Saebrya woke to silence.
For a horrible moment, she thought Ryan was dead.
Then she heard it, a tiny, gasping sound…a whispering in his throat.
“Ryan,” she said, crawling over to the bed. She touched his arm. It was much too hot. “Ryan.”
Ryan did not respond.
From its perch on his chest, the sipper watched her.
“Ryan!” she said, shaking him.
The sipper moved with him easily, rocking back and forth like an anchor on a boat.
Ryan didn’t open his eyes at her onslaught. They didn’t even flutter.
Saebrya drew her knees up to her chin and tucked her head against them, rocking back and forth as she watched him. Tears burned her eyes. “I lost my pass,” she whispered to him. “This little boy outside…” she let out her breath in a shuddering sob. “Ryan, please don’t die.”
If he heard her, he didn’t respond. This time, he wasn’t faking.
“Please don’t die,” she said. “I’ll find the Auld.”
The sipper watched her, black eyes glinting. Laughing at her.
She got up hurriedly, before she could fall into another spasm of sobs. “You’re dead,” she told the sipper as she paused by the door. “Dead.” She shook as she said the word, her rage balling into it, leaving her trembling.
The sipper watched her.
Saebrya yanked the door open and shut it softly behind her.
The innkeeper was in the kitchen again, though this time her blouse wasn’t see-through, but rather a thick blue cotton. She gave Saebrya a long look from where she was trimming a roast, then pointed to her forehead with the tip of her knife. “That’s gonna need stitches, girl.”
Saebrya allowed her fingers to explore the tender flesh around the wound. It was afire, and parts of the cut were gaping open, leaking pus down her forehead. “I don’t have a needle,” she said, miserably.
The big woman cut another chunk of hairy skin from the roast, then set the knife down and wiped her fingers on her apron. “Come here.” She turned and led Saebrya deeper through the kitchens, into an apartment set behind the common room that Saebrya hadn’t realized was there.
In one corner, a pile of sewing and darning projects sat gathering dust on a stool. The big innkeeper made her way across the cluttered room, riffled through the sewing, then returned with a big needle and a spool of thick black thread. The woman nodded at the bench by the cramped metal bathtub. “Sit down.”
Reluctantly, Saebrya did.
The woman sat down across from her and deftly laced the thread through the needle’s eye. Then she grabbed Saebrya’s forehead firmly and touched the needle to the skin. “Your friend dead yet?”
Saebrya gasped more at the question than at the way she plunged the needle into her flesh. “No.” She bit her lip, swallowing down the pain.
“I know a man,” the woman continued. “An Auld.”
Saebrya whimpered under the pressure the woman was putting on her wound.
“He agreed to help him.”
Saebrya suddenly lost all feeling, her heart skipping several beats. “Truly? Was it the one with the hounds?”
The woman frowned down at her, then snorted and tugged another stitch tight. “Rhydderch? Why would a highborn like him bother with barren scum like you?” She dug the needle into the inflamed flesh once more and said, “No, this man’s a Norfeld. Got a good reputation around here. Is good to the girls.”
Saebrya allowed herself a bit of hope. “He’ll help Ryan?”
The innkeeper nodded, yanking another stitch firm. “Comes with a price, though.”
Immediately, her hopes sank. “We gave you everything we had.”
The innkeeper stopped, catching her eye. “Not everything, girl.”
It took Saebrya a moment to make the connection. When she did, she cried out and stood up, yanking the needle from the woman’s fingers.
“Damn it, girl!” the innkeeper snapped. She snatched the needle from where it was dangling near Saebrya’s quivering chin. Then she shoved Saebrya back to the bench and continued her task. “Like I said, he’s got a good reputation with the girls around here.”
“I’m not a whore,” Saebrya whispered.
The woman laughed and looped a knot in the thread, then cut it with her teeth. Coolly, she set the needle aside and stood. “Then I hope you’ve paid the undertaker.” She held up an arm, showing Saebrya the door. “’Cause I’m not touching the body.”
Saebrya felt like a mountain was crushing her very soul as she stumbled back up the stairs to the room. Instead of going in, she leaned back against the door and slid down to the floor. Inside, she could barely hear the thin, raspy breaths that told her Ryan was still alive.
Her face tightened in a sob, stretching the stitches in her forehead.
Near dawn on the second day, Saebrya went back to the innkeeper. She said nothing, but the woman nodded and put down her unfinished sticky rolls and took her back into her apartment.
“Here,” the woman said, shoving a handful of gauzy material at Saebrya. “Change.”
Saebrya stared at the woman’s big fingers through the silk and shook her head.
The innkeeper scowled at her. “With your face tore up, you’re gonna need something to distract him. Make it worth his while.”
Biting her lip, Saebrya took the material, but seeing the way her skin shone slick and iridescent through the filmy fabric, she couldn’t bring herself to wear it. She handed it back. “Just tell me where to go.”
Glaring, the innkeeper threw the gauzy material back into a corner and told her.
Ten minutes later, Saebrya was standing outside a sideways-leaning house that nonetheless seemed fancier than the others around it. She took a deep breath, lifted her hand, and knocked.
The man that opened the door looked like Ryan.
He was leaning on crutches, his lower legs emaciated twigs that trembled as he lifted one arm to invite her inside.
It took every ounce of her willpower to step through the doorway.
The Auld shut the door, leaving the two of them in silence, with nothing moving except the flickering of candlelight as they appraised one another. The Auld shimmered with a deep, metallic violet ether. It dribbled from his arms and down his legs, pooling at his crippled feet.
“Jayna said you’d been hurt,” the Auld offered.
She stared at the way both the Auld’s legs were twisted inward, and nodded.
He moved toward her with the aid of crutches, dragging his feet against the hard stone floor. Propping a crutch against the wall, he held out a hand and traced it across her face. Immediately, she felt the tingle of ether. She wrinkled her nose and pulled away.
“It’s all right,” he soothed, touching her again.
“Help Ryan,” she said. “That’s all I want.”
His gaze sharpened a bit, but then he picked up his crutch and hobbled deeper into his home. Ahead, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. “This way.” It was part command, part question.
Saebrya followed, numbly. The hall smelled of sweat and stale herbs.
He led her to a bedroom, opening the door and letting her inside.
She was unable to look at him as he shut the door and hobbled to the bed. He sat down, setting his crutches aside. “Would you like some wine?” he asked, motioning toward the bottle on the dresser. “It’s some of the Vethyles’ best.
She shook her head.
He grunted and propped himself up against the ornate headboard. “Jayna said you were a virgin.”
She could not meet his eyes.
“Undress for me.”
She reached up, but her hands could not find the buttons on her shirt. She fumbled, her fingers feeling numb and useless, her stomach quivering in her gut.
He sighed. “Come here, girl.”
He reached out and easily unbuttoned her shirt. Saebrya barely felt it as he flipped it over her shoulders, exposing her breasts to the cool air. She shuddered as he reached up and cupped the flesh with soft hands—hands that reminded her of a baby’s pudgy skin, not at all like Ryan’s work-roughed calluses.
Ryan, her mind whimpered.
“Jayna has a fine eye,” the Auld said, his voice sounding heavy. He patted the bed beside him. “Come join me.”
“You’re going to help Ryan, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” he snapped. “Now get on the bed before I change my mind.” There was a note of finality to his words.
Trembling, Saebrya did as she was told.
“Here,” he said, pouring a glass of wine and shoving it at her. “Drink this, wench. You’re too wound up for my tastes.”
Biting her lip, she did.
She remembered very little else about that night, other than the odd way his twisted legs bunched the covers under him as he rutted on her.
When it was over, he slid off of her with a grunt. “Not the best I’ve ever had,” he said, awkwardly righting himself again. “Crying didn’t help.” At that, he threw her her shirt. “Cover up. We’re gonna go check on that lad you’re so worried about.”
Later, when they were both standing at Ryan’s bedside, Saebrya off to one side to avoid the sipper’s bulk and the Auld leaning forward awkwardly on his crutches as he placed a hand on Ryan’s forehead, Saebrya’s tears finally stopped.
She waited, tense with anticipation as the Auld’s violet ether dribbled from his fingers, mixing with the silver cascade rolling from Ryan’s deathly-pale face.
“This boy is dying,” the Auld said, standing. He glared at her. “I thought you said he had a fever.”
“He’s got a sipper on him,” Saebrya blurted. “Please, just…just get it off.”
The Auld frowned at her. “A what?”
“Sipper,” she whispered, wide-eyed, fearful.
He gave her a blank stare, then waved a dismissive hand at Ryan. “That’s not a fever,” the Auld repeated. “He’s dying.” He stuck his hand back into his crutch and moved toward the door. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Saebrya’s breath left her. “But you said—”
“You told me it was a fever,” the Auld repeated, hobbling across the room. “You lied.”
“Well, maybe you can get Auld Rhydderch to help him.”
The Auld stopped in his tracks, staring at her. “Are you daft?”
“Auld Rhydderch is the second most powerful Vethyle in the Spyre. The only reason he’s not leading the Vethyle clan is because he turned it down. Gave it to his niece. Cyriaca.”
“But you’re an Auld,” Saebrya said, desperate now. “You can get into the Spyre and talk to him.”
He stared at her. “Frankly, I’m flattered you think I’m that well off, girl, but you’re a fool. We are worlds apart, he and I. I’m all but barren and he…” The Auld shook his head. “I’ve only personally seen the man once, at a wedding. I didn’t even sit at the same table.”
“Please,” Saebrya said. “Rhydderch would help us.”
He laughed at her. “What makes you think an Auld like Rhydderch would come waste his precious royal veoh helping a barren man who’s already got one foot in the grave?”
“Just ask him,” Saebrya said, “Or let me talk to him. I know I could get him to say yes.”
The crippled Auld snorted. “What, with more offers of tepid sex?” He started hobbling toward the door again.
Saebrya blocked his path. “Get it off him.”
The Auld frowned at her. “Get what off him, girl?”
He couldn’t see it. Terror and hopelessness crushed her being.
“You promised,” she said, her voice tight with pain. “Please…”
He laughed at her. “Get out of my way, wench. You’re lucky I even came down here, as bad of a lay it was for me. Not even worth the cost of my damn wine.”
Saebrya didn’t know where it came from, but suddenly, she lunged at him, shoving the cripple off balance. He crashed to the floor, crying out as he hit the planks hard with an elbow.
“Help him,” she said. Then, belatedly, seeing the shock in his face shift into anger she added, “Please. He needs help.”
From the floor, the Auld’s green eyes changed suddenly, taking on a new and dangerous look. “You little bitch.” A dribble of ether snaked from his core and pooled on the floor, forming into a shimmering, violet human hand that reminded her of a baby’s bedroom, eleven years before. She gasped, panic rising in her chest. Not again.
“Please don’t,” she whimpered.
The hand surged upward, toward her throat. The fingers found her flesh, tightened. Saebrya’s vision went dark.
The Auld’s green eyes were cold jewels as he groped for his crutches. “Once I’m done with you, I’m going to go downstairs and make sure Jayna knows she’s to keep her ugly whores to herself. Then I’m coming back here to put your friend out of his misery. He’s stinking up the place. I’ll even pay for the casket, out of pity for that little babe I planted in you.”
Something snapped within her. Saebrya knocked the violet hand away and rushed at him, lodging a knee on top of his chest, beating his head against the floor.
The innkeeper found them like that, and dimly Saebrya heard her scream for help. Then she was being hauled outside by a dozen hands, stripped, beaten, and her face rubbed into the dirt as they dragged her semi-conscious body into an alley and dumped it.
Sometime later, she felt a splash of silver ether as they dropped Ryan beside her. Seeing him, she started to laugh.
They’d taken his boots.
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a.k.a. Sara King, sci-fi/fantasy/thriller writer from Alaska. Check me out on Amazon or Patreon! Email me at [email protected] to get on my beta-reader list for upcoming work, or just to say hi. :)
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