I pause with the blade in my hand, adjusting my silk slip, while considering the best way to go about murder. I could straddle across the sleeping stranger, but the idea of him waking up and enjoying it, even if only for the last second of his life, churns my stomach. I consider rolling him over, but he looks heavy, and that might wake him, so I decide to kneel where I am and use the weight of the blade to do most of the work for me.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I don’t usually kill people when they’re sleeping. Or at all.
I should explain, but the story is too long for me to start from the beginning. I’ll start with when I found myself in this predicament.
“Save us.” A cold whisper tickled my ear and stirred my hair, jolting me awake.
I pushed myself upright and widened my eyes. Wherever I was, it wasn’t home, and I couldn’t see the source of the mysterious whisperer. Whoever had brought me here hadn’t bound my hands, thank goodness. I waved my arms up and around, trying to find another warm body in the nothingness or anything solid that I could clutch for stability, but the whisperer remained out of reach. Or else, he had simply evaporated like rising steam from a pot.
The surface upon which I slept was bouncy—definitely a mattress. I clutched the material that covered it, piercing it with my fingernails to test its quality—silk, perhaps cotton sateen. Whoever had brought me here was not poor, but they were badly intentioned because, feeling them, I realized my arms and legs were bare. I was in a slip instead of my usual night robes. A silk slip of all things. It provided no modesty, let alone armor.
A muffled thud from somewhere within or next to my room made me jump. Prickling sensations ran up my arms, meeting at the base of my neck.
“Hello,” a feeble man’s voice rang out in the darkness. It had the underlying wobble of a person defeated and the coarseness of a prisoner who had been shouting for hours. “Anybody?” he pleaded.
I wrinkled my nose, recognizing the source. It was the man I’d fallen asleep next to before waking up in this unfamiliar place – my husband. From his voice, it sounded like he was behind a wall, in an adjoining room.
“Really?” I mumbled. “You had to bring him?”
Gaining confidence, I ventured toward the edge of the mattress, feeling my way along. I waved my arms in a criss-cross motion to ensure the whisperer didn’t catch me by surprise, although I was growing gradually less convinced of his physical presence. I had been half-asleep when I’d heard him speak. Maybe I did sleep talk like my handmaid said, and I’d woken myself up.
A light breeze made the hair on my arms stand on end, but still I continued. At last, my fingers found the edge of the mattress and what seemed to be the unfinished grain of a wooden surface. I felt around it lightly so as not to pierce my skin with splinters, widening my eyes as if I could somehow will the darkness into being less dark.
“A candle, please,” I prayed.
God provided one better. A lamp. I almost knocked it over with excitement but succeeded in steadying it with both hands before it made a loud noise. I tucked it into my chest until I was safely seated, legs crossed.
Thank you, I mouthed.
I ran my palm around the cool metal shape. A base, a spout, a lever. Yes, a lever! One click and an orange flame illuminated my prison.
A face—a face I could only tell was a face by a misty silhouette the color of pond weed – hovered in front of mine, our noses nearly touching. The lamp fell out of my hands and the room plunged back into darkness.
My pulse pounded in my ears. I sat as still as a wooden beam, my breaths short and shallow.
“What are you?” I whispered, my throat tight.
Silence. Even my husband’s whines had ceased.
Hands trembling, I reached down and picked the lamp back up. I clicked the lever. It was a man. A sort of man, weird and green. Maybe I was hallucinating. I’d never done that before. I allowed my breaths to deepen, puckering my lips, half hoping I could blow the misty man away. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He just stared at me.
Once I recovered from my initial shock, I moved my eyes without moving my head to inspect my surroundings. I was in a big, square room. Apart from the vast silk bed, chests of varying materials and quality lined the walls. There were two doors. The first came from the direction of my husband’s whining, short and plain like a closet or a lavatory. The other, much taller and grander, I supposed was my escape route.
The whisperer and I weren’t the only two in the room, I realized with unease. On the other side of the bed, a man wearing blue linen shorts, a necklace and nothing else was fast asleep. A silver blade separated us, glinting evilly in the yellow lamplight.
A plan formed in my mind. Take the blade. Run. But how could a blade protect me from a man made of mist? And run wearing nothing but a slip in the vulnerability of the night? That would be stupid.
“What am I supposed to do?” I said, my mouth dry. I didn’t dare hope for a reply.
The whisperer opened his mouth like he would bite me. I tucked my chin into my chest, my lower lip trembling. A sound emerged from his green gape, another whisper: “Save us.”
I licked my lips and swallowed, trying to get over my paralyzing fear. What danger could a creature made of mist possibly be in that I could save him from?
“I don’t know where to start here,” I said honestly. “How about what are you?”
He raised his green arm and outstretched a bizarrely fluid finger to point at the man in the bed. “His slave,” he replied mournfully.
I nodded very, very slowly. “And h-how many of you are there?”
“Just two.” He sighed, blowing cold air into my open eyes making them sting so that I had to blink. “Me.” He pointed a thumb at himself. “And you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, longing for the darkness now that I’d vanquished it. The whisperer wasn’t the monster; the man was.
“I need a new plan,” I announced aloud, reopening my eyes.
Without making any conscious decision, I reached for the blade’s handle. Jewels encrusting the hilt, and the chain decoration felt cool against my clammy palm. The whisperer remained inches away from my face. I feared what would happen if I backed away.
I tested the blade’s weight. Heavy.
Wait, why is that good?
My senses came crashing back like a wave breaking on the ocean shore.
What am I doing?
I shook my head. “I sound pathetic,” I said aloud, “even to myself. My father sentences men to death every day, and this isn’t even murder. It’s self-defense.”
The whisperer tilted his head. Could he see me? He didn’t have eyes just… green mist… where his eyes should have been.
“That is what you meant by ‘save us,’ wasn’t it?” I waited for him to respond and, when he didn’t, turned to inspect the man more closely.
The squareness of his jaw sickened me. The softness with which his black curls fell against the silk mattress made my hands curl into fists. A smug smile rested easily in his sleeping expression. He probably thought he was being noble, placing the blade between us. Well, he would pay for that mistake.
The whisperer’s mouth widened again. “Save us.”
“All right,” I mumbled.
I lowered the lamp onto the mattress, but before I could, the whisperer snatched it from my hands. It disappeared, and yet, the orange light remained.
“Okay then.” I shook my body like I’d seen fighters do in preparation for big shows. And that brings us up to the present.
I’m not covered in blood. He’s not dead, but I can’t actually get the blade out because I think it went all the way through to the mattress and it’s lodged in there. So I guess he’s staying where he is. He’s not making much noise, so it’s not that big of a deal. My husband is being suspiciously quiet. Now I mention it, he might be watching through the keyhole…
But, no. Nope. It doesn’t matter.
“What now?” I ask the whisperer, but he’s gone even though the light is still here. Of course he is. He wanted saving, and I saved him. Well done, me.
I puff out a sigh and crawl to the edge of the mattress where I warily touch the floor with my bare toes. Part of me wonders if the whisperer is lurking down there, a monster under the bed waiting to snatch me away. I put the other foot down and stand up. My vision swims for a moment – it’s already been a stressful day, and the sun hasn’t even risen – but other than that, nothing happens.
The stranger I stabbed starts gurgling. I never asked the whisperer what his name was or where he came from. Hearing that I was to be the man’s slave was more than enough to drive me to kill him. My hands start trembling all of a sudden. I clasp them together and take a deep breath. The room smells faintly of incense. This is the first time I’ve been without orders, and I’m at a loss for what to do.
I survey the line-up of chests. I might be a murderer (if he hurries up and dies), but I’m not a thief so I won’t ransack them for goods. I do need clothes, though, unless I want to be kidnapped a second time or recognized and dragged back to my father, kicking and screaming.
My father would find some way to twist this and make it my fault. He would insist we go back for my husband and tell me to keep my mouth shut about the whole ordeal. I’d return to my confines, the left wing suite of his palace, and never know what it felt like to possess ownership of my body. Even my handmaid has more freedom than I do, marrying for love instead of obedience. I’m not interested in love, but I want to know what it would feel like to turn the silver handle of the grand door and run until my legs give out and I can’t breathe.
A smile tugs at my lips. I can do this. I kneel on the wooden floorboards to lift the lid of the nearest chest. It’s one of the smallest but it still takes a lot of effort. It’s full to the brim with goblets and plates of silver and gold. I shoot the dying man a look of disgust. Who does he need to entertain here?
The second chest is full of folded silk. I run my fingers over it, then let the lid drop with a bang. I’ve lived in luxury my whole life, so I won’t be needing it anymore. And the third chest, the most desolate-looking, wooden and smelling of rot, contains heaps of linen clothes. Finally. They’re fancy but ambiguous enough. Best case scenario, people who take notice of me will see a rich man’s servant. I take a shirt and pair of trousers. I consider removing the silk slip, but can’t bring myself to after all we’ve been through together. I’ve grown weirdly fond of it. In the end, I pull them on over the top.
A splutter from the stranger makes me wince. No one’s ever told me how long it takes for people to die. His eyes are bloodshot and bulging, but there’s hardly any blood coming from his wound. I’ve heard of people putting injured animals out of their suffering and I wonder if I should do the same for him, but I’ve already used the only weapon I had, and I don’t want things getting messy. A woman in disguise can be unnoticeable if she’s careful. A woman in disguise covered in blood cannot. Besides, doesn’t he deserve it?
I bite my thumbnail and stare at him – because there’s no one around to tell me both are unladylike – until he splutters again, which makes me feel nauseous. I’ve come this far and there’s only one more thing to do.
“Goodbye, stranger,” I say, offering a salute. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
I head towards the door.
I expect it to be locked, but when I turn the jeweled handle, it clicks open with ease. It reveals a long corridor carpeted in the finest red material I’ve seen in my life. The walls are adorned with colored glass, silver-framed paintings, and ornate-looking doors. It’s lit with the same warm, orange light as the room, but there are no torches or lamps. At the end of the corridor is an archway, through which I can make out the dim glow of sunrise. I take bounding leaps toward it, my borrowed clothes catching the air like whips.
My husband’s shrieks start up again, but in a moment, he’ll be too far away for me to hear him. Laughter bubbles in my chest, rising to my brain to pop. No more husband for me. No more silence. No more veils. Not anymore. I’m free.
Deborah Rose is the managing editor for Hey! Young Writer. She is the author of YA, fantasy novels Dragon Pearls (2019) and Crown My Heart (2020). You can follow her on Instagram at @authordeborahrose or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk!