Seize the Night (Page 26)

Seize the Night (Dark-Hunter #7)(26)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

It was a young Valerius. His dark face was in need of a shave and his armor was spotted with bloodstains. He looked tired and ill-kempt, as if he hadn’t slept in days, but still he held that regal air of superiority.

He threw water into the man’s face. "Tell me where they’re marching to."

"No."

The Latin words echoed in her head along with the sight of Valerius ordering a soldier to beat the man more.

"It was your lover who blinded me," Zarek snarled in her ear as the mirror clouded, then cleared to show her the image of two small boys.

One lay on the ground, curled into a ball while the other beat him with a whip. One of the lashes cut deep into the one boy’s eye, causing him to scream as he covered it with one grimy hand.

"I’m the one on the ground," Zarek snarled in her ear. "Valerius is the one beating me mercilessly and you f**ked him."

Unable to watch the cruelty, Tabitha turned and ran into someone else.

She started to fight until she glanced up to see Ash looking less than pleased.

"What are you doing, Z?"

"I’m showing her the truth."

Ash shook his head at the former Dark-Hunter. "I can’t believe you married a justice nymph and have yet to learn anything from her. There are always three sides to every memory, Z. Yours, theirs, and the truth, which lies somewhere in between the two. You’re only showing her a single sound bite to prove your point. Why don’t you give her the whole clip?"

Ash turned her back toward the mirror. "I’m not going to lie to you, Tabby, or try and sway your opinion. This isn’t Zarek’s memory or Valerius’s. It’s just the untarnished, objective truth of what happened to them."

She saw the child Valerius again as a man in a toga who looked remarkably similar to Zarek stepped forward. He had to be their father.

Laughing, he patted Valerius on the shoulder. "That’s it, my son. Always strike where they’re the most vulnerable. You’ll make a fine general one day."

The child Zarek glared at both of them as if he could kill them where they stood. Their father jerked the whip from Valerius’s hand and commenced to beating him again.

His face horrified, Valerius ran from the room, sobbing. He looked as if he were going to be ill as he stumbled across an old Roman courtyard until he fell down by a huge fountain in the center of the atrium. He braced his folded arms on the edge of the fountain and lay his head down.

"I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," he repeated over and over again as he cried.

His father came running out of the house, toward him.

"Valerius!" he snarled as he came up to the child. "What are you doing?"

Valerius didn’t answer. His father pulled him up from the ground by his hair.

The horror on the boy’s face seared her.

"You pathetic little worm," his father sneered. "I should have named you Valeria. You’re more woman than man."

His father backhanded him so hard the sound echoed and sent several birds into flight. Unbalanced by the blow, Valerius fell back to the ground.

His nose and cheek bleeding, Valerius tried to push himself up, but before he could regain his feet, his father brought the whip down across his back. The boy dropped instantly.

Still, his father beat him.

Valerius covered his head as the blows rained down on his little body.

"Get up," his father snarled after he’d delivered twenty lashes.

Valerius was crying so hard he couldn’t speak.

His father kicked him in the ribs. "Up, damn you, or I’ll give you twenty more."

Tabitha had no idea how he managed it, but somehow Valerius pushed himself to his feet, where he shook and trembled. His clothes were tattered, his face covered in dirt and blood.

His father seized him by the throat and shoved him back against a rough wall so that his ravaged back was scraped by it.

She cringed in sympathetic pain, trying to imagine how a child so young could stand there and not collapse.

"You will stand here until nightfall and if you so much as bend your knees to rest them, I will see you beaten every day until you learn to stomach your pain. Do you understand me?"

The boy Valerius nodded.

"Markus?" his father shouted.

Another boy who closely resembled Valerius came running out of the house. It was obvious he was a few years older. "Yes, Father?"

"Watch your brother; if he sits down or moves, you come for me."

Markus smiled as if his father had just given him a present. "I will, sir."

Their father turned and left them. And as soon as he was out of sight, Markus turned to laugh at Valerius. "Poor little Val," he said tauntingly. "I wonder what Father will do to you if you fall down." Markus struck him in the stomach.

Valerius groaned at the pain, but didn’t move from the wall.

That only made Markus angrier. Growling at Valerius, he began striking him. Valerius fought back, but it was no use. In no time, Markus had him on the ground again.

"Father!" Markus cried, running for the door where their father had vanished. "He fell down!"

Tabitha turned away, afraid of what additional punishment Valerius’s father had heaped on him. She’d already seen his back firsthand. Had run her hands over those scars that he bore with grace and dignity.

He must truly hate his father, and yet he never spoke a word against any of them. Valerius merely went on with his life, quietly suffering and keeping all the painful memories to himself.

He was remarkable to her.

The screen went black.

"It changes nothing," Zarek said, curling his lip. "So he was beaten, too. I notice you didn’t correct the fact that he was torturing-"

"A Greek soldier whose army had marched on a Roman village," Ash said, interrupting him. "Every woman and child there had been locked inside Minerva’s temple before they burned it to the ground. Valerius was after the army to stop them before they killed any more innocents."

Zarek scoffed. "They weren’t all innocent."

"No," Tabitha said, her throat tight. "But he was a general during a time when things were violent."

"Yes," Ash said quietly. "And he did what he had to do."

Zarek snorted. "Yeah, right. Valerius spent his entire human lifetime trying to please his father, trying to make that animal proud."

Ash refuted that as well. "And when you were children, he was so afraid of your father that he stuttered every time he was in his presence."

"He never hesitated to commit an act of cruelty to please his family."

"Never?"

Tabitha watched the mirror as it again showed her Valerius as a child. He was around the age of eight, lying in bed asleep. Her heart pounded at the peaceful, sweet sight he posed.

Until his bedroom door was slung open.

Valerius jerked upright as lamplight cut across him.

His father seized him from the bed and literally threw him to the ground. Valerius looked at his father and then to the one who held the lamp.

It was Markus.

"What is this?" his father asked as he threw a blanket at Valerius.

Valerius turned pale.

"What is that blanket, Zarek?" Ash asked.

Zarek’s blue eyes turned cold. "It’s the piece of shit old horse blanket that the little bastard gave to me one winter night and I was beaten for it."

"Valerius!" his father shouted as he slapped the boy. "Answer me."

"B-b-blanket."

"I saw him give it to the slave, Father," Markus said. "So did Marius. He didn’t want the slave to be cold."

"Is this true?"

Valerius looked horrified.

"Is it true!"

Valerius swallowed. "He was c-c-c-cold."

"Was he now?" his father sneered, "Well, better a slave to suffer than you, is it not? Perhaps it’s time you learn that lesson, boy."

Before Valerius could move, his father tore his clothes from him, then wrenched him up by his thin arm and hauled him from the room. Completely nak*d, Valerius was taken outside, where his father tied him to a hitching post. It was so cold that their breaths formed icy clouds around them.

"P-p-pl-"

Valerius’s plea was cut short by another vicious backhand. "We’re Roman, boy. We don’t beg for mercy from anyone. For that you’ll be beaten even more come morning. If you live through the night."

Shaking from the cold, Valerius bit his lip to keep his teeth from chattering.

Markus laughed at him. "I think you’re being too kind, Father."

"Don’t question me, Markus, unless you wish to join him."

Markus’s laughter died instantly. Without another word or looking back, the two of them turned back toward the house and left Valerius outside alone.

The small boy sank to his knees while he tried to loosen his hands. It was no use. "I swear I’ll be a good Roman," he whispered quietly. "I will."

The scene faded.

"You’re not convincing me, Acheron," Zarek said coldly. "I still think he’s a ruthless bastard who deserves nothing."

"Then how about this?"

This time when the mirror lightened, she saw what appeared to be a seriously disfigured version of Zarek chasing an older version of his father through the ancient Roman house she now knew was theirs.

The middle-aged man was bleeding, his face ravaged as if he’d been knocked around.

The man spilled into what appeared to be a dining hall where Valerius sat at a desk wearing his armor, writing a letter. Frowning, he rose to his feet as he saw his father’s frantic run.

His father fell against him and grabbed the metal straps of Valerius’s cuirass. "For Jupiter’s sake, help me, boy. Save me!"

Zarek drew up short as he saw Valerius in full military regalia. Candlelight shone off the golden armor that was contrasted by his blood-red cape.

Valerius made a fearsome sight as he pushed his father aside and pulled his sword out slowly from its burgundy leather scabbard as if to engage Zarek.

"That’s it, boy," his father said with an evil laugh. "Show the worthless slave what I taught you."

"Go ahead, you bastard," Zarek snarled defiantly. "I’m here for my vengeance and you can’t kill someone who’s already dead."

"I wasn’t planning on it," he said simply.

"Valerius," his father snarled. "What are you doing, boy? You have to help me."

His face completely stoic, Valerius looked at his father as if the man were a complete stranger. "We’re Roman, Father, and I’ve long since ceased being a boy. I am the general you made me and you taught me well that we don’t beg for mercy from anyone."

He handed his sword hilt-first to Zarek.

With those words spoken, Valerius saluted his brother, walked out of the room, and closed the door.

His father’s screams echoed as he walked slowly down the corridor.

Tabitha couldn’t breathe as she witnessed the tragedy that was both their lives. Part of her couldn’t believe Valerius had left his father to die like that and another part of her understood it completely.

Poor Valerius. Poor Zarek. They both were victims of the same man. One son spat upon because he was a slave and another because he wasn’t cold-blooded and unfeeling. At least not until that one moment.

She looked at Zarek, whose eyes still bore the hatred and pain of his past. "If you hate Valerius so much, why didn’t you kill him, too, Zarek?"

"Pardon the bad pun, but the blind man was shortsighted at the time."

"No," she whispered. "You knew, didn’t you? You knew who deserved your hatred and who didn’t."

Zarek’s sneer turned even colder as he shot a menacing glare from her to Acheron. "This changes nothing. Valerius still doesn’t deserve peace. He doesn’t deserve anything except contempt. He is his father’s son."

"And what are you?" Tabitha asked. "It seems to me that you’re the one carrying around the acidic hatred that won’t let you live in peace. Valerius doesn’t strike out at other people. Ever. To me that makes him twice the man you are."

Zarek’s look pierced her. "Oh, you think you’re so special. That he’s worth defending. Tell you what, sweetie, if you want to know who Valerius really loves, go to the solarium in his house. Imagine how much Agrippina must have meant to him that he’s been lugging her stone statue around for more than two thousand years."

"Zarek…" Ash growled in warning.

"What? It’s true and you know it."

Zarek took a step back and then looked as if he were trying to disappear. "What the…?"

Ash gave him a droll stare. "Just for the record, Zarek. If you ever do hurt Tabitha, I will kill you. Gods and goddesses be damned."

Zarek opened his mouth as if to argue, but vanished before any words could escape.

The next thing Tabitha knew, she was back in Valerius’s library right where she’d been standing.

"Tabitha?" Valerius asked as he walked back into the room. "Did you not hear my question?"

Tabitha reached out to touch the shelf nearest her to confirm that she was here. Yeah, she was back. But she felt rather strange all of a sudden.

"No," she said to Valerius. "I missed your question, sorry."