40. Promises (1)
Dreams rippled in and out of Wes’s vision, like rays scattering through clouds, like stones disappearing beneath the surface of a lake.
He saw an eager little boy climbing onto his father’s knee, grinning toothily beneath an untidy shock of dirt-brown hair. His father patted him on the head and spun him a tale of Excalibur, the sword of light and legend, forged with the foundation of the world. The boy gasped in delight to hear how Excalibur, wielded by the first king of Airlea, felled the primordial evils and sealed away the darkness of the world, a radiant beacon of mankind’s hope. He cried, heartbroken, when it was sheathed in stone and left in a lake lost to time.
But Father, he wailed, grabbing his father’s sleeve, that poor sword! How could they just leave it there? Now it’ll rust and waste away forever.
But his father’s mouth only turned up, and his eyes crinkled in the barest shadow of a smile.
Wrong you are, boy, he said. A weapon that slumbers is merely waiting for the right moment. Its time will come.
That must have been long ago, Wes thought. Very, very long ago, before the boy had grown up, before he’d proven himself to be a disappointment. It was back when his father actually had high hopes for him as a son of the Geppett family.
The dream tugged him down in a whirling current, and he surfaced somewhere else.
He was standing before a large crate pushed up against a stone wall, its shadow looming over him in a deadly omen. Wes recognized the area immediately. He was in the back area of the Knight’s Academy—an empty and quiet yard with nothing but blank walls, sparse grass, and large barrels and crates to hold waste and other old items. Beside him stood three classmates, each from noble families who were nearly as wealthy as they were snobbish: Bracklebrook, Farsend, and Pinley.
Ah, Wes remembered this day. He’d been walking alone, trying to escape from all the pressing attentions and responsibilities of the Academy faculty. He’d run into three students surrounding a crate, and thinking it odd, had decided to investigate.
How he wished now that he’d simply walked on.
Wes eyed the crate. The edges shimmered in a dreamlike haze. The face gleamed in cold ash wood. “What is this?” he said uncertainly.
Bracklebrook’s weaselly face split into a greasy smile. “Ah, Geppett. What fortunate timing.”
The uncertainty simmering in Wes’s gut rolled into dread. “Fortunate timing?”
Farsend and Pinley circled him like hyenas. For one deluded moment, he was convinced they were about to seize him and throw him into the crate. He’d rejected their advances of friendship countless times, after all. Surely their pride could only take so many snubs before they lashed out.
But no; Wes dismissed the idea as quickly as it rose. His father owned the Academy, and House Geppett was simply too large a threat to discredit. So long as he was on Academy grounds, Wes was untouchable.
“You see, Geppett,” drawled Bracklebrook, pacing slowly in front of him, “this is a good opportunity for you to prove your loyalties.”
Wes stiffened. “Loyalties. You think me subservient to another?”
“No, no. Perish the thought.” Bracklebrook covered his mouth with a hand. “But, well…some might.”
Wes’s eyes narrowed.
“It’s that lowly forest dog,” Farsend blurted, his angry, beady eyes squinting at Wes. “She keeps hanging around you, and you let her. She covers you in her stench. You bring shame to your station by putting up with it!”
“You bring shame to all of us,” Pinley corrected, tossing her head of golden curls. “Honestly, Geppett. Your charity ought to have a limit.”
Wes barely reined in a fist, forcing a slow breath in and out through his teeth. Azalea was the only person in the entire Academy who treated him like a normal person. But a heated defense would serve her no good here. Wes had to pick his battles carefully, or he would risk drawing more attention to her.
“And that’s what you mean by proving my loyalties?” he said, tone clipped. “You want me to…what, denounce her? Forbid her from approaching me because she’s not a noble?”
“That would be a good start, but hardly adequate,” Bracklebrook snorted. He waved a hand towards the crate. “There is a better way. Show us that you’re above this, right here and now.”
Wes turned to regard the crate again. It only took him a second to realize that the lid had been bolted shut. He glanced at Bracklebrook, who only grinned.
Surely not, Wes thought disbelievingly, his hands going numb. His first thoughts drifted to a place nearly too dark for him to bear—the lynchings of the Lightbringer Rebellion, where innocents were locked into crates and set on fire. His class had received a lecture on those sordid events earlier that week. Surely it hadn’t filled his schoolmates with any insane ideas.
But Bracklebrook’s face told him otherwise. Power-drunk, self-righteous, a hint of glee. The look of a boy satisfied with his own cruelty.
There was a living, breathing person locked in that crate, and Wes had a feeling that he knew who.
“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” said Pinley, reading Wes’s expression with a breezy laugh. “We’re not barbarians. Obviously, we’re not going to run around and set crates on fire.”
“The girl just needed a lesson,” Bracklebrook said, nodding. “A little reminder of her proper place on the ladder.”
Wes’s hands began to shake, his fingers twitching. “You’re insane. You’ve all lost your minds.”
Bracklebrook’s face darkened. “Don’t tell us that you’ve grown genuinely fond of her.”
“He has. Oh, look at his face. It’s almost pitiable.”
“You disgrace your name, Geppett.”
Wes could not listen. He could only think of Azalea curled up, struggling to breathe. Shut in the oppressive, cold dark of a crate. Dizzy. Exhausted. All sides pushing in. For hours.
Rage seared his vision red.
He raised a shaking hand to the crate. His manawell flared, a pulse so deep that it shook his bones. He could sense it—the threads of wood mana within the planes of the crate, sturdy and flourishing, woven like a rugged bolt of twill. Easy enough to bend to his will. His affinity for plant mana would serve him well.
Wes crooked his fingers and blazed, yanking hard on every thread of wood mana at once.
The crate shattered.
Shards of wood sprayed across the yard. A gush of water burst forth and shoved a pathetic, shriveled mess out of the crate’s remains. It was Azalea, gagging and gasping for air, uniform pasted to her skin.
Wes fell beside her with a distressed noise, his hands cupping her face. She felt as cold as ice. Her lungs were wheezy and her coughing was as weak as an infant’s.
I’m here, he was mumbling incoherently. He pressed his lips to her forehead, to her hair. I’m here, ’Zalie. I’m sorry. So sorry.
She shivered against him and retched again. He tried to rub some warmth into her arms, but her skin was clammy and refused to retain heat. He cradled her closer, wanting to sob at the torment she’d been through.
Perhaps if Bracklebrook had said nothing, Wes would have forgotten his presence. Perhaps he would have taken Azalea to the infirmary and nothing of note would have happened.
But Bracklebrook chose that exact moment to say: “How disappointing. To think you would fall so low.”
Wes did not even realize he was turning until he had already leapt for Bracklebrook, swift and sure as a panther. He tackled the boy to the floor and throttled him down. Then his fists moved. Once, twice, thrice.
Like lightning, they crackled down. The first strike sent Bracklebrook’s head snapping to the side, blood spraying from his nose. The second burst his lip and cracked a tooth. The third cracked something in his jaw, and he spat out blood.
It wasn’t enough. He deserved to writhe. He deserved to die.
Farsend and Pinley dove for Wes to restrain his arms, but Wes swiveled around and knocked them to the ground with a sweep of his leg. He turned back and wound up for another strike, but Bracklebrook had recovered. He lashed out with a fist of his own and caught Wes solidly in the jaw.
Wes lurched back with a groan, and Bracklebrook scrambled to his feet, Pinley and Farsend with him. Wes rubbed his sore jaw, and unbidden, felt a chuckle rattle out of his throat, dry and foreboding. Bracklebrook stopped in his tracks and glanced at his friends. They only returned puzzled looks.
“Go ahead,” said Wes. He straightened, his vision terrifyingly clear, his every limb ice-cold. A hint of mirth curled his voice. “Strike me. Take me apart. And then, when the headmaster discovers what you’ve done, he’ll relay it to Lord Geppett. And when Lord Geppett learns that you’ve touched his heir apparent, see what he does to you. Which will he let you keep, your skin or your family estate?”
He saw the blood drain from their faces in unison, leaving nothing but ghost-white flesh. He laughed again.
“What’s wrong? Throw a punch. You were being so brave. It’d be a shame if you stopped.”
He stepped towards Bracklebrook, but the boy only shuffled away, avoiding his gaze.
“Go on,” Wes said.
Hate flared in Bracklebrook’s eyes, but he shook his head.
Wes crushed his fist into Bracklebrook’s solar plexus, sending the boy tumbling to the ground with a feeble, broken noise. He watched Bracklebrook curl helplessly before him, choking, legs twitching.
“What, can’t hit someone who will fight back?” he said quietly. He flexed his fingers. His knuckles ached.
“Wes,” Azalea rasped from behind him.
He stepped forward and nudged Bracklebrook’s ribs with the sole of his foot. Bracklebrook groaned.
“Get up,” Wes said. He nodded at Pinley and Farsend. “Come on. I’ll even let you gang up three on one, since you seem to prefer those odds.”
Farsend bared his teeth, fists curling low by his waist. “You wouldn’t be playing so bold if it weren’t for your daddy, Geppett.”
“Yes, that’s rather my point, Farsend. Because neither would you.”
He drew his feet together and looked him in the eye. “You’re picking the wrong side. Backing the lowest dung-eating street whore—”
Wes’s fist was blindingly fast, crushing Farsend straight in the mouth. Farsend’s head snapped back at the blow, and he let out a strangled noise, lashing out blindly with a kick. Wes wove between Farsend’s heavy, aggressive strikes with ease. The adrenaline of combat had only honed his focus to crystal clarity, every motion a simple move on a chessboard.
“Your family will be nothing!” Farsend screamed. “Even your father’s strength won’t be enough to save you! You will damn your own house to oblivion, Geppett, you’ll damn everybody you know—”
He simply talked too much. Wes slammed his elbow into Farsend’s throat. The boy crashed hard to the ground, and this time, he did not move.
“Wes,” begged Azalea’s voice, weak and thin and barely there. “Stop. Please…stop.”
Wes shoved her words out of his mind. He turned on Pinley, who blanched and stepped away.
“You don’t want to hurt me, Geppett,” she said shakily. “I know you. You wouldn’t hurt me. I’m weaker than you. You wouldn’t hurt somebody weaker than you.”
“Maybe you should have thought of that,” he said, “before you tortured somebody for a few hours.”
“It was harmless. She was never in any danger, so you shouldn’t—”
He cracked his knuckles into her nose and let it gush. She screamed and squeezed at her bleeding nostrils.
“Harmless?” Wes said shakily. “Shall we pop you underwater for that long and see how you turn out?”
He stepped closer, but before he could say anything more, a heavy weight crashed into his back and barreled him into the grass. Bracklebrook was up again. Wes’s shoulder slammed into the ground, and for one moment, his senses were flooded with white-hot pain, shoulder pounding and skull rattling.
He pushed the agony away and kneed Bracklebrook hard in the gut, throwing his weight up and over until he had Bracklebrook pincered to the ground beneath his hips. Bracklebrook thrashed, but could not break free.
Wes curled his fingers in Bracklebrook’s collar and yanked his head up. Bracklebrook’s eyes were shuttering in fear. Wes did not care. Bracklebrook had been the leader; he was the one who decided to stick an innocent person in a crate, fill it with water, and seal it shut, just to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. Lowlife piece of filth. He needed to die.
Wes struck. At that hateful mouth, that proud nose, those beady eyes that were already swelling shut in bruises. He struck again, again. His fingers were numb and covered in blood. He struck until Bracklebrook’s sharp cries of pain had descended to low, pitiful moans, dazed and indiscernible.
Then small arms, shaking from exhaustion, hooked around his hands and yanked them back.
“Stop it—stop it, Wes, he’s learned his lesson,” Azalea begged.
Her voice was still rubbed raw, and Wes could only think of how she must have cried and pleaded and struggled to breathe, all while these three bastards had laughed and cheered.
Fresh rage filled him. He shook free and slammed his fist into Bracklebrook’s jaw. He was rewarded with the sickening, thrilling crunch of soft bone. A jolt of agony raced up his arm as Bracklebrook screamed.
“Wes,” Azalea sobbed, and she grabbed him again, her arms flinging around his waist. “Please, Wes, stop. Please, for me.”
He felt his raised hands stutter in the air. He stared at Bracklebrook’s ruined face, once handsome and proud. His eyes drifted to the blood dripping from his knuckles, the crate that had shattered into shards of wood, the beaten bodies of Pinley and Farsend slumped against the wall.
Slowly, his hands fell to his sides. He felt them trailing limply there.
He knew he should have felt repentant. Horrified. He should have thought himself a monster. But staring at the carnage around him, he felt nothing.
And that terrified him more than anything else.
The dream shifted. Wes watched as day melted into night, the sun melting towards the horizon as clouds spun by like tufts of cotton. He blinked, and he was in the Academy infirmary—a spacious room with tall windows and arched ceilings, patterned curtains dividing the row of beds along an ornamented wall.
He was resting in one such bed, propped up by fluffy pillows. Azalea should have been, too, but she was sitting at his bedside instead. For now, they were alone; Bracklebrook and Farsend and Pinley were in private rooms, under the focused care of Academy physicians.
Azalea patted at Wes’s blood-caked hands with a wet rag, her fingers studious and careful. There was a blanket bundled over her shoulders, but her skin still felt cold. She should be resting, pampered and cushioned with a warm drink, not caring for Wes.
There were a thousand things he wanted to say. I was just trying to scare them. I didn’t mean it. That wasn’t me. But all of them were untrue, and she would know that. Every bit of cruelty and selfishness in him had been laid bare before her eyes.
He had thought he was different from his brothers and their thoughtless lust for violence. He’d been wrong.
“I’m sorry,” Wes mumbled. Azalea’s eyes flickered to him, and he quickly looked away. “You shouldn’t have seen that. No…no, I shouldn’t have done that.”
Azalea’s hands paused over his. She was quiet for a moment. Wes couldn’t bear to look at her. He wished she would leave. No, stay. Her kindness was only a stinging poison that would prolong the agony. I need it. It would be better if she got it over with and walked out, right now. Don’t go.
She pulled back and folded her hands in her lap. Wes closed his eyes and waited for her fading footsteps. She should leave. It would be a wise decision, an honorable decision.
But Azalea did not move. Instead, she spoke, her voice so soft that it barely carried over the evening wind.
“When I was five,” she murmured, “my mother made a stuffed kitty for me. This one afternoon, we went to the village square, and this one boy, he threw my kitty into the well.”
Wes’s eyes sprung open. “What? Why?”
“Da said he liked me and didn’t know what to do with it,” Azalea said. She looked at the ground. “I cried and begged him to get my kitty out, but he just said, ‘Get her yourself then.’ And he and his friend grabbed me and started to push me over into the well.”
“It’s okay,” Azalea said softly. She tugged at his arm until he sat down. “They were leaning me over the edge when Azure found them.”
“They got thrashed, I’d hope.”
“More than that,” she said. “He almost killed them.”
Wes fell silent at that.
“Da told him to make it right,” Azalea said. Her gaze shifted. “But Azure said he wasn’t sorry. That they had nearly killed me, so he was just returning the favor. That if anybody tried to touch his baby sister again, he’d rip their arms off.”
Wes knew he should have felt horrified. Such words should never be spoken by a seven-year-old child. A good person would feel horrified to hear it.
“You must have hated him,” he said quietly.
Azalea shook her head, still looking at the floor. “Maybe I should have. But I was just grateful.”
“He had beaten my tormentors. He was scary while he did it, but he had protected me.”
Wes stared at the bandages wrapped around his hands. He curled his aching fingers in and out, in and out. Feeling the flesh crumple beneath his bones again.
“He was almost a murderer,” he murmured.
Azalea was quiet for a moment. Then her hands—small but nimble, lithe fingers and velvet skin—wrapped around his.
“When it was all over, Da placed Azure on his knee,” she whispered, “and said, ‘Son, you don’t hurt anybody like that again. When you hurt people, you hurt your own soul. Never do that unless you’ve no other choice.’”
She slid off the chair and knelt before him, the sunlight flaring over her hair, bathing her in a golden glow.
“’Zalie, your knees, they’re still—stand up,” Wes said breathlessly, trying to pull her to her feet. “Don’t, ’Zalie.”
She didn’t listen. She remained kneeling, her eyes fixed on him, unmoving.
“Wes,” she said, her words as soft as a whisper but clear as an autumn night. “Don’t hurt your own soul. Not for me or anybody else.”
Wes’s pulse shattered in his chest. Time dragged down to the languid, silent drip of dew from a leaf. He saw her then. Her meadow-green eyes, her golden hair rimmed with twilight that flared like a halo. She was beautiful. Wes felt vertigo and he was falling. He did not deserve her, but he knew then that he loved her, loved her with a keenness that knifed his own chest.
“I won’t,” he promised, hushed. “For as long as I live.”
He decided then that he would be better. He would take that part of him that craved blood, craved power, and he would lock it away and flee from it. He would not become his father or his brothers.
The last thing the dream gave him was an unguarded, radiant smile from Azalea. Then it slipped away, and before his eyes, so did she.