Kassi hummed a melody as she ran the brush through her hair. If anybody had passed by at that moment, they might have mistaken her for a young woman without a care in the world. No one would be passing by, though, since she was locked at the top of a turret. Nor would anyone describe Kassi as carefree once they saw her haunted eyes. Even the tune she hummed carried with it an unmistakable urgency. The song was one that her mother used to sing to her; it was Kassi’s sole inheritance.
When she had first come to this room, Kassi had fluctuated between sorrow and rage. After she had wept herself dry, after she had hammered her hands bloody against the walls, all she had left was the past. Memories that she once shunned, she now relived: the confused tumble out of her bed as her mother jerked her awake; her mother’s ragged pant hot against her ear. Kassi could still see the burning cottage behind them, could still smell the acrid smoke that chased after them. Kassi never knew how her mother ran all the way to Lord Wyvham’s Keep, or how she summoned the strength to pound on the gates. Her mother’s voice had rasped with her last remaining breaths, demanding justice in both Nyes, her people’s tongue, and in Camderian.
Her mother had visited her last night, in a brief moment of sleep that managed to catch her. Kneeling beside her bed, her mother had sang that same song to her, reminding Kassi of a past beyond the fire. Kassi tried to hold on to the dream, but it slipped away from her like vapor as soon as she opened her eyes. Yet, some of the dream did linger, just beneath the surface of memory. For the first time in many long Cycles, Kassi remembered that words belonged to her mother’s melody. Kassi would remember that song before she died.
A clatter of falling stones caused Kassi to whirl around. Across the round turret room was a narrow window, and she saw a pair of hands gripping the sill with white knuckles. With a grunt, a familiar face rose up into view.
Kassi inhaled sharply, her hand reaching up toward her throat. “Aetheldrake’s sorrow, Linette! What are you doing?”
Linette’s face was nearly purple from the strain, but she paused long enough to give Kassi a gap-toothed grin. “Comin’ to rescue you,” she said.
“Not if I don’t rescue you first,” exclaimed Kassi. Hoisting up the overflowing skirt of her dress, Kassi dashed to Linette. She clutched onto the girl’s arm, and after a short pull, Linette popped through the window. Both of them toppled over to the floor.
Linette rolled onto her back and giggled. Kassi took longer to recover, cupping her hands over her face as the room around her lurched. As soon as her world steadied, Kassi heaved herself upright and glared at the giggling girl. Lisette only giggled harder as she sat up and hugged her knees against her chest. She was only ten Cycles old, but with a pert button nose, slender figure, blue eyes sparkling with mischief, and light blond hair currently tied into two messy braids, Linette possessed many of the features the Camderians favored. If it hadn’t have been for the red pox scars gouged into her peach-tinted skin, Linette would’ve been considered quite the beauty once she came of age at sixteen.
“Is your idea of rescue to kill me of fright before they take me to the dragon?” Asked Kassi.
Linette’s giggles faded into a silent grin. “Kill you of fright? I saw what you did to the Duke. You ain’t scared of nothing.”
As soon as she said those words, Linette’s face clouded. The girl flung herself forward and threw her arms around Kassi. Her sobs came hard and heavy, her tears soaking into the sleeve of Kassi’s dress. When Linette was finished, the girl rubbing her running nose against her shoulder and sat back on her heels. Solemnly, she studied Kassi.
“Kassi…” began Linette.
“Help me up,” interrupted Kassi. “I can’t move in this ridiculous dress.”
Linette stood and held out her hand for Kassi. Kassi took it, but maneuvering up to her feet wasn’t any easier. Once she was on her feet, a sharp pain racked her stomach, and Kassi squeezed her eyes shut as another dizzy spell made the room tilt.
“Are you all right?” asked Linette.
“Fine,” answered Kassi. After a few breaths, it became the truth, and she made her way carefully back to the mirror and chair.
Linette’s mouth twisted to the side. “I don’t believe you.”
Shrugging, Kassi worked on separating her hair into sections.
“Everything has to be a secret with you,” complained Linette. “You still ain’t told me what happened with you and Duke Brogan, and I know it wasn’t ‘nothing’ because you ain’t been right since that night. And they wouldn’t let me come see you, either, even though you’re supposed to be able. Why d’ya think I had to crawl through the window?”
“Then you shouldn’t have come,” replied Kassi, her shaking fingers doing more to tangle than to braid.
Linette stamped her foot and grunted. “But that’s why I had to.” Kassi’s attempt at a braid caught her attention, and Linette came forward. “Here, let me,” she said as she scooped Kassi’s hair into her hand.
Kassi’s hands dropped down to her lap with a sigh. “Linette, you need to go before they find you here.”
“I will, I will. At least let me finish this.”
Kassi didn’t have the energy to argue. Linette’s nimble fingers weaved Kassi’s hair into a soft braid, framing her oval face nicely. She doubted the dragon would care, though. At least Linette was being quiet, for once. As soon as she tied the braid into place, a reflection in the mirror caused Linette to gasp and turn around.
“Bless me, look at all that food! Cheese, bread, dried fruit, meat… Kassi, you got a feast up here.”
A tired smile struggled to be born on Kassi’s face, but quickly faded. “Take all you want,” she said.
Linette bounced across the room. She had a chunk of bread in one hand and a slab of cheese in the other, and her mouth was already full by the time she turned back to Kassi. “There’s so much there, it don’t look like you’ve touched it,” said Linette around the wad of bread in her mouth. She swallowed and prepared to take another bite, but hesitated before the cheese made it into her mouth. “You haven’t touched it, have you?”
Kassi shook her head.
“Kassi! You gotta eat!”
Linette blinked. “Why not?” she countered.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
Her mouth twisting to the side, Linette shifted from one foot to the other as she watched Kassi. As if on their own accord, the cheese-holding hand drifted up toward Linette’s mouth, and the girl paused long enough in her deliberations to take a bite.
“You know what you should do,” said Linette after swallowing the cheese. “You should curse Duke Brogan and Lord Wyvham.”
Kassi shook her head. “Curse them?”
“Yeah! You know. A Flimen’s curse. Make it a good one.”
At that, Kassi crossed her arms. “There’s no such thing as a ‘Flimen’s curse’. I told you that before.”
“Then why are you Flimen’s known for ‘em?”
“I expect it’s because you Camderians give us so many reasons to make them. It doesn’t mean anything more than anybody else’s, though.”
“Well,” said Linette, pausing long enough to take another bite of bread. “I bet Duke Brogan and Lord Wyvham don’t know that. They’ll be shittin’ themselves for weeks, wondering when it’ll catch up with ‘em.”
Kassi shook her head, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Before she could reply, though, a clang echoed up the stairway. Both of them shot a glance toward the door. Kassi stood and motioned toward the bed, and Linette nodded. Dashing over, Linette flattened herself to the floor and slid underneath it. They listened as footsteps pounded up the stairs, finally ending with the creak of the door. Lord Wyvhan entered, followed close behind by the Matron. Without pausing, the Matron marched over to the bed.
“Alright, girl. I know you’re under there. Don’t make me drag you out.”
Linette did as she was bid, but she took her time. As soon as enough of her was out, the Matron yanked Linette upright.
“It ain’t right,” said Linette as the Matron led her toward the door. “Kassi should be allowed to have someone sit with her.”
The Matron snorted. “And you’ve sat with her. Be glad that you had this long. If it had been Duke Brogan’s soldiers that saw you, and not our guards, you might be in more trouble than the lashing you’ll be getting.”
At that, Kassi’s shoulder’s sagged, and she placed her hand onto her stomach. The Matron and Linette exited through the door, but the Matron’s voice lingered a little longer. “Take care they don’t find out, either.”
The creak and clang of the lower door indicated they were gone, leaving Lord Wyvham and Kassi alone. Kassi sank into her chair, while Lord Wyvham rubbed his hands together. He gave her an attempt at a smile, the stretch of his lips kept more in place by the straining of muscles than any trace of good humor.
“My dear, you are absolutely breathtaking,” he said. “I hope the dress pleases you, as much as it pleases me to see you in it.”
Kaasi looked down at the silken dress, simple in style but augmented with quartz beads and flowing sleeves. “It’s fitting,” she said after a moment of consideration. “White is the proper color for the dead.”
The smile faded. “No, no, foolish girl. White is the color of the bride.”
Kaasi’s head rose, her heart beating much too loudly. “You and I both know this dress is a lie. Much like your kindness to me.”
Lord Wyvham’s face glowed like heated metal. “How dare you,” he sputtered. “How dare you! Did I not take you in as a child? Did I not defend you against my other servants, who blamed you for every ill at the Keep? Make sure you were fed and clothed? Gave you honest work to train you? And that dress!” He pointed. “That dress is worthy of a daughter of my household. How dare you call my kindness a lie!”
Kaasi’s entire body shook, the tremors reaching into her voice. “Yet you did nothing when I needed you most. You stood there, silent as a statue. Would you have stayed there if Duke Brogan hadn’t dismissed you? Just stood there and watched-.”
Lord Wyvham blinked. “Kassi…” he began, shaking his head. “Kassi,” he began again. “I could do nothing! Do you think what happened pleases me? Why were you there in the first place? No one should have been in that part of the Keep.”
The lower door to the turret opened, and Kassi heard regimented footsteps climbing the stairs. It was time; they were coming for her.
“Yet I was there.” Kassi paused. “And I saw you plotting with Duke Brogan.”
The heat in his face draining away, Lord Wyvham darted a glance toward the door. “Don’t say it like that. Not plotting. Discussing matters above your head. Things you had no business hearing.”
“And what was it that I heard, my Lord,” asked Kassi, softly, “that makes the Duke so very afraid of me?”
Lord Wyvham turned away as the soldiers entered and took a position on each side of the door. These soldiers bore Duke Brogan’s arms, a fact that Kassi noted with no surprise. Drawing in a deep breath, she stood on legs as weak as an infant’s. Somehow, she managed to shuffle toward the soldiers, stopping long enough catch Lord Wyvham’s gaze.
“Thank you for this dress, Lord Wyvham,” she said. “I look forward to staining it with my blood.”
Kassi had the satisfaction of seeing him wince before he twisted away from her. There was nothing left to do but to walk through the door, the soldiers close behind her.