Pretty Little Lies
From Book Three of the Rogue Elegance Trilogy
Nerani’s heart has been firmly lodged in her throat since the minute she first saw the Guardian strewn across the floor of the Forbidden City. It chokes her, suffocates her, keeping her shuttered and tense. She is edging along the thin blade of a knife, in constant danger of misstep. She hasn’t slept. She hasn’t eaten.
How can everything have gone so wrong?
She says nothing as she ducks into the black pitch of the tunnels, feeling curiously at home in the dark. Cool shadows caress her skin as she clutches the satchel of supplies to her chest and passes under the low arch of a passageway. Behind her, Emerala stumbles along in Nerani’s footsteps. The clumsy plod of her cousin’s feet against stone speaks louder than a thousand words. She can practically feel Emerala’s patience thinning with each step they take. But Nerani doesn’t pause to explain. She doesn’t slow. They’re too close, still, and she won’t risk the wrong person hearing her secrets echo out into the main cavern.
Moisture clings to her like a second skin, turning cold the deeper into the dark they go. Soon, only a tiny bead of light remains behind them, a sole beacon of flickering orange marking the way they came. Behind Nerani, Emerala curses as her dress snags on a bit of rock.
“A lantern would have been nice,” she gripes.
As if on cue, light floods the darkness. Orianna’s face swims into view as their raven-haired friend steps out of a narrow alcove, holding aloft a lantern. Her lips are set in a grim line. Her blue eyes are disapproving.
“You’re late,” is all she says.
“I’m sorry,” Nerani mutters, distracted. “Is he—”
Nerani’s mood sours at that. “Drunk? I didn’t ask you to get him drunk, Orianna, I asked you to—”
But Orianna cuts her off a second time. “We’re low on arnica, and Minera’s been watching the supply like a hawk. She’d notice if I took anything from her stores. The bullet’s lodged between his ribs. If I’m going to take it out, I need him numb. So yes, he’s drunk.”
“Who’s drunk?” Emerala interrupts, the last shred of her patience gone.
Nerani ignores her, the heartbeat in her throat cutting off any hope of a coherent response. She ducks beneath a low overhang of layered rock, slipping through the alcove and into the spacious cavern beyond. Here, there is some light, although little. A thin pinprick of moonlight streams in from high above, coating the stone in silvered dew. The light plays off of a flat pool of water, giving Nerani the dizzying sensation that she is standing atop a mirror.
A few feet away, James sits slumped against a rock outcropping. His head is bowed, his forearms thrust across the tops of his bent knees. The once-white cotton of his undershirt is dark with blood. He stirs as Nerani approaches, lifting his head just enough to allow the moonlight to fall across his face.
“You’re back.” He tries and fails to pull himself to his feet, slamming his tailbone back against the ground. The heel of his boot catches an empty bottle at his feet, sending it skittering across the rock. He frowns. “Ouch.”
“Are you alright?” Nerani asks.
“No.” His response comes out in an adamant slur. He pulls one eye shut, peering up at Nerani. His face is haggard and bloodless, and several days worth of stubble have grown in on his chin. A deep gash cuts across his cheek, the puckered skin around the injury turning an angry shade of purple. “I’m drunk.”
“I see that.”
Behind Nerani, Emerala and Orianna chatter quietly as they emerge into the cool blue light of the cavern. Nerani doesn’t need to turn around to visualize the look of surprise on Emerala’s face as she takes in the impossible sight of General James Byron, battered and bloody and hopelessly inebriated.
“James Byron?” Emerala’s incredulous voice echoes through the yawning expanse, too loud against the mirror stillness. The sound of it sets Nerani’s teeth on edge, but James only laughs.
“If it isn’t Emerala the Rogue.” He shapes his hand into a pistol, sighting her across the length of his index finger as if down the barrel of a gun. “Back from the dead, I see.”
Nerani can hear the smirk in Emerala’s voice. “And you seem to be heading there.”
“That’s not funny, Emerala,” snaps Nerani, but James only laughs louder, the sound turning first to a wheeze, and then a cough. Fresh blood darkens the side of his undershirt, fingers of crimson spreading across the discolored cotton. Nerani’s gown bunches around her in gullies of midnight blue as she sinks to her knees before him.
“James.” She tugs at his chin, guiding his gaze toward hers. “James, focus. Look at me.”
“Oh, I’m looking,” he says, suddenly serious. His words tumble one into the next and she can smell the licorice sting of liquor on his breath. “You should see what I see. You should see how lovely you look, your skin all painted in moonlight.”
Nerani’s cheeks catch fire and she glances toward Orianna. The raven-haired girl shrugs, barely batting an eye as she rifles through her supplies.
“He’s been like that since he finished the bottle. You missed his sonnet.”
“I can recite it again,” James offers. “I received excellent marks in poetry.”
“I’ll hear it later,” Nerani promises, prying loose the sticking buttons of his undershirt. “Right now, the Raven needs to take the bullet out.”
He glances down at his bloodied torso. “It’s only a graze. Henry Masters was always a poor shot.” He pauses, considering. “Is he dead? Masters?”
“Oh.” His voice is strangely apathetic. His brown eyes search her face and he adds, “I don’t want to die.”
Nerani tenses, her hands dropping to her lap. “You’re not going to. The Raven is a healer. She knows what she’s doing, she—”
He cuts her off. “I don’t mean now, today. I don’t want to die, Nerani. I want—” He pauses, swallowing thickly. “I want to marry you. I—I’m going to marry you. I’m going to have children with you.”
Nerani has forgotten how to breathe. Her necklace, that cold, hard threat of another man’s promise, hangs around her throat like a noose. James’s eyes are unusually bright, his pupils capped in moonlight. His words topple one over the other, clumsy, bumbling, spilling from his lips in an unchecked stream of consciousness.
“Would you do that?” he asks. “Would you make fat, drooling babies with me? I’d be good at it, I think.”
He pauses, considering, and groans. “Saints, I didn’t mean it like that.” He tries again, spots of color rising to his cheeks as he fumbles for the right words. “I meant I’d be a good father, not that I’d be good at making babies.”
His eyes widen to perfect circles. “Wait,” he stammers, backtracking. “That’s not right either. I’d be good at that, too—th-the making part, I mean.” He pauses to take a breath before slurring, with perfect sincerity, “I think about making babies with you all the time.”
Emerala’s snort ricochets off of the walls. Nerani barely notices. Her heart is no longer wedged in her throat. Instead, it’s been ripped clean out of her chest. The necklace is a hot brand against her skin. She wants to claw it away from her—to cast it aside and let it sink, forgotten, to the bottom of the clear, flat pool.
James frowns, looking regretful. “That seems like something that maybe I shouldn’t have said out loud.” He peers at Orianna through hooded lids. “Dark Below, woman, what did you give me?”
“Absinthe,” Orianna says, not bothering to look up from her preparations. “Cairan stock. You’ll hate me tomorrow.”
“I hate you now,” he informs her. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Orianna rises to her feet, clutching her freshly sterilized instruments to her chest. “You’re doing that all on your own, General.”
He mutters an incoherent response and turns back to Nerani, surprise catching at the corners of his mouth as he notes the tears that spill down her face. His gaze turns stricken and he reaches up to touch the wetness at her cheek.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry,” he apologizes. “I—that wasn’t a good proposal. I knew I should have led with poetry.”
Orianna drops into a seated position alongside Nerani, laying her tools across a strip of freshly laundered linen. Nerani takes stock of the items—tweezers, a corked ampoule of clear liquid, several strips of gauze saturated with sweet smelling camphor. A thick needle laced with black thread. Her stomach pitches, twisting into a knot. Suddenly the absinthe doesn’t seem quite strong enough.
“If we’re going to do this, we should do it now.” Orianna’s voice is detached. “Nerani, take off his shirt. Emerala, bring my lantern closer. When the time comes, I’ll need you to hold down his arms. He’s barely lucid, and bound to be reactive.” She pries the cork out of the glass vial, pressing the lip to a strip of gauze and flipping the contents so that the clear liquid saturates the wrapping. Nerani works to pry James’s arms free of his undershirt as he peers at Orianna in growing suspicion.
“What’s in the bottle?” he asks, raising his voice as Emerala takes a seat beside him. The lantern casts the four of them in elongated shadow. Lit from below, James looks hopelessly tired, his eyes wet and unfocused. Nerani pries his arms from his shirt, taking care as she peels away the crimson fabric glued to his torso. By the light of the lantern, she can just see the tangled web of lashes that mottles his skin from his shoulder blades to the base of his spine. She notices Emerala staring unabashedly at the still healing wounds, her long, thin lips pursed in thought. James notices, too, and grimaces.
“A reminder from Rowland Stoward. I’m not to disappoint him again.” The cavalier way he delivers the news makes Nerani’s stomach turn. He locks eyes with her across the dark. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I earned every one of those lashes, Nerani.” The words come out garbled. “I killed an innocent man. I shot him cold, and then I let someone else take the fall for his murder. That’s two deaths on me.” He brandishes his index finger between them.
“That’s only one,” Emerala observes, and if Nerani could kick her, she would. James brings the finger up to the edge of his nose, going crossed-eyed as he inspects the digit.
“You make a compelling point,” he mumbles. He holds up a second finger. “Where was I?”
“You were telling us why you deserved to be whipped like a dog,” Emerala reminds him. This time, Nerani pinches her cousin. Hard. Emerala yelps, clapping a hand to her upper arm. James appears not to notice.
“And Masters, too,” he says, holding up a third finger. “Henry Masters makes three. I’m leaving bodies in my wake like breadcrumbs.” His eyes find Nerani’s across the dark. “So, you know, don’t look at me like that. Don’t pity me. I can’t—I can’t have that.” He doesn’t wait for her to respond, shifting his attention instead toward Orianna. His nose wrinkles as he gets a whiff of the pungent smelling linen in her hand. He repeats his earlier question. “What’s in the bottle?”
“What’s the matter?” Orianna rips a strip of gauze with her teeth, her voice muffled as she asks, “You don’t trust me?”
James doesn’t miss a beat. “Not even a little.”
The scorn in Orianna’s voice is hard to miss as she leans in to inspect the wound. “Why? Because I’m a gypsy witch?”
“Because you don’t like me.”
Orianna doesn’t look at him. “You’re a soldier,” she relents. “You know how open wounds are treated. This is distilled alcohol.”
“There are better options,” he mumbles.
“There are,” Orianna agrees. “None that I could take without attracting the wrong kind of attention.”
Emerala leans forward to grip his shoulder. “I hope your threshold for pain is high, because she’s saying this is going to hurt.”
“Quite badly, I’d imagine,” Orianna agrees. “I need to clean the lesion before I can bind it. But first, I need to remove the bullet casing.” She reaches into the apron at her waist and fishes out a thick strip of leather. “Here, bite down on this.”
James’s voice turns petulant. “I don’t want to.”
Orianna doesn’t bat an eye, handing the leather strip instead to Nerani. “Talk some sense into him. It’ll keep him from cracking his teeth, or worse. Emerala, pass me the lantern. I need all the light I can get.”
Emerala obliges. Her gaze catches Nerani’s as she passes the lantern between them, and Nerani sees a thousand questions in her cousin’s glittering eyes. She ignores her. There will be time for explanations later, when this is done—when they’ve gotten away with it, and James is safely beyond the walls of the Forbidden City.
The word is laughable, like a bad joke, a jester’s punch line delivered to the wrong crowd. There’s nowhere safe. Not anymore. She tries not to look at the lashes that disfigure James’s back as she holds out the leather strip.
“No,” he says, before she has the chance to speak.
“The sooner we do this, the sooner it can be over.”
Pride flickers across his handsome face. “I don’t need it.”
He scowls at the leather strip in her hands for several seconds too long. Muttering a string of incoherent oaths, he relents, opening his mouth to let her place the bit between his teeth.
“Restrain his arms,” Orianna instructs. “Both of you.”
Nerani folds the fingers of his left hand in hers, crooking his arm to his chest. His skin is warm to the touch, flushed with the beginnings of a fever. His chest rises and falls steadily, and she feels the sticky beat of his heart beneath his ribs. Emerala joins Orianna at his right side, peeling his arm away from his injured side. She grips him by the elbow, her expression grim, her gaze flitting between the couple on the floor.
James recoils as Orianna sets to work, a groan building in his chest. Pausing, Orianna leans back onto her haunches. She looks exasperated—tense.
“You cannot scream, do you understand?”
He raises his eyebrows in response, muzzled by the leather bit between his teeth. A thin sheen of sweat beads across his brow, making his skin appear golden in the flickering lamplight.
“This is important,” Orianna urges. “I need to know you’ll keep quiet. If you scream—if you make any noise at all—we’ll be discovered. And you’ll be killed.”
“He understands,” Nerani snaps. Her nerves are tripwires beneath her skin. “Just do it.”
Skeptical, Orianna plucks the foul smelling cloth from the stone and presses it to the wound. This time, the groan that rises to James’s lips is a barely subdued bellow. His right arm jerks, nearly wrenching free of Emerala’s grasp.
“Nerani.” Orianna bites out her name in a warning. “Distract him.”
Panic floods Nerani and she tightens her grip, squeezing his hand harder than she’d meant to. He squeezes back, his palm slick with sweat. He grits his teeth against the leather bit, his breathing erratic, and his face pale. Nerani says the very first thing that comes to her mind.
“I’ll marry you.”
His chest falls perfectly still. A muscle clenches in his jaw as he bites down hard upon the leather, his glassy eyes turning earnest. She does her best to smile, fighting back another onslaught of tears. The diamond noose around her neck tightens still further. “The very minute all of this is over, I’ll marry you.”
Some of the tension goes out of his shoulders. He trembles, wincing as Orianna works to pry the bullet loose. But he doesn’t make a sound.
“Keep talking,” Orianna orders. “I’m almost finished.”
Nerani obliges, putting into words the indulgences she’d been too afraid to imagine, feeding his promises back to him. “We’ll make a home together. Maybe a little cottage by the sea, where we can hear the tide come in and out each day. And—and we’ll reopen your father’s shop. I could be a fisherman’s wife.”
The tears that stain Nerani’s cheeks are mirrored in James’s eyes. She’s telling him lies, and he knows it. But they’re such lovely lies. He clings to them as Orianna cuts the infection from his wound, as she threads the needle through his skin.
“And we’ll have children,” Nerani promises, weeping openly now. “And when they’ve grown, you can take them out to sea and teach them to cast a net for fish.”
He nods, his breathing regulating. To his right, Orianna presses the camphor soaked gauze to the wound. Wordlessly, she passes the wrapping around his midsection to keep the dressing from coming loose. Nerani can feel her friend’s eyes on her face, can feel Orianna’s attention lingering at the diamond that sits in the hollow of Nerani’s throat. But she says nothing. She doesn’t need to. The guilt that sits in Nerani’s gut is the size of a boulder. It crushes her. Consumes her.
When she’s finished with the dressing, Orianna leans back to survey her work. “This is the best I can do.” She presses a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “Of course, he’ll have to have the bandages changed frequently.”
James pries the leather out from his teeth, flexing his jaw. He’s breathless, trembling, and Nerani realizes that he’s fighting to keep from coming apart at the seams. She’s not sure if it’s pride or absinthe that holds him together, but the effects of both seem to be fading fast.
“Thank you,” he says to Orianna. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t want to do it,” Orianna fires back.
“But you did. And I’m grateful. Even if you did make me look like a sniveling coward in front of the woman I’m trying to court.”
A ghost of a smile paints Orianna’s face. She says nothing in response; leaning down to sweep her tools back into her satchel.
“We need to leave,” she says, although some of the tension has leaked out of her words. “We’ve already been here too long. Rob will be looking for us soon.”
Nerani shakes her head, remaining planted before James. “I’m going to stay.”
“I don’t think that’s a good—”
“I’m staying,” Nerani insists.
Sighing, Orianna turns toward Emerala. “You too, I assume?”
“I’ll escort Nerani back when she’s done.”
For several long moments, Orianna says nothing. The impossible silence of the cavern is imposing, and Nerani shudders against the chill, wondering if Orianna will argue. Instead, the woman’s shoulders slump in defeat. Her eyes flicker toward James and away.
“Be sure to give him the incense before you leave,” Orianna reminds Nerani. “He needs to be gone by tomorrow.” Nerani understand what it is Orianna doesn’t say: He needs to be gone by tomorrow, or I go to Roberts.
Orianna doesn’t wait to hear a reply, gathering the rest of her things and heading for the darkness of the tunnels. The remaining three wait in silence, listening to the diminishing slap of Orianna’s feet against the stone. James speaks first, pressing the heel of his hand to his eye as if rubbing away the start of a headache. His words are edged with discomfort.
“Rogue, would you mind giving us a moment alone?”
“Oh, sure,” comes Emerala’s glib reply. “I’ll just go stir up a colony of bats elsewhere.”
Nerani twists around to glare at her cousin. “Emerala.”
“Saynti, I’m going,” Emerala retorts, “don’t have a fit.” Her voice trails behind as her as she slips through the pale blue shafts of moonlight and out of sight.
As soon as she’s gone, James looses a low moan, slumping forward and pressing his knuckles into the stone. His head droops, his eyes fluttering closed.
“I’m alright,” he lies.
“I know.” She takes his hands, coaxing his weight off of his arms and drawing him into her. He is compliant, allowing himself to be led, crumpling easily into her lap. His arms collapse around her waist, his fingers curling in the small of her back. Reaching into her bag of supplies, she pulls out a small bottle of eucalyptus. The soothing odor of mint reaches her nose as she pries out the cork and sets to work. Gingerly, carefully, she massages the cool salve into the pinched, pink tissue that lattices his back. She hums as she works, the quiet melody of an old lullaby rising to her lips.
Little by little, James’s breathing slows, the rise and fall of his back evening beneath her fingertips. The smell of the eucalyptus oil clings to his skin.
“I want it,” he murmurs when she’s finished her work. “You, the house by the sea, dozens of blue-eyed children making a mess.”
“Dozens?” Nerani teases, trying and failing to ignore the splinter of grief in her chest.
“Dozens,” he repeats, his voice thick with sleep. “I want it so badly it hurts.”
She is quiet for a long time. She thinks about what he’d told her the last time they’d met in the dark, how they were already as good as dead. How he didn’t want to waste a single moment.
His breathing deepens to the quiet snore of a drunk, and she realizes he’s fallen asleep in her lap. His arms go slack at her waist. His downturned face is boyish in the moonlight, his lips parted, his dark lashes curled against his cheeks. She leans down to press her lips to his forehead. The necklace pinches her throat, the reminder of her betrothal sharp and cold against her skin.
“We’ll survive this,” she whispers into his skin. More lies, she knows, but she needs them as badly as he. Here in the dark, it’s all she has left. “I promise.”
© KA Dowling, 2018
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