Not thinking it would be wise to prolong his presence on palace grounds after revealing such condemning information about himself, Godren left the princess standing grim and rigid in the grove and breezed across the estate to the gates. He stole himself against the rotten feeling in his stomach for a moment to plaster a fraudulent pleasant look on his face.
“Gentlemen,” he acknowledged the guards, the essence of carefree and polite.
“Leaving so soon, Lord Lamont?” the more personable guard asked.
“It seems the royal family shares your sentiments toward the distinct lack of fish at these occasions,” Godren said. “I’ve heard about nothing but that since I set foot on these grounds, and I simply can’t be bombarded in these clothes. If they want fish, they shall have fish. I’m going to catch some fish.”
With that he was through the gates and starting across the avenue.
“But you’ll catch fish in those clothes?” the guard called after him, jesting again, but Godren did not make the effort to sustain his cover and respond. He was beyond them now, so it no longer mattered.
It was just growing dark, and as he made the transition from the twilight of the avenue to the closer shade of the apartment network across the way, he blinked against the reluctance of his perception. He felt along the wall for navigation, not in the mood to wait on his senses. His senses weren’t much for waiting on these days.
The heavy feeling of the consequences of his actions weighed in his stomach, and a part of him wanted to ask, what have you done? But a greater part of him felt like he had done the right, necessary thing.
The right thing just wasn’t a walk in the park to his emotions. But the right thing had never coincided with his circumstances, so he wasn’t going to start complaining now. Better not to agonize over the inconvenience, or second-guess the risks he had taken.
Besides, there was promptly someone else there to give him a hard time.
“You know, I almost like watching you getting yourself in deeper and deeper,” Ossen’s voice cut through the disorienting shadows of the complex’s ground level. “It’ll make it that much more gratifying to watch you unravel when it all catches up with you. It’s great to see a marred image, a humiliating failure…but it’s a delightful bonus if a heart breaks and a future crumbles as well.”
Godren lifted his head and pinpointed Ossen’s location. It wasn’t hard now that his eyes burned with loathing. It was as if the shadows bent to his gaze. “You look in the mirror too much, Ossen,” he said bitingly, and kept walking.
An intolerant hand closed around his forearm as he tried to pass, and Ossen dug his fingers into Godren’s damaged flesh.
Whipping back around, Godren slammed him into the nearest wall and won his release. “You forget,” he said, grinding out the words with mordant force, “I don’t feel.” Then he continued on his way with un-tempered purpose, leaving his surprised rival to recollect himself. No doubt Ossen had expected him to howl and crumple in pain. Healing wounds were tender entities, after all.
“You will,” Ossen called after him, voice sure and promising. “Numb or not, I’ll teach you how.”
Godren knew better than to take the threat as empty, regardless of if Ossen was just saying it to get the last word in or not, but he ignored it for the sake of his stoic image and kept walking. Walking toward the source of all that was tearing him asunder. How illogical, he thought, to keep going back there.
“You keep walking, Godren,” Ossen projected keenly in encouragement. “You do make the rest of us happy, always trotting right home for your punishment. The morbid ones are on the edge of their seat with anticipation this time. It’s bound to be good.”
Still not responding, Godren decided to tune him out.
“You’ll have to tell me how it went, though,” Ossen’s persistent voice began to fade into the void he created for it. “I have a visit to make before my perfume wears off.”
That last bit filtered through before Godren’s mental wall was completely in place, and he stopped dead in his tracks and spun in a heated rush, striding right back the way he had come. Ossen looked pleased for getting to him, but Godren had stopped thinking about himself.
“If you dare even touch her in the fondest of ways, I will hunt you down in the moment and drown you in your own blood,” Godren threatened vehemently, advancing on the spiteful silhouette that awaited him.
Instead of realizing he had called Godren’s wrath back around and making some salvage attempt to shirk going up against a fearless opponent, Ossen stood rooted and surprised him with a hard punch square in the face as soon as he was within range. Godren stumbled back, stunned out of proportion. Painful or not, the world spun, and a sense of nausea bloomed in his stomach.
Ossen didn’t wait for him to recover. While Godren was seeing black spots, he hit him again. “You mean especially if I touch her fondly?” Ossen corrected. “It makes you jealous, doesn’t it?”
Having his other senses jostled in addition to being numb, Godren found himself perilously disoriented, unable to design a move of defense against his attacker.
“Drown me in my own blood, huh? Correct me if I’m hopelessly off the mark, but if bleeding me that much didn’t kill me, I daresay the drowning me would. I thought you weren’t a killer, Godren? Or are you finally getting careless and letting your emotions provoke that condemning testimony of unfortunate truth out of you after all? A little jealousy to loosen the tongue, and the truth comes out: you’re a jealous dolt and a murderer.” He tsk’d his tongue. “Your character is degrading fast, Godren. Better be careful who sees you like this. You wouldn’t want condemning information falling into the wrong hands.”
Once more, he struck his grasping victim.
“Aren’t you going to defend yourself? Or am I actually getting at something, and you’re too humbled by moral guilt to deny it? You and your pathetic morality. A man shouldn’t be ruled by anything so restricting, so crippling. Especially willingly.” Dragging Godren up, he thrust him against the wall and pinned him there, achieving a nice resounding impact between the stone and Godren’s skull.
Stars cascaded sickly though Godren’s head, but being so forcefully positioned allowed him to focus on the man before him. “At least my soul isn’t crippled like yours,” he said, composed even as he spoke through gritted teeth.
“Soul?” Ossen asked pointedly. “I don’t have a soul. And if babying one makes someone weak like you, I should be thanking my godforsaken mother for neglecting the concept.”
If his head was already spinning anyway, what was one more impact of his choice? Besides, he was tired of Ossen’s spiteful monologuing and bitter interjections that disrespected his mother, and surely Ossen’s skull wasn’t as hard as stone anyway.
Ramming his head forward, he caught Ossen’s face in the collision and forced him back in relent. “If you touch her in any way, I will carry out my worst threats and then beat your heart until it revives you, raw and shattered in ways that will never heal and haunted with mindless terror that will never abate, and then I will ensure that you live forever,” Godren revised, relaying all the ruthless sincerity in the world.
Then he turned persistently and started once more for the Underworld that waited so morbidly for his return, wondering at his determination to get there.
“Where,” Mastodon asked very pointedly, “have you been, Godren?” Her dark gaze was unblinking and penetrating as the inevitable interrogation befell him. “I acknowledge that you have requested I not make unfair assumptions based on Ossen’s tattling, but I am also aware of some inconsistencies in your manner that grow increasingly harder to ignore in good faith.”
Godren stood before her desk with his feet spaced apart for stability – and confidence – and his hands clasped rigidly behind his back. He stared at the wall behind her as he received his due confrontation, face completely stony.
“I’m going to give you a chance to be honest with me,” Mastodon informed him. “Of course, depending on your honest answer it could just as easily condemn as promote you, but we’re going to overlook that detail for the sake of sustaining my gracious image. So, let’s have it. Where is it you’ve been?”
“In contact with Her Royal Highness Catris Vandelta,” Godren replied mechanically.
If Mastodon was surprised by his claim – or his honesty, if she could tell it was the truth – she didn’t show it. One had to wonder if she would even blink against the wind.
“And what, pray tell, are you doing in contact with the princess of Raven City? I presume you have a very good excuse.”
“I contrive to eliminate being expendable, my lady. I see those who occupy advantageous angles in your favor as competition. I seek to assume their positions.” The wall kept his attention as he spoke, anchoring him. His rooted stance and matter-of-fact responses were the only way he could hope to stand against Mastodon’s perilous judgment. Manner was the only thing left to earn him points.
This time, his response seemed to prove thought-provoking – or at least interest-piquing. Mastodon considered him a moment.
“And you think you have a better chance with her than Ossen?” the raven-haired woman inquired.
“I think Ossen is little more than connections,” Godren replied.
Mastodon seemed to appreciate the come-back. Her eyes smiled. “Do you?”
Clearly, he was supposed to elaborate. “He has too many people to prove things to, my lady. It distracts him. He is also far too explosive; if he loses his temper with her, she may be dead sooner than you conspire and carelessly enough to be traced. Less dramatically, if he becomes disagreeable, her Highness could take measures to keep him out, and there goes your connection. Simply because Ossen’s mood has its own ambitions. And if he can’t control himself one way, who’s to say he won’t get attached in the opposite extreme?”
“And you – you wouldn’t get attached?”
“I am numb to the world, my lady. You claim no heart, and Ossen claims no soul, but I have nothing. I don’t suppose you can empathize with returning from the death of your poison, but it has sapped me of everything except breathing.”
“Then why go on? Especially for a cause not your own?”
“Because I still bleed. I have not forgotten what I signed in blood, and I do not care to doubt the extent magic would go to cause me pain. I also do not care to doubt how promptly you would contrive to come down on me should I have thoughts of breaking our agreement. I find myself unable to risk entertaining the confidence that I might be quick enough to take my own life before my punishment was activated.”
Mastodon absently scratched her neck with a thumb. “That would be a wise precaution. You flatter me putting such stock into my charms.”
“I may have nothing left to live for, for myself, but purpose ranks higher than suicide in my book – even if it’s a commitment to a cause not my own, so that’s where I stand.”
Leaving it at that, Godren waited for the results of her acceptance. He tried to block out the anxiety of all the cards being on the table and out of is hands, but the best he could do was keep a neutral face.
Intruding on the suspense, Ossen burst into the room.
Mastodon’s only response was the shift of her eyes. “Ossen,” she acknowledged flatly.
“He’s been with the princess,” Ossen blurted an accusation.
“I know, Ossen. Aside from not being stupid, he just told me himself.”
Instant suspicion took form in the silence that resulted. Godren could imagine Ossen sputtering behind him, at a loss.
The door flew open a second time. At the commotion that followed, Godren broke his gaze with the wall and glanced over his shoulder, and found Seth hauling Ossen out of the room. The two tousled like very deadly immature boys, scuffing and scraping – and cursing, on Ossen’s part – but then the door closed and Godren was alone with Mastodon once more. When he turned back to her, she was considering the door.
“I see what you mean about him,” she commented thoughtfully. “Too much to prove. And that temper…”