Camille fled during the night. The creaking door would have woken Rell up if he'd been able to sleep, but instead, it found him sitting at the top of the ladder peering down as the poor woman left, driven from her own home. A small bundle of belongings on her back and her remaining cat tucked under her shawl. She'd looked up at Rell with pity but no malice, at least as far as he could tell. That evil men existed in this world was of no surprise to her and that they would want to hurt her wasn’t a revelation.
Shame had kept Rell from going to her and apologising, promising to make things right, along with fear of what he'd brought to her home, telling him to let her go, that it was safer for her to run and hide somewhere far away from him.
At some point, he'd dragged himself into his broken bed and fallen into a nightmare-riven sleep. Images of towers crumbling and his sister falling from the back of a white dragon, screaming as she plummeted to the ground inches from where he stood, helpless to even raise his arms and break her fall.
Weak sunlight filtered through the shutters, dappling his eyelids and bringing him around. A door slammed and Rell shot out of his bed, reliving the night before. He darted to the railing, expecting to see Charlotte walking up the stairs surrounded by a new brood of cats but instead he saw the top of his sister’s head as she came to stand at the foot of the tower. Her hood was back, black hair tied in two tight bundles, the way she wore it during training. She looked around and then upwards. A light came in from the hatch above Rell and Ariella shielded her face with one hand and reached for her knife with the other.
“Rell?” her voice echoed around the tower, disturbing something large in one of the rooms. A rat, Rell thought, imagining the horde that would return now that the cats had been evicted. Rell stood silent unable to call out to his sister, sure that if he did he'd break down and tell her what harm he'd wrought.
“That better be you, Rell. I’m coming up and if it's anyone else standing in my brother’s room they’re going out the window.” Ariella’s words brought a wave of queasiness to Rell, and he retreated back into his room, slamming the door shut behind him.
Boots thundered on the steps outside as Rell fell to his knees and tore at his hair. He wanted to scream, to commit violence against himself but bile flooded his mouth and he scrambled to the window and threw open the shutters. His vomit sailed through the air and out into the city, arcing its way to the street below and the frozen corpses of the cats. The door to his room flew open and Ariella charged in, brandishing her dagger, but once she saw it was Rell she swore and lowered her hand.
“You damn fool, I thought you were a burglar,” Ariella said sheathing her knife. “You’ve made a bit of a mess in here. Not like you to throw your books around.”
“Sorry.” Was all Rell could manage as he sat heavily in the chair next to the window.
“Didn’t realise you were that drunk last night.” Ariella sniffed and gave the bed a kick. A broken slat fell from underneath.
“Why are you here, Ari?” Rell asked. He felt drawn out and twisted up. The way he felt he'd gladly trade it for the worst hangover imaginable, anything rather than the guilt clawing at his soul.
“No hello sister, how are you this morning? You never used to suffer this badly in the past.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just not feeling well.” Rell tried to shake his mood and forced a smile. “Why are you gracing me with your presence, oh wonderous sibling?”
“That’s more like it. I’ve decided to accept your offer of lodgings.”
“I thought you were staying at the temple?” Rell’s mind was foggy, and he could feel a headache coming on. He leaned over the arm of his chair and picked up a water bottle, a couple of inches sloshed around in the bottom.
“I failed the selection, remember? They don’t let you hang around after that.” Ariella picked up a book and scanned the title before setting it on a table. The pattern of debris in the room made her think of a brawl rather than a drunken stumble.
“Where have you been staying?”
“At the house.” The slats creaked as she sat on the corner of the bed.
“Oh, gods that must have been awful.”
“No worse than the old days. I snuck in the back, but the housekeeper cornered me on the servant's steps and warned me that father knew I was there. I thought it best to leave and since we’re about to go into a new venture it would make sense to stay here with you. You’ve got the room, right?”
“Yeah, there’s a vacancy on the floor below. New bed and mattress.”
“Liberated.” Rell took a last swig from the bottle. There was a foul taste in his mouth and he desperately searched around for something else to drink. His groping hand found a small bottle of whisky behind the chair leg but he set it aside, preferring to endure his misery sober for once. “It’s just that…”
“What? I’ve been sleeping on a mat for the past year. A lumpy mattress won’t bother me. Is it your wife you’re worried about?”
“Charlotte? No, she left this morning. It was getting too crowded for her.”
“So, what’s the problem?” Ariella didn't wait for the answer and stood up. “I swiped a few coins from the till before I left so if you think you can make it down the stairs without dying, I’ll buy you some breakfast.”
Rell looked at his bed, wishing that he could just crawl back under the blanket.