Chapter 3.2: Turn of the Screw

CWs: confinement, drug references, unpredictable temper

Prison.

          Kiera was a criminal. She’d broken out. That was why she was so different; why Isaiah was so unnerved by her.

          Part of me was starting to agree with Kiera – not that that was fair to Jaylie. But she was bad enough now. What on earth had gotten her put in here in the first place? I scanned her face for some clue, some hint.

“Tell me how to get out,” I insisted, trying to hide the rising panic in my voice – and failing, I could at least acknowledge that much. “Tell me!”

          For the first time in the conversation, the genuine – or maybe genuine – part of Kiera seemed to creep out. “I wish I could. If it was as easy as that, do you think I’d be so angry?”

          “Fuck you!

          “Out here? If you insist, but there is a house.”

          I was ready to snarl something else at her until it clicked. “There’s a house?”

          “Well, yes. You don’t think I spent hundreds of years roughing it, did you?”

          “Hundreds of–?

          She shrugged it off. “This way. If you’re going to be stuck in here with me, you might as well be comfortable.”

          Not in a million years, I thought, fuming. I stayed in place as she took a few steps in the woods, then glanced over her shoulder.

          “Also,” she said, definitely smirking, “it’s going to start raining in a few minutes.”

          “Bullshit. You don’t know that.”

          “Suit yourself.”

          Fucking—I hated her. I hated her so much, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I’d cared so much about her well-being. No, she was a self-satisfied wretch who was quite happy to fuck up everybody else’s life for her own joy. How had I so quickly looked past the fact that she was a cold-blooded murderer? I—

          The rain started all at once. I’d expected a bit more warning. One moment I was standing in a relatively-sunny, dry clearing. The next I was drenched. Like someone had poured a bucket of water over my head.

          Kiera reappeared, clearly holding back an ‘I told you so’, took off her coat, and put it over my head. I was tempted to throw it into the mud, but I was far, far too cold for that. “This way,” she said, a smile playing around her lips.

          “I’m gonna kill you.”

          “Join the club.”

          “How big is the club?”

          “Larger than I’d hope, but I brought it on myself,” she replied, still looking a little too entertained by the whole thing. Once we were under the canopy, at least, the rain wasn’t as bad; she seemed remarkably unfazed by it overall. “Besides, if the Morrigan couldn’t find a good way to make me stay dead, I doubt you will.”

          “The – the who?

          “My godmother. So to speak. Although she’s long since officially disowned me.”

          I let myself curl my hands into Kiera’s coat, pulling it close around my head. I’d never heard Kiera so much as mention a family. Although from the sounds of it, there was a reason for that. Unbidden, unwanted, I found myself feeling that draw again; that sense of familiarity. By all rights, she should have felt less familiar like this, in the faerie form that she seemed to drift into when she was destabilizing or losing control, but it was kind of… comforting. She wasn’t hiding anything this way. She didn’t have the face of someone reasonable and kind with the bad temper lurking somewhere unknown. “Is this a real place, then?”

          “Hm?”

          “I mean – you knew it was going to rain.”

          “Oh, well, that’s a bit more complicated. This is a piece of the Schwarzwald.”

          “The – what?”

          “The, ah…” She pulled a face. “Give me a moment. Dark forest? Black Forest, I think.”

          The Black Forest. I’d heard of that. “Is that Dutch?”

          “D—” She laughed, and I tried not to blush in embarrassment. “No. German. This is Baden, or was Baden, I suppose. I don’t know what this looks like in your time.”

          “My time,” I said, almost forgetting to be afraid. “How long ago was this? Is this?”

          “Oh, I can’t do the math. Emperor Heinrich der Siebte – the Seventh – so, well, a long time. I’m pretty sure the Empire doesn’t even exist anymore.”

          “Which Empire?”

          “Proving my point,” she said with a small smile. “Holy Roman Empire.”

          “Roman–?”

          “Not those ones,” she added. “Not that I ever paid attention to them. I knew who the king was because after the debacle with Tryggvassen, it was pretty obvious that ignoring human affairs wasn’t a good idea overall.”

          “Trig…” I stopped, resisting the urge to stomp my foot. “I didn’t know talking to you was going to require a history lesson.

          “How do you think I feel?” she replied. “Whole world passed me by.” She said it jokingly, but I could feel an edge underneath it. She’d clearly heard it too; she cleared her throat and took a few steps ahead of me.

I focused instead on navigating the woodland terrain below my feet. I’d never been in a real forest before. The closest I’d ever been was an overnight stay at a place called MacSkimming’s, and while there were a few similarities, MacSkimming’s had been bordered by highways and overhead power lines. This was different. There was no sound of nearby cars speeding along asphalt, no whir of planes, no bootprints in the soil, no discarded candy wrappers or cigarette butts. When I clambered over a fallen trunk to follow Kiera, it was because it’d been left where it had fallen, moss grown thick and slippery over the rotting bark. It was gross, sure, but it was also a stark reminder that there was nobody else here. No humans. No other people. Just me, and the woman who might not kill me.

There was something disturbing, I thought — even as I stumbled in the mud again – about the fact that Kiera was probably the scariest thing here. Maybe there was a bear, or some wolves, but I had the distinct sense that went against the idea of the prison.

A moment later, I found myself ankle-deep in a puddle. Maybe I was worrying about the wrong thing entirely.

“You are entertainingly unaccustomed to the world outside cities,” Kiera remarked. She was watching me again, hands in her pocket as the rain that made it through the canopy fell onto her. She barely seemed to notice.

“Technically, Elmvale is suburbia.”

“Elmvale? Sounds pretty woodsy for you to be dodging those mushrooms like they’re going to bite you.”

I was avoiding the mushrooms on the treetrunks. And I wasn’t going to let her make fun of me for it, damn it. “Mushrooms can be dangerous! I hear bad things about mushrooms, Kiera. Do you know how many people die because they thought they could tell good and bad mushrooms apart? Too many. It’s a high number.”

Kiera snickered again, although her smile seemed more genuine than usual, somehow. “Then don’t put them in your mouth, Jamal. Is that such a struggle for you?”

“I feel like you’re making a dirty joke at me and I don’t appreciate it.”

“I wasn’t trying to. If you really want me to—”

“Shut your mouth.”

She just grinned, then strode past me, plucking one of the mushrooms from the ground and tossing it in the air like a tennis ball. “Besides, these ones won’t hurt you. Much.”

Much?” I tried not to squeak. She sort of had the evil-witch vibe as it was.

“Spitzkegeliger Kahlkopf.”

“Sp- Whatty-what?”

“Spitz… Never mind.”

I thought you were Irish,” I grumbled. “What does that mean, anyway? Because that sounded like German.”

“It is. I don’t know how to translate it, but they’re not poison. They just make for an interesting night.”

I was about to ask again, then caught her grin, and felt my face turn a little red. “Ah. Magic mushrooms.”

“Is that what you call them in English?”

“Don’t ask me. I don’t do drugs.”

“Are you always this neurotic when you’re more than five minutes from a gas station, or am I just lucky?”

I groaned, tempted once again to throw her coat at her. “I’m in the middle of nowhere with a serial killer. It’s amazing I’m not in a worse mood.”

“It is, actually. From you, this is practically cheery.”

“You –” I stopped, jaw working behind my lips and my blush just getting worse. She was teasing me. On purpose.

She slid the mushroom into her pocket – not that I wanted to know what she planned to do with it – and gave me another of her strange, searching looks. I found myself thinking about Will. Will, who’d been ready to kill Kiera, not because she hated her; but because she’d been devastated, betrayed. Will hadn’t fallen in love with her, exactly; it was never so simple or grandiose as that, and besides, I had a dim view of love-as-motivation to begin with. But Will had seen something in her. Maybe the same thing I did, or the same thing I was seeing now.

What happened? I found coming to my lips, and I held it back before I pushed her into another of her moods, another disconnect from reality where she’d lose whatever grip she had. What happened to you?

“The castle’s a little farther on,” she said after a bit, but I could see something creeping into her eyes anyway. It was subtler in here, the hollowness. Probably because the world wasn’t warping around her.

“A castle?

“I had a lot of time to kill, even before they put me in here. They let me keep it.”

“A castle.”

“Why does this surprise you?”

“Were you a princess or something?”

At least I knew pretty quickly I’d jammed my foot into my mouth again. She practically flinched. “…The Courts don’t have princesses,” she said, and I noted that – like before – there was a carefulness to her words. Like she’d chosen them specifically. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her do it, but everything in here was… different.

“How do they work, anyway?”

“I don’t particularly feel like getting into it.”

“Great. Maybe I can annoy you into letting me out.”

She stopped for a moment, shoulders falling in clear annoyance. “What part of prison was difficult for you? Do I look like I’m hiding keys somewhere?”

“This sounds like your home—”

“It was. A long time ago. There’s a reason I broke out.”

“You can’t break out again?”

“I can try. It takes time.”

“How long?”

“God, you are annoying at close quarters.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “…First time took me about fifty years. But that was a fluke, and it didn’t get me anywhere. I was only out for all of a fortnight before the Fraulein caught on.”

Fifty y—

“Didn’t even bother trying again for a couple centuries, then the next time, it took me almost a century on its own just to get a hole big enough in the walls.” She ran her hand through her hair, pulling back the sodden locks from her face. “And I’m pretty sure the only reason I got away with that was because the Fraulein and the others were distracted by the Protestants.”

“…You know I’m only understanding about half of this, right?”

She gave an exhausted chuckle at that. “I told you the Courts pay attention to human affairs because they have to. Second time I got out, they were getting all excited because of another major schism in Christianity. I could have told them not to get their hopes up, but that’s the Courts for you.”

“I guess faeries avoid the Church just as much as everyone else.”

“Shit, it’s the whole reason I’m here.

I blinked, straightening up. “Wait, what?”

Kiera sighed, walking back through the treeline. I stumbled after her, then blinked against the sudden sunlight. The rain had stopped or at least slowed to a drizzle; the forest had faded away into a few straggling saplings at the edge of a stream. She turned, following the stream upriver, and I thought she wouldn’t answer me at first. When she did, it wasn’t much of an answer. “Before the Church got so threatening, nobody cared so much about the rules. That’s all, really.”

“So, what, you’re mad that you actually got in trouble for something?”

“Sure. Let’s go with that.”

It was weird, I had to admit, being the one chasing after Kiera instead of the opposite. It wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go, and if I nagged her enough, I’d find some way to get out. I wasn’t stupid, though. Her sword was buckled at her hip, and I could feel the comforting weight of my knife in my pocket. But she hadn’t even done anything. She hadn’t hurt me. She—

She still trapped you in here.

Not on purpose. I thought. She’d let Jo leave, but had that really been her fault?

You’re making excuses for her again.

Maybe I was.

So I did probably the stupidest thing I’ve done in a long time, and it was up against some stiff competition.

“Kiera.”

“What now?

“Why do you hate Jaylie so much? Just for being a changeling?”

Every time, without fail, she’d reacted with violence or seething rage to the question. I needed to remind myself of what kind of monster I was locked up with. I needed to keep myself scared. That didn’t mean the snarl that ripped out of her throat startled me any less. “The little witch lets you take a blade for her and you’re still defending her?

“She hasn’t done anything—” wrong, died on my lips as Kiera strode towards me, and I finally saw it. It was almost easier in here, without the hallucinations, without the shapeshifting, without the distractions.

Kiera had me backed up against a tree. “She was born. That’s enough. And if it’s not her, it’ll be another fucking wechselbalg, and I’ll kill them too if I have to.”

Christ.

I tried to still my shaking hands. “You didn’t answer my question—”

She grinned so widely that her teeth glinted in the sunlight. “Funny. I thought I was clear.”

“So you hate all changelings.”

“Was I unclear?”

I took a deep breath, trying to tell myself I wasn’t imagining it. The switch between the casual, almost normal attitude, and this – Sure, people had bad tempers. But there was something wrong with it. “What’s my name?”

“What?”

“What’s my name?” I repeated. It had clearly caught her off guard. It was the first thing I’d thought to ask, and I could feel my heart ache as she stared at me, caught in a moment of weakness, caught in… something.

Because she wasn’t answering.

“You don’t know it, do you?”

“What kind of idiot do you think I am?” she snapped, voice still harsh and full of thorns. It didn’t cover up that she was stalling. Then, a few moments of silence later – “Jamal. You were really waiting for an answer?”

I didn’t say anything. She turned and walked away, clearly waiting for me to follow her. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have much choice, did I? But I rested where I was for a moment, feeling… oh, I didn’t know. Sadness, or horror, or something in the middle.

I pulled out my phone, not really expecting much. To my surprise, though, it had service. “What on—” I muttered to myself – then kept myself quiet. Kiera didn’t need to know. I could figure out why later. No messages. Apparently nobody else knew, either.

I scrolled through to find Jaylie’s number.

JAMAL: Important question.

JAMAL: Howd you know you were a system?

Let her believe any reason she wanted for why I was asking. Hell, maybe the little ‘service’ bar was lying to me, and she’d never see it at all. But everybody kept telling me how observant I was, and more than once, I’d felt like I was talking to two different people over the course of minutes or seconds. Now, after talking to Jaylie and the crowd that lived in her head with her…

…what if I was right?

More importantly, I thought, nerves prickling over my jaw, does Kiera even know?

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