He took a bottle of pale, cheap whiskey from behind the bar before he lit the match. It caught quickly, tarred planks spitting fat, drops of burning pitch and bottles shattering with hollow pops and blue and yellow gouts of flame. The screams - thin, rabbit-high and terrible - went silent quickly.
It was a bad way to die, burning. Bass poked down inside himself and found...nothing. No guilt, no regret, no sympathy. Maybe he’d finally killed so many people his atrophied conscience had given up the ghost. Except - he glanced over at the sprawled girl on the ground - where she was concerned. He’d promised Rachel that he’d keep her daughter safe, and he meant to keep his word. Even if only because he’d broken it so many times before; even if it was only to give Miles a show of good faith.
He cleaned his swords fastidiously - making note of nicks to attend to later - and went over to check on her. There was a bruise on her jaw, pale blue against tanned skin, and her skin was clammy. Her breathing was slow and shallow enough that for a worried second he wasn’t sure that she was still breathing.
‘Charlotte,’ he said sharply, slapping her cheek. ‘Wake up. Open your eyes.’
She whimpered, a low, scared noise he knew she’d hate him hearing, and her lashes fluttered up. Big, blue eyes blinked dopily at him, glazed and barely there. They were Ben’s eyes - pale and bright, even now - not Rachel’s.
‘Good girl,’ he said.
Her lips moved, blood bright in the dry cracks as she tried to say something. Bass leaned down to see if he’d finally get that ‘thank you’.
‘Asshole,’ she croaked breathlessly. Her throat worked as she swallowed, spit clicking on the back of her tongue, and her eyes closed again.
‘Or not,’ Bass said dryly.
Of course, if she had been mewling sweetly at him he’d have thought she’d banged her head in the fight. Sweetness was not a Matheson trait. He picked her up, one arm hooked under her knees and the other around her narrow waist. She sighed and sagged into him, head lolling on his shoulder and grubby, tangled blonde hair trailing over her face.
Without all her attitude and stubbornness, Bass was surprised to realise how little there was to her. Still a bad idea to underestimate her though. If those cowards hadn’t dosed her food, she’d have wiped the floor with them. That wasn’t down to him, but Bass still felt kind of proud of her.
‘Let’s get you home, Charlotte,’ he said, hefting her up in his arms. Her hand twisted in his shirt, knuckles split and bruised. ‘Your Uncle will be missing you.’
‘What makes you think you have a choice?’ Monroe asked, voice rasping and eyes empty as glass. He was too close, body hot where he pinned her against the cart. It made Charlie’s body go wet and tight in a way that made her stomach lurch with a dissonance of lust and repulsion. She bit the inside her cheek until she tasted blood, the sharp pain a distraction.
‘If you touch me, Miles will kill you.’
A thin smile sliced over his face, the scabs on his jaw cracking. ‘So far, depending on that hasn’t paid off has it?’
No - it hadn’t. Charlie tightened her mouth at the reminder and just glared at him. ‘I don’t have to tell you anything.’
Monroe shrugged and let her go, stooping to grab his knife from the mud. ‘What are you going to do, Charlotte?’ He wiped the blade on his thigh and tilted a curious eyebrow at her. ‘Stay here, leave your family to deal with the Patriots on their own? Just to spite me?’
‘I. hate. you,’ she said. ‘I’d ride off a cliff if it meant you’d follow me down.’
He crouched down by the fire, flames reflecting off his rain-damp face. The pot of whatever-it-was was burning and he lifted it off the flames. ‘And if it meant Miles went down with us both?’ he asked.
There was something dark and almost eager on his face, like he found the idea as...distracting as she had the hard presence of his body.
She thought about running, but it was dark and wet and he’d already proved he could follow her. So she sat down, hunching her shoulders against the rain.
‘Willoughby,’ she said. It felt like something should mark this particular betrayal, a crack of thunder or a flash of lightning. ‘My grandfather lives there. You won’t be welcome.’
Monroe snorted. ‘These days, I’m used to that.’
He gave her half the food and left her to eat it. He went to sleep against the wheel of the cart, under a tattered oil-cloth sheet, corner folded over his head like a hood. Charlie huddled on a rock, hands tucked into her armpits, and watched him.
The tally of the dead ran through her mind, from the ones that pierced her heart (Dad, Danny) to the ones who she’d barely known. They weren’t all down to him. If she’d not wanted revenge, maybe there wouldn’t have been a war. He might have been content with his two pendants. He’d have been king of the world but…
She’d not hated him before he killed Dad. She’d not thought about him at all. Life had been boring in Sylvania Estates because it was safe and quiet. For most people, life under Emperor Monroe wouldn’t have changed much.
Between the two of them (more him than her, but she couldn’t, wouldn’t, excuse herself) they’d destroyed their home. Now it looked like they’d kicked off something that would destroy whatever little peace the world had left.
Charlie sighed and wiped the rain off her face. It was warm, like blood. So who did she owe more too? The people who’d died or the one’s left alive. Kill him, or use him.
It would just be revenge if she killed him. She didn’t know if she cared about that, but she thought maybe she should.
The sun came up before she made her decision.
Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ as interpreted by tribesfolk with acoustic guitars was still surprisingly catchy. Probably not the only thing around here that was either, based on some of the smells and scabs.
‘I hate you,’ Charlotte mouthed through a tight, glossy smile. Her fingers tightened on Bass’ hand, digging her nails into the skin. He spun her around and dipped her, deep enough her freshly washed hair brushed the ground. Surprise widened her eyes and she twisted her hand in his shirt.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Keep smiling.’
He swooped her back up again, keeping her tucked tight against his body. It had a predictable effect. Soft curves and hair sweet with the smell of apple cider outweighed the ice-bath effect of her chill glare.
‘Trust me, I’m not happy about it either,’ he muttered against her ear. Their situation was complicated enough without him indulging his frankly ridiculous crush on a girl who was young enough to be his daughter. A girl who hated him - even if that was half of why he wanted her. ‘Just look clueless and tender, sweetheart.’
She stomped on his foot for that. He grimaced through his grin and picked her up by her hips, spinning her around in a circle. The tribe smirked and snickered behind their hands, mocking the clueless supposed-couple. Charlotte wrapped her arms around his neck, wriggling close enough it made his chest hitch, and nuzzled her face against his cheek.
‘I thought you were meant to be good at killing,’ she hissed, breath tickling his ear. ‘Why don’t you get started?’
He wanted to kiss her, wet, open-mouthed kisses down her throat and over the sharp bumps of her collarbone. He wanted to push her against a wall, nudging her legs apart with his thigh, and taste the sweat and soap on her skin. It was like being a teenager again - wanting what Miles had so hard it hurt. Not that he thought Miles wanted Charlie in the same way - not when there was a chance that it was closer than uncle-niece.
She didn’t know that, maybe - the twisted part of his brain, the shadowy maze of paranoia and suspicion tucked the option away - he’d tell her one day.
For now he just snorted into her hair and let her pull away as the song ended. He slid his hand down her arm, palm stroking the smooth skin, and tangled his fingers through her’s. A tug kept her close as he led her off the rough, beaten flat square of dirt dance floor, laughing good-naturedly at the jeering as he took his pretend new wife out into the trees.
‘If you try something-’ Charlie said, voice ripe with suspicion.
‘You’ll finally stop playing with your knife and actually stab me?’ he asked. Her fingers tightened around his in surprise and he glanced back at her with wry amusement. ‘I’m a light sleeper, Charlotte. Don't worry, your virtue is safe for tonight.'
Even in the shadows he could see her frowning at him. He ignored it, leaning back against a conveniently placed tree and pulling her into his arms. His hands cupped her hips, the subtle flare of flesh fitting his palms perfectly.
'Do you see the fires?'
She frowned, the expression familiar enough by now that he could pick it out of the shadows and squinted over his shoulder. He could see - or imagined he could see - the will-o-the-wisp flickers of light in her pale, shining eyes. Curiosity softened her, the tight line of her body relaxing against him.
‘What is it?’
His hand slid down, cupping her ass. It was important not to give the tribe any reason to suspect they weren’t what they were supposed to look like.
‘The Trap Moors,’ he said.
She stretched up her tiptoes for a better look, the slide of her breasts against his chest making his balls pull up tight to his body.
‘I heard the stories,’ she said slowly. ‘I thought they were just...stories. They’re real?’
‘No ghosts or ghoulies,’ he said. ‘But the quicksand, the toxic water and the traps - they’re real enough. If we want to go through, we need a guide.’
She glanced at him, suspiciously. ‘I bypassed it.’
He spun her around, pinning her against the tree. His hard cock pressed against her stomach, making her cheeks flush and eyes snap. It wasn’t entirely revulsion. Bass kissed her cheek, close enough to her lips to make her shiver.
‘It’ll take a week off our trip, and get you back to Miles that much quicker. Safe and sound.’
She shoved at him irritably, squirming out of his loose embrace. ‘With any luck, you won’t be.’
He watched her walk away, appreciating the curve of her ass and the way her hand kept twitching to the sword she’d left in the cart.
‘You need me, sweetheart,’ he called after her.
She turned so the tribe couldn’t see her and gave him the finger. Some relics of the old world had carried over. Bass laughed, a rusty sound that creaked in his chest, and followed her back into camp.
Sometimes, despite everything, Charlie could see why Miles loved Monroe. It wasn’t fair. Hating him had been simple, but not anymore. Under the monster, there was someone she thought she might have liked once. Maybe - if things had fallen out differently - it would have been Monroe she’d gone to for help to save Danny from General Matheson.
He came back for her, driving the heavy cart through the mob. Men and women (children) fell screaming under the hooves, bones crunching under the iron-shod wheels. Reins wrapped around one arm, Monroe leaned down from his perch and thrust out his hand. Charlie cursed herself for knowing he’d come for her, and grabbed his out-thrust arm. Her fingers dragged over the rough scour of scar-tissue on his forearm as he hauled her up onto the box.
Her heart was thumping so hard she thought he could probably feel it against his arm as she clung to him, dragging the rope from around her neck with one hand. Her throat felt raw, flesh hot and wet under her fingers.
‘Thank you,’ she muttered.
Monroe dragged her across his lap, shoving her onto the bench next to him. He gave her a quick look, snapping the reins. ‘What?’
Once was enough. Too much. She shook her head and leaned down, grabbing the shotgun from under their feet. ‘Just get us out of here.’
It wasn’t rock salt in the gun this time. Charlie cringed from the ruin the tug of the trigger splattered over the neat, clapboard houses and clean, narrow streets. It cleared their escape, though.
Miles out of town, Monroe finally pulled back on the reins, bringing the horses to a stamping, lathered stop. Sweaty foam dripped off their soaked coats to the hard-stamped ground. Monroe tossed her the reins and jumped down, calming the horses with gentle hands and a rough voice. The horses snorted at him, lipping curiously at the loose folds of his shirt.
Charlie scrambled down, legs a bit shaky under her weight although she wasn’t about to let him see that.
‘You didn’t have to come back,’ she said. Now that she wasn’t choking on adrenaline, that was the closest she could bring herself to gratitude. He glanced at her over the horse’s sweat-roan withers.
‘A corpse isn’t much of a peace-making gift.’
‘You didn’t have to tell him you’d ever seen me.’
He rubbed his hand down the horse’s neck, stripping sweat and hair off it. His face had gone empty. It was more honest that his teary eyes, the closest to real emotions he still had.
‘I wouldn’t let him think someone he loved is dead,’ he said. ‘Not again.’
Mom. Rachel. The comparison put Charlie’s back up, that stupid knot of jealousy, resentment and love twisting tight around her heart. She shoved her hair back from her face and glared at Monroe.
‘I’m not her.’
‘I know,’ he said calmly. ‘Miles was the one who loved Rachel, not me.’
It took her a second. When she pieced the sentiment together - she laughed, a quick, thoughtless blurt of disbelief. ‘Go to hell, Monroe,’ she said.
‘Aww,’ she jeered, relieved to have something to layer over gratitude She circled around the horses, absently pushing their noses out of her hair. ‘Am I meant to feel sorry for you now? Did it upset your naptime.when you murdered by family? I bet it was really difficult for you.’
He shrugged. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘I never cared about Ben and your brother-’
‘He wasn’t like you. He wasn’t a Matheson.’
She punched him, thumb tucked over her fingers and her shoulder behind it. Her knuckles rattled against Bass’ jaw, rocking him back on his heels. The flare of hot, offended anger was easier to deal with than...the other.
There was blood on his lips. He spat out a mouthful and grabbed her, yanking her so close she could smell the sweat on him.
‘Don’t talk about my brother,’ she said, refusing to be cowed. ‘You don’t have the right to talk about Danny. And don’t pretend you know what love is anymore.’’
‘I love Miles,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ Charlie jibed back at him. ‘I’ve heard the rumours.’
His fingers flexed around her arms, biting down enough to hurt and then relaxing. Charlie laughed at him again. ‘What? Was that why you hated my mom so much? She had him; you didn’t?’’
‘I hated your mom, because she destroyed the world,’ Monroe corrected her calmly. ‘I’m a monster? I couldn’t kill as many people as your parents if I lived to a thousand and stabbed little children every morning.’
That was the problem with arguing with Monroe - they knew each other sore spots too well. Charlie flinched as the truth about her family deflated her fragile bubble of defiance.
‘I love Miles,’ Monroe repeated calmly, back on topic. ‘And maybe I'll love you...just to spite you.’
‘Well, I hate you.’
He grinned, mad and bright and lighting up his whole face with manic good humour. ‘I know. But I’ll kill for you, I’ll maybe die for you, and you know what? You’ll always know I loved you more than anyone else ever could. Charlotte, you’ll never forget me.’’
'You'll try.' He kissed her hard, lips bloody and slippery.