Chapter Nine: A Caged Bird Doesn’t Sing

Aboard the Andromeda

Wren fell to the floor. The wooden floorboards cracked against her knees. Dusty and coarse and flickering with strokes of autumn light. She could see the boards had once been sturdy, proud trees, seeping up rich earth and dazzling sunlight. Their fate, however, was her own. Restrained by consanguineal laces, hauled away by foreign faces, left to slumber in darker places.

She couldn’t feel the kinship of the wood with her fingers. She couldn’t move her fingers at all. They were bound with the material people used to keep wounds from leaking or hinder dead bodies from crying.

Without her fingers, she couldn’t write. Her blood—pulsing with soul magic—quickened in her veins. Rivers, she thought, after a storm. The build-up pounded inside, wanting to be released, to flood across open space. Without her fingers, she couldn’t use magic.

One of the men—the thieves, the beasts—spoke. His voice was boots crunching against day-old ice clusters. “Night-night, little bird.”

A cloth sack that smelled of potatoes and other spuds that thrived in the damp underground obscured her vision. But she could see the twinkling auras of the men in front of her. Their wavering shapes shifted past, casting rippled shadows. The men who wore no expressions on their pale faces as they requested an audience with her, as they bound her hands into a lump of pudgy, useless flesh, as they battered Ryker to the ornate carpet floor. The men who were not men at all.

There were many titles to explain them; they appeared as several entities. But Wren saw them for what they truly were.

Crooked antlers. An incessant incandescence. Faces of the dead. Helvts. Half-beasts.

The people of Blitzkrieg loved to tell tales of ogres to frighten their children. Ogres that punished disobedient children. Ogres that stole uncovered toes. Ogres that ate human hearts. Wren had heard all of these tales from troubadours that frequented Blitzkrieg’s taverns. But Wren never believed they were true. Until now.

But the other, Mr. Locke, was something else entirely. Beneath the pudgy frame of his Blitzkrieg face was another entity Wren had blurry memories of. Her mind—tired from the struggle against the helvts’ grasp—couldn’t pinpoint where she’d seen a similar shaded face. But she knew she had.

Wren heard the door shut as they left her, but she sensed the cold snap of the lock, the metal screeching into place. The silence that followed. A chill seeping into the room.

Despite the bindings on her hands—like bulky, shapeless mittens—she managed to wrangle the cloth sack from her head.

The room swirled with shrouds of purple and black. Shifting. Roaming. Evolving, despite the lack of light. It breathed with darkness. The low hum huddling in the corners, pacing back and forth, screaming.

The room reeked with the effluvium of soul magic.

Other people had lingered here. Other bodies had exchanged days in this room. Their lives meshed with Wren’s, entwining as they brushed against her skin and slipped between the cracks. Smelling of cold dirt, freshly thawed from winter’s caress.

She felt the room move. No, not shadows. A rhythm that pounded against icy shores and soft beaches and water-stained ports. A swaying back and forth that was unnoticeable unless she ignored the empty spaces that writhed in shadow.

Wren wilted to the floor, leaning her back on the wall. She had never been on a boat before. Ryker preferred solid ground, only venturing on the ice when they had to. Wren had seen boats of all sizes bobbing along the docks of Blitzkrieg’s swarming ports. The dark waves nudged against them, causing them to lean one way and then be enticed back the other. She knew she was on a boat.

And if she was on a boat that was moving, she was leaving behind East Port, possibly all of Blitzkrieg’s diamond-chiseled shores. Which meant she was also leaving behind Ryker.

Wren cradled her knees to her chest, squeezing herself into a tight ball. She felt covered in a layer of gray—cold, alone, smeary. She ignored the eddied shades and the shadowed faces. She wanted Ryker to be at the door, to pull her into his sheltered arms and hold her near his chest. Then she could see his heartbeat—radiant red and purple, shimmering with crystallized stars.

Unlike the beasts… their hearts were hollow and silent.

Wren had always been able to sense, not hear, other people’s heartbeats. She could tell if someone was happy by how their heart smoldered pink or if they were sick by the shriveled yellow coating their skin. Even among the throngs in the market or along the scurried docks she could sense every single life. But with these men there was nothing. No pulse. No blood rush. No heartbeat.

Just a cold catacomb of stillness.

Wren shivered and buried her chin between her knees. She was the princess in the faerie story about the ogre without a heart. Only instead of being trapped in a mountain castle, she was on a boat. And instead of an ogre, her wardens were half-beasts. If only she could use her magic, maybe she could find their hearts and restore them. That would be a happier ending for the ogres than in the fable.

But she wasn’t a princess, and she couldn’t user her fingers. The ship rocked suddenly, reminding Wren once more that Blitkrieg’s bleached mountains were growing smaller and smaller with every minute. And Ryker was disappearing too.

There wouldn’t be anyone to rescue her. She closed her eyes, silencing the empty colors, and tried to calm her roaring blood like Ryker had taught her.

“Whenever you’re scared, Wren,” he had said, his breath purpled with the cold and the stars, “just sit back and close your eyes and make a list of all the pretty things in the world. Then you’ll remember that everything will be fair in the end.”

Wren let out a slow breath—pink whispers brushing against her legs, even through several layers of clothes—and she thought of the prettiest things left in the world: plants.

Blood lilies and fountain tulips from Taegan.

Calluna and woad from the Shifting Highlands.

Forsythia from Druishk.

She listed all the flowers she could remember, ones she’d seen merchants selling at the market or heard travelers describe in their stories. She’d read books about plants from the Southern Isles, and Ryker had told her about the shrubs along the trickling streams of Taegan. She wanted to see, more than anything else, all the flowers, all the colors of the world blended together in a splash of brilliance.

Witch hazel and frost jasmines from Blitzkrieg.

Fire willows from Effre.

Kalina from the Southern Isles.

The eternal kokia cookei rumored to grow on a mystical island to the West.

She continued her list, growing it as long as the viper vines from Rekik, until the frosted sea rolled her to sleep.

♦♦♦

Wren couldn’t remember her father, no matter how much she tried. She couldn’t hear his accent or the rumble of his voice. She didn’t know if his dark skin was as smooth as her own or if his eyes held the same shade as hers. Whenever she tried to remember, she only ever saw Ryker.

Young, disheveled Ryker hollering as he burst into the tavern, luminous sword held high. He had been twelve and was shorter, skinnier, and full of rage. His tattered clothes hung loose on his bony physique; he didn’t even have shoes, just cloth wrapped around bleeding skin. But he had heard her cries and came crashing through the window to unleash his fury onto the husks.

Wren barely remembered the slain bodies—one of her father with his broad nose and thick forehead—tossed to the floor like corn-shell husks. She didn’t remember crawling into the bottom cupboard and pulling the cracked door closed to hide. She only remembered peering through the slit and watching the mangled boy with his starlit sword slay the monsters in an iridescent halo.

Her loyal protector, her brave guard—from the stories about dragons and princesses. Stories her father had told her. Her father who had no face, no voice, no breath.

Wren couldn’t remember her father, but she dreamed of her mother.

Her mother who had golden-blue eyes and hair like the sunset that illuminated her ebony skin. Her mother who always smiled, always laughed. Eyes shining with a million suns. Mouth parted to sing soft lullabies that swelled in the lowlight of a twilight jungle.

Her mother who could make flowers grow with a breath from her lips and could make birds stop to listen with a single note between her teeth.

Wren dreamed of her mother who danced softly between trees and mountains, the sun and the moons, the sky and the sea. In a place where time didn’t linger and death didn’t dwell. Swaying to the rhythm of the wind and the waves, draping her slender arms around Wren’s father, they danced and they sang and they laughed. Forever and ever.

Until her father stumbled away through a darkening landscape, clutching in his embrace a baby girl wrapped in butterfly kisses. Her mother, unsmiling, faded into the grove of trees, galaxies glistening on her onyx cheeks.

Her mother who was like the monsters but was not a monster.

♦♦♦

Wren woke to heartbeats and shuffling footsteps. Above her, streams of iridescent green filtered through slits in the wooden ceiling, weaving with strands of sunlight. She let out a slow breath. Her exhalation wafted with orange and ink. There were humans on board.

Maybe she wasn’t alone.

A white flare of hope jolted her mind and body awake. Her stomach rumbled an ugly brown, and she thought of the citrus-bright grapefruit Ryker had given her at the market. Ryker, who had disappeared by now. Her mouth watered for the slippery, sweet juice of the fruit, but her throat chafed for water.

She sat for a time—what could have been hours or seconds, she didn’t know—staring at the silent door across from her. It bobbed beneath her eyes, rocking along with the ship. At least the souls had retired with the morning light.

Wren listened to the prattle of the seafarers on the deck above. Roaches scrit-scratch scuttling. She wondered where they were headed. Ryker said most ships went to Central first before venturing to any outlier islands in the West or South. Few traveled toward the Shifting Highlands—tales of terror beasts and wild fae keeping them away—and only vessels with specific trade sailed to Druishk, Rekik, or Jokoa.

Trails of sound—scarlet and the black of night—seeped under the door, beckoning her. Wren crawled across the floor and pressed her head against the door. Ryker always told her if she was ever lost from him to find a public place and learn where she was. Then she could find someone trustworthy to help her.

Last night, she thought only the helvts and the monster sailed with her—but the heartbeats resonating from every corner of the ship promised someone else to help. And if not, maybe she could learn where she was headed, why she was taken. Perhaps once off the boat, someone would help.

“What’s the cargo this time, Lord Oku?” A feminine voice—scarlet wine sloshing in a glass chalice—drifted from down a corridor. “My mates loaded a large number of crates off the dock. I thought Blitzkrieg was only good for sellin’, not tradin’.”

“Good for both, Captain,” came a creaky voice. Wren shivered. It was the man who had bound her hands. The monster with fire for eyes. Locke. “If you know the suitable products.”

There was a pause, worn boots scuffing the floorboards. A jangle of metal against metal. Flutter of a baggy shirt sleeve.

The ship pitched beneath Wren, and she steadied herself against the door with one hand. She felt the wood breathe against her fingertips with the musty days of overgrowth.

“Most of it are wares—artifacts, tools, fabrics—items only Blitzkrieg folks produce. People in the Southern Isles will buy anything if it’s labeled from the North.” The man’s voice rumbled, as it had in the office, but there was a black edge to it—an alluring depth. Wren blinked repeatedly, her eyes heavy and blurry. The man—the monster—sounded as if he was urging her to believe his words, but there was a dark cloud fogging her mind. It made Wren feel queasy.

The man was lying.

Ryker had told her that people in the South were just as poor as in Blitzkrieg and anywhere else in Bakkaj. Perhaps there were some wealthy residents that would buy anything, but chances were slim for decent trade that far south. Ryker would know; he was from the South.

“Anything else I need to know about, sir?” The female voice was softer, but only just slightly. It still held rolled back shoulders, high cheekbones, and a leveled gaze. Whoever she was, she was human; Wren could sense her heartbeat: bloody bold red and valiant striking blue. Not a hint of fear or worry. Whoever she was, she was also brave.

“And…” The man stretched out the word. “We’ve got a little bird in the cupboard.”

There was a forced cough, and one of them craned their neck, cracking the bones. “Nothing for my men, I hope.”

“No, Captain. She’s strictly off limits. If I catch your crew near the door, there will be repercussions.” The dark edge consumed his voice. Wren leaned away from the door, shaking as his voice crawled inside her skin. It wasn’t a threat; it was a vow.

“What’re you gonna do with her? You know, when we reach the Glass Harbor.”

Wren gasped, her fear sliding away at the mention of Central’s most beautiful port, located on the western side of Effre. Rumors said every building in the port was made of glass and the streets were studded with stones that glimmered in the sunset. It was also the haven for a prestigious magic school. Wren had always dreamed of traveling to Effre. Everybody who lived there thrived; it was the place of faerie stories.

“Captain…” Warning. A breath. He let out a soft hmmm. “We’re going to make the little bird sing.”

Silence. Wren tried to sense what was happening, but the door was still cold from the man’s words. Was the captain sizing him up, trying to find a way past to rescue her? Did he have her under some kind of trance? Or did they both just leave?

“Understood,” the captain replied. A drop of red wine spilled out of the cup. “My mates won’t go near this hall or they will seek pay elsewhere. Our agreement stands.” The wine spilled down the side of the cup, blood red.

“If you’ll excuse me, Captain.”

“Of course.”

Footsteps—worn, snug boots—retreated from the corridor. Wren pulled away from the door and sat back on her heels.

Wren didn’t need Ryker here to tell her that she was the little bird. She wrapped her arms around her middle, but she continued to tremble. She was trapped on a boat that was gliding away from the only home she’d known. She couldn’t use her magic—her blood surged to expel the magic. There were monsters on the boat.

She sensed the door opening—the golden sunlit wood making way for burning grays—before she saw it move. She scrambled back. A sallow face—yellow-green-gray glaze varnished the skin—peered down at her with purple eyes. For a moment, the beast’s face shifted to resemble a man’s. Straight mouth, wide nose, dark eyes—one of the expressionless men. But Wren blinked and he flicked back to the beast. Just as it had in the market and at the dock office.

Wren hunched over, folding her body together as if she could hide by merely making herself smaller. The man towered over her; thick horns poking from his skull brushed the ceiling without a sound. Purple eyes burned in his eye sockets, glowing like the twin moons during the Illumination phase of the lunars cycle. One night a year, both moons were fully formed in the sky, side-by-side.

“Hello, bird,” a creaky yet enthralling voice said. The door opened further, and Wren shrank back from the sparking embers. The man—the monster—Mr. Locke—waltzed in. Behind him, another brute, face wavering to match the second expressionless man, stood in the corridor. Green trails, remnants of life roving down the hall, wove through the air around them.

Wren buried her face against her knees, refusing to look up at them. At him. His eyes burned in her mind—angry, red fires. His skin was as smooth and black as the night sky. Tattoos twisted across his exposed flesh in glimmering colors as jagged as Blitzkrieg’s mountains and swirling like ocean foaming against the dock. He was striking, alluring. She longed to gaze upon his skin and meet his eyes. But her gut squirmed in apprehension.

He was not human.

“Do you know why you’re here, little bird?” Mr. Locke said. His voice shimmered like his silver hair—bright and full of youth. In the market square, she had seen a glimpse of his disguise—a pudge, squat-nosed man that emitted musty orange drafts. But the burning eyes, the blackened skin, the wispy smoke hair—that was his true form.

Was this his magic? Distortion and illusions. It was powerful. Too powerful.

A monster, Wren whispered in her head. He was a monster.

“You have something we want. You have an ability we need,” he said. His voice tugged at her mind, begging her eyes to look up. Wren whimpered and squeezed her eyes shut. She tightened her body, drawing it as close together as she could. Lost in a white embrace.

The world glittered with color, but Wren found that she was formless, void of brilliant shades. Always a purse, iridescent white.

One of the helvts growled. It broke into a fight of coughing, blood gurgling. Mr. Locke—she sensed his gaze shift—snapped at the fiend with a single glance.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

Wood—dark and damp, not golden like the door and floorboards—clattered against the deck. Wren smelled wheat fields under scorching suns and the low curdle of jak-oxen milk. Her stomach rumbled.

Wren opened her eyes and stared at the wooden platter that held a hunk of bread, squares of cheese, and slices of meat. She hadn’t had meat in months, and cheese was something she’d only ever seen, never tasted. Throat arid, Wren shifted so she sat with legs crossed beneath her, and she held out a mittened hand toward the platter.

Mr. Locke pushed it toward her. Atop the platter, a wooden cup sloshed with clear liquid. When it was within reach, Wren lunged for the cup. Her bound hands slipped against its sides. She struggled to grasp it, face flushing in frustration. She managed to balance the cup between her stump hands and lifted it to her cracked lips. She drank, spilling most of it down her shirt. The liquid was sweet, soothing her dry throat. She gulped until there was no more.

Her head felt light as she dropped the cup and struggled to pick up a square of cheese. She leaned over the platter and ate like a dog off the floor. The cheese squelched against her teeth, but it tasted better than she had imagined. She savored the bread and the sweet meat. She had never eaten such a feast before, and she ate ravenously.

When finished, she sat back on her heels, face sticky. Her eyelids drooped. The room blurred, dizzy. But she beamed at Mr. Locke. He didn’t look frightening anymore. He didn’t look like a monster at all.

He looked young, skin a flawless shade of bronze. His eyes were golden-brown, not embers. Dark locks hugged his ears. She glanced at the helvts, but they were also men. Skin like Ryker; straw-colored hair pulled back into braids. They smiled at her.

Illusions.

Smiles flickered into impossible frowns. Antlers grew out of their skulls. Locke’s skin glinted with galaxies. And then it snapped back—warm faces, friendly smiles, humans.

It was an illusion, Wren knew it. She still couldn’t sense their hearts. Only his—Mr. Locke who should have fire for eyes—his heart raced thrice as fast as anyone she’d ever encountered. Even her own.

But she felt too tired to see the truth. The colors of the room had faded to a dull luster. Her eyes stung, and her head throbbed. She just wanted to sleep. And Mr. Locke had been so kind.

“Many thanks, Mr. Locke,” she whispered.

He smiled, thick lips curling. “I am not Mr. Locke. But you wouldn’t even be able to pronounce my true name.” Then, his eyes changed. Fire—burning hot, scorching—returned, and Wren gasped.

Her mind seared. Her vision flared—colors striking her eyes from all directions, blinding and burning. Green and blue and red—angry, roiling, fluttering. She heard the breath between the beats of every heart on board, the rhythm that the crisp waves of the sea made crashing against the side of the ship, splashing salt and water and green-blue glimmers.

Her fingertips, cradled in the bindings, blazed. Her blood boiled. Her mind simmered. She needed to expel the magic that was rushing through her.

She screamed.

“Get her blood.” A cracked voice, full of alluring haunting and ominous depth.

The two men—helvts once more—reached for Wren. Her voice felt thick with liquid. The room began to spin until she was upside down. The sky felt so close and the ground so far.

One helvt grabbed her arm, his hand leathery and rippling muscle, and tugged her shirt sleeve up. The other held a knife that felt ancient and otherworldly. Dark wips of midnight clung to the blade. Her slashed a line through her forearm. Blood—green and red and golden-silver—bubbled up and dripped down her skin. Soul essence. Exploding. It was cold and slimy, icicles melting in the spring thaw. The blood plopped into a cup, each drop a heartbeat in Wren’s mind.

Drop.

Drop.

Drop.

Wren couldn’t tell how long it spilled out or how much cascaded into the cup. Her skull pounded with a feral animal trying to get loose. The colors everywhere all at once obscured her focus. Shifting wall, shadowed faces. Itching yellow and fuzzy blue. Purple winked at her while green fumed.

They wrapped her arm with material that felt like plantations and sweaty skin, and then they left the room.

She closed her eyes, trying to pick flowers out of the colors. Her head clobbered, and her eyes pleaded for sleep.

♦♦♦

Wren stood at the base of a snow varnished mountain. A boy with golden eyes stood next to her. He wore a tattered gray robe, which fluttered on his thin frame. He looked like Ryker—the curve of his eyes, the complexion of his skin, the scrawny yet surefooted stature—but he was not Ryker. He was younger, slightly shorter, and his dark hair was tied back in a thick braid. And there were his eyes: honey and sunflowers and autumn leaves. 

The sky above them was a hazy purple despite the clouds crowding the atmosphere. Lightning flashed near the mountain’s peak, snapping the sky in half. Wren looked down at her hands and felt as if they weren’t her own. But they were. They were the warm umber, like wet clay. There was the curled scar across her knuckles, the craggy fingernails, the darkened fingertips from her magic.

This was a dream.

Then the boy spoke. “You have to go up there, Wren.” He didn’t look at her; his eyes didn’t move from the mountain, didn’t even blink. “You have to save Ryker.”

What’s wrong with Ryker? she wanted to ask, but the words wouldn’t climb out of her throat. And she already knew. She could see him.

His body arched back, arms stretched wide, mouth spread open. Red tears slid from his closed eyes, his nose, his mouth. Not tears. Blood. Crimson-black, from every pore of his body. There was so much blood.

Ryker. Ryker. Ryker.

She tried to call out to him, but he couldn’t hear her. There was too much blood. She waded through it, trying to reach for him. But he was drowning. She screamed. But the sound caught, whisked away by the winter wind.

She clawed at snow-crusted ground until her fingers bled out, staining the white ground. Above her lightning cackled, luring her further up the mountain. She rolled out of the way as a bolt slashed toward her; it shattered the rock she had been lying against. Black scorched the snow next to her. The wind wept, its wails cocooning her in a tight embrace. She heard a snarl and saw a long snout and bared teeth. Golden eyes. Reptilian, wolfish eyes. 

Another voice with a thick accent brawled in her head. “Come on, lass, it’s just like blood puddin’.” But Wren couldn’t see anyone. Just the purple sky.

What’s blood pudding? No sound came from her closed lips.

Blood seeped between the clouds, staining the sky in a rouge mist. Her hands were covered in blood. There was so much blood.

Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker.

“What is it, love?”

Wren saw a man with startling blue eyes. He stood in a dimly lit room. Books piled around him. He held one open his lap. Its pages began to turn, flipping faster and faster the longer she looked at it. Laughter echoed in the air, and the pages ripped free from the spine, spinning through the air.

She blinked and saw a girl on a beach. Her bronzed hands cradled a necklace in her palm. As she stroked the glass trinket, her lips moved. Foreign words poured out in a hypnotic song. A guttural voice echoing.

Well I’ve fought among the scalewolves, and I’ve shirked their sickle strokes,
I’ve sequestered ‘mongst the sawmouths ’til their odor made me choke,
I’ve stood knee-deep in hate-lamprey, flesh rotted, drained and burned,
Been journeying rough, I’ve seen enough to make your stomach turn.

The girl’s eyes turned white, light blazing out. Wren covered her face with her arm and bent over. Voices warped all around.

“I want my mam. I want my mam. I want my mam. I want my mam. I want my mam. I want my mam. I want my mam.”

Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker.

“Can’t you hear it ringing?” came the man again. He sat hunched on the floor now, surrounded by more books. They were piling up around him, creating an entire city. “Can’t you hear it?” He laughed, his eyes, now green, shifted around in all directions. His body jerked from side to side, swaying with laughter.

Wren wanted to ask what was ringing, but the words were lodged in her throat. She couldn’t open her mouth.

“It’s everywhere,” he whispered. He fiddled with a coin, constantly weaving it between his fingers. “The ringing.”

“This is all a dream,” Wren whispered.

“Is it?” the man said, shiny teeth flashing. “Or has it already happened?” He lifted his eyes, which had turned a shade of gray like the clouds above the mountain. “Or is it yet to happen?”

Then he laughed again.

Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker.

The girl on the beach shrieked and a wave of water crashed over Wren, knocking her to the ground. She saw swirling colors of red and blue, mixing together, whorling like the mid-winter auras above the Blitzkrieg mountain range—brilliant colors of light shimmering against a star-smeared sky.

Her hands found snow and rock. The ground bit into her palms.

The sky above her dripped with blood. It poured down to meet the horizon. Wren found herself at the base of the mountain again. The golden-eyed boy stood next to her in his tattered robe.

“You have to go up there, Wren,” he said again. The first drops of blood splattered onto his face. The mountain seeped with crimson. “Together, you can save Ryker.”

Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker. Ryker.

Another voice, familiar and comforting but blurry, spoke. “Remember, you aren’t the ogre. And you’re also not the princess.”

♦♦♦

For two days, Wren sat in the small room and watched the walls move and the air breathe with color. She heard chatter from across the ship and smelled the salt of the sea through the ship’s hull. Her fingers itched, the smolder growing every day. No matter how much she gnawed at the bindings or tried to slip her wrists out of the material, it didn’t budge. She could do nothing. Whatever they had bound her hands with was strong. Laced with magic.

Twice more, Mr. Locke and the helvts brought her food and drink. They didn’t stay long. She scarfed down the food and sickly sweet drink, her stomach ravenous and her throat arid. Then she slept, experiencing the same dream over and over, nothing changing.

Groggy, she woke and peered into the dark spaces. Shadows swallowed the room. Outside of the door, a heartbeat fumbled down the corridor, footsteps lurching. The door jolted on its hinges. Wren rubbed at her eyes, the material harsh against her skin. She heard mumbled curses—shades of gray—and the door handle rattled green.

The door opened and trails of green and yellow shredded the darkness. A man—not a monster, not a helvt—staggered against the rough door frame, which creaked green. His eyes, reddened and drooping, squinted at the room. Wren didn’t move from her seat in the middle of the floor. She thought he would move along when he realized this was not his cabin bunk. But his eyes—milky and sallow—found her.

“Well, aren’t you a pretty one?” He gawked at her, one arm leaning against the doorway, the other hanging limp and blue at his side.

Wren instinctively hunched her shoulders and squeezed her elbows against her ribcage. His heart sparked with burnt brown, smelling charred.

Her ogled her, his mouth curving up. “Captain been keepin’ you locked up tight. For herself?” His words slurred on the end, glinting orange and yellow. His bleary eyes glanced around as if he wasn’t sure who was talking.

He pushed against the doorframe, the wood creaking in the forest wind, his weight groaning beneath him. He stumbled toward her. His boots were loud against the floor. Ogres clomping through midnight streets. Ogres coming for uncovered toes and disobedient children. Wren scuttled backwards, but her shoulder hit the wall, sturdy golden trees. The room felt smaller than it had before with the man’s bulky frame—a hulk of yellow, orange, and brown—taking up so much space.

He smiled, revealing perfectly straight teeth beneath his blubbered lips. A line of white horses on a red hill. The smile reached up into his shiny, lizard eyes.

“Come here, pretty bird,” he said with a singsong voice. A lie the color of coal.

As he stepped closer, his fingers bungled with the belt at his waist. Wren pulled her legs up, forming into a ball. Her bound fingers pinched between the fabric bindings. She couldn’t use her fingers. A small whimper escaped her lips before she clamped her teeth down.

Ryker would tell her to fight, to not stop moving. He would tell her to get away, to find help. But he was her help, and he wasn’t here. He was her loyal protector, her brave guard. And he wasn’t here.

So she rolled to the side, away from the man, but he grabbed one of her legs and tugged her toward him. She kicked at him with her free leg, but her muscles strained, unable to puncture his pudgy stomach and thick arms. She tried to squirm from his grasp, but he pulled his weight down on her legs, pinning her to the floor. She blanched, her stomach roiling.

She batted at his face with her bound hands, but he easily seized her wrists with one meaty hand and clasped them above her head. She cried out, muscles protesting from the odd angle. The man leaned in, his smothering breath hot, sticky, and yellow chartreuse. Her eyelids felt heavy, and she tried not to breath through her nose.

One time, Ryker had returned to their alcove in South Port with the same smell lingering on his breath. He had blundered around the small space, waving his hands and mumbling incoherent sentences before falling into a heap on the stone floor. Before he drifted off to sleep, he had looked at Wren with a goofy grin and told her she was the prettiest bird he’d ever seen, and he had witnessed the kookara birds take flight in Taegan’s winters. In the morning, Ryker had woken with an aching headache and a sense of regret.

But this man was not acting goofy or regretting his decisions. He was sticky—dripping with vomit stains and stale breath.

With his free hand, he groped at Wren’s stomach. She shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ryker was supposed to rescue her. That’s what a brave protector did. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes.

The man’s fingers scrabbled to find the end of her shirt, but it was tucked between several layers of clothes, as always.

“What… is all this?” He yanked at her clothes, but every piece he managed to tug away only revealed more material underneath. He managed to pull down the long skirt she wore over top, but beneath was a second skirt made of silky material that swished around her legs. Beneath that was a pair of pants, then her leggings, and finally two pairs of undergarments, one pink and the other a soft yellow. The same pattern covered her torso: several shirts, a vest or two, a sweater, a tight undershirt, and the long scarf wrapped around her neck and chest several times over.

In Blitzkrieg, the air was always cold except during the springtide. They didn’t always have firewood to keep warm or thick walls to shut out the winter wind, so Wren liked to wear several layers to keep out the chill. She’d been collecting clothes of all styles and colors for the past four years. She loved every piece so much she wanted to wear as many as possible.

Now, she was grateful for her odd fashion choices. The man couldn’t reach her skin. She was saving herself.

He was too heavy to push away and try to run, so maybe if she yelled someone—even the monster—might hear. Mr. Locke had warned against the crew coming near her. The helvts were scary, but they hadn’t tried to take away her clothes.

“Pretty bird,” the man muttered as he continued to grapple with her clothes. His fingers twisted in the scarf. He grunted and started to rise to untangle himself, but a metal object clobbered against the side of his head. He wavered for a moment above Wren, brown-black blood slipping from his temple. Eyes unfocused. Colors flickering between bright and dim. He slumped to the ground. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his entire body went limp.

Wren struggled against him, legs still caught. His body lolled against her chest, suffocating her breath. He had no heartbeat, no color, no essence. And then the man’s body was moving, rolling off of her.

She was grateful to see the dark spaces of the room. The cold purple air was fresh and breathable.

Standing beyond the shadows, light from the hall shining around him, stood Ryker—bloodied, wet, and all starlight and crystals—holding a frying pan in one shaky hand.

“Nobody calls her pretty bird, except me.”

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