Upon awakening, Shelise immediately notices that the darkness of the void is gone, now replaced by a soft glow.  A comfortable plush blanket and pillow supports her back and neck.  The crackle of the fireplace confirmed what she thought was casuing the tinted glow in the room.  The warm sensation at her core lets her know that it is daylight beyond the walls enclosing her.  But it is the other sensations on her skin that are unfamiliar to her.  The smell of mint fills her nostrils as a tingle travels along the length of her arms and legs.  With a slight lift of her aching head, she sees that she is nude except for a thin strip of white cloth across her breasts and pelvis.  Green leaves are covering the other patches of bare skin.  Flashes of her ordeal fly across her vision.  She remembers being locked in a room, running from beams of powerful sunlight that lashed her merciless and then blackness.  No, there was a part she was missing.  Ethan.  He was there.  He was holding her in his arms and whispering to her.  There was something strange about his eyes, the way he looked at her was so..tenderly.  It was then that her mind circled back to the breath flowing over her shoulder and the extra weight himmed so close to her body.  Without having to turn, she knew it was him.  He was there beside her, asleep but somewhat restless.  She felt his heavy weight shift the bed and a very small whimper followed.  She was too weak to fully move away, but the moment she tried to turn on her side an arm came down to gently encircle her waist and hold her still.  Sleep.  She heard his voice as clearly as if he had spoken but never once did he open his eyes.  Sleep, he repeated.  Then, without being quite sure how it was possible or even giving her consent, her mind wandered back down into another round of quiet rest.

When she awoke the second time, Ethan had changed positions.  He was laying on his side and facing away from her.  She saw that his shoulders and upper back were covered in the same thick green leaves.  Somehow, she felt his discomfort.  It was the same as hers, but on a lesser scale.  He had done something very stupid for her sake, but why?  Why would a man so seemingly brutal as he was risk his life to save hers?  Because I love you, princess.  Again, the answer was spoken directly to her thoughts.  It’s not possible, she echoed in response, but there was no reply.  She wanted to reach out and touch him, but her hands and arms would not comply.  She felt so weak.  After another brief struggle and failure at trying to move, she saw the bulge of his back muscles flex and move.  Slowly, without fully awakening or turning around, Ethan shifted closer to her.  He moved so that his body was pressed against hers and their skin rubbed together ever so slightly.  Strangely, the touch was enough to put Shay at peace and she slept once more.

At the call of the moonlight, her eyes fluttered open.  A pair of azure eyes sitting upon a smooth milk chocolate face watched her from the nearby bed table.  Her mysterious ally, the one who had left her to fry in that horrible basement, had returned.  And the other woman looked none too sorrowful over what she had done.

Come back to finish what you started?  Shay’s throat was intensely dry, but she had just enough moisture to let her thoughts be known.

If I had wanted you dead, you would be, her companion said in that low, whispy voice Shay remembered.  It was an accident.  I thought you would be smart enough to follow me out when I left.

After dipping a wash cloth in a porcelin bowl of water, the girl wrung it out and applied the chilly strip to Shelise’s arms, causing Shay to cringe at the cold.

So you’re saying I tried to kill myself?…

Ethan wants me to watch over you.

How do you know that.

He’s assigned me to be your personal servant.

Does he know you were the one who tried to kill me the first time?

Enough.  We have to get you out of here.  The elders and priestesses have started to arrive.  We dont have time for arguing.  Now that I have unrestricted access to you and your quarters, it will make this task much easier than before.

Well are you going to tell me?  Cause I’m tired of surprises.  Are you at least gonna tell me your name this time?  Shouldnt I know who my assassin is?

Keep your voice down, she quietly scolded.  The other women in the room glanced over then went back to tending to the room.  Fresh fruits and flowers were placed on the table.  At the other end, another woman in a rocking chair was sewing a long black piece of sheer fabric.  The others were far enough away that they would only hear the usual sounds of mumbling between two gossiping women and nothing more.  Still, Tiffany knew that there were eyes and ears stationed all over this castle, and some of them didnt need to be in a room to know what was going on.  Enchantments abounded and the energies were getting more intense and intrusive as more guests poured through the double doors of the main entrance.  She needed to find a way to meet with Nathaniel again.  For now, it was far too dangerous.  Especially now that she was given charge over caring for Shay, Tiffany knew that she had to be extra careful not to stray too far away for too long.  Her new duties meant that her absence would not go unnoticed.

The banquet is in a couple of days.  That will be our deadline, and I already have an idea about how to get you out.

A pause.

Tiffany.

What?

My name..it’s Tiffany.

What are they celebrating?

Originally it was going to be for the anniversary of the…, but now they’re gearing up for your wedding as well.

___

Now I see why’s he’s so intrigued with you.  A menacing cherry-lipped grin greeted her this last time.  Her injuries made her feel like an infant, and this must have caused her to drift off into another sleep.  Tell me, child, how did you get such magnificent eyes.  Who did they come from, your mother or your father?

I don’t know, was her answer.

His glare indicated that it was not the answer he was seeking.  It didnt matter what he had expected to hear, because it was the truth.  Her grandmother had raised her and she rarely, if ever, spoke about Shelise’s birth parents.

Why, grandma, why?  Her mind drifted back to those long ago days when the world was still spinning in perfect order, not roaming chaos.  Everything was always why.  She lived in a neighborhood with people with lovely skin dark skin tones of all shades, from deep coal to sugary bronze and everything in between.  Even her beloved grandma was the color of the chocolate candy bars Shay loved so much and that made her fingers so sticky, much to her caretaker’s annoyance.  I should call you sugar instead of princess, she would always tease with a hearty laugh.  yet, out of every question her granny answered with ease and confidence to the babbling little girl, she would become unusually mum on certain topics.  Why did Shay have such dark eyes when no one else among her small group of family members that lived with her had them?  Why was her complexion more like polished caramel while the others were shades more colorful?  Her cousins had thick hair that could be braided into such wonderful styles while she was stuck with a curly mess that could barely be contained in a tight pony tail.  Where are my mommy and daddy?  That was the one question that always, without fail, went on to be ignored and the subject quickly changed.

I see your thoughts, and your telling the truth, the man interrupted.  He was sitting in an oversized liounging chair that he must have dragged over to her bedside.  His legs were crossed and his hands were neatly clasped on his lap.  It doesnt piss me off any less, but at least I know that you arent much of a liar.  Still, there must be something of use floating around in there.  He looked down and picked a piece of unseen dirt from one of his fingernails.  We’ll get our chance to pick around in there soon enough.

It was the we part that frightened her most.  Although she and Tiffany would never be considered friends, for this one moment, she missed the other female’s presence.  Alone, she felt like he was plucking her apart one thought at a time.

I do have one questions that you will, no doubt, be able to give an absolute answer to.  Shay swallowed.  She could see the words forming on his lips before they ever crossed his tongue.  She was already dreading the fact that he had discovered her secret.  This had to be the reason why all of this was happening to her.  Somehow, someone had finally figured out what she was.  Her last shred of decency would also become her death sentence.  She always knew that it would, but just never so soon.

How, oh please tell me how, he said in a sing-songy voice that was meant to disarm her from whatever his true intent was, Have you remained a virgin for all these years, dear girl?  A beauty such as you, well, I’m very sure that you have not lacked your share of eager suitors.  How did you avoid having your chastetity ripped away.  He chuckled to himself then covered his mouth as if to excuse himself.  Apologies, no pun intended.  Perhaps ripped was not a very nice word to use for breaking that delicate seal.

To the casual eye, it would have seemed as though she were fingering the barcode tattooed on her wrist.  In fact, she was rubbing the hidden one that was embedded right beneath it.  She rarely thought of the signet that was laying there.  When the first burnings began, and she realized that the curse was upon her as well, Shay would touch the mark all the time, every chance she had.  She had to know that she was not forgotten, that whatever she had done to be counted among the forsaken would someday be undone, if only she believed hard enough in the power that her granny said was in that sign.  After awhile, after the killings, the rapings, the starving, the collapse of the world and all of civil society, she eagerly welcomed the new mark that replaced the old one.  Now, after purposefully trying to forget that it was there, her thoughts had wandered back to its supposed significance.  Even so, how would that help her now?  Unsure of how to respond, she used her best weapon..her mouth.  You’ve got a smart mouth, Shay.  It’s gonna get you in a funk of trouble that you wont be able to get out of.  You watch and see.  Her boss at the bar had repeated that speech to her as though it were a pledge.  She heard it so many times that she received it as a badge of honor instead of the insult that he had always intended it to be.

Who says I am?  She smirked at him.

Don’t get cute.  His voice changed, and Shay immediately wished to hear the softer tones again.  This level of bass caused her back teeth to rattle and her mind to hum with a distant, creeping fear.  Don’t think I won’t come over there and pry your legs apart to find out.

She stared him down, watching the green shift over to some disturbing pink that filled even the whites of his eyes.

I don’t see you moving.  Despite the queasiness rolling over the pit of her stomach, her words dared him to act.

He didnt hesitate to respond.  He jumped from the chair as if to make good on his threat, and Shay lay there helpless to defend herself.  Even after two days, her body remained as weak as a newborn kitten.  She was at his mercy, but the boldness burning within her spirit told her not to back down or give him the satisfaction of seeing dread in her eyes.  She knew that the sickening emotion would only feed his appetite.

Darling, you’ll ruin her before the celebration begins.  A female voice, as seductive as a nimph’s purred into the room.  Her entrance halted the male’s movements.  Rage was in his eyes, but the sound of the woman seemed to have a calming effect on him.  While Shay watched with breathless anticipation, he took a breath, touched his chest then smiled.  Just like that, he transformed back from a raging monster to a regal dignitary.

Glancing over at the bed, the woman, a fiery redhead, regarded Shay with as much interest as a disguarded tissue.

Hmm, she said with a sculpted flaming red eyebrow raised high, she is very pretty.  I see why Ethan would have even bothered to look at a peasant.  Good thing she is, or we might never have found her otherwise.  She walked close enough to the bed for Shay to see that the woman shared the same green eyes and attractive facial features as the male, yet standing far enough that she sensed the woman’s abhorrance for someone that she obviously thought of as lower class.

Forgive my husband, she said in an even tone, much unlike the flowing rhythm she had used on the man only a moment ago.  Sometimes he allows his hot temper to get the better of him at the most inconvenient moments.  Bending over a bit more, she stared at Shay for a silent minute.  What gorgeous eyes you have.  As if startled by the gushing compliment she had just bestowed on Shelise, the woman popped upright with a wide gaze.  Come, Marcus, we need to dress for dinner.

With a flip of red hair over her pale shoulder, she hooked thin arm through her spouse’s and dragged him from the room without uttering another syllable.

In the silence that followed, Shay lay quietly contemplating all that had just transpired; all while stroking her double tattoos.

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