Stef opened her eyes, and saw Curt. ‘Hm?’
He passed her a glass of water. ‘Drink up, you look terrible.’
She blinked a few times, sat up, and downed the water as he disappeared back into the crowd. She pulled the mask from her face – as beautiful as it was, it hurt when you fell asleep on it. She let it rest in her lap, grateful that the crowd was largely ignoring her. Other than the occasional request for a picture or an autograph, they mostly did the stand-across-the-room-and-subtle-point thing. She yawned again, and stared at the clock in her HUD.
Captain, you’ve got five minutes for this ashreader to show up, then I’m leaving.
Curt came back through the crowd, carrying another glass of water, and a tray of tiny Perfect Cakes, which were very aptly named. Tiny and sweet and so pretty that it was nearly a crime to nom on three dozen of them. These ones were orange, with the same lacy icing that had graced the others, and tiny sugary gems that made it seem more like a ring box than a cake.
She stuffed one in her mouth and swallowed it nearly whole. ‘What did you find out?’
‘They’re setting up the auditorium now, you sure you don’t want to head home?’
She shook her head. ‘No, I had a tiny nap, I’m good.’ She stifled a yawn. ‘Ok, mostly, but the Captain made it seem like was really rare, so it the least I can do for him.’
He took her hands as she stood. ‘Hey, newbie?’
‘You ok if I don’t come? I’d like to have a chat with your pirate, if you don’t mind.’
She gave a shrug. ‘You can do what you want, but…why?’
‘Something someone said. I don’t know much about the Courts, and they’re important to you, so-’
‘If it’s- If it’s just for me, you don’t-’
He kissed her cheek. ‘Don’t be an idiot, you’re important to me, they’re important to you, it’s the least I can do.’ He gave a slight smirk. ‘And it should allay any want he has to make me walk the plank.’
‘See you in an hour?’
‘Yeah, I think so. Want to head off after that?’
He nodded, kissed her again, then slipped off into the crowd.
She slipped her mask back on, and found a spare seat in the auditorium. It was a strangely casual, intimate setting, despite the few hundred fae around her – massive red velvet cushions around a circular stage made of dark wood. She found one towards the back, in the shadows to avoid any random adoring fans, and ate the rest of the small cakes as the room filled.
The main lights went down, leaving on a circle of illumination around the stage.
For a moment, nothing happened, but slowly a figure took shape. It was…vaguely people-ish, human, if you didn’t have points of reference among the fae, but some features look hobbish or fairy. Smokey, ghosty and insubstantial, a typo poltergeist. Several moments passed, and it seemed to gain more reality, colour seeping into the figure – eyes large and white and without detail, brighter than the spotlights for a moment before dulling, skin as purple as the previous round of Perfect Cakes, and tiny moving details in pink. She stared at the pink bits on the ashreader, before giving up, and finding the zoom control in her HUD.
Her stomach turned a little as her perspective changed, bringing the details of the ashreader into far closer view. The tiny pink highlights were words, crawling across its skin. Words correcting themselves, morphing into new phrases, or withering into nothing.
‘I am the Iliad,’ the ashreader said. ‘I am a keeper of classics. My area of study is humans, which is usually unfortunate, but as I am given to understand it, the guest tonight was socialised among humans. If there are no complaints from her, I’ll be reciting from Beowulf tonight.’
She held back a squee, and gave a small, royal nod to the few fae that had spotted her.
Stars seemed to swirl around the Iliad, and the ashreader’s legs became smokey again, cloudlike, as it settled into what must have been a comfortable position, as it began to recite the words in Old English, slowly rotating to face each section of the crowd.
She sipped on the water, settled into the cushion, and into a blissful literary stupor as the words flowing into her ears, multiple translations and annotations skimming through her HUD.
* * *
‘You’ve been looking for me, boy.’
Curt turned, and nodded. ‘Do you have a few minutes to talk?’
‘If you’re looking for my approval, you’ve got it.’
Pride swelled in his chest. ‘It’s more than that.’
The pirate lifted his Hook, and pointed towards the gardens. ‘There’s lots of space out there to talk.’
The night was warm, the painted clouds and palace lighting more than making up for the slim moon in the sky. The lake, long abandoned by the mermaid dancers, only held lights skimming across the surface. The pirate pointed, and they sat on a small rise by the lake.
He pulled his notebook and Stef-English dictionary from his pockets before removing his jacket. He folded it neatly beside him as the pirate lit a pipe.
‘That’s- I thought it was supposed to be cigars?’ he said.
‘I never did like cigars,’ Hook said, ‘and she never commented about the pipe. If she’d complained, I would have changed it.’
‘You can drop the disguise,’ he said, ‘if you want, I mean.’
Hook’s blue eyes stared into him for a moment. ‘I can’t do that, boy, and I think you’re smart enough to know why. I am Hook to her, so to anyone who knows me, I must be Hook to them as well. It’s- It’s a sacred bond, and one I hold more dearly than anything else. It’s- You’re Agency, boy, consider this to be the prime mandate of my duty.’
‘Your prime directive,’ he said.
Hook nodded. ‘She knows what I am, if she asks me to reveal myself, I’ll happily comply, until then, this illusion is the truth to her, and we have to respect that.’
‘I do,’ he said, ‘I do. What are you? I’m unsure of how the ranks of the Lost operate, I know Ryan’s guest is something similar to an agent, in some respects anyway. Is that what you are?’
Hook shook his head. ‘No, I’m not a Blank. I am-’ He blew a smoke ring, and watched it until it dissipated. ‘I am something entirely more like what she is. I was human, I became something more. The Lost do not keep the divide so strongly between human or fae and those more. We have those that are the equivalent of recruits, but instead of your system, where the most you can become is a recruit, our system would be like you being able to advance to becoming an agent.’
‘Who were you, before?’
‘I was…Lost,’ he said. ‘The majority of us were. It takes someone who is Lost to truly understand what someone needs from this Court. Foundlings, the abandoned, the wandering, we find our way into the Court. We find ourselves to a degree, then help others find themselves or to separate from the world.’ He went silent for a long moment. ‘There’s a reason I feel strongly for the nautical roles, they are what comes naturally for me.’ He blew another smoke ring. ‘I was a sailor, long, long before you were born. My ship became becalmed. To become becalmed makes you believe in hell, son, to curse god and renounce your faith. There is nothing- No rejection worse than the wind being ripped from your sails. It is as though everything your life has been for no longer wishes to acknowledge you.’
‘I would have thought it would make you turn to a higher power.’ He stabbed the soft ground with a finger. ‘Something like that- The Solstice, the revelations of the world tended to make people call for god, to cling to something familiar.’
‘A lot of the men did, maybe I was just more honest about how I felt. In those days, the sea was my god, it gave me reason, it gave me purpose, it showed me my place in the world. I knew currents like priests know their psalms, tied knots instead of crossing myself, and swam in the waters of each new port, which is as much a baptism as it is an exploration. I dedicated my life to the sea, and it rejected me. The sea gives life and it takes it, but it still felt personal.’
‘Rejection always does.’
‘For a while, it was fine, we had water, we had supplies, we had song and we had wine. One of the men predicted a storm, and we believed. The wine went away, the supplies dwindled, and the songs stopped.’ The pirate closed his eyes. ‘It was so still, it was as though we’d died already.’
‘I can’t imagine it.’
‘You don’t have to.’
The grass beneath them turned to wood, and the pond erupted, becoming an ocean. The clouds fell, bounding the world, horizon in every direction.
He slowly stood, the ancient boat beneath his feet.
The worst sound he’d ever heard had been the agent’s wife as he’d cut her child from her. The second had been Stef as he’d tortured her. The third, his legs shattering into dust whilst running from Reapers.
The silence ranked in the top ten.
He let out a ragged breath, and quickly closed his mouth, the sound of breath seeming out of place in the silence. As if it would attract the wrong attention, or somehow bring about a worse fate.
He turned, his shoes making noises on the wood that somehow seemed to leak into the silence and be swallowed up by the awful wall of nothingness.
Hook leaned against the edge of the ship, looking out onto the water. ‘After a while, being in the sun, without water, without sustenance, the edges of reality begin to fade away. You start to believe that anything as still as that water has to be land, that there’s a way out, a way away from this-’ He looked away, and spat. ‘This prison.’
The pirate pointed, and he followed the hook, and watched as the sea began to shift slightly, the blues and greens of the water looking like soft grass.
‘You drink the salt water, and the madness seeps in. And you drink, but you’re still thirsty, but you drink anyway.’
He blew a smoke ring, and another, and another.
‘And then you are all alone.’
The pirate tapped out his pipe and placed it back into his jacket. ‘I don’t know why or how I outlasted the other men, only that I did. I was dying and I was Lost.’
‘What happened?’ he asked, the silence swallowing his words almost immediately.
‘The sea came for me.’ Hook pointed, and a wave rose up to meet the railing.
The water formed into a man, small piece of sea foam forming details of uniform and insignia before he took on a human-like appearance.
‘Tsekanee,’ Hook said. ‘Sea nymph, sea spirit, given how old he is. He found me, saved me. I had felt like a dead man, and he brought me back to life. The sea rejected me, and the sea found me. The sea gave me purpose again, helped me help the Lost.’
The illusion dropped from around them and he sent up a small prayer of thanks to deaf gods as all the tiny sounds of reality returned.
Tiny piece of light streamed from Hook’s fingers. ‘I was a lighthouse for a while.’
He stared at the pirate, and Hook winked.
‘No, boy, not a tower with stairs. It is for the nautical among us, guiding those only Lost from their path. Lights in the night to get a ship back on track, a faint signal in Morse when things seem helpless, or making a map appear when it’s most needed. Later, when I needed a change, I began to care for children.’
* * *
There was pressure on her shoulders, and Stef felt her autopilot kicking in before a voice calmed her. ‘Just me, newb.’
Curt slid in behind her, sandwiching between her back and the wall.
She leaned back a little. ‘So Hook wanted to feed you to Tick-Tock after all?’
He leaned forward, wrapped his arms around her and drew her back, her bottom sliding from the pillow slightly as pulled her flush with his body, her back to his chest, his legs lying aside her. ‘I decided to join you, you don’t mind, do you?’
She shook her head, and adjusted herself a little against his body.
He pressed a hand to the side of her head to make her look at the floor. ‘Got you some water.’
She slid her head forward, making his hand drop away. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and reached for the water.
She drank as the ashreader continued to recite the poem. ‘Need me to translate?’
She yawned, stared at the clock in her head, and drank the cool, crisp water greedily. ‘I’m not sure I’m going to make it through the whole thing.’
He chuckled, and she felt him nod, his chin tapping on her head. ‘Let me know when you want to leave.’
She finished the water, found a comfortable spot for her head against his shoulder, and let her eyes rest, half closed, just open enough to keep her HUD and the scrolling translation going.
Pain, and warmth against her neck.
She opened her eyes, her HUD clock telling her she’d been napping for at least fifteen minutes.
She tried to sit up a little, but Curt’s arm against her chest pinned her in place. ‘Just relax,’ he said. More pain against her neck.
‘Hey, stop being a vampire,’ she said quietly. She shook against his grip. ‘And I was asleep.’
‘Shh,’ he said. ‘You’re making a scene.’
She shut her mouth, bit her lip, then mumbled an apology.
He pushed her head on an angle, his mouth moving from under her hairline to vamp-nom on the side of her throat.
‘Shh,’ he said.
The hand on her chest turned, and slowly began to-
Droids were not cleared for inspection!
Heat prickled in her neck. ‘Stop it,’ she whispered.
He growled in her ear. ‘If you keep making noises, people will notice.’
‘I thought I told you to shut up.’
He jammed two fingers into her mouth, his short nails scraping the roof of her mouth. ‘I thought I told you to shut up.’
Tears fell, and she sucked in a frightened breath around his fingers.
Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
Her looked around, trying to catch anyone’s eyes, but all eyes were transfixed on the Iliad’s performance.
He withdrew his fingers. ‘Will you be quiet?’
She nodded, and ran her tongue over the wounds in her mouth. ‘Sorry.’
He jammed something hard against her back, and leaned forward, his chest pressing against her back, his hand inspecting droids through her vest, and going lower-
‘Stop it!’ she said, unable to push any volume into her voice.
You aren’t my Padawan.
He grabbed a rough handful of her hair. ‘Do you want to make a scene? Do you want to have every fairy in the room see you being a prude?’ He hand rested flat against her crotch. ‘What did you say to me?’ he asked, biting her ear, his teeth surely breaking skin. ‘You’re here to be my bitch?’
She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came from her throat.
‘Oh, finally,’ he said. He moved his arms, holding her in a mocking parody of a sweet embrace. ‘I’ve been dosing you all night, but you should really be starting to feel the effects.’
She croaked a weak protest.
‘Here’s one more thing to shut you up, Mimosa,’ he growled with Curt’s voice. ‘You probably can’t, but if you make a sound, if you draw attention to yourself, I’ll kill your boytoy. I’ve got people watching him, and you won’t be able to wish quickly enough to save him.’
Help me! Help me!
She fought above the panic and pushed her mind open.
For the love of gods if any readers can hear me, help! Help! Help!
Clarke chuckled again, and the evil sound coming through Curt’s voice made her gut twist. He let her go in one quick movement, and she toppled to the side before he grabbed her again. ‘Guess it’s time to go.’ He stood, and pulled her to her feet.
Help me! Help me!
She felt the mirror, lighter than it had ever been, but still heavy, and wished for an escape.
The mirror, as always did nothing.
He jammed the mask in place on her face, and dragged her from the auditorium.
She blinked slowly, her eyelids still responsive, unlike the rest of her body, and desperately stared through the slits of the mask for anyone who could help.
There was a flash of red and her heart sank lower.
Even among fae of every colour, his red hair stuck out like a beacon. Fire. Volcano. A fire engine.
She weakly coughed, the tangible feeling of dread staying lodged in her throat.
They drew closer to the Taylor.
Everything started to fuzz.
A man who hated her. A man who would tear her apart-
A man who wasn’t kidnapping her.
Red. Fire engine. Rescue.
Please help me!
Help yourself, Spyder, grab him!
I can’t even move!
Do you think you’ll ever see your father or your boyfriend again if he gets you out of this room?
Help me, please…I can’t do this by myself.
When have you ever been by yourself, Spyder? I’m here, I’m always here. Grab him!
Shifting continents would be easier.
She lifted weakly lifted her hand and swung it for Taylor’s back. She felt his jacket with barely a featherweight touch. Clarke grabbed her arm and swung it down against her side, then redoubled his effort to bear her weight and drag her away.
She stared back at Taylor from the corner of his eyes. He was still talking to Magnolia, a glass of something sweet and bubbly in his hand. He hadn’t felt her, he hadn’t looked.
She blinked, and he was gone from her field of vision.
No, please, no.
She barely took notice of the hallways, of the turns, of anything until cool night air touched her skin. She heard a car, and was shoved up against it as the door was opened. Clarke grabbed her and threw her into the limousine.
She hit the seat, and tried to cough as his weight crushed down on top of her. His body pinned hers in place. He crushed his lips against hers, and she tasted blood as he forced her lips apart. His tongue, thick and slimy and too big, jammed into her mouth, and she fought for air. She fought for air, and tried to whine, tried to fight, tried to-
Move! Please let me move! I need to move!
He let her go, his glamour slipping away, taking away the pretence at being Curt
She choked, drool slipping from the corner of her mouth.
She tried to flex her hand, but there was the question as to whether or not she even had hands anymore. There was fuzz and there was- More fuzz. Everything began to slip out of focus.
He knelt on the floor beside her, and slapped her. ‘Hey, don’t black out on me yet, Mimosa.’
‘I don’t envy you,’ he said, one hand slipping under her vest, groping her through her shirt. ‘They’re going to fuck you until you’re spent, and that’ll just be the first hour.’
She felt him put a hand between her legs.
‘This is what you get for going up against me.’
His hands moved, and tears slipped onto her cheeks.
‘You’re property to be shared, Mimosa, a favour to be traded and used up. That’s your future,’ he said, his hand finding its way beneath her shirt. ‘And when you’re nothing but a used-up husk, they’ll get around to using what’s in your chest,’ he said, his voice turning into a growl as his fingers dug into her chest.
No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!
‘You’re going to be a whore, then a weapon of war.’