I admit, this chapter is darker than usual. If you don't want to read about violence, you can skip the part after Jack shudders up to the paragraph starting with: "Sorry to leave you for so long". I don't think you will miss much by skipping it...
Just as he was about to get out of sight, Katherine remembered she still hadn't asked him about Jack and Pete. With a startled "Ah!" she stretched out her hand but slowly pulled it back right after. No, she didn't have the courage to see into his face again. At least not today.
Judging by his demeanor, she completely believed that he really could kill her, if he needed to. However, the sentence was somehow wrong. Why did he say 'it might just kill you' not 'I will kill you'? The latter was more threatening and more definite, while the first one was rather vague. A 'I might or might not kill you'. Not that she wanted to gamble her life on the 'might not' but it was strange, wasn't it? Like he hadn't decided it yet or it was out of his control, though that was somewhat implausible.
Maybe he just wanted to let himself a way out, she concluded, and started to pull the kite down. She wasn't in the mood to play with it anymore. She wasn't even sure she could keep stalking the earl. Every approach up to now ended in a failure. It was depressing.
The surprise awaiting her as she set foot into the mansion lifted her mood a little. Jack and Pete were back! They waited for her at the spot she'd left their replacements at. Her worry about them turned into nothingness, as they both seemed to be okay. Gladly, asking the earl wasn't necessary anymore.
Jack grinned at her with his usual black-tooth-bandit-grin. "Nice to see you again, milady!"
It took a good deal out of them to convince the earl that they wouldn't betray him again even if they continued to guard the lady. For the attempt alone they got a lot more whiplashes.
Thinking back to there, Jack shuddered. He could still see the prison bars in front of them. They were bought into the dungeon so that nobody would hear their screams upstairs.
However, it wasn't the dungeon or the punishment itself that freaked Jack out. In his long war-filled life he came to know both already. He was used to being in pain, he didn't fear it. No, the one and only creepy thing, the one he didn't want to see ever again, was the torture master.
The earl of course appreciated Jack's and Pete's service too much to chose a really hard punishment - also it would still be hard on common folks. However, the restriction didn't stop the torturer from whispering his dark fantasies into their ears while preparing for the next whiplash.
"What do you think your eyeball tastes like? I'm sure you will like them after some weeks of starving. You can ask Tommy over there, he said his two eyes even had different flavors."
The whip pointed at the next cell. Jack hadn't even recognized the inmate as a living human until now. He was hanging on his arms because his legs, void of any flesh, had just the skeleton left. Although the heaving of the rips indicated he was breathing, his eyes and nose were only dark holes. It was a truly horrible sight.
The laughing voice of the torturer rang out disharmoniously. "Oh, wait, you can't! He has just recently eaten his ears!"
Jack swore to himself that he would never upset the earl, just so he didn't need to see that insane person ever again.
All the time they were being lashed, the earl had stood just outside the cell, watching them with a cold, unmoving gaze and folded arms. When they were through, he stepped inside. Disregarding his expensive attire, he walked through the blood on the floor till he was right in front of their kneeling figures.
"Can't get up?", he asked without any emotion. Still, Jack felt as if he was looked down upon, so he gritted his teeth and forced his tattered body to get up. Pete next to him silently did the same.
Looking at the blood flowing out of their many wounds while they struggled to a stand, the earl's gaze didn't change. Although his voice lacked judgement, Jack still felt like knife was held to his throat when he asked: "Was it worth it?"
Pete was the first to answer: "Not worth it."
A beat slower, Jack also replied. "Not... worth it."
The earl locked his gaze on him. Meeting the red eyes with his own black one, Jack felt the need to explain his hesitation. "Going against the orders is not worth it for a visit to the gardens... but it would be worth it if it involved something more important. Something like lady Katherine's life."
The air in the cell got suffocating. Although the earl was a tiny bit smaller than Jack and a whole lot less bulky, it was his presence that made Jack's neck break out in sweat. After all his time on battlefields he could recognize the wild beasts in man with one glance, and the earl definitely was one of the most dangerous he'd ever met. A few seconds later, Jack was the first to look away.
"So if my commands involved hurting her, you would pay them no heed?"
Jack swallowed a mouthful of saliva. Asked like this, it was disregarding the earl to the extreme.
Up till now, Jack still had no clue how he got out of that one, only that the torturer got the nail of his left pinky as a new souvenir.
Before meeting the lady again today, Jack and Pete had discussed what they should say to her. Not the whole truth, as they knew she would feel responsible for it, although letting her outside the mansion was their own decision. They settled for half a truth.
"Sorry to leave you for so long, milady.", Pete said grudgingly. Seeing Jacks behavior, he already knew that the part about explaining their absence was thrown to him again. Like all the difficult things. So, he added with a bitter smile: "There was a punishment set for us for failing a mission prior to your arrival."
Instantly, Katherine's joyful face clouded and her brows knitted in disapproval. "Punishment?"
Her violet eyes slowly darkened to black and unexpectedly there was a slight chill in the air. "Did he hurt you?"
The two guards exchanged a look. They didn't expect the lady to worry about them. Which small girl would worry about two strong and bulky man to get hurt? Normally it was the other way around. On the bright side, they were pleased by it while simultaneously her worry raised a guilty feeling.
"It is nothing serious.", Pete tried to talk it down. "If it was, we wouldn't be here again already, right?"
"Yes, yes!", Jack added and scratched his neck awkwardly. "Nothing to worry about, milady!"
Katherine maybe would have believed them... if the movement of Jack's hand didn't show off the blood on his pinky finger. A dangerous glint flashed in her eyes.
The earl really had hurt them. And they were trying to hide the extend to reduce her worry and maybe to not make the earl look bad? If it was the latter, it was wasted afford, as she already couldn't stand him. He said he'd kill her the next time she touched him... courting him was next to impossible now. She still had her pride.
The voices of two servants getting near the entrance hall reminded Katherine that regardless what she wanted to do about her two guards, she should find a quieter place to talk to them first. So, without giving them a second glace, she turned and started walking. Jack and Pete followed her dutifully, albeit confused by her rapid change. Did she believe their story that fast? But it didn't feel like that...
Only when they reached her chamber did they realize the misunderstanding. Just as they wanted to position themselves at the door, Katherine said decisively: "Come on in."
Again, there was that silent exchange of glances, before Pete replied: "Going into the chambers of a lady isn't proper."
"I don't care." Katherine's eyes were blazing with a dark flame, which was quite unexpected to the guards. "Get in here now. This is a command."
At first the guards stiffened - they weren't used to being commanded by a little girl yet - but then they complied reluctantly.
"You know this can destroy our image, too, milady?", Pete worried nonetheless.
Katherine rolled her eyes at his over-cautiousness. "It is an anteroom, not a bedroom. Just close the door behind you and nobody will know."
In reality however, she wasn't as comfortable with it as she made it seem. Although she was sure they wouldn't do anything to her, they were still two strong and tall man, filling the small anteroom up to the ceiling.
Hearing the commotion outside, Hazel peeked out of the bedroom, where she'd arranged the lady's bed properly. "Milady, are you - "
Seeing the guards, she stilled, and her pupils shook once fiercely. After a second, however, she calmed down again, looking solely at Katherine.
"Are you aware that it isn't - "
"Yes.", Katherine interrupted. "I know it isn't proper. However, I need to discuss something with them away from the curious ears of the servants."
"Oh.", Hazel made and blushed. "Then I'll go back in and... " She gestured to the already perfectly arranged bed.
"No need.", Katherine stopped her hastily. "Sorry. I meant the other servants, not you. Actually, it would be better to have you in here. Then I don't need to explain it twice."
The brows of everyone except the lady furrowed in confusion. Explain what exactly? What was the lady's intention by gathering them here? Jack and Pete, who thought she had invited them to scold them because she somehow noticed that they were wounded, got themselves proven wrong. Meanwhile Hazel, who didn't know anything about the matter, was puzzled with what could involve both her and the guards. She didn't do anything wrong today, did she?
Being locked on by three irritated gazes, Katherine sighed. "Now, get inside - all of you - and close the doors. There's something important I want to tell you."