples.

What I did not expect, however, was for him to say softly, “I wish in your freedom you would think of me with some degree of – impartiality.”

I laughed out loud and spluttered the word. “Impartiality? Impartiality? That is asking a lot from one of your victims!”

He moved right back from me and his eyes widened in true shock as he said, “But you are my wife!”

I held up my bound wrists and leaned across the table so they were right in his face.

“Where I come from, you don’t do this kind of thing to your wife. Whatever else she has to suffer, this is not amongst a list of common indecencies and would be deemed unacceptable even by the lowest drunk who beats his woman thrice a day. If you wanted a slave, why, there’s a market full of them in Pertineri, I saw it for myself. You can find many women there, a great deal more beautiful than am I, too. No doubt they would be a great deal more compliant to your wishes, and you can make any amount of sons with them you could ever want, I wager. As far as I am concerned, you are not fit to be my husband. Indeed, you are nothing but a slave master, Lord Demon.”

He had been very still throughout my speech but when I gave him Chay’s title, he flinched as though I had struck him and it took a moment for him to re-group and start an answer. On his inbreath, I stood up and said, “You may think you can talk of time passing, and me coming to my senses which I must suppose means doing everything you tell me to do and never have a divergent opinion from your own, but I must warn you. With every day that passes, with every hour, every minute, every second that ticks away it becomes less and less likely that what love I have for you will not be entirely covered by my disrespect for you, my dislike of your actions and the mind of the kind of a – creature – that would entertain such notions. In fact, if I was you, I would bring on more of these mind numbing herbs so I can forget for a time how much I despise you for what you have done to me. And no –“ I held up both bound hands to him for he would interrupt me there – “and no, Lucian, you can go ahead and put what I am saying down to my insanity, or my youth, or whatever you will in your delusions of safety and protection. What you are doing in fact is killing my love for you to a point where no return may be possible. You hold my memories. You have known me more than any other living soul. You must know this to be true.”

He got up sharply and walked towards the door. With his hand on the handle, he hesitated minutely, then walked through and did not close it behind himself. It remained open long enough for me to see there was a corridor outside before one of the servants came swiftly and closed it from the inside, then took up her normal position on the left chair.

I shook my head, exasperated with both him and with myself for losing my temper again. Damn him. I had sworn to myself to play at being compliant and grateful long enough for him to relax his guard of me and I had blown it on the very first day. I thought of Delessa then and how she would have wrapped him around her little finger in less time than it took me to make a fool of myself yet again. Delessa would be sitting in an open carriage by the end of the week if she was in my place, travelling free across country roads with the wind in her hair and the patterns stretching out far and wide, a vibrant dance that is everywhere and everything, that you can breathe, touch, see and that tingles you from head to foot.

Oh dear creator. I shook my head again and with a will, stopped myself from descending further into self pity. Instead, I went to the thin body of the little boy, dressed in cream coloured trousers and shirt, who lay unconscious still on the floor by the side of the bed.

I lifted him with difficulty because of my tied hands and transferred him to the bed. Then I got on the bed myself and lay next to him, then I couldn’t stop and had to move closer to him, eventually I pushed my arms over his head and around his shoulders and drew him into a tight embrace, his small bony body so familiar, such sadness and such loss, and I held him and cried myself into oblivion.