Chapter 25

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Another week flies by. Nothing out of the usual, of course.
Every morning Matty dresses me, I commute to breakfast, and set off on whatever duties are planned for the day. Sometimes I end up with Connor, verifying formal documents in the hall, arguing with the king over the long oaken table at lunch, passing inspection on the different aspects of the castle.
All in all, it gets rather dull.
Connor, of course, ignores my warnings as usual. Perhaps it's the fat jokes that drive him to risk his own safety to train for hours straight every day, though he quickly loses any weight he gained, and, yes, the belt fits again. More than once, I walk in on him completing his daily routines of push-ups, sit-ups, and even pull-ups on the ceiling beams. So I get a fair amount of entertainment in trying to catch him in the middle of dueling, although it seems as though he's purposefully arranged for my commitments to fall during a set duration of hours every day. Coincidence? I think not.
Like I said. It gets old after a while.
As for my personal relationship with the prince... as confusing as ever. He's learned to accept me, obviously, and I him. He's kind to me, soet of, although I still have yet to receive a compliment. Like he said. He's trying to be a better husband... but it's not real. Sure, there are always those times when he pokes fun, but he never means it. He only does stuff like that because he knows it drives me crazy... but no, he does not love me.
Doesn't even trust me.
All that being said, it almost comes as a relief when something finally happens. Almost, but one cannot be quite too rejoiceful... after all, it is an execution.
The notice is posted all over the castle, word buzzes around the servants and market. A man convicted of being the hooded bandit is to be beheaded in the great hall at noon.
Matty tells me they caught him hiding out in the village. He runs a small shop on Main Street, a quiet and conservative man by the name of Jeffery.
"Is it really him, though?" I ask uncertainly. "How could they be sure?"
Matty shrugs. "Not the slightest idea, your ladyship. But they say he's the bandit, and so he will be, whether he is or not."
I try to catch up with Connor later, but he's busy elsewhere, while I'm needed in the tailor's to review the general work ethic of the sewing maidens, whatever that's supposed to mean. I just smile and sign a document with a flourish, telling them they're all doing a wonderful job. I'm sure it will be fine anyway.
The bell tolls at noon, and Clockman castle's inhabitants all file through the passages down to the hall, where they mill anxiously around, shuffling nervously as the king glares down at them from his throne. Connor stands behind his father on the dais, leaning casually against a pillar, not quite sure what to do.
I sidle through the crowd up to the raised platform reserved for royals. In spite of myself, I feel a slight tingle of power as I step up above the rest of them, a feeling of superiority which I force down immediately. Thoughts like that are what make people mad and power-hungry like king Thomas.
A door slams open and guards burst through, dragging between them a limp figure, who's ragged boots trail on the floor behind him. They drop him unceremoniously on the floor in the center of the room as the crowd steps back a good distance, with guards holding them back just in case. The man moans, but does not move.
"Jeffery Hornswallower," The king thunders, and the murmuring falls silent abruptly. He slowly rises from his throne, never removing his eyes from the trembling, pitiful man. I stare on in disbelief. This man is not the hooded bandit; he can't be. The bandit would never cower like this, not after being so courageous for so long... no, this man is entirely innocent. He must be... how else would he be convicted so suddenly, without any given proof whatsoever?
"You have been identified as the notorious thief known popularly as the hooded bandit." A gilded blade slides from a fresh sheath.
"Do you have anything to say in your defense?"
The man whimpers, sobbing, into his hands, but any words he utters are all but unintelligible.
"Very well," the king sneers down, eyes glinting manically, as he saunters down the scarlet carpet to the man on the ground. "though this was of your own doing, you know that, yes?"
A whimper. A shiver.
I cry out in utter disbelief as the king hefts his sword above his head. They have no proof at all, and yet they will execute this man without even a trial or sentence, in a matter of minutes? I step forward, opening my mouth to interject, but the audience drowns out the sound of my own voice.
"He's innocent!" A woman gapes at her king in horror.
"-would never 'arm a fly!" A man roars. Other cries of the same sort rise up as the sword glints in the afternoon light, hovering on the verge of collapse.
"-wrongly accused!"
"-no proof!"
"Cold-blooded murder!"
The king snarls, face an etched mask of fury, and he twitches to bring the sword down on the undefended man's neck. But a strong hand darts out, impossibly fast, and stays his hand mere inches before it meets the bare throat of the 'culprit'.
"Father." Connor growls in his I'm-trying-really-hard-to-look-calm-but-I'm-actually-really-angry voice. "They're right. You cannot kill this man, with no proof of his crimes."
"We found him sleeping in the back room of a shop, with a cloak in his hands-"
"That's a lie." The man speaks for the first time, staring fixedly at Connor's boots.
"How dare you speak, you filthy dog-" The king roars his outrage, kicking the alleged in the head.
"Father!" Connor grabs the bigger man and forces him back from the helpless, scrabbling figure. "Enough! This man will not die today... unless someone can prove that he is the thief?"
No one speaks up.
"Exactly. This man is innocent, father. The bandit would not have managed to hide from us for this long if he were just a simple shopkeeper, and you could not have suddenly stumbled across him like this..."
King Thomas wrenches himself furiously out of Connor's grasp, staggering backward and goggling at his son without recognition. "It wasn't me... I swear..." He murmurs absently, his gaze drifting to the wall as his face drains of all color.
"You are all dismissed." Connor sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. "Yes, you as well." He nods tiredly to the man on the floor, who quickly clambers to his ragged feet and staggers out the door as if he thought he'd never see sunshine again... which is probably true enough.
"Somebody... get him to his chambers." Connor adds, waving a hand at the king, who's currently standing motionless, fixated on the wall. Some guards take him under the arms and haul him out of the room. The doors slam shut behind them all and echoes eerily in the empty hall, every sound a hundred times magnified by the arching ceilings.
Connor walks to the platform and collapses in the high silver throne with a sigh, burying his face in his hands.
"You need to be crowned king." I say steadily, moving to his side.
"I cannot be king while my father is-" He begins, his voice muffled by his hands. I break in.
"Your father has lost his mind, Connor."
"Don't say that!" He raises his head suddenly, eyes flashing dangerously.
"It's true, and you know it." I throw back without hesitation. "Clockman is in ruins, and as long as that man is king, it can only get worse."
"He doesn't know-"
"Exactly! He has no idea what he's doing, and he's going to destroy your city, unless you do something about it!" I cry, waving my hands in exasperation.
"I cannot do anything... my word is subject to the king's." Connor shakes his head.
"That's why you need to be king!"
"We have a king-"
"Connor, your father is mad! Raving!" I yell, unable to see why he can't just see this. "He's a lunatic, and you know that! He's doing terrible things to the entire kingdom-"
"My father is a good man." Connor shouts back, rising from his throne and taking a menacing step forward.
"A good man doesn't purposely accuse innocent men of crimes they didn't commit, just so he can gloat in the glory of catching him!" I exclaim. "For God's sake, Connor, he tried to strangle you last night! He called you a failure-"
"He didn't mean it!" Connor cries furiously, glaring down at me. "He doesn't know what he says-"
"Because he's a danger to himself and others! He's completely mental, Connor!" I practically scream at him, and a muscle twitches in his jaw. "He's a killer, Connor, who takes joy in the pain of others-"
"That's a lie-"
"HE MURDERED YOUR MOTHER!" I scream at the top of my lungs, my voice tearing through the air. I regret the words before they even leave my mouth.
Connor's reaction is violent and instantaneous. In that fraction of a second, his expression morphs from plain angry, to one of pure and uncontrollable rage. His face seems to transform, his entire being becoming predatory and threatening, his eyes incinerating me, burning at my soul with their vicious, hungry flames.
Before I can open my mouth to utter a sound, to blurt an apology, his hand flies sharply through the air. The slap of skin against skin cracks through the hall, and I stagger backwards from the force of the blow. I stumble to the floor, and sprawl, barely supported by my hands, my cheek smarting.
"NEVER SAY THAT! EVER!" He roars furiously, fists clenched and shaking, and I'm positively terrified. I can't take my eyes away for the fear that he will attack again. I'm a powerless animal. Prey, cowering before the predator.
I swallow, and the tears flow silently, though I never even sob. I only watch in muted, surreal silence as he paces back and forth across the hall, shaking in pure outrage. His hands run shakily through his hair, and he doesn't even look at me, just continues to pace like a caged animal, searching for a way to escape. He stops suddenly, and whirls on me again, his eyes two burning infernos.
The roar of his voice rips at the walls of the hall, filling everything with trembling terror at the raw power and heat of his anger. He glares furiously at me one last time, then whirls on his heel, cape billowing behind him, and storms out the door without another word.
I collapse back on the ground, not even thinking. Thinking hurts too much. Everything hurts. My cheek is numb, my entire body is senseless. Nothing is real... it can't be. It has to be a dream, a nightmare... this can't be real, none of it.
I lay on my back, staring aimlessly and emptily at the arched ceiling, watching my entire life revolve around inside my head and drain away, swirling into the darkness to disappear forever. And over and over, Connor's words come back to me. Haunt me.
I am his property. He's right. He controls me, owns me. My spirit got the best of me, and I did get too at home... but no, this will never be my home. Not here, not in this place. This is my Hell. Hollie Barnersworth is dead. And this is my eternal prison and suffering, and Connor my infinite damnation.
Nothing more.

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