I awoke, groggy-headed, strapped to a chair. The scene reminded me of something I’d been likelier to find in Ilessa, had I run afoul of one of the Coin Lords or their various lieutenants.
The chair, and thus I, sat in the center of a crude cellar, undoubtedly under the im Varde home. I could smell mold and rot, the sweetness of spilled wine and wood, something like petrichor that I assumed was the upturned dirt, rectangular, that had been freshly dug next to me.
A wooden table and several hooks anchored in the support beams built into the earthen wall to my left held a curious array of farming and gardening implements: trowels, hoes, knives, saws and axes, any of which could handily be turned into a crude device of torture.
The three men with whom I’d fought leaned against the wall in which the descending stairs had been cut or stood nearby, all of them focused on Daedys, who by now had clothed himself in the finery of someone of the wealth he feigned having but lacked altogether.
The bravos had left their weapons above, probably along with the belt I now found missing. I’d have very much liked to burn them where they stood with a sorcery or thaumaturgic incantation, and without their pressing attacks to distract me, I might have been able to execute such a working, were it not for the pounding headache and mild sense of vertigo that continued to plague me from the bump on my skull. It would have hurt to burn them up anyway, given the Power it would have required. Might even have been truly dangerous to my body. Had my thoughts been clearer, I’d probably have accepted the risk. In my present state, though, I was just as likely to set myself aflame instead of them and to die watching them laugh at me.
I strained to hear the words that Daedys whispered to his lackeys, but I could make out none of it. Still, I grasped the situation. They hadn’t killed me, so they were keeping me alive to find out what I knew. About what in particular, I wasn’t sure, but I knew their very questions might prove clues themselves—if I managed to survive after the interrogation had concluded. A short window of opportunity lay before me now; if I couldn’t escape before that time had passed, that would be the end of it.
Once the constable had finished giving the men his orders, he set off up the stairs, on his way to attend the earliest of the day’s wedding events, thereby avoiding suspicion for what would come later, or at least working on his alibi.
The three men grinned to one another like idiots, like children told that no one would be watching over them for a time, that they could get away with whatever they wanted so long as one commanded thing was done. This, I imagined, was what they’d joined Deadys’ constabulary for in the first place—not to protect their fellow townsfolk, not even to avoid the harder labor of the fields. For the chance to hurt people. Really hurt them. And I had become that chance.
The first man looked to the other two. “Shouldn’t we gag ‘im or something? So as he doesn’t enchant us or nothin’?”
The furthest right (to me) of the three men looked to the first with an expression of superiority that almost made my laugh; I knew intuitively what he was about to say. “How’s he gonna talk, then? Think, Balen!”
Balen shrugged sheepishly in response. Briskly, he strode up to be and struck me across the face with his fist. I could feel my brain swing around the inside of my skull and jiggle slightly before coming to rest.
“You’re supposed to ask a question, first,” I told him, spitting a bit of blood into the adjacent grave.
“You’ve got to learn who’s in charge, first,” Balen responded.
“Daedys is. You’re just the lackey.” I don’t know why I said it. Anger, a defiant streak in me that overcomes my common sense, a conviction that I’m just that funny.
It certainly wasn’t that I wasn’t scared. I was. Deeply. Between the chair that held me immobile, the three men and the ad hoc burial I had to look forward to, I didn’t see a lot of hope in my future. And there’s not much that makes a thaumaturge feel helpless than when he can’t perform a working—once you’ve tasted that power it’s a hard thing to be without it. More comforting than a good blade or a fine pistol, the Art is when it comes to defense. And yet, my anger at the unfairness of it all, at the lack of chance I seemed to have, pushed my fear aside just enough to keep some modicum of cool.
Balen raised his fist to strike again, but the third man stepped forward with his hand raised to stop him. The remaining bravo leaned against the back wall, watching, silent.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” the third man said. “It can go easy.”
“That’s my line,” I told him.
“Balen, get a hook from the table. Let’s see how tough the lord thaumaturge really is.”
I looked to the makeshift grave. “You don’t think that’s ironic?” I asked.
“Huh?” The third man said.
“Well, I came here to investigate a spirit haunting the castle. Deadys has decided you should kill me and—without any rites—bury me in his cellar. You’ve heard from Barro that killing a man without giving him his rites is a good way to create a restless spirit, haven’t you? Did you know that the Aenyr and other ancient cultures used to bury animals alive for the exact purpose of creating guardian spirits to watch over a place?”
Both Balen and the third man hesitated for just a moment, but the second spoke up. “It’s not our house,” he growled. “Not our problem.”
I smiled my bloody smile. “Maybe not that part. At first. But you’ve heard of death curses, haven’t you? Who do you think mine will fall on? Blood is Power, and the more of mine you spill, the heavier my curse will be on you.”
“Pfft,” the second man guffawed. “You don’t know our names. How can you curse us without our names? ‘Cept Balen, of course. Guess he’s plowed.” The second and third men chuckled as Balen cringed.
“Fool. You’re standing right in front of me. I see you, as you are, your essence. What need have I of a name?” Exaggerated, maybe, but mostly true.
The three men became uncomfortable now. They huddled together, speaking in low tones, one of them occasionally throwing a glance over his shoulder at me. I almost wanted to laugh, but my face hurt.
Instead, I concentrated as best I could on the ropes that bound me to the chair, tugging at them with a sorcery, hoping to find the right angle to pull them looser rather than tighter. Without being able to see what I was doing, the work would be slow. As long as the men conferenced, I kept at it.
They didn’t give me long. Not nearly long enough. The second man broke from the group and went to the bench of tools, pulling free a set of sheep shears. “Get a set of tongs,” he said to Balen. “We’ll be out with his tongue and then we’ll see how well he can curse us.” Without hesitation, Balen left the room in search of the implement.
“Again, how are you going to get me to talk if cut out my tongue?”
“Aw, I bet a smart fellow like you can write his answers if we get some parchment for you. You’re right-handed, ain’t ya? Sword arm and all. Guess that means we’ll have to start our work on the left hand to leave you the good one for your answers, huh?”
I thought to explain to the man that a working doesn’t require speech, which only serves as an aid for focusing the mind, but I’d already played on his superstitions enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pull that thread.
The man pushed my hand flat against the chair’s armrest, splaying my fingers out so that he could grab my pinky finger and maneuver the old scissors around it. I struggled, to little avail, which only made him smile the wider. Behind him, the third man now watched patiently, and I saw little chance of quickly finding a way to get him to intervene and stall the inevitable.
“You’re supposed to ask a question first,” I offered, feeling the sweat beading on palms and forehead.
“I think it’s probably better you get a taste of the consequences first,” he smiled with a mouth of half-rotten teeth.
He started, slowly, savoring the moment, to close the blades against flesh. I let out a gasp at the first bite of the iron, the slow, building pressure excrutiating. Only then did I notice that this my torturer was missing the end of his own left thumb, which had been wrapped in a linen bandage. I expected no reprieve now and doubted even that the man would take seriously Daedys’ orders to question me first.
But a reprieve, most expected, did come. Before the sheers had progressed too far, we all heard Balen’s footsteps on the stairs. He clambered down hurriedly, no tongs but a matchlock pistol, match fuming, in his hand. His companions shouted at him as he raised the piece to point at me, but he’d made up his mind, the fear of my reprisal against him too much to bear.
The pain had clarified some of the daze caused by the blow to my head, and the clear and present danger of immediate death allowed a sort of focus that I’d not had a moment before. And so I worked a sorcery, a sense of justified retaliation welling up within me as I did.
I imagined the ball within the barrel of that piece, nestled within the wadding that held it and powder in place. I imagined the ball welding itself to the barrel, forming itself so that sealed the open end of the pistol shut, a solid piece of crude metal corking the weapon. I thought of wax, melting, flowing and solidifying. In my minds eye I held the thought of the glowing ingot in the blacksmith’s forge, soft and malleable. I imagined a corked wineskin exploding as the pressure of fermenting grapes became too much to bear. I uttered no words, could make no gestures. I hoped that my will and the clarity of my sympathetic analogies were sufficient to create the effect I intended.
Balen, desperation across his face and in his trembling hand, pulled the trigger, plunging the lit matchcord into the chamber. For a split-second, nothing happened; the fire required a moment to ignite the powder. When it did, thunder and lightning filled the room as the pistol exploded into a thousand slivers of angry wood and steel. Balen, of course, took the brunt of it, the force of detonation mangling his hand and sending shards of the disintegrating weapon into body and face at high speed.
Though they stood farther away, the other two men caught a fair amount of the fragments of the makeshift grenado as well, my assassin’s back thankfully shielding me from the brunt of the explosion. The blast propelled him forward against me, the shears cutting against the web between my fingers before it clattered to the floor. We followed, my torturer and I, as he pushed the chair backwards along his own trajectory.
The chair shattered against the hard-packed earth of the cellar floor, leaving me tangled in a wreckage of wood and rope, some storm-tossed sailor borne aloft by good Wyrgeas.
We all lay there, moaning, for a moment, our collective bleating dulled by the assault upon our ears the detonation had wrought. All sound I could make out pushed its way through a barrier of constant ringing and a pressure in my ear canals that caused me to worry that they, too, might explode.
But the projectiles created by the pistol itself had mostly missed me, and—aside from a bloody finger, a bruise across the face and a large bump forming on the back of my skull (which I’d narrowly managed to avoid striking against the floor in my fall)—I remained mostly hale.
I craned my neck under the weight of the man atop me, searching with my eyes for the shears. Seeing them in the glint of the lamplight, I stretched my fingers out, my hand pulling itself across the floor in an effort to gain the slightest extra reach, until I could touch them with the tips of my middle three fingers. I pulled at them, fruitlessly at first, before gaining just enough purchase with the pads of my fingers to bring the shears into my palm and a complete grip.
My torturer could see what I was doing, but in the concussion of the blast and the pain of the shards embedded in his back, he had no energy to defy me. Instead, he only looked pleadingly at me, begging me with his eyes not to do what we both knew I would do. His mouth trembled as he tried to make a sound but could not.
I brought the shears down into his back, over and over again, a matter of catharsis more than survival, the sudden release of all the tension I’d had a moment before when torture and execution seemed to be all I had left. I rolled the body off of me and into the makeshift grave beside. It seemed fitting.
Slowly, achingly, I stood, shaking the remnants of the chair and my bonds free like some spirit breaking out of a summoning circle.
Balen had been killed by the blast, or near enough that I couldn’t tell the difference. The third man lay on his back, small splinters of wood and steel protruding in an irregular pattern from his face, torso and hands. One appeared to be lodged in his eye, wiggling slightly as his gaze darted from place to place, attempting to recover a knowledge of where he lay and what had happened. He posed no threat and I had neither need nor desire for further violence, having purged the drive with the stabbing of the man who’d tried to drown me the night before.
Having been drawn by the sound of the explosion, the servant Mosan peered down from the top of the stairs. Seeing me coming out of the smoke that lingered in the air, he fled. I smiled.
I hobbled back to the main floor and, after meandering amongst scattering servants for a few moments, found my sword belt. I checked my gear and, finding it all still there, made my way from the sprawling complex and back out to the street.
The suns had risen high, so I must have been out for some time before I came to in the cellar. I didn’t have long before the amn Esto wedding would begin.