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Chapter 1: Prologue 1 - Mariano

I can already feel it. I squeeze my eyes tight at the burn. My stomach is in knots as if it's churning something straight from hell. It's been a day since the last time I had food in me. Go figure. When I get my hands on one of those idiots, I swear—

"Can I eat something else?" the prisoner next to my cell asks. My eyes fly open, and I see one of the guards give her a mocking look. She—the prisoner—scrunches her face as she looks at the plate next to her soiled feet as if the food in it is the most disgusting thing she's ever seen. Contrary to her reaction, my mouth waters at the sight of the crispy breaded chicken, green beans, and corn. I happen to know it tastes good—courtesy of Celia, our housekeeper and cook.

"Miss, this isn't a fucking restaurant. You either eat what you're given or starve. I don't fucking care," grumbles the guard, Neil—one of the idiots, before stalking out of the room, slamming the metal door shut and locking it from the other side.

I've been in and out of consciousness in the past few hours, and my head is still so hazy that I barely remember when the female prisoner got here. How the hell did she end up in our dungeon anyway? There are seven prisoners in total, and everyone here except her is male. What has she done to be thrown down here? Not that I did something to deserve to be tossed in here by my own prick of a father.

It's been a fan-fucking-tastic week for me in this hellhole. My father is convinced I spiked his drink and is determined to keep me locked up in here until he's satisfied or that I've learned my lesson. As much as I want to kill my father for everything he's done to me, poison is the last thing on my long list of ways to make his life miserable. That's such an easy way to go. I want the man to suffer. For a long time.

This filthy place is under the soldier's quarters just inside our estate. Above us is a single-story cottage that has a few rooms where some of our men stay, so the place is crawling with guards. I grew up on these grounds and I know my way around here. The chains on my ankles are what's shackling me to this cell, although if I really want to, I can get out of this shithole on the first day.

But I didn't do that, and I'm not going to. If I escape, my father will chase after me, and he won't stop until he gets a hold of me again. This is his way of putting me in line. Unfortunately for him, I'm sticking through this. To defeat the beast, you must let it think he has tamed you.

The only source of light we have is from the gaps between the covered small windows near the ceiling of one wall. They keep this place dark, but I can guess that it's noon right now, judging by the intensity of light casting through the cracks. It gives me a chance to scan the whole place. It's dingy, smelly—mostly piss and blood, and dank. Summer is about to end, and it's getting colder every day.

We're four prisoners in the chamber, the other three are in the room next to us. The two others are to my right. They've been here the longest, months or probably years, and have long stopped talking. I know why my father is still keeping them when he could've just shot them dead two years ago. There's no other reason to keep them alive except for his entertainment and as a reminder that he has control over these people who had betrayed him. That's his style, really. My grandfather doesn't like keeping prisoners for fun.

My gaze lands on the woman to my left. Despite the darkness in the room, I can see the outline of her figure through the bars that separate our cells. Her jet-black hair is long, and her skin is pale as she hugs her knees to her chest. She's in tight jeans and a white tank top, dirtied by the filthy floor and walls and something else that's black.

She has pushed the plate away from her—literally out of sight as if she doesn't want to see it. A scoff threatens to escape from me as I'm amused by how picky she is with her food when she doesn't have the luxury to do so in her situation. It makes me wonder if she's one of those girls with rich folks—though why would she be here?

"Why are you staring?" she mutters, glancing in my direction. I still can't see her whole face, but I'm gifted with a peek of her pink lips before she lowers her head again.

"If you haven't noticed, there's not much to look at here."

"Look somewhere else."

My lips twitch at her snarky attitude, but I don't say anything else and continue observing her quietly. She turns her body, angling away from me as if that's going to stop me from looking at her. I'd rather she be my object of amusement today than the two other rotten-flesh-smelling men to my right.

She hasn't moved much in the past hour, and I haven't drifted back to sleep. My being awake probably has something to do with the ache in my stomach. They don't feed me much since they put me here. Sometimes, Celia brings me anything she could smuggle down here at night, but she didn't come last night. I hope nothing happened to her.

I shift my gaze to the untouched plate in the cell next to me for the nth time since I came to. What a waste. I can't afford to go crazy in my state and dull my plans. I have to stay sane. And an empty stomach doesn't help that.

"Are you gonna eat that?" I probe. She certainly hasn't made a move to do so, but it's her food and I should leave her alone. But if I don't get food in me right now, this pain in my stomach will continue to eat me alive, and I can't get sick right now.

She startles at my voice. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yeah. You haven't touched your food. If you're not eating it, can I have it?" Yes, I just asked for food. Fucking pathetic. But right now, I don't have a choice.

The woman ponders for a few seconds before she pushes the plate towards the bars between us. I straighten, my mouth already watering at the thought of having a bite of the familiar flavors I know Celia cooked, even if I haven't tried a piece yet.

"Sure. Help yourself."

For the first time since the female prisoner has arrived, I'm rewarded with her full attention when she angles her body towards me and lets me see her face.

And…fuck me seven ways til Sunday.

My chest tightens at the sight of her. You have got to be kidding me. Those eyes… I can't tell if the heavens is giving me a sign or playing with me. Surely, I'm not hallucinating. I'm just hungry, not insane.

She looks very familiar, but it's dark, so I can't be so sure it's her. And there's something on her face—like car grease or whatever the hell it is.

I haven't showered for a week, so I fucking stink. My beard has grown and I have bruises and dried blood on my face and body. I'd never let myself go in normal circumstances. I feel a bit self-conscious at the moment, yet I can't stop staring at her.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, my tone hesitant because now, I have a strong feeling that it's her.

"I don't know," she whispers, hugging her knees tighter.

"What did you do to be here?"

She scoffs. "I haven't done anything wrong."

It's my turn to scoff. "If you're here, then you must have done something. Either that or you're associated with someone who owes these people who put you here." I don't tell her they're my family. I don't know why I'm keeping that a secret. Also, I haven't done anything wrong—so I guess we're on the same boat.

Her brows furrow as she contemplates. After a minute, she mutters. "My family is going to find me. If not, I'll have to break out of here."

I laugh. "There's no breaking out of here, lady. You might as well get comfy." I can get out, but I don't think she can without anyone's help.

She shoots me a glare that gets my heart pumping. "I don't care what you think. I'm getting out of here."

"Good luck." I mean it. This place isn't for people like her.

Her lips press to a thin line. When she glances down at the plate, she immediately looks away as if looking at the food is too much. "Can you get that away from me, please? I said you can have it."

I look at her food and tentatively reach for the chicken, my fingers were painted with blotches of dried blood and dirt. "You don't like chicken?"

"Not anymore."

So she used to like it? "Why?" I can devour the whole thing in two bites but for some reason, I feel like I need to mind my manners around her. Which is hilarious. I rarely care about others.

Her eyes flash to mine and I chew slowly. "It's better if I don't tell you. Just finish that. You look like you haven't eaten for days."

A day, at least. But I've surely lost some weight since they put me down here. And what's up with the 'It's better if I don't tell you'? That just makes me want to know. "Vegan? Or are you allergic or something?"

She shakes her head.

"Why can't you tell me?"

"Why are you being nosy?"

Shit. Why am I being nosy? I'm not even a chatty person. Yet for some reason, I keep talking to her.

I shrug. I haven't talked to anyone for a few days now. The other two prisoners have gone senile and possibly slowly rotting away. Even a usually quiet person like me needs someone to talk to, so I can remain sane, right?

She thinks for a few seconds and then blurts. "I just don't like it."

I can see in her eyes that she's holding back something. I'm not going to push her. Whatever. After I finish the chicken, I reach between the bars and push the plate back to her. "I'm guessing you only don't like the meat. What about the vegetables?"

Just as I asked, her stomach rumbles loudly. My lip twitches but I stifle the smile. She turns away and began picking on the vegetables piece by piece and putting them in her mouth. "Thanks," she murmurs.

The food isn't enough to satiate my hunger, but I feel a little better now that my stomach is not empty anymore. Leaning against the wall, my eyes drift close a moment later, and the dingy room is quiet for a while as the two of us stop talking to each other. I figure she likes to keep to herself so I'm keeping my distance.

I'm not really sleeping, just closing my eyes. I try to stay alert to my surroundings as I lean at the corner of my cell, the bars to my left arm, and the wall on my back.

"Why are they keeping you here? What have you done to them?" Her soft voice is soothing to my ear and I slowly open my eyes, realizing she's leaning against the corner of her own cell next to me.

Have I fallen asleep? Why have I not noticed her move closer? Not being aware makes one weak. I don't like that.

My brain goes back to her question and I contemplate telling her who I am. In the end, I still don't. So I settle with some parts of the truth. "They think I poisoned one of them."

She turns her head to me as if analyzing me. "Who? Did you?"

"No."

But I want to.

I don't tell her this, of course.

She doesn't like my clipped answers and I refuse to tell her more. Her brows knit together, slightly annoyed. She bites her lip hard, slowly releases them, and then rattles off in rapid-fire.

"I stopped eating chicken when I've been served undercooked, raw, pink, friggin' salmonella-looking chicken two times in a week, at different restaurants. Every time I see one, I want to vomit. That happened a couple of years ago and it still haunts me now. So I can no longer eat without remembering."

Holy fucking—my stomach churns as if pushing its contents up my pipe, thinking about the chicken I ate and the one she described. It makes me want to hurl my guts out.

Disgusted, I turn away, close my eyes, and take deep breaths. I try to picture anything else other than chicken just to get the image off my mind. This woman is wild. She got annoyed and retaliated.

After a few moments, she asks, "What's your name? Who are you?"

"Why do you want to know?"

Her mouth opens and closes before she answers. "When my family comes for me—and I know they will, I can ask them to help you get out too."

"You don't even know me."

"So? That's why I'm asking for your name. Besides, we're both prisoners. That means you're their enemy. You know… My enemy's enemy is my friend. That kinda thing."

"Is that so?" I can't help the smirk on my face even if I try. She doesn't know what she's talking about.

"You want to get out of here or not?" She nearly snaps.

'Actually, right now, I'd rather get to know you.' So I decide to humor her. "Sure. If there's a chance. Why not?"

The woman nods, her eyes scanning the dark room again as if assessing her chances. She's not an ordinary person, I can feel it. The curiosity is killing me, and I'm slightly afraid to know I'm right about who she is.

"Who are you?" I ask.

"Huh?" She turns back to me as if she hasn't heard me just now—as if her mind was too busy looking for clues for her escape plan.

"What's your name?"

"Oh… Um. My name's Gabriella… Gabby."

My heart pounds in my rib cage so hard I think it's going to explode. I clutch my chest on instinct.

She shouldn't be here. I'm still surprised to find out who she is despite already having doubts. But I'll be damned. Because it's really her.

My Riri.


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