(Scene opens on a dungeon cell. The walls are of rough, pitted blocks that might once have been red sandstone, but are now a dirty rust-grey, streaked with age. The cell is roughly 12x12, with a straw-lined floor and a barred window, high up on the back wall, that shows a sky and stars. Two men, both thin and filthy, sit in adjacent corners, quietly conversing. One, Mark Gervais, has long and scraggly dark hair and sharpish features; he sits in a casual sprawl, with legs sticking comfortably out at random angles. The other is James Manning, brown-haired and -eyed, with a quiet face and a more placid air about him; he is arranged cross-legged with his folded hands resting on his shins.)
James: (grins) No good, Mark. Those are constellations.
Mark: Hell, have you heard every fucking riddle I know?
James: Probably. (shrugs)
Mark: I should never have agreed to this contest, should I? You're too damned intelligent. (he swats at a bug, misses, and swears)
James: This was your idea. It's your own fault if you don't know any good ones.
Mark: Just say your riddle already.
James: Why? You've already lost; that was ten. (grins again) Which means I get the window tonight, if I recall correctly.
Mark: Bastard. (throws a handful of straw, which is ignored)
(James laughs and laces his hands behind his head, leaning back against the wall while Mark grumbles good-naturedly under his breath.)
Mark: So what should we do now? It's your turn to pick.
James: I confess I don't have any ideas right now; what haven't we done?
Mark: Screwed. Not that I'm suggesting it.
James: Nor I. (makes a face) I sincerely hope we don't get that bored.
Mark: Amen to that. (sigh) I wonder if we'll ever get out of here.
James: You wonder that every day. Wonder something new for a change—it might do you good.
Mark: Like what? How Claire is doing? Yeah, that's real therapeutic. She'll have figured out by now that I'm not coming back, so she probably did the smart thing and got engaged to someone who isn't as much of an asshole as I am.
James: Must you cast everything I say in the worst possible light?
Mark: How else am I supposed to take it? Anything I think about is going to remind me that I'm in a fucking prison cell about two months into a life sentence—except for thinking about getting out.
James: You do have a point.
(The two lapse into pensive silence, their expressions wistful and contemplative. Then, the sound of footsteps can be heard, and a trio of guards appear outside the cell. Two of them are escorting another prisoner. James and Mark sit up straight and lean to get a close look at him. He is young-looking, with dark, reddish-brown eyes and black hair; his skin is pale, and he is very short, accentuating his youthful appearance. His expression is sullen and his eyes furious. The guards stop at the cell door and begin opening its myriad locks.)
James: Looks like we're about to have a new roommate.
Mark: Kinda scrawny, isn't he?
(One of the guards chuckles.)
Guard: Don't worry, he won't be with you long. He's been sentenced to die tonight. We just needed a place to put him, and we figured you two could keep him company while the executioner gets set up.
Mark: (cheerfully) Can do.
(The guards toss the prisoner inside, and he lands catlike on all fours. They relock the door and march away. Mark and James move to give the newcomer some space, staring at him curiously. He ignores them, choosing to lean against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest.)
James: (after a long pause) Hello. I am James Manning, and my compatriot is Mark Gervais. May we know your name?
(The young man does not respond. Mark edges closer.)
Mark: So, what did you do? It must have been pretty bad to get you a death sentence.
(The stranger glares at him.)
Stranger: None of your business.
Mark: No need to get angry, I didn't mean anything by it.
James: Mark is just trying to be friendly; you'll have to forgive his lack of social graces.
Mark: Who asked your opinion?
James: Shut up, please, Mark. We'll never get anywhere unless you let me do the talking.
Mark: What's that supposed to mean?
James: Merely that diplomacy is not your strong point.
Mark: This from the one who's in here for aggravated assault on an official? At least I'm just a thief!
James: (annoyed) I was drunk at the time, and hardly in condition to politely resolve things. And you wouldn't be here if you hadn't aimed higher than a thief of any rational intelligence would dare. You're lucky you still have your hands.
Mark: Shut the hell up, asshole!
James: I thought you were the asshole—isn't that why Claire was always slapping you so much?
Mark: Don't push me!
(The two glare at each other, James assuming a defensive posture in response to Mark's menacing one. The stranger looks up at them with severe irritation on his face.)
Stranger: You know, it's difficult to contemplate my life while the two of you beat each other senseless.
(The two men look at him, surprised out of their anger. James settles back against the wall and Mark scoots across the straw to sit next to the newcomer.)
Mark: (after a silent moment) It must be awful to know you're going to die tonight. Have any regrets?
Stranger: (glares) Do you mind?
James: (moving closer and smiling apologetically) We are not trying to intrude upon your personal life; but your last moments on this earth should not be spent brooding. Will you speak with us?
(The stranger hesitates, his face uncertain, while his two cellmates watch him intently. Finally, he makes an affirmative noise something like "Hn.")
Mark: Here, I'll start. My name is Mark Gervais, and I'm a thief from the city. Or I was, before I got stuck in this fucking dungeon. I got caught in the Palace, near the Royal Apartments, and they threw me in here. Still don't know why they didn't cut my hands off. (turns to James) Your turn.
James: (grimaces) Thank you for keeping that brief, Mark. (faces the stranger) I am James Manning, a scholar of little repute. I lived in the city for a time before coming to Court to gain a name for myself. Unfortunately, I wrote some ill-advised letters concerning some high-ranking officials, and one night when I had just returned from a revel, one of them cornered and confronted me. I remember little of what followed, but I am told I thrashed him quite thoroughly. (smiles ruefully) He appealed to the Heir for my punishment, and here I am.
(They both wait expectantly for the stranger to speak. When he does not, James continues.)
James: Mark was already here upon my arrival; over time, he and I have learned to—tolerate each other. One might even call us friends of a sort. We have been imprisoned together for something approaching two months; it's difficult to tell when you've nothing to mark the days.
(Still no response, although the stranger watches them. After another long moment, Mark sits back in disgust.)
Mark: Ah, what's the use? He's not going to talk.
James: Mark! Can't you be polite for one moment? He'll speak when he's ready and not before.
Mark: Says you. He doesn't look like he wants to to me.
Stranger: (once again irritated) If you're quite finished declaring my intentions for me?
Mark: Then you are going to talk?
James: We're not interrogating him, Mark . . .
Stranger: Fine. You want to hear my life story? I'm from some leagues east of here, and I killed the Heir, all right?
Mark: (eyes get very big) What?!
James: He's dead? When?
Mark: Well I'll be damned! You got the bastard! Nice work!
Stranger: That isn't a good thing, fool. It was an accident.
Mark: (blinks) An accident?
James: Forgive me, but how can you accidentally kill someone as heavily guarded as the Heir?
Stranger: By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, idiot. How else?
Mark: Give us details! Was it a brawl?
Stranger: I'm beginning to regret opening my mouth at all, and I'm certainly not inclined to answer any more questions. I told you what you wanted to know. Now leave me be.
James: But . . . (he trails off, then shrugs) If you wish.
Mark: We're not just going to give up on him, James! He's the first company we've had in ages, and I'm not letting him get away without some decent conversation!
James: Mark, he obviously doesn't feel like sharing. Why waste your time trying to force him?
Mark: Because I've got more time to waste than I'll ever need. What else am I going to do with it?
James: You could go to sleep—it's far past midnight, if I'm any judge.
Mark: Ah, I can sleep anytime. Right now I want to talk to Grumpy here.
James: (makes a face) And I suppose you don't care if your prattling keeps me awake. No, don't answer that; I'd rather we didn't fight again today.
(Mark makes an obscene gesture at him and turns his attention back to the stranger, who is resolutely ignoring him. He reaches out and pokes the young man in the chest.)
Mark: Hey, don't ignore me!
(The stranger turns a hateful glower on him and swats the hand away.)
Stranger: Don't make me remove that hand like your sentencer should have!
Mark: Just try it! I'm trying to be friendly, and all you can do is sit there and scowl at me!
Stranger: Could there possibly be a reason for that?
Mark: You bastard, can't you even try to act like a human being?
Stranger: (bitterly) Shortly, I'll be a dead human being, and from the looks of it I won't get any sleep beforehand, so you might as well kill me now if I'm such an asshole!
(James, who has been quietly observing the short dialogue, breaks in.)
James: What was her name?
(The stranger freezes for a second, then whips his head around to look at James.)
Stranger: What? How did you—(eyes narrow) None of your business!
James: Hardly. I, too, am being deprived of sleep by this exchange, so it is in my best interest to get to the root of it as quickly as possible. (he smiles thinly) You, sir, are more like my friend here than you realize—and your story, however brief, does not make logical sense. Therefore, I surmise that you had a strong ulterior motive for your crime, most likely to do with a female very close to your heart. That's what landed Mark here in this dungeon as well; he was attempting to steal some trinket for his lady, and just happened to have the audacity to choose a royal trinket. It was merely a guess—there were other things that could have caused you to commit such an act, but I happened to deduce the correct one.
(Mark bristles but says nothing; the stranger stares hostily at James for a minute or so. Then he sighs, dropping his gaze to the floor.)
Stranger: I can see I'm not going to be left in peace, am I?
James: Were it up to me . . . (spreads his hands and glances significantly at Mark)
Mark: (shakes his head) Not a chance. I want to hear this man's story, and I think he needs to tell it before he dies. At least then, someone will know, even if it's just two washed-up criminals in a dungeon cell.
(Another short, tense silence, and the stranger nods.)
Stranger: I have a sister—Elanor. She's scarcely fifteen, and quite sheltered and innocent. She's also very beautiful. Our family came to court a few weeks ago so that I could get a proper education.
Mark: (curiously) How old are you?
Stranger: (warily) Seventeen. Why?
James: Forgive me, but you seem older. (surreptitiously swats Mark to keep him quiet)
Stranger: I know that. Anyway, Elanor caught the Heir's eye and he began to court her. I doubt she had any idea of what was really going on; she only felt flattered by the attention she was receiving, and didn't think twice about falling in love with him.
James: I believe I see where this is going. The Heir is not the kindliest of persons.
(The stranger laughs.)
Stranger: (mimicking James) Hardly. Though she intrigued him, he had no intentions of marrying her. I believe his objective should be clear enough that I don't have to say it. Even so, it wasn't my intention to kill him.
Mark: So it was an accident after all?
James: (sigh) Mark . . .
Stranger: Have you been listening to a word I've been saying? Or are you just forcing me to tell you so you can ignore me? Of course it was an accident!
Mark: Sorry, I—ouch!
(James punches him in the back of the head, looking aggravated. Mark, aggrieved, takes a swing at his cellmate, who ducks.)
Mark: What was that for?
James: I told you to keep your mouth shut! You're angering him with every word!
Mark: So what? He's talking, isn't he? Ow!
(The two get into a punching match, while the stranger looks on, bemused. Finally, James decks Mark, then calmly returns his gaze to the newcomer.)
James: Please continue.
Stranger: There isn't much more to tell, you know. I caught the Heir enticing my sister into his bed, we came to blows, and I killed him.
Mark: (levering himself up off the floor) That's all? (rubs his chin)
Stranger: That's all. Now can we sleep?
James: Yes, let's. It's nearly morning.
Mark: Fine then. (looks at the newcomer) Thanks for telling us. We won't forget.
Stranger: (smiles) Surely you know I only told you to shut you up?
Mark: Of course. That's how I learn everything I want to know. (grins annoyingly)
Stranger: (looks at James incredulously) You've lived with this man for two months? You're stuck with him for life?
James: (sigh) Unfortunately, yes.
(The stranger just laughs and says nothing. The three of them are silent; the sky outside the window is now a dingy grey. Then the footsteps of the guards can be heard, and they arrive at the cell and unlock the door while the three sit unmoving, waiting.)
Guard: Hope he wasn't too much trouble.
James: (looking up) Truthfully, sir, I believe we troubled him more than he troubled us.
(The guard laughs, and the other guards move into the cell to collect the stranger and herd him out. He stops in the doorway briefly.)
Stranger: Mark? James? I thank you. And . . . my name is Geoffrey.
James: (softly) Well met, Geoffrey.
(The guards lead Geoffrey away. James and Mark sit in silence as the sound of their footsteps recedes, until it is gone completely. The quiet persists long after the echoes have faded.)
Mark: (finally) James?
James: Yes, Mark?
Mark: (pauses) Do you know any more riddles? I'd like to hear some.
James: (smiles) Of course.
(The room darkens to black. End scene.)