Chapter 50: The Prodigal Son Returns
Lady Maura quickly disappeared around the corner of the hedge, and soon after, the creak of the iron door that opened and then shut followed. Octavia smiled and shook her head as she turned back towards the stone garden bench. The smile quickly faded as she set the basket down on the bench and took a seat.
“I suppose I should be grateful for the Lafearian Rose’s strong scent,” she muttered as a shadow dropped down over the vine-covered iron wall behind her. “To think you would slither back here after creating yet another disaster.”
Her nose recoiled at the putrid scent that grew stronger as the man approached, his ragged breathing and heavy footsteps drawing closer as the Dowager sighed and rubbed her delicate pale fingers between her brows.
“Why have you come back, Nero?” She growled impatiently as he gripped the back of the bench behind her.
“Mother,” Nero whispered hoarsely as he knelt on the ground behind the bench. “I—”
“You have been to those bog wretches,” Octavia interrupted with a snort of disdain. “How surprising that they were not able to help you?” She turned her cold ice-blue eyes to his disheveled state and sniffed in disdain. “A fine mess you’ve made of everything, Nero. As if killing Catalina and nearly bringing the Emperor’s wrath down upon us wasn’t enough, now you’ve dragged the church into my affairs. And yet still—you dare to appear before me and beg for my help?”
“I have nowhere else to turn,” Nero whispered as he hung his head. “The price the bog witches asked—”
“You gave them the Witch Star, did you not?” Octavia asked sharply. Nero flinched and nodded. “And what did they offer you in return.”
Nero’s gaze turned down the path Lady Maura had just taken. With a seething hiss, Octavia stood, swept around the bench, and slapped the disgraced witch hunter soundly across his cheek. Nero stumbled onto his side and coughed up black blood.
“How wretched my fate must be to have sired such an ungrateful turncoat!” Octavia retracted her hand and stared from the reddened palm to her cowering son with frigid disgust. “Are you so blinded by this obsession for power that you cannot see what it has cost you already? Now you even dare to kill what few ice witches remain!” She grabbed Nero’s shoulder and yanked her bastard son back to his knees as she leaned in closer. “I warned you what the Witch Star would do to you, but did you listen? No. Your foolish greed to have more than what the gods bestowed upon you has sealed your miserable fate?”
“I am not the only one who has made rash decisions for power,” Nero snapped as he shook off her grip. A painful cough doubled him over at her feet, yet still, Octavia felt not a morsel of pity. “Also—Catalina’s bastard son still lives. I thought I should warn you.”
Octavia pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and pressed it against her nose delicately. “Tristan is alive? How can you be sure?”
“He was the fire witch I—fought near the chapel. He—recognized me.”
Octavia closed her eyes for a brief moment as her jaw trembled behind the handkerchief pressed firmly to her lips. “I swear you leave more havoc in your wake than a witch’s plague, Nero.” She scoffed and turned away from him to stare at the glowing blue flowerbed. “I wonder which god I should thank for this fortuitous turn of events.”
“Mother—can’t you—help me? The pain—” Nero rasped, still hunched over against the ground.
Octavia glared at him with irritation, then grabbed a fistful of the aconitum blossoms and scattered them before his quivering hands. “Just kill yourself and rid me of your insufferable disappointment.”
His ice-blue eyes, now reddened with pain and the corruption that spread within, lifted towards her with unmasked hatred.
“No?” Octavia mocked. “Then get out of my sight and never step foot inside these palace walls again.”
“Are you heartless, Mother?” Nero asked as he stumbled to his feet.
Octavia smiled benevolently as she stepped closer and wiped her handkerchief against the foul, black blood on his lips. “No more than you, my son.”
Nero’s expression hardened as he stepped back, then retreated to scale the garden wall and vanish into the night.
Octavia dropped the soiled handkerchief on the ground beside the scattered blossoms. With a distracted scowl, the Dowager turned—then stopped as she focused on the flowers, counted their number, and realized one was missing.
‘It was greed that crippled the Goddess of Death, my son. You will fare no better than Kritanta in the end.’ She chuckled, lifted the basket with its few remaining aconitum flowers from the bench, and headed towards the iron gate, blissfully ignorant of the ghostly king that trailed behind her with sunken red eyes and a patient, malevolent smile.
Beneath the watchful eye of the slum’s feral dogs, Samantha sent her latest client off with a satisfied walk and a lighter pocket. She checked the four shiny crescents between her teeth to confirm their value and grinned. The wind swept trash and dust along the empty streets while the streetwalker adjusted her stockings and the patched skirts of her dress before leaving the dark shadows of the alleyway to drift back towards her current residence on Pimp Street.
As Samantha waited for her next client, she counted the earnings for the day beneath the light of a street lamp. Knowing that the Madam of Lark and Lollis would take half, she tucked a few crescents inside her corset for safekeeping. What Madam Tillsmen didn’t know would fill another stomach among Samantha’s four younger siblings.
Samantha whistled softly as she paced beneath the street lamps that did little to complement her heavy makeup and the vibrantly colored garments that had seen far better days than this common street prostitute.
She heard the man’s footsteps before he stepped into the pale light of a streetlamp behind her. He walked with a faint limp, and upon closer inspection, appeared to slouch quite heavily beneath his dark cloak. Samantha turned towards the stranger, careful to avoid directly meeting his gaze as she tugged the sleeve off her left shoulder and waited to see if he’d call out to her.
But the stranger continued past her with barely more than a glance.
As he passed, Samantha examined his garments. His cloak was of fine material, and his black leather boots shined beneath the street lamp that glittered off the shiny buttons from his jacket.
‘A noble perhaps?’
Samantha recalled with a chill the last young nobleman who had caused quite a stir in Madam Tillsman’s district. But that cowardly animal was dead according to the Foxes, and this man had a bit of a lost, relatively innocent countenance.
Samantha trailed after the stranger, being sure to tread loudly so as not to spook the timid-looking potential customer.
“What’s a smartly dressed lad like you doing all the way down here?” she called out and flashed a lured smile as he turned towards her.
The stranger studied her speculatively for a moment, then replied hesitantly, “I’m looking for the Fox Den.”
“Fox Den is it?” Samantha relaxed her shoulders with practiced ease so that the fabric dipped lower around her womanly charms as she crossed her arms thoughtfully. “Well, you are headed in the right direction—though I wouldn’t get any closer, dearie.”
“Why not?” His dark eyes held all the naivety of a frightened, lost puppy.
“They’ve gone a bit rabid if you take my meaning,” Samantha replied honestly with a shrug. “The old Fox Master who used to run the place died, you see. Killed by a witch, or so it is rumored.”
“I see.” The young man pondered this for a moment beneath the shadows of his hood; then continued towards his destination.
“I’m saying now isn’t a good time for new clients to be showing up,” Samantha grumbled as she followed after him. “Least of all, a sweet little lamb like you.” She took his arm gently and smiled as she caught a glimpse of his boyish face and painfully clean dark skin. The young man grimaced with a hiss of pain as his posture stiffened against her arm. “I’m sorry love, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” the stranger hissed as he pulled away. “And this is something I must do—to protect her.”
“Her?” Samantha echoed with a coy smile. “Is your lover in some sort of peril.”
“The worst kind,” the young man answered with such gravity that Samantha felt a chill run down her spine. “A witch threatens her life.”
The moment passed as Samantha let out a nervous laugh. “A witch? Well then, you’d better be speaking to the church—not the Foxes.”
“They won’t listen to me—I’m—just a slave.”
“A slave?” Samantha laughed as she gestured to his fine clothes. “Go on, tell another one then. What sort of slave would be dressed up as pretty as a picture?”
“I have the scars on my back to prove it,” he snarled with sudden viciousness that contorted his handsome face quite terribly.
“Alright, alright,” Samantha raised her hands submissively. “If you want to throw your life away on a fool’s errand—slave or not—then allow me to offer a few words of advice, free of charge.”
His dark ebony eyes studied her with an expression of distrust and a sort of cold disinterest that made Samantha take a step or two back. “Ask for Troy. He’s acting as leader until the Fox Master’s old brother returns.”
His brows relaxed and he nodded with an apologetic smile, “I will. Thank you.” The stranger paused then reached awkwardly into his pocket for a crescent, which he offered her hesitantly.
“A slave?” Samantha scoffed and shook her head. “Keep it, slave boy. Just pray you brought enough to make it worth their while. Also—don’t mention you’re a slave. They won’t take you seriously if you do.”
The stranger nodded stiffly, pocketed the coin, and then continued on his way.
“Poor boy,” Samantha muttered as she hugged her bare arms and turned back towards Madam Tillsman’s brothel house. “He’d have been better off spending that coin on me.” She scoffed and hummed softly under her breath as she circled a pile of excrement with little notice and sped towards the safety of her rooms—before the sun climbed back to its throne to judge her many sins.