Meredith awoke just before she hit the floor. She slammed against cold marble with no time to brace for impact, and groaned aloud at the pain.
“Somebody,” said the Queen Bee, her voice searing through Meredith’s mind like a dart of lightning going in one ear and out the other, “failed to carry out my orders.”
Meredith’s head was whirling with pain. So was the rest of her body. And she knew it was only going to get worse very, very soon.
“Somebody,” the Queen Bee continued, “is going to know what it means to disobey my command.”
Meredith braced her hands on the floor and slowly sat up.
She was in the Queen Bee’s receiving room. Her eyes focused on the tall pair leaning against the wall to her right, one of which was the Darkness. His clothes were hardly more than blood-soaked rags, but other than that he looked perfectly all right. Oh, to be a demon with quick healing abilities.
Katyahananya the killer goddess stood beside him.
Meredith drew in a sharp breath. Like Jean, she recognised the lines of that elegant unsmiling face. Like Jean, she thought, Iris?
A dual creature, two personalities living in the same body, one dominant throughout spring and summer, the other sleeping most of the year until winter arrived and she awoke to reassert herself at the height of her powers. Day and night. White and black. Light and darkness. Yin and yang. Life and death.
Sisters of the same body.
The Queen Bee said, “You failed to carry out my orders, Meredith Schoxaneur.”
Meredith turned back to the Queen Bee. She grinned. “Did you expect any less from a Wild One?”
The Queen turned to the Darkness. “Kick her.”
He did not hesitate, crossing the room and letting loose with one foot into Meredith’s gut. She rolled back, curling up with a yelp of pain.
“Now then,” the Queen continued. “I had such grand plans for you. You could have been a part of my court. You would have been so useful to me. I could have made you as famous and feared as my Darkness here.”
“Become one of your little collectibles?” Meredith said as she struggled back up. “No, thank you. I prefer to be my own person, rather than someone else’s object.”
“Be a person then,” the Queen Bee purred, “and feel all the pain that comes with being your own person.” The Darkness’s foot flashed out and Meredith’s nose exploded into a smattering of blood and pain.
“I admire your pluck,” the Queen Bee went on, her airy voice buzzing around Meredith’s head like a cloud of gnats, “and pity the fact that you would not allow me to utilise it. What then to do with someone like you who throws aside my generosity like so much trash?”
“You could have me registered,” Meredith suggested thickly through a mouthful of blood. She turned her head and spat. Crimson splattered the floor. “That would be punishment enough.”
“Not enough for me.” The Queen Bee looked dispassionately at her. “You know, I am still interested in finding out just what you’re capable of. Especially when it comes to the matter of Tyler Berhansen.”
Meredith’s insides turned cold. Bitch.
“He should be back very soon, should he not?” The Queen Bee’s voice was like delicate butterflies with needle-sharp wings. “Back to the girl he loves. And you love him too, don’t you, Meredith Schoxaneur?”
“And what about you?” Meredith muttered before she could stop herself. Some final vestige of common sense wailed, Oh, no, no, no, we do not taunt the tiger while we’re in its cage.
The Queen Bee’s eyebrows drew together. “What did you say?”
Ignoring common sense (which had flung itself on its knees, thrown on a horsehair shirt and begun to beat its chest and wail), Meredith stared the Queen Bee straight in the eye. “What about you, Fatimah?” she inquired, her voice a low, intense whisper. “Did you love Henri Bertrand? Or do you still love him even now? I think you do.”
Something fluttered across the woman’s face. For a moment, Meredith was intrigued and exhilarated at having provoked consternation in the Queen Bee, a rare occurrence, she was sure. At the same time, she was filled with apprehension. She knew she was going to pay a very big price for her words.
The Queen Bee turned to the Darkness. “Break off one of her fingers.”
Meredith thought she caught the slightest hesitation in the Darkness. She shrugged. Let’s not delay the inevitable. With an ironic smile, she proffered her left hand, her little finger stuck straight out while the others remained curled into her palm.
The Darkness half-knelt, never taking his smoke-filled eyes off her. Meredith wondered what thoughts lingered behind the smoke. Then she stopped wondering about anything as he closed his hand around her little finger and snapped it off with one quick, clean move.
Blood, blood spurting everywhere, like a fountain of violence. Blood and pain exploding through Meredith’s world, screaming up her hand, from the little finger that was, all the way up her arm and into her brain with the force of a pikestaff. Blood and pain. Pain and blood.
“For every day Tyler Berhansen fails to show,” the Queen Bee was saying in a faraway voice, “you shall break off another of her fingers. If he has not returned in ten days, start on her toes. Then we’ll start thinking limbs. We have the whole of winter to break her apart.”
Blood and pain. Meredith swayed, hovered and fainted.
Waking was no better. She awoke to excruciating pain.
She was in a room. It was another one of those octagonal rooms, only this one had no French windows, just the one door and two skylights, too high for her to reach and, in any case, too small to squeeze through.
She was on the floor again. Didn’t the Queen Bee believe in furniture?
Her entire body ached, some parts more so than others. Her nose, which the Darkness had smashed so effectively. Her pounding head (this was becoming a natural state). Her lip, split badly from being slammed face-first into a wall by Katyahananya. But all of that receded to a dull throb in comparison to the waves of agony radiating from the spot where the little finger of her left hand used to be.
She squinted at her hand. Someone had staunched the wound with gauze. Meredith supposed she ought to be grateful they hadn’t left her to bleed to death. Still, the pain was near unbearable and she hoped fervently that some major nerve had not been severed, that she would not be left crippled with pain for the rest of her life.
She turned sharply at the sound of a bolt sliding back. Ignoring her body’s screams, Meredith bounded across the room and was waiting behind the door when the Darkness stepped through.
She attacked, kicking up and out, but the Darkness was nothing if not alert and whirled away just in time. Meredith was about to pounce on him when a long bronzed arm flashed out before her and smacked her back with the strength of a giant.
Meredith sailed across the room and whapped right into the far wall. She slid to the floor in a daze as Katyahananya entered. Damn. Forgot about her.
The killer goddess shut the door and stood with her back to it.
Meredith’s Wildness dissipated at once. Shit. Fucking point of negation.
Meredith struggled to her feet. She glanced at Katyahananya, then at the Darkness.
“Afraid to fight me without her around?” she taunted, her voice soft and deadly (well, as soft and deadly as she could sound with a broken nose). “Come on. That was a good fight we had in the club, wasn’t it?” She flexed her right hand. “Or are you scared you’d lose again?”
The Darkness said, “It is now the second night and Tyler Berhansen has failed to arrive.”
“The Queen Bee wants another of your fingers.”
Meredith felt her face harden under his gaze. She glanced at Katyahananya. One look at Iris’s sister, and she knew there was to be no help from that quarter.
She watched the Darkness cross the room. There was really no point in struggling, but she was damned if she’d lift a finger to help him this time. Hah, she’d made a pun. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
He reached for her left hand, holding it lightly. Still, she cringed with pain as he took hold of her ring finger. Ah, well, guess I never was the marrying kind anyway.
The snap was swift and near intolerable. Meredith roared and crumpled at once.
She must have blacked out momentarily. When she came to, the Darkness was wrapping the wound with gauze. Meredith snarled at the pain and would have jerked her hand away, but he held on tight and persisted. She wondered if all this medical treatment was on the Queen Bee’s orders or the Darkness’s own initiative. She wondered if the Darkness was capable of initiative.
When he was done, he sat back and studied Meredith dispassionately. Before she could react, he reached out and took firm hold of her nose, twisting it back into place.
Meredith let out a half-strangled yell and her right hand swung out, clipping the Darkness on the left temple before she realised he had set her broken nose for her.
The Darkness stood, and he and Katyahananya left the room. The door swung shut behind them, the bolt shot back into place.
Meredith rolled onto her back, trying not to whimper as she cradled her bad hand against her chest. She felt lightheaded and nauseous and it was agony just breathing. She wanted to die, if only to end this pain.
In her mind’s eye, she conjured up a picture of Tyler, the stormy grey sea at his back. She concentrated on each and every detail – on the dark strands of hair, gleaming in sunlight, subdued in shadow. Those ocean eyes, sparkling with mischief. His high cheekbones, as they were before her Wildness scarred his face. His jaw, slightly squarish with a hint of the pigheadness that lay within him. My son has always been impossibly stubborn. His lips, stretched in a smile, laughing gently at her, causing something to go thump within her chest …
She concentrated on those lips, remembering every kiss they had ever bestowed on her, every touch. She did not allow herself to think of anything else for a very long time.
Go back to: Chapter Twenty-One
New to A Reason for Being? Start at Chapter One.