#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Hate You”

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy, so far
  • Length: 1,491 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: kidnapping, imprisonment, discussion/fear of torture
  • Explicit?: Sex is only mentioned in an off-screen context

Mila flexed her wrists, testing the ropes for the hundredth time. Without a blade to hand, she wasn’t getting free, and her captors had searched her thoroughly. They’d even found the small knife hidden in her belt buckle. She was weaponless, defenseless, tied to a chair in a cold, damp room. The blindfold didn’t help.

But she’d been waiting for hours for someone to come in, to ask questions. No one had. The waiting itself was a mild form of torture, she supposed, but she preferred it to the more involved kind. She wasn’t hungry or thirsty enough yet for that to compound the problem.

She tugged on the bindings again, then took a deep breath and consciously relaxed her body. Fighting the rope simply to pass the time would only hurt her and wear down her patience. If that’s why her unknown captors had left her alone so long, she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

Instead, she turned her mind to rescue. Until someone entered this room, she had no opportunity to escape. She might be able to come up with a plan once she had spoken to someone, gleaned even the slightest hint of information about where she was. They might even untie her for a time to eat or drink, if she cooperated, though that was a slim hope at best.

No, until she knew something more, she had to hope someone was coming for her. Petralla wouldn’t sit still for one of her guild mates being kidnapped, but who knew when the news would reach her. Mila wasn’t even sure who, if anyone, had seen her abduction. She’d made as big a ruckus as possible, but Lower City residents tended to keep to themselves unless they scented profit in the wind. If an enterprising young lad had recognized her armor or her insignia he could find a reward for reporting the incident. But Mila didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious, so she didn’t know how far she was from home. Rescue planning took time, and so did travel.

Even given all of that, Petralla was the most likely to come for her. Herself, or a team of guild mates sent by her. If Mila wished for a daring and romantic rescue from her lover instead, the situation was more dire. Belken wouldn’t know what had become of her without a ransom note; he was away on business, not due to return for nearly a week. He wouldn’t have heard of her kidnapping through any normal means.

Her heart ached. She hadn’t seen him since the harvest festival, when they’d spent hours strolling the marketplace, sampling whatever fruits looked best, buying the small bottles of early goldenwine, almost too sour to drink but somehow the perfect complement to cheese and fresh bread and the sweetest fruits of the season. They’d lounged on the grass in a park long after sunset, and very nearly made love there as well, until rustling from nearby bushes told them someone else had the same idea. She’d laughed and blushed at her own embarrassment, and he’d taken her to his small apartment above his jewelry business and ravished her quite thoroughly in private.

When she’d said goodbye the next morning, she hadn’t thought that might be the last time she’d ever see him. He traveled for business often, as he preferred to source his gems personally rather than rely on the inflated prices of importers. And he loved the travel for its own sake. She had often wished she had the freedom to go with him and see other lands, but her work kept her close to home.

He was due back before the next royal tourney. She would get free of this predicament, and he would come home, and they would sit in the stands and watch knights and guardsmen and humble young lads hoping to move up in the world, as they fought for prizes and praise and the amusement of the masses. Mila promised herself that goodbye was not her last.

The door opened with a creak, and a light came into the room. Small, dim through her flimsy  blindfold. A candle, probably. “Hello?” she tried.

“Hello, love,” a familiar voice said.

“Belken?” It couldn’t be. She was hallucinating; she had been held without food or water longer than she had guessed, and her imaginings had conjured him. He was on his way home from–from–well, she couldn’t remember where he’d gone this time. But he couldn’t actually be here, rescuing her. She had expected Petralla.

“Here, let me get that.”

She waited to feel his hands working on the ropes around her wrist, but instead, the blindfold was lifted from her head. He looked little different by candlelight here in her stone prison than he did lying in his own bed. His hair wasn’t standing wildly in all directions from the interference of her fingers, but his eyes shone the same way when he looked at her. “How…how on earth are you here?”

“It’s not what you think.” He turned to the wall, where she could now see a small table with a chair that looked like a match to her own. He dragged over the table and set the candle on it, then the chair. When he sat, he faced her, close enough to touch knees. “I’m sorry.”

“Untie me,” she said. But she already knew he wouldn’t, or he would have already.

He shook his head. “I need a favor.”

None of her guild mates had ever accused her of being the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but she understood that something was wrong, and that Belken wasn’t there to save her. She didn’t have enough information yet to figure out the rest, but enough to kindle the first fires of anger in her chest. “What’s going on?”

“I need you to steal the guild ledger for me.”

Mila’s hands went numb and her lips, cold. Her shock was a physical thing. “There’s no reason you’d need that if you were a simple jeweler. What is your merchant identity a cover for? Are you–” She swallowed, trying to guess at the most likely enemy. “Are you a Bone Trader?”

He looked away, all the confirmation she needed. Her lover, a human trafficker. The betrayal hurt like every muscle in her body had been torn to shreds. “Was I targeted? Because I can’t believe someone looked at the guild roster and decided I was most likely to break.”

Belken laughed. “No, Mila. You weren’t targeted. I was.” He sighed. “Do you love me?”

She resisted the urge to spit in his face. She had no moisture to spare. “Until you walked into this room a few minutes ago, yes.”

“I still love you, though. I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t. I was targeted because I fell in love with you. I haven’t been lying this whole time. I am a jeweler, and when we met, I wasn’t a Bone Trader. I’m not really one now.” He reached forward to caress her cheek, though she cringed from it. “They have my sister.”

The rest of the story fell into place. Except… “The younger sister you barely ever mention to me, who lives far away, who I’ve never met. How do I know she exists?” If he’d been lying to her at all, whether from the beginning or only more recently, he could be lying about a sister to gain her cooperation. “I won’t betray my guild, my family, for someone I’ve never met, who might not be real.”

“I never thought you would.” He sighed again, more heavily, and dropped his hand. “I told them this wouldn’t work. I told them I couldn’t convince you. Maybe if they’d let me tell you my tale before they abducted you, instead of after, you might have believed me. I’m sorry it came to this.” He stood. “I’m going to lose you both.”

Even if he had betrayed her, even if all or part of their love had been a lie, she didn’t want to be alone in the dark again. Fear squeezed her heart. “Belken–”

“My deadline is midnight,” he said sadly. “That’s about three hours away. I could stay and beg, but we both know that won’t work. They put me in an impossible position, Mila. Please believe I never wanted this.” He lifted the candle, studied her face. “Unless you want me to stay?”

“What happens after midnight?”

“The gloves come off.”

Mila shut her eyes. “I hate you,” she hissed. “And they can’t expect I’ll do what they say after they’ve tortured me. What’s to hold me to it once they’ve turned me loose to steal the ledger? I’ll run, and you know that.”

Belken sat back down, returning the candle to the table. Its light bounced off the tears that fell freely down his face as he leaned forward for a single brief kiss. “I do know that, love. So do they.” He sighed again and scrubbed roughly at the tears with the heel of one hand. “That’s why they’re going to torture me instead.”

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