- The Darkest Lie
“He’s dead,” she whispered hoarsely. “Yes.”
Absolute agony contorted Gideon’s features. Maybe she shouldn’t have told him about the boy. Sometimes she wished she didn’t know; it was just too painful. But part of her had thought, hoped, that Gideon would have retained knowledge about his own child. Knowledge that might have led to memories of his wife.
“All of it. I don’t want to know all of it.” As he spoke, he sank to his knees, the knuckles wrapped around the second blade leaching of color. “Please.”
Seeing such a strong warrior reduced to such bleakness tore at her, and she had to blink back a rush of stinging tears. If she told him now, it wouldn’t be because of sex. It would be because he’d begged. At least, that’s how she rationalized this new need to share. Everything.
“All right, yes,” she said, no less hoarse as her harsh, jagged breath scraped against her chest cavity. “I’ll tell. Tell you everything about his life and his death, but you can’t speak. If you interrupt me with questions I may not be able to continue.” Emotion would choke her. She would break down, sob, and no way would she allow Gideon to see her like that. This was going to be hard enough. “Got me?”
A moment passed, Gideon remaining still, silent. What danced through his head, what made him hesitate to agree, she didn’t know. All she knew was that talking about Steel wasn’t something she did. Ever. Again, it was just too painful. Even if Gideon remained quiet, she wasn’t sure she would be able to get through this. Definitely not without crying.
Pretend it’s a story you made up. Distance yourself. Yeah. Right.
Finally Gideon worked through whatever issue he had with her demand for silence and nodded. His lips were pressed in a thin, mulish line, cutting off any words he might have wanted to speak.
Scarlet inhaled deeply, searching for fortification. She didn’t find it. The words simply wouldn’t form.
She pushed to shaky legs and strode to the tree with the dagger. Gideon didn’t try to stop her as she removed the tip with a jerk. Then she began pacing, tapping the sharp metal against her thigh in a steady, hopefully calming rhythm. A cool, damp breeze fragrant with earth and sky wafted around her, while twigs and rocks cut at the soles of her feet.
Just say the words. Pretend, pretend, pretend. You’ll be talking about someone else’s life. Someone else’s son. “I told you I was pregnant and you were happy. You petitioned Zeus for my release into your custody. He said no. So you arranged for my escape. Only, I was caught. I was given twenty lashes before you realized I’d failed. They had thought to break me, to force me to tell them who had aided me. I didn’t.” She would have died first.
“The pain was manageable, at least, but I was so afraid of losing the baby. My cellmates tried to hurt me, too, but I fought harder than I’d ever fought anyone and was soon given a cell of my own permanently, not just for our…interludes. That’s where I eventually gave birth to our—” her voice caught on the word “—to a beautiful little boy.”
As the image of Steel flashed through her mind, that sweet boy sleeping on her chest, looking like an angel, she tripped over her own foot. She was shaking as she righted herself.
True to his word, Gideon remained silent, waiting.
The first few drops of rain fell, almost as if nature was crying for her. For all she’d lost.
Pretend. “You visited me every day. And every day you stayed a little longer and were a little more reluctant to leave. I feared you would have yourself committed to the prison just to remain at my side.” And she was ashamed to admit she’d liked the idea. “Then one day you came to me, told me you had a new plan to gain my freedom, though you didn’t give me the details at the time. That plan was, of course, to steal Pandora’s box. So needless to say, you never returned.”
At her sides, the trees began to blur. Her chin trembled, and her cheeks heated, the rain falling more steadily now. Do it. Keep going. She wanted to look down at Gideon but didn’t. His expression, whatever it was, could be her undoing.
“Then I was possessed by Nightmares, as you know, and I wasn’t a fit mother. So the Greeks took him. Took Steel.” And she’d blamed Gideon more and more for the separation. If only he’d come back for her, for them, how different things could have been. “When my head cleared and I realized what had happened, I begged to see him but my cries went unheeded. I tried to escape every day. And every day they whipped me anew.”
A choking sound left Gideon, but still Scarlet didn’t allow herself to look at him.
“Finally, I noticed how Tartarus, both the prison and its warden, were weakening. At last I managed to escape and made my way to Olympus. And I…I found our baby.” This time, the choking sound left her. “But he was a baby no longer. Centuries had passed, but he was only a teenager, his immortality slowing his aging process, I guess. And he…he had no fucking idea who I was.”
Rain, tears. Both drenched her.
Pretend, damn you. “He had grown horns and fangs, his eyes were red and patches of his skin were scaled. That’s when I realized they’d given him a demon, too. Which one, I still don’t know. But he was beautiful, damn it.” The last was screamed, identical to a banshee’s wail, but she couldn’t help herself.
Silence. The cool wash of water.
Finish this. “They had made him their whipping boy. They laughed at him, kicked him, abused him vilely. There was no happiness in his eyes. Just resolution. He was enduring, proud, strong. A determined warrior. And that just made it worse, you know? I had failed that precious boy in every way, yet he was still everything I could have wanted in a son.”
Tears continued to leak, tendrils of acid, scorching her cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of her wrist, shaking violently now. Pretend. “I erupted at his treatment. I unleashed my demon in the most horrendous show of violence the heavens had ever seen. By the time I finished, the gods and goddesses around him were driven to insanity, which ultimately aided Cronus in his own escape.
“But I digress. When the darkness cleared, I realized Steel was afraid of me. He even fought me when I tried to abscond with him. I didn’t want to hurt him, so I let him run from me. He went to Zeus, the only father figure he’d ever known, and together they chased me down. Not that I tried to hide. I wanted Steel to find me.”
She swallowed the serrated lump growing in her throat. “To Steel’s surprise, Zeus chained us in front of each other. He told Steel that I was his mother, and Steel…he…” Once again she had to fight past those blistering tears, not even the chilly rain cooling them.
A sliver of rock sliced the sole of her foot, and she welcomed the sting. “He was distraught. He cried. Begged me to forgive him. I tried to reassure him. He could have killed me, and I wouldn’t have cared. But Zeus was determined to punish me for the trouble I had caused. He took…he took Steel’s head in front of me.”
Deep breath in, deep breath out. “I fought so fervently against my chains, I lost a hand that day. But I didn’t free myself in time. He was…gone. He was gone, and I was thrown back into my cell. And I stayed there until the Titans managed to overthrow the Greeks for good. But you know the worst part? He’d planned it. Zeus had planned to kill him all along. He’d had someone there, waiting, a new host for Steel’s demon.”
Again, silence. No, not true. Her choppy inhalations blended with Gideon’s uneven exhalations and mixed with the patter of the storm.
There. He knew everything now. Every painful moment of Steel’s life. Scarlet’s failure. His own failure. What could have been, what hadn’t been. Why she hated him so damn much. Why she could not possibly ever forgive him for leaving her behind.
“Scar,” he whispered brokenly. “I—I—”
Still she couldn’t face him. She felt too exposed, too raw, as if she’d been scraped with a razor from the inside out. “What!” A scream.
“I understand, I do.” Meaning, he didn’t. “That sounds like the…man I knew. A king who—”
“Don’t talk to me about that bastard! You liked him, I know. You respected him, admired his strength. Before your possession, he was even good to you. As much as he was capable of.” And that wasn’t much. So the fact that Gideon defended him in any way… Suffer! “How did he treat you afterward, huh? He cursed you and he banished you! But you know what? He was never good to me and he was never good to your son.” The words were coming in gasping rumbles now, slashing at him.
She had to stop. Her sobs were threatening to escape. But how dare he question the validity of her tale? He should be pleading for absolution. Shouting to the heavens. Cursing. That he wasn’t…
“I’m leaving you,” she said. Though she’d tried for a calm, this-is-how-it’s-gonna-be tone this time, her own suffering was evident in every nuance of her voice. “You owe me a boon, and I’m redeeming it by asking that you don’t come after me. You’ve done enough damage.”
With that, she did it. She at last walked away and left her husband behind. She didn’t look back. Closure sucked.
YOU’VE DONE ENOUGH DAMAGE.
The words echoed through Gideon’s mind. Everything inside him screamed to jump up, to chase Scarlet down, to bind her to him in whatever way necessary, to do something, anything to soothe the wounds inside her, but he didn’t. He remained crouched on the ground, shaking, hot tears streaming down his already soaked cheeks.She was right.
He had done enough damage. At first, he hadn’t wanted to believe her. He’d scrambled for any possible scrap to disprove her. But the pain in her eyes had been too real, the wounds in her voice seeping crimson. Which meant not only had he abandoned his wife, he’d also abandoned his son. An abandonment that had eventually led to his son’s murder.
A murder Scarlet had been forced to watch, help less.
Why couldn’t Gideon remember? Why?