Saba walked quickly down the dark hallway toward Lemus’ study. The guard standing at attention outside the door straightened up as Saba neared. It seemed strange that the usual faces were not seen anymore in the mansion, having been replaced immediately as Lemus took control. But that was the least of Saba’s worries on this night.
“I need to speak with him,” he told the guard.
The man nodded and opened the door behind him, disappearing momentarily. His muffled voice could be heard through the door. There was a pause before he came back and tilted his head toward the room. Saba pushed the door open and strode into the room, his temper already rising.
Lemus sat at his desk, the glow of candlelight illuminating piles of parchment in front of him. Some were stacked in neat piles while others were spread out haphazardly, like a strong wind had blown through the room. He lazily lifted his head as Saba entered and motioned for Saba to come closer. “Come in. I’ve been meaning to have a few words with you.”
Saba walked to the front of the desk, ignoring the few empty chairs along the wall. “I want to talk with you about Kael.”
“Yes. I’m sure you do. My guards at the jail tell me that you have been over there, bothering them constantly to let the boy go.” Lemus sat back in his chair.
“Yes. Of course I have. How could I do anything different?”
Lemus smiled at this. “Well, I have a few ideas. To start with, you will stay away from the jail. The boy attacked me and his actions were punishable by death. He has already been executed, so you are wasting your time. I understand that you were his tutor?”
“…am his tutor,” Saba corrected.
Lemus laughed. “If you are indeed smart enough to call yourself anyone’s tutor, then you should know that when someone is dead, it is no longer appropriate to speak of them in the present.”
Saba gave no reaction to the man’s reply.
“Well, isn’t that interesting, a teacher with nothing to say? That’s good. Finally you are starting to get the hang of this.” Lemus paused while he scooted his chair back and stood up to look Saba in the eyes. “I do have something to say to you, however. Your room has been emptied and its contents packed in boxes. I have provided a cart and a mule to carry your belongings. You will find everything waiting for you in the courtyard. I suggest that you take advantage of my generosity and leave the city tonight. I understand that you have many connections in the surrounding territory; I’m sure that you will find a place to stay.”
“You have no right,” Saba began, his voice suddenly rising above the normal conversational tone. “This has been my home and these people my family before anyone had ever heard of you…”
“I have every right,” Lemus shot back, interrupting. “This is my home now and I do not wish to take care of old men who have the ability to take care of themselves. But more importantly, I no longer require the services of a tutor.”
Saba opened his mouth to say more, but Lemus kept talking.
“If you have heard nothing of what I have said this night, hear this. My soldiers have orders to kill you on sight, if you are ever found in this city again. Take your belongings and leave. This is your last chance.”
Saba stood motionless for a moment, looking into the eyes of Lemus. He had so many things to say, but none of them would accomplish anything except to risk his own life. After a few seconds, he spun on his heels and stormed out of the room. As he walked down the hallway, he overheard Lemus’ voice.
“No more visitors.”
“Yes, my lord,” the guard replied.
* * * *
Kael found himself lying face-down on the floor of a small, dimly lit room. It was a stone floor with layers of dust covering everything except a few scuffled footprints and a small area in front of his face, cleared by his breath. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see that the walls and the ceiling were the same color as the floor and he assumed that they too were stone. At the other end of the room, he could barely make out dark vertical stripes that had the look of iron bars.
He lifted his head to get a better look at the room, but his vision began to swim and he suddenly felt nauseous. Putting his head back down on the dirty floor, he took deep breaths and waited for the nausea to pass. The floor felt cold against his hot face, which seemed to pulse with its own heart beat. After his stomach settled, Kael managed to lift a hand to the side of his head where Lemus struck him. It felt swollen. The tips of his fingers passed over crusted areas of dried blood. The skin was bruised and sensitive to the touch.
Kael closed his eyes and rested his weary body, letting his ears explore the surroundings that his eyes were not yet able to. After a while he could make out the sound of water dripping. Someone coughed and it sounded far away. Suddenly, he heard a loud creak and a metal clang like a door closing.
Footsteps could be heard, faintly at first, but growing louder with every step. Eventually they stopped in front of the metal bars of his cell. Kael opened his eyes and squinted to see who it was, but his vision was blurry; he couldn’t focus on anything beyond the metal bars. He blinked a few times, but it didn’t seem to help much. He dared not lift his head again, so he waited to see what would happen.
The squeal of metal upon metal sounded harsh against the silence. Whoever it was had opened the door and stepped into his cell, leaving the door open behind him. The blurry shape moved slowly forward and Kael looked up without lifting his head. The person began to take shape and definition as it got closer, revealing the man’s features and the bandage around his leg.
“Are you surprised to see me?” asked the man.
Kael didn’t answer.
“Oh, it wasn’t quite as bad as it looked. You, on the other hand, don’t seem to be doing so well.”
The sounds of Lemus’ voice hurt Kael’s ears, which felt hot and tender. He tried to ignore both the man’s loud voice and the intended message of his words. Suddenly, there was a flicker of blurred movement and Kael felt Lemus’ foot crash into his stomach, throwing him against the back wall. All of the air shot out of his lungs and he started to panic, fighting for a breath. Just when he thought he couldn’t go any longer without air, his lungs started to work again, accepting only small breaths at a time.
Lemus stood in the middle of the room, unmoving.
Kael pushed himself up into a sitting position to be ready for another attack. He still felt a little nauseous, but the fear was causing it to wear off quickly.
Lemus didn’t advance, but stayed in the middle of the room and crossed his arms.
“That’s better,” he said, as if Kael had been wrong to be lying down before. “You know, your father wasn’t perfect either.” He trailed off, trying to choose the right words.
“Did you know…did he ever tell you what he did with criminals? I’ll bet he didn’t. It’s actually quite admirable.” Lemus took a few steps forward and crouched down in front of Kael.
“Your father knew that everyone had a use to the Empire, even criminals. Usually they could be bribed in some way, or turned into informants, but sometimes that wouldn’t work. So your father would put them in jail, keep them without food or water for days, until it was time. Then a jailer would come in, put a black bag over their head and lead them into the execution room. There they were given the opportunity to confess all their wrongdoings or be tortured and if they withheld nothing, they would be released. But they weren’t released. After the torturing, the executioner would come out and…” Lemus dragged a thumb across his neck. The stubble under his chin made a loud scratching noise in the small room.
Kael showed no expression toward Lemus’ story and it angered the tall man.
“It is a practice I intend to continue and I am pleased that you have chosen to participate.” A large smile spread across his face. He was trying to scare Kael, but it wasn’t working. Lemus rose to his feet, wincing slightly in the process and turned around. Kael noticed his limp just as his features began to blur into a vaguely man-shaped blotch in his vision. The loud metal clang of the door signaled the end of the one-sided conversation.
The next few days were much the same as the first—at least it seemed like days, though it was impossible to tell without seeing the sunlight. Everything looked just the same to him. The same stone walls, the same flickering torchlight from down the hallway. Hunger gnawed at him like an insect buzzing in his ear. He was uncomfortable no matter what he did. Sitting, standing, pacing the floor; nothing seemed to help.
Mother’s probably worried. I wonder if she even knows I’m here. Poor Ajani. He wasn’t moving and I can’t remember anything after Lemus hit me. Kael still remembered the first time he saw a dead rat. It was just lying there on its side, its mouth open, like it died in pain. He remembered the nightmares he used to have and how he would cry when he thought about how it used to be a live animal, and now it was just a lump of dead flesh. I hope Ajani’s not dead! And Father too. I hope he’s alive, out there somewhere on a secret mission that he has to do by himself. It was lonely in the cell. I wish Saba was here with me. He always makes things fun and interesting.
The creaking sound of a metal door interrupted his thoughts.
It must be morning. There was always more movement and sounds right after Kael woke up, only this time, he hadn’t slept.
He heard footsteps coming down the hallway and the sound made his heart quicken. He wasn’t sure why he was scared, maybe they were finally bringing some food. Lemus was probably just trying to scare him for a few days, letting him think about what he had done.
The footsteps were getting louder and Kael instinctively backed away from the bars. A large man appeared in front of his cell. He was a jailer and it looked to Kael as if this man hadn’t seen the light of day in several years. He was fat, with pale skin and uneven stubble that made him look like he was dead. Kael had never seen a dead person before, but he imagined that they would look like this. The man pulled a ring of keys from his belt and began to unlock the cell door. Kael watched for several seconds before he noticed the piece of black fabric hanging from the jailer’s belt. A hood!
All at once, Lemus’ story came back to him. He was coming to take Kael to the torture chamber. Kael backed away, but there was nowhere to go.
The jailer hooked the key ring back on his belt and pushed open the door, stepping into the cell. With one hand held out to the side of his overweight body to prevent the prisoner from escaping, he pulled out the black hood.
Kael saw an opening and ran toward the man, ducking under his legs.
The jailer was quicker than he looked. He pulled his legs together just in time to catch Kael by the waist. Kael tried to kick and wiggle his way out from the man’s legs, but the jailer dropped to the ground, pinning him in place. It felt like a horse had fallen on top of him. There was nothing he could do but wait and try to keep breathing. The man slipped the hood over Kael’s head, then pulled his arms behind him and tied them with rope.
Then the man stood up and lifted Kael to his feet, shoving him down the hallway. Kael stumbled along, not knowing which direction to go. The sour smell of the hood made his head spin and combined with the inability to see, Kael lost all sense of direction. The jailer’s heavy hand grabbed hold of his shoulder and pushed him along.
They walked in this manner for a short while before the jailer pulled Kael to a stop. The jingling of keys could be heard as the man searched for the one to open the door that must be in front of them.
Kael could barely make out the orange glow of torches through the thick hood. He waited until the man let go of his shoulder, then jumped away and ran down what he thought was the hallway. He followed the line of the torches, keeping in between where he thought they were. The laugh of the jailer was loud and unexpected. Suddenly he hit a wall with full speed where one should not have been and slumped to the floor. His head was ringing and he fought to stay conscious as the smell of the hood over his head made him want to vomit.
The jailer caught up with Kael and pulled him to his feet again.
It’s useless. There’s no way to escape.
The jailer shoved him through the door that was now unlocked and immediately Kael felt a difference in the air. They were outside. The crunch of gravel under his feet was the only sound as the jailer pushed Kael’s shoulder, keeping him moving forward. After a short distance, they stopped again.
“Put him in the back,” someone said.
Then, Kael was lifted off the ground and into the back of a covered wagon. A harsh clank sounded as the iron gate was shut and locked. Is this the executioner? Is he taking me away?
Outside the wagon, someone mumbled something.
“He’ll have a witness,” the jailer replied. His voice was hushed, but Kael could still make out his words.
“I don’t like this,” the other man said.
“Just stick to the plan and keep your mouth shut.”
The carriage began to move. Kael waited nervously, completely confused. He expected to be taken to the executioner’s chamber to have his head cut off, but something else was happening.
After a few minutes, the wagon stopped again and Kael was taken out and walked across a wooden dock. He could hear the lapping of the water underneath him and the creak of the timbers that supported their weight. They changed direction a few times, then walked across a plank and onto the deck of a ship. His footsteps sounded more hollow than before, and the ship moved with the gentle motion of the water.
Kael was taken below deck and stopped in front of an open door. Suddenly, the hood was pulled from his head and he was shoved from behind. With his hands still tied behind him, he fell to the floor in the middle of a small room. The door slammed behind him. Kael lifted his head and saw that his room was completely bare. No furniture and no windows except for a small peep hole in the middle of the door. It was another jail cell.
The ship began to move and Kael crawled to the corner of the room, leaning against the wall for support.
Where are they taking me?
* * * *
The sound of retching echoed down the hallway and Zula quickened her pace toward the noise. Patches of sunlight dappled the steps leading up to the master’s chambers and Zula rushed past, wondering what horrible thing was happening now. At the top of the stairs, she pushed open the bedroom doors and turned toward the bathing room, relieved that Lemus had left the house early in the morning. There, hunched over in the corner, was Maeryn, unaware that anyone else was in the room.
It took Zula only a second to realize what was happening. “Whose child is it in your womb?”
Maeryn lifted her head, startled, but didn’t turn to face the slave woman. “What are you talking about?” she mumbled, still facing the wall.
“Don’t bother trying to hide it from me,” countered Zula. “It is going to be obvious in a few months anyway.”
Maeryn turned around. Her eyes were red with tears and her skin was a few shades paler than usual. “It’s Adair’s.”
“Are you sure?” the slave woman asked, not wholly believing her answer.
“Yes I’m sure.” Maeryn stared at the ground and began to cry again.
Zula resisted the urge to hug the other woman. Maeryn would need to toughen up quickly if she hoped to survive now, although, it was becoming obvious that she didn’t care either way.
“You’re worried about the safety of this child because of what happened to Kael.”
Maeryn replied only with a nod.
“How will my new master know that it is not his child?”
Zula’s question hung in the air as Maeryn considered the words. After a long silence, she lifted her head. “You’re right. He would have no idea that it’s not his child.” The tears had stopped, replaced by a gleam of hope in her eyes.
Zula pushed on, hoping to further encourage the lady. “It would be the safest way to bring this child into the world. Men like him think nothing of hurting other people, but are protective of their own children.”
Maeryn’s face turned from one of anguish to one of restrained happiness in a matter of seconds. “Thank you.”
“M’lady, might I make a suggestion?” the dark-skinned woman asked, fully intending to give her opinion anyway. When Maeryn didn’t object, she continued. “Your life may have changed for the worse, but you have many opportunities around you. You must choose to see them.”
Maeryn nodded her head, considering the words.
Even Zula had to admit the oddity of giving advice to her master, but something told her that this woman was different. This woman would listen and not be offended.
“Zula, would you please fetch me some water to clean this up?”
“I’ll clean it, Miss.”
“No. I couldn’t let you do that,” Maeryn objected, repulsed by the thought.
“I don’t mind. You need to get some rest.” Zula turned around and walked away, not leaving any more room for discussion.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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