“Mother? Father?” Iliana questioned, confused, hovering over her bedridden twin as she watched her parents carefully. They stood in the doorway, faces pinched. Her father’s chestnut hair was mussed, looking strange compared to the neat, slicked-back style he usually wore. Her mother’s green eyes were puffy, as though she had been crying. It was odd, Iliana thought. They hated being in Landon’s room, a plain bedroom which lacked any signs of toys or life except for the small baubles from Iliana on his nightstand. Their parents especially hated visiting at this time of the year, since it was during the winter when he was the weakest. They were disappointed that their only son was born so sickly and fragile, so instead of being around him they locked him away in his room with only maids and Iliana herself to care for him. Iliana’s eyes narrowed minutely at the reminder. “What is it you need?”
“Help your brother up, Iliana. We do not have time to waste. They will not bother with us if we do not catch them before they leave,” Lord Hargreaves said harshly. His wife clutched his arm, refusing to look up at her children. The Lord narrowed his eyes when Iliana hesitated, the look jarring her into action before punishment was dealt. Despite her growing confusion, Iliana helped her twin out of bed.
“Careful, Landon,” she whispered, letting her weary brother lean against her once he stood. The heat emanating from his fevered body scorched her skin. She snatched his medication, a small bottle of dual-colored capsules – the best on the market – off the nightstand and shoved it into the pocket of her gown. The maids quickly converged on Landon, taking him away from Iliana and dressing him in his regular suit. Were they going to a party?
Father rarely brought them to balls hosted by other nobles. In the summer months it was easier to take Landon along with them, but Father despised it nonetheless. He was burdened by their presences, but he was required to introduce them to the society in which their family lived. It was tradition for a lord to bring his first-born child to galas with him, their debut to the wealthiest or most influential nobles beginning at age seven for boys and age ten for girls. Iliana’s own introduction to society was the scandal of the decade, when she took her brother’s place and attended her first gala at age seven. Due to her mother’s begging, Iliana had been raised as the heir, as a male, to take on the responsibilities of the family name herself rather than her ill brother. She had the finest tutors, the best swordsmanship lessons, and the lordship of their family to pass on to any future son she birthed.
The Hargreaves line was shamed, their household was the gossip of London, and Iliana’s father personally believed the twins both should have been drowned as babes. The noblemen and women called them the Devil Twins behind their backs, children of the Devil himself sent to earth to wreak havoc on their perfect society. Iliana couldn’t care less. The women of the court gossiped too much behind their fans and the men never took her intelligence seriously enough for her to spend her precious free time giving a damn about their ignorant babble. Instead, she spent her days as a constant companion to her brother. That was a much more enjoyable task than using it to flatter those filthy money whores who groveled for the attention of their Queen day after day, her father being one of them.
“Come,” Lord Hargreaves barked, grasping his children’s arms tightly and leading them and their mother through the halls of their manor. The few servants they had, the ones their father hadn’t fired recently, waited in the foyer. Michael, the butler, opened the double doors, stepping aside and giving a bow to Father. The elderly man shot the twins a pitying look as they were pulled outside and Iliana stared back, puzzled.
The Lord shoved the twins into the carriage, stopping their mother from helping them off the floor where they fell. Iliana glared up at him hatefully, helping Landon into his seat as Father directed the driver to the port on the opposite side of the city. Iliana clutched her brother close, pulling her shawl further over her shoulders to wrap it around him as well. The extra thick coat he wore did nothing to stop the chill of autumn from causing tremors throughout his body.
Minutes ticked by in silence as the carriage bounced over the cobblestone roads. Their mother watched her children nervously, clenching and unclenching her fists around the material of her skirts, as if to stop herself from reaching out to them.
“Sebastian, must we—?” Lady Hargreaves began, making the twins look up. He silenced her with a glare.
“We have no choice,” the man snapped. The woman quieted, staring down at her lap ashamed.
“Mother, please, tell us what is going on,” Iliana begged but the older woman shook her head, clenching her lips and eyes shut as tears welled up in her eyes again. Iliana curled her hand into Landon’s, trying to receive any comfort she could as icy fear gripped her heart. What wouldn’t they tell them?
“Stop!” their father shouted suddenly to the driver, and the horses neighed as the carriage halted. Lord Hargreaves dragged Landon and Iliana out of the carriage by their upper arms once more, leaving his trembling wife inside. They were at the docks. Ships sailed down the Thames despite the fog rolling in as the orange, pink, and yellow hues of the sun faded from view.
A man stood at the end of the pier, watching the three move closer. He was muscular and tall, and he smirked as they stopped in front of him, revealing an odd, elongated eye tooth. His golden blond hair was tied back with a blue ribbon, revealing sharp amber eyes.
“Sebastian!” the man said boisterously. Iliana barely repressed a smirk as her father bristled at the informal greeting.
“Parker,” Father acknowledged stiffly.
“Hmm, here I was hoping to see your lovely wife. Melissa, isn’t it?” he questioned rhetorically then stepped forward, circling the twins slowly. “They’re your oldest children?” he asked their father dubiously.
“They’re sixteen,” Lord Hargreaves spat. “Exactly what you wanted.” Landon cowered closer to Iliana and she wrapped him in her arms protectively, glaring at the stranger who only smirked back.
“My, my. They seem much younger than that. Perfect.” Parker grinned then tossed a bag to the older man. “There ya go. Money’s all yours. Now, c’mon, kiddos, I don’t have time to waste.” Iliana ignored him, watching betrayed as her father’s eyes lit up once he opened the sack. He then scampered back to the carriage, never looking back.
Iliana’s gaze was torn away when her twin was ripped from her side. She screamed as Parker shoved a vial into Landon’s mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow. Landon’s shout was muffled around the small bottle, tears pooling in his eyes as the liquid drained into his mouth. Parker shoved the boy to the ground once he was finished then caught Iliana around the waist as she ran to hit him.
He pulled out another vial from his pants’ pocket, popping off the stopper with his long, pointed thumbnail. He forced the vial between her lips, holding her in an unyielding grip. She scratched and kicked at him, but it was futile. The red liquid was bitter on her tongue and she held it in her mouth, clawing at the hand that held her nose. Pressure built up in her chest as she struggled to hold her breath until finally she swallowed, falling to her knees and heaving deep inhales of air once he released her.
After wiping off her mouth with the back of her hand, the remnants of whatever he gave them making her gag, she moved to her brother’s side, trying to shake him awake. He didn’t even stir. “Landon, please, wake up! Please, please, please,” she whispered, barely holding back tears. She touched the back of his curl-covered head, feeling a knot that was already forming from when he hit the ground. Iliana sucked in a sharp, panicked breath as she pulled her red-coated fingers back. Blood.
“Oh, stop worrying. He’s only unconscious. He’ll wake in maybe an hour or two, jeez,” Parker explained exasperated, reaching out to the twins.
“Stay away!” Iliana shouted, pulling Landon back by a couple of inches. Parker rolled his eyes and circled one arm around her thin waist, heaving her up and carrying her under his arm. “No! Stop it! Let us go!” she yelled as she squirmed in his grip. He ignored her, hefting Landon up under his other arm, then easily carried them down the dimly-lit streets despite the young woman’s struggles and shouts.
“’Ey, Marc, you here? I got some humans for ya!” Parker shouted into a seemingly empty alley by the docks closest to the city. Iliana tensed as a man stepped out of the shadows, and then her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Lord Marcus?
He was a wealthy noble of London, but he frequently left the country for business matters. Iliana had the chance to meet him only once at a ball when she was eight. Her father had left her alone with the other children to pander to the requests of nobles wealthier and more powerful than him. She had wandered away from them, running into Lord Marcus instead. He hardly spared her a glance, but it was his aloof attitude when he faced the other aristocrats immediately after that drew her respect as well as many others’.
No one knew exactly what he did, and he was close to no one. No wife, no children. He was quite irregular, not cut from the same cloth as the other nobles, which Iliana had previously admired about him. His eyes were wrapped with a sheer black cloth as they always were, letting him see out but not letting anyone else see in. Many gossiped that he was secretly blind, but everyone knew he wasn’t. Once he went on a hunting trip with the other lords. He shot a buck point-blank before any of the men could even see the beast.
“More nobles?” Lord Marcus asked, looking down at Parker with a displeased frown. Parker shrugged.
“Hey, if they’re willing to sell,” he responded. “Sold them like cattle, though I guess that’s just what the dregs of the aristocracy do. Anything for a meager piece of silver, especially with the Hargreaves bankruptcy.” Iliana gasped, shocked, making Parker’s lips curl up in a malicious grin as he turned to her. “Guess Daddy didn’t tell you. Gambling always gets the best of them.” He chuckled a bit at her horrified face then silenced instantly when Lord Marcus sneered.
“Pathetic humans. No better than greedy pigs.” Iliana’s brows knitted, confused. “You will be retrieving that money, won’t you? I do believe that’s this month’s salary, is it not?”
“’Course I’ll be retrieving it. I already gave them the potion. Ooh, watch out. The little girly here is a spitfire,” Parker snickered, easily handing the children over to the older gentleman.
Iliana grabbed her still-unconscious brother’s hand for even a minuscule attempt at self-comfort once Lord Marcus carelessly deposited them on the ground, suppressing a whimper. Was Lord Marcus involved in the black market? Iliana had overheard terrible stories over the years while eavesdropping on her father when various lords visited. Stories of children getting chopped to bits and sold piece by piece or auctioned off as sex slaves.
Landon mumbled as he slowly woke, and Iliana hastily covered his mouth to keep from drawing the men’s attentions back to them. Too late.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Marcus barked back into the alley, and a couple men moved out of the shadows. “Tie them up. We leave now.” They grabbed Landon and Iliana, securing their wrists together with ropes behind their backs. They gagged the twins with strips of cloth then carried them to a beaten-down carriage. The windows behind the thin curtains were boarded shut, and Marcus climbed up front with another man as the twins were thrown inside the vehicle, their cries muffled as the pair hit the unforgiving wooden floor.
“Ah, here,” a voice said and Iliana looked up sharply, shifting as much as she could in front of Landon. She would protect him until she died. The girl who looked about their age moved back a step, her hands raising in front of her peacefully at the sight of Iliana’s glare. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” She looked down at the pair earnestly, brushing a strand of red hair out of her face. “I just want to help you get those off. I know they’re not at all comfortable,” she said. Iliana’s wrists were already scratched and bloody from rope burns, and after a moment she relented with a sigh and a quick jerk of her head.
The young woman helped them with their binds then sat back on one of the wooden benches, giving the twins time to get their bearings. Iliana helped Landon up, quickly looking him over for other injuries, then sat on the bench across from the girl and took in her surroundings. The carriage was quite unconventional and alarmingly different from their own carriage back home—no, she couldn’t think like that. She grit her teeth, clutching the material of her gown tightly in her fists. She had always known their father hated them, but to sell his only children for money? And for their mother to go along with it? That didn’t deserve to be called a home. As usual, Iliana and Landon only had themselves to rely on. Iliana shook herself out of her thoughts, turning her attention to the woman when she spoke.
“My name is Annabel,” she introduced herself with a kind smile.
“I am Landon,” Iliana’s brother replied softly, smiling back. “This is my sister, Iliana.” The older twin narrowed her eyes on Annabel, deciding to reserve judgment for now as she shifted protectively to her brother’s side, pulling him closer to her. “Please, can you tell us what we’re doing here? Why have they taken us?” he implored.
Annabel sighed sadly, avoiding their gazes for a moment before she looked directly at them. “I swear I will tell you in the morning. Please, may we sleep? You shall need all the energy you can get for this discussion,” she replied. Iliana’s eyes narrowed warily, not too keen on trusting someone so soon after what had happened, but then she glanced at Landon. He was already fighting sleep, his head laying on his sister’s shoulder as he struggled to keep his eyes open. His cheeks had started burning a bright red without her notice and a thin coat of sweat covered his brow.
“Fine,” Iliana replied curtly and Annabel smiled in relief. The red-haired woman gave Iliana a nod and laid down on the bench. Iliana maneuvered Landon’s head on to her lap so he could hopefully get a good night’s rest. As the two fell asleep, Iliana stayed wide awake, watchful and cautious. She had no intention of letting her guard down while they were defenseless. She observed the woman across from her while idly carding her fingers through Landon’s dark brown curls. Annabel snorted in her sleep and turned over on the uncomfortable wood, making Iliana sneer in disgust. It was going to be a long night.