No one managed more than a brushing swipe against my bare skin. I counted it as a win. Vinemont’s gaze was still rapt, though every so often he would stare daggers at the ones who reached out to touch me.

When I made it back to him, he offered his hand to me as I stepped down. I didn’t take it.

“Well, now that we’ve got the easy parts over with, let’s get on to the main attraction!” Oakman, as ever, kept the entertainment fresh.

I glared up at Vinemont. “Wait, that wasn’t the main attraction?”

He showed no emotion, just held my gaze. He was somehow steady even as I felt the storm rising around me.

“Bring them on up,” the voice boomed.

Vinemont squeezed my arm and pushed me in front of him, toward the stairs and to the tree. Gavin and Brianne were ahead of me. As they made it to the top, I heard metallic clanging sounds above. Brianne shrieked.

“We haven’t even hurt you yet.” Oakman’s laughter infected the room until it was a cacophony of soulless mirth.

I took the final step. Brianne was sobbing again. Gavin just looked catatonic, as if none of this was registering any more. They were both chained, their fronts facing the tree. Vinemont guided me to the one empty spot against the trunk. He raised my wrists and clamped the shackles down around each one. He pulled the chain down from above and hooked it to the chain in the center of the restraints. Then he fastened my ankles with the restraints at the base of the tree.

I shook. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stay strong in the face of what I knew was coming. Oakman stood and trailed the end of a whip through his hand lovingly. Moving slowly, I bet the leather was smooth and supple. Moving as he swung, it would tear my flesh. My tremor grew until the shackles were shaking, clanging against each other.

“Oh, I can fix that.” Oakman yanked on a chain hanging from a pulley next to him. It pulled our arms upward until all three of us were pressed against the tree, the metal digging into our wrists and ankles and our backs on display.

“Everyone, the years just keep getting better don’t they?”

A smattering of approval rose from below. Even with the spotlight in my face, I could sense they were all still, watching. A tremor roared through me at the realization. What could be so fascinating to stop the roiling beasts from clamoring and rutting?

I tried to turn, to look at Vinemont. To try and will him to free me, save me, let me go. I couldn’t see him. The blinding light and tight bonds mastered me. I was held fast, blood already running down my forearms from the shackles. The pain in my wrists and ankles was growing by the second, the metal cutting deeper with each of my breaths.

“Two-hundred and fifty years of pride. And this year is the best of all. Twenty-five Acquisition Balls, twenty-five strokes of the whip for each of our guests.”

The crowd roared with approval.

I couldn’t stop the sob that rattled up from my lungs. Brianne began screaming, her voice a high, blood-curdling shriek. It died away, muffled by Red’s handkerchief or some similar gag.

My thoughts scattered, unable to focus on anything. I clamped my eyes shut and forced myself to focus on why I was here. Dad. He was there on the back of my eyelids. Standing over me as I awoke in the hospital. He smoothed my hair from my face even as I was bandaged and strapped to the bed. Was this so different? I bled, I was bound, I was wavering between the world I’d known and one I could only imagine. But now, instead of breaking him, my suffering would save him. Tears slid down my cheeks and disappeared. I would endure it. All of it.

“Now, who wants to go first?” Cal broke through my memories.

“That’d be me.” Vinemont spoke, his voice harsh and strong.

“That’s my good man. Here you go. Make them count.” Oakman laughed.

Vinemont stood behind me and ran a lingering hand down my skin, the whip hanging from his other hand. His touch was warm, somehow gentle. I let myself feel it, if only for a second. Let myself imagine he cared for me, that his was a lover’s touch. That he wouldn’t hurt me.

The warmth disappeared. He backed away.

I held my breath. I felt like the entire room held its breath. And then I was awash in pain. I didn’t know I’d screamed until the sound died in my lungs from the force of the next hit.

“He’s really going all out. This may be your next Sovereign ladies and—”

I couldn’t hear his words, couldn’t hear anything except the sound of my pain. It was my scream, eating up the space inside me, bleeding out my ears. Agony like I had never felt before erupted along my back. Lines of destruction. I could feel my skin separating with each of his vicious strokes. Blood leaked and trailed down my legs. It felt the same as I remembered it from those years ago, the same way as my blood felt dripping from my arms. But this time the damage was bigger and offered no promise of release from this life.

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