Where… where am I?
I take a deep breath in, which promptly turns into a coughing fit as I spit… something on the ground. Agh! Disgusting. This is entirely too disgraceful. I hope there is no one around to witness my shame!
The thought is born and dies in an instant. I struggle to remain calm, but I can already feel the onset of panic.
I smell dampness, old stones, and rust.
This is not my bedroom, nor is it any hospital I would be sent to.
What has happened?
I am lost.
The stone bricks I can see through my waterfall of blonde hair are oddly well-defined, as if the distance did not affect my sight. Darkness is now just deeper shade instead of an impenetrable veil. I can hear individual sounds of dripping water and groaning wood with perfect clarity instead of as background noise.
The air smells of dampness and iron and the taste on my tongue is as cloying as it is distracting. Every sensation is magnified, and each one catches my attention briefly before another one takes over in a disorienting dance. Soon, the sensory overload grows into a stabbing pain just behind my eyes.
I feel sick.
I need to understand.
I take stock of my situation and shiver in fright.
My wrists are shackled. My legs are on the floor, the skin scraped raw. I feel the coarse fabric of a simple tunic on my shoulders and… Oh, I am not wearing undergarments! Someone may have seen me without... I cannot bear the thought.
I twist a bit and feel wet hair plastered to my skull, falling to my shoulders. I see my legs, coming out of a rough piece of fabric. They are even paler than usual and dotted with red spots, which I realize is blood. The very same blood I spat earlier.
I breathe deeper to control my fear. I shall not break down. I shall not scream. I am no tender flower from Charleston to faint at the mere sight of the crimson liquid. I am made from sterner stock!
My fear does not recede, yet I am once more in control of myself. I do not know exactly the predicament I find myself in but I know that panic shall not help. I will not succumb to it.
Wary, I continue my inspection.
Bare walls of the ubiquitous grey stone and a single massive door with a barred window. Is this a farce? I am in a dungeon! I must be dreaming. Yes, this is a dream and I am still asleep. Or perhaps I am quite mad, and this is one of those “hospices” I have heard so much about, and what is this? I am wearing rags! Even slaves would not wear such a thing! I swear, I will get to the bottom of this, or my name isn’t… My name isn’t…
Cannot focus. My thoughts are a jumble of impressions and emotions, of needs I do not understand. They slip away before I can grasp them fully. I shake my head and bite my lips to clear them, to no effect. Nothing works.
I cannot recall my name. I must recall my name. Unbidden, my mouth opens and the sound escapes.
I bend forward as much as I can while my throat burns me. Soon, the agony extends to my stomach and tears me from inside. My mind blanks from the sheer intensity. This is a hundred times worse than anything I have ever felt. God please, make it stop. Make it stop! Someone, anyone!
And it seems someone listened to my prayer. I can hear the clang of a door open far in front of me. Three sets of footsteps approach. Faster, I beg you!
“Told ya I heard something. Sun just set, so it’s possible.”
Despite the lack of any light source, I can see with great clarity the face of my would-be savior, and now I know for sure that I am doomed.
This man looks like a highwayman. Why, if I met him in the street, I would immediately flee and call for the nearest guard. He has unkempt black hair and a greasy beard that he must not have trimmed in months! Yet even then I could take him for a laborer were it not for a pair of insane blue eyes that freeze my very soul.
The man smiles and displays a full set of uneven teeth. How very chilling. And yet I know with certainty that this man could help me, were I not stopped by a strange feeling.
This man already belongs to… someone else. And I would be better off not touching him. I know I should be curious, but the pain is making me dizzy.
The second man is not white. He is not unlike some of the coolies who help dig the train tracks, with the same golden skin and slanted eyes, and yet to compare them is to compare a Pomeranian with a wolf. His arms bulge with muscles and his expression is fierce indeed. I can tell from his posture that he is a fencer, or a pugilist of sorts.
He moves with the grace of a predator, and once again a strange feeling washes over me. I know with certainty that this man is dangerous beyond his appearance. He has a cold aura to him, and he cannot help me.
The third man can.
I feel joy and warmth fill my chest. Yes! This man is a captive like me, an adolescent with a lost look. He wears the clothes of a smith, or perhaps a cooper, and a thin chain hangs from his neck. He can make the pain stop; I just know it in my heart.
And so, I move.
And I stop. I look in confusion at my stretched arms but of course, silly me. I am still in chains! Heavy locks of a silvery metal join my wrists to the wall in two taut lines. I am trapped.
“Wow! A feisty one heh? Come on, give her the boy.”
The Asian man frowns. Our eyes meet and there is a hint of sympathy in his rugged features. He pushes the young man towards me.
My left hand brushes the boy’s collar. Yes! Yes, finally, I am saved! I drag my hero closer and breathe in his neck. Oh, this delicate bouquet, like an exquisite wine from a perfect year, so rich and intoxicating. I am losing my mind. My canines brush his skin, pierce the flesh. Something thick and sweet brushes my tongue.
The world explodes in ecstasy.
I have no words.
For an eternity, nothing exists. Nothing but heavenly pleasure that rolls and roils and boils and drowns. I die and I live again, and I die once more. The wave of felicity ravages my very being and shatters my psyche.
If this is half as good as lovemaking, I understand women who find themselves with child out of wedlock. This is good enough to sell one’s soul.
I love it.
Love it, love it, love it.
I wish it never stopped.
Alas, at some point, it does. I do not know how long it takes but when the tide recedes, I know peace and the certainty that all is right in the world. How peculiar. No amount of prayer has ever brought me to such heights. I am touching on the realm of the divine!
I release the young man who flops on the ground. He can no longer help me and worse, he smells terrible!
The creepy man chuckles and drags the adolescent’s chain to pull him out of my reach, as if I were an animal. How rude! I frown in disapproval.
“What…” my voice croaks “What is the meaning of this?”
How I wish I could convey my outrage at being held like this! Not even a bucket of water, or a chamber pot! Am I to live like a beast? I do not want to think about it. I do not want to think about a great many things.
The smaller, white man jumps in surprise and even the Asian guardian lifts an eyebrow. What is wrong with them? Did they expect me to cower, to beg?
“Well, Milady. Forgive this humble Baudouin, heh? Did not expect ya to be so…”
I huff with impatience and address his companion.
“How about you, warrior, care to explain why I am being held so?”
While Baudouin is flustered, this one seems barely amused.
“It is for your own safety.”
“My safety? I will be secure when I am unbound and at home, you rogue! What will it take for you to release me?”
Baudouin interrupts me, apparently miffed at being ignored.
“Don’t ya worry your cute little head, Lady, you’ll be released soon enough.”
I want to go on, I want to extract information from the reluctant duo, but I feel so tired, so very exhausted. Torpor invades my limbs and makes everything so heavy. My eyelids slide down with the weight of an executioner’s axe.
It is summer at the plantation. Sugar canes raise from the red earth, lush and green, as far as my eyes can see. The relentless sun beats down on my shoulders with a weight that is almost physical. It would be unbearable but for a light breeze and the smell of the river.
A massive blond man kneels in front of me. His knife slices into the flesh of the sugar cane until only a dripping sliver remains. His face is rugged and red and there are tangles in his blond beard, but I do not care. His shining blue eyes, which I inherited, look at me with all the warmth in the world.
“Try this, mon ange”
“I don’t wanna! It’s dirty!”
“Try it to make Papa happy. Allez!”
I take it with a tiny hand and bring it through my lips. It is strangely fibrous and at the same time, sweet and juicy.
“See? Your Papa knows best. That’s why you should have listened, mon ange.”
“I told you to always wear your hat outside because it is so hot when the sun is out. But did you listen? Oh no, you didn’t. And now, you burn.”
Flames erupt from the flesh of my hand, I scream and scream, and I try to stop them, but my other arm catches fire and it spreads all over me. It hurts, it hurts so much. Blackened meat cracks to reveal tarnished bones. My hair combusts. Nothing stops the raging inferno. I beg the darkness to take me and eventually, it does.
I awaken in the same grey cell. There is no sign of the captors or anyone else. I feel odd. There is a part of me that fights and rebels and tries to make me question my circumstances. I am aware that there have been inconsistencies in, well, everything, and yet I find it hard to focus.
Like a patient in the claws of high fever, my grasp on reality is tenuous and uncertain. No matter how hard I try to focus, I am only afforded bits of lucidity. I remember a nightmare. I remember yesterday. I remember my name. What was it again? Ariane. Yes, my name is Ariane, although I must be honest and state that it is merely a praenomen.
Using my voice helped.
I shall endeavour to do so again.
“My name… is Ariane… I am… nineteen.”
I am of age to be married. I have… suitors. I think?
“I… come from…”
Two city names come to mind, one is Baton Rouge, and it gives a homey feeling. The other is New-Orleans and it feels more exciting but also tainted.
I cannot finish the sentence. I feel myself drifting into apathy and I cannot let that happen, so I force myself to press on.
“I have… a family.”
Yes, I know this is right. I try to recall the man from my dream, his smile, and happy looks but his image blurs and another one replaces him. The second man is terrifying. I remember a cruel smile and doll-like eyes that mirror a soul as black as the night.
My musings stop when the same craving comes over me. My throat is parched. It is only natural as people need to drink quite a bit of water every day.
I remember stories of sailors going mad when deprived of it, their sanity robbed as they suffer surrounded by a liquid they cannot ingest. I am sure someone will come. If they wanted me dead, it would have already happened.
Time passes with agonizing slowness. My thirst grows so much that I start moaning. My teeth bite painfully into increasingly dry lips. The only saving grace is that after two days I haven’t had to go to the... Well, this is embarrassing and queer. How come I have had no need to visit the... the what?
A distant clang interrupts my thoughts, whatever they were. I have already forgotten. Three sets of footsteps again. I wonder how I can tell with such accuracy but, well, it does not truly matter.
They soon stop and yesterday’s Asian man gives me a passing glance before opening the door. He steps in and stands aside with the dignity of a British Royal Guard.
The second visitor is a woman out of a fairy tale. Truly, if anyone had described her to me, I would have called them a liar, and yet here she stands.
Tall and lithe, her slender body is clad in a blue gown that would be the envy of King William’s court. It suits her form perfectly and manages to be enticing without being vulgar which, given her silhouette, is quite an achievement.
Her skin is as white as alabaster and her face is the very image of grace and majesty. Black curls fall with restraint from an elaborate hairdo and encase two striking green eyes, bright as emeralds. Why, if my mouth were not so dry, I would be gawping like some country bumpkin right about now.
The same cold aura that encases the Asian man also comes from her and yet I hesitate to compare them as she seems in a class of her own. If the man’s is a drum, the woman’s is an orchestra. The pressure it gives off terrifies me to my core and I do not think that demanding anything of her would be a good idea.
I turn to the last to enter, a man, and I am immediately in love.
He is tall and incredibly handsome, like a legendary king of old. Brown curls and brown hair adorn a skin lightly kissed by the sun. His build is powerful, but it is not the solid weight of the farmer. It is the deadly grace of the duelist.
I feel like I am kneeling before Achilles, or Romulus, such is the presence of this man. I just know he is the one for me. His aura is less cold and somehow familiar, so powerful and yet restrained. I bask in his presence as a strange warmth grows in my belly.
Oh, the shame! Am I to be swayed so easily by somebody I just met? I must not! And yet I know that if this man touches me, I will be undone. I forget my thirst; I forget my discomfort. If he but takes me in his arms, I can die with no regrets.
“… his spawn could communicate, Ogotai, and yet…”
I blink and realize that the noble Lady is talking to the Asian man, Ogotai apparently. What is most curious is that they do not speak English. This language of theirs is mostly sing-song vowels and soft consonants with the occasional guttural sound. I am sure I have never heard anything quite like it and yet I can understand it.
“I assure you that she spoke, Lady Moor.”
I must have day-dreamed again. This lack of attention is so taxing, and now my love must think me daft! I must give my best impression so that he becomes mine forever. I turn to him and use a lull in the conversation, or should I say the harsh reprimand, to address him.
All eyes fall on me. No that is not quite right. If I speak English now, they will not think of me as worldly.
“Greetings lady, and gentlemen. My name is Ariane. May I ask yours?”
There, concise and polite. My voice cracked mid-sentence, I am filthy and dressed in rags that an orphanage would not take but my manners remain impeccable.
The woman scowls and displays such intense disgust, one would think I am drenched in manure. Without a word, she turns around and leaves the room while covering her nose with a perfumed handkerchief. I would blush in shame and anger if it were not for the man.
He kneels in front of me and I lose myself in the intensity of his liquid eyes. He is smiling, he must be. He is proud of me, I think.
No, hE is SmUg.
No, he is proud of me. He loves me and only wants the best. I love him!
I do nOt. He huRt me.
I love him, and he will be mine forever. The comfortable blanket settles on my mind until only adoration remains. I wait with bated breath for a sentence, a word, anything until I can’t anymore.
Once more, the chains block me, my face only a few fingers away from the golden skin of his neck. I strain and stretch and the metal moans but, of course, I am too weak to break free. I am only human after all. I cannot bend metal.
The man captures my attention and the thirst fades away for a while. The fragrance of his perfume makes me dizzy and at the same time, safe. I am where I belong. By his side. Yes. No. Yes.
He places a single finger under my chin to raise my head until our eyes are level. The touch of his skin sends tiny shivers down my back.
“You will address us as Master.”
“You will speak only when spoken to.”
I nod in silence. Of course, I will do as he asks.
“You will obey the woman known as Jimena in all things. You will behave properly. Do so, and in three days you may draw our essence, and live.”
I nod frantically. I want to say that I will be good, but I hesitate to talk. The man is done and stands back up before turning to Ogotai. Oh, how I loved it when he was so close. It was everything I expected. It is everything I could dream for.
“Why is my fledgling still in a drone cell, Warden?”
Ogotai’s bow is almost servile, which should be odd on such a man, and yet how can I blame him? Who could stand before this man and call themselves his equal? Surely, even Alexander and Scipio Africanus would find themselves wanting.
The man exits the cell without a look back.
Why did he leave me so? I love him so much, surely, he must see it plainly! I am the one for him! Or am I simply not good enough? Is a landed Lady from Louisiana perhaps too rustic for his tastes?
Perhaps I should GUT THAT GREEN-EYED PAINTED HARLOT AND STRANGLE HER WITH HER OWN ENTRAILS.
What was I thinking again?
I can hear a keening whine and soon realize it is coming from my throat. Augh! I need to get a hold of myself. What is wrong with me?
A strange Asian man approaches me with a silver key. Ah yes, Ogotai. He was here earlier. He is to take me out of the cell and… Do what?
Ah yes, I finally remember. I am to obey that wonderful man. My love. No, AboMinAtion. Love. I remember his orders. I am to remain silent unless spoken to. I am to obey Jimena in all things. I am to behave properly.
I will do so, since he asked this of me, and he is so irresistible. I just hope there will be something to drink. I am dying of thirst.
“Ah!” I cry.
The manacles drop on the ground with a surprisingly loud clang and take with them a layer of skin. I look at my now free wrists. The horror! I am flayed! The flesh is raw and thick with black blood!
Convinced I am about to retch I move forward and yet, nothing happens. I do not feel nauseous at the sight of those unsightly wounds. They are most certainly infected and will quite likely scar!
Oh, the humanity! Shall I have to bear the stigma of my captivity for the rest of my life?
“Come out, slowly.”
I take a staggering step forward. I feel weak and light-headed. I pray they have water somewhere.