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.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
I woke the following morning into an expansive sense of well-being, warm and shimmering and touched with the promise of white sunlight. Almond was draped on my chest and over my side, Kelu with her spine against my other side.
There was no question: they kept my disease at bay. What a prescription. “Take two genets every night. And all day.”
My sigh woke Almond, who raised her eyes to mine with a drowsy look and a quizzical tilt of her ears.
“Nothing,” I said, smiling at her though my heart felt wounded. My life had fallen to pieces around me but I didn’t want to give it up for the uncertainty of some fantasy in the company of servile and unlikely magical constructs.
“Don’t believe him,” Kelu said, voice sleep-slurred. “He’s upset.”
“I know,” Almond said, looking up at me. “Master?”
I shook my head. “It’s just so unusual to feel good.”
“And feeling good depresses you,” Kelu said. I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me or not.
“Kelu,” Almond hissed.
Kelu shook her head and twisted so she could look up at me. “We’re going to have to leave you for the trip to the ship. You know that, yes?”
I hadn’t thought of it, actually. The concept of spending a week traveling without them to ease my body petrified me.
“Master?” Almond asked.
I wasn’t even sure if the trip was possible without their help. I might not be alive when I got to the ship… or worse, I’d survive but be so crippled they’d have to carry me on board.
It did not escape me that in my anxiety my body was attempting to knot in every muscled corner, but that the presence of the genets was preventing it.
“Will you be safe?” I asked instead.
Kelu said, “We made it here. We’ll make it back. Or not. Doesn’t much matter to me.”
“Kelu!” Almond exclaimed again.
“How did you get into Evertrue?” I asked.
“People see what they want to see,” Kelu said. “If we crawl around on all fours in the shadows, they see wild animals.” She shrugged. “No one believes us to see us. I’m shocked you accepted us so quickly.”
“It is because he is one of them,” Almond said, closing her eyes and resting her furry cheek on my chest. “He knew, seeing us, that we were his work.”
“No,” I said, the word leaving me before I even knew it was in my mouth. “No, I would never do to you what the elves have done to you.”
“You would not have made us?” Almond asked, looking up at me.
And then I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t look into those lilac-petal eyes, so earnest and so innocent, and say, “I would make it so you would never have been.”
Kelu snorted. “Just like an elf.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, a little harsher than I intended–the implied insult stung. “It’s a bit of a complicated matter.”
“Right,” Kelu said. “To create a race of slaves or not. Hmm. Let me debate that one.”
Almond’s ears flattened in distress. I looked at her again and sighed, wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer. She squeaked and then conformed to me, flattening against my body, pressing herself flush to my skin. The rush of warmth and pleasure suffused my cheeks and I gasped despite myself.
Watching, Kelu said in a voice so twisted it hurt to hear, “Using us is its own reward, isn’t it.”
“Don’t listen to her,” Almond whispered to me. “I live to please you, Master. It makes me so happy.”
God, I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to make that trip without them. And because the idea terrified me, I rolled awkwardly to a seat and pushed myself from the bed to get dressed.
“Master?” Almond asked, hesitant.
“The sooner we’re on our way,” I said, jaw hard, “the sooner we’ll arrive.”
Chester was as good as his word. Not only was there a seat waiting for me on the carriage to Far Horizon, but he was there to see me off.
“Five-day trip,” he said, tossing my bags into the floor well and pulling the wooden flat over it. “The driver stops at night and there are hostels, but they’re not going to be anything posh.”
“I wouldn’t imagine so,” I said. “I couldn’t afford them anyway.”
“Save your money,” Chester said gruffly. “I’ve arranged it for you. Once you get to Far Horizon the first stop they make is at our warehouses on the pier; you’ll be able to find your ship from there.” He glanced at the horses and the porters loading the trunks. “The roads are fairly good, so it shouldn’t be an arduous trip. This is the family cabin, so don’t hesitate to act like you’ve got privilege. As long as you don’t get in the way of the business.”
Stunned, I said, “No, of course not.”
“Those creatures… not with you, right?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “They’ll make their own way there.”
“And probably faster on foot than you will in this caravan,” Chester said with a nod. “Good, I didn’t know how I’d fob off a couple of talking animals. I thought of sticking them in a trunk, but…”
“That would have been an inconvenience,” I said.
“Ah, yes,” Chester said. He stepped away from the carriage door and cocked a brow at me. “You have your… medicine?”
The poppy was in my inner coat pocket, warming against my breast. I hated having to bring it, but I knew I would never make it to Far Horizon without it to calm my body. “Enough to get me as far as the ship.”
“Right. Good.” Chester nodded. “That’s all, then.” He looked at me. “Locke… Morgan. Good luck.”
I offered him my hand; he took it and tugged me into a rough embrace. So strange to feel the living heat of his body, the lift of his chest as he breathed, the width of his hand on my back. I was saying goodbye to everything I knew, and for a moment I was tempted to cling to him and let the carriage start off without me.
He let go and I gripped the handle above the door, hauling myself up the step. What made me pause there I didn’t know, but I turned and looked over my shoulder and said, “I’ll be back.”
“On a royal holiday,” Chester said with a grin, and then paused. “Ah, Locke?”
I glanced at him quizzically.
“No sword?” Chester asked.
“Even if I had one,” I said, “I’m not planning on dueling.”
Chester shook his head. He unfastened the belt beneath his coat and doffed it, handing it all to me–the belt, the sword, the knife. I stared at it, wide-eyed, and he said, “Take it.”
“Take it, damn it,” he said. “If they decide you’re not who those creatures say you are, you should at least put up a fight before they drag you into chains.”
I held his eyes, stunned, then wrapped numb fingers around the sword. It was a significant gift; I never saw Chester without it. The prestige of knowing how to use the weapons of the honor field remained, even with dueling outlawed and the nobility an obsolete establishment.
Chester grinned, hand beneath mine on the scabbard. “Bring it back, will you, Locke?” And then he let go and shut the door on me.
I looked at the dark interior of the cabin, feeling at a loss. What was I doing here? This was insanity.
And then the carriage lurched into motion and it was too late to change my mind. Not and retain any dignity anyway. Enveloped in the remains of the genet-induced comfort, I stared out the window as Chester’s warehouses receded from view. One of my hands crawled to my throat to tangle in the cold chain there; the other rested on the confusion of leather, brass and steel on my lap. The heavy buckles bit into my legs.
I rested my head against the wall of the carriage and closed my eyes. It was well-sprung but there was still a rocking to it, one that whispered lullabies. Better that then to contemplate for long what I did, what I held, what it all meant.
Ethical dilemmas, alas. They are everywhere. -_-
Mirrored from MCAH Online.