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Chapter 4

I woke to a smell that was a heinous mix of my grandmother’s compost bed and a poorly maintained stable. It was impossible to escape the odors of age, sewer, and decay. I couldn’t see, but that didn’t stop me from feeling. I was lying on a cold, rough stone floor and a thick layer of dust clung to my hands as I pushed up into a sitting position. My head throbbed with every move. Even the slightest shift intensified the nauseating ache.

I groped my way to a wall and slumped against it, shivering but grateful that the stone was there to support me. Otherwise, I might have fallen face-first back onto the grime-caked floor and lain there for heaven only knows how long. I reached back and grabbed my iPod from the waistband of my jeans, just to see if it would work. The battery was almost dead and I sighed, shoving it down into my right boot. My eyes burned with tears as I thought about the memory the queen had invaded. “I wish you were here, Pop; I need you alive and with me. You made it through World War II. You would know what to do.”

My whisper died in the darkness and I drifted into unconsciousness.

***

I was jarred from my fitful sleep as the rusted dungeon door shrieked open. I didn’t know how long I’d been out and the torchlight that spilled into the room pierced my eyes. I threw up a hand to shield them, trying to keep the light from making my headache worse. I refused to look up as I heard someone walk toward me.

“Time for you to eat.” I didn’t have to look to know it was Damon. His voice was unmistakable, even after such a short period.

I said nothing and he sighed, crouching into my line of vision. He set a plate and cup on the floor beside me and stared me down, his eyes locked on mine. “Believe me when I tell you that you want to eat. You will need all the strength you can get to help you survive the queen’s memory extractions. She will not stop until she discovers the answers to her questions.”

I groaned; in the back of my mind, I’d known that it would happen again, but I tried to pretend that it wouldn’t. “I’m not hungry.”

“You will be.” He crossed his arms and sat down beside me, dashing any hope I had of scrambling out of the still-open dungeon door.

“Aren’t you going to leave?”

“Not until you eat.”

I shrugged and gave him a bright smile. “Guess you’re going to be here a while, then.”

When I woke again, I was back in the dark. I noticed that Damon was gone and a triumphant smirk danced across my lips for a moment. It was a small victory. Then, my stomach growled and I sighed, hoping that Damon had left the food. I felt around and my fingers brushed against the edge of the wooden plate, followed by a cup.

It’s probably poisoned, no telling what it will do to me. I considered that it might contain some kind of truth serum, or whatever they used for that purpose in this insane world. After what felt like hours of internal debate, I decided I was too hungry to care. I caved. The bread was rock-hard and stale and the water held a little bit of a sulfuric flavor. By no means was it good, but it was enough to stop the gnawing in the pit of my stomach.

I tried to see through the darkness, but I failed. I couldn’t even see my own finger when I accidentally poked myself in the eye. I was aware of nothing, not even the passage of time.

The door swung open with its obligatory obnoxious whine and light jumped into the room. This time, I looked around. I had to squint; the light was unfamiliar and painful after sitting so long in absolute darkness.

The room was small and filthy. It was made entirely of stone and had no openings in the wall except the door. The only other opening in the room was a small metal grate in the middle of the floor. It looked just big enough for a person to squeeze through, but I couldn’t see any way to move the grate without a sledgehammer. The grate also happened to be what smelled like a poorly maintained stable. It was connected to the sewer, and I had the horrific realization that the grate was meant to serve as a prisoner’s bathroom.

“Come with me.”

I shuddered as I turned to face Damon, seeing only his elegant silhouette against the light from the hall.

“No.” It was the most overtly aggressive thing I’ve ever done in my life. I clenched my teeth and refused to budge, bracing myself for a beating. He shook his head and strode to where I was standing, grabbed my arm and started dragging me toward the door. I slumped to the floor, doing my best to make myself a dead weight, a move that my friend Maria called the “brick-noodle.” He just kept on dragging me, and I knew I was going to have to fight. I pushed to my feet, pretending to comply until we were out in the hall.

I clawed at his hands, even drew blood, and he took no notice of it. I kicked his shins and he didn’t so much as frown, much less pause. I started swinging and winced when my fist connected with his jaw. His eyes narrowed and he stopped, remaining dead still for a moment. Then, before I could even think, he had my jaw in a vice grip and was giving me the coldest glare I’d ever seen in my life.

“If you ever do that again, I will see to it that your existence becomes the most miserable one in Daraglathia.”

“Good to know I struck a nerve.” In spite of his grip on my jaw, I shot him a sarcastic smile.

“Were I you, I would be very careful right now.” His pale eyes were so expressionless, they made me shiver. It was the first time I really accepted that it was probably a dangerous thing to push Damon past the point of violence.

I didn’t fight him after that. I just let him drag me into the queen’s study.

“I see you intend to make this difficult.” Sigrid’s voice was so serene that it terrified me.

“Why wouldn’t I?” The question was flat and devoid of any real challenge.

The queen threw her head back and laughed. “Let’s try this again, girl. Give me your memories.”

****

Every detail of the funeral home burned in my mind, branding me for life as I stared at Grandpa Alex’s coffin. I could barely interact with the people around me. All I could do was stare at my grandfather’s face as he lay in the casket, swaddled in his Navy dress whites.

“He was always so proud of how he’d served his country,” Granny Betty murmured as she slipped an arm around my shoulders. I couldn’t keep myself from sobbing.

“You shouldn’t be comforting me, Granny! You’re his wife. I should be supporting and comforting you. I feel awful.”

Granny Betty shook her head and gave me a sad smile. “You have just as much right to grieve as I do, baby girl.”

I nodded and pulled her into a fierce hug, wondering how the world could feel so utterly empty without Grandpa Alex in it. He may have been only one person, but he was a huge part of my life. As people milled around us and offered my grandmother their condolences, Michelle walked in. I’m not sure how I managed not to go ballistic.

My father’s girlfriend was wearing a skin-tight red dress with a neckline that was about a hair’s breadth from her nipples popping out. I growled under my breath. “I would love to know why God hasn’t seen fit to smite her with a bolt of lightning yet.”

Granny Betty flicked a cursory glance at the girl and snorted. “There are probably a few people higher up on the smiting list…mass murderers and people like that.” Her eyes narrowed. “However, I might move up that list in just a minute because I’m going to kill my son for letting her come to his father’s funeral looking like a hooker.”

I gave a nod of approval. “I really want to say something to her, but she’s so not worth it.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

I started to move in Michelle’s direction. I wouldn’t make a scene at my grandfather’s funeral unless it became unavoidable. Instead, I brushed past her and headed to the bathroom to take a breather.

I cringed when I looked in the mirror. My mascara was streaked down my cheeks and I shook my head. “I don’t know why I insist on wearing makeup to funerals. You’d think I’d know better by now.” I grabbed some tissues and tried to wipe the black streaks off my cheeks. “I just had to be out of waterproof mascara.”

After straightening out my appearance, I went back to the viewing room and had to grind my teeth to keep from screaming. Michelle was perched in the corner with an open compact smearing on a coat of lipstick that screamed indifference to Granny Betty’s situation. I bit the inside of my cheek so I wouldn’t be tempted to shout at her and looked for Dad. Before I even thought about what I was doing, I had him by the arm and dragged him into the hall.

“I can’t believe you let Michelle come here looking like that, Dad. This is your father’s funeral! She’s dressed like a hooker. She has to leave. Now.”

“Is it really necessary that she leave? I know her dress isn’t exactly conventional funeral attire, but she didn’t really know him. I don’t think she’s trying to be disrespectful.”

“I don’t care if she’s not attempting to be disrespectful, her presence here is offensive! I’m not the only one who’s angry, either. Granny Betty is going to kill you if you don’t get that hussy out of here.”

“I think you’re overreacting, honey, but I’ll ask her to go since Mom isn’t happy about her being here.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and walked away, knowing I’d say something that would make him furious if I didn’t. The tears returned and I could not stop crying as the day wore on. A part of me was gone, one I could never get back.

The funeral home attendants asked everyone but the family to leave so we could say our last goodbyes. I watched as Granny Betty walked up and laid her small, frail hands on the edge of the casket. She stared down at Grandpa Alex for an eternity. “I love you.”

Her shaking voice shattered into a howling sob and the sound tore my already broken heart to pieces. I put my arm around her shaking shoulders and held her up. Every sob stabbed a little deeper. Granny Betty’s whole body shuddered as she buried her face in my shoulder. I stroked her hair and we cried together as we sat through the service in the small chapel that adjoined the funeral home.

I stared at the minister’s bow tie and heard nothing for a long time. One sentence permeated the fog of my grief. The minister’s soft voice soothed me long enough that I was able to listen to the words that I’d ignored during every other funeral I’d been to in my life.

“His suffering in this world is done, and he’s in the kingdom of the Lord.”

The minister’s voice gave way to memories and then I was in the cemetery. Torrential rain soaked my back and plastered my hair to my neck. Every inch of me was wet by the time the honor guard finished firing their salute. A lone sailor played “Taps,” and a black hole opened up in my chest. I started going numb, but the pain came back tenfold when the honor guard presented Granny Betty with Grandpa Alex’s American flag. The pain was so intense that the world didn’t seem real anymore.

I had no idea how much time had passed when I floated into that fuzzy state of consciousness where you know you’re asleep. I could hear voices, but the noise was vague and distant for a while.

“That memory was useless and awful at once. There was too much emotion—sadness, anger, bitterness, yearning and love heaped on a single occasion.”

“What was it?”

“Her grandfather’s funeral. He was in the memory before this one, as well. He must have been critically dear to her, but I do not believe he has any relation to how she came to be here.”

“How will you find out what you need to know if she continues to focus on memories like these?”

“I may have to find a way to make the spell more precise. I cannot afford these trivialities any longer. Take her back to the dungeon. I need to lie down for a while; her emotions have me feeling quite unwell.”

That makes two of us, lady, but knowing that the emotions affect you gives me an advantage. A victorious glow flashed through me and died with the now-familiar feeling of passing out.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5