Darkness is only in the mind.

That was what Sira’s father had told her when–as a child–she’d confessed a fear of the monsters she was certain lurked in the shadows beneath her bed. At the time she’d taken it at face value, the advice that helped her conquer her fears. But as Sira struggled to inhale the dank air through cracked and bloody lips, her body wracked with agony from the tortures she’d endured, it took on a different, and much darker, meaning.

As she’d lain in this filthy cell between interrogation sessions, she’d listened to the conversation of the passing guards. Slowly, Sira had piece them together, and learned the full extent of her father’s betrayal. When the Bertinor heirloom’s theft had been discovered, Lord Luceer had known who’d stolen it and why, but was unable to do anything about it. Aware of Sira’s status as a Master Thief, he’d manipulated events and arranged for her to hear certain conversations, all so that Sira would hunt down the jewel of her own initiative. But that wasn’t enough. Her father didn’t just want to restore the Ta’hareens, he wanted to claim the throne. And he’d sacrificed his daughter and his deceased wife to do it.

He’d declared Sira a bastard.

In front of the other noble families, Lord Luceer had exposed his daughter as a Master Theif. A noble belonging to the underworld would cause a scandal, as well as the appearance of impropriety, since the noble families used the Master Thieves. So, on the heels of that revelation, her father claimed that her mother had taken a lover at the time of Sira’s conception. Despite discovering this, and his wife being with another man’s child, Lord Luceer had forgiven her, and raised this interloper in his house, treating Sira as one of his own. But when he’d discovered that Sira’s ‘actions’ had led to the theft, he’d had no choice but to arrest her.

This, in combination with the jewels recovery, had achieved everything her father had hoped for. At the Selection, the other noble families had voted for the Ta’hareens. A member of their family would sit on the throne, propelling them to the highest levels of society.

And Sira would be left to rot.

Boots thumped down the hall, drawing closer. Sira shifted her leg slightly, wincing as pain radiated from the limb. No one had seen to it and, as a result, the bone hadn’t set properly. Despite the pain, Sira knew that she could walk on it.

She’d have to.

The sound of boots stopped outside her door. After a sharp rattle of keys, her cell door opened with a hair raising creak. Powerful torchlight spilled into Sira’s cell, making her wince. Several armored guards entered followed by a familiar figure. Clad in red and black, the man had a sword with a phoenix shaped pommel strapped to his side.

“Hello Feran,” Sira rasped.

Feran Ta’hareen, heir to their household and Sira’s oldest brother, stared at her with merciless eyes. The two of them had never gotten along, their animosity stemming from Sira’s capacity to outmaneuver him politically as well as their father favoring her over his eldest.

And now the tables have turned, she thought grimly.

At a gesture to the guards, Sira was hauled to her feet. Her hands were manacled, but not her legs. Sira tested her bad leg and stiffened as pain shot upwards. She didn’t let it show on her face, especially with present company.

“I heard the Selection was performed,” Sira said, trying to get a reaction. “Who did the family choose to put on the throne? Was it you, Feran? Is that why you’re here, to take a measure of spiteful vengeance upon the person who brought you that chance.”

“No.” Feran’s voice was as cold as their father’s. “I’m here to inform you that this is your last opportunity to repent. Admit your guilt and your sins will be forgiven.”

Sira chuckled weakly, her chest tightening as she did so. The act provoked a coughing fit that set her hoarse lungs aflame. When she could breathe again, she spoke.

“If the Isles best questioners can’t break me, what makes you think that the sentimental words of a backstabbing prick will do any better?”

Feran took a step forward, the grip on his sword tightening. He was almost within striking range.

“You shouldn’t take this so hard Sira,” he replied calmly. “It’s simply business. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

“Then perhaps you should be the one in chains,” Sira countered. “It wouldn’t be that difficult. You’ve already sunk low enough to grace my cell with your presence.”

Feran took another step forward so that they were a hairsbreadth apart.

“I would no more sacrifice myself for you than one of my dogs,” he said quietly. “Since you refuse your only means of redemption, a confession, your end will be as painful as you deserve. May the Void claim your soul.”

“You first.”

Sira lunged toward her brother. She jabbed her left thumb into his eyeball, causing him to scream. Feran staggered back. Sira grabbed his collar, pulling herself closer as she drove her thumb deeper into his eye socket.

The guards grabbed her, hauling Sira back. Someone punched her in the stomach and she dubbed over. Another blow drove her to the ground where the guards pummeled her. Sira curled into a ball, wincing as each blow fell. So busy were they beating her that no one, not even Feran, realized that Sira had stuffed something up her sleeve. It was a silver necklace, one her brother had been wearing when she’d attacked him.

“Enough!”

At Feran’s command the guards stopped and dragged Sira to her feet. Feran stood near the door with one hand over his eye, his face dark with rage.

“Take her to the Requiem,” he growled. “And tell them to make her end as slow and painful as possible.”

“Don’t have the guts to watch,” Sira called as her brother disappeared out the door.

Most of the guards followed Feran. Only four remained to escort Sira. They probably figured that one, badly beaten women couldn’t cause much trouble, despite her recent actions.

The two guards holding Sira hauled her out into the hallway with the remaining two bringing up the rear. Someone shut the cell door, swinging it closed with a sound of finality. Then they were off.

Sira did her best to keep up, putting as much weight on her good leg as possible. They traveled for a long time, going down winding passages, up flights of stairs, and through halls that reeked of the dead. Echoes bounced off the stone walls, cries of the dammed as well as doomed pleas for mercy. After what felt like an eternity, they reached the upper levels where interrogations and executions were committed, sometimes in the same breath. They rounded a corner and were confronted by another group of guards escorting a prisoner. It wasn’t until the man lifted his face to regard her with dark blue eyes did Sira recognize him.

Rentel.

He was in as bad a state and she. His matted, blood soaked hair framed a swollen face that was covered in bruises and partially healed gashes. Several of his fingers stuck out at odd angles, as if they’d been broken. His torn and soiled clothes hung loosely on his frame as if he’d been deliberately starved. Considering the Isle’s hospitality, it was a distinct possibility.

Sira saw recognition flare in his eyes followed swiftly by something else. Hatred.

“Traitor!”

Rentel lunged towards Sira, suprising his guards. They lost their grip on him and Rentel dashed forward, his fist held back. He reached Sira and turned, slamming his fist into one of her guards faces. The man went down and Rentel moved to the other two standing behind her. Fast as thought, Sira wrapped her chain around the remaining guard’s neck. She placed her hands on his shoulders. Sira pushed herself up and twisted, launching a kick at the first of Rentel’s guards to reach her. His nose gave beneath her boot with a sickening crunch. Blood gushed from his nostrils and he went down.

Sira landed on her good leg and spun her captive guard around. She tightened the chain and gave a sharp jerk, snapping his neck. Sira removed the chain and shoved the body into the two remaining guards in front of her. One of the men went down beneath the dead weight. The other sidestepped his companion, drew a knife, and lunged towards Sira. She slid past his strike and grabbed his arm. Sira gritted her teeth and wrenched the guard around, slamming him headfirst into the wall. He collapsed. Sira snatched up the guard’s knife and ducked just as another blade swung where her neck had been. Sira spun and lashed out, catching the surprised guard on the side of the temple. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he toppled to the ground.

Sira spun to see that Rentel had dispatched the other guards. He to held a knife and–based on his expression–was contemplating using it.

“So,” Sira said calmly. “We meet again.”

“Traitor.” Rentel spoke with more venom than she’d ever heard. “I helped you, I protected you, I even kept your secret. And without any hesitation, you betrayed me.”

Sira shrugged. “You knew to much. Nothing personal, but it had to be done.”

“And was it worth it,” he demanded. “You still ended up in the same hell hole.”

“I don’t answer to you,” Sira said, holding her head high. “And we don’t have time for this.”

“It’s the perfect time,” Rentel countered.

“Really?” Sira gestured to the dead and unconscious guards around them. “Even if they fail to awaken soon and no one comes looking for them, a fight will attract attention. So, do you want to battle it out here, or escape from the Isle?”

Sira watched him consider it. Fighting Rentel would be costly, even with their combined physical condition. Not to mention the shackles. She waited.

After a moment Rentel shook his head. He stuck the knife into his belt and pulled a piece of metal wire from his boot. As he stuck it into one of the locks on his manacles he spoke.

“Do you seriously expect me to trust you after what you did? I’m better off taking my own chances.”

Sira pulled her brother’s necklace from her sleeve. It was shaped like a sword and easily fit into her own lock. With a loud click, the first manacle fell away. She switched to the other amy and spoke calmly.

“I have no reason to betray you now. Besides, teaming up to get out of here would benefit us both.”

Rentel snorted. “Really?”

“I know the Isle,” Sira replied. “I know how to get us out, but I’ll need assistance with any guards we encounter.”

Rentel shook his hand as he got his manacles off, letting them fall to the ground with a soft thump. He rubbed his raw wrists. A moment later, Sira got herself free. Rentel turned around and walked away.

“I take it that’s a no.”

“What do you think,” Rentel called out over his shoulder. “I’ll find my own way out.”

Sira waited until he was almost to the crossroads and spoke. “A guard station is that way.”

Rentel paused. He turned and marched back to Sira who kept a loose grip on her knife. He stopped just out of striking range and crossed his arms.

“Fine,” he said. “We work together. But you’re giving me that knife.”

Sira chuckled. She twirled the blade in question and walked the other way.

“I don’t think so. Now, if you want to escape, we need to get a move on.”

Sira had turned around corner and walked past several cells before she heard the barely perceptible sound of footsteps approaching her from behind. Rentel pulled up beside her. The two of them kept walking, passing cells in silence. Few noticed or cared for their presence. The prisoners were either to far gone from their tortures, or already dead. Sira glanced into one cell and saw glassy eyes staring back at her. The scent of rot spurred her on.

“Tell me,” Rentel said as they peered around a corner. “How do you know this place so well?”

“I’ve been here a few times.” Sira slid around the corner and headed for a stairwell.

“For what? Excessive punishment handed out by your father?”

Sira snorted. “No. This is where all the political prisoners go. Who do you think handled those for the Ta’hareen?”

Silence fell as they reached the stairway. Sira descended as quietly as she could, one hand trailing the curved wall. This stairway–and others like it–were used to gain quick access to the various levels in the event of an emergency. As a result they saw little use, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t come across a lone guard. The two of them needed to be cautious. The last thing they need was to draw attention to themselves.

After about an hour Sira detected a change in the dank air. A cool breeze eased over her battered skin, bringing with it the smell of fresh air. She heard Rentel inhale sharply. He’d detected it to. Not long after they heard the sound of lapping water and raised voices. Two levels later they reached a landing that was bathed in natural light. The two of them crouched on either side. Sira peered out.

A small dock greeted her with several ships moored next to the ramps. The ship’s workers were unloading boxes, supplies to keep the Isle functioning. They were overseen by a dozen guards. Most were down near the ship on the far right, but three stood a dozen yards away. At least fifty feet apart and walking between stack of crates and under gangways, they stood between the would-be escapees and freedom. They’d have to go. But the two of them would need a distraction.

To their right Sira spotted a stack of oil barrels on a raised platform. Partially hidden by shadow, it was the perfect distraction. Sira grabbed a torch from the wall and handed it to Rentel.

“Our way out is past those three guards. I’ll take care of them and you set those barrels on fire.”

“Are you crazy,” Rentel hissed. “Those things will blow me to pieces.”

“Not if you leak one of them first,” Sira retorted. “The ship on the far left has escape boats. I’ll cut one down for you and leave it so you can make your escape.”

Rentel glanced at her. “You’re not waiting?”

“No, I’m not.” Sira turned from him and leaned forward. “Farewell Rentel.”

Rentel reached out and grabbed her arm. Sira paused and glanced at him. Rentel’s face softened slightly, confusion replacing some of the anger. He released her arm and reached to cup her face, sending a slight jolt through her skin. Sira leaned into his hand.

“Tell me Sira,” he said quietly. “Was there ever an us? Did I matter to you?”

“Of course,” Sira replied. “And you always will.”

“Then why?”

Sira stared at him. “Because I’m Sira Ta’hareen, daughter of one of the noble houses of the Pale Kingdom. And I will be ruled by no one, not even my own heart.”

Before Rentel could say anything, Sira grabbed his shirt and pulled him to her. His lips found hers, sending a sharp tingling sensation from her mouth down to her stomach. A pleasant warmth spread throughout her body, easing her pain and exhaustion and making Sira straighten her shoulders.

Sira broke away from Rentel. She dashed out into the docks, heading for the three guards. She reached the closest stack of crates just as the first one came into view. Sira pressed her back against the wood and peered around the corner. The guard–not much older than her–stood with his back to her, his slouched shoulders suggesting boredom. Sira glanced in the opposite direction and saw that the other two guards payed no heed to their companion.

Sira slipped around the boxes and grabbed the lip of the platform. She hauled herself up, ignoring the burning in her arms, pulling herself silently onto the deck. Sliding forward on silent footsteps, she approached the man. When she was close enough Sira grabbed the guard’s collar and kicked his knee out from under him, driving him to the ground. Sira flipped the dagger around and rammed the pommel into the man’s temple. Sira grabbed him, grunting as his weight pulled on her arms. With a muffled curse she tightened her grip and dragged the unconscious man behind a stack of crates where he wouldn’t be spotted. The effort depleted much of her remaining strength and dark spots hovered before her eyes. Sira blinked to clear her vision and moved on.

The second guard was easier as he’d already stepped behind a stack of crates when Sira reached him. She performed the same maneuver as she had with the first guard, only having to ease him to the ground so that his falling body wouldn’t alert anyone. The third was farther away and a greater challenge. He kept pacing back and forth, forcing Sira to dive from one piece of cover to the next. The pressure of time started to bear down on her. Sooner or later the guards they’d left unconscious would awaken and sound the alarm.

Sira was ten feet from the last guard when he turned his back on her. She dashed forward, knife at the ready, praying that he didn’t hear her.

A horrendous explosion split the air. It slammed into Sira, causing her to stagger. The guard whirled. He spotted Sira instantly and drew his sword.

Sira ducked under his swing and rammed into him, driving him back. She crouched and spun, kicking his legs out form under him. He hit the ground, the air leaving him in a loud whoosh. Sira slammed the pommel of the dagger into the side of his head, knocking him out.

A second explosion erupted behind her and Sira spun around. Large portions of the dock were on fire, sending billowing clouds of smoke into the air. People were screaming, the workers fleeing while the guards tried to impose order. A loud clang went up as someone struck an alarm bell. A third explosion erupted near the water, setting one of the ships on fire. Sira nearly cursed. She didn’t know if Rentel had overdone it, or if there’d been more oil than she’d realized, but those explosions were earth shattering. The southern valley would hear them.

Sira turned and ran to the last ship, abandoning any pretense of stealth. She leapt onto the prow and clamored towards the escape boats, the knife clenched between her teeth. Sira reached the first boat and severed the rope holding it in place. The boat hit the water with a sharp splash. Sira barely glanced at it. She moved to the next boat and cut it loose.

Sira let go. She hit the hull of the second boat and collapsed as pain tore through her bad leg, wringing tears from her eyes. The bone throbbed just below her knee, a red hot band that squeezed around her leg. Willing herself to ignore it, Sira scrambled to the front of the boat and grabbed the deck to keep herself from floating away. She grabbed the rope of the first boat, careful not to touch the noxious water, and tied it to a post.

A third explosion ripped through the dock, shaking the water itself. Sira caught herself and glanced towards the raging fire, searching for Rentel. She didn’t see him.

Despite what she’d said, Sira heisted. A part of her wanted to stay, to wait for him. They could leave together and start over. It would be a new beginning.

Such feelings were a weakness, her father would say, and weakness had no place within a noble.

Sira felt her face harden. She let go of the dock and kicked away form it. The boat shot backwards, skimming past the ships. When it slowed Sira picked up one of the oars at the base of the boat. She turned to face the exit, carefully dipping the oar into the water.

Another explosion erupted behind her. Sira kept the boat moving forward, her eyes on the fading sun. .

She didn’t look back.

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