Her father kept his head down as he spooned up his porridge. He was balding and stooped and was looking older by the day. Working on the dock did that to a person.
Lilitha looked down at her hands, having already finished her meagre portion—her only meal for the day. Her fingers were trembling.
Her father lifted the bowl to his mouth and drank down the remainder of the precious milk, licking his lips with a sigh. Lilitha quickly lowered her eyes as he looked her over.
Outside, thunder cracked. Rain lashed the window. It was dark inside their house. No candles lit. No warmth in the fireplace. They couldn’t afford it.
“Why are you so nervous?” he asked her.
“I’m not nervous.”
The chair creaked as he leaned back. “Don’t lie to me. What have you been up to?”
“I told you: I went shopping and came straight back home. Just as I always do.”
She dared to look up at him. His dark eyes were narrowed. He was frowning. There was silence for several long moments. Then he sighed. The chair scratched against the floor as he stood.
Lilitha kept her face lowered, her red hair falling around her as he went over to his cloak hanging on the wall.
Her heart slammed against her ribs. The hair rose on her arms. She trembled harder at the sound of his belt sliding through his coat rings.
“Father,” she murmured. “Please.”
“Don’t beg. I hate it when you beg. You know the drill. On your knees.”
Biting her lip hard enough that she tasted blood, Lilitha didn’t bother fighting as she dutifully pulled up her skirts.
The first several hits were always the worst, but she was careful to keep quiet. Being loud only made him angrier.
She could hear the sickening slap of the leather, but it didn’t take long before she was deaf to everything but the sound of her blood rushing in her ears.
After the tenth lash, her backside was starting to feel like a rock. Pain was throbbing through her entire body, in her knees, hips and thighs, up her spine; she could even feel a pounding in her temples.
At every hit, Lilitha would jerk forward silently. She was gripping her skirts so tightly her hands felt like claws. They were so numb they felt like somebody else’s.
Tomorrow, they would ache. Everything would ache. She would ache for days.
Finally, he was done. Without a word, he strode away and hung up his belt. The floorboards creaked against his footsteps as he left for his bedroom.
Only once he’d vanished did Lilitha dare to drop to the floor. Curling on her side, she shut her eyes.
When she woke it was dawn. It was quiet. Red was blazing through the window. A rare, sunny morning. She couldn’t hear her father’s snoring. Already gone to work.
She’d been so out of it she hadn’t even heard him leaving. With a groan, she dragged herself upright. Grabbing her head, she pushed down the urge to scream.
After several painful attempts, she managed to get to her feet. She crept over to peer inside his room—it was empty, the bed unmade, clothes strewn upon the floor.
She went over to the cracked mirror, kneeling before it with a groan. Lifting up her skirts, she checked herself. It was the worst beating yet. Welts. Bruising.
She’d bled quite a bit too. It was all through her skirts. Carefully, she probed herself. As usual, the pain was worse just above her crack where her ugly red scar was.
She pulled her skirts down with a sigh. There was no time to think about it. There was no money to buy ointment. Not that her father would ever spend money on her.
At nineteen, she was lucky he hadn’t sold her yet.
She got up.
Another day. More errands to complete. But at least it wasn’t wet. She gazed through the window, thinking of Clara, a pang in her guts.
How she wished yesterday had only been a dream. Grabbing her basket, she left for the market.
It was an hour before she turned into the usual crowded street. Hood pulled low over her face, Lilitha kept her eyes lowered.
She tried her best not to hobble but at every second step, pain stabbed through her backside. Though her life felt like it had changed so much, the rest of the town continued with its day as it always did.
The sunny morning hadn’t lasted long; clouds hung low and a cold wind clawed at her face as she went from stall to stall.
Basket bulging with supplies, Lilitha was busy inspecting some wilted radishes when she looked up at Mandalay’s name.
A merchant and her customer were leaning toward each other across the counter having a whispered conversation.
“You’re kidding!” the customer hissed, pressing her long, bony fingers to her mouth. “How was he injured?”
The merchant shrugged. “Nobody really knows, but there’s a whisper he might even be dead.”
“Surely not!” the woman cried. The merchant hissed for quiet. The customer clamped her lips shut and leaned in farther, eyes bright. “And the culprit?”
“Well, as to that—girls. Two girls were spotted in his company just before he was found.”
“Girls? Girls attacked Sir Mandalay? Never!” Pulling away, the customer shook her head.
“What is this town coming to when not even the strongest among us can defend themselves against so much evil? Girls.” She picked up her basket and left.
Lilitha finished with her selection and approached the merchant. The woman wiped her eyes as she charged her ten saffrons.
“I was listening in on your conversation,” Lilitha said, handing over her change.
The woman gave her an irritated look. “And?”
“And I was wondering if they had any idea of who these girls might be.”
“If they did, they would have them by now, wouldn’t you think?”
“I suppose.” Lilitha slung her basket over her shoulder.
She began her long journey back home, eyes lowered to the pavement, the weight of her shopping making her back ache. The cold was icing the tip of her nose.
Turning a corner, she lifted her face at the sound of a commotion. A Champion was sitting on a horse up ahead. Surrounded by a clutch of people, he was holding out a sheet of parchment for them to see.
Heart racing, Lilitha pulled her hood further over her head and detoured down another street, only to find another Champion.
Hunching over, she gave him a wide berth and was just about to turn down the next street when he called, “Lady! Lady!”
Grimacing, Lilitha adjusted her hood, turning around as he and his tall grey horse trotted over. He sat a little awkwardly in his saddle, cheeks glowing pink in the freezing air.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, miss, but we are on the lookout for a couple of criminals. If you could take a look at this—”
He held out a sheet of parchment. Lilitha’s eyes widened.
“Oh, God,” she breathed.
Eyes as green as hers gazed back at her. The picture was a remarkable likeness. Whoever had sketched her had captured her perfectly, down to the little freckle at the corner of her lip.
Clara’s image was also startling but not as perfect as hers.
“Do you recognise either of them? Have you seen them before?” He leaned across his horse, excited by her reaction. She shook her head quickly.
He sat back in his saddle with a disappointed frown and took the picture back. “Thanks anyway. If you see either of them, could you inform a Champion or the nearest minister?”
Lilitha was trembling as she watched him trot away.
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