**I’m posting this from my phone while in the car, so please excuse the block formatting**
“My name is Lark Greene.”
A white light flashes, blinding me. I can’t see beyond the small circle of darkness, but I know they’re out there, pressing in on all sides, listening to everything I say. Blasting my words over the newsfeeds. Mother prepared me for this. She and Annalise worked with me on my statement, reviewing details, having me repeat my answers over and over again until they were burned into my mind.
I tuck my trembling hands beneath my legs and lean forward against the small table I’m seated behind. Mother’s fingers drum against my shoulder, a reminder that I am not alone, and her energy flows through me like a steady fix of soothing medicine. My hands steady a little.
A camera floats over my head like an annoying gnat. It whirls and hums, zooming in close on my face. With closed eyes, I inhale deeply, and open them on the exhale. The light flashes again. I cover my face with my hands, prepared for the pain that’s sure to follow.
Mother crossed the room until she stood next to the side of the bed. She leaned over me, her face mere inches from mine, and her minty breath fanned across my face. I wanted to shrink away, but there was nowhere to go.
“How do you feel about Beck Channing?”
My heart clenched like a fist at the sound of his name. She’d asked the same question a hundred times since Annalise rescued me from Summer Hill.
I wouldn’t tell her. She couldn’t know I loved him. That I hadn’t forgotten him, the way she wanted me to.
An icy chill raced down my spine and my mouth opened. Words I didn’t mean to say spilled out. “Is he okay?”
A cruel smile stretched across Mother’s lips. “Do you love him?”
I should have said ‘no’. I wanted to say ‘no’. I needed to protect Beck.
Scorching air blasted over me, and the bed tilted sideways, spilling me onto the floor.
I scrambled to my knees, gasping. “Why are you doing this?”
“Beck Channing is your enemy, Love. He wants to kill you.” A small light bounced in Mother’s upturned palm. Without warning it exploded into dozens of glowing fire orbs and hurtled toward my face. Each impact burned more than the last.
“Stop!” I screamed and curled my arms around my head. “Mother, please! Stop!”
My body was yanked from the ground until I dangled several feet in the air. My arms flailed, trying to grab something. Anything. But there was nothing to hold on to. I could move, but I couldn’t seem to propel myself forward. Or down.
Beneath me, Mother circled like a wild animal. “Oh, Lark, I can’t stop.” Notes of sorrow filled her voice. “I need to fix you. The Light witches have confused you and I need to help you remember who you really are. You want that don’t you? My help?”
My skin burned where her fireballs hit me. If this is how she loves me, what will she do if she hates me? I thought while nodding my head. If I agree, maybe she’ll stop.
She snapped her fingers, and Annalise and two male guards appeared. They stood behind her, staring at me with a mix of curiosity and pity. I didn’t mind the staring—I would too, if I saw a girl dangling in the air—but the pity concerned me. Especially after the fireballs.
Mother beckoned one of the men forward.
“Malin?” he said, with his head bowed.
“Fire,” she ordered.
He balked. “Surely, Malin, you don’t mean—”
“Set my daughter on fire, Oliver.” He hesitated and Mother screamed, “Now.”
Oh God. “Please, no. Please.” I clawed at the air, trying to escape, but it was no use. I didn’t move.
Oliver didn’t look at me when pointed his finger in my direction. Fear tore through my insides.
The flame ignited the hem of my skirt. I slapped it out, burning myself. “Mother, stop,” I pleaded. “Please. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Dawson!” Mother screamed. “Take care of this.”
The other man pushed himself before Oliver and a second flame hit my tights. They melted and oozed down my legs. Stinging, burning pain raced across my skin. My body jerked and writhed, but I gathered the pain, pulled it deep into my core. It combined with the fear and anger already inside me. My fingers twitched and magic exploded from my fingertips.
I fell in a heap on the floor. All around me, angry orange flames climbed the walls, gobbling up the curtains and paintings. They nibbled at the ceiling.
Thick, black smoke choked my lungs and I crawled toward the door, only to be immediately flung back.
Mother wasn’t done with me yet.
“Try again,” Mother whispers.
“Everyone is waiting.”
My wrist smarts and I touch where my wristlet should be. However, instead of the normal delicate band, a thick, blue restraint encircles my left wrist. To the public, it probably looks like a custom wristlet. But I know better. It, along with the guards, is all that’s keeping my powers in check. Mother explained this to me. The trauma of what happened at Summer Hill tapped into my power more than she had anticipated. Basically, my system became overwhelmed and I exploded.
“Six days ago…” My voice shakes. I must seem so frail to these people. I try again. “Six days ago, my mother’s guards rescued me from Summer Hill, the Channings’ family home, where I was kept hostage.”
The crowd mummers and another camera floats into position near my head.
There’s more I’m supposed to say, but the words are lost in the confusion of my mind. I open my parched mouth, then close it. Again. And again. No sound escapes my lips. Annalise appears at my side and hands me a glass of water. I drink deeply, allowing the liquid to soothe my throat.
The silent room waits for me to continue. I shift in my seat and set the glass down. Mother’s slim fingers travel down my arm, never breaking contact, and stop at my elbow. A sense of calmness washes over me, and I don’t fight Mother’s magic.
“Lark?” Mother says, prompting me. “You’re among friends. Everything is okay.”
I start reciting again. “While I was there, I was subjected to numerous tests and forms of…” My chest heaves. The memory of Bethina, lying on the grass as flames crept closer to her body, flashes through my mind. My heart races and I dart my eyes toward the exit, looking for an escape. All I want is to do is run as far as I can. I need to get out of here.
Mother’s grip tightens and her nails dig into my skin.
“Torture,” I say softly.
“Yes, that’s right, Love.”
They tortured me. Encased me. Denied me my magic. Killed my housemother.
Mother strokes my arm again. “Go on,” she whispers.
“They tried to kill me.”
“Who killed Bethina?” Mother kept her hands folded on the desktop. We were alone in her office, like we had been all day.
“Beck,” I answered. Not me. Beck. He killed her. Mother had repeated this to me non-stop.
“That’s right. Beck killed Bethina before turning on you.” Mother tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Do you love Beck Channing?”
Magic probed at my heart, trying to force me to speak the truth I’d hidden deep inside me, but I had to lie. Lying was the only way for this to stop.
“No. He wants to kill me.” My lips twitched and I pressed them tightly together. I refused to let myself say anything else.
Mother smiled, pleased with the progress we’d made. “He came after you. To kill you.”
“But Kyra and Annalise stopped him and rescued me from Summer Hill,” I finished, eager to show that I’d learned.
Mother smiled. “That’s right. We saved you, Lark. We saved you from those monsters.”
Mother promised if I did this one thing, I wouldn’t have to speak to the newscasters again. Everyone wants to hear what happened in my own words. And the Society needs to see I am safe and there is no threat to our security.
It’s my duty, as a Founder’s descendant, to do this.
“It’s true? Beck’s one of them? Did he orchestrate your kidnapping?”
I turn my head toward the voice and squint into the blinding lights. My fingers tingle with magic and I curl them into fists.
“What did you say?”
My guards’ magic hits me from every direction. Waves of ice and fire wash over my skin, licking at the rawest spots of my heart. I press my hand over my chest, struggling to breathe beneath the onslaught.
“Is Beck Channing Sensitive?” the disembodied voice asks again.
The crowd buzzes with excitement. This is what they’ve been waiting for: my public denouncement of my birth-mate. Kyra says it’s the scandal of the year, and judging by the reaction to the question, I think she’s right.
Mother’s fingers dig into the soft flesh of my arm again. I lift my head and stare into the nearest camera.
“Yes. He is.” My voice rings out across the corridor. The crowd goes silent, waiting for me to say more.
Magic pushes at my heart, encouraging me to speak the lie Mother has taught me. The one I can now say easily.
I lean forward and rest my hands on the table.
“If I never see Beck Channing’s face again, it will be too soon.”
Kyra, Annalise, and two male guards surround me as we shove our way through the noisy crowd and toward a large wooden door. The leaner of the male guards, Oliver, pushes it open and Dawson steps through. He motions for me to follow.
The cool, white room feels oddly empty after the claustrophobia of the press conference. Unlike in there, where everything was hidden in shadow, this room is white-on-white-on-white. Like snow.
“You did great,” Kyra whispers. She drops onto a low couch and tucks her legs beneath her. “You sounded scared, and who can blame you? You’ve been through so much.”
The door swings open again, allowing the chatter of the room beyond to spill in, and I catch snips of the newscasters’ conversations. Mostly of the “Poor girl” and “Do you think she knew?” variety.
Mother, followed by her guards, glides in and joins Annalise and the men on other side of the room. I strain to hear the low hush of their voices, but the words are meaningless. Almost like code.
No one glances in my direction or even acknowledges my presence, and for a fleeting moment, I consider walking out the door, back into the hallway filled with reporters and cameras and questions, and running. I don’t, of course, because being out there is a million times more dangerous than staying here, waiting for whatever it is I’m waiting for.
Or maybe I’m too tired or confused to care.
Or perhaps I’m just dead inside.
As if any of that matters. Mother has made it clear there is nowhere I can run, nowhere I can hide, where she can’t find me. There may not be a physical barrier preventing me from escaping, like at Summer Hill, but she has magic, the eyes of the State, and the threat of the Light witches killing me. I’d be a fool to try to leave.
Out of habit, my fingers flutter to my neck, searching for my necklace, only to find an empty space. I cast my eyes to the floor and my shoulders heave. Somewhere between fleeing Summer Hill and arriving here, I lost it.
“Well done, Lark. Well done.” Mother beams. Her blond hair is pulled tightly away from her face into two low twists behind each ear. She looks like her normal, in-control self. Not the frightening woman who had me set on fire a few days earlier.
I squeeze my knees to my chest, forcing all the air from my lungs. I’ve learned Mother’s praise is generally followed by something horrible. With glazed eyes, I stare blankly at the snowy white carpet and focus on holding my breath.
“Now that that’s finished, I have to return to my office.” Mother brushes her hands together. “Annalise, see Lark home.”
“Of course, Malin.”
My lip trembles slightly when Mother turns toward me.
“Is something wrong, Lark?”
Tears roll down my cheeks.
I lift my head slowly, until Mother’s eyes lock on mine.
And I scream.