Lahel opened the door of her house very quietly. Surely, ma wouldn’t still be about, she certainly hoped she wasn’t. Just thinking about her being there in the kitchen, waiting, had her chewing hard on her lip as she latched the door carefully behind her with her back turned to the room. She spun around on the spot, scanning every vaguely human-like shape in the dark room that greeted her. No, she wasn’t here. Of course she wasn’t.
A farmer’s widow wouldn’t have any time to be hanging around, being worried about her daughter, would she? She bit that feeling down. The one that tasted bitter in her mouth and pricked tears in her eyes. It was irritating, weak, she was better than that, stronger than that.
She sat down on the empty stool at the kitchen table, not bothering to switch on a lamp. She didn’t want to feel the burn of light on her right now, she would rather close her eyes in the dark and feel as if nobody could see her. There was something comforting in feeling so completely alone in the world. Sitting in that familiar dark room she finally felt relaxed enough to let her mind wander and sift through the events of yesterday and this morning. She hadn’t slept at all last night, her office, like all the other, was cold and uncomfortable but she hadn’t wanted to go into the Guard room. Still, despite how tired she was, her mind was far too awake to even contemplate sleep. Nevan may be in on it. Murphy’s schemes, the murders, whatever was going on. Who could she talk to now? Ginger was off the list. Who else was there? She wasn’t close to anyone in the Guard, in fact she was almost one-hundred per-cent sure that most of them hated her. They thought she had gotten this job just because she was a woman, and they didn’t know what else to do with her than to give her the comfortable job where she just ordered people around and didn’t have to get her hands dirty. She had thought that too sometimes. Especially now, with Nevan getting rid of so easily, even if it was just temporary. Damn, it made her blood boil.
And here she was again. Thinking about the next step in foiling Murphy, even with Nevan’s threat looming over her job. It wasn’t like she didn’t need this job either, she really did. The money the Empire paid her was what kept her mother and her in this nice house with the animals and the land even though the farm no longer brought in any profit. She banged her fist on the table. She hadn’t been thinking about that at all. If she lost her job now, what would they do? They’d have to move out of the house, her mother would lose everything that reminded her of her husband, she would lose her freedom. Yes, if she lost her job, her ma would make her marry for sure, and that would be it for her. Every ambition she had would disappear and be replaced with ‘what’s best for the family’. That’s what her ma loved to say. And look where it had gotten her. Living alone with her daughter, working every day on a farm for nothing, relying on her child for her livelihood. She didn’t want to end up like that, as cruel as it sounds. She just felt like she was destined for something more.
Could she give up now? Stop thinking about stupid Murphy and whatever he was planning? Could she do it if it meant she could keep her job and her free will? She felt the little notches in the table with her fingers, all the knife marks made from her mother chopping away in here all her life, cooking for her family every day in endless cycles. How she wished she could. Alas, she was obsessed, it was too late to turn back now. She felt bad for her ma, what she would have to go through if she really was wrong, but she had to find out, or she would regret this for the rest of her life. For some peace of mind, she would sacrifice everything, even her ma’s happiness, even her own free will, if it came to that. She slipped off the stool, walked to the door almost as if in a dream. There she paused, looking down at her dusty Guard uniform and her mud smeared shoes.
She knelt down and brought out the handkerchief she always kept in her pocket, thanking God that it hadn’t been in her confiscated belt, and polished the film of grime away with circular motions, revealing those familiar shining boots below. There wasn’t much she could about the jacket, its vibrant blue was so dusty it appeared a sickly grey, just about the same colour as the sky, so she shrugged it off and hung it on the peg by the door. It felt a bit final when she did that. It had been a while since she went outside without her jacket. She had been so proud to wear it. She stroked the fine fabric tenderly, wondering if she would ever get a chance to wear it again. She hoped so.
With that one sentimental moment, she pulled herself away and went out into the sombre day, shivering a little in the cold.
Soon she was at that house again, this time closer, one hand on the ornate metal handle of the gate and close enough to see the white lace of the downstairs curtains. They didn’t suit the place, it was much too square and grey, sitting like a lord atop that hill. It stared down at her blankly with those pale, wide-set eyes, looking all at once innocent and foreboding. As if it would reach out of the peaty ground with tree-like arms and squash her down flat just as soon as it would plead with her, blinking its eyes like it had not a single secret to hide. She sighed, she guessed this was just projecting. The house wasn’t really looking at her and, of course, it had no secrets, what kind of a secret could a house have anyway? It was just four walls and a ceiling. That was all a house was. She had no reason to fear it. It was the people inside who should worry her.
Would he be home yet? She had no reason to believe that he wouldn’t, apart from that he was still there when she had left. Why was it, then, that she was so sure he wasn’t here? Could it be because she didn’t feel that same strange presence she usually did when she was near here? That terrible sensation of being watched. Really being watched. Not just by the house either, by something altogether more real. She couldn’t say human exactly, but it was something real, with eyes, and thoughts, and most terrifying of all, intent. It watched her with emotion. Not stoic like the house. Yes, that scared her a lot more than this did. She could deal with this. With new determination, she pushed down the handle and pushed open the large gate. The metal hinge squeaked and tried to fall back closed, but she leant on it with all her weight and it groaned open reluctantly. She slipped through and let it clang shut behind her.
The steep, white chalk path led up to the door with determined straightness, cutting through the uneven hillock like a scar. She raised a skinny fist to the glistening black of the door and knocked.
Two loud thumps and then silence. She waited. No one home? That would be just her luck. She had turned around to go and almost taken a step back when a thought came to her. Just because no one was here didn’t mean she couldn’t do some investigating, she couldn’t let this opportunity go, after she had gotten so close. She shuffled sideways along the verge around the house and towards the nearest window. If only she could peer in, maybe she could spot something. Just then, the door thudded open against the wall beside her, swinging too easily as if caught by the wind.
She almost jumped out of her skin, grabbing onto the window pane to stop herself from falling down the hill and only spared a guilty look sideways after she had had a second to calm her excited heart. It wasn’t him, thank God, it was his pa, Major Murphy. Perfect. She had hoped he would be here, even though she knew that he shouldn’t be.
“Why, it’s Lahel.” He peered round at her, eyes so blue they almost glowed. “And what would you be doing?” She caught a hint of amusement in his voice, but it was all but undetectable under the overwhelming tiredness that caressed his every word.
Still holding onto the window pane with all her might, she tried to formulate an answer that wouldn’t make her sound insane.
“If you’re looking for my Seth, he isn’t here.” For a dreadful moment, she thought he would close the door on her at that.
“No, no, I’m not looking for Murphy.” She said desperately, trying not to lose her footing on the slippery grass. “I’m actually here to see you.”
“Oh.” He didn’t sound overly happy about it, and the hand he held out to help her back onto the path seemed like an afterthought. He was unlike himself. Usually he was so kind, even to her, the only one in the Guard that actually seemed to like her, despite the fact that she knew a lot of it was probably just politeness.
As she followed him into the corridor and the door shut behind her, she remembered just how long it had been since she had seen the inside of this house. Looking up, she could see it was exactly the same as it had been.
The ceiling seemed to be miles above her just as it did when she was a child, the stained-glass window at the top of the stairs glowed bright even in the dull light, still casting that red patch of light onto the stretch of wall above the front door. A smear of fresh blood. It even smelled that same dusty way, like old books even though she’d never seen a single one in the place.
He had already wandered into the living room whilst she had been stood there in the corridor, so she hurried after him, practically leaping onto the sofa in front of the armchair he had already settled himself down in.
“So,” he said, without looking up, “what on Earth do you want to see me for?” He was just staring at his hands, watching them shaking in the cold breeze from the open window with a look of abstract interest on his face. It was the same window that she had tried to look through earlier, those lace curtains were moving slightly in the light wind.
“You’ve left the window open!” She yelled, jogging over to slam it closed. “No wonder it’s freezing in here.”
He looked a bit shocked. “I hadn’t noticed.” He said quietly, though he had already begun to rub his reddened hands together.
She frowned, sitting back down right on the edge of the sofa so that she could lean forward a bit closer to him. Was he okay? There was no more white in his dark hair than she remembered him having, but his face looked like it hadn’t been shaved in awhile. And there were bags under his eyes.
“Are you okay?” She hadn’t come here to comfort him, but somehow his attitude was inspiring some rather unwelcome concern in her. She didn’t really have time for this.
At that he looked up. Those eyes were so blue it hurt. Blue like a baby’s eyes. “Okay?” He looked towards the ajar door back into the corridor like he was expecting someone to be standing there. “No, I’m not okay.” He whispered.
Well. That was surprising. She wouldn’t have thought that he’d want to talk to her, of all people, about what he was feeling. “Okay…what’s wrong?” She wasn’t sure if he actually wanted to share or if he was one of those people who just decided to be ‘not okay’ and that was that.
Unexpectedly, he laughed a little. “Funnily enough, I’m in the same boat as you at the moment. Nevan’s told me not to come back to work in a while.”
“Huh? Why would he do that?” She felt a bit slow asking him that, but she really had no idea what was going on.
“He says that I’m working too hard and that I should take a break.”
She laughed. “Really? That’s nothing alike. I wish he’d just told me I was working too hard. I’ve been all but fired for meddling where I’m not welcome.”
“I know. I’m afraid I might have had something to do with that. I was putting a bit of pressure on him to do something about your attitude. I didn’t think it would have to come to this though.” He sounded…apologetic? Possibly. She couldn’t be quite sure, but she was going to assume he was.
“Don’t worry about it. From the sound of things, he had been thinking about this for a while. I’m sure he would have done it even if you hadn’t gotten involved.” She wondered if he knew that Nevan could be involved in the murders. They were best friends, if Nevan was going to tell anyone, it would be Major Murphy. She looked deep into those blue eyes, there was something about him that made him trustworthy to her. Maybe it was how his arms were shaking so much that she wanted to hug him, just to make them stop. She could feel nothing but pity for the man. Should she tell him her suspicions?
“I do worry.” He just left it at that. She wasn’t sure what exactly he was referring to. The way he was looking through her, towards those curtains, made her think it wasn’t to her.
“What do you worry about?” She said softly, resisting the urge to grab his hands in her own.
He focused back onto her. “A lot of things worry me.” He rubbed his temples with those shaking hands, “At the moment, it’s that I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in days.”
“You haven’t slept? At all?” No wonder he looked so tired.
“Not that I can remember, but that’s not what really worries me. I’ve been blacking out, sometimes when I wake up I’m in the street, sometimes I’m in the house but not where I was when I closed my eyes. It’s the strangest thing.”
“That is very strange.” She went silent, hoping he would carry on speaking. Her heart beat had gotten a bit faster in her chest.
“Frankly, I’m scared. Not knowing what you’ve done or where you could have been is terrifying. Especially with all that’s been going on…” He tailed off at the end, but she knew what he was implying.
“I don’t believe that you could have anything to do with it, Major.” She shook her head, trying to look as earnest as she felt.
“I know your suspicions, Lahel.” At least he didn’t sound angry, like she thought he might. More sad.
“I don’t even know my suspicions anymore, Major.” She whispered. “And I know you think I’m wrong, but there’s something more to it and it’s not you.”
“I don’t just think you’re wrong.” He sighed. “I know you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean, you know? How do you know?”
He shook his head. “That you don’t need to worry about. No more meddling, remember Lahel?”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“Don’t worry about this anymore, Lahel. It’s no longer your responsibility, go home. You don’t have to be the hero.” That reminded her of something, she couldn’t remember what though. She narrowed her eyes, whatever it was, it gave her a bad feeling.
There was a moment silence, with him clearly wishing she would leave and her hoping he would reveal something more. Then she heard a sound coming from somewhere else in the house, upstairs perhaps. “You have dogs?” She asked, genuinely curious. She couldn’t imagine him looking after dogs.
“No?” He was surprised, really surprised. She had to believe him. So, what was that noise?
“Oh, I thought I’d heard them. Must have been outside.” She dismissed.
He narrowed his eyes, clearly not completely believing it. “Yes, I suppose so.”
She got up to go, giving him a bow with a salute as she went. He smiled at her briefly. “You don’t have to do that anymore, Lahel. As long as you’re on leave, I’m not your superior.”
“Habit, I’m afraid. And I don’t plan on being on leave for long, Major.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do.”
She smiled back slightly and walked towards the door and opened it with a creak.
“You know what…” The Major said, making her pause by the door. “You’ve changed my opinion of you, Lahel. I didn’t think you were the type to put orders above your personal vendettas. I respect that, Lieutenant. I will recommend you coming back as soon as possible next time I talk to the General.”
She appreciated that, though she wasn’t sure he would have said the same thing if he knew what she was planning. Like she could give up this easily. Nonetheless, she nodded, and made her way out into the corridor. There, she paused by the stairs. Yes, she heard it again. Dogs whining, it was coming from upstairs. The little whimpers could almost be mistaken for the old floorboards squeaking. She turned her head back, he was still sitting there, face in hands. She could sneak up easily while he wasn’t looking. She put one foot on the first step, still facing him in case he suddenly decided to look over. Just as she felt the wood begin to squeal under her weight, she heard the front door click. She froze.
She was stood there, one foot on the bottom step, as he walked through the door. Her dark hair in oily coils about her wide-eyed face, shock leaving her small mouth hanging open. He cocked his head to the side.
“What are you doing?” He said, calmly.
“Just thinking, son.” His father answered from the other room. Lahel trembled a little, she wasn’t sure what to do or how to get out of this situation.
“You sound stressed, father.” He was still looking at her, golden eyes bright and excited despite the relaxed tone of his voice.
“Yes, Nevan said the same thing. He wants me to take a break.”
“Oh?” He said, inviting the Major to elaborate.
“Me and Lahel both, he’s going to need you to work extra hard I’m afraid, son. With everything that’s going on, you’re going to have a lot on your plate.”
“Yes. I was just talking to the General.” He raised his dark eyebrows at her slightly with a smirk.
“You were? Is that why you’re back so late? Lahel was here, you just missed her.”
“Oh, she was, was she?” He chortled.
“Yes, I talked to her and I think she’ll stop bothering you this time, son. She seems to have gotten a lot more reasonable, I think she will make a great Lieutenant.”
“I agree, father.” He moved towards her slightly. She looked to the Major, desperately hoping he wouldn’t turn around and see her, that would take a lot of explaining.
“You do? I thought you didn’t like her now.”
“The distance between like and dislike is very narrow. I’ve always found it hard to distinguish.”
“I suppose you’re right, my son. But I’d be pleased if you were getting on again. It would make your life easier too.”
“I know, father. I’ll try my best.” He looked at her from under his lashes with a self-satisfied grin and gestured towards the front door with his hand. Did he want her to leave? Was he trying to help her? Damn, that wound her up. She detested to do what he told her, but she had to get out of here before the Major turned around and this got awkward.
He turned and opened the door with a clang.
“Where are you going?” The Major called.
“Nowhere, father, I just thought I heard something outside.”
“Well close it soon, it’s freezing in here.”
“Yes father.” He ushered her out and she complied with a frown, wishing there was something she could say to him that made him as angry as that smile of his made her. As she got out onto the pathway she turned back to face him as he went to close the door.
“I don’t know what you think you’re going to achieve by helping me, but it won’t work.” She hissed, pointing a finger towards his chest.
“You really should stop your meddling, my darling.” He said, patronisingly affectionate. “You’re going to get yourself hurt one of these days.” Though his tone sounded light, she felt each word like a knife twisting within her. He wasn’t even bothering to veil his threats these days. That was worrying.
“I’m not meddling!” She growled, as Murphy slammed the door closed.
“Did you say something?” The Major yelled.
“No, father.” The silken voice answered as she made her way down the path.
What did she have now? All she knew was that the Major worried he could have something to do with it and that he was sure Murphy didn’t. So, he wasn’t going to be of any help then. Ginger was convinced he was innocent. The General was too suspicious. Who was there left?
I was quiet as I walked up the stairs and found my way towards my room. What to do now? He stopped with one hand on the door handle. She was getting too suspicious, she was going to ruin everything if she carried on like this. How to get rid of her though? How could he get her to stop?
The dogs scratched against the door, making those incessant crying noises at the back of their throats. I opened the door and knelt down.
“Don’t cry.” I whispered, stroking their squirming little bodies as they tried to lick every inch of my hands. “You must stay in here, where you’re safe.” I stood up and herded them back into the room, closing the door behind me.
It was such a shame about the girl, if she insisted on meddling further he really would have to do something about it. And she was so like her as well. If only she had just given up, it would have made things so much easier. And, though he didn’t want to admit it, he wanted her to survive this. He really did.