I caught Rebella by surprise. There was a smear of blood on the Grandmother’s lips, but it was tiny. Rebella spun with a yell, but I had the dagger.
I stabbed blindly – but she caught my arm.
And we were stuck. Me bearing down on her with all my strength, her sitting, half falling backwards, bracing up against me and the dagger. The dagger which was so, so, close to her eye that it was maddening.
Fury pumped through me. I willed this with all my might. To murder her.
“Guards!” Rebella yelled as her hands slipped ever so slightly. The tip of the dagger grazed her cheek, cutting a slim line.
It was not enough! I wanted her dead!
The door behind us burst open. Hands seized me and I was flung back, the dagger wrenched from my hand.
“What on earth are you doing?” yelled a voice. As my mind spun, I came to on the floor at the foot of a guard. Before me was the tall figure of the other princess, who was holding Rebella by a blood-spattered wrist. “What are you doing?” she screamed.
Rebella wrenched free. “What needs to be done!” and she turned to her grandmother.
The moment seemed to stand still. Rebella gasped. Her dagger clattered to the floor, splattering my blood across the planks.
“No!” gasped Rebella, shaking the elderly woman, who now bore a slight smile on her face. But the woman was limp. “No!” Rebella screamed, shaking her some more. Desperately, she smeared blood on the grandmother’s lips – only to be wrenched back by the sister.
“Don’t do that! You can’t!”
“I can and I will!” screamed Rebella, wrestling free from her sister. “I don’t care! She can’t die! We need her!”
“Stop being so selfish!” screamed the sister, grabbing at Rebella again. “It’s not about you! Let her rest!”
“No!” Rebella screamed, stamping a foot. “We need her! I don’t care if it curses us all! We need her!”
I staggered to my feet, determined to try again. The sister turned, our eyes meeting. Her eyes swept me up and down – and she nodded to herself. “Guards! Take this one to the healing ward! And this one-” she gestured to Rebella. “To her room! And keep her in there!”
“No!” Rebella yelled, but the sister yanked her forward and away from the Grandmother. A squabble began, but the guards quickly seized Rebella. With a slam Rebella bodily shoved one aside, punched the other in the visor, and stamped past me out of the room.
“See to it that she stays in her room!” called out the sister at the guards who rushed after Rebella.
I was left in the custody of one guard. They picked me up in their arms, limp and head spinning. The last thing I remembered was watching the ceiling twirl above me – and then nothing.
Time passed in lurches. I saw darkness, then I was beside Lage, watching him fish in the ice.
“You’re here?” he asked. “So soon?”
Then, the world lurched. Ekundayo was beside me, humming as he drummed happily with a stick on a rock. “Child, child,” he said, shaking his head with that strange grin.
Then, I spun downwards.
With a gasp, I sat up. My chest was seizing with pain. Two pairs of arms belonging to robed people were stretched above me. They were chanting incoherently. A sense of panic was crashing over me. I had to get out of here. They were going to pullt he card out of me!
I lurched to the side, falling clean off the bed and before a pair of feet. I grabbed onto a hand and helped myself up – and was faced with a sneering Rebella.
“Well,” she said.
Hatred swelled in me- but I was pushed backwards onto the bed.
“You should sit,” said Rebella nastily.
I breathed, heart hammering in my chest. Rebella. How I hated her. The monks, healers, whatever they were, lowered their arms. A sense of static electricity left the air, and my panic left me. Cool calm came over me. I focused on Rebella, wonderign how I could kill her.
But Rebella wasn’t herself. She was fidgeting, looking from me to the door beyond the curtains that framed the bed. “They won’t think of coming here,” she murmured. Then, to the healers, she snapped “Get out!”
The healers bowed, scraped their feet back, and shuffled away without another word. Rebella followed them. Once the door was shut, she latched it shut. Then she pressed her back to the door nad glared at me.
It dawned on me then that this wasn’t an infirmary. The room was small from what I could see, but – it was a personal room.
Rebella marched towards me. “Who are you? Why do they want you? Hmh?”
She was now at my side, drawing out a dagger from her belt with a hiss of metal. She held it between us, eyes flashing.
“They?” I asked. “They’re here?” Could there be more than one ‘they’?
“They want you,” said Rebella angrily. “They are saying they will kill the new Queen if we do not hand you over.”
Her hand was trembling. Her eyes flicked over me like a spider darting all over.
“Who are they?” I asked, feeling a sense of control. A sense I could finally get some answers.
“They?” she hissed. “You know them! They are the Associates. They rule your world, or so they say.”
I made a face. “They do not,” or so I hoped.
“Why do they want you?” she hissed, prodding the dagger at me. But I knew she wouldn’t hurt me this time. She was too uneasy. Or maybe that was the danger.
“Where am I?” I asked, drawing back the curtains from the other side of the bed. My fingers barely grazed the fabric before my shoulder was seized by Rebella. She shook me, making sharp daggers of pain burst in my chest.
“What do they want?” she hissed rabidly. “You- who are you?”
She had dropped the dagger in my lap. In a flash I knew I could take it and slash her throat- but somehow I chose not to. I grabbed her wrists and pried them off me.
“I am no one!” I answered coolly, shoving her back so I could stand. “I-”
“They wouldn’t threaten my sister for just anyone!” and the dagger was back between us. Then, with a flick, she slid it back into her belt. “Tell me – or I will bring you to them!”
That stilled my heart. That meant … “If I tell you?” I asked cautiously.
“I will keep you safe from them,” she said too swiftly. Nodding to herself,she held out her palm. “Word of honor.”
There was a catch. Obviously. But I didn’t want to be turned over to ‘them’, did I?
I looked around the room, hoping for some escape. I gripped at my robe, a strange flimsy white thing. I was barefoot, too. I wouldn’t get far.
“Five,” declared Rebella. “Four,”
I scowled at her. What a stinker she was.
“Three,” she said, challenging me.
“I ate Lage’s card,” I snapped.
Her jaw fell. A choking sound came out of her throat – then she turned to disbelief and started laughing. “You did what now?” But then she tipped her head back and laughed.
Humiliation burned over me, but she seemed relieved when she was done with her laughter.
“You idiot,” she said happily. Then she clapped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You are stupid, you know that?”
I fueled all my anger at her through my eyes, choking up on words. How I wanted to tell her that I hated her right then. Maybe I should try and kill her again.
“Don’t worry,” she clapped my shoulder. “I will keep you safe. Now,” she pressed a finger to her lips and looked me up and down. A smirk drew itself on her lips. She looked smug. “We need to find you some clothes. Come.” She snapped her fingers at me and motioned me to follow her.
We drew to a large chest, from which she drew out some old clothes. They were worn through in their colors, but still solid looking. Several shirts were held up to me until she found one that she found suitable. From there she gave me a tunic to put over, a sort of bra to wear under, and pants. Boots – she gave me some soft slipper-like things in leather.
“They will have to do,” she muttered, cluckign her teeth. Then, she gave me a belt. It was set with a snake biting its tail worked into the metal ring. She set a dagger on it and set it about my waist. “Here,” she said. Then, stepping back, she looked me over. “Good,” she declared.
I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. Something about the satisfied gleam in her eyes. I felt like a pig being dressed for slaughter.
She took a gray cloak trimmed in white fur from the chest. It was old as well, but fitted me a little largely. It occurred to me that I must look like a younger version of her – was I to be some decoy?
“Now,” she took a white globe from down her shirt, fishing it out with some difficulty. “Hide this in your shirt. Don’t eat it,” she added with a chuckle.
It was cold like ice, so much so that I almost dropped it. It was marble perhaps, smooth white with shoots of glimmering gray woven through it.
“When you are ready to escape, call out the name-”
“Of course, I’m going to hand you over to them. Then you will escape.”
There it was. The betrayal. “But you had promised-”
She held up a finger between us. “I can’t hide you. If I do, they will sack the city. No, I will hand you over. You have my dagger, and my spirit-weapon.” she closed my fingers over the white ball. “Call their name when you are ready to kill them, and they will appear and fight with you.”
“Kill them?” I gawked. I’d never killed before!
“You must strike the killing blow,” she said softly, “and don’t leave it to the spirit to do.” Then, sensing my dismay, she added “You must kill them. If you don’t, they will follow you back to the city. Killing them will buy us time. Take it,” she pushed my hand to my chest. “Kill them. Then come back to me.”
On remote, I put the ball down my shirt. Then, numb, I felt myself turning to ice. This couldn’t be. It was too awful to be true.
But it was. Rebella whispered a name to me, then nodded. “Come back to me, and I will take care of you,” she announced.
Like hell I would.