The light from the dim lanterns burned Payton’s eyes when she finally woke up. Payton felt like she swallowed hot sand that burned her throat and disagreed with her stomach. However, the floor felt cool and comforting against her burning face, so Payton kept her cheek pressed against the ground. That’s when she saw the small pools of blood around her from the tears she scratched out all over her body. It took her a while to notice the scent of vanilla swirling through the air, but when she did, she forced her sore body to roll over to find the source of the aroma. She laid her eyes on a black haired young man with lime green eyes lounging against the wall to her left taking draws from a smoking pen. Payton eyed him with curiosity since the cell door was still locked and there was no way a full grown man could have fit through the bars.
“Took you long enough to wake up. Here I was beginning to think you didn’t want to get off your wild ride,” the man teased. Fighting against her exhaustion and pain, Payton approached the man cautiously to touch his face. The man chuckled and put his hand over hers. “Yes, I’m real. You’re not hallucinating anymore.” Payton took a step back.
“I had to make sure.” Her voice sounded just as dry and gritty as her throat felt. “How did you get in here?”
“I could tell you, but it would be easier to just show you.” He put his smoking pen back into his pocket and shape-shifted into the same black cat that led her to The Lucky Tavern. With his new size, he was able to slip through the bars of the prison cell and back in. Payton stared at him wide-eyed as he turned back into a man. “I also enjoy taking on the form of a wolf and a raven.”
“So you’re a phouka,” Payton concluded. “But why does your human form look so normal?”
“Half human,” he responded with playful delight. His glee gave Payton pause. Half breeds were becoming more accepted in Liadon, but the subject was still rather taboo. Then again, it seemed as if nothing in this place was considered queer to its members. “I’ve found it advantageous on multiple occasions,” the man continued.
“Oh have you now? Like getting free meals from lost women coming out of the train station?” Payton quipped. “I could imagine that you eavesdrop on everyone to get the best gossip in all the town. Or perhaps you’re a voyeur who gets gratification from knowing everyone’s personal business.” The man’s eyes twinkled with amusement as his lips curled up into a smirk.
“Well yes, there’s that. I see your wild ride hasn’t caused you to lose your spunk, Payton.”
“That’s not fair,” Payton chuckled, “You know my name but I don’t even know yours or why you’re even here.” He knelt down right in front of her, took a draw from his smoking pen and blew the vanilla smoke in her face, enveloping her in a thick fog of sweet aroma.
“That’s because you never asked.” Payton waved the smoke away from her face, revealing the man’s gentle yet playful grin.
“Kellen. My name’s Kellen. Jess wanted me to come in and watch over you and to notify him when you finally woke up.”
“Oh really?” Payton questioned, “is that really the only reason you’re here?” Kellen looked off to the side with a sheepish smirk.
“Well, and I like to size up new recruits myself,” Kellen admitted as he slumped down next to Payton, offering her a draw from his smoking pen to which she respectfully declined.
“My throat is far too raw for that,” Payton explained, “I was probably screaming louder than a banshee.” Payton clenched her fist as she remembered every gruesome detail. “I suppose that’ll teach me to behave and stay in line.”
“No, it should teach you how to not get caught,” Kellen scoffed. Payton let out a chuckle.
“Spoken like a true master of mischief. What do you do here, anyway?” Kellen took another draw from his smoking pen and blew smoke rings around Payton’s head. They danced around her and caressed her cheeks and neck like vaporous kisses.
“As you put it so artfully, I eavesdrop on everyone to get the best gossip in town and I’m a voyeur that gets gratification from knowing everyone’s personal business.” Payton barked out a laugh that quickly turned into a painful coughing fit. After what seemed like an eternity of heaving air out of her aching lungs, Payton put her head back against the stone walls and groaned.
“I suppose it’s time I let Jess know you’re awake,” Kellen stated casually as he pressed the talk button on his watch. “Jess, do you copy?” Payton’s throat was in too much pain for her to beg Kellen to not get Jess or to protest that she’d rather stay in the dungeon than face him.
“Ahh, she’s finally awake? Took long enough. Alright, I’m on my way.” Kellen looked back at Payton’s sorrowful expression and frowned.
“A word of advice, don’t ever let him see you with that look in your eyes. Also, if you really want to talk to anyone in private, the best place to do that is actually the dining hall. There’s so much white noise in there that the bugs can’t pick up on anything. Oh, and one last thing,” he smiled as he headed toward the bars, “if you’re going to get yourself in trouble again, make it intentional and do it with finesse next time. I do love a girl with some feist.” Kellen winked at her and shifted into a cat, leaving her alone to ruminate on his words. The thought of a potential new friend made her smile weakly, although it was mostly just a hopeful thought swirling in the back of her mind. Those thoughts were shattered by the clopping of hooves echoing throughout the dungeon, growing louder with each step. Her stomach tightened at the sight of Jess wearing a disgustingly gentle look in his orange eyes. With the twist of a key, the prison door unlocked and swung open, removing any boundary between Payton and her tormentor. Jess fixed his gaze on her feet as he closed the space between the two of them, lifting her up by her arm.
“Come now, my dear. You need to get your wounds cleaned off, some water, food, a warm shower, and some rest, all in that order. You have a lot of work to catch up on tomorrow, so you best rest up.” Payton had to fight down the bile coming up into her throat when Jess put his arm around her and drew her close to his side to support her weak body. Jess helped her into the elevator and after a moment of awkward silence, the elevator door slid open. “Francesca will attend to your wounds and the rest of your needs for the night. You’ll return to work as usual in the morning. You be a good girl, okay?” Jess kissed her forehead, making her cringe. Payton tried her best to shake off the disturbing exchange as she walked into the infirmary.
“Payton?” Francesca’s sweet voice called out. Payton was too weak to embrace her friend the way she wanted to, so she settled for squeezing her hand. “Go ahead and relax on one of the beds and remove your torn clothing. Don’t worry, I’ll lock the door so no one else will see you.” Payton began to remove her blouse. Once Payton was in her bra and underwear, Francesca ran a cloth damp with disinfectant over the wounds on Payton’s arms. There was a sad glimmer in Francesca’s eyes as she took stock of Payton’s fairly deep scratches. “Thankfully these don’t seem deep enough to require stitches, but if you don’t mind me asking, what did the potion make you see?” Francesca cleaned off the cloth and dipped it in disinfectant once more.
“I didn’t see anything. I heard the most blood curdling screams and snakes were crawling inside me.” Francesca nodded. She gently cleaned the scratches on Payton’s stomach and bandaged the wounds on her stomach and arms. As she worked her way down to Payton’s legs, Francesca regarded the cuts on Payton’s inner thighs with a raised eyebrow.
“I see. The snakes even crawled up into…” Payton nodded before Francesca could finish the thought. Francesca shuddered. “Oh dear. That is a wretched thing to envision indeed. I’m just glad it’s over now, for your sake.” No one in this organization could make Payton feel more relaxed than Francesca thus far. She gave off the emanation of a young, kind maid that would nurture any being from the most brute men to the meekest rabbit. Payton imagined that Francesca’s soft voice did indeed have that effect on most of the men there; turning even the most savage of wolves into docile pups.
“Exactly how much work do I have to catch up on?” Payton asked, sitting up on the bed. Francesca ran her fingers through Payton’s hair and laid her back down.
“Don’t worry about that right now love. You just rest while I go get your food and water.” With that, Francesca left the infirmary. Payton followed Francesca’s command and got under the covers to ease the chill of the draft running across her skin. She wasn’t sure how much time passed when the infirmary door opened up once again. Francesca stepped in with a box in one hand, a cup of water in another.
“You’ll never guess what I brought for you,” Francesca smirked. Her grin was contagious despite everything that happened as Francesca opened up the box to reveal fresh mango slices, pear slices, and pieces of roasted pheasant, all rare commodities this time of year in Liadon.
“How did you…” Payton breathed out in awe.
“I have my ways,” Francesca winked, “ways that won’t get any of us in trouble, mind you.” Payton took out a piece of mango and bit into the sweet and juicy fruit. The feeling of swallowing something palatable for once was indescribable. As Payton continued to eat and took a drink of water, Francesca looked down at her watch and frowned as if her watch had nauseating effects. “I have to go for the night. I’ll lock the door behind me. Rest up now.” Francesca left swiftly, leaving Payton with her own thoughts. She could try to escape, but what about Lawrence? Not to mention, escaping certainly wasn’t an endeavor one should attempt without a team and Payton had no idea whom to trust besides Francesca. Payton tried to distract herself by combining a piece of roasted pheasant and mango in her mouth to see how it would taste. After a few seconds of turning it over in her mouth, she concluded that mango-marinated pheasant needed to be a commonplace recipe throughout Liadon. She finished off her food and water, thankful for the dim light of the lanterns illuminating the infirmary. It would be difficult for her to handle complete darkness for quite some time.