Sacrifice of Mine (Mine #4) Series: Mine By Janeal Falor


It's time to run. I just don't know if we'll ever be able to run fast enough or far enough to escape the Grand Chancellor. Any moment now, the law officers may find our cave, and we will be captured. After being defeated so thoroughly by the Grand Chancellor yesterday, it's a humiliating dash toward Envado. What's worse is, when we get there, we'll have to tell them Chadwick is dead, Tawny is missing, and Zade is still captured.
Sacrifice of Mine
Sacrifice of Mine (Mine #4) Series: Mine  By Janeal Falor


Waverly is understandably upset about it all, but she loses control so much whenever we mention Tawny's name, I wonder if there's more going on than we heard before. She has kept herself together better with Zade's capture than Tawny's, and he's her brother. Perhaps it's the uncertainty of Tawny's situation that's sent Waverly over the edge. What we know is she's missing, but she may be gone forever.

Waverly and Jack are sweet together, working side by side to clear as many people from the area as possible before the law officers come. It could be any time now. No one really knows. Which is why my family—all my sisters, my brother, and my mother—are leaving, even though there are still people who need assistance getting out. Waverly told the people to leave their things behind, but they can't seem to manage to, which means we can no longer stay to help.

Poor Waverly. She's trying so desperately to keep everyone together, herself included. She's doing a sad job of it, though. Ever since the battle we lost so thoroughly, she's barely holding herself together.

Lukas helps Cynthia bring my last sister out to the mouth of the cave and then takes her hand. The loving gesture isn't lost on me. Not now, when so much has been taken from us. It's also not lost on my oldest sister, Serena. As I move to her, I think about Zade's capture and our failed attempt to rescue him and the others imprisoned in the Grand Chancellor's dungeon.

A chill passes through me. What happened to the Grand Chancellor's son, Nathaniel, after his father threw him back into the house with a spell? Is he in the dungeon or somewhere worse?

I stand by Serena, wishing there was more I could do to comfort her. No matter what, I can't bring back her fiancé.

“We're not giving up on him,” I say.

“I know.” She sounds sad and small.

“Yet?”

“Yet we've failed him. I'll never give up, but there's no way we can ever free him from the Grand Chancellor. Not after all we've already tried to do.”

“Maybe someday we'll figure something out.”

“Someday. Something. More like no day and nothing. The Grand Chancellor is an impossible foe.”

He is impossible to beat. Years of stealing magic from women has made him the strongest person around by a long, long way. Just thinking about him and what he can do makes my hands shake, so I force myself to think of something else.

Waverly hasn't come back to give us the go-ahead yet, but I feel uneasy about waiting any longer. “We should get going.”

Serena nods, features etched with sorrow. “Gather them up.”

I move to the back, making sure the girls old enough are helping a younger girl and each girl has a buddy that will be a traveling companion until we reach Envado, however long it takes us. If we can reach it before being caught, that is. When I reach the back of the group, I grab baby Abigail from mother and take Molly by the hand.

“Let's go, sweetie.”

“Where we go?” she says.

“For a long walk.” Much too long a walk, especially with all these little ones. How are we going to make it to Envado with so many children? There isn't a choice, though. We have to make it.

Serena waits for us at the mouth of the cave, peeking outside to see if the law officers have reached us yet. Not that it will do any good. If they find us, we have nowhere else to run. No way out of the network of caves that's been our home.

Others are packing up to go as well, though most everyone left immediately after we lost the battle. Those who weren't captured or killed. It's hard to think of that night. Of so many dying, like Chadwick who did so to save Waverly's life. Of Nathaniel, standing up to his father. He tried so hard to help, and it just got him in bigger trouble. It makes my heart hurt to consider the possibilities.

“How long is this walk going to take?” Sally asks.

“At least a week, I think. Maybe more,” I tell her, trying not to think of how grown up she sounds.

Cynthia storms into the cave. “We have to leave. Now. They're getting close.”

I usher the girls and mother outside and follow the last of them, Sally. Abby is light in my arms but heavy in my heart. What type of world is she going to grow up in, now that everything else has failed?

It doesn't matter. We'll make it out of here without getting caught, and we'll go to Envado where both she and her twin brother, Benjamin, can age in a better world than I did. We were stupid not to send them there before we waged this war. Now it's an even more dangerous journey. I can only hope none of us get caught on the way.

“Do you need me to take her?” Serena asks, as we both head out of the cave.

“I'm fine. Go help get us out of here.”

She nods and hurries toward the front of the group, gun in hand.

Others leave the cave after us. Too many people wanted to take their possessions with them. We said we would help those who insisted. But if the law officers are close, how many of those we spent so much time with will be caught?

I can't think of that either. We've delayed this long to help as many as we could. We can't wait any longer. Cynthia and Lukas lead the group. Jack is in the middle, carrying Molly on his shoulders. Serena moves through us, encouraging everyone on. Waverly's not in sight. She scouts the way ahead for us.

Suddenly, she bursts through the group of trees ahead of us. “Run!” Though her voice is only loud enough to carry to us, it's urgent.

Serena picks up my younger sister, Stella, and Jack grabs Ruthie, so he's now carrying two. I run with Sally at my side. She trips. The others don't notice as I stop to help her up. She puts her hand in mine, and something slaps me on the back, freezing my legs in place.

A law officer. He cast a partial freezing spell on me.

“Go,” I yell at Sally.

She hesitates.

“Go now, or I'll give you a year's worth of chores.” Please, please listen!

Finally, she runs. I'm sure she'll tell the others what happened. If she makes it to them. She has to make it to them. I have to distract the law officer long enough.

The law officer shoots a blue spell streaked with white sparks toward her, like the one on my legs. I block it with a red, heated shield-spell. The freezing spell smashes against it and dissolves. Sally disappears into the forest, out of sight.

I shoot the same heat spell at my legs, but instead of turning it into a shield, I send pure heat. The spell blasts from me, arcing in red toward my lower half. It slams against my frozen legs and dissolves the spell around them.

I throw another heat shield up behind me as I run toward the same trees Sally disappeared into. I stretch my legs out as far as I can to cover as much distance as possible. It's not enough.

Another freezing spell hits me from behind. When I glance back, there's no longer a heat shield in place. I move to cast one more heat spell toward my feet, but it's too late. A third freezing spell slams in my shoulder and moves toward the rest of my body.

The law officer runs toward me, a second following him. I imagine the heat spell coming out of my chest and warming my entire body. The spell works as soon as I release it, letting me move again.

The law officers are too close. I'll never escape. I'll have to be satisfied with buying the others more time. I just wish someone else carried Abby. At least she's tucked safely in one of my arms. No time to think of her, though. I blast out a heat shield, so they can't freeze me again, followed by two freezing spells of my own that I let slip through the heat shield.

One law officer easily blocks the spell. The other gets hit in the chest. I focus on the free one and think of a sleep spell. That'll be more effective. I shoot it out just before he reaches my heat shield. It slams into him full force, just as he breaks through my shield.

He falls to the ground.

I focus on the second law officer, who is now free and shooting a new spell at me. I block the yellow spell with a steely-gray shield and hurl a sleep spell at him. When he manages to block it, I hurl three more. The first one misses, but the second hits him square on the forehead. He lands flat on the ground.

I did it. All that training and practicing paid off. I beat off two law officers by myself, with a baby in my arms. Women are anything but useless.

I turn and head for the trees. Before I make it two steps, another freezing spell stops me in my tracks. I glance up. I'm almost surrounded by warlocks. I flash as many sleep spells as I can at them, but they’re no use. The warlocks have their own shields and there are way too many of them for me to fight off.

I'm stuck. For good this time. I don't know any way to get out of this before they reach me. Instinct tells me not to call out for help, even though Cynthia could break through this spell. Not only does she need to protect the others, but also, with two dozen law officers in sight and moving closer, even she would be hard pressed to get out of this situation.

It doesn't matter what I do. Abby and I are captured.





Chapter Two





The law officer in charge of the two of us isn't gentle. His spells are rough and forceful, often hurting my back as he pushes us forward. He rides behind us and has been for at least an hour. My legs are beginning to ache with the treatment. Thankfully, I'm taking the brunt of the punishment because I keep Abby safely tucked away in front of me. That presents a different problem, though.

Despite the baby's light weight, my arms burn from carrying her. Going this long without some sort of break or something to prop my arm up is not what I'm accustomed to.

Still, we walk on for what seems like hours. Who knows how long it really is? Abby starts to fuss. I bounce her in my arms, wishing I had something to feed her. She eventually falls to sleep, and I wish I could do the same. Anything to get me out of this nightmare.

A hex slams into my back with shocking force. I trip forward and catch myself with one hand, protecting Abby with the other. My wrist screams with pain.

I scramble to my feet as quickly as I can, trying to ignore the throbbing in my wrist.

“I'd go a lot faster if you'd stop hexing me.” The words are out before I can stop them.

He climbs off his horse and moves right in front of me. I wrap Abby tightly in my arms.

“You dare speak to me?” he asks.

I straighten my back, pulling myself up to my full height. I'm not stupid enough to respond, but I'm also not willing to let him think he's breaking me. Even if he is.

He stares me down, his nostrils flaring. It takes everything in me not to respond, not to back down or look away. Finally—finally—he blinks. He shoves me on the shoulder, though thankfully not hard enough to make me fall to the ground.

“Get moving,” he says.

Before he jumps back on his horse, I walk almost at a run, wishing I could get away. Where is he taking me, and what are they going to do to me once there?

My words must have done some good, though. He only hexes me once more before we come to our destination sometime later. When we reach a building that looks no different from the others except for the lack of windows, the law officer gets off his horse and prods me inside. The room is lit by the flicker of electric lights. Knowing they use people and their magic to gain electricity makes my stomach churn.

Besides the electric lights and a few chairs, there's nothing but more warlocks inside, though not a single other law officer. Who are all these people, and why am I here? What are they going to do to me? The law officer leading me stops in front of a thin gangly man with a chilling smirk.

“This one goes to the Grand Chancellor's house when you're done. Baby, too,” the law officer says.

“It will be taken care of.”

The law officer moves from the building without another word, leaving me alone with this smirking man who makes me shiver. The man takes a step closer, and I press the baby closer while taking a step back.

“The baby will have to wait here.”

“No,” I say. There's not a chance I'm leaving her behind when I've come so far with her. We may be going to the Grand Chancellor's together, but anything could happen if we're separated in the meantime.

“Do you know where you are?”

I glance around the windowless room again, trying to figure out what I've missed. Why wouldn't there be windows in a building so full of warlocks?

“I didn't think so,” he says. “You can always tell the ones who aren't prepared for what's to come. Let me enlighten you. Perhaps you've heard of me. I'm a depraver.”

I clench my teeth together to keep from gasping. A depraver? This can only mean one thing.

I'm about to be tarnished.





Chapter Three





“Set the baby down,” the depraver says.

The only thing I want less than to leave her alone is to bring her with me. I can't risk subjecting her to whatever it is they're going to do to me. I glance at the exit.

“Go ahead and try it,” the depraver says. “I like when they run.”

He could be saying that just so I don't, but judging by the look on his face, he means it. I kiss Abby on the forehead and look for a place to set her. Nothing is good. She's just as likely to get stepped on as not, with all the warlocks milling about. There are a dozen or so of them, some doing paperwork, some chatting. All give me the creeps.

“Hurry it up.”

Fine. I go to the corner of the room, hoping this will be safe enough from stray feet, and put her down. I'd put her on a desk or chair, but I'm afraid she'd roll off since she's started doing that lately. I wish I could trust someone to look after her, but being with a bunch of depravers leaves me hopeless. She looks at me, screwing up her face like she's going to cry.

“Hush now,” I whisper, knowing she doesn't understand but hoping she listens anyway. “This is the last place you want to cry. Please be a good baby until I get back.”

Will she even recognize me when they’re finished? Will I recognize me? There hasn't been time to think about what's to happen. I don't want to think of it. Everything moves too fast, but there's nothing I can do to stop it. Nothing I can do to change what's going to happen. I truly believe, if I tried to run, the depraver would enjoy whatever fate he'd leave me with. If I cast a spell, he can still overpower me, and I have Abby to worry about.

Besides, there are too many warlocks here for me to do anything. At least Abby seems content now as she sucks on her fist. I can only hope she stays this way until my return.

“Move it,” the depraver says.

I hurry away from the baby, not wanting the depraver to transfer his wrath to her. He motions for me to go down a hall. When I hesitate, he casts an orange spell that shoves me forward. Not more of that again.

I move ahead, each step forcing more fear into my soul. The hall is bland, long, and empty, but with doors littered about. There's something eerie about them. Something that makes my skin crawl. By the time we stop at a room at the end of the hall, I'm ready to scream from all the dread soaking my entire being.

“Get in.”

I'd much rather run back to Abby and fight my way out of this place. But that'd only lead to worse trouble than I've already got myself into. How did I get here in the first place? Tripping. That's right—Sally tripped, and I stopped to help her.

Well, I wouldn't change that for anything. Not if she's safe, which I have no way of knowing other than I haven't seen any of the others around. If becoming tarnished is what I get for helping my sister, I'll take it.

As I walk into the room, I can't help but think of what's to come. The tattoos on my face, I think I'll live with. Being bald isn't something I want, but it’s not the worst thing either. But being spelled to be barren? To never have any children? I love my sisters so much. I always hoped one day I'd have a child of my own that I could raise in a world better than this one.

It will never happen.

I take a step back. Another spell slams into my back with searing pain. I cry out, unable to stop the sound.

“You want to run, after all,” the depraver says. “I so hoped you would. By all means, keep going.”

Instead of continuing my retreat, I turn and face him, putting all the determination I can muster into my gaze. They may be stripping me down to what they consider less than a person, but I will not let them take away my heart.

He snorts like a disappointed bull, and zaps another hex at me. I collapse to the floor as pain covers my entire body, like needles stabbing into me. It only lasts a brief moment but long enough for me to know deciding not to run was a good choice indeed. My whole being feels sliced, even after the spell is gone.

“Stand up.”

When I don't do so immediately because of how bad the pain still is he hexes me again. A whimper of anguish escapes, but I won't allow anything more. Instead, I force myself to my feet, unwilling to give him an excuse to hex me again.

“Wait here.” He grins. “Or don't. I'd love for you to see what happens if you leave this room.”

With that, he's gone. My thoughts are everywhere. From Sally tripping to fighting and Abby, to hexes and depravers. They fly everywhere, making it hard to concentrate on just one thing until I look at the door. The unguarded door.

Leaving is so very tempting, but I know he'll make good on the threat, so I force myself to stay here in the middle of the room. The area is void of everything except a pathetic-looking bed. One I keep far from. Screams echo through the halls to the room every couple of minutes. They’re enough to make me want to run, but I know I can't.

What exactly causes these screams? Will I be left screaming by what's to come? I don't want to think of it—don't want it to be a part of my future—but I know the thought is in vain. This is my future now, come what may.

After several minutes, there are footsteps. I can't help but shake for fear of what's to come. Of what's causing the screaming. The footsteps belong to a woman. Not tarnished, just a Chardonian woman with a vicious smile on her face. She’s holding scissors to prepare me to be bald the rest of my life, no doubt. Why would she agree to help with this? It probably is that she has no choice, but even then, I can't imagine doing this to others. And if she has no choice, why is she smiling like that?

I force myself to be brave enough to ask, “Why are you doing this?”

“So I don't have to become one of you.” She lifts her scissors toward me.

This feels nothing like when Cynthia cut her own hair. Panic rises within me. They can't do this. They can't just take my hair. They can't make me into something I'm not. My stomach churns. Despite the earlier punishment, I try to back away. Her hand grabs me and holds me still.

“Don't fight it. There's nothing you can do to stop it,” the woman says.

As true as those words may be, they don't make me feel any better. “You don't have to do this.”

“Of course I do. You think I have any more of a choice than you do?”

“I think you like the power it gives you over others.”

She smiles again before reaching forward and grabbing a handful of hair. Soon my locks are falling, falling, falling to the ground. Hair I took years to grow, gone within a matter of moments. The strands look so desolate, lying on the ground by themselves. I don't want her to cut more. I want to control it myself, at the very least, but I've never had full control over anything in my life, and this is even worse. I have control over nothing.

As the locks continue to fall, I can't decide which is stronger—the urge to scream or that to rip the scissors out of the woman's hands and chop off her hair like she has done so unabashedly to mine.

I do neither. Just stand there as I lose my hair. When it's all chopped close to my scalp, the woman calls out, “She's ready for you.”

I shiver at the words. The depraver who taunted me before enters the room. Fear coils within me. I know whatever comes next, I'm not going to like. He stares at me curiously. Not even with disdain like warlocks have looked at me my entire life, but like… like I'm not even a person. Like I'm some sort of thing he finds pleasure in toying with.

I clench my teeth harder, unwilling to let my true feelings show. Fear and hatred boil within me. I suppose to him I'm no longer what little of a person I was once considered. I'm little meant to become less. To be tarnished.

He chortles, and the glee in the sound abounds through the room and makes me curl in on myself. He casts a black spell with yellow swirling through it. It moves straight toward my head. The last of my hair falls from my head in one chilling swoop.

I reach up and touch the smoothness he's uncovered. Nothing. Not even a single strand remains. Why would they do this to me or anyone else? What are they trying to make happen by getting rid of our hair? Why do they find enjoyment in tarnishing people?

I know why. They're crazy and enjoy hurting women. I take deep, slow breaths to keep from crying. I'm losing my humanity. After this, I'll be less than a person. Less than a shadow. Less than anything.

And he's not finished. He clamps his fingers around my face and forces it first to one side and then the other. He digs his fingers into my skin, leaving it aching with pain. I try to pull away, but it only hurts more, so I stop struggling. He gives no sign or acknowledgment that I even tried. Just continues to leer at me, his creepy grin growing.

He holds up a single finger from his free hand and traces across my face several inches away from it. Black with bright purple swirls out, tracing across my skin. I can't figure out what exactly he's doing. Is this how he’ll leave me tattooed with the marks I will carry the rest of my life? I thought it would hurt more. It takes a while to go across my whole face, making who knows what pattern on it.

Finally, he lets go. “You want to hold still for this next part.”

I don't have time to fully comprehend the sense of foreboding his words bring before the pain screams across my face. The spell he traced leaves me aching. I want to shriek, but that would be moving. I concentrate as hard as I can on staying still, but the pain is dark and gruesome.

At first, all I can do is focus on the pain. Gradually, my sisters come to mind. Their sweetness and goodness. The way they always love me. Bring joy to my life. And mother, coming to show her kindness more recently. Being away from my father's rule has made her open up. Show her love and sweetness.

Then Nathaniel comes into my thoughts. Why him, I'm uncertain, but thoughts of him are a soothing balm against the screeching pain scorching my skin.

After an interminable amount of time, the spell finally stops. My face is searing. All I want is something cool and soothing against my skin, to ease the pain burning me. But I don't dare try a spell with him watching me, and there's nothing else to use.

The pain throbs, making me dizzy. I collapse to the ground, and my face slams against the floor. All goes black.





***





I wake, my face tender, my lower stomach aching. My head is groggy as I try to remember where I am and why I'm in such pain. Then it all comes back to me. Worse yet, I remember why the pain is there.

I'm now barren.

I roll onto my back on the cold floor. Clothes scrape against my skin. Clothes that aren't mine. A brown skirt and tan shirt are on me. Definitely not mine, but I guess they’re about the only thing I will be wearing from now on.

Everything is hazy. A strange mix of pain and haziness. Until I remember Abby. My thoughts clear with startling brightness. I have to go to her. Pushing through the pain, I press my back against the nearest wall and hope it will give me strength to stand. The depraver enters the room.

“Ah, you're awake. Good. It's time for you to go to your new home.” He turns toward another warlock, who entered behind him. “See that she gets to the Grand Chancellor's, along with the baby she came with. He's expecting them both.”

“Of course.” As soon as the depraver is gone, the other warlock says, “Get up.”

I want to do nothing of the sort now he's here. I want to curl into a ball and hide. I never want to come out again. I'm bald, my face aches, and my stomach is on fire, meaning I'll never have children again. My face is inked. Worst of all, I've become nothing. I'm no longer human.

The only thing that gets me moving is the thought of Abby. I'm not sure what it could possibly mean that the Grand Chancellor is expecting her as well. Whatever it is, I'll have to do better protecting her than I've done protecting myself. I don't know how it's possible, but I'll do everything in my power to make certain no one hurts her.

I follow the warlock back to the room I first entered and find Abby fast asleep, though she smells rather ripe. No nappies available. It will just have to wait.

The warlock leads us through the building out to a windowless carriage and shoves me inside. I roll so Abby doesn't hit the floor. My shoulder jams into the wooden bench, adding one more injury to my aching body. The door shuts, leaving the baby on the floor alone, with me tarnished.





Chapter Four





We don't travel very far before the carriage pulls over. The smell is something awful due to the unchanged nappy. They had better have something to help me rectify this as soon as possible. Poor Abby has to be miserable. My nose certainly is.

The door opens.

“Out with you,” an unfamiliar man says.

I comply, ready to face my fate and not wanting to stay in this thing any longer. My pain has lessened, but I’m still achy. The baby wakes in my arms but stays quiet as I bounce her on the walk toward the Grand Chancellor's house. She's such a good little thing.

The house has no evidence of our fight. It fills me with despair to think nothing we fought for remains. Not even scars of our war. Just a mansion filled with people to do the Grand Chancellor's bidding.

I can't help but wonder if Nathaniel is in here somewhere. After he was flung back into the house during the fight, I'm not certain what happened to him. I don't know whether I hope he's here or not. There's so much damage his father can do. It may be better if he’s not here at all. But then, if he's not here, where else would his father send him? Might it be some place even worse than this? Would he send him to the dungeons or a power plant? I hate to think of it.

We go in through a side door and wind through lavish hallways. Gold covers everything. What little isn’t gold is a deep, dark wood. Pictures of landscapes and mirrors line the walls. Every few feet I see a golden stand holding a potted plant. Everything is immaculate.

We continue on until we come to a grand sitting room, the occupants of which make me want to go running back to the depravers.

The Grand Chancellor and Father.

Father's bulky frame takes up more than just his chair. Seeing him again makes me want to cringe. To hide or make excuses. Instead, I clench my teeth and hold the baby closer to me despite her foul diaper.

“Finally here,” the Grand Chancellor says. “Stephen has been anxious to meet his son. Bring him here.”

Son? They think Abby is her twin brother, Benjamin? Merciful master. How am I to explain it's not him? What punishment will befall me because of it? I don't think they can do worse to me than they've already done, but it doesn't mean it won't hurt.

But wait.

I don't have to tell them anything. They never have to know. Unless father suddenly decides to change her nappy, how will he know I'm carrying his sixteenth daughter?

A worse thought hits me. If father is here and thinks this is his son, are we to be parted? And if so, what will happen when whoever takes care of the babe next realizes this is Stephen's daughter and not his son?

I mince forward to the last place I want to be. The last person I want to turn Abby over to. Father snatches her out of my hands when I reach him. I clench my jaw and hover protectively.

“My son,” he exclaims and then scrunches his face. “Smells foul.”

He shoves her back at me, and I grab onto her like to a lifeline.

“Would you like a nurse for him?” the Grand Chancellor asks. “I can have one brought in.”

Brought in? Dare I hope this means she'll be staying in this house? Has father found no other place to live since we burnt down his place? A small bit of satisfaction fills me.

“Don't trouble yourself. His sister…” He squints at me. “Which one are you? Never mind. It doesn't matter. She can look after him. All my older girls have experience with babies. More than most nurses you’ll find. When he's old enough to learn, I'll get him a proper setting with a tutor.”

Can it be? Can father be leaving me in charge of Abby? My heart soars for the first time since we were captured. I'll be able to hide the fact that she's a girl. I'm uncertain how long I'll be able to do so, but for a time I'll save her from being sent away. Or worse. I shudder.

“This tarnished can bring him to you whenever you like,” the Grand Chancellor says. “The others will show her where your wing is. I do have something I'd like to do to her, if you're amiable.”

I hold my breath, fearing what it could possibly be.

“What is that?” my father asks. They discuss me like I'm not even present. Or worse, like I'm less than an object they'd take notice of.

“As you know, at the coming tournament, I will be killing the Envadi and his rebel friend. I think it would be a nice addition if I was to sacrifice this tarnished first, proving not only are male rebels dealt with, but even the girl of a chancellor.”

My stomach roils. He means Zade and Daniel. I'm to be killed alongside them.

“By all means, you may do whatever you please with her. I can get a new nurse then.”

I want to vomit on them both. They speak of my imminent death as if it were nothing more than what they’ll have for breakfast. The threat of death is nothing new to me, though. As long as I tell myself it's only a threat, I'll manage not to fall apart, because falling apart is the last thing I can do right now. I have Abby to look after.

“Good,” the Grand Chancellor says. “Will you mark her for me as the sacrifice for the tournament?”

Mark me? Again? How much more can they mark me up?

“Certainly.” To me he says, in a rougher voice, “Over here, girl.”

My legs don't want to move. They don't want to do anything at all. Somehow, I force them forward. This isn't going to be as bad as the depraver's spell. At least that's what I tell myself.

Father casts a spell of bright yellow and with it makes a slash motion across my neck. Nothing feels any different, but I'm sure I'm to be. There's no way to get out of this if I'm marked in such a way.

The Grand Chancellor turns to another tarnished I hadn't noticed, who stands in the corner. This makes me realize many of them are scattered through the room in the most discrete locations.

“Take her away,” he says, “and make certain she knows the rules.”

The tarnished nods. I need no prompting to hurry after her. She leads me through the house not showing me anything, as silent as all the other tarnished I met before Katherine came along. Just thinking her name makes me miss Katherine. I wish I asked her more about what happened when she became tarnished. How she ended up running her own dress shop. Not that she is now. Not after Zade was imprisoned.

Zade. I'm in the very house he's in. Somewhere below me is a dungeon in which he's held prisoner with Daniel, Annabelle's husband, and perhaps others who were captured in the final battle. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to collect information on them and spell it out to Serena. Though mail spells aren't my best. I can never seem to get them quite right, but I'll practice. I'll practice and hope I can find some information to share. Good information, that is. Please let them be well.

The tarnished takes me to a laundry room currently empty of any other people. It's heavy with unfound dreams and dank with lost hope.

It almost makes me want to lie down and never get back up. There's been too much pain and hardship everywhere we turn. I cannot handle it any longer. At least we're away from the warlocks who make our life the misery it is, though still under the same roof.

The tarnished woman says, “I figured this would be as good a place as any to talk, since no one is here and that little one needs a new nappy.”

She goes to a pile of rags and hands me a large amount. “This should be enough to last a while. Let me do some washing, while you tell me how you came to be here.” She hurries over to a bin and starts scrubbing clothes.

“The Grand Chancellor has electricity,” I say. “I thought he'd have electric washers.”

“Not for us.” She seems to choose her words carefully. “He prefers the electricity for him and his guests.”

In other words, it doesn't matter what people who are less than shadows do—or do without. I'm now one of these people. How long will it take me to get used to the fact I'm now tarnished?

This gives me the opportunity to change Abby's nappy without revealing she's a girl. I don't know what my responsibilities here will be, but it already seems difficult to keep her gender a secret.

I turn my back to the woman helping me, and hurry to take care of Abby's mess while telling the tarnished how we were captured trying to escape the country. The words leave my heart torn and aching. I hope the others made it. They have to be safe. Otherwise my not calling out was for naught.

“First thing you must know,” she says, “is we can't leave the grounds. We die instantly if we do.”

There's a spell that can do that? It's not one I'm willing to test.

At least not yet.

“The second thing is a new one. Due to the newfound magic among women, no magic is to be seen from tarnished. If you are caught doing magic, the Grand Chancellor will instantly sacrifice you. Furthermore, spells can't leave the grounds.”

Fear permeates me. Everything I am has already been taken away. Do they have to take my magic too? I should have expected it, but I've become so used to it being part of my life, it didn't cross my mind. I'll never be able to spell out a message to my sisters and Waverly.

I give myself a moment to digest the new information as I finish cleaning Abby up. Once the baby's nappy is fresh, I turn to help the tarnished with the laundry. “What's your name?”

“In this house, we have no names.”

Nothing is mine anymore. Not even my own name.





Chapter Five





The tarnished who is as nameless as I am shows me around the house and to my many duties. A house this giant needs constant attention to stay up to the Grand Chancellor's standards. Each room comes with a single word, such as “Library” or “Study” and the understanding I'll have to help with them all.

“You have cleaned before, haven't you?”

“I took care of the children mainly, but I did some cleaning as well.”

She nods. “You'll fit right in, then.”

That's not at all what I want to hear, but at least I won't get punishments for not fitting in. We go down a dark hall and stop at an open doorway.

“This is our room,” she whispers. The room is full of over forty beds, a third of them with occupants. “It's not so bad since we sleep in shifts. Though we're only allowed five hours of sleep. You'll have to try and keep the baby quiet while you’re in here or the others will be upset. In fact, you need to keep him quiet all the time. The Grand Chancellor won't want a crying baby to be heard in this house, no matter whose son he is.”

How am I ever to manage? Babies just cry; it's what they do. “I'll do my best.”

“You may have to do more than your best if you want to survive around here.”

I swallow past the sudden thickening in my throat. “Of course.”

She nods. “We have one change of clothes. If you want anything else, you'll have to buy it.”

“With what money?”

She shrugs. “We all just have one change of clothes.”

Back to my days with father. I had more clothes then, but not many. I would have gotten more, were I of age to be sold to a warlock. Things to show me off in. Father would parade me around, especially if my magic didn't rate high enough to attract as much attention, and I would be given to the highest bidder. I'd rather have just a change of clothes.

And then I realize it really will be back to my days with father. He's here. He’ll want to see the baby, especially if he thinks she's his son. Of course, with his dismissive attitude earlier, perhaps being a tarnished around him will be better than being a daughter. No beatings or hexes, just orders. If that. Seems like tarnished around here are spoken to as little as possible. This is my life now. At least until I'm executed.

The woman who met me when I arrived lets me finish looking around then takes me through the rest of the house we didn't see before, showing me where my chores will be for the first day and explaining how to do them. What's the point of having so much space? There's more here than a person can enjoy in a day.

As we go through the process, we come across many other tarnished at work.

“This is the new girl,” the woman leading me around says, and that's where introductions end, though she does eye my neck with something like pity.

By the time the tour is over, I'm exhausted just from moving through the entire house, and soon I'll have to not just move through it, but scrub it down. It's not a job for the weak, by any means.

After the tour is over, I'm given leave to sleep. I don't think I'll be able to; the weight of the day will press on my mind too much. And it does, but in the form of nightmares and fitful sleep. I wake, wondering if my five hours are up yet. Without any way to know, I take Abby and head down to the kitchen, to find her something to eat. They'll have to have some substitute for mother's milk.

I only take one wrong turn and figure it out right away. Once in the kitchen, I find several tarnished eating at a large table. If it weren't for Abby, I would grab a bowl and sit down next to them. I never did get food yesterday. I don't remember when I last ate. My stomach churns in protest.

I move over to the male tarnished at the stove. “Is there any milk I could have to feed the baby?”

“There's some goat's milk we can give him.” He moves to the ice box. “Was hoping you'd stop by, so I could see the little guy. We don't get many babies around these parts.”

I shift so the baby is closer to him. He coos down at her better than any other male I've seen. Maybe tarnished know more about raising babies than most others do?

He pours me a cup of the goat's milk. Not ideal, but I suppose I'll have to make it work.

“Thank you,” I say.

“You just go right to the ice box any time you need to feed him.”

“I will. Thank you.”

I feed Abby and then start in on a bowl of mush. It's probably one of the grossest things I've ever eaten, but after being so hungry, it's a welcome relief. I glance around me as I eat. There's a lot of tarnished here. The woman that first helped me when I came here is near. The girl across from me has tattoo's that look almost like a cat's with streaks starting near her nose and moving out across her face.

There are so many others, but they start to blend together. Everyone here is another face of what the Grand Chancellor has done. What he is. Why has he done this to so many people?

I'm not halfway finished when a lower-class male servant with dirty blonde hair comes in the room and says, “To work.”

The others jump up from their chairs and take their bowls to the sink. I hesitate, trying to get one more bite in.

“Get up,” the servant yells at me. “That you're new doesn't excuse you. No lunch for you today. It's time for chores.”

This has to be some bad joke. I jump up and hurry my bowl over to the sink, trying not to think of all the food going to waste. The cook gives me a sympathetic smile as he takes over cleaning the dishes.

The lower-class male glares at me. His eyes are sandy brown. “Let's get things straight. I'm Fredrick, and I don't tolerate laziness in tarnished. This is your one and only warning.”

I lower my head like I'm bowing to his wishes, but I'm simmering inside. Well, and a little afraid. Would they really kill me before the tournament? I have to take care of Abby, so I can't chance finding out.

The woman who showed me around yesterday appears out of nowhere. “You'll be with me today. I'll make sure you know what you're doing.”

I'd say thank you, but with the angry servant still watching on, I don't dare say anything at all. I follow the woman around the house and get to work, quickly falling into a rhythm. The day is long and exhausting, especially when the woman helping me breaks for lunch, and I have to keep dusting the study.

My stomach growls loudly. I wish I was quicker with my bowl this morning. One extra bite was not worth missing an entire meal.

The woman comes back, and we work, with baby in hand, on a bedroom with attached bathroom—a flushable toilet and running water both. I can't imagine what it’s like having such luxuries all the time. And of course, even though I'm in a house with them, I won't be using them so I'll have to continue wondering. They are easier to clean, at the very least.

“I'm sorry I'm not better at helping,” I say. “It's hard with one hand.”

“And that extra weight, I would imagine.”

“That too. If I could get an extra long and wide piece of cloth, I could make a sling for him and be able to help out better.”

“And your arms probably wouldn't get so tired.” She sighs. “As soon as we finish this room, let's see if we can get you one.”

That's motivation to finish the room quickly, though I still have only one free hand, and the other arm aches from the weight of constantly carrying Abby. She's still small, but not enough to make carrying her easy.

Together, we leave the room and head down the maze of hallways. It's like a never-ending battle with my memory, trying to keep track of everything in this place.

When we finally stop at a person, my chest fills with dread. It's the servant from this morning. Fredrick. How am I ever going to get what I need from someone so rude and callous?

“This tarnished has a request,” the woman with me says.

Fredrick clucks in irritation and turns toward us. “Make it quick.”

The tarnished nods at me. The last thing I want to do is plead my case to this man, but what other choice do I have? “I was wondering if I could get a large piece of cloth I could use to make a sling for the baby. I need to keep him with me at all times, but I can't be as efficient working with only one hand. If I could make a sling, I'd be able to better fulfill both my duties.” And not have my arms killing me at the end of the day.

“How do I know you won't just use the cloth to make more clothes?”

“You can check up on me if you wish.”

“The last thing I want to do is take time out of my day for a tarnished.”

I clench my teeth at the harsh tone. I hope I was never this rude to any tarnished. “I can promise I will use the cloth for the purpose of carrying the baby.”

“Promise of a tarnished is worth nothing.” Fredrick clicks his tongue. “Fine. I was told to keep the baby happy and well taken care of, if anything came to me. This seems in the best interest of the baby. Go get your cloth.”

A thank you pricks the tip of my tongue, but I can't bring myself to say it. Not to him, when he's so clearly trying to do what's best for himself, and not what's needed.

The other tarnished gives him a little nod and backs away. I go with her. Once we're out of earshot, she says, “You've been blessed to get something. Let's go grab it now and get you situated.”

We go to the laundry room, where there are plenty of clean pieces of cloth to choose from. I pick one, wrap it around me, and place Abby inside to create a sort of protective pouch. She looks up at me, her little eyes twinkling. I only wish I had something real for her eyes to twinkle about.

“Thank you for your help,” I tell the other tarnished.

“Of course. That baby of Chancellor Stephen's is a top priority.” By the way she gazes at the baby, I know Abby’s not just a priority, but loved and cherished. At least there's something small I can give her in this house of pain.





Chapter Six





The sling seems like a good idea at first, and it serves its purpose. The problem is Abby seems to enjoy it for now, but she needs to get out and about. Start moving and wiggling. Practice rolling. She'll never learn to crawl if she’s always strapped to me. It's hard not to worry about her development.

She's a good baby, at least, rarely crying as long as I keep her clean and fed. Hiding her gender is easier than I thought it would be. No one likes changing a baby's diaper, even if everyone likes to fawn over her when we're not in the company of warlocks or untarnished women.

So far there's been no sign of Zade or Nathaniel. There are many places yet to explore, but not much of a chance to. I'm run ragged every day. Poor Abby is sweet, but the added weight on top of taking care of her doesn't help my exhausted state.

Father hasn't called for her yet, though I have helped clean his rooms several times when he isn't there. Nothing more than I used to do back home, only now his rooms are four times the size they once were, and I don't have my sisters working at my side.

Oh, how I miss them. I hope they survived and are now all in Envado. Knowing them, if they did, at the very least Serena, Cynthia, and Waverly are trying to figure out a plan to rescue me. It's no use, though. We had more help than we could have ever dreamed at the last battle, only the tarnished weren't there, and we still couldn’t win. How will they ever manage to do so now?

I find an empty room Abby can kick around in. The only thing is I have no clue if I'm allowed to use it or not. I think I can because it's for the baby and not me, but rules are so strict here.

I find the tarnished woman I've been working with and ask, “Can I use an empty room for Benjamin to play in? He needs time to be free of this sling so he can develop properly.”

“I don't see why not, as long as it doesn't interfere with your chores.”

I try not to groan. Less and less sleep seems to be my lot in life. “Of course.”

“Do you have a room already in mind?”

“I found one I think may work.”

“Why don't you show it to me, and we can make sure it's not used for anything else?”

“It's this way.” I lead the way, wondering how many empty areas never get used in this place. When we reach the room, I open the door. “This is it.”

“This should be fine. It hasn't been used in all the time I've been here.”

“How long have you been here?” I hope I'm not asking something rude. It's hard to know what is and isn't all right to ask in the tarnished culture I've just barely become a part of.

“Thirty-four years. Long enough to see this place go through a lot of changes, and yet somehow it's all still the same. Tarnished doing what they should. The Grand Chancellor ruling the place. It will never be different.”

Just hearing this makes me feel like crying. No one should have such a life. “You've known the Grand Chancellor that long?”

“Oh, yes. He's one of those things that haven't changed in the least. Same as always.”

That's something strange to ponder on.

“While I have you,” she says, “some clothes were brought in for Ben. Let's go get them.”

I follow her down. The silence while making our way there reminds me of the times at father's house when we had to be quiet or risk his wrath. Even now I suppose it could be a possibility with him living here. I shiver at the thought.

When we reach the laundry room, there are a few tarnished working away. The tarnished woman leads me straight to a pile of blue clothes. There are plenty of them at the very least, even if they are all blue. I always liked blue more than pink anyway.

Abby is set with clothes. At least one of us is being taken care of.





***





Cook is busy making dinner when I drop by the kitchen to get Abby's goat milk. He grins and coos at Abby.

“He's such a sweet-natured little thing,” Cook says.

“He's a good baby.” It's still strange to call Abby a he. I don't know if I'll ever get used to it.

Cook pulls the milk out, puts it in a newly acquired bottle, and hands it to me. “I wish the two of you got to spend more time in the kitchen.”

“I feel like I'm always coming back here for another bottle.”

“Babies do eat a lot, and you have a lot of extra work carrying him around,” Cook says. “Why don't you have a bowl of mush while you're here?”

As gross as I thought mush was at first, it's the only thing there is to eat, so it's almost grown on me. At least it staves off hunger. “Are you sure it's all right? I don't want to get either of us in trouble.”

“I'm certain of it.” He dishes out a bowl and hands it to me. “You just sit and enjoy.”

“Thank you.” I make certain Abby's bottle is balanced appropriately so she can eat before digging into my mush. It's not much, but the extra food will be helpful as I continue on with my chores for the day. “Tell me a little about yourself.”

For once Cook looks upset. “There's not much to tell, I'm afraid.”

“What do you mean?” I hope I'm not upsetting him more. It's just that he's such a nice guy. I'd like to get to know him better.

“I've spent most of my life working here. Before I came here, I was at a home where young boys go after they've been tarnished.”

I think of my experience being tarnished and can't imagine having that happen when one was a child. It's heart wrenching to think about. But the way he speaks of his home is wistful, almost like he misses it. “What was the tarnished home like, if you don't mind me asking?”

“I don't mind at all. Those were the happiest years of my life,” he says. “There were some adult tarnished that watched over us boys. Some stayed regularly and others were rotated over a certain amount of time. I know now they left because they found households to work in, but my favorites never left. They stayed and took good care of us. We were allowed to run and play and have freedom, as long as we stayed within the bounds of the property we used.

“We helped with chores, but it was not like it is here. Chores were a fun time. A race, to see who could get them done the fastest, sometimes. Other times, we were just happy to help out. It was a peaceful place.”

Unlike here. Even though we're ignored, there's much work to be done, and none of it is fun. Maybe if we got a break, to run and have some freedom, things would feel different, but of course that's never going to happen. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”

“Of course. I only wish I had a lump or two of sugar for your mush.”

I move to the sink to wash my now empty bowl. “That would be nice, but I don't mind. It's just good to have something in my stomach.”

“Good. Now let me see little Ben before you go.”

I finish washing my bowl and turn toward Cook so he can see the baby.

“Sleeping,” he says. “What a good little baby.”

“It's just too bad he doesn't sleep when I'm ready to,” I say, a laugh hovering near the surface.

“Well, if you ever need a hand, you just let me know. I'm happy to help however I can.”

“You've already done more than you know.” I head to my chores with a lighter step. It's not every day I get to know something more about the tarnished world, even though I'm a part of it. I just wish there was a way to go to the world Cook described, instead of being stuck in the Grand Chancellor's house. Better yet, to go back to before I was captured and fix all of this mess.





Chapter Seven





I enter Waverly's house and am in awe of its opulence. Not only is it large, but it's filled with spells sparkling everywhere. Spells dancing through the floor. Pictures made entirely of spells, the light moving around in a sort of abstract image. The temperature feels perfect in here— probably another spell.

“Serena.” Molly tugs on my skirt and points to a particularly flashy spell. “What's that?”

I don't know the answer. Though I've been learning more about spells since I learned Cynthia could cast them, I still feel like a newborn babe when it comes to them. I'm much more comfortable with my gun and my wits. “I don't know, dearest.”

Waverly returns from wherever she went down the hall and says, “We can move to the sitting room. The servants are making rooms for you as we speak.”

As she guides us to the sitting room, I can't help but think of a nice bed. The only thing I want more than sleep is to have Bethany and Abigail back. I try not to think too hard about it as tears come to my eyes. I still can't fathom how we just left them there. We don’t know where they ended up, only that they were caught by law officers. We almost all were. Only Cynthia's quick thinking and my gun saved us from her same fate.

Yet, what fate is it that's overcome Bethany and Abby? Will we ever find out? Wherever Abby is, I know Bethany will do her best to take care of her. I can't wait until the younger girls are out of the room. I must ask. “Any news on Bethany?”

Waverly's lips thin. “You're not going to like it.”

“As if we'd like anything that happened.” She at least has some news, which has me bouncing on my toes.

A servant walks in. Waverly says, “Would you please show these girls and Pernilla to their rooms?”

The girls and mother with little Benjamin wander out, while Cynthia and I stay behind.

A woman enters. “Let me introduce you to my mother,” Waverly says.

“Pleased to meet you.” I’m glad to know Zade's mother but want to move on to the information about Bethany. I expect she does as well as something might concern her son will come up. Hopefully it's something I'll be able to take some action against.

“And I you.” She takes me by the hand. “Zade has told me so much about you.”

The familiar choking feeling that comes whenever Zade is mentioned accosts me. “And he's told me much about you.”

Cynthia blurts out, “What news do you have?”

Waverly grips the side of her chair. Her mother sits beside her to pour tea like a proper lady should. The familiar action puts me a little more at ease in a home full of nothing but differences.

“We've had word Bethany has been tarnished and is working in the Grand Chancellor's house,” Waverly says.

I clutch my skirts, not believing it is really so. “You're certain?”

“Not positive, but fairly. It seems your father lives there, and Bethany is to work there, taking care of Abigail.”

“And they just let her?” Cynthia asks.

“As far as we can tell. It's much harder to get information since the Grand Chancellor defeated us. We have less resources there.”

My stomach churns at the memory of the fight, as if I’m riding in a carriage without a spell to help me. “Any word on Tawny?”

Waverly shakes her head while lowering her gaze. My heart sinks for her. At least I know where my sisters are; she has no news on one of her best friends. For all we know, Tawny could be long since dead, and there's nothing we can do about it.

“How can we help?” Cynthia asks.

Waverly shrugs. “We'll try to find out more, but until we do so, we're blind.”

“We can't continue to be blind,” I say. “I'll go back to Chardonia myself, if that's what it takes to get more information and get her and Abby out of there.”

“I know you're worried,” Waverly's mother says, “but we need to think this through carefully.”

“But what else can we do?” I ask.

“Perhaps now they have dropped the spelling of tarnished tattoos and just limit the tarnished to certain areas instead, we can have Katherine go in and nose about,” Waverly says.

“It'd be very dangerous for her,” Cynthia replies.

“She'd have better access than most of Sanos still left in Chardonia,” I say.

“I'll send a message to her right away,” Waverly says. “I won't force her if she doesn't want to, but I have a feeling she will.”

My heart settles a little more, for the moment. It will take time, but maybe we can get Bethany and Abby some help. I only hope it's not too late.





Chapter Eight





We're to clean the Grand Chancellor's rooms today, something I've never done before. Just thinking of it gives me the chills. The last thing I want is to be closer to him or where he spends a lot of his time. I can't imagine what his rooms will be like—not like I want to. What he does in public, how he treats people, makes me sick. How much worse are his own personal rooms?

“You'll be by yourself, typically,” the tarnished woman I first met says. “We take turns, each doing a part of his rooms because it's a big chore.”

“Why not have a group of people working on them then?”

“In case the Grand Chancellor comes in. He doesn't like having us around in his private rooms.”

We reach his rooms from the servants’ entrance. It's a small door, located to the side of his bedroom. She peeks in, and after finding it clear, leads me inside. “If he comes while you're cleaning, you need to make your way here as quickly as possible and leave. Anyone he sees in here is never heard from again.”

“How do you know he saw them if they're never heard from again?”

“Rumors. The Grand Chancellor probably tells people, though I don't know for sure. I'd just recommend getting out before you're seen.”

“I can do that.” It'll be like the worst sort of hex is after me. Being in his house is nerve-wracking enough.

I glance around the room, not surprised at how orderly it is. Everything has a place to the point of being creepy. Even though we haven't been through yet, his bed is perfectly made.

“Does he always make his own bed?” I ask.

“Every time I've come in, it's made.”

How odd.

The rest of the room is just as neat. The few things in here are perfectly in place. Not a paper is out on the desk, nor a pen. There's no sofa or chair in the bedroom, though there's plenty of room for one of each. The room is mostly empty, devoid of life except for the few overly neat things he has left.

There's a giant collection of books with brown leather encasing them. They all look the same except each has a number printed on the bottom of the spine. As I move to dust the shelf, I notice there are fifty-four of them. I wonder what they could possibly be, so many of them and without titles, to boot.

As we clean, I can't help but feel like this isn't really the Grand Chancellor's room. More like no one's room. Except for the books, perhaps, there's no indication someone lives in it.

After we finish with the bedroom, we proceed to the bathroom, a dressing room, and a sitting room. They are as stale as the bedroom, with no hint of a life actually being led in these rooms.

“Is it always like this?” I ask the other tarnished I'm with.

“Always.”

“Why do we need to spend so much time cleaning it, if it's already so clean?”

“Orders. Apparently, this is how the Grand Chancellor likes things.”

I can't imagine anyone wanting things this way. “Would you keep your rooms like this, if you had one?”

“If I had one?” She stops cleaning, her eyes taking on a faraway look. “If I had one, it would be a warm place. Something full of love and happiness. A fire, for certain. Perhaps even cookies, despite being a bedroom.”

“That's a lovely thought.”

“Yes, well”—she gets back to cleaning more vigorously than before—“that's not the type of life I'll ever lead.”

“Nor I, it would seem.” Not when I have a few short months left to live.





Chapter Nine





I creep into the Grand Chancellor's wife's room. It's tiny in comparison to the warlock's but still larger than the one I had at home. For the first time ever, I'm cleaning alone, though I'm not completely by myself as his wife is still in bed. I start with dusting the baseboards, a job I rarely did at home. They really take their cleaning seriously here.

Abby stirs. I stand and bounce her, trying to keep her quiet while I dust the furniture.

“Oh, it's one of you,” the wife says. “I thought I heard a baby.”

I turn so she can see Abby strapped to my front. Not speaking, especially to another female, is an odd thing to get used to.

She is worn and stretched, lines on her face making her look older than I suspect she is. Her hair is unkept and brown, and her eyes are a drab brown. What has she been through, living with the Grand Chancellor? How has he treated her? What evil has he cast upon her?

“It is a baby. A baby boy.” Her previously lifeless voice perks up.

She pulls herself off the bed, and I see the elegant dressing gown is worn and ripped in places. The mistress of the house is as much a prisoner as I am. She may have more clothes than me, but mine are in better condition. She's small and tattered.

“Can I hold him?”

Though I feel bad for her situation, I don't want to let go of Abby. She's my responsibility. Plus, I don't want to risk the woman somehow finding out Abby is a girl. The more time other people spend holding her, the more likely it is to happen. But it's not like I can say no. I can't say anything at all. At least I'll be in the same room with them.

I unwrap Abby and hand her to the lady of the house. She snatches my sister up with a fervor that has me tense all over. Despite her eagerness, she sways the baby in her arms, gentler than I expect. Poor woman is just deprived of any attention.

“You can finish your chores,” she says.

I realize I've been standing here, staring at them both and not doing a thing. The sooner I finish, the sooner I can hopefully have Abby back. As I get back to dusting, a terrible thought hits me. What if I can't have her back?





* * *







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