It's time you knew. Your husband and I, we have been... nevermind.
|I Have a Confession|
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I didn't know if Carolie would forgive what her husband and I had done—if I could even gather the courage to bring her in.
Though I had many fond memories of my adventures here, this place spooked me. Even the bravest fear the dark in these caves. Yet, there on the cold floor of the cave, comfortable as a child on a bed of grass, tracing constellations in the sky, sat the all-beloved Duchess Carolie. The music of her breath rang out, untroubled by the chaos that brought us here, to 'the mazes below,' a tangle of tunnels filled with living nightmares.
Even in the total darkness, my feet strode about, unhindered as always. This time, though, they rebelled, tried to carry me away from my confession. For once, no part of me wanted to see my beautiful 'Stone Angel.'
We thought we knew best, Drensen and I. The lies began for good cause; we lied to my sweet, stone-angel Duchess so we could shield her from the reality of the world. Rather than mention the gore of battle, we told her we went to a summit. We kept our wounds, aching for her healing touch, bandaged and hidden. With all that, when we'd rendezvous—I shook my head. One more secret, among lovers already keeping a friend in the dark.
Thief's tears blotted out eyes already blind from the blackness. I struggled to remember what purpose this truth-telling would serve. "Should have been mine, anyhow. Should have been the other woman, not me."
That's what I'd told myself. Father trained me never to think of this moment. "Never consider the possibility of remorse, let alone genuine confession." Who could blame a bandit woman, left alone to guard the treasure who should have been hers in the first place?
I shook my head and turned away.
In that moment, I sighed; whether from regret or longing, I can not say.
"Kissla? Come, join me."
I sparked my lantern and put my hand on her shoulder, voice tight with emotion. "We need to talk."
Her voice rang with pleasure at my presence. "We are."
She felt nothing for the gravity of my statement. Bereft of shadows to hide in, I cowered behind her back. "No. I ... heh. I've a confession to make."
"What are you worried about?" She motioned me forward. "I would never judge you."
"This is hard. I am a thief, born and bred: what I can take, belongs to me. This..." I swallowed, trying to find lighter words or more strength. I shrugged. "...not mine."
She kept looking forward, aware of my skittishness. "If it's mine to give, it's yours. You already know that."
Burning to get in a fight, I kicked at the rocks, aching to throw someone across the room, take a beating—anything but this. "No, wait. You don't understand. This outweighs everything else I've ever taken." I could never make her understand. I dragged a breath and sighed.
As if I hadn't heard her, she tried again. "There's nothing you could break, no trust that I can't heal. Out with it, Kissla."
"Well, I have a daughter, and..." I stopped for breath. The tension between my eyebrows began to hurt me.
She rolled over onto her knees to face me. "Really? Congratulations." Then, her smile fell into a look of concern. She reached her hand out toward my face.
I flinched away.
She stopped. "Did something happen? Kissla, I could have saved the baby."
I shook my head fiercely. "No. She — my daughter's okay. It's Becca." So far as Carolie knew, Becca had a different mother. I had taken a 'vacation,' hiding deeper in my closets until I could place Becca in a foster bed.
"This is one of your things, right?" Carolie struggled to piece my words together. I often tried to teach her cunning and guile. Nothing ever stuck. "Like your father taught, some kind of test? Because you can't mean—"
"Drop the nicer act, or..." I rested my forehead on my wrist and muttered to the dagger in my sleeve. Frustration struggled to break free. I needed to destroy something. "...I will wring you out."
She wrinkled her nose like I'd said something silly, probably thinking about what I'd done to Merrick's wrist. Even without her healing power, she had no reason to fear my violent side. I waited for her to answer, but she just sat there, thinking.
I struggled to breathe, thinking, Yell at me. Call for the guards. Anything. Don't just sit there. I sighed again and crawled up to her face until she had to put her hands behind her to keep from falling. No doubt she could smell Gregor's Moon Ale on my breath. I had drowned my soul in it, but none of his venomous hoodoo could calm my nerves. "This was the first thing I ever felt bad about stealing. I'd do it again, but I love you, Carolie." I put my hand on her ribs, hoping for some warmth between us.
She brushed my hand away, making me wish that she'd beaten it with a club. "I care for you, too. You have to tell me before I can forgive you." She reached up with her fingers as if to use her healing witchcraft on my spirit.
"I don't want your pity spell!" I slapped her hand away like she should have done to me. "Pull the gallows switch, but I can't have you bewitching me. I have to do this of my own will, or it's meaningless."
I could only guess the path that her mind took as she traced my words. I never spoke like that around her—we didn't even speak of the guards' duties in her presence. She smiled, the look she hoped I would have on my face. "You have my attention."
"Becca's father said not to tell you, but...." I frowned with the effort. "Time's up."
I'd never seen her so guarded. She kept reading my face for a clue of how to respond. "Who—Soren? Did you know that man before—"
I snorted, and slapped Carolie back onto her elbows. "No. Your husband!"
She choked on her sigh of relief and hid laughter in a cough as she considered what I had done.
Waiting for my punishment, I held my breath. Whatever she had for me, I could take it; I deserved it all. Though from her, it would ache worse than anything Father had done.
Her face twisted into a parody of fake anger. "This is ser—oh, I'm sorry, I can't." She smiled and slapped me in the shoulder. "You should have told me before. This is wonderful news."
"You've gone spell-drunk. I snatched your husband. We lied to your face. Doesn't that cut? Don't you feel anything?"
She got a faraway look as if considering some scratch she had long ago forgotten. "Taken care of him is more like it."
Why are you toying with me? She wouldn't do that, but nothing else made sense. I couldn't fathom that she felt good about my trespass, though—shadows know—I should have. She never seemed to have a care for herself. I raised my voice several notches, enough that someone might hear me. I stood at the edge of the plank; in my right mind, I would never speak so loud—not in a private conversation. "Hello? Carolie? Are you even in there?"
She shrugged. "I know what you want me to say: that I'm angry; that I'm hurt." She smiled, larger on the right side, and nodded.
I had seen that look on Duke Drensen's face a thousand times; never on her. Biting my upper lip, I nodded.
"Okay, if that's what you need to hear." She did a better impression of anger. Her voice became a touch more staccato. She pointed her finger at me, tapped the air in front of my chest. "Yes, I wish you had told me. Don't ever shut me out like that."
The familiar squirm of guilt brought some relief, but only for an instant.
"Surely, you've suffered enough?" She took my chin and forced our eyes to meet. "Admit it: you hate lying to me."
I sharpened my voice to a wintry whisper. "Crazy, over-washed, trumped-up wench." I pushed away from her, rolled off my knees, and sat with my back to her. I wrapped my arms together and sulked in silence.
I could feel her desire to bewitch me, to soothe my spirit. Instead, she laid back, put her hands behind her head to wait until I relented. She could give me as much time as the stone statues she so resembled.
"That chafed, I'll admit." I paused to think, then growled, long and low. "Oh, Carolie, you know I can't give him up."
"Now that we've lost the castle, and our people are on the run from dragons?" She stretched and stood up. "I should hope not."
I shook my head, unsure what I had heard.
"He needs his lover more than ever."
"What kind of wife would I be if I took you away now?" She rubbed her hands, excited. "I feel a wedding coming on."
"But he's already married. To you!"
"You'll just have to marry the both of us! You feel the same about me anyhow." She spun around, looking down upon me, a twinkle in her eye. "That's what makes it interesting. Gives the people something to talk about other than this pit we're in."
"It's against all the laws—it's not done, not since—" You mean, it's not one of the crimes Father gave you permission to do? I shuddered at my own hypocrisy but stood firm.
She ruffled my hair with all the arrogance of a noble and none of the propriety—exact opposite of her norm. "Don't quote the law on me, 'washerwoman.' There's no law here, away from the protective jurisdiction of the Dragon's Dominion. Every human is an outlaw. It's time we lived by our own rules."
"Carolie, no. I can't do this, I can't be..."
"A scoundrel? A maker of trouble and scandal?"
The irony washed down my spine as she paused for effect.
"What's mine is yours already; might as well make it official."
She looked sideways at me to see if I bought any of it. "If it makes you feel better, imagine your Father in Law's reaction." She winced after she said that.
I rose, shaking my head, and stopping after each word. "I. am. not. doing. this."
"Oh, you will—and, you'll like it. Or, I'll wring you out." She brushed my cheek but kept the hoodoo to herself.
I held out my hands for her to help me stand. "You could try."
My burning eyes watered as they looked up to her. She's already drained me of everything.
Her lips trembled as she doubtless considered, once again, how easy it would be to sway me. All she had to do was brush up against me—if she even needed that anymore. Or, she could put on my grandfather's enchanted ring. Either way, I could never resist her power—would never even try. Yet, I asked her not to bewitch me today. She swallowed. As a master thief, I too always aspired to rob my friends of their burdens; I knew how she felt.
"Please, lay down with me." She indicated a place inches from where she sat.
I walked away and paused a few paces out. "I should go."
She sat back down on her bedroll. "You had to have told him you planned to tell me."
I refused to answer.
"Then, he will understand." She resumed staring at the ceiling. "But, you may leave. If you can."
I lowered my eyes, like when pretending to be nothing more than a washerwoman, but still heard the strain in my voice. "Maybe, if milady will have me, I should like to stay." A joke, I supposed; some way to soften things. I wore so many masks I could never be sure who this Kissla really was: washerwoman, lover, intruder, spy, or friend. Several feet away—a 'respectful distance,' I hoped—I curled up on the cavern floor, gazing at my Stone Angel.
As I pretended to sleep, Drensen's boots clicked toward us.
Everything had been said; everything, done.
He sat down beside me. Even in this stone jungle, the smell of steel and oil from his armor brought joy.
Joined with the chorus of our breath, it soothed me beyond words, and I settled into sleep.