#Sunday-Romance Serial: “A New Life Together”

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash
  • Continuing with: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,499 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, moving in together, horny because it’s been too long
  • Content Warnings: brief allusion to Belken’s earlier torture, depiction of his healing injuries
  • Explicit?: Yes

Belken was home when Mila returned after a morning of training, which surprised her. Despite the unspoken sense they were starting a new life together, as near to married as they might be without the ceremony, he had spent most of his waking time away from their new home. She told herself not to be angry, because he must have piles of work waiting for him, but she could admit to herself a certain disappointment. After they had been kept separate for so long after the rescue, she had hoped to spend more time together.

Even her disappointment was tempered by reality, though, for she had little time to spare herself. Petralla hadn’t been jesting when she promised to work Mila harder than ever before. They were only waiting for information, for a clue to tell them where and when to strike, before going after the Bone Traders.

She set that out of her mind as she stood in the doorway and watched Belken sleep. His pose looked as though he’d been sitting up, but gradually relaxed into slumber as he waited. He was not dressed for work, in one of his fine embroidered tunics, but for a day at home, in a simple shirt and soft trousers, with bare feet.

She wondered if she should wake him, because he must still be exhausted after his ordeal, and trying so hard to make up for it since. She didn’t know enough particulars of his business to properly imagine the disarray he fought against now, but she could see the toll it was taking on him. She sighed and went to the hearth to start a pot of tea brewing. While it steeped, she fetched a blanket and lay it over him.

That was enough–he opened his eyes. “Mila,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she asked lightly. “Taking a nap while I was training? No harm done.”

“No, I meant to make you lunch,” he explained as he rose. “I don’t mean to be gone so much. Not when we’re getting the chance to start again. Only–“

She stepped forward to embrace him, and his words cut off when his arms enfolded her. “I know, Bel. You still have your responsibilities, and I have mine. Neither of us expected this was how things would go, and if you weren’t ready to … to live with me,” she faltered.

He squeezed her hard, her ribs flexing under the pressure. “I am. Or at least, I want to be. This will need some adjustment, I know. But I’ve been sleeping so well, having you beside me every night. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make, knowing it was our bed, instead of yours or mine.” He relaxed his grip as he chuckled. “And it’s just a fine bed itself. I wouldn’t have expected that. Aren’t you all so hardy and fierce that sleeping in a soft bed is too much pampering?”

Mila laughed. “We’re not monks, Bel, we don’t thrive on hardship. It’s much wiser, don’t you think, to be well rested when we work? Whether that’s guard duty or treasure hunting or actual battle.”

His hands began to roam her back, his fingertips pressing the texture of the loose-woven cloth into her skin. “It’s wise to be well rested for play, too. I think I’m finally caught up on my sleep.”

“We can go out for lunch,”  she offered. “Later. Just let me strain the tea–I can keep it warm on the hearth, but I can’t save it if it oversteeps.”

That simple practicality could have been a mood killer for some, but Bel let her go without fretting.  When she was done, she found him in the bedroom, turning back the bed covers. The expression on his face when she caught his eye was open and devastating. “It’s been too long since I loved you,” he said.

“Yes, it has,” she replied. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”

They undressed each other slowly. Belken marveled over her skin, pressing his face to her, inhaling her scent. “Sometime you should come home dirty and sweaty from training,” he murmured. “I like that, too, you know.”

“Sometime,” she said, not quite a promise. They did have their own little bathing room, but the communal steam baths were such a lovely way to relax after hours of weapons practice or endurance training. “Remember, though, we’d have to change the sheets, too. You have no idea how muddy I can get.”

He allowed her to lift his shirt off, only wincing slightly at the movement. All laughter fled at the shadow of bruises on his ribs, where they must have kicked him hard and often. She sketched her fingers lightly around their edges, faint and fading but still visible. “We can wait,” she said.

He caught her hand and pressed it to his heart. “No, I can’t.”  After studying her expression, which must have betrayed her worry, his face softened, some of the intensity draining from it. “So be gentle with me.”

“How gentle?” She flexed her trapped fingers, scratching lightly at his chest with her nails.

He let out a long, shuddering breath. “So much that I think I’ll die from wanting more of you.”

He meant it lightly, if not jokingly, but a shiver passed through her anyway.  “I can do that,” she breathed, just before claiming his mouth in a kiss she strained to keep soft, in control, not as wild as she felt herself to be inside. He responded with a muted groan, almost a rumble, deep in his chest. When she pulled away, they finished undressing each other, and Mila’s heart cracked open a little further when she saw the ghosts of bruises on the outer flanks of his legs, as well. Very little of him had escaped hurt during his ordeal. Again, she wanted to draw back, to wait until he was more healed, but his member was hard, jutting tall from his body, and already leaking from excitement.

Bel needed this of her, and to be honest, she needed him, too. So she would be gentle, as he had asked. She nudged him toward the bed and he went, laying himself down carefully. She straddled him, arranging herself to glide along his length freely without taking him into her. He closed his eyes, pushed his head back into the pillow, and moaned.

It wasn’t long before he couldn’t stand to be only passive, though. When she didn’t change her speed or motion, he reached for her, hands smoothing over her shoulders, her breasts, her neck. “Is your plan to drive me mad a little first?”

She smiled down at him. “Yes. Is it working?”

“Yes. Can’t you feel it?”

“Well, I’d hate to make you spill all over yourself before I get what I want,” she teased, as she raised herself higher. With one hand she repositioned him so that she could sink slowly onto him, keeping her promise to be gentle even when she wanted to slam their bodies together like swords clashing in the training yard, fast and sharp. The slow slide of their bodies was sweet torment to her.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice rough.

“I want to see stars, and feel like the only thing in the world touching me is you.”

He let out a sharp cry when she was seated fully on him, and she shifted at once, thinking she had put too much weight on him. “Bel?”

“No, don’t stop,” he panted. “It’s only, I want so badly to roll you over and take you hard, it’s maddening.”

“I know, love, I know.” She wanted the same thing, or even just to ride him hard like this, to feel him straining up into her. She started a slow grind against him. “I don’t think we’ll have to endure this long, though.”

“You’re close? Already?” Even mostly breathless, he sounded smug.

“Can’t you feel it?” she threw his words back at him.

“Oh, I can, and that’s maddening too.” He sat up awkwardly, propping himself on one hand as he wrapped the other arm around her waist, urging her to move faster. “Come apart on me, Mila. I’m the only one touching you, I’m the one filling you up, I’m the one whose name you’re going to scream when you break into pieces.”

He was thrusting now in time with his words, taking some of the control from her, defying his own edict to be gentle. She took him by the shoulders and pressed him back onto the bed, hiking up her knees and changing her angle until she felt pierced more fully, filled more completely. He was right–she did scream his name, while he only shouted roughly, wordlessly.

A loud, rhythmic pounding on the far wall of the bedroom startled them both. “Oh, hell,” Mila muttered. “I didn’t know we had neighbors.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Didn’t Mean Any of It”

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,470 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, reunion, homecoming
  • Content Warnings: for once in this story line, none that I can think of
  • Explicit?: No

It was three days before Mila was allowed to see Belken.When she woke from her long sleep after the rescue, she was starving for good food and company. She went to the mess, with faint hope Belken might be there. He wasn’t, so Mila didn’t linger, but ate quickly before asking a page where she could find him. There were several places a visitor to the compound might be housed, and where he was would tell me something about how Petralla viewed his situation, and how he was being treated.

But the boy looked puzzled. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you mean.”

Ah. So our triumphant return was public, it had to be, but my lover’s rescue was a secret. She had a good idea where to look.

The Guild had no official jail, but in one building there was a secret. If one was high enough in the ranks, one learned the trick to open a section of paneling near the back exit and go down a hidden staircase to a small cluster of dry, dusty rooms long ago used as a smuggler’s storage, before the Guild had annexed the property during its expansion. Very few knew of it, and it was a convenient enough place to keep anyone whose presence need concealing.

Mila found Nicora there, standing outside one of the doors.

“Guard duty isn’t usually one of your tasks,” Mila observed.

Nicora’s tone was gentler than Mila expected. “I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I have orders not to allow anyone in other than Petralla, Evran, or Simmoon. I’d appreciate it if you accept that and leave.”

Drawing knives on Nicora was more trouble than Mila wanted to get into, no matter how much she wanted to see Belken. “I will, in a moment. May I ask how he is?” Because Simmoon was their best approximation of a doctor, in-Guild. They couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees to keep a properly licensed physician on staff, though they would pay for one to visit when the need was dire. The rest of the time, Simmoon patched everyone up as best she could.

“He’s not in any immediate danger,” Nicora answered. “I don’t know more detail than that, but whenever Simmoon comes to check on him, she seems at ease.”

“Thank you,” Mila said, and meant it.

She tried her best to go back to her old routines, her daily life. For three days, she slept and ate and bathed and went to the practice yard for weapons training. She repaired her armor, cleaned her gear, and replaced the small stock of items she had lost during her abduction. When she had to go into town to accomplish this, she took along an apprentice she hardly knew, someone not already known to be a friend, so that he was both her chaperone and her witness that she only did what she said she was doing.

This was her holding pattern between missions, but it chafed, knowing both that Belken was nearby, and that no missions for her were forthcoming. Not if she was a potential traitor.

On the fourth morning, she was summoned to Petralla’s office. Usually her desk was nearly bare, but the giant Guild ledger, the record of all their dealings, part diary of the commanders and part business account, lay closed in the center. Mila had never read it, not a single page.

“Sit down,” she ordered. “I’ve been over this ledger from back to front, through almost a hundred years of history, and I found two dozen specific pieces of information the Bone Traders could use to their advantage if they wanted to push us off the map,” Petralla stated. “And for the life of me, for the life of this very Guild, I can’t see how you would have known a single one of them, or why you would choose to aid our enemies. If you are a plant, you are the best I’ve ever seen. If you are a convert to their ways, a traitor, I can’t find a whisper of it. You should know that this incident will cloud the thinking of others about you for a long time, possibly to the end of your days. I can’t help that. But here, now, I want to make it unequivocally clear that I trust you. More than that, I am choosing to trust you.”

“Thank you,” Mila responded, her voice shaking.

“So you’ll go back to your regular duties. And we’ve spoken to your lover about living here, on the compound, where we can protect him. We don’t know that the Traders will seek his recapture, now that their plan is foiled, but it would be foolish to risk it. Which means we’ll need to move you out of the barracks. An apartment in Garden Hall would normally come with a promotion you haven’t earned yet, but I am making an exception for your odd circumstances, on one condition.”

Whatever it was, if it kept Belken safe, she would do it. “Which is?”

“They took you from us. They have undermined the trust I have in my people. These assaults upon us cannot go unanswered. You will be the arrow I shoot at the heart of the Bone Traders. I am going to work you harder than I have ever done. You will hunt them down, and you will kill them, until I am satisfied you have earned your new rank and privileges. I had not made you an assassin before, though I know you have killed in self-defense, and borne the cost of it well. So now I must know, can you harden your heart enough to kill in cold blood? Because this quiet war we wage on them will be the Guild’s revenge, but you must not let your own personal anger rule you. This is a hard thing to ask, but I believe it must be done.”

Mila didn’t hesitate. She rose from her seat, set her hand flat on the top of the Guild ledger and swore again the simple vow she had made upon her acceptance, as a girl barely out of childhood, so many years ago. “I pledge myself and all of strength I possess to the Guild. Whatever skills I acquire as I mature, I will offer in service.”

The lamp caught the suspicious gleam of tears in Petralla’s eyes. She nodded once. “The quartermaster will give you the keys to your new lodgings. Fetch your man and take him there.”

It was hard, but Mila managed not to sprint from the room. If there was a certain spring to her step and haste to her stride as she headed for the quartermaster’s office, no one remarked on it. She accepted the ring with two keys on it, and also the wink the older man gave her. She headed for the building above the secret underground chambers, but changed direction when a voice called out to her. She had to pass the gardens, and thus Garden Hall, to get there, but Evran stood outside the main entrance with Belken beside him. But she held her decorum and didn’t race to embrace him, as much as she wanted to. She endured the polite small talk that surrounded their meeting, even though on one level it felt more like the transfer of a prisoner. Would Belken agree to this? Would living here interfere with his business too much, could he accept the change or would he leave the Guild’s protection?

Would he leave her?

She followed him up the stairs and down a hallway as he checked each door for the number Evran had told them. When he found it, she passed him a key. “I didn’t mean any of it,” he said suddenly.

“What?”

“Our last fight, before. We never quite made up from it, did we? I don’t even remember what it was about, now, so I can’t still be angry. I must not have really meant it.” He turned to face her. The bruises on his cheek, around his eye, were fading to a hideous yellow-brown. “I wanted to make sure I said that, that we go forward with a clean slate.”

Then she did embrace him, gently, because she didn’t know the extent of his injuries. “Completely clean,” she agreed, then made it more formal. “I’m choosing to trust you, and to love you.” She pulled back, grinned at him. “Once we walk through that door, no wondering, no suspicion.”

He leaned forward to rest his brow against hers. “Let’s go see what they’ve given us, shall we? I’m only sorry I’m too hurt to make love to you properly in our new bed. That may still have to wait a few days.”

Mila kissed his unmarked cheek. “I look forward to it.” 

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Hell or High Water”

Photo by Igor Lepilin on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Key Tropes: reunion, and still maybe betrayal, we’re not sure?
  • Content Warnings: death, torture mention, imprisonment, weapons, brief violence
  • Explicit?: No

After half an hour of careful, quiet searching, their luck gave out. Mila turned a corne, ill-lit by smoky torches, and came face-to-face with a Bone Trader in full ritual gear, their mask a horrifying caricature of a human skull, their robes a deep red splotched with deeper stains. A foul smell came from him–Mila now knew the rumors were true, that the robes were never washed, that whatever bodily fluids came from their victims was considered a sacrament.

How wretched was a person’s soul, that they could believe trafficking and torture was holy?

Evran had given her one of his knives, as her own gear had been taken. The blade found a home in the Trader’s gut without thought, and before the man could react. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have aimed higher–belly wounds were generally fatal, but not instantly so. Still, this man’s eyes rolled upwards as he slid backwards off the weapon with only the faintest sigh.

If he had been alone, it would have ended there, a silent death deep in his own compound. But two others stood behind him, and their shock didn’t last long.

Evran’s shadows flowed through the darkness, one for each Trader. Mila didn’t see the blow that felled the first, but Evran had time to snap, “Don’t kill the other.”

The larger companion, a burly man with walnut-brown skin and black eyes above his mask, pivoted and dug the point of his knife into the slim neck of the now-captive Trader.

“Excellent,” Evran said. “Show us the way to your prisoner.”

The commander had realized instantly what it took Mila a precious few seconds to work out–these were likely Belken’s torturers on their way to fetch him. This was good news, if true; it meant they hadn’t already started. It meant no general alarm had been sounded because of the guild’s infiltration and Mila’s own rescue.

And, on a more personal level, it meant Belken was probably telling the truth.

The Bone Trader held up her empty hands. Mila was sure it was a woman; the build was skinny, tall, and the robes they wore were shapeless enough to hide any obvious attributes. But they were also relatively unstained, and the outstretched hands were soft and slim and pale. A woman, a young and rich one at that. A new initiate? Would she be more likely to give in than one of her dead counterparts?

Her shoulders sagged. “This way.”

She led, with the others keeping her corralled, one to each side, one behind. Mila fell into position as rear guard, watching their backs as the woman took them down unexplored ways. As they passed new doors, Mila’s tension spiked, waiting for new assailants to spill from them at some unknown signal.

The door she indicated was locked, but Evran had taken a key from one of her dead brethren. His guards nodded at each other from either side before the smaller of them opened it and the larger jumped through. Inside lay complete darkness. Mila waited, not sure what she was waiting for, until a soft voice said, “Clear.” Evran motioned at Mila to take a nearby torch from its holder, and they all went in.

Belken lay on his side on a dirty pile of rags and straw that might have been a mattress, once. He curled protectively around his stomach in a way that made Mila think he was already injured–someone had kicked him repeatedly, or punched him hard enough to vomit, then left him to await a worse fate. Though it might not be his vomit she smelled, because the air was so laced with vile odors it would be impossible to tell.

She handed the torch to Evran while the shadows secured their captive with manacles attached to the wall. “I don’t know where the keys even are for these,” the woman hissed. Mila lost the thread of any further protests she made when she knelt beside her lover and touched his shoulder.

He startled, shifting away with a low cry. The torchlight showed tear tracks and blooming bruises on his face. “Hey,” Mila said softly. “It’s me.”

After a few heartbeats of shock, Belken sat upright and seized her roughly in his arms. “Oh, gods, Mila. You’re here. You’re free.”

“Not quite yet,” she corrected, “but almost. Can you move? How badly did they beat you?”

He grunted as he tried to rise. Mila shifted to a crouch and helped him to his feet. “Worse than I’ve ever gotten in a bar brawl. But I’ll live, which I wasn’t sure about five minutes ago.” He glanced at the Bone Trader, who hung limply, her feet barely brushing the stone floor. “They were coming for me.”

If this was all still an act, a farce for her benefit, neither Belken nor the Trader showed any hint of it. “But my people came for me, and now we’re here for you.”

Evran cleared his throat behind them. “Hell or high water, Mila,” he said gravely. “We don’t leave our own to rot.”

Belken stared at him for a moment, then turned to Mila. “So you believe me?”

She wished she could give him an unconditional answer. “As much as I can.” She leaned in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Come on, we need to get moving before an alarm’s raised.”

Belken didn’t move, though. “What about my sister?”

“We’re already stretching our mission, fetching you,” Evran answered. “Do you know if she’s being held here, and not somewhere else? Because as far as we’re concerned, you have equal odds on being a civilian we’re rescuing or a traitor we’re capturing. Unless you can produce concrete information on this captured sister, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Belken’s throat bobbed visibly as he gulped. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They showed me a necklace, a locket with a miniature of our parents in it. I never saw her.”

Evran stroked his mask meditatively. “So they have her, or they stole it to convince you they did.” Or you’re still lying, Mila thought as Evran paused. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do. If by some astronomical stroke of luck, we stumble into her on our way out, we’ll take her with us. That’s the best I can promise you.”

“I understand,” Belken answered, his eyes cast downward. “Thank you for even bothering with me.”

They were about to leave when the woman on the wall began to laugh. “How touching,” she said, her voice cruel, and her cultured tone and accent confirming Mila’s earlier suspicions. A Bone Trader from the nobility. “As if any of you will make it out alive.”

The smaller shadow took two steps toward the woman and belted her solidly on the chin. Her head snapped against the hard stone wall, and she fell instantly silent, slumping farther in her bonds. The shadow shook out their hand. “Ouch.” Their voice was ambiguous, deep for a woman’s or light for a man’s. “Should’ve taken off the damn mask first. I caught my knuckles on one of those bony bits.”

“Did it puncture your armor?” their companion said, his voice low, booming. Mila almost felt dizzy with surprise to hear them speak; another rumor about Evran’s shadows–and Petralla’s, too, for that matter–was they had taken vows of silence, or worse, had their tongues cut out. No one truly believed the latter, but still, in Mila’s five years of service, she had never heard a single whisper from any shadow.

Evran only smiled indulgently. “They’re fine, I’m sure. Let’s get moving.”

Mila wedged her shoulder into Belken’s side to support him as he took his first limping steps. “Do me one favor, love,” she whispered to him, hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m wrong, and you’re a Bone Trader after all, show me the mercy of killing me quickly in my sleep some night, so that I never have to know I was wrong about you.”

Belken returned her kiss on the cheek with one of his own. “I swear, Mila. You’ll die of old age, running the Guild someday, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and I’ll be by your side. If your death comes any other way, it will not be by my hand, in your sleep or otherwise.”

Her heart glowed at that, as they carefully backtracked through the compound. By the time they rejoined the others, who were no worse for their expedition, Belken’s limp had eased and he was walking mostly under his own power.

It wasn’t until much later, after her debrief with Petralla, when she tumbled into one of the bunks in the common barracks to sleep off her misadventures, that she realized Belken had quite beautifully dodged every aspect of her request, leaving her no more sure of his loyalty than she had been when he showed up unexpectedly in her cell.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Don’t Ever Doubt Us”

Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy
  • Length: 1,253 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: imprisonment, torture mention, dead body, wounded enemies
  • Explicit?: No

Mila expected, when the three hours were up, to see Belken pushed back into her cell by their captors. For the torture to be effective, she had to see it. She waited, and steeled herself against the horror she expected to witness, trying not to imagine what techniques would be used. She knew of many, but also knew a devious, sadistic mind could always find new ways to torment the human body. Belken might be tortured in ways she could not possibly imagine on her own.

She waited longer. Surely it had been three hours, at least, even with her skewed sense of time. Belken hadn’t blown out the candle nor replaced her blindfold when he left, and she studied what she could of the room by its light. She learned nothing that her other senses had not already told her–stone walls, damp and cold, a single door. The only true use of the candle was to gauge time passing by the wax it lost as it burned.

When the screams started, she couldn’t tell how far away they were. For any sound to reach her, it had to be loud and close, funneled to her by the hallway she expected lay beyond the door of her cell. But it didn’t sound nearby, by the quality of the echoes. These screams were faint, distant, and strangely enough, scattered and surprised.

If they were torturing Belken close enough for her to hear, to wear her down, why not do it in the room with her?

Because then they couldn’t fake it. That would explain why something sounded off to her about the cries of pain. She had seen a woman tortured, once. This didn’t compare.

The noise ceased abruptly, replaced by something else, fainter. At first Mila couldn’t tell what it was, and she leaned forward in her chair as far as her bonds allowed, closing her eyes and straining to hear more clearly, to make sense of the new sounds.

Footsteps on the stone. Fast. Heavy. People running. She couldn’t guess how many, only that it was more than one person.

The thudding slowed and stopped, but not at her door. There was a scrape of something along the stone, another door being opened. “Empty,” a deep voice said.

She had learned something new–there were other rooms here, other cells. And Belken wasn’t in the one next to hers.

Another door opening, closer. Across the hall. “Empty,” another, lighter voice said.

Those screams she’d heard had been Belken’s torture, real or faked. They’d been the cries of battle, of a quick, surprise attack. Her guild had come for her. She was being rescued.

She straightened and opened her eyes as her door swung open. When she saw the familiar gray leather armor, the black masks covering the lower halves of their faces, the soft black hoods, she sagged in relief. “Hey,” she said weakly.

The largest of her three guild mates crossed the room to kneel at her back, his fingers making quick work of the ropes. Their newest recruit six months ago, Peres was already proving himself a capable, silent asset. “Mila,” he greeted her briefly.

“Thanks for coming for me,” she said to all of them, studying the shapes of the other two, unable to recognize the small bits of their faces visible in the poor light. Neither was small enough to be the guild leader–Petralla wasn’t here. One she was certain was Nicora, a veteran she had seen around but rarely worked with or spoke to. The other was almost certainly Girard, who had joined up within a year of her and never seemed to like her.

Three people who don’t know me well and have no personal loyalty to me. Either this is a test Petralla set for them, or caution, in case I’ve been compromised and need to be put down. She suspected none of them would flinch at it, especially as no one had responded to her thanks.

Girard was hanging back, watching the corridor. The distant clang of battle song, blades against blades and bodies striking other bodies, filtered into the cell, coming from the other direction, not the way they’d come. When it stopped, Girard stuck his head out and whistled sharply, imitating a bird call. The answering whistle came instantly. “Let’s go,” he said.

Mila stood, and opened her mouth to tell them about Belken. But behind her, Peres grabbed her shoulders and propelled her forward, nearly tripping her in his haste. She wouldn’t make much headway, appealing to them to go after him–they clearly had one assignment, to secure her and her alone.

They brought her to a crossing of two corridors, where three more guild mates stood amid scattered bodies. Only one was obviously dead, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, while the others might only be incapacitated. Mila shrugged free of Peres’ grip, drew herself to her full height, and addressed the guild’s second in command. “Evran.”

“Mila, glad to see you in one piece. Now, report.”

Evran was always like that with her–a moment’s kindness before business, but serious as soon as that switch was flipped. She filled him in on what she knew as quickly as possible, constantly aware that they were not in a particularly defensible position.

“Hmm.” Evran stroked the mask over his chin, as if he were touching the beard underneath. “Peres, assessment.”

On her left, Peres snapped from scanning the empty hallway behind them to focusing on their commander. “If this Belken was coerced, as he said, we have a responsibility to protect him. He was targeted because of us.”

Mila held in surprise that their rawest member supported a secondary rescue. She drew breath to speak, but a look in Evran’s eyes warned her not to.

“Girard.”

“If he’s betrayed Mila, we still need him. Whether the threat of torture was a bluff or not, I’d rather we be the one to punish him. And we might get information in the process.”

“Nicora.”

“I agree with them both, but if you’re asking for a contrary opinion, commander, I’ll play. Petralla was clear in her instructions to get in, get Mila, and get out. We’re not here to start a war with the Bone Traders, not until we know it’s necessary. If they want our guild ledger, they’re up to something, and that war is probably coming soon. But that’s the leader’s call, not ours.”

Evran didn’t ask his aides, the two shadows who attended him everywhere, bodyguards, assistants, and sometimes, speculation said, lovers as well. They were guild mates, but their loyalty was to him–Mila didn’t even know their names, and had never heard either of them speak. “Mila,” Evran said.

She made herself say the right thing. “I don’t believe my opinion should be considered, commander. Whether he’s complicit or not, I can’t set aside my feelings.” Even if he had betrayed her, her heart burned at the thought of leaving him behind. Would their enemies punish him for his failure, for her escape?

Evran nodded. “Fan out and find him. Stealth when possible, fight when necessary. Mila, describe him for us, then you’re with me.”

After that was done and the others left, Mila followed Evran and his shadows down one of the hallways, the four of them moving slowly on silent feet. She leaned close to  the commander. “Thank you,” she breathed.

His eyes crinkled, evidence of a smile beneath his mask. “You love him–he’s family. We protect our own, and we punish them, too. You believed we’d come for you, right?” She nodded. “Don’t ever doubt us,” he added. “We all know the price of loyalty and love.”

#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.”