The Lion Mistress: Book 1 — Read Ch. 1-8 Below!

Welcome, and thank you for checking out The Lion Mistress! Please be aware that this novel contains descriptions of graphic violence and graphic sex, including sex between men. Additionally, it deals with underage prostitution and miscarriage in a character’s past. If you’re okay with the subject matter, read on and enjoy!
-R. A. Steffan

Chapter 1: Kathrael’s Quest

IT WAS STRANGE that someone as quiet and timid as Vesh would leave such a noticeable hole in the world once he was gone.

Almost a week after the mob caught up to Vesh on the outskirts of Rhyth, Kathrael still occasionally found herself turning to speak to the space next to her where he was supposed to be. Each time, the person-shaped emptiness there jolted her back to that horrible evening spent hiding in the shadows, watching the fanatics jeering and laughing as they paraded the slender, battered corpse through the streets. Every such occurrence brought with it a tidal wave of fresh grief, along with renewed determination to succeed at her impossible, self-appointed quest.

Kathrael would have liked to place the blame for Vesh’s carelessness—which ultimately turned out to be fatal—squarely at his own feet. It would have been easier to mourn him if she could work up a decent level of anger toward him at the same time.

But of course his death had been her fault, not his. Never his.

If she’d still been able to work, Vesh would never have started accepting riskier clients in order to earn enough money to feed them both. As a eunuch who had escaped the Priests’ Guild, Vesh had been in high demand as a prostitute. However, he had also been a target of hatred.

With the foreign god Deimok gaining a foothold on the island of Eburos, the Priests’ Guild no longer held the power they once did. The new faith—originally brought over from the continent by traders and visiting nobles—was a vicious and vengeful one. As the cult of Deimok grew larger and stronger in and around the city of Rhyth, practitioners of the traditional religion were increasingly singled out by groups of angry young men intent on venting their frustrations. These groups would harass anyone the cult leaders told them was responsible for Rhyth’s current political and economic woes. Any poor soul unlucky enough to be accused of using witchcraft or having magical abilities was in immediate mortal danger—but eunuchs were also a popular target.

All of the priests of the Old Religion were eunuchs, but so far the rabble-rousers had not gained enough confidence to attack any of the temples directly. Vesh, though, had run away from his temple shortly after he’d been castrated. Without the protection of his Guild, he’d been easy prey. Lured to a secluded spot with the promise of generous payment for his services, Vesh had ignored Kathrael’s pleas for caution. He’d been hungry. Desperate. They both had been.

So he’d gone off with a silver-tongued stranger, who doubtless had a gang of his friends waiting in secret. And now he was dead, leaving Kathrael alone in the world, without any means of income or support. No food, no home except whatever convenient doorstep or overhang she could find for shelter at night. Nothing, in truth, except for the clothes on her back.

But she couldn’t afford to let that stand in her way. Because Kathrael had made a solemn vow to lead an uprising against the corrupt leaders and slave masters who held Rhyth in an iron grip, even as the city slowly rotted from within, descending into chaos and rioting.

First, though, there was one other thing she had to do. She was fucking well going to murder the cowardly bastard of a shape-shifter who’d been prophesied to lead them all to freedom, and hadn’t.

The man who’d ruined her life.

* * *

The morning dawned gray and stifling, matching Kathrael’s dark mood precisely. Her stomach felt like an empty pit—a yawning chasm that ached for sustenance. She unwrapped her threadbare shawl from around her shoulders and contemplated the same question she had asked herself every day this week. What was it to be today? Begging, or stealing?

Of course the gods couldn’t have been thoughtful enough to afflict her with some infirmity that people would find pitiable, but non-threatening. Lameness, or paralysis, maybe, or a missing limb or something. No, that would have been too bloody simple.

Instead, she sat at the crossroads with her shawl laid out in front of her in the dust to receive alms. Hours later, after countless passersby had glanced at her face, only to look quickly away and increase their pace until they were out of her immediate vicinity, she had only a single grubby coin to show for the morning spent abasing herself to complete strangers.

Once, she could have made ten times that much in the space of ten minutes, servicing some rich fop in a shadowed alley, fluttering dark eyelashes up at him as she pretended that his perfumed prick was the most delectable morsel that had ever passed her lips during the course of her short life. Now, she trudged to the nearest market, where an elderly, kind-hearted vendor would occasionally give her some of his damaged produce in exchange for such a meager sum.

Today, it was a pair of spoiled ground tubers, blackened on one side and reeking of mold. She accepted them silently, her face downturned, and scraped away the squishy parts with her fingers. Happily, someone had finally fixed the crank handle on the well at the edge of the square. The starchy white blobs were marginally more appealing after she’d rinsed them off, and it gave her something to drink with her pitiful meal as well.

With her stomach temporarily quieted, Kathrael found a shady spot to sit and think. Grief had dulled her wits. She’d allowed it to distract her from her goals. It was time to move, before she slipped into complacency and gradually starved to death, or was caught pilfering some insignificant item or bit of food.

She shuddered. Being thrown in the cells beneath the garrison would surely be a death sentence for someone like her… or, at the very least, a sentence that would make her long for death.

No. She had to find a new way. She had to move. If she didn’t move now, she would never be able to. She wracked her mind, trying to think of fresh options. Her thoughts were cloudy, unfocused. Lack of sleep and decent nourishment was affecting her ability to think.

Think now. It will only get worse later, she reminded herself. A snippet of verse that her sister had used to croon, late at night when Kathrael couldn’t sleep, wafted through her memory.

All who seek shelter shall find it.

All who grieve shall be comforted.

All the gods’ children will receive solace.

Ask at the temple and gain the help you need.

Vesh would have laughed aloud at her. The temple had never meant solace for him, but rather, pain and suffering. It was, however, an avenue she had not tried before. The glimmer of a plan began to form, and she chewed absently at a thumbnail as she contemplated the possibilities.

She needed to act, while she still had the strength.

Vesh’s old temple was further inside the central part of the city than she really liked to go these days. There was no getting around it, though. She arranged her shawl over her head and shoulders in such a way that it draped across the left side of her face, obscuring it in shadow. Her dress was in tatters, but there was nothing she could do about it. She would not be the only beggar girl inside the city walls, after all. Far from it.

Her bare feet were aching by the time she reached the city gate nearest the temple. The guard gave her a look of disdain and shoved her as she walked past, knocking her into a tall man wearing plain, well-mended clothing. He cursed, caught by surprise, but helped steady her as she staggered. It was on her tongue to thank him when she realized her shawl had slipped from her face in the confusion.

The man gasped sharply and jerked his hands away from her shoulders as if she had suddenly become red-hot. He stammered something and hurried away, wiping his hands on his tunic as if he feared she had contaminated him somehow.

Kathrael hurriedly covered herself again and made for the nearest alley where she could escape notice from others in the crowd who might have seen the man’s reaction. The stab of hurt she had felt at his look of horror took her by surprise—she would have thought she was immune to such things by now. Perhaps it was because he had seemed as though he might be kind. Once upon a time, she might have used him somehow, playing on his sympathy for a poor, beautiful girl fallen on hard times.

Now, though, she was very much on her own. After regaining her bearings and making sure no one had taken any further notice of her, she rejoined the crowd trickling through the gate and headed in the direction of Vesh’s temple, keeping her head down.

The sun was high in the sky when the impressive structure of wood and stone finally came into view. The new temples dedicated to Deimok were mostly shining white, built of polished marble and financed by the Emperor of Alyrios, sitting safe in his golden palace on the mainland across the channel. By contrast, the temples of the Old Gods still looked to be part of nature, made with local materials and designed to blend in with their surroundings.

Vesh’s temple was dedicated to Naloth, god of rain and male fertility. Kathrael had always felt more of an affinity with Deresta—the goddess of the sun, fire, death, and warfare—but one did not go to Deresta’s temple to beg for succor. Indeed, by rights, she should be visiting the temple of Utarr, Naloth’s mate. For it was Utarr’s Prayer of Solace that had risen earlier from the depths of Kathrael’s memories, promising the chance of aid.

However, what she would be seeking was more than a simple meal or a handful of coppers to pay an irate landlord. To have any chance of success, she would need to find someone there who had cared for Vesh and might place value on their shared connection with him. Given that Vesh would have been stripped of all his titles and associations within the temple immediately upon running away, it was admittedly a gamble. That said, Vesh had been the kindest and best person Kathrael had ever known. She was confident that someone here would remember him in the same way she did.

The doors to the temple had been thrown open to let in fresh air. Kathrael was pleased to see that there were few people coming and going, and that the entryway was attended by a pair of acolytes who were barely more than boys. She approached them, eyes down, clutching her shawl over her scarred face so it would not slip free at an inopportune moment.

Addressing the younger, softer looking of the two, she said, “Please, brother, my situation is desperate and I have nowhere else to turn. I cast myself on your mercy. I beg you, can you take me to the kindest of the novices? I can barely bring myself to speak of the terrible thing which has befallen me.”

From the corner of her eye, she watched the boy’s expression transform from one of pleasure at being addressed as if he were in a position of power, to concern and sympathy as he took in her words and the way she hid part of her face as if ashamed. Without saying a single untrue word, she had conveyed to him that she had been assaulted, probably raped—perhaps impregnated. He would assume that the shawl over her face hid signs of a beating.

Most such victims chose to appeal to Naloth, as the arbiter of male behavior, so the situation would not be an unfamiliar one to either of the two acolytes. And, indeed, the youngster immediately moved to reassure her.

“Peace, sister,” he said. “You have come to the right place. There are many here who can help you.”

Kathrael hunched as if cowering, hiding her face further. “Only, I cannot—I cannot bear the thought of speaking to some gray-haired priest who would remind me of my f-father. Please, it must be someone young. Someone gentle, who will not judge me.”

Those words, spoken in a voice quavering with suppressed emotion, perfectly described Vesh. She could only hope that like had called to like during his time here.

“Of course,” said the acolyte, placating. “I know just the person. Come with me. I will take you to Novice Hameen. He is young, and he has always been kind to me.”

“Thank you,” she said, allowing relief to color her voice as she laid her free hand on his forearm and squeezed. “I didn’t know where else to go. Thank you.”

“We are all here to serve, sister,” the boy said, obviously pleased by the fawning. “Come. Follow me.”

Kathrael allowed herself to be led into the relatively cool darkness of the temple. The acolyte guided her to a small, comfortable room with several seats and a low table holding food and wine. As soon as he left her to fetch Novice Hameen, she fell on the bread and fruit as if it might disappear at any moment, washing it down with wine straight from the jug.

How long had it been since she’d had access to as much fresh food as she could eat? She couldn’t even remember. At the sound of approaching footsteps, she quickly rearranged everything that was left so that it looked a little less like the aftermath of an attack of gluttonous rats. When the novice entered, she was seated on the low wooden settle with her hands twisted in her lap, waiting quietly.

She glanced up at him, trying to gain an impression of his character—a skill she had cultivated during her days as a prostitute, and one that had stood her in good stead. Physically, Novice Hameen was Vesh’s opposite in every way. Obese where Vesh had been skinny, even-featured while Vesh’s features had exhibited a slightly asymmetrical character that served only to make him more interesting to look at. Hameen’s eyes were also an unusual shade of pale gray, very different from Vesh’s rich brown.

All of that was unimportant, however. Like Vesh, Novice Hameen projected an aura of compassion—a soul-deep kindness that could not be hidden or dimmed. He was also more or less the same age as Vesh had been. Kathrael let out a silent breath of relief, suddenly and irrationally certain that the two must have known each other.

“Welcome to the temple of Naloth,” Hameen greeted in a clear, pleasant voice. “I am at your service, sister. What troubles you?”

Kathrael’s heart pounded for a moment as she chose her words. “Brother Hameen, thank you for speaking with me. I believe we share a friend. Were you, by any chance, acquainted with a young novice who went by the name of Vesh?”

Hameen raised his eyebrows and regarded her in surprise. “Forgive me. That is not at all the subject I expected us to be discussing.” He paused for a moment. “Surely you do not mean Novice Ta’vesh?”

It was Kathrael’s turn to frown. “I knew him only as Vesh. A slender person, with a small gap between his front teeth, and his nose slightly bent as if it had once been broken?”

Hameen drew in a sharp breath and sat down rather abruptly in the chair across from her. “That describes Ta’vesh exactly, yes. His nose was broken when he was fourteen years old, by one of the other slave boys. I helped him set it, but it never healed quite right.”

Kathrael swallowed hard, surprisingly affected by being here with someone else who had once called Vesh a friend. It had seemed since his death that without her to remember him, Vesh would disappear as if he had never existed. To know that others remembered—that others had been affected by him—was strangely comforting even as it made her grief rise once more.

“Do you know where he is?” Hameen asked eagerly, before bringing himself visibly under control. “I’m sorry. By rights, I should not even speak of him. He was formally cast out of the temple after he ran away.”

“He is dead,” Kathrael said. “Stoned to death by a mob last week, outside of the city.”

Hameen’s eyes closed in pain. “I had feared the worst, ever since he left. Yet even so, it’s somehow worse to know that he survived so long, only to perish in the end.” When he opened his strange, pale eyes again, they were wet. “Tell me, sister, how did you come to know him?”

“He befriended me when we were both living on the streets. We looked out for each other… or tried to.” She lifted the shawl away from her face, meeting Hameen’s gaze with her own. “He kept me alive and nursed me back to health after this happened.”

The novice examined Kathrael’s face without flinching, though his dark eyebrows drew together in sympathy. Although she avoided her own reflection like the plague, she knew perfectly well what he was seeing—scarred skin that had melted and run like wax, framing her useless, milky left eye. The burns extended down the left side of her neck and over the top of her breast, thankfully covered by the high neckline of her tatty, threadbare dress.

“What happened?” he asked kindly, and she suddenly realized that, aside from Vesh, he was the only person who had ever cared enough to ask.

She raised her chin. “I was a prostitute. We both were,” she said, daring him to make an issue of it. “We were good, too. I could always tell if a man was safe to go with or not. This particular man was a good client. He always paid generously, and he never wanted anything too strange or distasteful in return.”

Her attention turned inward, sliding back to that awful day the previous winter. “I didn’t take his wife into account, unfortunately. She found out that he’d been spending the household savings to visit me. The man was a metalworker. One evening, his wife came to the inn where I always serviced him. She burst into the room and yanked me away from him by the hair. Before I could push past her and get to the door to run, she threw a vial of something at my face. I learned later that it was green vitriol. It’s used to dissolve metal when making etchings.”

Hameen winced.

“I didn’t stop to think—I just ran. It wasn’t so bad at first, but then it started to burn everywhere it had touched me. I couldn’t get it off. Whenever I tried to wipe it away, it just spread the fire. I don’t know how I managed to get back to where Vesh and I were staying, but somehow I did. One of the other women there wanted to soothe the burns with oil, but Vesh wouldn’t let her. I remember that he dragged me out to the well and kept pouring buckets of water over me until I thought I would drown. At some point I must have passed out, because that’s the last thing I remember from that night.”

Novice Hameen had raised his hand to cover the lower part of his face in dismay as she spoke. When she finished, he took a deep breath as if centering himself, and returned it to his lap. “Ta’vesh’s father was a metal smith. He would have known that oil would only make it worse. You are correct that he probably saved your life.”

“Whereas I was unable to return the favor and save his.”

“The friend I knew would no more have blamed you for such a thing than he would have blamed the sun for rising in the east,” Hameen said.

Kathrael was silent for a moment. Vesh might not have blamed her, but she still blamed herself.

“He grew careless of his safety in his attempt to earn enough coin to keep both of us fed,” she said eventually.

“If that is the case, then he must have thought you worth the risk.” The young priest settled back in his chair and regarded her frankly. “Now, tell me what has brought you here. As appreciative as I am of knowing Ta’vesh’s fate, I don’t believe you sought me out solely to exchange memories of our beloved friend.”

“No.” Kathrael looked down, and then up again, preparing herself to lie to the first person who had shown her real kindness since Vesh’s death. “I am utterly destitute, Brother Hameen. I have no means of making a livelihood. I cannot even beg—my face repels everyone who sees it. And yet, I am compelled to undertake a pilgrimage.”

Hameen’s brow crinkled again. “What sort of pilgrimage?”

“I must travel north to seek out the Wolf Patron, and try to convince him to aid us here in Rhyth,” she said, forcing herself to meet Hameen’s gaze squarely as she spoke.

There was a pause as the novice digested this.

“You speak of High Priest Senovo, the wolf-shifter of Draebard?” Hameen asked.

“He was Rhytheeri long before he fled over the mountains to live as a northerner,” Kathrael said.

After the war five years ago, everyone in the south knew the story of the Wolf Patron, though numerous wild tales had grown up around the central truth. Senovo’s parents sold him to the Priests’ Guild as a young boy, when they could no longer afford to feed all of their children. He had grown up a slave, but he showed the intelligence and temperament required for eventual initiation into the priesthood.

Or so his owners had thought. When the High Priest ordered him to be dragged into the temple and forcibly castrated, Senovo changed into a wolf and tore his tormenters limb from limb. Only one survived to tell the tale, though he died of his injuries not long afterward. The wolf ran off and escaped into the wildlands, only to surface years later in human form as the powerful High Priest of the northern Draebardi tribe.

Along with the Draebardi Chieftain—rumored by some to be the Wolf Patron’s lover—High Priest Senovo commanded an army of wolves that repelled an attempted invasion by the Alyrion Empire. Rhyth, situated on the southern coast of the island of Eburos, had maintained a lucrative trade partnership with the Empire in the years before the Emperor of Alyrios attempted to expand his reach by conquering northern Eburos. Since the unsuccessful incursion, however, the north had all but cut ties with Rhyth, turning instead to new, far-flung trading partners on the continent. Rhyth’s supply of ore and gemstones from the productive northern mines had been strangled until it was a bare trickle.

Without valuable raw materials to trade, Rhyth was falling out of favor with the Empire, and now the city was struggling for its very survival.

“Perhaps the tales of the Wolf Patron’s southern roots are true,” Hameen allowed. “But what you propose is still an immense undertaking. Beyond the central fact that a young wolf-shifter did escape from the Temple of Deresta some years ago, the story is more legend than not.”

“No,” Kathrael said. “You’re wrong. It is true. Being a prostitute puts a person in a position to hear a lot of talk. After a while, you gain a sense of what is truth and what is wishful thinking.”

She didn’t add that she had made it a lifelong mission to ferret out all the information she could about High Priest Senovo of Draebard. She also had one additional advantage that no one else knew about—she’d met the spineless son-of-a-bitch personally, on a sweltering summer day almost six years ago when her life had first begun sliding toward ruin… all thanks to him.

Chapter 2: Vengeance

“NEVERTHELESS,” HAMEEN SAID, “you must be aware that the Priests’ Guild does not give credence to the so-called prophesy of the Wolf Patron.”

“Well, of course they don’t,” replied Kathrael. “The story doesn’t exactly place them in a good light, does it?”

The priest shrugged. “Perhaps not. But, you must agree, the idea of an escaped slave returning as a figure of power to lead a slave rebellion sounds more like wishful thinking than reality. Such things happen only in stories.”

Kathrael studied Hameen for a moment. “Tell me, Novice Hameen—were you a slave before you became a priest?”

“I was not,” Hameen said after a short pause. “My parents purchased me a place as an acolyte when I first displayed unnatural urges for other boys as a youngster. Though I know, of course, that Ta’vesh was a slave before he was chosen for initiation.”

“And I suppose your parents also paid for pain medicine and sleeping draughts for you during your novitiate? To ease your castration?” Kathrael asked pointedly.

“They did.”

Her voice grew accusing. “Vesh had no such comfort or assistance.”

Hameen looked pained. “I am aware. But slavery has been a reality in Rhyth for countless generations. It will take more than one shape-shifter to change it, however distasteful you or I might find the practice.”

“So you won’t help me?” Kathrael prodded.

The eunuch sighed. “I didn’t say that. What, precisely, do you require of me?”

“Sandals,” Kathrael said without hesitation. “A blanket. Traveling rations. Money, if possible.”

“I cannot give you enough food and drink for such a long journey. Even if I could, you wouldn’t be able to carry it all.”

“But the rest?”

“I will find you a pair of sandals. And you may take my blanket—you have more need of it than I, whether you decide to attempt this journey or not. Stay here, and I will see if any coins have been deposited in the alms box that will not be missed.” Hameen peered at her for a long moment. “I am doing this in Ta’vesh’s memory, though he would probably not thank me for it. The pilgrimage you describe is fraught with danger, especially for a woman traveling alone.”

“He’s not here anymore to disapprove,” Kathrael reminded him, “and you have my sincerest thanks.”

Hameen stood. “I’ll pray for you.”

“I’m not certain anyone has ever done that for me before.”

The novice shook his head. “No. Ta’vesh did, I feel sure. It wasn’t the gods he was fleeing when he left the temple, it was the men.”

Kathrael swallowed around the hard lump that rose in her throat, and nodded. “Perhaps so. Thank you again.”

“Wait here. I’ll return for you once I’ve gathered what I can.” Hameen looked vaguely uncomfortable for a moment. “Afterward, I will take you to one of the back entrances to depart. You should not allow yourself to be seen if you can avoid it. The senior priests would not approve of what I am doing.”

“I understand,” she told him.

When he left, Kathrael ate the rest of the bread and stowed as many of the tart mayapples as she could fit into the pockets of her skirts. Before the sun had reached the top of the king’s grand palace in the west, she was hurrying out of the temple through a small, little used door, laden with a sleeping roll and a bag of dried meat and cheese. A tiny ceremonial dagger nestled in the ragged sash tied around her waist—an unexpected addition.

Kathrael wondered if she would ever encounter Novice Hameen again. It seemed unlikely, as she fully expected to lose her life before she could successfully achieve her goals.

She hoped he would not be caught and punished for his unsanctioned generosity—her conscience was already heavy enough as it was.

* * *

There was no point in tarrying. Though it was already mid-afternoon, she might as well get underway. It wasn’t as if she had anything holding her to the city, after all. And the sooner she was out of it, away from the crush of people, the safer she would be.

It was easier getting out than it had been getting in. She kept to the shadows and quiet side-roads, years of practice at remaining unnoticed holding her in good stead. She joined the crowd at the gate heading back to their homes outside of the walls after a day of commerce, and passed through unremarked. Not only were the guards more lenient about letting undesirables out of the city than letting them in, but also her bundle of possessions gave her an air of legitimacy despite her ragged clothing.

Once beyond the walls, she kept her head down and let the crowd carry her along until it started to thin. Her stomach was beginning to ache and gurgle unpleasantly, protesting the unexpected feast of fruit and bread after so long with almost nothing. Still, she was determined to get out into the rural areas north of the city. There, she could find a quiet patch of woods and hunker down for the night where no one would be likely to stumble across her while she slept.

The buildings and huts around her grew farther apart, separated by expanses of pasture and tilled land. These were the smallholdings, mostly owned by freefolk eking out an existence from the land. When Rhyth had been at the height of its power, there had been relatively few such holdings. Now, opportunity inside the city was drying up along with the trade across the sea, and anyone who could was moving back to the countryside.

Kathrael had grown up working the fields, but not here. She had been a slave on one of the large plantations further from the city, owned by some fat, wealthy noble who only deigned to ride out and survey his lands once or twice a year. Those places still existed, and from what she had heard, they were worse than ever as the overseers tried to extract even more labor from the slaves to meet the ever-increasing quotas demanded by the owners. With the raw materials and ore from the north cut off, the rich turned to agriculture to support their outrageous lifestyles… and the grain they sold was grown on the backs of slaves.

It was probably ironic that she had spent years as a prostitute extracting money from the same sort of men who had once owned her. They had been happy enough to pay her to dance and entertain their posh friends at the endless, decadent parties—orgies, more accurately—that seemed to serve as a sort of status symbol in the wealthy parts of the city, near the palace. Yet it never would have occurred to them to pay her for her years of backbreaking labor in the fields.

Fuck them all—every last one. Kathrael was going to tear down everything in this world that had tried to destroy her. She would see the slave owners thrown out into the streets, stripped of everything they’d stolen from her people, or she would die in the attempt.

The last few smallholdings were finally behind her, and the sun was dipping toward the horizon. Every muscle and joint in her body ached, unused to covering such distance in the space of a day. Her feet were on fire despite the too-large sandals Hameen had given her. She looked around. Her surroundings were uncultivated, a mixture of trees and grass. She left the road and made her way down a gentle embankment, to a flat area surrounded by shagbark trees.

The nuts were still green at this time of year, though she would have probably braved the resulting stomachache and eaten them anyway had she not managed to acquire food at the temple. As it was, she made a careful inventory of her supplies before the light faded, and measured out a small portion to eat.

Even though her gut was still churning from her earlier meal, she slowly chewed and swallowed the modest handful of dried goat meat strips and hard cheese. She did not know exactly how far away Draebard lay, but it was a long, long way. She knew it took people on foot a week to walk from Rhyth to the mountains. She would not only have to do that—she would have to cross the mountains and then travel on even farther, into the barbarian lands.

It would need all of her strength, and that meant eating as much and as often as she could.

It was dark when she finished her pitiful repast, washing everything down with weak, watered wine from the skin Hameen had given her. The wine would not last long in the summer heat, though she could stretch it by continuing to water it down further for a few days. After that… well… there were plenty of rivers running through the southern lands. The water in some of them was safe to drink, and the water from others wasn’t. She would have to make do.

There was no need for a fire in the warm, humid weather, and lighting one would have drawn attention to her presence that she did not want. With nothing left to do, she unrolled Hameen’s blanket and laid it on the ground. It smelled of sandalwood, and with no one here to see her do it, she buried her nose in the rough wool and breathed in.

It took time for her exhaustion to overcome the pain of her blistered feet and aching muscles, but eventually, she slipped into a heavy sleep, feeling a sense of freedom and purpose that she hadn’t known in months… if not years.

* * *

Sunlight filtering through the leaves woke her the following morning. A light breeze from the north brought relief from the humidity. Kathrael’s thin, starvation-weakened body protested movement with sharp aches and stiff, popping joints when she stretched. A moment later, her feet chimed in, reminding her of the blisters that had risen over the course of the day yesterday, as the straps of her unfamiliar footwear rubbed against the skin.

She flopped onto her back, and stared up at the ever-changing mosaic of leaves above her. It would be so easy to stay here. To rest for a few days and work her way through the bounty of food she’d received from the temple until it was gone.

It was nice here. No one would bother her. It would be so much easier.

You were never a quitter, Kath.

The half-heard whisper sounded exactly like Vesh. Kathrael bolted upright and whipped her head around, filled with irrational hope that the movement at the edge of her vision would coalesce into the slender, dark-haired form she knew so well. But it was only the wind rustling the grass. Her racing heart slowed, mired back into the dull listlessness of grief.

“Go away, Vesh,” she told the empty glade. “You’re dead.”

The whisper of leaves moving in the breeze sounded like distant laughter.

Kathrael gritted her teeth and forced her body into motion. There was little that needed to be done before she could start moving again. She rolled up the blanket, ate a bit of cheese, and relieved herself in the tall grass. It was less painful to go barefoot, so she let the sandals dangle from her fingers as she climbed back up the slope leading to the little-used track she’d been following. With a brief glance at the sun to make sure she hadn’t gotten turned around, she headed north.

By midday, she was struggling badly. The obvious thing would have been to stop and rest, but innate stubbornness, combined with confusion due to heat and exhaustion, had Kathrael convinced that if she stopped, she would never be able to start again.

The stretch of road she was on ran through a bit of forest, winding this way and that around trees that were too large and numerous to be easily cut down to clear the area for pasture or cropland. At least it was cooler in the shade. After taking a long drink of watered wine—now unpleasantly warm—from her wineskin, her thoughts began to clear. Ahead, she could just make out the sound of voices. There were two, both male, talking and laughing raucously. And they were coming her way.

She froze, caught in a moment of indecision. Should she hide, or keep walking? But then it was too late. The pair rounded the bend in front of her and paused. Caught, she fumbled with her shawl, drawing it quickly forward to obscure her scars.

“Well, well,” said the one on the right. “What have we here?”

They were young—not boys, but barely men. The one who had spoken was tall and broad. The other was a few inches shorter, but wiry. Both were well, but not ostentatiously, dressed. Overseers’ sons, perhaps, or members of a merchant family traveling from one village to another. The sixth sense that had kept Kathrael safe for most of her life immediately started tingling, raising the fine hair at the back of her neck.

“What’re you doing out here all alone, love?” asked the one on the left, as the pair started walking toward her once more.

Kathrael turned her head to further obscure the left side of her face, but glared at them with her good eye. “I’m traveling. What does it look like?”

The broad one laughed, and the sound grated like a rusted axle. “It looks like that dress you’re wearing is more holes than cloth—that’s what it looks like. Where did a little beggar girl like you get that nice blanket and satchel? Did you steal it?”

“Maybe we should take a look in her bag. See what’s in there. It might be money.”

“It’s moldy cheese and a bit of dried goat. Let me pass.” Kathrael’s free hand went to her sash, seeking the reassuring form of the dagger nestled there. Never mind that there were two of them, each towering over her, and she was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion.

“Nah, I don’t think we will,” said the wiry one. “Not until you let us have the bag.”

She pulled the dagger free. It suddenly seemed very small and inadequate.

The broad one laughed. “What’s that you’ve got there? A knitting needle? If you had another one, maybe you could mend that shawl.”

Inspiration struck in a flash. She grabbed the shawl and pulled it back, revealing her face. Both of the men flinched, and the broad one took a step back. She bared her teeth. “Go ahead,” she snarled. “Come a little closer. Touch me. Touch my satchel. I’d love to see what the two of you look like after you’ve caught the face-melting plague. Maybe you’d both like a kiss?”

The wiry one was still frozen in place like a statue, but his friend grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back. “Fuck!” he cursed. “You stay back, you crazy bitch!”

Kathrael took a step toward them, and spat at the wiry one’s boots. He danced back as if he feared the gob of saliva might eat through the leather and contaminate him somehow.

“Naloth’s balls!” Her target started hustling his friend around her on the road, giving her a wide berth. “Go find a hole to climb into and finish dying, you vicious cunt!”

Kathrael glared after them. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got some people I need to take with me when I go.”

“Leave her,” said the other. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Kathrael watched them hurry away, casting occasional glances at her over their shoulders as they kept to the side of the track, as if afraid to even walk on the same ground her bare feet had touched. She felt suddenly powerful, even as the familiar, crawling horror at what had happened to her face skittered through her stomach. Exhaustion momentarily banished, she turned her back on the rapidly disappearing figures and continued on.

By the time she collapsed onto Hameen’s blanket, hours later, her exhaustion had returned tenfold. At least she’d managed to find a place to sleep near running water this time. After a night of restless sleep interrupted by bad dreams and throbbing pain, she spent a few minutes soaking her aching feet in the trickling brook. Some of the blisters had burst, and would no doubt infect. Her soles were bruised and scraped from walking miles barefoot the previous day.

She looked at her torn, threadbare underskirt for long moments before ripping strips from the bottom and using them to bind the worst of the damage. The sandals actually fit a bit better over the added bulk of the makeshift bandages, but even so, she could barely walk for the pain. Steeling herself to go on regardless, she shouldered her meager belongings and limped forward toward the line of mountains visible to the north, keeping her good eye focused on the distant goal.

By mid-morning, she was curled up by the side of the road, having broken her self-imposed vow not to stop, no matter what. Every step was agony. At some point she’d stumbled and, just as she had feared, once she’d gone down she couldn’t find the strength to rise again. Now, the sun was beating down on her, making her head swim. Her wineskin was still more than half full after she’d filled it in the brook that morning, but she was afraid to drink it. Once it was gone, she had no way to get more if she couldn’t even walk.

She thought that maybe she should want to cry, but all she could do was stare into the distance, blinking occasionally and feeling nothing.

She had no conception of time passing, but when her attention finally caught on distant movement in the direction from which she had come, the sun was high overhead. It was an emaciated donkey hauling a cart, with a figure walking alongside. Kathrael watched and waited, her shawl pulled up across her face, well aware that she couldn’t get away even if she’d wanted to. A short time later, the cart pulled up next to her.

“Whoa, there!” said the drover. The donkey came to a stop and immediately cocked its hip to rest a hind foot, head drooping as if in sleep.

Looking up with her good eye, Kathrael tried to get a sense of the stranger. She was struck immediately by his face—his upper lip was split like a rabbit’s. The strange gap in the flesh extended up to his nose, disappearing into one of his nostrils. She couldn’t help staring; it was odd to see his gums and front teeth through the missing part of his lip, as if he was unfinished, somehow.

Upon seeing where her attention had landed, the man raised a hand, positioning loosely curled fingers in such a way that his disfigurement was hidden—obviously a habitual nervous gesture.

“Are you all right, miss?” he asked, the gap in his lip making some of the words come out oddly.

“No,” Kathrael said honestly. “I need help. I have to get north, to the mountains, but I’m not used to traveling. My feet are blistered and bleeding, and I can’t walk anymore.”

“Oh,” said the stranger, still hiding his lip and not meeting her gaze directly. His eyes flickered back to the cart, laden with melons. “Um, my employer would cane me if he found out I’d overloaded the donkey… but, well, you don’t look like you weigh much. I could maybe take you to Penth, if you wanted? That’s where I’m headed.”

His nervous eyes skittered back to her, awaiting her answer. Instinct propelled her to shift her shawl back a bit, enough to give him a glimpse of her face. His breath caught.

“I’d like that very much,” she said.

“What happened to your face?” he asked, completely guileless.

“I was burned,” she said, rather than getting into the details. “What happened to your lip?”

“I was born this way. The midwife figured someone had put a curse on my mother.”

Kathrael smiled up at him softly. “It must not have been a very good curse if she ended up with a son as kind as you.”

Perhaps she should have felt guilt at manipulating such a simple soul, but she could find none as he smiled back, letting his hand fall away from his face. “You want to ride on the back?” he asked. “I can pile some of the melons higher to make space, but you’ll have to make sure none of them fall out.”

“I can do that,” she said. “What’s your name? I’m Kathrael.”

“They call me Mouse, ’cause I look like a rodent,” he replied, looking away again.

“What does your mother call you?” Kathrael asked.

“Livvy,” he said. “My mother calls me Livvy.”

“Well, Livvy, would you mind helping me up? I’m afraid I’m a proper invalid at the moment.”

Her rescuer scrambled forward to help her to her feet, and gave her his arm to lean on as she hobbled to the cart. There was a rough board braced across the back of the thing, and Livvy rearranged the produce until he could take it off, giving her a place to sit with her feet dangling down off the edge. She eyed the rather precarious looking pile of melons and leaned back against it, using her arms to block the places where it seemed most in danger of collapsing once they set off. When she was situated, Livvy grinned at her and headed back to the front to get the donkey moving again.

Their progress was slow and bumpy, and Kathrael occasionally had to lunge after a stray melon attempting escape. Conversation was difficult in the rattling cart with Livvy out of her line of sight, walking beside the donkey. She gathered after a few shouted exchanges that he had been sent to Penth by his employer, who was also his uncle, when the man had heard that vendors in the village were paying high prices for produce after blight had destroyed the local crops.

It was a two-day trip, but Livvy’s uncle still expected to turn a tidy profit even after giving his nephew enough coin to stay overnight at a town along the way.

“You could… uh… stay with me,” he called over his shoulder, stumbling a bit over the words. “If—if you need a place to sleep tonight, I mean.”

“In fact, I do. That’s very generous of you, Livvy.” Kathrael felt herself returning to firmer ground. She recognized that stammering male hopefulness of old. And she knew now that even with her disfigurement, she had the means to pay her debt to her unexpected benefactor using a form of coin that she had long assumed to be completely devalued.

* * *

Hours later, the cart rattled and juddered its way into a collection of ramshackle buildings clustered near the convergence of two rivers. To call the place a town was being somewhat generous, but this was apparently to be their destination for the night.

“We’re here!” Livvy called back to her, as he guided the donkey to a falling-down barn near what Kathrael assumed was the way-house. A boy emerged from the sagging structure, all elbows and knees and sharp, jutting cheekbones. He and Livvy conversed in low voices as Kathrael set about the painful process of getting down from the back of the cart.

While it had been a relief not to have to walk, the jouncing, jarring ride had done little more than add a new set of aches to her existing ones. Her head pounded from the combination of exhaustion and the hot sun. Her back and shoulders were knotted with strain, and her feet still felt like they were on fire.

Nevertheless, she was determined to walk into the way-house under her own power, so she gritted her teeth and forced rebellious muscles into use. Her gait was hitching and stilted as she gimped along. Livvy noticed immediately, and hurried to offer her a supporting arm.

“Easy, there,” he said. “You look like a stiff wind would fell you.”

“I’ll be all right,” Kathrael said, trying not to lean on him too much. “It’s just cramps from sitting in the wagon so long.”

Her companion frowned, dubious. “Well, if you say so. I paid the boy to care for the donkey and watch over Uncle’s produce tonight. Let me get us a room and you can rest while I see about dinner.”

“And here I thought we’d be dining on melons,” she joked weakly.

Livvy laughed, his free hand coming up to cover his harelip—a nervous tic. “Gods, no,” he said. “At this time of year, even the thought of eating melon makes me ill.”

The proprietor of the way-house was a sour-faced old man who eyed them with suspicion as they entered. Kathrael twitched her shawl forward a bit more over the side of her face and straightened away from Livvy’s supporting arm as much as possible.

She let the men’s voices wash over her and tried not to draw attention to herself as they haggled. How different things had once been, when drawing men’s attention was her livelihood. And yet, she had drawn Livvy’s attention easily enough today. She let him help her up a short flight of stairs that squeaked and flexed alarmingly under their weight, down an uneven hallway to a crooked doorway standing invitingly open.

The room could have been moldy and infested with fleas, and it still would have been the nicest place she’d slept in for weeks. Surprisingly, though, it was fairly well kept. The straw mattress sat on an actual bed frame rather than the floor—which had been swept recently. The small table nearby held two candles and a flint striker.

Livvy deposited her on the edge of the bed, and she had to stifle a moan of pleasure at the idea of sleeping on something softer than the ground.

“Why don’t you lie down for a bit while I bring up some food?” he asked.

She smiled and nodded silently, though she had no intention of lying down. The gods knew when she’d be able to get up again, once she did.

Dinner was thick gruel and weak ale that smelled like horse piss. Kathrael wolfed it down without tasting it, manners forgotten in the face of hot, nourishing food. When the bowl was scraped clean and the flagon, emptied to the last dregs, she came back to herself enough to notice Livvy watching her while trying not to be obvious about it. A faint flush of embarrassment traveled up the unscarred side of her neck to color her face.

She willed it down. After tomorrow—assuming Livvy was still willing to take her all the way to Penth—she would never see him again. Let him stare his fill. At least he had helped her.

“You, um, you must be tired,” he said when they had both finished the humble meal. ”I can… take a couple of blankets and sleep on the floor, I guess.”

She stilled. It was time to pay for her passage, aching body or no.

Continue to Chapter 3-4

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