Lunar Marked - Chapter 22

Published at 14th of May 2022 05:30:13 AM

Chapter 22

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[Content Warning: trauma]

Camilla leaned back against the couch, resting her head back against the cushion and staring off toward the ceiling. There was only a brief moment of silence before she went right into the narrative.

“Life at the Academy was quite militant, not that I would have realized it at the time. We woke up at a specified time, ate a small breakfast together, and then moved on to doing the early-morning exercises, before getting changed and–” she paused, “Well, you’ve got the idea of it, I’m sure. There wasn’t a lot of free time, and most everything was fairly routine, the same things day after day. It was the sort of thing you were just used to, like it was the natural normal way of things. There was a strange sense of comfort in the routine there, without us truly realizing it, I think. At least until something disrupted it. 

“It was those moments that were the most memorable, the moments where something changed.” I watched as her lips curved down into a frown. “On one of those days, I met Praevus Emver for the first time. It started out much the same as any day, except when the morning exercises were over, we were ushered into a small hallway and made to stand with our backs to the wall, both hands against it. I remember Fionna grabbing my hand as we stood there waiting…” She trailed off, a complicated expression on her face as she seemed to get lost in time for a moment. 

“I… I guess I should explain a bit more, first. I was around eighteen at the time, though I’m not completely certain. It was just after we’d received our Marks, so we all knew our approximate age. But time and age were often difficult to keep track of there. Fiona and I had been living in the same room for years by that point, and we were close. There wasn’t really a word to describe our connection. Sort of like family or a best friend, yet also a bit more romantic than that. I guess we didn’t need to think about what we were, it just kind of was. But the few days after we got our Marks, we became even closer.” She paused once more, and her cheeks seemed to darken in color. 

“They didn’t really prepare us for how it might affect us, at least not to the extent that they could have. I believe I mentioned to you already what happened after that. The desires within me built until I made my way into her bed, and the two of us became lovers. It was an inevitability, really, even without the Marks. We were already close and fairly intimate. Still, when we talked the next morning and became more of a proper couple, it was the best moment of my life.” She let out a sad sigh. “And perhaps my biggest mistake," she said, guilt-stricken. 

“When they lined us up along the wall, it wasn’t completely unexpected. We knew things were going to change after receiving our Marks. It didn’t stop the feeling of panic inside, that sense that the world around us was crumbling. And then the Praevus himself showing up…”

I reached over and grabbed onto her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. She paused to glance down between us and smiled, giving me a small squeeze back. Despite that, her smile looked to be one full of pain and dread. 

“When the Praevus walked out, we all knew who he was. We’d never met him, but we’d seen his image countless times. He was the man in charge of everything, the reason we were all there. Until that moment, I don’t think any of us ever actually expected to meet him, however.” Camilla scowled and took in a breath of air. “He walked down the hall eyeing each of us, as one of our mentors gave brief descriptions of us and our temperaments. I — I remember the way he stopped in front of me, as he did many of the other girls, pausing to eye my figure up and down as our mentor went on about my apparent flaws, namely that I had a slightly rebellious spirit that they had been working to tame.” Camilla visibly shivered. “It was mortifying, to be spoken of like that in front of everyone. We prided ourselves on our obedience, our dedication to the Empire. To be called even marginally 'rebellious' was like saying I was worthless, the lowest of the low. It certainly made me feel that way at the time. And the way the Praevus stood there in front of me, his eyes lingering, judging me and my worth, and looking over my body…

Her hand squeezed around mine, and I saw a tear roll down her cheek. “That was when Fionna stepped forward, placing herself in front of me. If – if I’d been thinking I’d have done something, pulled her back to the wall, begged them, or – or something, anything. 

“But I didn’t,” she breathed. 

“I – they, the Praevus made a gesture with his hand, and one of the sentinels aimed his spitfire.” Camilla stared off into space, her eyes focused in front of her as though she were watching it all happen over again. Several tears rolled down her face. 

“They killed her,” she finished a moment later, the words a barely audible whisper. 

I stared, eyes wide in horror, unable to believe what I was hearing. 

“No, no, he – he wouldn’t.” I shook my head in complete shock. “He…” 

Camilla turned to face me with a scowl, her eyes redder than normal and wet from tears. As her eyes met mine, her expression softened, anger fading into sadness. “I’m sorry, Pearl,” she said as though she had hurt or wronged me somehow.

Why was she apologizing to me, I wondered? I was the one accusing her of lying, the one saying her words couldn’t be true right to her crying face. The Praevus was a man dedicated to the Empire, the sort of man who was principled and dedicated to justice and the law. My hand ached, and I glanced down toward it, the bruise having become increasingly visible. Perhaps he could be a bit cruel, but surely he wouldn’t do such a thing without a just cause? My mind went back to what he’d said to be, only an hour or two before. 

‘They are a dark blight. One that needs to be carefully managed and tracked, lest it spread into a calamity of its own. The truth of the matter is that all Marked eventually fall to their bestial nature and must be put down. It is my duty as their keeper to pursue and cull their blight from this world when it becomes necessary.’ 

Or would he? As much as I wanted to believe in him, to believe in those who held up the pillars of our Empire, I in truth knew so little about him. Had I let my idolization of him cloud my judgment? Despite his experience and worldliness, despite his importance and authority, he was still ultimately just a man, wasn’t he? And men could have misunderstandings and make unfair judgments; they could make mistakes. I held my hand, rubbing the darkening mark where his nail had pressed into my skin. They could even, at times, be needlessly cruel and violent. 

It seemed clear to me that he was dedicated to the Empire and its betterment, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t sometimes be wrong or make bad choices. I glanced back up, my eyes meeting Camilla’s once more.

Or even kill the innocent, if he felt it was the best way to keep the Empire safe. 

The sorceress stared back, patiently waiting for me to get my thoughts in order. “Camilla,” I softly muttered, as my heart gradually rooted and grew toward one specific feeling, one certainty. She deserved to be given a chance, to be given the benefit of the doubt. I had no reason beyond fear and supposition to believe that she wasn’t the kind and gentle woman that she appeared to be. There was the possibility that the Praevus was right, that she was corrupted by her curse and playing me for a fool. Yet, he’d also admitted that it wasn’t an immediate thing, but rather something that could be fought and potentially even overcome. After all, I hadn’t fallen to my own curse upon obtaining it. It was possible that she was a fantastical actor, someone using lies and the emotions of others to manipulate them. But that was potentially true of anyone I met, cursed or not. 

She deserved a chance, I repeated to myself, to be treated with kindness and respect. To be believed. Because despite how much I may have wanted to believe it was not true, the more I thought about it, the more believable her words became. They felt genuine, real. My heart thumped and swelled, and I made my decision. I leaned toward her, wrapping my arms around her and pulling her into a tight hug. 

I would believe in her. 

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry that he did that to you, to her.” My arms tightened. “I believe you.” We hugged a moment longer before I pulled back. “I’m sorry,” I muttered again. 

Through the grief, she gave me a small smile. “Thank you. But don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your doing.” Her eyes stared off once more.

“It’s not your fault,” I continued, making her focus come back to me. “You made it sound like – like you blame yourself for it. But you shouldn’t.”

She turned and looked away. “I still could have done something, stopped him somehow, or convinced him. Anything but stand there.” Her hands tightened into fists, before slackening in defeat. "And if I hadn't asked her to be mine in the first place, she might not have felt the need to step forward and defend me..."

“I wasn’t there,” I admitted. “But it sounds like you were scared and in shock, too much so to be able to act. Had you known, or been given enough time, maybe there would have been a chance, but… It also seems like he might have just killed you as well. You couldn't have predicted what was going to happen, and you shouldn't blame yourself for the horrendous actions of others, for things that were beyond your control.”

I placed a hand on top of her fist, and she looked back over to me. “Yeah,” she sighed, but I could tell that she still didn’t believe me, that she still blamed herself. “You cannot trust him. I’ve been around him far more than I’d like over the past few years. The Praevus often presents himself as a kind and respectable nobleman, but underneath that is a manipulative and violent man who isn’t afraid to hurt others to get what he wants.”

My eyes followed hers down to my hand and the clear bruising there. There was clearly truth to her words, not just due to the way he crushed my hand but from what Camilla told me of what he did to her and Fionna as well. Yet after all that had happened today, I decided that I would try to come to my own opinions about him. I couldn’t just adopt the perceptions of others, I realized. I had to do better and come to my own conclusions about people. 

It felt a bit contradictory, considering that I just decided I would believe her and her word. But could I not perhaps believe her words while also realizing that it might not hold the full picture? I expected Praevus Emver believed his actions were all for the greater good of the Empire, horrifically wrong and immoral as they seemed, and that he would tell the story quite differently. Either way, what I’d been told and had seen thus far wasn’t painting a particularly good picture of the man, to put it mildly. He was dangerous and didn’t seem afraid to kill. Had I told him of my curse, would he have done the same to me that he’d done to Fionna? I shuddered, realizing just how close to death I’d likely been barely an hour ago. I might have been in a lot more danger than I'd realized. And I wasn’t the only one in danger. 

I met Camilla’s eyes once more and resolved to the fact that she needed to know what the Praevus had said to me. 

“The Praevus seems to think that you’re planning something nefarious,” I said. “He… asked me to spy on you, to steal your journal, and I – I said I would,” I admitted with guilt. 

“I see,” she responded, giving no indication of what she was thinking. 

“I’m sorry, I – I didn’t know what to do. He was just so insistent, and he promised that he’d stop Lena’s wedding, and–”

“Pearl. It’s alright, Pearl. It’s okay. You don’t need to apologize or explain yourself.”

“I won’t do it,” I asserted at the same time that she said, “You should give it to him.”

It took me a moment to process her words, and I shook my head. “No, it’s not right. It’s something private. And if he wants it so badly, he should come ask you himself, not do all this.” I shook my hands. 

“That’s somewhat the point,” Camilla said, to my confusion. “He could come here, right now, or anytime really, and ask for it. Better yet, he could simply send people in to search the room. This isn’t about the diary Pearl,” her words confirming that it truly was a diary. “This is a test of sorts, a way of you proving yourself and your loyalty to him.”

“But–” I began, cutting her off.

She raised a finger. “The fact that you don’t feel comfortable doing it is all the better. Your reluctance makes it an effective test. As I said, he’s a dangerous man. You should do as he asks, whether that’s spying on me or something else. You don’t want the ire of the Empire coming down on you. Give the man what he wants,” she insisted. “I have nothing really to hide.”

I glowered, not at Camilla, but rather at the entire situation. I hated it. The more I pondered it, the more obvious it was that she was right. He could easily get the diary himself; he truly didn’t need me for that. In fact, he was planning to have it put back by someone else, which implied that either he didn’t care about discretion or already knew exactly where it was. This likely was a test of sorts, a way for him to feel out whether or not I could be a decent spy for him and do the tasks given to me. 

“It’s not right,” I grumbled. I met her eyes as I said, “I won’t tell or give him anything you don’t want me to.” 

She gave me a soft appreciative smile. “I am a dog of the Empire, Pearl. Everything that I am and own, belongs to him.”

I glowered off toward the wall some more, contemplating the situation in silence before a yawn caught hold of me. My hands rubbed up and down my face, as though I could rub out the tiredness building there. 

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“There’s a lot more I think we should talk about,” Camilla commented. “But I’m honestly exhausted, and I think we both could use some sleep.” I bit my lip, not disagreeing with her but still wanting to talk more. “We can continue in the morning,” she declared and stood. 

She turned my way and bent forward, a hand sliding underneath my legs. 

“Up you go.”

To my utter disbelief, she hefted me up off the couch, one hand along my back as the other carried my legs. 

“Whoa– hey!” I complained in a panic, my arms briefly flailing before I grabbed onto her dress. Just how strong was she, I wondered, to be able to so easily lift me up? I wasn’t that light. I blushed as I gripped the fabric so close to her breasts, fearful that I was going to touch where my hands didn’t belong.

“I can walk myself,” I muttered as she moved forward toward my room. 

“I’m sure,” she replied with a smirk. “But this is so much more fun, isn’t it?” 

I huffed and turned my head. What it was, was embarrassing. 

Camilla made her way into my room, gently placing me down on the bed. Her lips turned up into a mischievous smile once more. “Would you like me to help you undress?”

My eyes widened, and I vigorously shook my head. There would be no way she wouldn’t spot the Mark or horns hidden beneath my clothing. Not to mention that I wasn’t sure I was ready for her to see my naked body, at least not yet. 

“I’m f-fine,” I stuttered and shooed her away with my hands. “I can dress myself!”

Still grinning, she gave me a cheeky curtsy, and I scowled at her once more. 

“No need to pout, there’s plenty of time in the future for me to strip and ravish you.”

Spluttering, and definitely not pouting, I said, “Be gone, so I can change.”

She leaned forward, planting a kiss on my forehead. “Of course, m’lady,” she teased. “I’ll be having a bath in the other room. If you need anything before you head to sleep, don’t be too shy to come ask.”

I gave her another definitely-not-pouty frown. I was supposed to be the one helping her with baths and with going to bed. How had our roles suddenly become reversed? Of course, I’d been too shy to take her up helping her bathe thus far. She’d been kind enough to ask several times now, and each time, I’d gone beet-red and turned her down. It was part of my job as her personal maid, but thus far, I just couldn’t. Not when I wasn’t even truly a girl. It wasn’t just about my being too shy, but also a kind of gross betrayal. Of course, now that she knew about me being a boy, I doubted she’d ask again. 

“Get some rest, little Pearl. And about the thing you mentioned earlier – the Praevus’s comment about you having a ‘perverted vice.’” I winced, and she leaned forward, brushing the hair from my face. “It’s not true. Don’t believe in his twisted lies.” 

“Yeah,” I replied without enthusiasm. 

But on this one, I knew she was wrong. 

Camilla took in a breath of air, and bade me goodnight, the door closing gently behind her as she went to prepare her bath. I laid quietly in bed for a moment before getting up and changing into my nightclothes. For a long moment, I held my small frilly headband in my hand, wondering for how long it would be able to hide my growing horns, and how close I’d been today to having them exposed. 

My terrible little disguise wouldn’t work forever. I needed something better, perhaps to start wearing a full scarf, though I worried that would appear suspicious. Lena possibly had ideas on what I could do. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to ask. 

The more I considered it though, the more that I thought about admitting everything to Camilla. It was a terrifying prospect, but if anyone knew what I should do, it would be her. It was clear that I was far out of my depths with the Praevus. I couldn’t just keep on continuing as I was, it was too dangerous. Something had to be done. The question, however, was whether I could trust Camilla. I’d decided I’d believe in her, but did that mean trusting her as well? It was a bit of a leap, on my part. There was no way to truly know until it was already done. It was possible that she would hate me, or perhaps worse, take me to Praevus Emver. Yet as much as I feared that, I didn’t want to believe she would do either of those things. 

I sighed and fell face-down into my bed.

What a long and eventful day. Far too much had happened, and I worried I’d have too much to think and worry over to be able to actually sleep. As I gradually got comfortable and bundled up in covers, however, it wasn’t long before exhaustion began to catch up with me, and my eyes gently closed. The sounds of running water drifted into my ears as Camilla’s bath began filling, and before I realized it, sleep began to take me.

FlitterPuff See, I can still post regular updates!

So I've been sick again this week! It's unbelievable, tbh. Like seriously, I can't catch a break. Thankfully, I'm feeling better and have still managed to get some writing done despite it. Currently working on editing chapter 26 and starting 27. Not including the sick days, writing has been going quite well, I'd say! The story isn't going exactly as I'd originally planned, so I've definitely gotta make some revisions with the outlining. But I'm pretty happy with where things are otherwise. There's a new cover image that will be popping up here eventually. I'm waiting for a specific chapter to occur first. One that I technically haven't written yet lol. But soon! Until then, if you wanna see a sneaky preview, you'll have to join my discord. I'll also probably post it up on Patreon when the appropriate chapter comes out! I've even ordered a canvas print of it! Really excited for when it eventually gets here.

Anyways, let me know your thoughts on the chapter! And I'll see ya next Friday!

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