“Sahara! I’ll come for you! Survive! Survive for me!”
It would take time—days, maybe weeks—to unravel the pieces, to reconstruct what had degraded, but one memory was crystalline: a younger Kaleb— seventeen? eighteen?— bleeding from his nose, his teeth clenched as fine blood vessels burst in his eyes and a trickle of wine red rolled down his jaw from his ear.
“I know that monster hurt you,” she said, her anger a hugeness inside her. “I’ve always known that.” It was a piece of knowledge so visceral, she couldn’t imagine how she had suppressed it for so long. “I also knew you couldn’t talk about it.” It was his attempt to do so that had led to the agonizing punishment that sent dark red swimming across the black of his eyes. “Are you free to answer my question?”
Kaleb broke contact to walk outside and to the edge of the landing, the forest the misty gray of very early morning, fog licking along the ground and sending tendrils up into the trees. The softness would’ve given the entire scene a sense of unreality, of a dream that smudged hard edges away into nothing, but for the jagged obsidian of the man who stood staring out into the gray.
His silence was so long and so deep that the whispers of the forest surrounded them in a heavy cocoon, leaving them the only two beings in a universe that held its breath.
“Men,” he said at last, body as motionless as stone and voice without inflection, “aren’t supposed to be raped.”
Rage roared through her. “He did that?” No, no, not her Kaleb. To be hurt in that way, to be subjugated, it would’ve destroyed this strong man.
“Not in the way the world thinks of it,” Kaleb said in that dead tone she’d never before heard from him. “He wasn’t interested in soiling his body with such base contact.”
But Santano Enrique had been a cardinal Tk at the height of his powers, while Kaleb had been a boy. “He used his abilities to violate you,” she said, keeping a furious rein on her anger and hurt for him.
“Yes.” A chill sound, echoing with emptiness. “He was inside me every day, every night. I could never escape, never know when he’d shove deeper, force me to do things with my body while my mind fought itself into madness to escape.”
Sahara thought of the ugliness of the violation when her shields had been stripped, and imagined herself a child with no labyrinth to use as protection . . . and no hope. She had always known someone was coming for her, even if she had locked away his name to protect it. Kaleb had had no one and nothing to hold on to, his parents having turned their backs on the child they’d brought into the world.
Her hatred for them a cold burn, she took Kaleb’s hand.
His fingers didn’t curve around hers, his eyes a dead, cold black looking out into nothingness. “I was his only audience for a very long time. The first time was four months after my seventh birthday —a belated gift, he said.”
Sahara bit down hard on her lower lip. She’d known. As soon as she’d read about what Santano Enrique had done, some part of her had known, been unable to bear to connect the dots.
“I wasn’t strong then.” That same dead voice. “I went . . . away, but he brought me back. Santano always brought me back.”
Horror in her veins, she parted her lips, but Kaleb continued before she could say anything. “I couldn’t kill him, couldn’t stop him. No matter how old and powerful I became , I couldn’t stop him.”
There was rage now, deadly and blade sharp, of a strength that had been building for decades. “I had to watch while he slit his victims’ throats after torturing each one for hours, days.
“In the final years, he found amusement in telepathing his atrocities to me; it was his way of telling me that while I might have become strong enough to lock him out of my mind on every other level, I could never escape him or the compulsion he’d planted in me. I was a powerful businessman, a feared cardinal, and I couldn’t even speak of what he was doing, much less raise a finger against him.”
The last violation, she thought. The worst violation. Even the lowliest animal had the right to fight back, regardless of the size of its opponent.
“It wasn’t until after his death that I was finally able to break the compulsion—and that was when I discovered he’d had a single remaining conduit into my mind, a tiny doorway that allowed him to do just one thing: reinforce the compulsion to keep his secrets and never cause him harm.” Rage so deep it was a quiet, deadly thing. “Even then, when I thought I was finally free, he was inside me.”
Anger and pain caustic in her veins, she wove her fingers into his and shifted into his line of sight.
“I’m so sorry, Kaleb.” The words weren’t enough, would never be enough for what he had survived.
“Don’t be.” A calm statement, his fingers still not responding to her touch. “He made me what I am.”
Fear overwhelmed every other emotion. “You are not his creation. You made yourself.” He didn’t answer her. She wondered if he even heard. “Kaleb.”
“When I was sixteen years old, he said it was time I became a man.” The rage had been tempered by a black coldness that was worse than the ice, far more dangerous than the obsidian. “She was a swan changeling only a few years older than me, her hair white as snow—the blood when I slit her throat turned it scarlet.”
Her heart thudded, hard rain inside her chest, but Sahara knew what he was doing, and she wouldn’t permit him to do it. Breaking the connection with his unresponsive fingers, she placed her hands on either side of his face. “Did you put that knife to her throat of your own volition?”