“FARMER MALLORY,” King Sevon Maraté called the writhing aisa’s name. “For your betrayal to the Crown of Darkmore, you and your kin have been sentenced to burn beyond the Veil.”
The leather-skinned farmer flailed upon the ground in his iron bonds. His heavily pregnant daughter jerked against the grasp of two guardsmen, clad in neck-to-toe black leather. The taller, brawnier of the pair chuckled at the girl’s distress and twisted her shoulder painfully in the joint.
She squealed a shrill note. “Let him go!” Mallory’s daughter shrieked, and her fangs gnashed with the futile threat of retaliation. “We’ve done nothing wrong!”
Mallory begged his child, “Patricia, please. Don’t make this worse.”
But it was true, and Sevon knew it—they had done nothing wrong. He glanced hesitantly at the Veil itself, the ethereal membrane that shrouded Darkmore from the human world. The humans called the land that lay beyond it “Texas,” and Lord Dominic Ravensgrove had talked Sevon into sending Mallory and his daughter out there to die. Dominic had made a strong case for their supposed betrayal to the Crown. When Sevon had found the fallacy in Dominic’s logic, Dominic had beaten him soundly in the dungeon. Dominic was his lover, or so he had reminded Sevon over the years. Sevon didn’t care at all for Dominic’s sense of love. Dominic had left him there on the filthy dungeon floor, broken and bleeding, deep in Sevon’s own loneliness as his skin mended and bones healed.
Sevon had seen it was more agreeable to go along with whatever Dominic decided about how Sevon should rule his kingdom. It was better than suffering through a night, a week, a month or more of beatings, deprivation, or torture. In the higher circles of Darkmore’s court, it was no secret that Sevon wore the crown, but Dominic was the true tyrant king.
And now, as Mallory and his daughter lay at Sevon’s feet and begged for release, Dominic was teaching Sevon a lesson. For Sevon’s disobedience, not only would Mallory die, but so would his daughter and her unborn child. Sevon concentrated on the iridescent sheen. Less than five feet in front of him, the glaring daylight of the humans’ Texas desert beckoned him forward. The horrific sprawl of debris piled hundreds of feet high, with shantytowns perched precariously on top, consumed the landscape behind him. And Sevon was trapped inside with the disaster. He narrowed his eyes, reaching his black-gloved fingers toward the light. What would the sun feel like on his flesh? How did daylight dance across the Rio Grande? He longed to be there, in the light. Anything would be better than a life in darkness and ruin.
Dominic clapped a hand on Sevon’s shoulder, and Sevon startled. In his ear, Dominic purred a warning. “You mustn’t fall for the temptation of the light, my sweet. Concentrate. We will be back in the palace soon.”
Sevon’s bones shivered with the timbre of Dominic’s voice. It had been a warning, not a note of concern. He pushed from his mind thoughts of what being back in the palace would entail.
Sevon’s glossed lips pressed into a grim line, and he gathered his long blond curls, then twisted them into a tight bun. He watched the squirming farmer. “Perhaps, Mallory, I didn’t make myself clear the first time. You have a way of saving yourself.”
His brows quirked as the beginnings of a headache swelled behind his eyes. It was the guilt making itself known. He glanced at Dominic and fell silent for several seconds. Dominic’s eyes were cold, and the chilling shove to continue with this farce slammed into Sevon’s stomach.
“You will give us the livestock from your stockyards, and your tax debt with Lord Ravensgrove goes away.”
“Or your daughter meets the sun first,” Dominic growled, and Sevon watched him with bewilderment.
“Dominic…?” Sevon said softly.
Dominic’s hand snapped in a halting gesture, and Sevon froze.
Farmer Mallory jolted to attention at Dominic’s threat. Patricia screeched and squirmed in the grasp of her captors. “Please, Your Majesty,” Mallory begged Sevon directly. “We can be reasonable. If we give you the entire herd, there won’t be a way for my family to survive the oncoming winter.”
Before Sevon could speak, Dominic interjected for him. “So, betraying the Crown by doling out the humans to the less fortunate aisa hives is perfectly acceptable. I see.”
“Dominic,” Sevon repeated, this time with a hint of urgency.
“It would serve His Majesty well if he remains silent,” Dominic said.
Sevon knew that was the only warning he’d get.
Dominic continued as he stepped forward and loomed over Mallory. He had effectively cast Sevon aside. “I believe His Majesty is a fair and just king. If you want to see another star in the sky, His Majesty is of the opinion that you shouldn’t keep me from taking what’s rightfully mine.” Dominic tucked his helmet in the crook of his elbow. His tone remained casual. “Your stockyard is in my district. You are making it immensely difficult for His Majesty”—Dominic spit the term in a way that made Sevon’s blood boil—“to make a proper decision, because you’re giving away my property. Do you see my point?”
Or at least, that’s how Dominic’s case went. Sevon’s belly quivered with the fact that this atrocity was unfolding in front of him moment by moment. It was not that he hadn’t done this before; Dominic had told him that participating in executions would make him a stronger king. Not only make him a stronger king, but kill the problematic sense of humanity he still held within his heart. Sevon refused to lose his empathy, but Dominic didn’t care for Sevon’s flashes of compassion. Sevon had doubted Dominic’s motives since he was old enough to realize he wasn’t really the one ruling the kingdom. Dominic wanted Sevon to be the ideal, compliant lover, and the king Darkmore needed to survive the bleak times. Sevon was all too aware that his people just needed a face to blame for their oppression.
Sevon glanced at the Veil again and the light beyond. Once, just once, Sevon wished to know a life where he made his own decisions.
The anxiety permeating Mallory’s stained coveralls invaded the air with rotting putrescence. Sevon sniffed and wrinkled his nose, wishing the stench and the guilt away. This would all be over soon.
Mallory sputtered for an answer. “Please, Your Majesty,” the farmer cried. It turned Sevon’s stomach for Mallory to address him when really it was Dominic’s decision. “It’s not that simple to let Lord Ravensgrove manage the humans. My stockyards never recovered from Hurricane Gert twenty-two years ago. Herds live in abysmal conditions. They’re sickly and small. My family wants to spare the city the disgrace of eating such refuse. That’s why I give them away to the… the….” Mallory craned his neck upward at the disapproving glare of Lord Dominic Ravensgrove.
Dominic tapped four iron spikes into his waiting palm, and Mallory burst into tears.
“Please,” Mallory whimpered. “Please don’t do this….”
Dominic snorted a laugh. “You’ve had twenty-two years to recover from a meager hurricane. You areaisa! Nature bows to you. Are you a man, or are you a cockroach?”
Sevon startled. “Dominic, that’s enough!”
Dominic spun on his heel and roared in Sevon’s face. “I said be silent, boy!”
Sevon’s lip quivered, but something inside him urged him not to back down. “You’re putting them to death for no reason! What Mallory is saying is the truth. You’re doing this to punish me.” Sevon slipped back two steps. “Let them go and be done with it. I know what you want to do to me when we return to the palace. So what’ll it be? Licking filthy boots? Whippings? Trying to fuck me with your pathetic di—”
The crack across Sevon’s cheekbone sent him spinning and tumbling into one of Dominic’s guards. He blinked through the haze as the guard hooked him under the arms and held him upright against his chest.
“Hold him. We’ll need him,” Dominic commanded.
Sevon pulled away from the guard, but the man was much taller and stronger. “Dominic!” he cried. “Dominic, stop!”
Dominic turned away, ignoring him, and Sevon wilted.
“Let’s not mince words, Mallory,” Dominic said. “You have food. The aisa need food. I don’t give a damn if the livestock is inbred or has dementia. Blood and meat is blood and meat.”
“Your Majesty, I beg you,” Mallory whimpered, tears streaking his filthy cheeks. “My family is very loyal to the Crown of Darkmore. King Louis was very good to us.”
If anything made Sevon feel inadequate as a king, it was the mention of how good of a king his father had been. Dominic had repeated the stories constantly of how Louis was truly a coward and had left his kingdom to rot after the terrible hurricane two decades ago. Sevon had heard the stories enough times even he believed them. But his gut churned when he encountered a subject who worshipped the man.
“His father is gone,” Dominic snarled, curling his fingers into angry claws. “You are loyal to Louis, but heis your king.” Dominic snapped a hand toward Sevon. “How dare you betray him?”
Mallory withered, and his daughter jumped to his defense. “Please, Your Majesty,” she said, again addressing Sevon. The dread tightened around his skull. Dominic was speaking for him and these two were none the wiser. “We have been very faithful to you and your father.”
Dominic scoffed. “How dare you bring up such a weakling king?”
The daughter wailed, thrashing in the guards’ grasp. She cursed the king with fangs gnashing and yellow eyes blazing. “You are a tyrant, Sevon Maraté. You will never be as great a ruler as your father. Never!”
“It’s not me!” Sevon cried and jerked, trying to get free from the guard. “It’s not me. Dominic, let them go! Please. Please, let them go. This isn’t right!”
Dominic eased the full helmet onto his head, and his guards followed his lead. Sevon watched them tighten their gloves and secure their coats against the sun’s scalding light. “Cap him,” Dominic said under his visor. The guard who held Sevon roughly shoved his helmet over his head, pulling on the bun in his hair.
Mallory’s daughter went limp, overcome with tears. She sobbed an incoherent mixture of desperate questions and begged for deliverance from an unknown god.
“Got him?” Dominic asked Sevon’s captor, and the man flashed an upward thumb. “Bring him here.”
The guard trundled forward with Sevon thrashing in the larger man’s grip. Sevon’s ankle-length black leather skirt rustled as it caught between the guard’s legs. The guard crushed the thick fabric into the scattered refuse dotting the sandy ground as he dragged Sevon closer to the membrane of the glowing Veil.
Sevon crossed his arms tightly around his chest, tucking his gloved hands into his armpits. “I won’t do this,” he growled.
Dominic didn’t answer and yanked one of Sevon’s hands free with a sharp snap. Sevon let out a cry of pain and indignation as Dominic forced Sevon’s arm upward and flattened his palm mere centimeters from the Veil. The globs of iridescence swirled and whirled, drawn to Sevon’s proximity.
Behind him, Mallory wailed, and tears of molten gold ruined Sevon’s smoky eye shadow.
Sevon wanted to see the light. Be in it. Touch it. Taste it. Smell it. The temptation oozed through his mind like a disease. But he didn’t want it like this. Not like this. He despised that Dominic would take the things he desired most and corrupt them into something horrific.
Dominic waved Sevon’s hand, and the sheer bubble of the Veil popped, creating a wavering portal in the protective barrier. Light stabbed into the darkness of Darkmore, and Sevon was the only one who didn’t flinch.
“Quickly, quickly!” Dominic barked and led the charge into the desert.
Two of the guards hefted Mallory into the daylight and the other two dragged Patricia by the upper arms. Her bare toes dug desperate rents in the hard-baked earth. The five men whisked past Sevon, leaving him in the bear hug of the final guard. Sevon stared longingly into the sun from behind the safety of his helmet’s visor. There was never any doubt Dominic would always destroy something Sevon cherished.
Dominic slammed the screaming Mallory to the hot ground. The farmer flailed while his skin smoldered and flaked. His wispy hair ignited and his fangs emerged in a desperate reaction.
Sevon stared blankly and let his eyes go out of focus. It was much easier to watch someone burn when he couldn’t make out the details. He never forgot the screams, though. His own screaming never did anything. Tears rolled of their own will, and Sevon’s stomach plummeted with the knowledge of his helplessness.
Dominic pressed himself to the old man, pinning one arm with his knee and driving the iron spike through Mallory’s wrist into the earth. Mallory thrashed, freeing his impaled wrist. He caught Dominic off guard by digging his clawed fingers into the meat of Dominic’s thigh. Dominic recoiled as his thick leather pants tore and the sun bit into his exposed skin. He winced, and his tawny flesh reddened with blisters. Dominic wouldn’t be deterred, however, and stabbed the second spike into Mallory’s other wrist.
Sevon snapped back into the moment and gasped in horror. “Dominic!” Sevon screeched. “Dominic, come back! You’ll burn! Dominic,” he pleaded.
“I need to finish this,” Dominic snarled in reply. “I need to make the point that this is what we do to traitors.” He limped toward Mallory’s feet. The sun had compromised his protective clothing, and its poisonous heat seeped into his skin, boiling his flesh and blood.
“Dominic!” Sevon shrieked through the open portal in the Veil. “Stop this!”
Dominic limped around Mallory’s smoking body as his own flesh sizzled. “Why don’t you get a closer look?” Dominic called. “Throw him here.”
“What?” Sevon managed to say before the guard threw him out of the portal and onto the hard sunbaked earth. Sevon’s head bounced against the ground, and his helmet popped loose from his head. His hair tumbled in spiraling waves and whipped about in the Texas wind. The sunlight blasted against his face instantly. His eyes snapped open from the searing pain, and his vision filled with blinding brightness. “Dominic!” Sevon croaked.
He pushed to his hands and knees, flailing for his helmet, which must be somewhere nearby. At least he hoped so. The sun stung at the back of his head through his white-gold hair. His head-to-toe blackout leather gown grew warm against his skin in the arid desert. He tried to stay calm as he felt around. His skin was hot to the touch, and he knew he was seconds from igniting. Sevon would die here. Right now. In the hideous way of Dominic’s latest punishment.
He counted to five, keeping calm. If he were to die now, Dominic couldn’t hurt him anymore. The idea of the ultimate escape appealed to him as the thoughts raced through his mind of his imminent release. The sun stroked him in comfort, welcomed him, and urged him onward. Away from Dominic’s reach and his wrath. The sun made Sevon feel free. It made him feel, for the briefest of moments, alive. Alive!
Sevon lay back, forgetting about the helmet, and turned his face to the sun. He welcomed the release.
“What the fuck, Sevon,” Dominic spat at him, and Sevon’s skin prickled with the ice of fear. “Take him!” Dominic roared to his other men.
The guards obeyed and scooped up the flailing Sevon. He screamed and kicked, as they returned to the safety of Darkmore’s forever night.
Mallory sizzled, his lips burned away and fangs glowing like white-hot coals. He snarled his final defiance of the sun and of the Darkmore crown. Not far behind him, Patricia’s burning body curled forward, failing to protect her unborn child.
Sevon could no longer hide his tears at the thoughtless murder.
Once safely within the confines of the Veil, it sealed behind them with a slurping suck of ether and air. The guards dropped Sevon onto the littered ground, and he landed hard on his elbow. If Sevon still had a stomach, he would have vomited.
The cold air stabbed into his skin in contrast to the scalding air of the world outside the Veil. He was baffled that he hadn’t immediately ignited like most aisa. He made a mental note to find references about more verkolai traits later. He carefully wobbled to his feet while studying the swirling colors of the Veil and turned his back on Dominic and his men.
Sevon’s thoughts evaporated when Dominic’s palm cracked hard against his cheekbone and then Dominic wrapped him in a crushing hug. Sevon stumbled in Dominic’s iron grip, trying to clear his vision and comprehend the gesture of affection.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Dominic croaked, sounding genuinely concerned. “I’d be lost without you. You matter too much to me.”
Sevon blinked away his gold tears. He tried wiping one away around the awkward grip of Dominic’s broad arm. “I’m… s-sorry…,” Sevon muttered. He tried to decode the hidden meaning in Dominic’s words. Was there a hidden meaning? Or, when faced with the true threat that Sevon would rather end himself, did Dominic have a change of heart? Sevon’s mind rolled with confusion.
Dominic crushed him in a tighter hug and petted Sevon’s hair. He gripped a fistful of Sevon’s hair and kissed at the curls at his temple. “You matter too much,” Dominic said again.
Sevon shivered with nauseating confusion. Maybe, in this instant, things would be different for them. Maybe Dominic had the capacity to change. Maybe it would finally work out. Sevon knew the damning truth deep in his soul. Maybe not today or tomorrow or months from now, but there would be severe retribution for his insubordination. He tried not to think about the possibilities. He only focused on this moment and fought the urge to run.
He softly wrapped his arms around Dominic’s thick waist and forced himself to relax into him. “I’m sorry,” Sevon said, trying to make it not sound like a lie. “I’m sorry.”
“Come,” Dominic said in a firm order and released Sevon with a cold gesture. He limped away through the scattered trash. The burn on his leg bloomed into newborn skin. “You have to make your decree at the stockyards.”
Sevon solemnly watched Dominic walk away. Failure burned in his throat. Dominic had sternly raised him, claimed he loved him, and eagerly encouraged his love of fine frippery. Dominic encompassed the entirety of his world…. And nothing would ever change.
It was easier to pretend it would all be okay.
Copyright © 2014 Lex Chase. All rights reserved.