Home > Devil's Captive

Devil's Captive
Author: Celia Aaron

 

1

 

 

LUCRETIA

 

 

A white dress. A full cathedral. Hundreds of people turning to stare at the bride. At me.

My stomach churns, bile rising at the back of my throat as I force my feet to carry me forward. My father holds my arm in a death grip as my mother watches me with thin lips and narrowed eyes from the front row.

I won’t run, no matter how badly I want to. There’s nowhere for me to go. Nowhere that could shelter me from the hell I’d unleash if I tried to escape this narrow path to damnation.

This wasn’t supposed to be my fate. I was free of my family’s grasp. I’d finally made it out into the wide world beyond the confines of my last name.

Until I was pulled back in, forced into the role I’d tried so hard to avoid.

I’m walking back into it right now, one crystal-encrusted heel after another, crushing the white rose petals that were hastily thrown down by a distant cousin with her hair in ringlets and a skip in her step, one who will likely someday meet my same fate: a forced marriage for political and monetary gain.

The acid in my stomach tries to force its way into my mouth and onto the bruised petals. I swallow it back, barely.

I sway when I get halfway, the entire cathedral crawling with black dots. No, it’s my veil—like dozens of ants on the white fabric, ready to sting and bite. My mother’s lips somehow grow even thinner, her disapproval eating through me. I have to keep moving.

This is it. This is the end of what was supposed to be my life. Now it will belong to someone else.

“He won’t hurt you,” my father whispers over the drone of the organ and pulls my arm even tighter, making my shoulder ache from the pressure. “He gave me his word.”

My heart pounds so loudly I’m surprised no one else can hear it. It’s like a drum in my ears, a funeral dirge of incessant percussion that beats discordantly against the light melody floating through the cathedral.

When I let my gaze rise, I find my intended. Horatio Manchello. He’s young, his eyes bright as he surveys his bride. Even through the veil, I can see the way he stares, his eyes traveling up and down my form as his face breaks into a wide smile.

I’ve never met him, never so much as shook his hand, and he’s looking at me as if I’m his next meal. Dread pools in my gut and sweat begins to bead along my forehead. I sway again, the black ants crawling closer and promising pain.

“Keep it together,” my father hisses.

I can’t. I try to stop walking, but my father pulls me along, our steps halting as he half drags me to the altar.

My mother pins me with a disapproving glare, and I wonder how long it will be before she backhands me again. Even now, I feel the dull ache along my jaw, a bruise probably growing right beside the one she gave me a week ago. Or the healed one I got a month ago when this nightmare began.

“You must do your duty to this family!” Her voice echoes in my mind along with the crack her hand made when she hit me. It had been years since she’d struck me. Ferdinand had put a stop to it when he was old enough to challenge her and my father.

Ferdinand.

The thought of my brother is like a lead weight in my throat, and I have to banish him from my mind. If I don’t, I’m going to collapse right here in front of everyone and beg the priest to stop this from happening to me.

Not that he would. The priest knows my family, our history, and the power of our name. He would never cross my father, not for all the gold in the Vatican. Gold isn’t useful if you’re dead.

My father leads me up the steps, my legs shaking as I silently beg him to stop. But those pleas are answered in the same way the voiced ones were. Ignored. Overruled. Forgotten.

“This isn’t about you, Lucretia!” he’d snapped at me when I begged him to let me return to school, to call off the wedding. “This is about our family!”

“Treat her well,” my father says stiffly as he grips my hand and pushes it toward Horatio.

Horatio inclines his head in a gracious nod, then takes my cold, shaking fingers. His eyes meet mine through the veil. Where I’m falling apart, he’s confident. Of course he is. He’s joining the most powerful family in this city. He’s gotten exactly what he wanted, exactly what he’s paid for.

“Bella.” He smiles as the music stops, the echoes of the organ bouncing around before falling into silence as the wedding guests sit with creaky knees and breathy sighs.

I can barely think, barely stay upright as he grips my hand tightly and turns to the priest.

“Shall we begin?” the old man in the ridiculous hat asks.

“Please.” Horatio is still smiling, happy in his triumph.

The church is silent now. My head is buzzing like an angry hive. I swallow my bile again and just try to breathe.

Noise comes from behind me; no doubt my rowdy cousins are up to their usual bullshit, even at a wedding, even when I’m falling to pieces. All it will take is one look from my mother, and they will get in line like they alwa—I jump when something pops nearby, like the sound of someone hitting a snare for only one tart beat.

I feel something splash against my veil and body. Then the hand that was holding mine too tightly loosens and lets go.

Horatio falls.

I blink and look down. My dress is painted with a spray of crimson, red dotting the satin and lace.

The cathedral is no longer silent. Women are screaming and men yelling. The priest has ducked behind his podium.

I turn and realize the noise I’d heard wasn’t my rowdy cousins. It was the men with assault rifles spreading out across the church, their guns pointed upward or into the crowd. Some of them are firing, the blasts loud in the marbled space. I stare, horrified, as they seem to pick out certain men from the groom’s side and force them to kneel in a row, rifles pointed at the backs of their heads. An older woman has fallen to her knees and wails, and I can only guess it’s Horatio’s mother. More shots. More blood.

It’s slow motion and somehow sped up all at once. None of it makes sense—not the killers in black, not the blood, not the screams. I can only blink, my mind failing to comprehend what’s happening.

It’s chaos, and everyone would be stampeding out the doors if they weren’t guarded by men wielding guns. There’s nowhere to go. We’re trapped, and Horatio’s brothers lie dead on the steps just beneath me. Wiped out.

The screams somehow pull me back to reality, to the present. They send a shock through me, and I realize I haven’t been breathing. My knees threaten to give again as I take in the barbaric enormity of what’s happened in a mere fraction of a moment as I gasp in a breath.

But my eye is drawn up and away from the carnage. A man is striding down the center aisle, his gaze on me. Pale eyes, dark hair—he’s wearing a tux with a red rose in his lapel, a gun in one of his hands. It’s strange what you notice in life-or-death situations, I suppose. Because I focus on the rose, on the tiny bit of beauty that catches my eye. Not on the groomsmen who lie in pools of blood or my intended who weakly tries to crawl away.

I look at the rose as it comes closer, as the man who’s wearing it climbs the steps and aims his gun at Horatio, then pulls the trigger two times. It makes the same pop sound I heard earlier.

The guests scream again, their screeches echoing around the beautiful cathedral and bouncing off the gilt ceiling tiles and the Byzantine fresco of Mary.

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