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Rhapsodic: Chapter 12

January, seven years ago

When Des appears in front of me, I’m a fucking mess. A handful of tissues are spread out around me. My face is wet and my eyes, swollen.

I look up at the Bargainer miserably, my entire body trembling.

He crosses his arms, his leather jacket groaning. “Who do I have to hurt?”

I shake my head, dropping my gaze. I don’t know why I called him. I don’t let other people see me when I’m like this. But I’m so tired of being alone.

Today was … today was a bad day.

“Give me a name, cherub.”

I wipe my eyes. I’m not done crying, but for the moment the tears have stopped.

When I finally meet Des’s eyes, I see he’s serious. It takes me a moment to realize that the Bargainer is pissed, and another moment to realize he’s pissed on my behalf.

And I’m codependent enough to actually feel better because of this reaction. “He’s an instructor,” I whisper, my voice hoarse.

Des sits down next to me, one of his wide shoulders brushing mine before he wraps his arm around me and pulls me in close. For the next five minutes he lets me just cry and make a mess of his leather jacket, my head tucked beneath his. His hand moves up and down my arm reassuringly, but the action is somewhat ruined by how menacing his presence feels.

Finally I manage to pull myself together, my body not shaking quite so much anymore. I push away from him a little.

Frowning deeply, he wipes the tears off my cheeks before cupping my face. “Tell me what happened.” I feel anger vibrating off of him.

I take in a shuddering breath. “His name is Mr. Whitechapel. He—he tried to touch me …”

But those aren’t the right words, are they? He did touch me. He wouldn’t stop until he’d pinned me down, telling me the entire time that I wanted this. That I’d been driving him crazy the entire semester. That he’d noticed every one of my suggestive looks.

He’d unbuttoned the top of my pants, he’d pushed my shirt up …

That was as far as he got. Too far.

I still don’t have full control of my gift, but fear brings it out. The siren told him to stop, told him to let me go.

And then I ran here.

And now I’m dying inside, falling back into who I was before the Bargainer saved me from my past.

I hate my face, I hate my body, I hate who I see in the mirror. I hate my ability to reel people in with a single look and command. I hate everything about me that makes me who I am. I hate that anyone can still make me feel weak.

I manage to get the story out, and then I begin to cry again. And again, the Bargainer pulls me into him. I lean my head against his chest, for once not thinking about him in a romantic sense. Just comfort.

“Cherub, I’m proud of you using your power like that,” Des eventually says.

Why that makes me cry harder, I can’t say.

“Want to know a secret?” he says, his hand smoothing down my hair. He doesn’t wait for me to respond. “People like him were born to fear people like us,” he says, his voice sinister.

I pause amidst my sobs.

What? What does that even mean? And why is he telling me this? I’ve been a victim my whole life. People like Mr. Whitechapel use people like me. It’s not the other way around.

“That’s a shitty secret,” I decide.

The Bargainer brings his lips close to my ear. “It’s the truth,” he whispers. “Eventually you’ll understand. And eventually you’ll embrace it.”

Unlikely. But I nod anyway because I don’t feel like debating with Des at the moment.

For about fifteen seconds I’m good—I might even be over it—then the memory of my teacher’s hands on my body drags me under all over again.

I don’t know how long I cry, only that Des holds me the entire time. I’m not sure I’m even crying about what happened today at this point. I think I’m crying about all those days when I didn’t get away in time.

Eventually Des moves us from the floor to the bed, humming some fae hymn beneath his breath. And eventually I stop weeping like a maniac and instead just hold him close like he’s my own personal safety blanket.

I nod off like that, wrapped up in the Bargainer’s arms.

The next morning when I wake, he’s gone.

It’s only later that I learn Mr. Whitechapel has disappeared. And that, when he resurfaces a week later and countries away, most of the bones in his body are broken, several teeth and toes are missing, and the Bargainer’s calling card is on his person.

No one can get him to talk about what happened to him. But he is apparently quite eager to discuss his gross misconduct with his students.

Students. Plural. Apparently I’m not the first.

Des is no longer just my savior; he’s also my vigilante. And I have to come to terms with the fact the man who let me cry in his arms is also the Bargainer, a wanted criminal known not just for his deals, but also his immense cruelty—the same cruelty the fae are infamous for.

And Lord save me, I am just fine with that.


Present

I’m still reeling when our surroundings re-appear.

My breath catches as I look around.

Des and I stand amongst ruins, the white marble glittering in the moonlight. Flowering vines wind around the worn arches and the toppled statuary.

The Otherworld.

The sound of rushing water surrounds us on all sides, the mist from it dappling my skin. I turn in a circle, staggering back at the sight of the giant waterfall that crashes against the opposite end of the outcropping we stand on, plumes of mist rising up around it.

“What is this place?” I ask, wonder entering my voice.

“The Temple of the Undying Mother—one of the first gods my people worshipped.”

Once more, Des wraps his arms around me. “Hold on.”

My arms slip around his waist as his wings unfurl. He tenses, his wings beginning to flap, the force of each stroke whipping my hair about.

Then the two of us rise, and I get a better look at the ruins. They sit on a small rocky island that protrudes out from the middle of a giant falls.

I tear my gaze away, only to find that the Bargainer has been watching me with those riveting eyes of his, his face soft.

The longer I hold his stare, the faster my pulse races and the more that old longing returns. I want to look away, but I can’t.

A smile begins to spread along his lips, and it’s so very different from his usual expressions.

“Where are we going?” I shout over the wind, just to break the moment.

His hold tightens. “My palace.”

The place where Des reigns. Despite my reservations being here, I’m excited to see it. I can’t even count how many times I wondered what it looked like.

We rise higher and higher into the night air, passing through one billowing cloud after the next.

A group of tiny glittering fairies—pixies?—fly past us, then circle around Des, chittering excitedly.

“Of course I’m back,” he says by way of greeting, “no, I didn’t bring any candy, and yes, she is pretty.”

I feel a gentle tug on my hair and hear the sound of high-pitched laughter. When I glance over my shoulder, I see several of the little fairies diving through my hair, playing what appears to be hide-and-go-seek. One of them has latched onto a lock of it that billows in the breeze, squealing with excitement.

Um … alright.

“This is Callypso,” Des continues. “Callypso, these are the pixies of the west wind.”

“Hi,” I say over my shoulder, trying not to freak out at the fact that little people are using my hair like a jungle gym.

“Fairies believe it’s a blessing to be touched by pixies,” Des says, quietly.

“Oh.” And now I smile.

One of them flutters over and pets my cheek, speaking softly.

“She says you have kind eyes.”

I can hear the pixie’s voice squeaking near my ear as the rest of them climb up my hair and perch on the crown of my head.

Whatever she says next wipes Des’s expression clean.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Nothing of importance.”

Angry chittering.

“End of discussion,” he says to the tiny pixie, his tone no longer indulgent. “Go ahead and tell the palace we’re coming.”

With a huff, the pixies scatter into the sky, ruffling my hair as they go. I watch them fly off until the evening clouds swallow them up.

“They were sweet,” I say.

“Mmm,” he says, looking distracted.

“What’s on your mind?” I ask.

“Nothing, cherub.”

That’s obviously a lie, but I don’t push.

We rise above another layer of clouds, and then the sky clears. An ocean of stars fill the night sky, brighter than any I’ve seen on earth. They’re so prominent, I feel I could almost reach out and touch them.

And then I catch sight of Desmond Flynn’s palace, and all thoughts of stars vanish.

Rising above the clouds is a castle made of the palest white stone. In the moonlight, it shimmers brightly, drawing attention to the tall spires and the maze of bridges and ramparts that connect them. Descending down on all sides of it is a walled city, every building made of the same milky white stone.

With the way the clouds spread out around the base of the city, it appears to float on the fluffy plumes. But as we get closer and the cloud cover dissipates, I can see the bottom of the slate grey mountain the city is built on.

An island in the sky. Impossible, and yet here in the Otherworld it exists.

Even the base of the floating island, appears to have been cut, chiseled, and faceted to look like more buildings. I make out columns and balconies, spiraling staircases and light flickering in cut glass windows.

“Wow,” I breathe.

Out of my periphery, I can feel Des’s gaze on me again, but for once, I’m too distracted to glance at him.

More pixies circle around us as we begin to descend. Soon I can make out the streets that run between buildings, and then I notice the fairies.

Most pause to watch our entrance. I feel every one of those foreign, predatory eyes on me, and I’m painfully aware that I’m a human in a land that enslaves my kind. I’m also aware that the Bargainer is holding me closer than necessary, and he’s making a very public entrance, as though he’s proud to show off the human in his arms.

Or that he just doesn’t give a fuck.

Knowing Des, I’m actually kind of betting on the latter.

He beats his wings faster as the white stone courtyard in front of his palace gets closer and closer. An elaborate bronze gate encircles the palace. Beyond it, men and women with pointed ears gather, their curious eyes trained on us. Several fae guards dressed in white and silver keep them back. They appear to be just as curious about us as I am about them.

Des and I land softly, his head bowed over mine. I step out of his hold, but I don’t attempt to shrug off the arm he keeps looped around my waist.

The crowd gathered around us is silent. Then, one by one, they begin to cheer.

I stare out at them, my eyebrows hiked up. Next to me, Des’s wings are splayed out, the span of them dwarfing us. If I’m being perfectly honest, I’d like to curl up in one of them and hide.

“Why are they cheering?” I whisper to him.

“There’s much you don’t know about the Kingdom of Night.” With that enigmatic response, he nods to our audience and then leads me towards the castle.

There are dozens of people gathered in the entrance hall—what I can only guess are his soldiers, officials, and aides—but none of them approach us, and Des doesn’t stop to speak to them, though he does acknowledge them with the tilt of his head.

My eyes move everywhere, because everywhere there is some enthralling sight to take in, whether it’s the massive bronze chandelier overhead whose flames spit and flicker like sparklers, or the ceiling that’s made to look like the heavens outside.

It’s all so impossibly lovely.

Des bends towards me. “I’ve wanted to show you this place for a long, long time,” he admits.

I tear my gaze away from my surroundings to look at him. “You have?” I don’t know what to make of that.

“I wanted even more for you to like it,” he admits.

My eyes move over his face before I catch sight of the simple circlet of hammered bronze that rings the fae king’s head.

His crown.

I touch his simple headpiece. “When did you put this on?”

“When we landed.”

He wasn’t carrying it on him, which meant … magic.

“It looks good on you.” It really did.

“I hate it,” he confesses quietly as he leads me down one of his halls.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’ve never felt particularly kingly.”

I realize then, as he leads me through his palace at the center of his kingdom, that a king is exactly what Des is. It isn’t just some pretty title, it’s all of this. Whatever parts of him I got all those years ago when he visited me, those were something else.

Back then, I had only seen his wicked side, his dirty deeds. I’d never seen his righteousness.

This is a side of him I don’t know. And I think it might be the best side of him.

His crown isn’t the only item he wears. Three bronze bands circle his bicep.

He sees where I’m looking. “War cuffs,” he explains. “For valor.”

A warrior king. And my lady parts were having trouble enough around him as it was. I’m now officially a lost cause.

Des leads me through the palace, nodding to people we pass as he goes. Their eyes linger on me, and most dip their heads.

I crane my neck to follow the fae woman who stopped and actually curtsied to me. Not just the king, but also me.

What in the world? Did he tell everyone that I’m here to fix their problems? Because I seriously doubt I’m going to get anything out of these humans that Des couldn’t.

“Where are we going?” I ask distractedly.

“To the servants’ quarters. You’ll be interviewing an off-duty nursemaid today.”

No sense wasting time, I guess. The thought of glamouring these humans makes my palms sweat.

“Have all the kingdoms stopped taking changelings?” I ask.

Des shakes his head. “Just the Kingdom of Night. The Kingdom of Day has considered it, but neither the Kingdoms of Fauna or Flora will.”

Which means that humans are still being plucked from earth.

“And yours are free? There aren’t any slaves here?” I ask.

“None, cherub.”

I nod to myself, wiping my sweaty palms off on my dress.

The servants’ quarters are located in an auxiliary building on the side of the palace. We exit the back of the castle and pass through a moonlit garden before we enter the building.

Inside, the space is only slightly less adorned than in the palace itself and the corridors a bit narrower. We stop at a dark wood door.

“Did you memorize the questions?” Des asks.

I give him a look. “I agreed to do this. I’m good for my word.”

“I’m taking that as a yes,” he says, searching my face.

It is a yes.

Des raps his knuckles on the door. A moment later it swings open of its own accord. Inside, a single human woman sits at a desk, her quill poised over a letter.

By looks of the living quarters—and the several pairs of boots in various sizes resting just inside the doorway—she must share the space with roommates. But at the moment, she’s alone.

As soon as she notices Des, she rises to her feet, bowing deeply. “My King, it’s an honor,” she murmurs.

The Bargainer turns to me, giving me a heavy look. “Your repayment begins now,” he says.

Immediately the magic takes hold, prickling my skin, urging the siren out.

“I hate it when you do that,” I mutter.

“Don’t make deals with bad men, cherub,” he says, leaning against the wall, folding his arms.

The woman’s eyes move to me. The first thing I notice about her are the bruises. They dot her neck and her chest, continuing on beneath the curved neckline of her dress. There are rings of them, some obviously newer than others.

When she sees me looking, she self-consciously covers the marks, but there’s another bruise around her wrist. I can almost make out the small handprint the must’ve squeezed her there.

“H-how can I help you?” she asks, her eyes moving to me and Des.

“Do you know why I’m here?” I ask, taking a few tentative steps towards her.

She shakes her head, her gaze lingering on my shimmering skin.

“I’m here to ask you a few questions concerning the disappearances of fairies across your kingdom,” I explain.

She sucks in a breath, her face visibly paling. Now, now she has an idea.

She begins to shake her head, backing up and bumping into the chair behind her. “Please.” She places a hand over the bruises on her chest once more. “I-I can’t.”

Seeing her fear, I would expect her to play dumb. But perhaps both of us know it’s no use.

Her eyes began to dart about, looking for an escape. She edges away from me, clumsily banging into things.

“There’s nowhere for you to go,” I say. “We both know this.”

Despite my warning, she tries to slip past me, feinting to the left before she runs, like I’m going to try to tackle her.

Unfortunately for this woman, I’m used to targets running from me.

Stop,” I command, my voice unearthly.

Immediately her body halts, her shoulders trembling. When she looks over at me, a silent tear slips down her cheek. The sight of it breaks my heart.

“Please, you have no idea what he’ll do if I talk,” she pleads.

He?

“Let’s sit down,” I suggest, my voice soothing despite the glamour.

Robotically, she moves to the small couch, more tears following the first. When she looks at me, I can see the resistance in her eyes, but she can’t do a damn thing about it.

“What’s your name?” I ask, sitting next to her and taking her hand. It’s already clammy with sweat.

She stares down at her hands in her lap. “Gaelia.”

A human woman with a fae name.

“Were you born here?” I ask.

Drawing in a shaky breath, she nods.

“What do you do in the palace?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

She peers over Des, who’s still leaning in the room’s entryway, before returning her attention back to her lap. “I work in the royal nursery.”

My eyes move back to the bruise on her wrist. Again, the impression it’s left on her skin makes it look as though a tiny hand squeezed it too hard. A child’s hand …

I force my gaze back to her. “Why does your king believe you know something about the disappearances?” I ask.

Her expression crumbles, her eyes and mouth pinched as she cries. “Please,” she begs again.

Gaelia looks at me with agony, and I can tell this is her last ditch effort to stop the rest of the conversation from unfolding. She’s pleading for my humanity with her eyes, but she doesn’t know that I have no more control of the situation than she does.

I press my own lips together, my eyes stinging. I don’t want to do this to her. She’s not a criminal, just the last in a line of humans that were once slaves in this world. She’s a victim, one who’s had the misfortune of working in the wrong place at the wrong time. And thanks to me, she’s probably going to suffer for her forced confession.

My eyes flutter as I repeat, “Answer me,” the siren is heavy in my voice.

She draws in a deep, stuttering breath. “Some of the babies in the royal nursery are the children of the sleeping warriors.”

“The women in the glass caskets?” I ask.

She nods. “They are unlike the other children under our care,” she continues. “They are … peculiar.”

Fae in general were peculiar; I can’t imagine what an oddity among the fae looked like.

“Peculiar how?”

Gaelia begins to openly weep even as she answers, “They are listless, almost catatonic at times. They don’t sleep, they just lay in their cradles, their eyes focused on the ceiling. The only time they do anything at all is when, is when …” She touches the bruises on her chest, “they feed.”

Her fingers curl around the neckline of her blouse, and she pulls down the edge of the material. I lean in to get a better look. Beneath the material, extensive bruising covers her chest.  Among all the dark discoloration are strange, curving cuts.

Bite marks.

I rear back at the sight. Now that I’m looking, I see the little puncture marks where their teeth split Gaelia’s flesh.

“And when they feed,” she adds, “they prophesize.”

Prophecy. Even earth has supernaturals that can prophesize … but children prophesying? This is peculiar.

Not to mention the fact that said children are gnawing on humans.

“How old are these children?” I ask.

Gaelia is beginning to rock in her seat, holding her arms close to her. “Some are as old as eight,” her lips tremble over each word. “The youngest is less than three months.”

“And which ones prophesize?”

Her eyes focus on something on the floor. “All of them.”

All of them?

“Even the three month old?” I ask skeptically.

Gaelia nods. “She speaks and feeds like the rest of them. She told me you and the king would come. She said, ‘Bare them no secret, tell them no truths, or pain and terror shall be your bedmates, and death the least of your fears.’” She releases a shaky breath. “I didn’t believe her. I hadn’t even remembered her warning until you mentioned you wanted to ask me some questions.” Her arms tighten around herself. “They all show me so many things, so many horrible things …”

“Is that normal?” I probe. “For a child that young to even be talking?”

More tears. “No, my lady. None of this is normal.” Gaelia’s shaking, which had died down somewhat, begins all over again.

“I don’t understand, what is so terrible about telling me this?” I ask.

She hesitates.

“You’re going to have to tell me, one way or another,” I say. “It might as well be on your own terms.”

She covers her mouth with her hand, her sobs beginning anew. I hear her whispering to herself, “Forgive me. Forgive me.” Her rocking has increased.

“Gaelia.”

Slowly her eyes move to mine, and she drops her hand from her mouth. “He doesn’t want to be found,” she whispers. “The children tell me he is making many plans. That he is wary of our king, the Emperor of the Evening Stars,” she says, her eyes moving to Desmond. “But that he fears no others.”

Des comes over now, placing a hand on my shoulder. Gaelia notices.

“He still needs more time,” she continues, wrapping her arms around herself once more. “He’s not unstoppable yet.”

“Why would he tell you this?” Des says.

She doesn’t respond, but her fingers squeeze into the flesh of her upper arms.

“Answer him,” I say softly, my glamour forcing her to answer.

Still, she fights the words for another second or two, until they force themselves out anyway. “Children say whatever is on their minds. Even these ones. In this way, they’re not so different from ordinary children.”

“Why do you believe them?” I ask.

Her lips quiver. “Besides the prophesying? Because for years the nurses on rotation have been complaining of a figure that leans over these children’s’ cradles. And lately, I’ve started to see him as well.”

The back of my neck prickles. The Otherworld is chalk full of boogeymen, and this sounds exactly like one of them.

“What does he look like?” I ask, going off script. Up until now, I’d managed to pepper Des’s questions into the natural flow of the conversation, but now I abandon the rest of them altogether.

Gaelia shakes her head manically. “He’s just a shadow … just a shadow.”

“Where is he?” Des asks.

She shivers, not even bothering to fight our questions anymore. “Everywhere.”

Her words raise my gooseflesh.

“Do you know his name?” I ask.

“Thief of Souls,” she mutters. “Thief of Souls.”

“What does he want?” the Bargainer growls.

Her eyes meet ours. “Everything.”


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