A powerful snap sounded in the air above her and Sarah fell to her knees. Warm blood trickled down her chin from where she’d bit her lip and her body trembled with the effort of staying upright and silent.
“Vara,” she said, and winced at the quiver in her voice. He would be unhappy about that. “A base of Vara and then Mera and Tala in equal amounts combined and activated by a quick burst of Taan.”
“Correct,” he said, his voice too loud to ears over-sensitive from the assault of magic-noise.
Relief washed over her. She had correctly identified the composition of the spell he had used on her. He hadn’t said she’d done well. He wouldn’t say that. But correct meant she had not been wrong, and correct meant she would not be punished.
She stood with an effort. Her legs felt like jelly but she willed them to support her. She wouldn’t use magic to lend herself strength or ease the pain. One of the worst punishments she ever received had been for doing that.
There had been times, so very rare that sometimes she was sure she’d dreamed them, when he had soothed her as her body twitched with pain. Only when she had not failed. When she failed, he hurt her, coldly vicious, and stood over her as she whimpered.
“You know the purpose of that spell?” he asked.
“Yes, the initial strike of pain weakens and disables and if maintained the pain would intensify and cause death in time.”
“How much time?”
“It would depend on many factors but it would not be quick.”
“But the noise?”
“You added that, it’s unnecessary.”
He didn’t speak for a time. She knew she was right. She had too much practice and too much fear of failure to be wrong. And her body still trembled with the magic essences and the pain of it. But his silence was always frightening, and he needed no excuse to hurt her.
“You are correct. Now you will apply what you have learned. Tonight, when his watch has ended, you will meet him as you planned and you will kill him with this spell.”
She dropped her eyes, though she knew he would see the tears. They would please him.
“You may go.”
She dropped into a curtsy and left the room. In her own bedroom, with the door closed, a wave of pain such as she’d never known stabbed through her breast and she fell, quivering, to the floor. For once, it wasn’t a punishment inflicted.
Despair was more painful than anything they had ever done to her.
Moonlight streamed through the window of the tower room where she met him. He was watching through the window – for her, no doubt – when she opened the door. He looked up and his whole face lit with a smile. Another piece of what little was left of Sarah withered and died.
She had known, hadn’t she, that they would find out eventually? That she had a lover of her own choosing because she wanted someone who held her and kissed her and took her because he wanted to be with her and not because she was being trained in this as well.
He was such a beautiful boy, and so young. Probably only three years older than she was in physical age but decades younger in all the ways that mattered. It was one of the things she loved about him. The curve of youth still on his cheek and the innocence in his eyes.
He came toward her and his arms went around her waist and he buried his face in her hair.
“Oh, darling,” he murmured.
She didn’t allow her body to betray her. She melted into his embrace even though she wanted to push him away, to scream at him to run and never come back.
She lifted her face to his and kissed him tenderly. He looked down at her with such wonder, such worship on his face.
She brought her lips to his again. “I love you,” she murmured, her lips whispering against his.
He stiffened and pulled back just enough that she could see his face. His eyes were wide.
And why not, at such a shocking declaration? She was young, and beautiful, and heir to lands and titles and fortunes. And what was he?
He was dead.
His body slid to the floor with the gracefulness she’d loved in him. The life in his eyes was already gone. It had been very quick. She was accurate in everything she did.
She slid her knife from his breast and wiped it clean on her own skirt. All of the other times she had used the clothes of her victim and what did it matter to them? But this time it mattered, to her.
Matthew would make her pay for this, make her howl until she had no more voice and still he would hurt her. She hadn’t failed, she had defied him.
She could have made the boy suffer, as she’d been told. She could have made him die slowly and in terrible pain. She knew she was capable of it. So there was some victory in this. That she had killed her lover quickly and painlessly not out of weakness, but by choice.
She stood and looked down at him.
One tear escaped and she brushed it away, not realizing that she’d replaced the tear track with a smear of his blood.