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 tell her.
Though I had many fond memories of my adventures here, this place scared me. Even the bravest fear the dark in these caves. Yet, there she sat on the cold floor of the cave, comfortable as a child on a bed of grass, tracing constellations in the sky. 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.
My feet found their way in the darkness, as always, though this time they rebelled, tried to take me away from my confession. For once, no part of me wanted to see my beautiful 'Stone Angel.'
We thought we knew best. The lies began for good cause; we lied to my sweet, stone-angel Duchess began so we could protect her from the reality of the world. We told her we went to a summit, rather than a gory field of battle. We kept our wounds hidden from her healing touch. Then, when we'd rendezvous—I shook my head. What's one more secret, among lovers already keeping a friend in the dark?
Tears blotted out eyes already blind from the blackness. I struggled to remember what purpose this truth-telling would serve. "He should have been mine, anyhow. She should have been the other woman, not me." That's what I'd told myself, then. Father trained me never to think of this moment, not to consider the possibility of confession, or even remorse. Who could deny 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, is that you? 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 ... um, 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 softer words, or more strength. "...not mine."
She kept looking forward, aware of my skittishness. "If it's mine to give, it's yours. You already know that."
I kicked at the rocks, burning to get in a fight, 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 dragged a breath, and sighed. I could never make her understand.
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, stopping as I flinched away. "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' around the time of Becca's birth, hiding deeper in my closets.
"This is one of your things, right?" She struggled to piece my words together. I tried to teach her cunning and guile. Nothing ever stuck. "Like your father taught, some kind of test? Because, you can't mean—"
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. "Drop the nicer act, or I will wring you out."
She wrinkled her nose like I'd said something silly, probably thinking about what I'd done to Merrick. She had no reason to fear my violent side, even without her healing power. 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.
I held my breath as she considered, waiting for my punishment. I deserved whatever she had for me. I could take it, though from her it would ache worse than anything Father had done to prepare me.
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 far away look, as if considering the plight of some long-ago, far-away, jilted wife. "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 the idea that she felt good about my trespass, though the 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. This had taken me to the edge of the plank; in my right mind, I would never speak so loud 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, but never on her. I nodded, biting my upper lip.
"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, for an instant.
She took my chin and forced our eyes to meet. "But you've suffered enough. 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."
She stretched, and stood up. "I should hope not. 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!"
"Then you'll have to marry the both of us! I know you feel the same about me anyhow." She spun around, looking down on 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. Everybody's 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?" She paused for effect, as she let the irony wash down my spine. "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 had said that, knowing it had not worked.
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 grab. "You could try." My burning eyes watered as they looked at her. She's already drained me of everything.
Her lips trembled as she 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 any more. Or, she could put on my grandfather's ring. I would never be able to resist her power—would never even try. Yet, I asked her not to bewitch me today. She swallowed. As a master thief, I always aspired to rob my friends of their burdens; I knew how she felt. "Please, lay down with me." She indicated a place, inches away 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 our 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. I laid down several feet away—a 'respectful distance,' I hoped—and curled up on the cavern floor, gazing at my Stone Angel as I drifted off.
As I pretended to sleep, Drensen's boots clicked toward us. Everything had been said. He sat down beside me. The smell of steel and oil from his armor brought us joy, even in this stone jungle. Joined with the sound of their breath, it soothed me beyond words, and I settled into sleep.