DROWNED PRISON

Elise Stephens’ storytelling has been influenced by a deep love of theater and childhood globetrotting. Her work explores themes of beauty within imperfection and finding purpose after a great loss. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Writers of the Future Vol 35, Escape Pod, Analog and Stupefying Stories. www.EliseStephens.com.

 ***

Hallis had to pass through nine locked doors, each with its own key, before he came face-to-face with the warden of Kardag Prison. Below him, water sloshed, gurgled, and dripped as the stone prison sucked life from each soul in its charge. The chill heightened the tightness in Hallis’s chest. He had to save these ones. For their sakes, for his own redemption, and for his selfish need to sleep with a sliver-less torment.

Hallis pushed back his hood and bowed to the warden where she sat at her desk. Would she recognize him after so many years?

Warden Towin squinted at him. Wisps of red hair peeked out beneath a tight skull cap. She was taller and leaner since her last day at Wessal Lumidden, but then she’d been just a ten-year-old freckled orphan with a knack for drawing. She laid down her pen.

“Lumanar Hallis of Wessal, what can I do for you?”

“Though we haven’t spoken for years, and you owe me no favors, yet…I’ll state it plainly: I’ve come to ask that the Banner Lords imprisoned here be transferred to my care at Wessal Lumidden. I have a hold that is sufficiently secure.”

The lines around Towin’s eyes deepened. “Do you have a royal order?” She watched his hesitation. “Then of course I can’t.”

“Please,” Hallis pressed. “They’ll die here.”

Her eyes flashed, a trace of the spirited girl he’d dismissed from her lumastration studies twenty years ago.

“Could I at least see them?” he said.

Towin stood. As his pupil of lumastration, her familial griefs caused her to block sentiments from entering her paints. After half a year, Hallis was forced to send her away, though he’d done it as gently as he could. For a lumant to properly lumastrate, the painter must learn both the method of painting as well as the composure to choose and hold the sentiments with which they’d infuse their paints. A finished lumastration evoked a precise, resonant combination of emotions for its audience.

Lumastration required sacrificial vulnerability from the painter, as personal sentiments were the most powerful. This was where Towin had always recoiled. Now, as Hallis considered her instincts to shield and protect, the warden job seemed fitting.

“Why do these Banner Lords matter to you?” Towin said, voice cold. “Have you seen them? They’re monsters.”

“I have wondered, late on countless nights,” Hallis said, in a murmur, “that if I’d only trained them better as young lumants, they’d not be here now.”

Her eyes widened. “These are your old pupils?”

“Some are bound to be.”

She pursed her lips. “I’ll permit a brief visitation, but I’m giving you a job too.”

Foreboding squeezed Hallis’s ribs as Towin poured him tea.

“Of the two dozen Banner Lords who were sent to Kardag this month, only half are still alive now,” she said. “Kardag takes lives, but not this swiftly.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Once, Hallis would have held the power in this exchange. But in Kardag, the master was now subject to the former student’s will.

“Stop the deaths.” Towin circled around the desk toward the door. Her coarse voice was hushed, but precise in its diction. “The first bodies garnered little notice. I thought they’d done it to themselves or just lapsed unconscious in a fit and drowned. Or maybe it was cold mingled with disease. It’s not hard to die here.” She slanted Hallis another challenging glance. “Then I noticed that it was only Banner Lords dying.”

“What I want to know is, why are the Banner Lords even here? They dutifully made their war paintings and they’ve paid the price with their own sanity.”

Towin shrugged. “The king wants them saved for one last use, I’m told. I keep them alive until then. And in this cold rock of death, the odds aren’t really in my favor. The things we do just to maintain order are often repulsive,” she cleared her throat, “but necessary. Before you accuse me of losing my moral compass, Lumanar, brutality has its place in justice. Not everyone has the luxury of looking away.”

Hallis took a slow sip of tea.

“So you think someone is killing the Banner Lords,” he said. “Tell me what you know.”

*

By the sputtering light of a pine-pitch torch, Hallis followed a guard named Kel into the first cell block.

“We’re holding ’em in the isolation cells to stop the bastards from tearing each other apart,” the guard told Hallis while unlocking and locking three more steel-bound doors. Hallis reviewed Towin’s report on the troubling deaths.

“Though we can’t rule out contagious disease,” she’d said, “I’d expect it to spread to the rest of the prisoners, and it hasn’t. No signs of physical struggle or bleeding wounds, no knife punctures or bruising. I’ve repeatedly tested the food and water for poison. I suspect the murderer is among my staff. We’ve a cook, two guards at present, and myself. The cook’s son was a Banner Lord, both my guards have seen a Banner Lord kill a fellow guard, and I’m a failed lumant.” She raised an eyebrow. “In case you want to suss out motives. I’ve not yet made inquiries because I hoped to catch the killer in a misstep.”

“Could it be a creature?” Hallis had asked. “Something venomous?”

“Nothing but fish survives the falls upriver,” Towin said. “The grates permit no larger than three of my fingers to enter. As to things that bite, marks from rats or fish are common, but it’s not usually serious in Kardag’s upper levels where we keep the Banner Lords.”

By the torchlight, Hallis watched tension build in Kel’s broad shoulders as they approached the Banner Lords’ cells.

The Banner Lords were weaponized lumants, makers of the War Paintings, an innovation of the Fornali army, and the main reason Forna was winning the war. These painters had poured themselves into visual abominations, sculpting their hearts and minds with chisels of torment so that they might then force the agony in their lumastrated paintings onto the enemy soldiers who viewed the creations. After serving king and country beyond all debt or duty, to be then sentenced to Kardag’s darkness…it was a merciless betrayal.

Hallis and Kel passed a silver-haired woman with a basket on one arm, heading up the stairs. The woman eyed Hallis’s lumanar medallion and bobbed a gracious bow.

As she climbed the stairs, Hallis asked Kel, “She’s not wearing a uniform, so I assume that’s your cook?”

The guard nodded. “Yes, that’s Rilt.”

Kel thrust his torch into a wall niche and Hallis glimpsed stars through a crosshatched ceiling window. He’d read that Kardag’s cell floors were modeled after descending steps. Water from the falls entered through Kardag’s topmost cells and trickled down through the lower cells before exiting via a steel grate in the cellar. Each cell could be individually closed off, then filled to a range of desired levels to flood it for punishment or instruction. Kardag was a criminal prison. But Towin had told him she’d forbidden use of the abysmal, bottommost levels of Kardag when she’d assumed control. In this cell, at least, the sluices were left open to let water pass at low flow.

Hallis stepped toward the cell bars.

Kel grabbed his arm. “Stay back! Don’t stare at anything!”

“As a lumanar, I believe I know the perils.”

Kel’s eyes were almost rolling. “We don’t give ’em any materials, but they paint with whatever they find. Mud or clay or…” he wiped his nose on his hand, “even their own blood.”

Hallis closed his eyes. All lumants were taught the basic steps for lumidden paint creation. It was a delicate process, but that was for making a pigment with a healthful influence. If the creator allowed for self-harm and destructive end-results, the process was relatively simple. Nearly any liquid could be used in conjunction with minimal training and the resulting paint would have affects ranging from mild discomfort to mayhem.

This was one reason Hallis had turned many would-be apprentices away after their trial period. Proper lumastration required dedication, sacrifice, and a sense of goodwill. In Hallis’s younger years, he’d taken pride in his strict admission requirements, but after witnessing the rise of the Banner Lords and their gruesome handiwork, he’d wondered how many of his rejected pupils and former students had offered their meager skills to the Crown, only to become Banner Lords.

This cell’s floor lay beneath a pool of murky water which reflected orange torchlight and black shadows. Its sole dry spot was a raised stone ledge, coffin-length. A smaller shelf, about the width of two hands, projected from the wall a few feet above the ledge. This upper shelf would be the perch where punished prisoners stood when the cell was filled high. Stand, stay awake, or give up and drown. A dark film of algae coated the lower half of the cell wall. Painted designs mingled with the algae, but Hallis swept his eyes past them.

An algae called lep thrived in the lowest Kardag cells, he’d read. It was named for leprosy because the algae numbed flesh, and fish then nibbled freely on fingers and toes of unwary prisoners.

The Banner Lord in this cell sat motionless upon the wider stone ledge, legs folded, arms limp, head tipped back against the wall with eyes closed. The prisoner’s shirt was stained and something dark coated his arms up to the elbows. When Hallis’s gaze touched the prisoner’s face, the man’s eyes snapped open.

The prisoner stood and screamed. It began as a howl and ended in wild, aimless laughter. The man turned to the algae-wall behind his ledge and began raking his fingers through it.

“Don’t look, damn you!” Kel twisted Hallis’s sleeve.

Hallis spun away. He wanted to turn back, not to see the lumastration, but to look closer at the soldier’s face and know if he’d once studied at Hallis’s feet.

Had that been blood on the man’s arms? The base for his newest pigment? Hallis shuddered. The oldest lumastration texts forbade body fluids in the mixing of lumidden paints. But what sacred rules remained for the men and women who’d mutilated their minds, then used their ravaged souls to color their war paintings?

As they passed a second cell, Hallis noticed a painted border around the hall’s arched doorways. Three adjacent stripes: green, black, and white. The original lines had been lumastrated with a single sentiment each, according to proper form. The lumant had laced the green with fear of punishment, the white with pain of torture, and the black with powerlessness.

The paint had flaked off in several places, and another lumant had patched it. The patch-paint matched more or less in hue with the originals, but with different sentiments.

Hallis recognized it as Towin’s work. She’d overlaid the green stripe with submission to authority, the white with assurance of safety, and the black with a promise of protection. She’d covered an old, hateful threat with a better means to the same end: discouraging escape. This meant she was lumastrating without supervision, which was forbidden by law, but Hallis had no interest in reporting her. He walked on.

Were these Banner Lords painting by the weak daylight of their cells, or could they also paint in the dark? He’d heard of some lumants who’d lost their physical eyesight but continued to paint via a sixth sense.

Ahead, Kel spat a curse. A body floated face-down in the next cell.

*

Towin appeared, lantern thrust high, rushing down the corridor in fluid strides, trailed by another guard who wore her uniform cinched around her calves and arms but loose at the waist.

At a signal from the warden, Kel unlocked the cell door, descended the steps and waded in. Dark water swirled around Kel’s oilskin boots. As he neared the body, a swarm of green and gray scales flashed in the light of his lantern—fish retreating from their intended feast.

Kel felt for a pulse at the body’s neck, then shook his head.

Towin entered the cell and released the corpse’s ankle from a metal cuff using her master key and Kel lifted the body to drag it out.

“Probably fell, hit his head, then drowned,” Kel said. “Or maybe one of those coughs that turns bad overnight.”

The corpse’s face moved from shadow into a pool of torchlight as the guards stretched the body out in the corridor. The cheeks and chin seemed purpled. Suffocation most likely, but had that been prior to death, or as a result of drowning? No strangulation marks on the neck, no bloodied fingernails to indicate a struggle.

“I want him buried,” Towin said. She looked meaningfully at Hallis. “Lumanar, if you’d be so kind as to paint a blessing for his grave marker?”

Hallis nodded. She wanted him to examine the body.

*

Hallis followed Kel and the other guard, Adli, up the narrow stone steps to Kardag’s rock face. Atop it grew a sparse field of windblown grass, silvered in the moonlight and spotted with ghostly wildflowers.

As Adli and Kel dug a grave, conversing in hushed voices, Hallis knelt beside the body. The guards had already removed the prisoner’s shoes, likely to save and reissue them. He made a show of smoothing the clothing, then inhaled deeply over the body. An overwhelming stench of unwashed flesh, but no trace of bile to indicate poisoned food. The ankles were swollen with various bites, rodent probably, but so puffy and infected the source was hard to be sure.

Using the lantern, Hallis examined the flesh’s color and texture. He pulled up the sleeves, bared the man’s chest and examined the legs. As Towin had said, bites were common, and the Banner Lord bore a profusion of scrapes and punctures. But none seemed red or puffy enough to be definitive.

He leaned his aching back against a small boulder and smelled herbs on the wind. Mint stalks and sage from a kitchen garden danced in the breeze.

Perhaps a poisonous plant grew somewhere among the edibles and had been ground into the prisoner’s food. But any half-experienced poisoner would just carry a kit with powders. What of the cook, Rilt? But Towin had said she’d tested the food many times and found nothing harmful.

And then there was the other guard Adli, whose body and dress showed signs of mid-term pregnancy. Judging from her familiar manner with Kel, Hallis could guess the father.

He smeared a crushed mint leaf under his nose to mask the scent of death, and had just shut his burning eyes when a whistle screamed an alarm.

*

Once Hallis had dragged his aching knees back down the stairs, he saw the newest Banner Lord corpse curled in a ball at one end of the large stone shelf, face to the wall.

Kel and Towin stood watching as Adli called fruitlessly to the prisoner.

Adli said, “I’d set out his tray just before I came to see about that other one. He’d been eating poorly for the past two weeks, but didn’t seem any worse today.”

“It’s not safe to go in if he’s alive,” Kel said. His hand closed on Adli’s shoulder, but she pushed him off.

“He knows me,” she said.

Kel stammered, but Towin silenced him with a look. Adli unlocked the cell, took the torch from the wall niche, and descended the steps.

“Dennri,” she called to the corpse. “I’m coming in.”

Kel turned away, shuddering.

Adli crossed the water and carefully tugged the prisoner’s shoulders, lantern held high. The face looked positively green, or was that the strange lighting? One eye drooped while the other stared wide and glassy. Adli held her hand in front of the man’s nostrils, then felt his pulse.

She sighed. “He’s gone.”

While all eyes watched Adli, Hallis dipped a finger into the prisoner’s half-eaten porridge and tasted it. He spat it back into his hand and carefully wiped it on his robe. No tingling or bitterness on his lips or tongue. If this food had been poisoned, he didn’t detect it.

Adli crouched over the body. A red welt on the man’s exposed thigh was quickly purpling. More biting vermin, perhaps, but this could have been the death-cause as easily as slow starvation.

Adli wiped at the corpse’s chin where some spittle clung, then examined the fingers of one of his hands. “Blisters on his fingertips and some gray stuff under his nails that feels waxy. Must be a new clay load in the river,” she said.

Towin entered the cell and rubbed at a dark smudge on the wall. Her fingers came away blackened. “This stone looks burnt.” She looked at Hallis as if to ask him whether lumastration could do such a thing.

He shook his head.

“Have this cell scoured and dried out,” Towin said.

Blood pounded in Hallis’s head. Someone was killing these lumants, he felt sure of it now. If only he could understand what his eyes were seeing.

*

“Counterwards?” Towin said, staring at Hallis with unmasked doubt. They were sharing a simple supper in her study. Two tallow candle stumps guttered between them.

“You think that a tool for healthy soldiers could truly be of help to broken cast-offs such as these Banner Lords?”

Hallis leaned forward. “The Banner Lords, as you know, wear small counterwards bound over their gauntlets. Should they accidentally look at one of their own war paintings, they then look at the counterward and it reverses the damage.”

Towin’s face was impassive.

Hallis said, “I’ve aided the healing of several lumants harmed by their own work. I can’t enter the front lines, but I could help them if they came to Wessal.”

A knock on the door announced Rilt. With a polite smile, the cook removed the candle stubs and replaced them with fresh tapers. She said, “Good evening to you both. I’m off to bed so I can rise early and follow the light.” As she pushed the new candles into their stands, Towin looked at Hallis. “Rilt’s son was a Banner Lord.”

Pain crossed the cook’s face and she nodded silently, then slipped out of the room, her movement making the flames dance. As the door clicked shut, Hallis said, “Lumastration was made to imbue life, purpose, and beauty. If I’m restoring such graces, even in small part, to these poor souls, I’m using the art for its essential purpose.”

Something stirred in Towin’s eyes. She pushed back her chair. “I wish that I could cede them to you, but not without a royal order. And yet, the foul play grows more obvious, doesn’t it?”

Hallis nodded.

“So which of my staff do I dismiss?” She put a hand to her forehead. “Every role here is hard to fill, and Kardag needs its staff more than ever—we just lost one.”

“How?”

“A Banner Lord assault. They made her gouge out her own eyes.”

“Merciful Light,” Hallis stared into the candle flame.

Towin said in a whisper, “If you find the killer, I’ll advise the king that Wessal Lumidden is a better place for the Banner Lords than Kardag.”

Hallis knew by the flatness of her tone that Towin said this merely to bait him. She didn’t believe he could cure them.

“I’ll do all I can to help you,” he said.

*

“Get it away!” From inside her cell, a woman was crying over and over.

Sounds of another disturbance had swelled up through the stone chambers, interrupting Hallis and Towin’s supper. He’d followed Kel and Towin toward the commotion, but his knees forced him to arrive last on the scene.

This Banner Lord huddled in a crouch atop the high, smallest ledge, barely wide enough for her feet.

“It slimed across my legs and then it killed the little one!” she said, stabbing a shaky finger at the right-hand edge of the wider shelf on which lay a few moldy bread crumbs.

“Are you hurt?” Towin asked, face almost touching the bars.

“It didn’t take me,” the woman said, shaking her head.

Towin muttered to Hallis, “Hallucinations are common, as I’m sure you know,” then turned to the Banner Lord she said, “You’re safe now.”

“Not if it comes back!” the woman screeched.

“Smell that?” Hallis asked Towin. “Just when we first came up to the cell. Sulfur smoke, I think.”

Had he imagined the scent, accustomed as he was to lighting candles in his own study? Hallis scrubbed his palm across his eyes.

The warden chuckled. “There’s a long list of pungent things down here, Lumanar.”

Hallis rubbed his chin. “Are the prisoners given a light source? A lantern or a candle?”

Towin shook her head.

*

Hallis stood alone at Kardag’s peak, shivering and staring down at the fissure’s wide, moss-slick opening. The upstream waterfall sent its pounding issue into the split rock first as white froth, then it became a churning current, and then a crashing wave that rushed into Kardag’s internal stone channels.

A small reptile might fit through Kardag’s metal grating and swim its waterways, but in Hallis’ examination of the bodies, he’d seen no fanged double-punctures or marks of lizard teeth. All the victims had borne various bites, but nothing to lead him to name a culprit. Besides, if a creature were poisoning the victims, it would have to be trained to target only the Banner Lords. Hallis had never heard of such a thing.

Sleep-deprived weariness lapped at him. Hallis forced a deep breath and assembled a list of suspects.

Towin had better things to do than supervise the Banner Lords. But she wasn’t the kind to murder just to make more space. Adli seemed to genuinely care for the prisoners’ well-being. This left Rilt and Kel. Rilt had prepared their food, but it hadn’t been discernibly poisoned. Kel might be one who killed in order to protect his mate and child. Or perhaps the killer was yet another Kardag prisoner.

No. Hallis felt sure the killer had moved freely. Back to Rilt or Kel. He summoned his observations.

Sulfur and smoke at the third cell, but all the nearby torches had shown signs of burning for hours already, so what had needed a match?

The surviving prisoner had indicated bread crumbs and referred to the death of a “little one.” Perhaps a snake had eaten a pet rodent, but there had been no fang marks on any of the victims.

The second corpse had shown spittle and one drooping eyelid, symptoms that accompanied several forms of venom poisoning.

The first floating body had appeared to be smothered. Many toxins triggered asphyxiation. Yet one creature, a snake perhaps, could never hold enough venom for all the prisoners. Deaths on this scale would require many snakes, perhaps of varying size and age to explain the range of symptoms and dosage. Water snakes would be slender enough to slip through the grates, but the question of targeting the victims remained.

What about the sulfur? Candles? Hallis shook his head. No candles had been discovered. A white taper would have stood out. However, if the wax had been dark and covered by murky water…

He blinked. Adli had noted waxy silt under the corpse’s fingernails. Perhaps not silt, but candle wax. And Towin had noted burnt streaks on the stone. Could the blisters on the fingertips have been burns?

Hallis found a lantern and carried it down to the cell where the first body had been found. Adli was there, scrubbing the wall with a bucket in hand. He approached the large stone ledge, then knelt and dragged his fingers along the wet floor beneath it. He came up with two gray stubs linked by a thin but unmistakable wick and a soggy match. A candle and means for lightning.

Hallis to the outer surface. Night was thinning to hazy lavender. He found a fallen limb among the cemetery pines, fixed his lantern to its tip, and dangled it over the calmest section of the channel.

He waited, bending and straightening his stiff knees, humming to himself. At last, when his grip threatened to fail, a black arm leapt from the waters and seized his lantern. Hallis hoisted the branch upward. A dark snake rippled and lashed, gripping the lantern with one sinuous muscle. A single serrated spine protruded from its snout and hammered the lantern panes with vicious strikes. There was no mistaking the watermoth’s unique fang, its lace-ridged spine that mimicked pondweed, its luminescent yellow tongue. Satisfied with his identification, Hallis carried the branch to the edge of Kardag’s upper face and chucked snake and branch into the wild waters below. By the first traces of dawn, the creature glided downriver.

“Follow the light,” Hallis whispered.

*

As Hallis knocked on the door of Rilt’s cottage, Towin and Kel waited out of sight beside the door.

Rilt answered him cheerfully. “Was just sitting down with some mending.” She waved him inside. Her gaze was strangely bright. He’d seen that glistening in the eyes of fever victims once the illness reached their minds.

The hearth bore several paintings, and Hallis saw at once that the painter had been both lumant-trained and deeply stricken. He sat on a bench, facing Rilt across an oval of firelight.

“Did your son make all these?”

She nodded. “Quite talented. They wasted it, you know.”

“I see. He didn’t thrive as a Banner Lord, I take it?”

“Army sent him back to me as a breathing bag of bones.” Her grin was wraith-like as she touched the crockery lid of a pot near her feet.

A premonition prickled Hallis’s neck.

“I thought painting might help him recover from it all,” Rilt said. “But it didn’t. Then, one night, right before supper, he left. Door open, dark shadows on the mountains. I followed his prints to a sea cliff and found him at the bottom.” She swallowed. “Free at last.”

The hearth logs crackled.

At last, Hallis said, “I’m sorry. And wish I didn’t have to say this. I might well have missed the connection without hearing you say, ‘follow the light.’”

Rilt watched him with dead eyes.

He said, “The watermoth serpent is drawn to light, just like its winged namesake.”

She curled her fingers over her knees. “Better to destroy them than give them back to their families and break their hearts. Found a pair of watermoths in the river the morning after my boy jumped.” She waved a finger. “It was a sign. My calling. Caught the snakes, bred them, followed news of the Banner Lords to Kardag and applied for the cook’s vacancy. Dipped my own gray candles. The Banner Lords couldn’t resist making fire with my smuggled matches. I had a brood of snakes by then. Sent a few every night, when they’d be sure to follow the candlelight. When they found flesh, the hungry things couldn’t help biting.”

Rilt lifted the crockery lid. Water sloshed as three dripping serpentine heads rose like puppets on strings.

“Wait!” Hallis shouted. He’d have to move faster than he’d planned.

He dug his paints from his satchel and cleared her small table with a hasty swipe of his arm.

Rilt bent to eye-level with the snakes. “It’s time, my dears.” She held her forearm to the snakes’ jaws.

“Please, I can help you!” Hallis smeared a circle of green onto her tabletop, infusing it with grief that approached forgiveness.

The watermoths studied Rilt, but didn’t strike. If she wouldn’t look at his lumastration, she couldn’t receive its effects.

Hallis took two steps toward her, but Rilt snatched up a snake and flung it at him. It landed on the floorboards before the fire, hissing. The crowded hut prevented Hallis from reaching her without coming within strike range of the snake. He shoved the kitchen table to clear a path.

Rilt slapped the two remaining watermoths across their snouts. They hissed and reared back, jaws wide. Rilt swatted again. “Come on!”

Hallis had just snatched a broom and swept the snake toward the hearth when he heard Rilt gasp in pain. Victory gleamed in her fever-bright eyes as she raised an arm to him with a single, red drop of blood.

*

“And how does a respectable lumanar come to know so much about poisons?” Towin said as she stood with him in the pink blaze of dawn pouring through her study widow.

Hallis inclined his head. “Herbs of color and death keep close quarters. And I’ve an abiding curiosity in the snake’s artistic form.”

Rilt had died minutes after her confession. Kel had disposed of the three remaining watermoths with a hatchet. As to the unknown quantity that had been set loose downriver of Kardag, Hallis tried not to think about it.

“Grief often seeks someone to blame for its pain,” he said. “It is usually wrong.”

Towin pressed a thin envelope with the crest of Kardag into Hallis’s hand. “Your observations have been of great service to me. My promised letter of recommendation.”

Hallis bowed his thanks, then together they descended the stairs to where a boat would return him to the mainland.

Towin stood on the dock to see him off. Her robes hung still and dark; one strand of flaming red hair had fallen free of her cap.

From his seat, Hallis called up to her, “They’re humans, no matter how much they resemble monsters.”

“So you say.” She smiled faintly, as if to show she still thought him a fool, yet he saw gratitude there as well.

Perhaps one day she’d agree with him.

Copyright © 2021 by Elise Stephens.