The dungeon stench hit me like a hammer, fouler than the putrescent atmosphere of Endan’s lab with a rotting corpse within it, and lacking the sweet undertones of a decaying cadaver. I imagined that Aryden never ventured into this place, knew little about what happened down here, cared even less. No one wants to know how the sausage is made if it tastes okay.
Then there was the lack of light. Only sporadic torches, all of them burning low and smoky, dotted the sconces on the walls, providing just enough illumination to color the dungeon’s contents with gray upon gray upon black, touched by the occasional orange or red.
I could hear two men talking, low to one another.
“Come on, then,” the first said. “Don’t you think she needs some more punishment?”
“Yeah,” agreed the second. “But I’ve grown bored of hitting her. Perhaps she needs something a little more suited to teaching a lesson to a woman.”
“Try it and I’ll curse your cock to rot and fall off,” came a low voice in response, the threatening grumble of a cornered animal more than willing to take its attacker with it into death.
“And I’ll make sure it doesn’t come back,” I said, startling the two men. They turned, at first readying their short clubs, but, upon recognizing me, they moved them behind their backs like children hiding something they weren’t supposed to have. “Go,” I continued, “and don’t come back until I send for you. And if I hear that you’ve touched her again, you’ll have plenty to fear from the both of us.”
They scrambled past me, leaving the cell door open, making their way past the other stone and iron cages and up the stairs into the light. With a minor sorcery, I brought the flames of the torches to a brighter burn, allowing me to see Falla, chained by her arms to the stone wall, her hair wild, dress ragged at the edges, body bruised and bloody.
“So you’ve come to interrogate me now they’ve prepared the way,” Falla growled at me.
“You waited until they’d beaten me. Badly. Thanks for that.” She spit blood and mucus onto the dungeon’s dirt floor to accentuate the statement. “They weren’t asking me any questions, just afraid I’d put a curse on them if they left me able to think straight. At least they gave me these nice chains to lean on.”
To make her point, she braced her feet in the seam between floor and wall and leaned forward, suspending herself in mid air by her arms, the chains that bound them pulled taught and screeching softly and link rubbed against link. She held this position for only a moment before her muscles began to tremble and she collapsed with a gasp, unable to sit fully because of the height of the chains, too tired and injured to support herself with her legs.
“Damn you, Iaren amn Ennoc,” she whispered. “After I came to your rescue, and you let me be arrested like some common criminal, like some worshiper of the Abyss.”
“I didn’t ‘let’ anything happen, Falla! I can’t be two places at once. You sent me after Nilma. How could I know that Barro would find Aryden and use this whole mess against you?”
“I thought you were clever,” she said, smiling sardonically with her bloody teeth. “How could you not see that coming? They’re going to burn me, you know.”
Before I responded, I found a stool in the narrow hallway outside of the stool, brought it in and placed it under Falla so that she could sit on it. “I know,” I said.
“How are you going to stop it?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t yet thought of a way that lets me keep Magaréil’s cult a secret.”
“You haven’t told Aryden?”
“I haven’t. You asked me not to and I gave you my word. Why would you think that I’d broken it so quickly?”
“You betrayed me, didn’t you? Left me here to be Aryden’s scapegoat. Isn’t that about right? Let me be to blame for what Magaréil did so that the status quo can be maintained? Gave Barro what he’s wanted for some time and placate the amn Esti at the same time?”
Her cunning assessment of the politics of Vaina fell by the wayside to her accusation. “I didn’t betray you!” I protested.
“You didn’t help me! Damn those fucking visions.”
The non-sequitur took me back. “What do you mean?”
“They told me you might become a killer if you pursued your path. They didn’t tell me I’d be the one you killed.”
“I’m not the one responsible!”
“Iaren, if you stand by and let them do this to me, you’ll be just as responsible as the rest of them.” She shifted on the stool, trying to find a comfortable position that avoided the bruises.
“So are you,” I said, defiant.
“You told me not to reveal the existence of the cult. You stuck me between protecting the townsfolk and protecting you. I erred on the side of saving the most people first.”
“Happy mathematics, that,” she said, a fatalistic titter escaping her.
She looked up at me. Looked me straight in the eyes. I swear I could feel the depths of her soul in that moment, the confusing confluence of exultation in the righteousness of her sacrifice and the fear of her fate. “Don’t you let them burn me, Iaren amn Ennoc. You do whatever you can to get me out of her. I beg of you.”
The earnestness of her plea struck deeper even than the thought of my own responsibility for her state. “I’ll do what I can,” I said weakly.
She nodded and turned her face from me. “There’s one more thing.”
“I…I gave Nilma a potion. A love potion. She’d come to me so distraught over Orren’s rejection of her and…she had coin.”
My sympathies fell away with the knowledge that she’d concealed something so important from me. “What use have you for coin?”
She looked up again, now defiant. “I cannot make everything I need to live! And the spirits do not concern themselves with such petty needs as hunger and health. From time to time, I must needs venture into town to purchase goods. I bear the signs of the Tree, the spitting, the cursing, the fear, the revulsion. You’ve seen it yourself. And yet those same people will come to me when they have need. As Nilma did.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“Nothing came of it. Orren never changed his ways with Nilma, continued to heap scorn upon her, so I thought she’d never used it. You’ll have to ask her what came of it.”
I shook my head, part disbelief, part disillusion with the thought that I’d found someone here I could trust. “This whole thing was a manipulation, wasn’t it? You never wanted to help me; you wanted me to get rid of Magaréil for you. You wanted to take their authority over the townsfolk of Vaina for yourself. And its Place of Power.”
“No!” she said at first, but paused. “Yes. I wanted to be rid of Magaréil. But not because I wanted power—they were a danger to Vaina, as you’ve seen. They were too strong for me to confront alone, but I meant to ask for your help, not to beguile you. It was happenstance—or Magaréil’s own choices—that forced the issue. I only arrived to help you when I knew you were in danger. If I’d meant to direct you, it would have been the other way around. Even then, my desire was only to protect Vaina—from the amn Vaina’s specter and from its Orösave, Your arrival gave me hope I could take action against both—with your willing help.”
I reserved any judgment about whether I believed her. At present, it really didn’t matter—what was done was done. “I have to go,” I said, “but I will come back for you.”
“You’d better,” she said. “You don’t want another specter haunting you, do you?” She smiled, but this did little to clarify the ambiguity over whether she intended a joke or a threat.
The two jailers waited at the top of the stairs in the hallway. I eyed them both, letting an awkward silence creep in before speaking. Once they began to look to one another and to the ground to avoid my gaze, I broke the quiet with hard words, barely more than a whisper, like a knife held to throat. “If you so much as touch her again, I will enact such curses upon you that you will wish you had died. But you will not. I will make it a personal pleasure to watch over you, ensure that death does not take you until I have decided that your suffering may come to an end. Do you understand me?”