I shifted under the gold-plated metal that covered my chest and upper arms, already sticky with sweat. “Melissa!” I called down the long hallway. Please let her be ready. I silently prayed. It would be just like her to put up a fuss at—Any logical thought vanished, as I stared at my wife, glistening with diamonds and emeralds. At last, at last, she had what she deserved.
“I am the luckiest man alive.”
Melissa didn’t respond. I longed to catch her around the waist and spin her through the air, but such attempts had been spurned before, ever since…I snapped my arms to my side, a soldier. Surely, she should have been happy for me. The promotion of a former peasant to sergeant? It was unheard of. Because none would steep so low as to murder their countrymen! Melissa’s angry words reverberated in my head, still hurtful after two weeks.
“Where have you been all day?” I asked, trying to be patient. A guard had informed me that she had snuck out as soon as I was gone. Just as she had been doing for the last months while I was away, fighting for my life.
“I was at the Lawson’s,” Melissa answered. “It is the anniversary of her death, after all.”
I gritted my teeth against the painful memories. What did Melissa mean by bringing it up? It had happened. Anyone would have done the same. I saved our family, gave her jewels and dresses and servants. It had been them or us. And she had understood…That night, my tears dampening my pillow, her arm around me…It had been the day I confessed my ambitions that everything changed, the day I vowed to rise until I had the power to stamp out the Resistance.
“Have you been at the Lawson’s every day for the past two months?” I asked carefully.
Melissa’s fingers fluttered, a nervous gesture that always preceded a lie. She reached up to adjust the bracelets on her wrists, but her voice was steady as she answered, “I was distributing food to the peasants, our old neighbors, remember them?”
I barely managed to swallow my growl. It was dangerous for her to sneak around! The Resistance wouldn’t hesitate to drag her into an alleyway and rob her of much more than her material goods. More pain, more bloodshed, all in the name of a hopeless cause.
“I told you not to leave the house unaccompanied.”
Anger flamed in her eyes, making me catch my breath as always. I paced in frustration. Why must she always consider me the villain? I was just trying—
“Daaaaaddy!” Three feet of fine cloth and precious metal flew into my arms.
I stamped away my anger, banishing it back into its box and caught Leila around the waist, swinging her through the air. “Princess!” I exclaimed, pressing her to my chest.
“Ow, Daddy,” she whined.
With a grudging smile, I set her down. Leila hated the feel of the metal covering my torso and upper arms. But there was no time to step out of my second skin.
“Where’s Johnathon?” I turned to one of our servants. He, like the rest, had been a peasant, starving on the streets. I’d saved him, given him a job, a place to sleep, sent his children to the empire’s schools. It was a good life. And still the Resistance refused to accept the empire.
A maid hurried to fetch my son. I resisted the urge to tap my foot impatiently, watching the hallway that led to his room. Finally, he emerged, strolling forward as if we had all the time in the world. Stubble littered his jaw, but at least he was dressed in the blue-fringed, white ceremonial robe. A small sword hung from his belt, a mark of his status as an adult. The hilt was adorned with sapphires and intricate designs. Only the best for my boy. But he had refused to design it himself and, even now, his elbow stuck out an awkward angle to avoid touching my gift.
I repositioned his arm, graciously overlooking his stubble, but he only glared at me and held his elbow away from the hilt once more. Anger slithered up my spine, sparking into every inch of my body. “Johnathon, you will not humiliate me at this ceremony!” My voice carried no sign of the tears that wanted to escape, the sorrow at the canyon between me and those I loved, a canyon I had no idea how to fix.
He had turned fifteen on the great anniversary of the empire’s appropriation. My arm shook a little at the thought. Not so long ago, I’d considered the empire invaders, conquerors. I’d fought with the Resistance, seen brothers die. I’d huddled with my family, waiting to see if we were deemed worthy of life. I had truly believed the Resistance stood a chance. I quickly clamped down on the memories before they bucked from my control. It was this country, this empire, which allowed me to provide for my family. The Resistance left the empire no choice. If they would only submit…
I looked over my family. Family. That’s what we were. Nothing could change that. Nothing.
“Approve of your adornments?” Melissa asked. Her narrowed eyes stared at my chest.
The distance was unbearable. I grabbed her upper arms. “Melissa.” The sorrow that always lurked in the back of my heart crept up my throat. “Melissa.” I pushed her chin up. Her eyes faced downward, but I caught the smallest glimpse of her hazel eyes. Despair threatened to collapse me. She was so far away.
I pressed my lips to hers. A spark coursed between us, dark and painful, so far from love. Her body, her lips…they were as stiff as a dead animal. I pulled her closer, begging her to respond. But all I tasted was salt.
She was crying.
“Let her go!” Johnathon pushed me away, putting himself between me and my wife.
My hand was in the air and across his face in an instant. Melissa’s hair flashed in my vision as she raced to his side, grabbing his arm. But he was already upright, staring me dead in the eye. My wife and son standing against me. I wanted to yell, wanted to shake her until she agreed to love me again. I wanted to go back to the years when she’d lean in for the kiss first, when we had looked to the future together.
“Get in the carriage!” I ordered. Leila, my little girl, scrambled to obey, startling me with her presence. Johnathon held my gaze, eyes narrowed, so like his mother, a red welt blooming on his cheek, and walked out the door. He was confident, strong. He hated me.
Black trailed down Melissa’s cheeks. “You’ve ruined your makeup,” I said, gripping at what little control I had left.
She lifted her eyes and just for one moment it was as if the empire had never swept our lives from under our feet. She pinned me in place with her gaze, as she searched my soul. I groped for her, but my hand seized empty air. She had disappeared back into her room, taking with her the part of me she’d always had.
I rested my hands behind my head, releasing a long, frustrated sigh. No, things would never be the same. There was a wall, thick and impenetrable, between us. A wall of guilt and regrets. But surely I had not built it all on my own, had I?
Melissa and I walked side by side, the few centimeters between us an ocean. An honorary guard flanked us as we approached the carriage where Johnathon and Leila waited. The carriage was shaped as a swan, Melissa’s favorite. I risked a glance in her direction, but she wasn’t even looking at the carriage. I groped for the armor that had protected me from her disdain all these years.
I was so tired.
A guard stood outside the carriage with Johnathon, their heads angled together, while Leila skipped around singing to herself. I frowned at their familiarity and clear disregard of my daughter. “What are you speaking of?”
They turned to me, their faces blank masks that only ignited my suspicion. “The young fighter was inquiring of our security’s numbers and positions.”
I turned to Johnathon. He met my eyes steadily. “It is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he asked, his words dripping with hostility. “For me to be a fighter?”
“Your father is partial to violence,” Melissa answered for me. She advanced towards the carriage and, ignoring my outstretched hand, chose to take the guard’s hand. She stepped into the carriage and their hands remained linked far longer than necessary. I smothered a growl. Melissa would never…
The guard adjusted his body armor. Something small jumped from his hand into his waistband. I stepped forward, but Melissa’s words suddenly echoed in my conscience. Partial to violence. Sudden shame overtook me. I opened my mouth to…apologize? For sacrificing my life for my family?
“Daddy, carry me!” Leila tugged at my hand. I managed a small smile for her, the muscles in my arms relaxing. I swung my little princess into the carriage. She, at least, didn’t hate me.
I settled besides Melissa, wincing inwardly as she leaned away from me. Could she truly not find it in herself to love me? She didn’t even try to be grateful. Did she consider me so tainted with evil? Or was it something she was hiding? Some guilt that kept her from me? I focused on keeping my features impassive and found myself wishing we didn’t live quite so far from the town square.