Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(7)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(7)
Robin LaFevers

“The apple you brought with you was the last food I’ve had.”

“Then do not eat too quickly,” I caution him. “Else it will turn your stomach.” I do not linger to see if he takes my advice, but push to my feet and begin walking the perimeter of the outer chamber, giving him time to be alone with the first food he has eaten in days.

Truly, it is a wonder he is still alive. After a dozen laps around the chamber, I allow myself to return to the oubliette. There are no sounds of eating—or retching. “Are you all right?”

“I think I have died and passed into the Otherworld.”

“If that were the case, I do not think I would be able to hear your voice.” I do not know if that is precisely true. I have been around death so rarely that I have no knowledge of what shape my gifts from Mortain might take. Perhaps I could hear his voice, alive or dead.

“Then clearly I have been visited by an angel.”

A surprised snort escapes from me. “I can assure you, I’m no angel.”

“You have come bearing food, water, and hope. If that is not the act of an angel, I do not know what is.”

“You are ridiculous,” I say, even though his words warm the deep part of me that is hungry to do something important, something that matters. And feeding a starving man feels important. Unless he has committed some horrible crime. “Why are you in the dungeon?” The question feels like yet another risk—akin to poking a coiled snake with a stick.

“I am not sure that I know.” His words are careful, measured, and I cannot help but wonder if that is what all guilty men would say, given the chance.

“Surely you did something to end up in an oubliette?”

“Are you so very confident of justice in this world?” he asks softly.

His words give me pause, for no, I am not at all certain of justice in this world. Have indeed seen very little of it. “Fair enough. What do others think you did to deserve such a fate?”

“As best I can tell, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Saw something I should not have. And you?” he asks. “Why are you here? Are you some bored lady in waiting? A servant exploring the dungeons for your own gain? Some spy sent to rescue me?”

His questions feel like darts that have hit home. I am all of those things. “Are you deserving of rescuing?”

“Oh, yes. Would the Nine have sent me hope, then water, and now food if they did not believe my cause to be just?”

Hearing him speak so casually of the old saints makes the fine hairs along my arms stand up. “You are Breton?” I have never heard of anyone in France who still worshiped the Nine.

After a considering pause, he says, “Yes. And you?”

“I, too, am from Brittany. And to answer your earlier questions, I am neither a bored lady, a spy, nor a servant. I am far closer to your own circumstances than you might think—a prisoner, of sorts. One who has been gone too long already and must return before my absence is noted.”

“Will you come again?” The question hangs in the air like a feather.

“I do not know,” I tell him. “I shouldn’t have come at all.”

“I’m glad you did.”

When I return to my room, it feels less empty than it has in weeks. That is when I know that I will be returning to the oubliette.

Chapter 8

Sybella

rom the height of the eastern tower, I can see that the holly bush is slightly larger than yesterday, as is the crop of offerings beneath its branches. It is hard to keep my fingers from drifting to the twig hidden in my belt, even as I mock myself for doing so. And yet I cannot bring myself to throw it away.

Harder still is not picking at the scabs that have begun to form over old wounds. Especially now that the essence of what made me more than simply the sum of those wounds has been taken from me.

But not all of it has been taken. I am still able to experience the souls of the dying. Indeed, it is the soul of the guard who died with my hand on his chest that brings me to this tower today.

It has been a full week since the battle. While souls normally linger for only three days before moving to the Otherworld, those that suffer a violent death often take longer, if they ever move on at all. And today, with no people nearby to distract me with their heartbeats, I am able to sense a few that remain. They bump and flutter, restless and unsettled.

For my entire life, this ability to sense souls has felt more like a curse than a gift. When I was a child, their cold, chill presence brushed against me with icy wings of terror. In the end, they were nothing to be afraid of, although it took me a long time to learn that.

It is the souls of the newly dead—like those I killed yesterday—that are the most disturbing. The forced, unwanted intimacy, the eager, hungry way they flock to my warmth, the shocking and unwelcome invasion of their final thoughts shoving their way into my mind. I have learned to protect myself from them, with practice. But there is always that initial violation before I can resist. However, in this new upended world, like a beggar with scraps, I will grasp this remaining gift with both hands and call it a feast.

As the wisps of faded souls flutter against me, I close my eyes, trying to think how best to invite them to me. As it turns out, I do not have to. Merely having the thought causes them to flock to me like moths to flame, the dark gray ripple of their invisible wings barely detectable.

It is the weight of their souls and memories that nearly causes me to stagger. The neigh of a war horse. A flash of steel. An aching regret for a pair of lips that will never be kissed again. A surge of honor here. A wave of shame at being bested there. It is like running my hand through the small stones in a riverbed, each one cold, vividly colored, and uniquely formed.

Except for one—one of them is shockingly vibrant, so much so that I wonder if one of the wounded on the battlefield was overlooked and that he passed into death but recently.

Before I can fully explore this, I am distracted by a living heartbeat mounting the stairs behind me. My eyes snap open, and I quickly lower my arms. The heart beats in a rhythm so slow and deep and steady that I recognize it immediately.

Beast.

His physical presence has all the subtlety of a small mountain, and as he draws closer, the tattered remains of the lingering souls retreat. He slips his arm around my waist and pulls me close—the only man in the kingdom who could survive taking such a liberty with his throat intact.

He leans in and places his lips against my ear. “You are brooding.” The warmth of his breath causes me to shiver. “I was on my way from the training yard to change for the council meeting and could feel it all the way down in the courtyard,” he murmurs.

I am both vexed and pleased by this connection between us that allows him to know my thoughts so very well. “You’ve straw for brains if you think that.”

“So you are always telling me.” He presses a kiss into the top of my hair, and I allow my head to drop back against his shoulder. It is like leaning against a boulder, implacable and solid. And warm. This particular boulder gives off a ferocious heat.

They have always called him Beast, for truly he looks the part, with his nearly mythical strength and grotesque appearance. Many fear him. But many more—mostly young children and those who have fought with him—are able to see past the ugliness to the kindness and humor that shine in his eyes.

Unless those eyes happen to be lit with battle lust—then one must say a hasty prayer to the Nine and get out of his way. But for me, being with him is like basking in the warmth of the sun after a long winter, chasing away the dark shadows that lie as heavily upon me as a chill.

If I do not say something—and soon—I fear I will begin to purr. “I never brood. I am taking some fresh air, that is all. You have no idea what it is like to be stuck in a roomful of ladies sewing and talking, talking and sewing, from dawn until midnight, their tongues as fast and sharp as their needles. It is enough to drive me mad.”

“I thought you liked sharp, pointy things.”

“I prefer them to be deadlier than a simple sewing needle.”

“I have no doubt that even a simple sewing needle would be deadly in your hands.” He places another kiss upon the shell of my ear, his lips soft and fleeting. Between the crowded palace and our respective duties, our time alone is rare.

And forbidden. The behavior of a lady in waiting to the duchess must always be maidenly, modest, and above reproach. Many would condemn us for our stolen moments. Others would try to use it as a weapon against us. Fortunately, the duchess is a romantic at heart and turns a blind eye.

“So what were you brooding on? It can’t be Charlotte or Louise, for I passed them just now, happily playing in the garden with Tephanie.”

“Did you take a blow to your head in the training yard that has robbed you of your wits? I am not brooding.”

He purses his mouth, drawing his face into a most comical arrangement of scars and lumps. “Is it because the duchess has ordered Ismae to remain here in Brittany with Duval?”

I snort. “There is your problem. It is Ismae who is brooding, not me. Mayhap it is she you heard.”

He shakes his great head. “Only your brooding seems to get past my thick skull.” He reaches up and scratches his ear. “It must be Annith, then. You are worried about her returning to the convent with Balthazaar.”

Balthazaar. The name of the former leader of the hellequin is still unfamiliar on my tongue. “As if Annith and Balthazaar aren’t match enough for anything the convent should think to put in their way.” In truth, this oaf has named every one of my worries so far.

“I heard about your encounter with Crunard, but you can’t be brooding over that. Knowing you, it was the high point of your day.”

“If you ever think something so foolish, I will gut you and dance while you bleed.”

That surprises a laugh out of him. “You will be the death of me, Sybella.”

“Ah! That is why you court me. You are only curious to learn what it is like to die at the hands of one of Mortain’s own.”

“I have been found out.” He lowers his head, his lips brushing against mine. The harshness of his ugly face, his sheer physical strength, should feel menacing, but it doesn’t. Instead being with him fills me with both light and hope, something I have had far too little experience with. I lean in to him. Heat curls up from deep within my body, the sensation still new and unfamiliar. This feeling of desire—of want—is something I’d thought lost to me forever.

His mouth on mine is slow and deliberate; the rough, callused tips of his fingers slide down my shoulders, feather light along my arms, down to my hands. When they reach the heavy ring on my finger, he stops kissing me and pulls my hand up closer to study it. I resist the urge to yank it away. After a moment of silence, he rubs his thumb over the black obsidian that hides a sharp barb tainted with poison. “I thought you’d given this to the duchess.” His voice is carefully devoid of emotion.

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