The same old lady who cut my hair tends to me when I wake up. I'm lying on my back in a room I haven't been in yet. I try to move and end up groaning instead. My entire body feels like I've been trampled by bulls.
"Bruised rib, broken nose, bashed eye, stitches." The old lady tisks.
I turn my head on a grimace.
"Stay still," she snaps.
Groggily I stare from the corner of my eye as she purses her lips and stitches up my cheek. I don't even feel it. She tugs the thread, ties it off, and snips it.
Beyond her I see a couple of empty cots, shelving with bottles of herbs, and various utensils I assume are her medical tools.
I try to swallow but my throat is dry and swollen.
She sees the movement and limps across the cell to her desk. I hadn't noticed her limp before. Or the fact her shoulders sag and hunch.
She hobbles back over and holds a battered goblet to my lips and I try to drink, but most of it dribbles out of my numb mouth.
"What's your name?" I croak.
She frowns down at me in confusion, like no one's ever asked her name.
"Talme," she tells me.
"That's a pretty name."
She just looks at me, and I wonder what could've brought her here to Saligia. Was she kidnapped like me? Did she sign a contract like Gem? Or does she work for them like Alexior does?
"Dominus has given you three days to heal and rest." Talme lifts the thin material draped over my naked body, checks my bandages, and walks out.
I close my eyes. I wish I felt like crying. That's the thought I have before I drift off.
When I open them next, Alexior stands over me. I try to smile. I don't know why. He and I are certainly not friends.
His gray gaze takes in my battered face. He holds the goblet to my lips and I eagerly drink the entire thing.
I breathe and roll my tongue around in my mouth. It doesn't feel as swollen as the last time I woke up. "How long have I been out?"
Dominus said I only get three. I can't imagine I'll be ready to go back out there and train in two days. I shift a little on the cot, and my shoulder sparks with fire. I lift it off the table, cringing, trying to see.
Alexior puts a stern hand on my chest. "Lie still."
"My shoulder," I gasp.
"It's the branding. You have the mark of Saligia now. It's a true honor." He turns to show me the S branded on his shoulder as well. Just like the one I saw on Sera in the bath house.
"What?" I don't understand. "I thought only those who win in the fights get that."
"Or those who beat a warrior."
My brows come down, and my stomach lurches at the thought of what I did to Sera's eye.
"Yes, she lost it," Alexior tells me, seemingly reading my mind.
I wince. "I can't believe I popped someone's eye out."
He turns to leave. "I'll leave you to your rest."
I close my eyes and even though Sera and I are enemies, even though she would've killed me out there, guilt still twinges through me.
The next time I wake, Talme is gently dabbing something on my cheek. It's an ointment and smells—I crinkle my nose—like shit.
"I know," she says. "But it's good."
She grabs a bowl and a spoon and begins feeding me soup. The broth slides over my tongue and down to soothe my raw, starving stomach. I haven't eaten in days, I realize, and impatiently open my mouth for more.
"Easy," she coaches and makes me eat the rest painfully slow.
When I'm done I close my eyes and once again am gone.
Daylight shines in the narrow window and flashes across my face. The warmth and brightness is what has me opening my eyes and simultaneously squinting against the beam. I give myself a few minutes to orient and carefully push up to a sitting position.
The sheet slides down me and I note I'm still naked underneath. I look around the cell and find that I'm alone. I flex my body, my neck, arms, and legs. The sharp pangs have dulled now to a sporadic throb. I wonder if it's day three.
I slide off the cot and on unsteady legs, stand.
The door opens and Talme walks in. Her eyes widen when she sees me.
"What day is it?" I ask.
"You're on day five. Dominus came in to see you on day three and granted you two additional healing days. Be glad. He's never done that before."
She checks all my stitches and bandages and cuts and bruises, then grabs my white undergarments and brown tunic and helps me get dressed.
The last thing she hands me is Lena's bracelet.
There is no mirror so I have no clue what I look like. I imagine it's not good. But for a person who has been in bed for five days, I don't feel unclean. Talme must have bathed me.
"Why are you here?" I ask her. "In Saligia." She doesn't seem like the others.
"I've got no other place to go," she answers simply before handing me a goblet and walking out.
I take some healthy gulps of water, pondering her response. I should've asked how she came to be here in Saligia. Next time I'm alone with her I will.
The warriors are eating breakfast when I emerge, and the recruits sit in their usual spot on the ground in the corner. My fingers trail up and over my shoulder and across the scabby branded S. I'm one of them now.
I don't consider it an honor at all. But I will fake that I do. I will try to be proud of it. And I will keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble.
The warriors catch sight of me and all stand. I hesitate at the incredibly awkward and unexpected greeting. I glance over to the patch covering Sera's eye and make myself hard against the sight. There is no place for weakness here in Saligia.
I look to the ground where Camille and Gem and all the recruits stare at me with tense expressions.
I gaze to Alexior next who as usual remains stoic. Then I turn back to Sera and Ignatius and the other warriors. They clear a spot at one of the tables for me where a plate of fruit and cheese and bread already awaits.
Just the sight of it makes my stomach growl.
I walk straight toward it and pick it up. "Thank you," I tell them all.
My resolve to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble immediately dissipates. It's just not me. I turn to the recruits sitting like dogs on the ground with empty bowls in front of them that I know barely had a crumb to start.
I cross the eating area and set my plate down in the center of their pathetic circle. "Eat," I tell them, then walk right back over to the serving line and fill a new plate with more food. I turn to the warriors. "Where's your compassion? Dogs eat better than them."
Sera narrows her eye. I glance over to the recruits who out of fear have not touched what I put in front of them.
"Eat," I tell them again, proud my voice comes across clear and firm.
With one last hesitant look toward the warriors, the recruits dig in.
I stand, eating my own, fully aware everyone is staring at me and not caring.
Starting today, things will change around this place. Something inside of me loosens with the realization and then tightens right back up with determination. We may be in some twisted cosplay of the rich and elite, but that doesn't mean we have to lose our humanity. We are not animals.
This is the last chapter I'll be posting because VANQUISHED is out today, and you can get anywhere books are sold!
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VANQUISHEDMystery / Thriller
A SECRET ISLAND. A SADISTIC SOCIETY. AND THE WOMAN WHO DEFIES ALL ODDS TO BRING IT DOWN. Yesterday, Valoria's worst problem was getting her sister to school on time. Today, she's a slave in a perverse world. And an even worse fate awaits her sister...