Masquerade of Souls.
|The hottest period of summer began in Renezar a few days ago, but Mr Morr never cared for his slaves when it came to profitable business. Annabel felt helpless before the biggest garden she'd ever seen, and before all those apple trees about ten feet high each. She'd been working since morning, gathering for the best apples and picking them from the highest branches though she could barely reach them without a ladder. Nobody watched her this time, but it wasn't making things easier. The Garden's chef was very captious about products' quality and had known that Annabel was responsible for providing some of them. If she wasn't careful enough, there would be a fuss which usually was very hard to quiet.
Annabel wiped her forehead, covered in sweat, and looked up in the sky. It was getting too hot – the sun was in the middle of the blue summer dome, in its apogee. It was, at last, time to finish. Her basket had been filled with giant red apples and weighed her to earth. When pulling it down, she wished Mr Morr would choke on a piece of that apple pie he'd have for supper. Her hands hurt so much she couldn't stop wincing every time she moved them, she couldn't straighten her back because of dull pain.
"Hey, Dave," she called for an old man who worked in the same garden, "I'm done here. Can you please take away that ladder?"
"Of course, Ann, go home. You have to rest," the man smiled at her with a somewhat concerned look. "You have bruises under your eyes."
Annabel grinned in response, "I will. Thank you, Dave."
She took three other baskets that had been waiting for her and headed up the path that led out of the garden. People were still working around her, coming up and down their ladders, picking the best fruits they could find, some of them were watering the trees or cutting off bad branches. And though Annabel felt like she would be free to rest as soon as she returned to The Garden, she knew she actually wouldn't. Elijah had a gift for getting a new hobby for those who had nothing to do.
By the time she made it to the main street, the sun had almost totally melted her. Because the baskets were big and weighty, Annabel had to stop every ten or fifteen minutes to wipe her face again and again, but it didn't help even once. It was obvious that summer wasn't Annabel's favorite season. Although the weather was extremely hot and uncomfortable, villagers somehow were managing enjoying it. She looked around and saw men and women laughing, working as they did usually, relaxing under canopies. They never noticed a sixteen-year-old girl who was carrying four baskets of apples, and Annabel was kind of thankful for that they weren't bothering her. It's better when you're angry and tired alone than when you share your anger with somebody else and you both become equally angry. Annabel stopped to rest a bit and placed the baskets on the cobblestone. In front of her there were steps that leaded down the street, pretty wide and long and winding, so she had to recover before fighting the path. They were the last stage after which Annabel could sit on the cart and make it to The Garden quicker and easier. At the thought of it, the girl exhaled loudly and smiled in relief. At least, it wasn't too difficult to get to the end of those steps.
She just picked up all baskets when somebody collapsed with her from the back and pushed her forward. Before she could move her legs in order to prevent falling, she stumbled and threw her hands out, but baskets with apples tucked her down, and she hit the ground hardly. Pain struck her shoulder and her right side. The baskets fell down the stairs, and all apples got lost among people and animals.
"Hey, watch out where you move, little witch," a rough voice spat down at her from above. It belonged to a big, broad-shouldered farmer who was pulling a giant wooden box with his back turned to the road. He couldn't see what was behind him, so he didn't notice Annabel standing there. But it wasn't Annabel's fault, was it?
"'Where you move'?" The girl forced herself to stand up, though her body felt like a piece of beaten beef. "You're telling me to watch out where I move? You cretin, do you know for how long I'd been picking those wicked apples? I've sweated like a horse, I'm dog-tired, I don't feel my hands, and you're telling me to watch out where I move while you can't even turn your stupid head and just look around once!" The farmer looked at her with mad eyes, his jaw opening and shutting again as he wanted to cut Annabel off, but she wouldn't let him. "And don't you selfish fathead try to jump on me! Just keep your mouth the hell shut before you got less teeth in it."
The farmer seemed to be stuck. He didn't understand how to respond, so he just stood on his place watching Annabel go down, her gait unsteady because of pain. She couldn't believe that all her half-day-long work had been for that stupid farmer to ruin it. The apples were everywhere, they went far down the street, and some of them had been already eaten by a hungry horse. Annabel crouched down to pick them, and felt sharp pain in the shoulder again. She lifted it, but it didn't help. Each time she wanted to reach another apple, her shoulder scowled and trembled, it probably was dislocated after a bad falling. Nothing critical, but it definitely made the day difficult. Annabel had an urge to whirl and throw a basket away, to break somebody's hand, and to shout at everybody, but the only thing she had is to continue and make it to The Garden before the chef and Elijah went mad at her for being too late.
Annabel was too exhausted and busy to notice that people were watching her all that time. Among villagers, there was a young man whose attention she'd drawn the most. He smiled slightly at her diatribe against the farmer, and thought in astonishment about how still and confident that girl was. And of course Annabel couldn't know that the stranger decided to watch her a bit closer.
Elijah hated when she was late.
"You had to return an hour ago," he said coldly when Annabel went past him with as casual look as she was capable of making. When she didn't react, Elijah crossed his hands on his chest. "Annabel," he called, "I said, you had to return an hour ago."
"I am not deaf, Elijah, I heard you," Annabel half turned to him.
"Where were you?"
"You know, working in the garden in the hottest day of month is nothing simple. Maybe you should try it instead of barking at me."
Although Annabel was comforted after those words, as she'd always been if she was lucky enough to criticize the watcher, Elijah didn't really like them and left her without supper. Moron, she thought, but didn't fight him, for she was too tired of anger. Usually it was difficult for her to fall asleep with her belly empty, and it certainly wasn't a good thing to sleep with pain in the bruised (or perhaps popped) shoulder, but this time Annabel felt exhausted. Sleep just covered her mind like a thick black blanket and pressed her to the bed, leaving her in the absolute dark for the whole night.
Could Annabel know that Elijah's sulky nature would bother her even the next day?
"Being so sure of yourself never plays good with you, Ann," said the watcher with a mocking grin when Annabel told him there wasn't a breakfast for her. It was entirely clear that Elijah was still mad at her for being late with apples and for unnecessary commenting.
"What have you done?" asked a little boy who seemed to notice Annabel and Elijah's comfortless conversation.
"Nothing to be left without food for," Annabel throw a sore glance at where Elijah had gone.
Moreover, Elijah decided to give Annabel even more work to do in the village, though she guessed Mr Morr wouldn't like it if his slaves fainted because of hunger.
"Bring all this by eleven, and you'll get your dinner as usual." The watcher handed her a list for shopping. Nothing special, as she could see, only products and some stuff for servants. "But be late for a minute," Elijah added, pointing his index finger at Annabel, "and I'll give away your plate to someone else."
Annabel mocked him while he couldn't see and went down the stairs to harness the horse.
The village wasn't that friendly as it always used to be in the early morning, mostly because Annabel's stomach was whirling and growling, not letting her concentrate. When she got to the marketplace, she couldn't remind herself to start looking for what she had to buy. Instead she was licking her lips on the sight of plenty of fresh food and drinks. Annabel was too hungry to think about business. I deal with my stomach first, then I deal with shopping.
Annabel passed by a few stalls, choosing something to pick. There was a clumsy fruit seller who didn't even notice when she reached out for an apple and grabbed it, keeping walking. But apple wasn't enough for a girl who hadn't been eating since the last dinner. Annabel looked around, but there were too many people to see through. She managed to steal a loaf of bread from a man's bag while he wasn't looking, and that was all – it suddenly turned out that it was half past ten, and she hadn't bought anything for The Garden yet.
"You know, I start supposing things I surely don't like," Elijah arched his eyebrow, meeting Annabel at the front gate with her cart full of different stuff.
"Elijah, the wheel just went off and I had to replace it, and-"
"Yeah, I see. Stop acting, Annabel, you're a bad actress at this point. It's been fifteen minutes as you had to come back. I warned you. Get off," the watcher waved his hand at her, and Annabel jumped down the cart with a frustrated scowl.
"You're free until I call you."
Elijah took the horse by the reins and went through the yard with it in tow. Annabel stayed near the gate, totally desperate. Too many things had happened in a very short period, and it somehow wasn't under Annabel's control. She just couldn't be in time everywhere, but how was she supposed to explain it to the watcher? He treated himself as something bigger than a young man with a whip, and it was quite hard to reassure him. Maybe, one word for Mr Morr, and Elijah's confidence would be shattered like a glass? You're not one to find out, anyway, Annabel thought angrily. She was mad at herself for such a lack of boldness, but it still seemed to her she was absolutely helpless about it. Elijah had been guarding her so attentively she was afraid to sleep, being sure he'd break in her dreams. His words, spoken on that day he caught her committing an escape, were still stuck in Annabel's head. She was still afraid of him.
The girl whirled and looked up the valley where the village was. Then she looked over her shoulder, and the only thing she noticed was her empty stomach growling again. Maybe she was afraid of Elijah's revenge, but at the moment she was too hungry to care. At last, he said it himself that she was free. Annabel sighed, feeling that that apple wasn't good for her belly, and headed up back to the village, ready to start real surviving.
Annabel was glad she had time to learn how to pick something from stalls or pockets because it had given her a lot of good since she was thirteen. She was able to steal books from a small private library in a trader's house, though she never dared to steal books from Mr Morr, for it was too dangerous. Sometimes she was lucky enough to bring some sweets and fresh bakery and share it with the kids, and all of them once and for all had vowed never to tell anybody about that. This time, Annabel had to concoct a plan on how to make money or a stash of food she would use if something went wrong with her work again and if Elijah decided to play a vile boss on her. She walked through the streets of the village, carefully looking for something to steal or maybe for something bigger than that. Something like a stall with great wooden stuff – boxes and small chests – carved by the master who was talking to his clients at the moment. On his neck, there hung a huge emerald pendant. It definitely cost a lot, especially if Annabel had a moment to sell it to the resident Korhanian trader. The girl smiled to herself and made a deep breath. That thing would give her money she would spend on food and some goods, but Annabel had to steal it first. Not the most difficult task.
She closed in to the stall and looked over the wooden boxes. Perfect works, certainly worth their price. Nobody who cared for their masterpiece would ever let such a thing be wasted by giving it away for free. Annabel's hand reached for one of the most beautiful boxes, the one with white gold on its lock and with fantastic plants carved on its sides, but the trader, just as she expected, noticed her before she could move.
"Hey!" he cried out and tried to seize Annabel by the hand, but the girl had already pushed all people aside and ran a few metres away from the stall. She wasn't running fast, though, so the trader had a chance to catch up to her. He eventually knocked Annabel off her feet and fell on her, pinning her to the cobblestones with his big hand.
"You dirty thief," he barked, rising and taking the wooden box from her. Annabel lay on the dusty road, out of breath, bruised again. "You must be grateful I didn't break your slick fingers, you scum," the trader added after taking a few annoyed breaths. "Go away before I did it, you heard me?"
Annabel nodded hastily and sprang to her feet. The trader seemed to care much more about his priceless wooden box than about the emerald pendant he wore. He used to wear. When he left and returned to his stall, all mad and stressed out, Annabel had already been on the other side of the street, hiding behind a building with something weighty and smooth gripped in her palm. When she got a moment, she unclenched her fist and let the emerald freely hang down the massive golden chain. What an incredible fool, she thought with a wide grin and even let out a short laugh. Korhanian's money had been waiting for her right behind the next wall.
"What do you mean 'fake'? How can it be fake?"
Annabel couldn't believe what she was hearing from the merchant. The emerald wasn't actually an emerald.
"Young lady, I've been in this business for many years," said the Korhanian somewhat haughtily. "And I'm sure I can tell fake emerald from real. This one," he took a gem in his hand, "is nothing more than just a colored glass. I'll buy it, but I won't give a lot."
"And the chain?" Annabel asked hopefully. "It's real gold, isn't it? I inherited it from my grandmother, and she was extremely fond of gold."
"The chain..." the merchant sighed, lifting what previously seemed to be real gold to the girl. "The chain is all the same. I can believe that your grandmother was fond of gold, but this is none of gold. It's painted steel, the cheapest souvenir from Taspar. Talented people make a good business on tourists selling such things as true jewels."
Annabel barely could stand on her feet. She had put herself under a risk only to find out her treasure wasn't even true. She shook her head irritatedly and looked up at the man.
"How much will you pay for both?"
The merchant lifted his shoulder and scanned the pendant doubtfully. He certainly wasn't eager to pay anything for such a jewel, but his crafty Korhanian mind had already planned a few steps ahead.
"Five tengos is the biggest money I can offer," he said at last.
Annabel's eyes widened.
"Five? Only five for all of this?" she scowled. The merchant nodded. "But you will sell it at least for twenty, maybe twenty five!"
"Yes, I will, but not because it costs so. So do you take it?"
The girl almost sobbed, but held herself from emotions and nodded quietly. Five steel coins was enough to afford a small loaf of bread, and though it was more than nothing, Annabel felt abandoned by the Heavens all of a sudden.
When she left the merchant's house, a young man she'd never met collapsed with her, but she only threw him a short 'excuse me' and headed down the route, to the marketplace and then back to The Garden. She hardly noticed the young man's smile, and how he ran his hand through his hair with satisfaction in his sly green eyes.
Elijah didn't have much of a mood in the end of the day. It seemed like children all around the house had annoyed him, and he tried to get rid of them as fast as he could, giving them extra job. Annabel noticed that some kids were exhausted after the entire day of hard work, but Elijah didn't care.
"Get off my back, Ann," he snarled. "Do your job and better do it quickly. Go visit Amelia, she has to give you a pack of new leather."
"But it's night soon," Annabel protested, "who does need leather at this time?"
"Don't argue, just bring it," Elijah growled at her, his dark eyes terrible in their evil gleam. Annabel didn't like such a tone of his, but she just grunted exasperately and left The Garden, taking a horse to ride to the village and be back as soon as possible. She guessed that was the last task for the day, and it seemed much better to her to rest a bit in the evening than to waste time walking over hills.
Amelia was a kind woman whose husband provided cow leather for Mr Morr's mansion. She handed Annabel a basket full of well-smelling folded sheets and waved goodbye with a smile on her plump face. She made Annabel feel a bit better, like not all goodness had disappeared from this world. Especially from this village, the girl thought sarcastically.
Before she had time to walk a few metres to where her horse paused to eat somebody's strawberries, Annabel noticed three men coming up the street, talking. The face of one of them was clearly recognizable, that was the trader whose pendant Annabel had stolen.
"Be careful when you take the girl. I don't want anything to happen to the emerald," he was saying to the others. They were big and impressively broad-shouldered, with their heads like bricks, and thick necks. Suddenly all three stopped right behind Annabel's horse and looked up, noticing Annabel not far further.
"Seize her!" cried the trader and pushed two men forward.
Annabel's heart fell. It looked like the trader had already noticed the loss and wanted his pendant back. And even if she told him the emerald was fake and everything, he would want revenge for that she robbed him. It was high time to get all energy together and run.
Annabel knew the village well enough to find good turns to hide, but her chasers were much stronger and faster, for they were making bigger steps, despite their bear-like size. Annabel looked back to see if they were near and jumped behind the corner. The sun had already sat, and moon was hidden under the cover of black clouds. It was difficult to see the way, so Annabel moved leaded only by her memory, recalling every junction and every wall she knew was near. Right, left, right again, now down the street, round the house. The basket with leather became a problem very soon. Annabel had to be careful with it, but at the same time it made her run much slower because of its weight. Damn it, damn it, damn it. Panic passed like a wave through the girl, she realized she was out of breath. When she looked back, the men appeared in her sight just in a few metres away, but they were closing in too quickly for her to escape. Sorry, Amelia, she thought and threw away the basket, keep running, feeling her heart pounding not in her chest, but in her ears. They were too close. Annabel turned right and went up the road, but suddenly heard rough men's voices.
"Hey, wait for us, sweetie," called out one of them. "We won't harm you, dear," almost sang the other. Annabel felt she wouldn't run from them, when somebody grabbed her by the shoulders and tucked behind a house, pressing a hand to her mouth and staying hidden in the shadow. Her first reaction was to get rid of hands that held her tightly, but a voice above her ear whispered, "Hush." Blood played drums in her head, she was scared, but she didn't move. Annabel heard a lot of loud footsteps behind her, and there was a moment she thought the men will notice her and seize, but they luckily passed by. "I told you she ran down there," said one of the chasers angrily. He was breathing quickly. Soon the footsteps faded away. A few seconds later hands around her relaxed, and somebody let her go.
Annabel didn't waste her time and made a quick step aside, turning to the stranger, ready to self-defend if necessary. Though the moon lit the street, breaking through the clouds, he was still hiding in the dark and laughed quietly.
"No need in fighting. Relax," and then he showed up. A young boy came out of the shadow into the light with his hands lifted in a gesture of peace, smile on his face. Annabel dropped her hands and exhaled. The boy seemed absolutely harmless. She noticed his thick curly hair that crowned his head like a kind of halo, and piercing green eyes that were smiling as well as his lips.
"Having problems, yeah?" asked the boy, nodding to where the chasers had gone. Annabel was breathing deeply, trying to recover.
"It's not your concern."
She peered out the corner, and when nobody appeared near, came down the road where the overturned basket lay, unfolded new leather spread all around it.
"Maybe it's not, but I helped you."
Annabel crouched down beside the basket to collect leather and wipe the dirt off it.
"Hey, you didn't finish the sentence." The boy seemed to be in a very good mood. He walked from behind the corner, put his hands in the pockets, making his long jacket flap back, and followed her down the path.
"What else am I supposed to say?" Annabel muttered, getting annoyed. She didn't want to talk to anybody at the moment.
"Well, I don't know," the stranger said thoughtfully. "Maybe something like 'You're my hero, what can I do to thank you, oh fearless, handsome stranger?' At least."
Annabel rolled her eyes.
"I said 'thank you'. You're now free from your hero's duties."
"How nice of you," the boy replied dryly. When Annabel didn't hear footsteps she hoped for, she turned her head, only to see the stranger waiting behind and watching her.
She sighed and folded the last sheet of leather, rising, ready to go. She didn't want those men to see her again and had to return as quickly as it was even possible, or her supper plate would be given to the dogs as well as breakfast and dinner.
"Why are you doing this?"
Annabel turned her head at the sound, confused, and frowned.
"Coming back there. Why don't you just run?"
Annabel froze. Who the hell was that boy?
"What are you talking about?" she asked, trying to act like she didn't get it.
"You know what I'm talking about. You keep returning to that nefarious place, although you want to leave it. Why?"
"Who are you?" Annabel asked angrily. "Are you Elijah's friend? He's sent you?"
"No, I don't know the guy," the boy smiled.
"What do you know then?"
The boy looked up, narrowing his eyes.
"I don't know much, but I've seen enough to say that you don't belong there."
Annabel snorted in exasperation and shook her head. Whoever that boy was, he was weird.
"Listen," she said, looking him directly in the eyes, "I don't know what you want from me, and who you are, but I'm telling you to leave me alone. What happens in my life is none of your business. I thank you for that you saved me and all, but we should end up here, alright? Keep going where you were going."
"Why don't you run?" he called after her when she had already been on the other side of the street.
"Because I can't!" she spat back, though she didn't really believe herself. She sounded strangely when she said that, sounded not like Annabel she used to know, used to feel like.
She ignored a sucking pain beneath her heart, anyway. It was time to eventually find the horse.
The world around Annabel seemed to spin. She felt dizzy after an unexpected marathon across the village, and she had to recover before coming back to The Garden, so cautious Elijah wouldn't notice something was wrong with her. But horse riding didn't help much, and Annabel was still breathing badly when she entered the mansion.
"Am I late?" she asked the children who were taking their rest in the common bedroom.
"Yes," said a twelve-year-old boy. He sat on his blankets, hands behind his head. "Elijah got annoyed. He gave your supper to Cobra and Peem."
At least dogs are happy, Annabel thought and fell down on her bed, moaning in frustration. "My stomach is now eating me from the inside out," she complained into the pillow.
"You haven't eaten anything since yesterday evening?" somebody asked. "You should go and eat before you faint or something."
"Elijah won't let her."
"You know what?" Annabel sat on her sheets and glanced meaningfully at the doorway, "I don't care about Elijah. I'm hungry. And I was working like an ox, so he can't leave me without food just because I was a little late."
"That's a big risk, but I appreciate it," a boy of almost the same age as Annabel smiled from under his blanket.
High-spirited and, for some reason, oddly energized, Annabel found her way to the kitchen, avoiding watchers who were walking around the mansion, and sneaked inside while the chef wasn't attentive. He exited for a few minutes, but that was enough for Annabel to pick some leftovers from the table and put as much of them as she could to her pockets. At the sight of fresh food Annabel's stomach growled so loudly she stiffened, afraid that somebody will hear. But when nobody entered the kitchen, Annabel let herself relax and crawled out, conspicuously peering at the back door. Robbing house residents and hiding from them wasn't the most difficult task for a girl who'd spent six years struggling for life and a place under the sun. It was necessary to learn if Annabel wanted to stay alive for long. She spryly made it through the corridors to the common bedroom even with her pockets full of food, and kids who were waiting for her saluted, started clapping their hands and calling Elijah the biggest moron ever. Annabel shushed them and gave every little child a fruit or sweet she managed to steal.
"Oh you little imps, let her eat in peace, you've just had your supper!" laughed a girl behind Annabel.
"If that supper wasn't a trash..." began one of the kids, but he didn't finish and put a cake in his mouth.
Annabel barely had time to enjoy her bread and ham, when suddenly Elijah's bitter voice came from the doorway.
"So you call it fun, don't you?" he snarled, looking directly at Annabel who seemed to care less than anybody else. Kids hastily hid their food under their pillows or pretended to be sleeping. Teens shifted uneasily on their places. Elijah was furious.
"No, I don't call it fun," Annabel replied, ignoring his dangerously narrowed eyes. "I'd rather call it hunger."
"You don't have a right to bring food to the bedroom."
"I didn't have my supper, Elijah. Thanks to you, I didn't have my dinner and breakfast, too. The only thing I was eating the whole day was your 'Bring this, do that, hurry up, I told you to return thirty seconds ago'. Do you think it's easy to bear all of this?"
"I don't think I care." Elijah's hand slipped under his tunic and got the whip out of the loop on his belt.
"Hey," Annabel felt disagreement overwhelm her like a wave of heat, making her face blush and her heart pounding. "Not in front of the kids, knight of justice."
"You don't want them to watch me beating you?" Elijah's lips curved into a vile grin. "Then let's go have a talk outside."
The whip moaned miserably in his hands, but Annabel was too angry with the watcher to get scared. She left her unfinished supper right on the bed and rose.
"Annabel," whispered a boy of ten with terror in his eyes, leaning in to her, but she passed by him and left the room, followed by Elijah.
"Who do you think you are?" the watcher hissed at her, coming closer. He was taller, wider than Annabel, he looked at her from above his height with his black eyes wild and crazy. Annabel knew why he was mad – he depended on Mr Morr's awareness of discipline that controlled slaves, and if there were any signs of slaves breaking the rules, the watcher would be the first to suffer. And Annabel had put Elijah under a very big danger, though it wasn't entirely her fault.
"If you wasn't such an unbearable ruffian, I wouldn't want revenge," the girl snapped back.
"You had no right to steal food," Elijah almost hunched over her, his fists clenched.
"I didn't want to die of hunger, you know."
Annabel turned on her heels and strode down the corridor, not sure where exactly she was heading to. Maybe, she needed some air after being so stressed out, or maybe she wanted to bother Mr Morr and complain about the watcher's behavior.
"Stop right now, or I don't blame myself!" Elijah shouted after her, and she heard his footsteps.
"You never blame yourself," she responded, turning to him, but kept walking "I'm tired of doing what you want. I'm tired of how you speak with me. I don't give a damn to what you think you are in this place. I just wanted to eat, I've never done anything to bully me for!"
Annabel turned her back on the watcher, but right the next instant he grabbed her shoulder and whirled her, ready to slap her in the face. Annabel noticed it before Elijah could make the next move, and pushed away from him. She ran. Elijah stubbornly followed her, and while Annabel was jumping from side to side, trying not to collapse with servants that weren't sleeping, the watcher rudely pushed them all aside. A sound like wild animal's growl came from his throat as he tried to catch Annabel by the tunic, but she slipped to the left and closed the door behind her. She realized she entered one of the rooms that had a few doors in its walls, so she ran to the one to her right. Another room, and then another one, and she again was in the corridor. Elijah saw her the very next second.
"If you think it will end any kind of well for you, you're making an awful huge mistake!" he said, but he had been out of breath already. Annabel ignored him and went up the stairs to the second floor where she could easily hide from Elijah's anger. Energy, called up by extreme and fear, let her move quickly. But she made only a few steps, and two shots came immediately.
Bullets landed on the wall, making deep holes in it, in a couple of inches from Annabel's face. The girl felt her heart stop as she heard the sound, her mind seemed to freeze, and then the room started moving. She pressed her back to the wall behind her, trying not to fall, but her legs trembled so badly, she couldn't stand and slipped down. Horrible pictures of what could happen a few seconds ago took her thoughts under control. Annabel's arms were shaking. He almost killed her.
Elijah stood in the middle of the room, shaking, too. He gazed at the girl in panic, his hand with gun miserably hanging at his side. A sickening smell of gunpowder made Annabel even more dizzy. She could barely see people who ran into the room, frightened but curious about what happened. Among them there was one of Mr Morr's most trusted valets, Darren. He looked between Elijah and Annabel, and understood everything right away as his eyes caught two white holes not far from Annabel's head.
"Darren," called a deep voice from somewhere above. Everyone looked up, but Annabel didn't. She knew that was Mr Morr. "Bring Elijah to me. Now."
Darren didn't waste precious seconds and pushed Elijah forward with the hand on his back. They went past Annabel who was still seated on the staircase, half-conscious, barely breathing. Elijah was shooting at her. He was ready to kill her. Everything felt wrong.
Somebody touched her shoulder. Annabel's vision blurred, and she didn't see who it was. She remembered only sitting on the stairs one moment, and being covered with a blanket, sitting on a couch in the living room, all shaking, storm of thought tearing her mind apart – the next. Nobody asked her anything, everyone was ordered to go to sleep, but Annabel had to stay and wait for Mr Morr to call or dismiss her. She couldn't stop thinking of what practically happened. She'd annoyed Elijah, she ran from him because he looked like a very big threat, and she was afraid he'd do something to her. She forgot about essential attention and didn't notice weapon in Elijah's closest reach. Somebody had given him a gun, why – she couldn't even imagine. But shooting inside the mansion had been definitely forbidden. Mr Morr was a man of a carping nature, he didn't want anything to happen with his expensive property. So why Elijah let himself do it? It couldn't be he hated Annabel so much...
Annabel couldn't hear any sounds from Mr Morr's room on the second floor, but it felt like something horrible was going on there.
In a few minutes, she heard a door open and saw Elijah coming out. He ran down the stairs and past her, shooting her one single scary glance, and then disappeared in a corridor. Annabel's stomach lurched when she noticed a huge forming bruise on his left cheek. Elijah's eyes weren't even full of hate. They were full of sad, woeful something. For a tiny second, Annabel thought she would spare him her pity, but held herself. She didn't believe all of that was true. Elijah definitely blamed her for everything, but it wasn't only her guilt.
Annabel felt like she'd been done for. It couldn't last forever. Running from people she loathed, from people who made her a slave, stealing food, crying into a pillow every night because she dreamed about her family, mostly of the day she was taken away from her parents... She told that stranger she couldn't run. But was it true? Elijah wasn't any kind of a significant boss. He was vulnerable, as well as everybody in The Garden. Maybe, she actually could run?.. She'd had a chance so many times before, but she'd left attempting, she'd left her hope after Elijah freaked her out three years ago. Now it felt like high time, but nothing actually could be done. She was still hungry, tired, cold, and frightened.
"Annabel!" Darren's voice called from the stairs, making her flinch. When she looked up, the man nodded slightly to where Mr Morr was waiting for her.
"So, Annabel," he leaned back in the chair, folding his hands on his belly. She stood before him, head low, heart pounding, just like all those flowers he used to show to his clients. When a thought of it visited Annabel's mind, she straightened her spine and looked directly at the man. No matter what he thinks about me. No matter that my hands are shaking. She was still a rebellion. She must at least look like one.
"Elijah told me you deliberately violated the rules I've set for everybody in The Garden. Is it true?"
"Yes," Annabel tried to make her voice sound still.
"Good. I love it when people don't fight the facts. Now explain why you did it."
"Elijah has left me without food for the whole day. I decided I deserve at least a supper."
"I'm sure you do. But sweet Annabel, I've always treated you as a very smart girl. I thought you know the rules." Mr Morr looked suspiciously at her and cocked his head to one side. "Don't you?"
Annabel turned away and nodded.
"So you know what I have to do now. And I hope it will never happen again, for you know how strongly I dislike punishment. I promise to do my part and take Elijah's anger under control, but you must remember who you are as well. Deal?"
Annabel didn't believe her ears. Mr Morr called it a deal. She looked at him again, hiding her amazement. That man was beyond her comprehension.
Mr Morr counted her silence as an agreement and smiled.
"Wonderful. You're much smarter than I used to think. And Annabel," the man leaned over his table, "I warn you, if you don't change your behavior, my tolerance can marvelously transform into dissatisfaction, and strictness as a result of it. Be careful. Don't test my patience, alright?" Annabel didn't stir, though his tone really scared her. It was difficult to stay at ease when those dreadful grey eyes were looking at you with an obvious threat. But Annabel didn't let herself think about it. Oleander. Oleander. She had no right to give in to him, no matter what everyone was saying.
Mr Morr grinned and leaned back again, absolutely relaxed. "Darren," he called. "Lock her up in the basement. Give water but nothing more. In the morning, free her before breakfast. You both can go." He dismissed them by the wave of his hand. Even despite the fact that nobody was shooting at her in that room, and nobody was ready to tear her throat like a tissue, Annabel was much more frightened in front of Mr Morr. She left his office with a sigh of relief.
On the cold damp floor of her jail Annabel felt even more than exhausted. Having the entire day almost with no food to recover life-needed resources of energy, but at the same time running and arguing, working and walking, she now hadn't any wish except sleep. But her thoughts were still lurking in her mind and, for some reason, kept returning to the stranger boy who saved her life the previous evening. Who was he? Why did he ask about running away? Maybe, he really had known something about her? Maybe, even more than she'd known? I don't know if I can run now. But I definitely could have run earlier. So what was wrong? She was too scared. Too pressed down to the earth by Elijah's ruthlessness, and by hopelessness Mr Morr had brought in her life. They both made sure she didn't try to escape again. She had ran from clients, she had hidden from punishment, she had bullied Elijah if she had a right moment, fighting his unsparing, lordly person. But since that day when she almost reached the meadow and was caught by the watcher, since being a thirteen-year-old revolutionary, Annabel hadn't thought of a new escape plan. She hadn't fought her fear. Was it what the stranger wanted to hear? 'Why don't you just run?'
Because I am afraid.
That night, she dreamed about her family again, but didn't have tears to cry anymore.