Acheron (Page 39)

Acheron (Dark-Hunter #15)(39)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

February 18, 9527 BC

"I don’t know what it is about you and that baby, but you are the most amazing nurse ever born."

Acheron laughed at Ryssa’s comment as she took Apollodorus from his arms. Neither of them could understand why Acheron’s presence calmed his nephew, but there was no denying that anytime Apollodorus was fussy, he calmed down immediately for Acheron. In fact, Ryssa had begun bringing the babe to him virtually every night so that she could sleep.

"You know you can leave him with me any time at all. I think we get along so well because we both function on the same level." Acheron ruffled the soft hair on his nephew’s head.

Smiling, Ryssa wrapped the blanket around Apollodorus. "Thank the gods I have you. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here to help out with him."

An instant later the doors to Acheron’s room crashed open. Six guards stormed in to tackle him to the floor.

"What is this?" Ryssa demanded.

They didn’t respond. Acheron fought them, but in the end they shackled him while the baby screamed in protest.

"He’s done nothing!" Ryssa shouted as she followed them out of the room and down the hallway.

They didn’t stop until they’d taken him to the throne room and forced him to his knees in front of his father and Styxx who sat smugly on their thrones while they stared at him in disdain.

Acheron glared at them. "Why am I here?"

His father came off his throne with a bellow of rage. "You do not ask questions of me, traitor!"

Stunned, Acheron couldn’t even blink for a full minute.

"Father!" Ryssa snapped. "Have you lost your reason?"

His answer was to backhand Acheron. "Where were you last night?"

Acheron panted at the pain that exploded through his cheek and eye. He’d been with Artemis, but he didn’t dare tell his father that. "I was in my room."

His father struck him again. "Liar. I have witnesses who saw you in a stew, plotting my murder."

Stunned, he couldn’t even respond. All he could do was look at Styxx and the fearful light in the prince’s eyes told him exactly who’d been in the stew. "I’ve done no such thing."

His father hit him again before turned to the guards. "Torture him until he decides to tell us the truth."

Acheron cried out a denial as he fought the guards holding him.

"Father, no!" Ryssa moved forward.

The king turned on her with a feral snarl. "You’re not going to save him this time. He’s committed treason and I will not allow that to go unanswered."

His breathing ragged, Acheron who was being restrained by the guards, met and held Styxx’s gaze. How could his brother plot the death of a man who worshiped the ground he walked on? He would sell his soul to have just a portion of the love Styxx spurned.

But there was no need to ask for clemency. His father had already made up his mind. Only the bastard Acheron could be the traitor. Never Styxx. The only person who could exonerate him was Artemis. And she’d rather die than openly admit he’d been with her in her temple last night.

Acheron was hauled out of the throne room and taken to the prison below.

Even though he fought the guards every step of the way, it wasn’t enough to prevent them from stripping his clothes off his body and then chaining him down on the interrogation block. The granite stone chilled him to his bones. There were blood stains permanently dried in the stone and there was no doubt that his own blood would soon mix with that of the others who’d been tortured and killed before him.

Closing his eyes, Acheron tried to think of something, anything to protect himself from what was about to happen. But as the interrogator came forward, he knew there was nothing he could do.

Nothing could save him from this.

"The king wants the names of everyone you met with."

Acheron winced in fear of what would come when he told the truth. "I didn’t meet with anyone."

He brought a hot steel whip down across Acheron’s chest.

Acheron screamed out as he realized just how impossible this was going to be.

Ryssa was terrified as she returned to her room and handed her crying son over to his nurse. What was she going to do?

Unlike her father, she knew who the real traitor had to be. If witnesses saw someone tall, blond and looking like Acheron, it was Styxx. Acheron would have nothing to gain by killing the king, other than vengeance and he wasn’t the kind of person to go seeking that.

Not to mention Acheron would never have been in public uncovered, especially not a stew. Had he done so, he’d still be there, beating people off him.

"What have you done, Styxx?" she whispered through the tight lump in her throat.

Why would he plot against his own father? But then she knew, the history of mankind was written by sons wanting more and willing to do anything to get it. Even so, she’d thought Styxx above such scheming. Who could have poisoned his mind?

"I have to find Artemis." There was no one else who could help save Acheron.

Ryssa headed for her door to leave, but before she took three steps, the doors opened to admit the same guards who’d arrested Acheron.

"Your Highness, you’re to be taken for questioning."

Her heart chilled at those words. "Questioning? This can’t be."

But it was. Surrounding her, they took her to her father’s war room where he waited with Styxx.

She gave them both the coldest look she could muster. "What is this, Father?"

He’d never looked older than he did right then. His handsome features were drawn tight with sadness. "Why would you betray me, Daughter?"

"I’ve never done anything to betray you, Father, ever."

He shook his head. "I have a witness who came forward and said that you were with Acheron last night."

She leveled a killing glare at Styxx. "Then they are lying as they lied about Acheron. I was with Apollo last night. Summon him and see."

Styxx’s face went white.

So, he’d thought to rid himself of her too. She couldn’t believe her father’s stupidity where Styxx was concerned.

Relief etched itself across her father’s brow. "I’m glad they’re mistaken, kitten." He laid a gentle hand to her face. "The thought of my beloved daughter turning on me . . . "

What of his beloved son?

She looked past her father to see Styxx staring at the floor. "Acheron is innocent."

"No, child. Not this time. I have too many witnesses who saw him there."

Why couldn’t she make him see the truth? "Acheron would never be in a stew."

"Of course he would. He worked in one. Where else would he go?"

Anywhere but there. Acheron had hated every minute of being in those places. "Please, Father. You’ve done enough to him. Let him be."

He shook his head. "There is a nest of vipers coiled around me and until I uncover the name of everyone he spoke to, I won’t stop."

Tears filled her eyes as she considered the nightmare they were going to put Acheron through. Again. "The priests say that Hades reserves a special corner of Tartarus for betrayers. I’m sure the name of your real traitor is being carved there even as we speak."

Styxx refused to meet her gaze.

So she looked back at her father. "In all these years, Acheron has sought nothing but love from you, Father. One moment of your looking at him with something other than hatred burning in your eyes. Nothing more than a kind word and at every turn you’ve denied him and hurt him. You have shattered the son who only wanted to love you. Let him go before you do irreparable harm, I beg you."

"He’s betrayed me for the last time."

"Betrayed you?" she asked, aghast at his reasoning. "Father, you can’t believe that? All he’s tried to do is stay out of your sight. Away from your notice. He cringes any time your name is brought up. If you’d stop being so blind for one minute, you’d see that he has never mixed with people and he has never betrayed you."

"He was a prostitute!" he roared.

"He was a boy who had to eat, Father. Thrown away by his own family. Betrayed by the ones who should have protected him from harm. I was there when he was born and I remember how all of you turned away from him. Do you? Do you even recall when you broke his arm? He was only two years old and could barely speak. He reached for you to hug you and you knocked him away so forcefully that you broke his arm like a twig. When he cried out, you slapped him for it and walked away."

Chapter 18

"And that’s why he plots your murder, Father," Styxx spoke up finally. "Don’t let a woman sway you from what needs to be done. Women are our greatest weakness. They prey on our guilt and our love of them. How many times have you told me that? You can’t listen to them. They think with their hearts and not their minds."

Her father’s face turned to stone. "I will not let him get away with it this time."

Tears flowed freely down her face at her father’s blindness. "This time? When have you ever let Acheron get away with anything?"

She blinked away the tears in her eyes as she tried to make him see reason. "Beware the viper in your closet. Isn’t that another thing you’re always saying, Father?" She cut a meaningful glare at Styxx. "Ambition and jealousy are at the heart of all betrayals. Acheron’s only ambition is to stay out of your sight and were he to have jealousy, it wouldn’t be directed at you. But I do know of another who would gain immensely in his life were you gone."

Her father backhanded her. "How dare you implicate your brother."

"I told you, Father. She hates me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hasn’t bedded the whore too."

Ryssa wiped the blood from her lips. "The only person in this family that I know of who sleeps with whores is you, Styxx. I wonder if Acheron was supposedly seen in your favorite stew . . ." With that she turned and headed out of the room and to the street.

"Leave us!"

Acheron could barely recognize the sound of his father’s voice through the throbbing vicious pain. No part of him had been left unviolated or free of abuse. It even hurt to blink.

Once the room was empty, his father approached him where he lay on the stone slab.

To his complete shock, his father brought him a ladle of water to drink.

Acheron cringed, expecting the king to hurt him worse with it.

He didn’t. His father actually lifted his head and helped him to drink from it. But for the fact it would kill Styxx, he’d think it poisoned.

"Where were you last night?"

Acheron felt a single tear slide from the corner of his eye at the question that had been asked over and over again. The salt from it, stung the open wounds on his cheek as he drew a ragged, agonized breath. "Just tell me what to say, akri. Tell me what will keep me from being hurt anymore."

His father slammed the ladle down on the stone by Acheron’s face. "I want the names of the men you met with."

He didn’t know the names of the senators. They’d seldom offered one before they’d screwed him.

Acheron shook his head. "I met with no one."

His father buried his hand in his hair and forced him to look at him. "Give me the truth. Damn you!"

Lost to the pain, Acheron struggled to think of some lie that his father would believe, but as with the interrogator, he came back to the one single truth. "I didn’t do it. I wasn’t there."

"Then where were you? Have you a single witness to your where-abouts?"

Yes, but she’d never come forward. Maybe if he were Styxx . . . But Artemis would never stand up for a worthless whore. "I have only my word."

His father roared in anger. He reached for him, but before he could make contact, he froze.

Acheron held his breath as he tried to understand what was happening. An instant later, Artemis appeared beside him.

Stunned, he couldn’t do anything other than stare at her.

"Your sister told me what they’d accused you of. Don’t worry, your father will have no memory of this. Nor will your brother."

Acheron swallowed as he tried to understand what she was saying. "You’re protecting me?"

She nodded. An instant later, he was back in his room and healed. Acheron lay back on his bed, more grateful than words could express. But even so it didn’t erase the pain of what he’d been through. Any more than it concealed the fact that Styxx was planning to overthrow his own father.

What was he going to do?

Artemis materialized beside him. Her expression was sorrowful as she brushed his hair back from his face.

"Will Ryssa remember us?" he asked her.

"No. From this moment forward she won’t even remember that you and I know each other. I should have done it sooner perhaps. But she seemed to keep her mouth closed. Now I won’t have to worry."

That was for the best.

He stared at Artemis amazed at what she’d done. No, she hadn’t stood up for him, but she had saved him. It was a major breakthrough from the last time she’d left him to their "tender" care. "Thank you for coming for me."

She laid her hand to his cheek. "I wish I could take you away from here."

She was the one person who could. But her fear was too great. Maybe she was right. What good would it do for her to be ruined over him?

He wasn’t worth it.