One sought to help her.
One sought to destroy her.
Well, she’d endured too much to give up now. All she had to do was stick to the plan, continuing to save and sell the presents her father gave her—and stop hemorrhaging cash to secretly buy niceties for the otherworlders. One year, she reminded herself.
Hope is silly. What if your treasures are stolen before you can sell them—what if your cash is stolen after you sell them? What if your father discovers your plan? Do you really want him to have the satisfaction of killing you?
“I’m not listening to you,” she whispered. “Go away.”
Surprisingly, the evil crackle in the air faded.
Another blow was delivered to Blue Eyes, stopping the most bizarre conversation she’d ever had. Another flinch on her part. Hopefully that was the end of it—but no, again and again the whip descended, until Blue Eyes had received fifteen agonizing strikes.
A panting Jecis dropped the weapon and wiped his blood-spattered hands together in a gesture of a job well done. He looked Blue Eyes over, frowned. Actually, every person in the crowd was frowning, Vika realized. They were staring at Blue Eyes as if he were a monster wearing a tiara: terrified yet awed.
“Anyone helps him, and they die,” Jecis announced. “And if you think to fight your way free and run,” he added, stomping over to kick Blue Eyes in the stomach, “go for it. There’s a tracker in your cuffs. I’ll have you back in that cage by morning, and you’ll wish the whipping had killed you. Oh, and if you try to remove the cuffs, you’ll activate the blade-saws and they’ll remove your hands.” He laughed cruelly. “A little safety precaution I had installed.”
Blue Eyes didn’t even glance in his direction.
Jecis whisked around. “You and you,” he snarled to two of his biggest employees. “Stay here the rest of the night and watch him.”
With that, he stomped away with a grinning Matas close on his heels. Most of the others followed after him. There were a few stragglers who hung back to gauge Blue Eyes’s reaction to the threats. He remained just as he was, his expression blank, his gaze locked on Vika.
Thankfully, fatigue from a long, hard day’s work and the knowledge that another day just like this one loomed on the horizon soon got the better of the stragglers and they tottered off, leaving only the guards. One was stationed at the east end of the captives’ circle and one was stationed at the west end.
Vika gazed at the otherworlders in the cages. Most were gripping the bars, like Kitten, and some of their expressions were filled with horror while some were filled with relief. If she aided Blue Eyes and they sounded an alert, she would only bring more trouble upon his head. Or back.
But why would they sound an alert? Jecis would return, and could very well direct his anger at the prisoners. But then again, if they remained silent, he would know they’d witnessed her actions and punish them tomorrow. Or maybe he would be too angry with Vika to consider the otherworlders’ part.
Either way, she wasn’t going to worry about her father right now. She couldn’t. Too well did she know the pain of being beaten, then left alone and hurting, desperate for someone, anyone, to help. Abandoning Blue Eyes wasn’t an option.
Heart thundering in her chest, Vika snuck up behind the first guard. Gulping, she flipped back the hood of her cloak and tapped him on the shoulder. He spun to face her, tensed.
“Vika,” he said, his expression hardening. He looked behind her, as if he expected her father to pounce. “What are you doing here?”
She forced a grin, held up her hand . . . the one with the ring she’d purchased only a few weeks ago, for just such a moment as this . . . and blew. Has to work. A fine, dark powder misted over the man’s face, the same drug Jecis used to sedate the otherworlders. He coughed, his skin flushing with color, and she retreated into the darkness. A moment later, his knees collapsed. He hit the ground, already unconscious.
“Bernard?” the other guard said, striding forward. He reached his friend and crouched down—and Vika was there, crouching as well, blowing powder in his face. He too coughed and fell, landing on top of his buddy.
She waited, just to be sure. Both males remained in place.
A small measure of joy burst through her. It had worked!
In an hour, they would awaken and they would remember what she’d done, but they wouldn’t tell Jecis, she didn’t think. Most likely they would rather undergo chastisement for sleeping on the job than cast blame upon her and suffer an even worse fate.
Vika rushed forward, dropping to her knees the moment she reached Blue Eyes’s side. His head was turned toward her, his cheek resting on the stump, his jaw clenched. His eyes were closed, the long length of his lashes fanning out. Flecks of blood had splashed onto his face. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and tenderly brushed the hair from his brow.
He met her gaze. “What are you doing, Vika?”
“Don’t. I’m not in a nice mood.”
A tide of warmth rose inside her, washing through her. He thought to protect her from himself. He was as beautiful as he was strong, she realized, and she hated seeing him brought so low by such evil.
I should have stopped this. I should have done something.
Well, she was doing something now.
“I must.” As quickly as she was able, she unhooked the cuffs from the stump. Despite the fact that Blue Eyes was still awake, he slumped forward, making no effort to stop his momentum.
She caught him before he hit the ground. He was too big and too heavy for her to drag back to his cage. Plus, his back . . . oh, sweet mercy. Bile burned a path up her chest. Up close, she could see exposed hunks of muscle, decimated tissue, and blood leaking into a thousand tiny rivers.
The tears returned to her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. She eased him to the ground as best she could, felt a vibration, and suspected he’d moaned. It was his first reaction to what had happened. Either the action had hurt him worse than the whipping or he didn’t mind revealing his pain to her.
She straightened, intending to rush to the edge of the clearing where she’d stored food and medicine and other supplies, knowing she would have to feed the prisoners and doctor Blue Eyes swiftly, without alerting anyone at camp. But before she could take a single step, surprisingly strong fingers wrapped around her ankle.
“I’ll be back,” she said, and pointed to where she needed to go.
Blue Eyes maintained his grip. Shadows and golden firelight flickered over his face, twining light with dark, and while she could see that his lips were moving, she couldn’t make out the words.