A thick oily slime coats the walls around me, its putrid stench clogging all thoughts. My cell is tiny, with barely enough room to fit a cot. I cannot stretch my legs to full length when sitting upon it. Ten feet above my head is a window, barred of course. From the hall come the screams of the other prisoners, pleading their innocence. They all look upon their cells with horror. To them, this is the ultimate hell, Death, a welcome savior. But I am different. I have worked hard to be here. For me, this is the only place to escape Death's looming darkness. You see, it's impossible to prick your finger on a spinning wheel if you're locked in a cell.
The sound of boots makes me raise my head from where it sits in my palms: two pairs, unusual for this time of day. It's still too early for the midday meal, and it's not the day for our exercises. Instinctively, my whole body tenses. Pass me by, pass me by, I beg.
They stop outside my door.
I can see a dark shape through the small window in the heavy oak. A face peers in at me. I am careful to angle my face so only the side covered in bruises shows. I watch from the corner of my eye. The man scoffs and turns away. I hear muffled voices. A different face looks through the window. I almost gasp, but instead bite my tongue, tasting blood. I recognize this man, even though the last time I saw him we were both only children. He says something to the guard, and the faint rattle of keys echoes in the air.
The door swings open, the hinges protesting loudly. The sounds from the hall rush in, almost giving me a headache from all the screams. The guard enters first, his bulk taking up almost the entire room. "On your feet!" he barks at me. I stand, keeping my head down, allowing my filthy hair to hide my face. Behind him, Phillip walks in. Despite being much smaller than the guard, his mere presence makes me want to cower. He pushes the guard back with one hand.
He stands before me. I can smell the lavender he has washed with. My own smell must be horrendous. Gently he lifts my chin, being careful of the bruises that obscure the entire left side of my face. "Rory," he whispers, so softly I want to cry. "Is that you?" I want to nod, to grasp him tightly and say "yes." I desperately want to believe Phillip could hold the answers to my curse, but I know he cannot. One hundred years of sleep. He would be long dead by the time I was allowed to wake up, or too old and feeble to remember me.
I school my eyes to remain placid. Please, let him think me simple! He brushes my limp hair from my face. The dirt and filth has dyed it brown. For once, I am thankful for this. My hair was once legendary; it glowed like the sun, golden as wheat, ready for harvest. He rubs a clump between his thumb and forefinger, as if attempting to reveal the beauty hidden within. I barely keep the panic from reaching my eyes. Fear grips me, makes me cold. "Please, Aurora, come home. Your family misses you. We can keep you safe. Nothing will happen to you." His eyes search mine. My eyes, I know, are the only thing I couldn't change about myself. The only part of me I couldn't make ugly and grotesque, the only part of me that could still be recognizable to those who knew me during my days of royalty, to Phillip.
But his words are false. No one can keep me safe. Yes, my father ordered all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed, but there would always be a black market for them. I had seen them myself while crossing the border into Eldia. There had been heaps of them, hidden in caves below the earth. Phillip looks down at me, his eyes taking in my ripped and stained garment and the dark bruises covering my legs down to my filthy feet, which are also purple, but from the cold stone floor. He shakes his head sadly and turns back to the guard, who grunts and exits. Phillip looks back at me from the door. "I . . . I still love you, Rory." He leaves.
I wait, carefully listening for the boots to fade. I collapse back onto my cot and burst into tears. I curl into a ball and face the wall. This was supposed to be easy. All I had to do was sit in my cell and serve my two years. By that time, I would be old enough to have escaped the curse. I only had to make it past my sixteenth birthday. I had only four months and two weeks to go. Then I would be free. Free. The word still feels forbidden on my tongue. I haven't allowed myself to think it since I was thirteen and ran away from home. Home. Another forbidden word.
Phillip’s presence brought it all rushing back to me; all the pain of the past two and a half years, all the forgotten happiness, all the things I’d given up, and all the people I hurt. My thoughts turn to my family, and the day that set everything officially into motion: the day of my thirteenth birthday.