That bitch took my soap. I rifle through the small wooden cupboard that holds my few worldly possessions. A threadbare tunic. A pair of socks. A few tattered novels I’ve read so many times they’re practically dust. But no soap.
“I’ll kill her,” I mutter as I empty the contents of my locker onto my narrow cot. “I’ll cut her face. I’ll gut her from tip to ass. I’ll—”
“It’s just a bar of soap, Lor.”
I stop in my tracks, whirling on Tristan. He leans against the wall, his arms crossed, one ankle over the other. A shock of black hair hangs in his eyes and a small smile curves on his lips.
The memory of what I did for the extravagant luxury of that single bar of soap slithers straight to my toes. When I run my tongue over the backs of my teeth, I can still taste the sour decay of the warden’s sweat and…not thinking about it.
“It’s not just soap,” I hiss. “Do you know what I had to do for—” I break off as his smile vanishes. My brother narrows his eyes, dropping his arms and taking a step towards me. He’s taller than me by nearly a foot, wiry and lean and, despite the dark circles under his eyes, impossibly handsome—a fact of which he is well aware.
“What did you do? Was it Kelava?” he asks.
My gaze catches Willow’s. She sits on her cot, the one next to mine, as we share a moment of mutual understanding. My sister’s big dark eyes are haunted with the same burden I know is mirrored in my own.
“Nothing,” I say. The last thing I need right now is Tristan attempting to defend my honor with the warden.
What Kelava made me do is nothing new. It wasn’t the first time I’ve had to earn my way through this place, and if it gets me what I need to survive another day inside Nostraza, I’ll do it again and again. Tristan means well, but sometimes he forgets what it’s taken to live within these oppressive stone walls.
“Lor,” Tristan says, a warning in his tone.
“Just leave it alone, okay? It’s better if you don’t know the specifics.”
A muscle in his jaw ticks, his dark eyes flashing. He’s just being protective, but sometimes I need him to mind his own fucking business.
Willow rises from her cot, dusting off her thin gray tunic as if that would ever get it truly clean. Dozens more cots cram the space, lining up against each wall. The ceiling hangs so low, Tristan has to bend his neck to avoid hitting it. Sheets that might have been white at some obscure point in their existence cover the beds along with anemic gray pillows that are so thin, it’s hard to see the point. If you’re lucky, you might have the luxury of a scratchy wool blanket, but like my bar of soap, that too is a rare indulgence. If you secure one not riddled with holes, one might call you Zerra’s blessed.
“Let’s get some breakfast. We’ll get you new soap,” Willow says, her voice soft as she links her elbow with mine. Her black hair hangs just past her ears, ragged and limp. That’s as much as it’s grown since the last outbreak of lice, when they shaved every one of our heads right to the scalp. For weeks, we resembled an army of potatoes encased in shapeless gray sacks. Running my hand through my own hair, I grimace. Like that of both of my siblings, it’s midnight black and has grown just a little more than Willow’s, almost brushing my shoulders.
The longest I’ve ever managed was almost to the middle of my back. But that was years ago and even then, it was so dry and brittle, I’d wake up with strands covering my pillow like a nest of desiccated worms. It does feel a little healthier now, but Nostraza has only become more and more crowded and rife with disease, and another outbreak is coming any day. It’s a miracle it hasn’t already happened.
I nod as I unhook my arm from Willow’s and then stuff my things back into my cupboard, slamming the door so hard it shakes on its brackets. There’s no lock—that’s the problem. Nothing actually belongs to anyone here. Everything is on temporary loan, including our bodies and definitely our souls. The only thing they haven’t claimed yet is my mind, though that seems less true with each passing year.
Tristan and Willow lead the way, and I follow down a dim, narrow hallway, flickering sconces lighting the way. The stone walls are slick and shiny with moisture. It’s always wet inside Nostraza, and I’m pretty sure it’s not all water. A long time ago, I struck a deal with myself not to think too hard about what else is oozing between those bricks. It’s only through these countless bits of self-deception that I’m able to face another day.
We’re going to be late for breakfast because of me and will probably get nothing to eat. They won’t complain or blame me, but I’ll make it up to my brother and sister somehow.
As we pass another dorm room, I peer inside, knowing this is where my nemesis, Jude, sleeps. Maybe I’ll steal something from her to even the score. Maybe my soap is in her cupboard. She’d be stupid enough to hide it where anyone could find it. I make a move to dart inside when Tristan catches my hand.
“Don’t. It’s not worth it.” My eyes meet his, fury nudging at the tight ball of anger that lives like a compressed rock in the middle of my chest. Only this one doesn’t have a sparkling future as a diamond.
He doesn’t get it. He’s one of the favored in this shithole. For a prisoner, he’s strong and able-bodied, not to mention charming, and has most of the guards wrapped around his finger. They call him the Prince of Nostraza and they mean it to be mocking, but since Tristan is in on the joke, he holds the upper hand.
“I’ll get you some more.” His expression softens. “I promise.”
Even if the guards favor Tristan, that benevolence has never extended to me or Willow. Our family connection remains a secret from nearly everyone but us, and it’s not his fault, but there are days when I resent how much easier he has it. That’s not really fair, though. He’s done everything he can to protect us both since the very beginning.
“Fine,” I say, willing the unexpected tears in my eyes not to fall. I’ve learned the hard way how to hold them in and stuff them down. Tears are only useful when they’re brandished as a weapon.
But some days are harder than others.
My stomach is perpetually hollow and my throat dry, like the deepest cave with no source of water. The healing wounds on my back, courtesy of a lashing I received two weeks ago, still ache whenever I move too quickly. They dealt out my punishment when I “accidentally” tipped a hot bowl of soup into the lap of a particularly vicious guard. He deserved it and I regret nothing. I hope his balls shriveled up and fell off.
Today, I feel the suffocating heaviness of every one of the twelve years I’ve spent inside these prison walls. Twelve years for the crime of simply being born. For bearing the taint of a shattered legacy I never asked for or even truly understand.
Every second. Every minute I’m focused on the day I finally get free. I live it in my dreams and see it when I’m awake. I feel it in the shivering marrow of my bones. One day, I’ll get out of here and pay back the Aurora King for everything he’s taken. For everything he’s done.
But I can’t just run. Even if I could, I can’t leave without Tristan and Willow. There is no freedom if they aren’t a part of it.
Someday, I will figure out a way to get us all out of here.
We continue down the hall, Willow taking my hand and casting worried glances in my direction. She’s the gentle one in our ragged little trio. Despite the grinding harshness of Nostraza, she remains a soft-hearted butterfly who needs my protection. While we suffocate here, I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure she’s safe—insomuch as I can in a life where we have less than nothing.
But we all take care of each other, and sometimes, I need her, too.
A moment later, I feel a hand squeeze my ass and I spin around, my fist cocked, ready to deliver a crushing blow. When I see it’s Aero, I snarl and swing my fist, anyway. He ducks, a grin stretching across his face, as I miss him by a hair.
“Come now, Lor, is that any way to treat your favorite inmate?”
“Favorite,” I scoff before I turn away. But he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls my back against his chest, his chin resting in the curve of my neck. I can feel the grin he tosses to Tristan and Willow.
“She’ll just be a minute.”
Willow looks to me for confirmation, and I nod. “I’m coming. Save me some rocks.” Willow snorts at my joke about the canteen’s breakfast rolls, while Tristan glares at Aero with a warning.
“Just go,” I tell him. “I’m fine.”
“Hurt her and I’ll kill you,” Tristan says, and I roll my eyes while I free myself from Aero’s embrace.
He holds up his hands in surrender, his grin growing even wider. “Got it, boss.”
“Go on,” I say, and Tristan turns with Willow before they walk down the hall and disappear around the corner. But not before Tristan shoots one more threatening glance at Aero.
The moment they’re gone, Aero’s hands circle my waist before he presses me against the wall, his mouth crashing into mine. Several inches taller than me, he’s lean and rangy. Always just on the edge of starving, no one inside Nostraza has the comfort of extra meat on their bones.
His hands slide over my ass and down the backs of my thighs before he lifts me up, my legs cinching around his waist. My arms snake around his neck as we kiss, our tongues and teeth meeting in a wet, frantic clash. It’s not gentle or sweet, but there is nothing gentle or sweet about life when it’s spent contained by these walls. After so many years in this place, the memory of sweetness feels as distant and unreachable as the stars in the sky.
Our fevered breaths fill the narrow hall, and I’m thankful everyone has already left for breakfast. Aero grinds his hips into mine, his cock hard and ready against my stomach. My fingers tangle in his auburn hair as he thrusts against me and I moan. When he arrived two years ago, he was the picture of a dashing young thief, but Nostraza has stolen that vital spark of life it takes from us all. His bright blue eyes, once clever with mischief, have dimmed with the understanding that, like all of us, he’s going to die here, eventually.
Still, he’s one of the few beautiful things I can cling to in this hellhole.
“Meet me behind the forge tonight,” he says, his mouth still against mine. His hands slide under and up the sides of my tunic, his fingers gently brushing my scars. “I need you.”
The crush of his mouth muffles my reply, and I nod, groaning in satisfaction as his tongue sweeps against mine. In this bleak existence, this bit of pleasure is a sliver of feeble light shimmering through the narrow cracks of darkness.
“Slut,” comes an acidic voice, and we break off from our kiss. Jude stands in the hallway, her dirty blonde hair hanging in limp waves to her chin. Her thin arms are crossed and the curl on her lip is full of disdain. “Nostraza’s number one tramp, aren’t you, Lor? Rutting like an animal right out here in the open?”
Her piercing eyes dart to Aero, her frown deepening with dissatisfaction.
“Fuck off, Jude,” I say, searching for signs of my soap, like she might be wearing it on a chain around her neck. As if she’s read my mind, her mouth twists into a smirk before she casually trails her fingers down her throat and then up her arms like she’s cleaning herself in the shower. But I return her smirk with one of my own. She might have my soap, but I know she’s had her eyes on Aero since the moment he arrived after being apprehended on a charge of breaking and entering in the Emerald District, The Aurora’s most wealthy neighborhood.
I’d be a liar if I claimed I hadn’t wallowed in smug satisfaction when he’d shown an interest in me, instead. To worm under her freshly cleaned skin, I wrap one arm around his shoulders and drag the fingers of my other hand across his chest before I pull his head down for a deep, long kiss.
My feelings for Aero are complicated.
It’s too hard to love anyone inside the walls of Nostraza, where, sooner or later, everyone is taken from you. The only people I’ve ever let in are Tristan and Willow, and I know it’s a mistake. Every time they have a brush with death, every time one of them is beaten or locked in solitary, I try to carve them out of my soul, hoping it might hurt less when they die.
All I can hope is that one day, someday, I’ll get us out of here. It’s an impossible dream, but I cling to it like mist because it’s all I have.
Jude lets out a snarl and brushes past us, her shoulder colliding with mine before she storms in the direction of the mess hall.
“We should go eat, too,” Aero says, “or there’ll be nothing left. I’ll meet you after your shift is done?” He takes my hand, and we also make our way down the corridor.
I nod. I’ve got laundry duty today. Hours upon hours spent in the sticky heat, straining my back and arms where I stir giant vats of soapy, waterlogged sheets that cling to a memory of the color they once were. I’ll need cheering up later, and Aero is usually the temporary cure.
We turn the corner and enter the mess hall, already buzzing with hundreds of inmates. The noise, as usual, is near deafening as the cacophony of voices mingles. They clamor to fill every precious second of one of our few free moments each day—thirty minutes for breakfast, thirty minutes for dinner. We spend the remaining hours toiling—some in the jewel mines, some in the kitchens, some in the forge, some cleaning, some sewing, and the rest doing a hundred other soul-draining duties no free person would ever consent to.
Once you’re done with your shift, you might chisel out an hour of respite, but that’s only if you’re not so exhausted you immediately collapse on your bed. Tonight I’ll find the energy, because in a place where there’s only misery, I have to find hope under every pebble I can.
Jude sits with her gang at a table near the end of the food line, each one more surly and rat-faced than the last. “Don’t you just love the scent of my new soap? My skin smells positively like roses,” she says, pulling up the sleeve of her tunic before thrusting her forearm into the faces of her minions.
I stop and stare at her, trying to burn holes into her skull. She looks up then, a slow smile spreading across her pinched face. That bitch.
I’m moving before I give a rational thought to what I’m doing. With a snarl, I leap, my hands wrapping around her neck. As I crash into her, the chair tips over, and we both strike the hard stone floor. Straddling her, I squeeze her neck, and she screams and claws at the skin on my forearms.
Jude swings a fist, catching me in the side of my head so hard my vision blurs. Disoriented now, my grip loosens, and she knocks me down, pinning me beneath her. Another punch to the jaw has me tasting blood. I’m going to fucking kill her.
This time, I grab her wrist and wrench it with all my might before I hear the sickening, but satisfying, snap of bone. Jude screams and I kick her off me, finding myself once again on top, raining blows to her stomach, ribs, and head with the fury of an unleashed demon.
“Lor!” I register the sound of my name and feel hands on my arms and waist, trying to pull me away.
“Let me go!” I scream, still thrashing Jude.
“Lor!” I recognize Tristan’s voice, and I’m hauled off her, my chest heaving and my head throbbing. The guards have formed a circle around us, caging me in like the feral animal I am. Jude groans from where she lies on the ground, blood pooling underneath her. Warmth drips down my chin, staining the front of my tunic with crimson. I try to wipe it away, but Tristan has both of my arms pinned behind my back.
“Let me go,” I hiss, wrenching my wrists in the vise of his grip.
“Not until you calm down.”
The jeering, chattering mess hall slams into silence a moment later when heavy footsteps ring in the air. They’ve all been enjoying the show, glad it wasn’t them who lost the tenuous grip on their sanity today. Catching shit from the warden is what passes for entertainment inside Nostraza, given the notable absence of any other options.
“What’s going on here?” Kelava asks.
“Nothing, sir,” Tristan replies in his most kiss-ass voice. Part of me wants to slap him, but this is how Tristan survives, and I can’t begrudge him that. We all do what we must.
The circle of guards breaks, and Kelava strides through the opening, stopping in front of me, where I’m still struggling against Tristan’s hold. Blood continues to dribble from my mouth, droplets splattering on the floor and the toe of my boot. My temple and lips give a painful pulse as the warden fixes his beady gaze on me.
“Didn’t I tell you that if you caused any more trouble, there would be consequences?”
I say nothing, only glaring as I try again to liberate myself from Tristan’s hold.
“Oh, Lor. Why must you be this way?”
Kelava’s watery blue eyes fill with something akin to paternal concern for my tarnished soul. He really thinks he’s the good guy. I want to spit at him. I want to punch him. I want to kick him in the balls so hard he still feels it when he’s old and feeble, clinging to the last shreds of his dignity.
Jude groans again from the floor where she lies, clutching a wrist that’s definitely hanging at an awkward angle. Fucking drama queen. The warden looks down at her and then at me, his forehead furrowing.
“Did you start this?”
I open my mouth, planning to defend myself. No one is going to rat me out. There is a code of honor even amongst criminals and the fallen.
Well, except for Jude. She has no such compunctions where I’m concerned.
“Yes, she did,” she spits, finally finding her voice, though it’s muffled by her bloody, swollen lips. “She attacked me completely unprovoked!”
“She stole my soap!”
“I did not! You can’t prove that!”
Kelava raises a hand, silencing us both. Jude’s face is puffing up, and scarlet soaks the front of her shirt. She looks terrible. This doesn’t bode well for me.
“Warden,” I say, adopting a coy smile, grasping at anything I can to save myself. “If we go to your office, I’m sure we can work this out.” The hint of suggestion in my words burns a sour line of bile up my throat.
I hate this, but it’s the only currency I have to offer.
It’s the wrong thing to say, because Kelava’s calm, patient façade cracks, the pupils of his eyes blowing out into dark black holes. The guards may use us for their filthy urges, but apparently there is honor even among rapists when they all pretend nothing is amiss behind the closed doors of Nostraza. The warden points to two vicious guards whose fists I am intimately acquainted with.
“Take her to the Hollow,” Kelava says as the guards wrench me from Tristan. To his credit, my brother doesn’t give me up easily.
“No,” I say, panic morphing into a fist clutching my throat. Not that. Anything but that. I almost died last time. A week in the Hollow left me nearly broken, my mind shattered and my body in shredded ruins. “No, please. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
The warden brings his face right up to mine as I continue to struggle against the hold of the guards. He’s so close I can feel his moist breath on my lips, fetid with the remnants of whatever he gorged on at breakfast.
“Two weeks should teach you a lesson, since nothing else seems to work.”
“No!” I scream, thrashing, trying to wrench my way free. “No! Please!” I’m sobbing now, a hot streak of tears coating my face, my screams echoing through the room. I’ve broken my rule about crying. These tears aren’t a weapon. These will only be used against me.
Tristan is pleading with the warden, but Kelava’s hard stare doesn’t waver as he savors my distress, a thin smile on his bloodless lips.
My screams cut off when a guard punches me in the middle so hard I bend double, nearly hurling up the scant contents of my stomach. Gasping for air like a parched fish, I’m hauled upright by both of my arms with such force one of my shoulder joints pops and my scream ricochets off every corner in the room.
“Take her away,” Kelava says again. “I’ll see you in two weeks, inmate, assuming there’s anything left of you.”
At that, there’s nothing but the roar of white noise in my ears as I’m dragged away.