Chapter 34
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Camilla strolled into the room with a tall and intimidating bearing, one that immediately made me feel further on edge than I’d been already. The shadows around her rolled down in turbulent waves, spreading across the floor. Glowing red eyes narrowly scanned the room, only to blink and widen back to normal as they fell upon me. She came to a stop, and her gaze moved up my figure, from the wide flowing white and golden folds that made up the lower length covering my legs, to the curve of my lower back and flattened belly still compressed within the corset, and finally up to my small yet clearly existent chest. There was something about the mistress that I served seeing me in a wedding dress that I couldn’t help but find extremely embarrassing, but I didn’t have the time or mental focus needed to contemplate why. Adding to that was the clear hunger in her gaze as her sharp red eyes trailed up my form… I suppressed a shiver. When her eyes finally met my own, my face was cherry-red.

The only fortunate aspect was that Camilla had seemingly forgotten about the intense demeanor she’d come in with, lost as she was by my appearance. For a moment, I thought I spotted her cheeks flush ever so slightly, though it was likely my imagination.

The sorceress took two slow steps toward me as though in a daze, the look on her face still implying that she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.

“If I’d known you looked that good in a wedding dress, I might have made an effort to get you into one sooner.” Somehow she spoke the words with a completely straight face instead of the teasing look that she’d normally give me with such a comment. It made the whole thing somehow that much worse. I wanted to glare at her for being so bold as to embarrass me in front of Lena and Rosetta, but I knew I couldn’t manage one if I tried. Rather, I stood frozen, my mind locked into place.

A hand slipped into my own, and the left side of the dress fell from my grasp and down to the floor. I looked to my side in surprise to find Lena gripping my hand tightly, and if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought the look she was giving the sorceress was a fiercely possessive one. But that couldn’t be it?

Her head was titled up high, posture straightened with the look of a true noblewoman. “You should be more careful with your words, or you’ll have Pearl thinking that was a request for her hand in marriage,” came her surprisingly flat yet biting remark. Or… was she being possessive? As Lena’s grip became firmer, I glanced back and forth between the two.

Camilla’s eyes finally left me, bringing no small amount of relief to my tense shoulders. As she looked over to Lena, rather than appearing intimidated, Camilla’s mouth curved up into an amused smile. She went to say something, but after a moment’s pause, seemed to think better of it. I did not even want to consider what words were just about to come out of her mouth.

Instead, she took another step forward, grasped my friend’s hand, and brought it casually up to her lips. “A pleasure to see you again, Miss Lena. Lovely as always.” Turning back to the girl still near the doorway who’d only just slipped in, she said, “And you as well, Rosetta.”

The maid gave a curtsy and Lena continued with her flat look.

“If you would be so kind as to move from the doorway?” Camilla requested.

Rosetta shuffled politely out of the way, and Camilla raised a hand. With a simple gesture, the door eased shut as though of its own will. The sound of the latch clicking shut as it fully closed broke my stunned shock. That... was magic, actual magic. Of course, Camilla had long been controlling the strange misty shadows that swirled across her body, a peculiar sort of magical clothing that, well, wasn't truly clothing at all. In actuality, she essentially just boldly walked around in the nude. Which I was very much trying not to think about.

That shadows seemed to be almost a normal part of her, in a way. This was somehow different.

The thick bolt in the door slid into place, locking us into the room and everyone else out. As the sorceress turned back toward us, her posture had changed. She eyed the three of us with a level gaze, and I got the distinct impression that no one was leaving until she had the answers she wanted. I was only somewhat relieved to see that the atmosphere around her, while still somewhat petrifying, didn’t hold the same level of intensity as when she’d first entered. Though I couldn't deny that I still felt on edge. It was clear that she already very much suspected what this was all about. And she was quite cross that I hadn't already told her.

The sorceress cleared her throat. “So. I believe the three of you wished to speak with me about something? Something to do with my favorite maid?”

A steely level gaze turned to hold my eyes once more, with a look as if to say that this had better not be about what she thought it was. I managed to hold in my impulse to cower backward, the uncertainty of how this was going to go bringing with it an aura of unease. She was definitely mad. Should I have told her that Lena already knew about my curse when we had first talked about it? …Probably. But considering that Rosetta now knew as well, I wondered how much it would have helped.

Lena’s hand left mine as she took a small step forward. As though an irate sorceress wasn’t intently staring her down, she casually said, “Yes, we do. Why don’t we all take a seat?”

At Lena’s clear intent to take charge of the discussion, my tension wavered but still held. At least I would have the support of two friends in this. Though as I glanced over to the locked door, I couldn’t help feeling like a trapped little rabbit held in the deadly claws of an annoyed fox. At Lena’s prompting, we each found seats in the comfy leather chairs of the room, something that was a bit of an ordeal for me, given the long wedding dress attempting to get caught on the armrests. Lena and Rosetta each sat to one side of me with the sorceress across from us, having deliberately placed herself between us and the door. A small coffee table was all that stood between us. Camilla had her legs crossed, but still sat close to the edge of her seat and leaned forward. Even sitting, she felt quite intimidating — like a queen staring down at us from her throne. It didn’t help that Lena’s chairs were all rather comfy and fancy-looking, like something fit for nobility. At least to me and my rather minor experience with such things.

As before, Lena led the discussion, something I was continually grateful for.

“I’m sure you already suspect what this is about, so I’ll just say it bluntly. Both Rosetta and I know about Pearl’s status as one of the Marked.”

I stared down at my hands, clutched together in my lap. Though, I still felt the searing set of eyes that pressed down on me at the announcement. Camilla was most certainly not happy. I suspected that I would be getting an earful once all this was over.

“I see.” It was a simple phrase, yet the two words felt full of held-back power. I nearly flinched in my seat, still feeling her eyes drilling into me. In my defense, she technically hadn’t asked, and I had forgotten to bring it up in the heat of the moment. “I’ll be honest, I’d been under the impression that no one else knew. Though it seems that I've made the mistake of assuming wrongly.”

“If it helps assuage your concerns at all,” Lena continued, “I’ve known about Pearl’s Mark from the beginning. Pearl and I have been close friends since we were young children, and I was the one who helped to dress her up as a maid in the hopes that she could be able to find some kind of cure from you.” There were quite a few details left out from that explanation. It was probably best, however, that we not mention the recent issues we’d been having in our friendship. “As for Rosetta, I love her intimately and trust her, and I just couldn’t keep hiding this from her.” Rather literally, considering she told her by accident.

Camilla’s face was completely neutral, not giving away any indication of what she was thinking. “And who else knows?” she asked in a strangely calm tone.

“As far as I know? No one else.”

At Lena’s remark, Rosetta nodded her agreement. Each of them turned to me, and I realized that they expected me to confirm or deny it.

“Umm. No one else knows, I think.” I hoped.

Camilla let out an exasperated sigh. It was definitely not the confident answer she’d wanted. She sat in thought for a long moment, her narrowed eyes flickering between the three of us. “We’ll have to assume that it’s just us four, then, and pray to the gods that it stays that way. Still, even four people knowing is too many. It very much complicates things. If we’re all to survive this together, we’ll need to be able to trust each other to hold this secret close — to the death, even. And to be quite honest, I know very little about the two of you. Even Pearl I’ve only started to become closer to in the last couple of days, and I don’t particularly have much faith in her ability to hold up under pressure from the Praevus.” I winced as her eyes met mine. “So we’re going to sit here in this room and talk until I feel that I can trust each of you with our lives,” she finished dramatically.

I caught as her fingers tightened into fists in her lap, and her jaw clenched as though what she’d said had pained her. Camilla’s eyes seemed to almost lose focus, and I realized that she had momentarily left us, her mind taking another dark trip back into memories of the past.

The three of us sitting in a row glanced between each other, quickly coming to a decision.

“I can agree to that,” Rosetta was the first to say. Both Lena and I gave our assent just after.

“How much has Pearl told you?” Camilla asked, her fierce eyes once more looking between us.

Lena sat up, correcting her posture ever so slightly. “Nearly everything, I believe. Or at least the gist of everything that she’s been able to tell us. She told us about her discussions with him and her talks with you as well. I’ll be honest, when the Praevus showed up here yesterday, I knew that it was probably best that Pearl’s secret stay hidden from him and others.” Not that it stopped her from spreading the knowledge to her lover, I thought bitterly, still feeling somewhat upset about the whole thing. “But until today, I hadn’t realized just how problematic to truly was.”

“She would be executed,” Camilla said bluntly. “Or rather, she will be executed when the Praevus finds out.” I couldn’t stop the fearful grimace that shuddered through me. Lena seemed to be about to comment, but Camilla continued first. “And he will find out. The man has already developed an interest in her, I assume due to her becoming my maid, but more than that, he has a knack for figuring out things you’d rather he didn’t know. It is only by luck that Pearl’s secret is still hidden, assuming the man truly does not know and isn’t simply toying with us.”

“You truly believe we won’t be able to hide it?” Lena questioned.

“I do not,” Camilla responded with a firmness that left no room for debate. “He is Meilir Enver, Warden of the Encroaching Night, and Fourth Praevus of the Seven Imperial Praevi. He holds complete authority over all of the Marked in the Empire, both those that are owned by him and those secretly hiding in the shadows. The man is not simply a mobilizer of sorcerers, he is an investigator and executioner. Finding those like Pearl is what he does.” Her eyes moved back over to me, and I shivered. “And unfortunately, he does it well.”

Silence took the room for a moment, as everyone digested her words. To my surprise, it was Rosetta’s voice that eventually broke it, not Lena’s.

“Is this truly safe to talk about here?” she whispered.

“Not entirely, no,” Camilla admitted. “There’s always the possibility of someone overhearing. But I should be able to hear the footsteps of anyone human who approaches within audible range.”

My mind took note of the fact that she specified anyone human. Which meant that sorcerers like herself were seemingly another matter entirely.

“It’s important that each of you understands the full scope of the situation we’ve found ourselves in, however. Each of us is at risk of losing our life from this, regardless of what we do. Pearl and I particularly so. When the Praevus finds out, anyone who knew and assisted Pearl in hiding will be in danger. Even should you be the one to confess it to him, there is a high chance that you will be eliminated simply for having known.” She eyed both Lena and Rosetta, letting the comment sink in. My stomach dropped at the blatant implication of distrust. “Similarly, telling anyone else, even someone you know and trust, puts all of us further at risk as well as placing them in the same danger. Because of this, I propose that from this moment on, none of us speak about this outside of private discussions like this in which I am presiding. Is that agreeable?”

We each nodded our agreement.

“Yes, that seems fine,” Lena spoke. She opened her mouth to say something else, but somewhat unintentionally, I spoke over her.

“I…” Everyone turned to look at me, and my voice briefly faltered. But the question had to be asked. “I should have asked you before but,” I took a breath, not entirely sure what answer I was hoping to hear. “Is there a way to remove the Mark — a way to stop my curse?”

I held my breath. What would I do if she said there was one? And what if she said there wasn’t? I didn’t want to give up my Mark just yet. Not if it meant giving up on running away and dragging Lena and Rosetta along with us. Not if it meant her marrying Silas. But at the same time, if there was no cure — if I was stuck being one of the Marked…

“Pearl,” Camilla said before pausing. A variety of thoughts seemed to go through her mind, and I waited in anticipation of her answer, fearing it and yet enthralled with a need to hear it. “We have much to talk about. I can’t say I’d put much thought into whether your Mark could be removed. The idea hadn’t even crossed my mind if I’m honest. It would certainly be a tidy solution to this.” She paused in thought once more.

“Can it… can it be done, though?” There was a hesitant eagerness to my voice, yet contrarily a deep edge of reluctance as well, all surrounded by a swirling cloud of anxiety.

“I’m not entirely sure. At the very least, I haven’t heard of a way. It may be possible, but it’s not something I believe we can rely on for this. We just don’t have the time or resources to search for something like that. Nor would there be much purpose to it if we make it out of danger.”

It wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear, but it was far better than the two possibilities that I’d been fearing. A cure wasn’t obtainable now, but in the future, there could be a chance. When it came to magic, I couldn’t help but have high hopes. It was magic after all, who knew what possibilities it held? My shoulders sagged as my anxiety flowed out of me.

Seeing my apparent relief, Camilla gave me a no-nonsense look. “Do not take that to mean I think it is a likely possibility. As I said, I’ve never heard of any way to remove a Mark. Physically removing the symbol does seemingly nothing. Those who have it burned off or otherwise removed just have their Mark reform somewhere else. And it’s our core that truly gives us our power, the little seed that now grows inside you.” My fingers gripped at the cloth along my chest, as though I could feel it somewhere in there. “I rather suspect that no one knows of a way to remove that and have the person survive. Though I don’t doubt that the Empire is continually searching for ways to suppress or remove our magic.

“So it is possible, but the more I think on it, the less likely I find it to be. Nor do I imagine that the Empire would particularly care about just how safe any supposed surgical or magical cure that they create would be,” she concluded.

“Ah.” The hope gathering within me drained.

“I’d advise you to give up on any dreams of escaping your Mark. It is a part of you now. Though I promise it is nearly as terrible of a thing as I suspect you think it to be. Assuming that we can survive the next few weeks, that is.”

“Alright,” I muttered, the heavy feeling of dejection pressing down on me. Was I truly going to be stuck like this, forever cursed to hold this dark burden? My mind grasped tightly onto Camilla's promise, desperately hoping that the silver lining she hinted at involved a way for me to not become something I didn't want to be.

“I realize how important this discussion is, but I've got another question if you don’t mind my going back to the main issue at hand?” Lena said, pausing in question until Camilla gave her a nod. “Is it not possible that the Praevus can be reasoned with? Given who he is, I suspect there are few laws he is truly bound by. If he is to ultimately be her judge either way, is there a chance that we could simply come forward with this and convince him of Pearl’s innocence and softhearted nature? Could we not show him she poses no threat and beg mercy?”

“I…” Camilla paused, becoming lost in troubled thoughts as her face twisted into a familiar pained sorrow. Her voice held back the emotional turmoil inside her as she said, “I will not deny it is a small possibility, but not one I would ever wager on. I’m sure your experiences thus far with him, if you’ve had many, likely paint him in a rather positive light. A joyful and patient gentleman that appears considerate and forgiving. But that is just the face he puts on for others. Be around him long enough, and you will see him when his mask begins to slip. Despite how he may seem, he is not a man of mercy.” Her voice wavered on the word, and in a low tone that held back her animosity, she continued, “He’s a man full of concealed violence and malice. The sort of man that wears a mask when it favors him, yet will just as quickly drop it when bloodshed suits him better.” Her eyes met mine. “Pearl saw some of what he holds within back when she spoke with him yesterday. Though I believe he has a deep loathing toward the Marked in particular. I would not expect mercy from him, not for this.”

“Alright,” Lena said, her tone despondent. “I’ve had little interaction with him thus far, but I can take your word on it. As well as Pearl's.” Lena turned her head toward me.

“I agree with Camilla,” I said. “I wanted to think well of him, but... As kind as he seemed at first, I don't think he saw me as anything but something to be used. When I became hesitant to spy on Camilla for him, the man crushed and bruised my hand in response, quickly losing his patience. And there was something in his eyes, like a darkness inside him that he was struggling to hold in. That was all with him just thinking of me as a simple boy pretending to be a maid. I... don't want to know how he would react to finding out I was one of the Marked that he hunts down. Camilla has told me of other things he's done in the past as well…” I glanced her way before concluding. “I don’t know that I would believe the man has ever shown mercy to anyone unless it benefited him in some way.”

“Quite succinctly put,” Camilla said. “Even if he were to feign leniency for her, it would only be until he got something he wanted. And then he’d dispose of us at his convenience. I... do not want to die.” Once more she stopped, grappling with her anger and the deep-seated fear that seemed to have rooted itself into her soul.

Softly, she spoke, “We cannot hope to rely on false mercy or being able to react to his future whims. Pearl and I must take action ourselves and do everything we can to stay a step ahead of him. There is no way to know just how much time we have to plan and act. And with the power the man holds, even just here in this small town, the two of us only have one chance of surviving this.”

She met each of our eyes. “We must run.”

Hello, everyone! The week vacation has been pretty nice, though unfortunately ends after tomorrow. I've gotten back into a good writing groove over the last couple of days, though, which has been awesome. Hoping I can keep that up even through work days. I actually just finished editing and posted Chapter 42 of Lunar Marked onto my Patreon, and will be putting up 43 tomorrow (after I finish edits)! I'm still gonna do my best to at least be all the way up to having chapter 45 written if not edited, by Tuesday, at which point I'll post up my first official Tuesday chapter!! I'll do my best, everyone. Let's hope for some luck and peaceful days at work and lots of motivation and productivity on my part. I'm gonna stay optimistic. =3

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention. I got my first three-star review (and one-star rating, as it happens) recently! So, if you're wondering for ways to support my writing, rating and reviews is a pretty good and easy way to do so! Cause honestly, I feel like giving a story three stars just cause you didn't feel like it was tailored for you is... a little mean. =p