My skin didn’t fit. Mostly because it was designed to hold me, not the giant mass of bruises I’d become. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, but the gilded manacles on my hands, neck, and feet were there so that it would be.
That was going to become someone else’s problem the moment anyone came within the reach of the chains my captors had foolishly attached to the manacles.
Assuming I didn’t gag to death before then.
I’d been able to smell the prison before they’d dragged me into the city. Being chained in one of its cells did not improve the experience. I’d been weighing the benefits of gnawing off various limbs in an effort to escape but, sadly, gnawing off your own neck presents certain challenges. That didn’t mean it was any less tempting though.
“The one you’re looking for is down here. Don’t know what good she’d do someone like you though. Feral little thing’ll try to bite your head off.”
That was the voice of my redemption.
Also my jailer.
That he was speaking meant he was coming to see me. He’d done that three times so far, working up the nerve to get near my cell by pretending they had me completely under control.
To be fair, they did have me mostly under control.
Mostly however left room for mayhem.
I heard his voice while he was still descending the stairs at the far end of the hallway. The prison was built from old stones, and they spoke back the sounds they heard well enough to give me a minute’s warning that he was plodding onto the floor of empty cells I’d been tossed into. Of the twelve cells, mine was the only one with a living occupant in it and yet they’d chosen to place me in the cell that was farthest from the stairs. As though the extra few seconds after I broke free might buy them time to escape.
I wasn’t sure what I’d done to warrant the special placement.
Maybe this was the only floor they had with the special manacles and chains?
Seemed a bit much. I’d only lightly maimed a few of them when they tried to stop me from entering the city.
“Feral? How intriguing. Has that been the chirugeon’s diagnosis?”
That was a new voice.
And a new scent.
The jailer wore enough cologne that the regular stench of the prison was drowned out within ten feet of him.
It wasn’t an improvement.
The new scent was a far more subtle thing though.
Regretting it immediately, I pulled in a good lungful of air trying to identify the tiny hints I was picking up before they arrived.
Ash and lightning.
They were buried under the offal and piss and despair that had sunk into every crevasse of every stone, but the scents of ash and lighting were there and they were old and deep. Layers upon layers. Ashes from a match burned a moment ago atop the ashes of a hearth fire that had burned for years atop ashes from fires that had burned before the first human caught the first spark and made it their own.
And wound through it all, a current of lightning.
I backed up in my cell.
My jailer was four times my size, he was armed, and he was mean. Given the slightest provocation, or even the barest chance, he would hurt me and find joy in the act.
He wasn’t a concern.
The new voice though?
I didn’t want to meet him.
Not unless I could spring on him from the right ambush spot.
“Here you go,” my jailer said, stopped before the sigil etched door to my cell.
Hiding wasn’t going to do me any good.
And I was glad I hadn’t gnawed any limbs off yet.
I considered the window, but it too high to reach with the chains in place and covered in bars bearing the even more sigils than the door.
I guess the door was meant to be opened once in a while. The window was only there to let air and the occasional gusts of rain in. No need to allow for any possibility of passage there.
I heard the rattle of keys, and the jailer reciting an incantation under his breath.
Sure. Try to keep that secret. It didn’t matter. I could smell the incantation wouldn’t work for me, even if I had the keys and was on the right side of the door.
For the jailer though, it worked just fine.
Gears within the door spun in response to the spark the incantation sent through them, twirling other gears and retracting the bolts driven into the left side of the wall. The sigils on both sides of the door powered down too.
Not that I could see their glow fade with the manacles in place.
What sense would there have been to advertise that the traps had been disarmed to someone inside the cell?
With the locks and traps bypassed, the door swung open on its own, revealing my jailer standing beyond it.
He never came any closer than one pace into the room.
The person with him had no such sense of self preservation though.
As he stepped into the room the scent of ash and lightning didn’t grow any stronger.
That was odd.
Nothing else faded away, but his scent remained at a distance.
Was he drawing himself inwards the closer he got?
Not to give himself away?
Not to frighten me?
That did not work if so. Someone who could lie through the scent was far more frightening than someone who was merely bound to old powers.
I coiled up too, preparing for a strike I was currently incapable of making.
Not the right move.
Don’t approach larger predators from a position of aggression if you have no backup.
I knew that.
I’m not great at doing things how I’m supposed to.
The new person seemed bad at that too though.
Or bad at noticing impending attacks.
Or he just didn’t care.
Which was probably the case. He wasn’t backing away like a sensible human or looming over me like a sensible predator. He was just watching me.
Okay, he was looming a bit.
He was tall though. He couldn’t help but loom a little.
And he definitely wasn’t human, so the lack of backing away made sense too.
The eyes he focused on me could have been human, aside from the brightly burning red irises in them. His ears were similarly slightly askew too, longer and tapering to a sharper point than a human’s would have.
Mostly though it was his bones that were wrong. Too thin, and too long. He looked like someone had taken a handsome man and carved away a bit here and a curve there in order to leave sharp edges everywhere.
The horns and the fangs were sort of out of place too.
But they were small, so easy to overlook.
“Magister class manacles?” the stranger asked, glancing at the golden bindings I was fitted with.
“She was a devil and a half to put on the ground,” my jailer said. “Didn’t want to risk it with any of the weaker ones.”
“Those can’t be comfortable,” the stranger said.
He wasn’t wrong. The constant burning had been a solid addition to the “gnaw off a limb” side of my internal debate.
“Deserves worse after what she did to our boys,” my jailer said.
He clearly had no idea what I was going to do to him, but that was fine. Some things are better as surprises.
“It seems like it may have been an even exchange,” the stranger said, kneeling down to eye my busted and broken everything. “Or were these delivered after the Magisters were in place.”
Of course the beating that had stuck had been after I’d been manacled. It was kind of a stupid question.
Except the stranger didn’t know me, or what I could do.
“Naw, she got those while she was still unbound,” the jailer lied. “Our boys aren’t goons. They know the laws.”
“Do they now? Even the one about injured and untried prisoners being afforded a visit from a chirurgeon to ensure they remain fit to stand trial?” the stranger asked.
“Oh. Sure. Yeah, we do that,” the jailer said. “There hasn’t been a trial set though. With the Spring Princepts Festival, they put those on hold for this week.”
The stranger closed his eyes and rubbed between the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. For a brief moment the scent of ash and lighting became stronger and I tensed.
It wasn’t directed at me though.
From how my jailer didn’t back away I could tell he was too nose blind to notice it. That seemed like a potentially fatal disability but not one I had to care about. Whatever the stranger might do to him would probably be at least as horrible as what I had planned.
“Do you mean to tell me that the Imperial Correction and Reformation Institutes official policy is to leave unconvicted prisoners without medical care and simply hope that they remain viable to properly prosecute after a minimum of seven days spent under a suppression field designed to contain a Magister class caster?” The stranger didn’t open his eyes, turn to look at my jailer, or rise from his kneeling position.
“Well, we’re not Imperial, so I can’t say,” my jailer stammered. “We just need to make sure they’re okay before the trial so that’s what we do.”
“Not Imperial?” the stranger sighed. “Of course. Imperial Corrections has contracted out the labor requirements for their Empress-appointed duties.”
“It’s all legal sir,” my jailer said, seeming to finally be aware that the stranger was dangerously unhappy with him.
“Oh, but of course it is,” the stranger said, opening his eyes and bending his lips into the sort of smile found on the edge of a knife. “Most anything can be if there is suitable profit in it for the right people.”
“Right,” my jailer agreed. The panicked sweat he’d been exuding subsided and was drowned under his cologne, indicating that he really wasn’t following the conversation well.
“Very well,” the stranger said. “I suppose there’s no need to fetch a chirurgeon at this point. A better diagnosis will be available from a proper specialist.”
“Your pardon, but I don’t think any other specialists will be making calls here,” my jailer said. “All the healer are off for the week too.”
The stranger laughed at that.
“You think with a festival in full swing, the healers get to take time off? That’s adorable. Tell me, what would you do you were to stumble into something painful during a night of debauchery? Say some inconsiderate person left a knife somewhere that you’d quite accidentally managed to trip into?”
“Well I’d go to the hospital then, wouldn’t I?” my jailer said.
“And who would be there?”
“The healers,” my jailer said, mystified by the question.
The stranger opened his mouth to say something but paused and closed it again. I don’t know people, but that seemed like the smartest choice he could have made. Some conversations do nothing but kill brain cells, and I suspected if it went on longer the stranger might get around to killing all of the jailer’s brain cells, possibly one by one.
“And we’re getting off topic,” the stranger said instead. “So foolish when we have such an interesting puzzle in front of us.”
He was looking directly at me when he said that. It did not make me feel overly comfortable.
“My apologies, I have been unbearably rude,” the stranger said. “Here I am speaking of you rather than to you. Must be something in the air.” He waved a hand in front of his nose as though that could possibly shoo away the jailer’s stench. “Proper introductions first I believe. I am Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, an Imperial Advisor. That is a terribly tiresome title though so you may call me Doxle if you prefer. May I ask how you desire to be addressed?”
I looked from him to the jailer and back. It didn’t seem like the stranger, Doxle, was mocking me. He apparently just liked words.
“Sure,” I said, perfectly aware that wasn’t the right answer to his question.
Where I’d expected to see irritation flash across the stranger’s face, the twitch of muscles near his eyes suggested mirth instead.
“Thank you,” he said and with a wave of his hand and a short bow of his head added, “how do you desire to be addressed?”
“Kati,” I said.
It was my name. I could have lied, but that seemed pointless. If Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, Imperial Advisor couldn’t figure out my name then he wasn’t dangerous enough to bother misleading.
“Well then Lady Kati, would you perchance be interested in entering into an arrangement with me?”
Doxle’s eyes gleamed with a hungry, flickering light and the scent of ashes rose all around me. There was danger in his designs. There was danger in him. None of that was exactly surprising though. Not with what he was.
The question was, did I want to make a deal with the finely dressed devil who stood before me?