The storm had died down, had finished, and it was the beginning of early evening. As her armed escort led her out of the administrative building and into the outermost chamber of the prison, she realized with a jolt that the three of them were the first to have noticed. The guards that were normally on the walls had not yet taken up their posts, having abandoned them for the safety of stone walls until the storm was over. Excitement and a sudden sting of terror – fear at the implications of what she was about to do – flashed through her belly. How could she deal with the two guards with her? Already her mind was in a whirl, working out her plan of escape. She had not expected an opportunity this soon.
For a moment she faltered, guilt stabbing her in the gut at the realization that she would be leaving without having a chance to say goodbye to Jackal… but she knew that if she gave up this opportunity, she would not be likely to have another one again, or at least one as good as this. She had to take it. She had to do this.
She closed her eyes, and in the space of half a second, she was able to picture the entirety of Xykrull as if it were a map laid out before her eyes. She knew every inch of the prison, knew its two outer chambers and the area surrounding it better than almost any of the other prisoners, thanks to her almost constant assignment to well-duty. She knew which guards were where, how to stay in the shadows, if need be, where the best corners were to duck into if someone was coming.
It was a new moon, and the winds of the sandstorm were almost completely quiet now, and there were no guards on duty.
She pretended to stumble.
Only one of the guards moved to stop her fall, and she used her own momentum to swing her manacled wrists at his head. The steel made solid contact on his temple and he was unconscious before he had a chance to cry out. The second guard made a sound of surprise, but still not very loud, but she used the last of the arc her hands made to grab him by the wrists and pull him across her body and down to the ground, flipping him hard on his back. She wrapped the chain of the manacles around his throat and tightened them until she was sure no air could get through, pinning the man's arms behind his back with her stomach. Lowering her lips to his ear, she snarled, "Just go to sleep, lad. Raise the alarm and I'll crush your windpipe. If you don't cause me any trouble, I'll let you go once you go to sleep. Just let it happen. Just go to sleep."
Out of sheer terror, the man didn't struggle much, and his struggles became weaker as he lost his grip on consciousness. When he was finally out – it didn't take long – she released her hold on his throat and shoved him off of her. Hurriedly, she grabbed the keys from his belt and unlocked the chains on her wrist and ankles, leaving them on the ground where they fell. She stole both of the men's knives, but left their swords; they were too hefty to be carrying around during an escape attempt.
She stuck to the shadows cast by the towering walls, but she knew that, with the dirt and dust that still hung in the air, she was about as invisible as she would have been in a dense fog. She couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her, but she knew her way about the prison well enough. With one hand on the wall, she made her way to the northeast corner of the outermost chamber of the prison, heading for the stables.
The stables were cooler than the outside; some trick of engineering that she didn't understand had increased the air flow through the building so that it would be a more suitable environment for the horses. It was nearly pitch-black inside, with the exception of one of the oil lamps, turned very low.
She knew that she would find the messenger boy there. One of the stolen knives belted around her waist, she crept from stall to stall until she found the young man slumbering in a pile of hay.
He woke with her blade just under his chin.
He started to shout in terror, but she slapped her free hand over his mouth. "Here's what you're gonna do," she growled. "You're gonna saddle one of these beasts, and you're gonna mount up. If you try 'n raise the alarm, you'll be havin' a personal chat with your entrails, huh? Got it?"
He didn't answer. She slapped him, hard, across the face.
"I said, got it?"
He whimpered, and made the tiniest of nods, mindful of the steel pressed against his skin.
He saddled one of the horses and swung into the saddle. Kefari took his cloak and put it on, pulling the hood up over her head and mounting up behind him. Her blade settled against his belly, she wrapped one arm about his middle and put her head almost on his shoulder, her mouth near his ear.
"Ride," she said. "Ride for the gate. Get me out the gate, and I won't kill you. One sound outta you, though, and our deal's off. Understand?"
The young man nodded frantically, and they began to make their way to the front gate. The guards' posts were still deserted; still no one had realized that the storm's ferocity was over. Still, that did not mean that she was inn the clear. If her young hostage got it into his head that his duty was ore than his life, all he had to do was raise his voice and shout, and she was done for. Killing him wouldn't prevent her capture; if he decided to give her up, she was pretty much caught. But he was young yet, and not much for life-threatening heroic antics.
When they reached the gate, she found herself at a dilemma; with no one on the walls, there was no one to open the gates. The young man reined in the horse a few yards from the heavy iron gates, all that stood between her and freedom, and she took a minute to think.
"Get down," she said. "We're going up. We're gonna open up that damn gate."
With her knife still against his flesh, they trekked up the stairs to the wall-top, and at her command the young man cranked open the gates. She kept a look-out, one eye on the young man, while she simultaneously watched for any sign that the guards might begin manning their posts again. Still, the prison seemed almost deserted. She couldn't believe her luck.
When the gate was up, the young man whispered, "Our bargain?"
"Certainly," she answered. "Please believe me. This isn't personal."
She hit him in the back of the head, twice, and he was out, slumping into a limp heap in her arms; she broke her fall so that he didn't crack his head on the cobblestones. She wanted this to be the cleanest escape every in the history of Xykrull.
She gagged him with a strip of cloth torn from the bottom of the cloak she had permanently borrowed from him, and bound his hands and feet; then she was hurrying down the steps, back to where the horse waited. She mounted up and kicked it into a trot, passing through the heavy front gate.
She couldn't count how many times she'd stepped outside of the prison walls in the course of well-duty, but since being committed to Xykrull, she had never once set foot outside of its walls unchained. A thrill went through her as the desert wind whipped at her face; it was only by a last-second reflex that she was able to grasp the hood and keep it up. She was tempted to revel in that moment, on the very edge of freedom, but it was not time for sentiment, and she knew it. She still had work to do. A few leagues away, she knew there was an oasis; that was her next objective. Once into the relative shelter of that oasis, there was little that could catch her, and she did not expect anyone to notice she was gone for a few hours more. She had plenty of time.
By late morning, the horse was dead, and by noon, she could hear the howls of the dogs on her trail.
There was a buzz about the prison that was indecipherable to Numair, and although the tension and the anxiety that flitted through the prison made his own nerves tangle into a state, he did his best to ignore it and continue his packing. He was preparing to leave during late afternoon, when the heat of the day had begun to wane, and continue journeying through the desert throughout the night. Dones had given him a map of the desert, and he expected that, if he made good time between leaving Xykrull and the rise of the sun the next morning, he could take shelter from the sun during the daytime in the ruins of another ancient Sólitan temple that had been more or less abandoned.
The hottest part of the day was almost past, when the warden pounded on Numair's door. Opening it, the nobleman found Dones standing in the hallway, his expression like steel and a glare of triumph and rage flashing behind his hard eyes.
"You'd better come down into the courtyard, Consular," he said. "I want you to see something."
Inside the innermost chamber of the prison, the convicts had all been herded into a mass, leaving a wide, open space around the whipping post. Numair felt a wave of panic shoot through his stomach, but he controlled himself and tried to remain calm. What was this all about?
Then they drug her into the courtyard, and a hush fell over the raucous group of criminals. Kefari fought with every step, but she couldn't fight all four of the guards that held her, not in the condition that she was in. Numair took a deep breath and then could not find the ability to release it, as she emerged into the sunlight. They forced her to her knees, and one of the guards grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head up violently, as if he were exposing her throat to some sort of vampiric god. There was blood on her face, which added to the wild, panicked spark in her eyes, and the lower part of her leg was all but a mess of gore and blood; they'd set the dogs on her.
He realized with a shock that she had tried to escape, and almost, almost succeeded.
The warden stared down into Kefari's eyes. "This isn't the first time we've had to deal with you and your escape attempts, is it?"
"Why ask me?" she snarled. Blood ran from her nose and into her mouth. "I'm a pirate, remember? Never trust the word of a nokym." Her cocky smile seemed on the edge of maniacal laughter; she knew that she was caught, that she was finished, and she had realized that she had nothing left to lose. "Unless, of course, you're admittin' that you're lower than a pirate."
She spat a mouthful of blood and spittle onto the warden's polished black boot.
He backhanded her across the face, sending her head snapping to the side as his knuckles made painful contact with her cheek. She cried out, a reaction as much to the pain of the blow as to the handful of hair that the guard ripped from her scalp as her head was knocked to one side. She blinked blood from her eyes and glared up at him again. Numair unconsciously took a step away.
"I dare you to do that again," she whispered, her eyes narrowing to slits. "I dare you." Even her expression taunted Dones, and the air seemed stretched taut with dread. "Hit me, warden. Beat the shit out of me," she purred. Dones hesitated. "Dammit man, hit me!"
The guard behind her cuffed her over the head; her body went limp, and Numair thought that she was unconscious, but they hauled her to her feet and half-dragged, half-walked her towards the horrid platform, and he saw that she kept her feet under her, though it was barely enough to keep from tumbling to the ground.
"Fifty lashes," Dones said, loudly enough for everyone to hear.
There was a dull roar of outrage from the convicts, but the guards kept them at bay. Kefari didn't seem to hear a thing; she didn't even seem aware of her surroundings. Numair found his heart in his throat. If that bastard Gaspar Dones killed her with his stupid, punctured ego, then he might just have to condescend enough to strangle the man with his bare hands. But where had that thought come from? What did he care? He felt the sting of tears behind his eyes, tears of anger, though he couldn't tell if it was anger directed more at the warden or at himself.
Again, the courtyard fell silent; Kefari was hauled up onto the platform, and the chains were clapped on her wrists, securing her to the whipping post. She seemed to dangle there, barely support by her own legs, and Numair thought to himself, She won't survive this. Not without some sort of miracle.
The appointed guard took up his whip. Numair bit back a cry of protest, and swallowed it, painfully, trying to shove it as far away from his lips as possibly. The moment that he saw the instrument of punishment, he was certain that Kefari would not live through it. It was a thing of death, the ends of the flails edged with broken glass and nails; he clenched his fists and for a moment imagined that he could feel sympathy pains for the criminal in his own flesh, before the whipping had even begun.
At a nod from Warden Dones, the guard stepped up onto the platform and cracked the whip against Kefari's back.
She flinched. Numair, glancing at the group of convicts, saw that they seemed to collectively flinch with her. He became suddenly aware of how ugly this situation could become, and how very quickly it could happen.
Five strokes. The back of Kefari's sackcloth shirt was ripped open now, and the red welts upon her skin, already scarred from previous lashings, it seemed, were now visible. At ten strokes Numair could see her biting her lip against the cries of pain lodged in her throat, and he was afraid that she would bite through the thin bit of flesh. At fifteen, her body seemed to convulse with each stroke.
At thirty, mercifully, the warden ordered the guard to stop.
The convicts seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, but there was still that tension present. They knew that the warden was up to something; he didn't quit easily, and he certainly didn't quit out of mercy or pity. He was only stopping Kefari's punishment short because he knew that he had to try some other way to get the reaction from her that he wanted.
The guards untied Kefari from the post and all but drug her back to the warden and Numair. Bleeding and faint, the woman practically folded up in a heap at Dones's feet. The warden stood over her, sneering.
"It won't do any good to punish you this way," he said quietly, so that even Numair had to strain to hear him. His words seemed to be meant for Kefari alone. "But you and I both know how to drive the point home with you, don't we? We both know how to make you learn."
The courtyard was very still. The suffocating heat and the tension in the air made it almost impossible for Numair to breathe.
To the nearest guard, Dones said, "Fetch us that young buck who is always at Kefari's side." He nudged the woman in the ribs with the toe of his boot. "Jackal, isn't it?"
Kefari stirred, faintly, conscious enough to realize what was going on. Two guards braved the crowd of prisoners and re-emerged with an unresisting Jackal in their grasp.
Numair stared at the ex-nobleman and couldn't make the situation make sense in his head. Tears streaked the man's face, and he realized with a shock that he had actually been weeping for Kefari. Could she have been the reason that he had turned down Numair's offer of freedom?
"Look, boy," Dones said to Jackal. "You know this bistar?"
Jackal's defiance was similar to Kefari's. "What bistar? I see only nokym, and a damned good one at that."
Dones struck Jackal across in the face, the blow a powerhouse of force and savagery. Jackal staggered a few steps and wiped a drop of blood form the corner of his mouth. Numair realized what all of this was leading up to, and believed that he would have stopped all of it if only his voice and his heart were not both caught in his throat.
Something like a growl passed Kefari's lips, and Dones, laughing, grabbed her by the front of her torn shirt and hauled her up so that they were face to face.
"What was that, bistar?" he asked. There was a vicious glee in his face, a bliss in every second that he spent putting Kefari Stone in her place.
"You touch 'im an I'll kill you," Numair heard her snarl. Her voice was strained with exhaustion and agony and blood. "D'you hear me? I'll kill you."
"I really don't think you're in much of a position to be making threats, bistar," Dones answered, that cocky smile still playing upon his lips. He dropped her again; she crumpled at his feet once more. Numair resisted the urge to go to her, to lift her broken body out of the dirt. To the guard who had whipped Kefari, Dones said, "Punish the boy for his manners, and the bistar's crimes."
The guard tore the shirt fro Jackal's body and shoved him ace-down into the dirt. Numair stole a glance at Kefari, to see her reaction, and saw that she had her eyes squeezed shut, her hands clenched into fists. He had a feeling that things were building up, and in a few moments a lot of everything was going to go terribly wrong.
Kefari flinched as the whip cracked against Jackal's bare skin, and Numair, even as he flinched as well, at the blow struck to a man who had once been of his own class, could not take his eyes off of her. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter, clenched her jaw. Her expression became like steel. The whip cracked again; Jackal did not make a sound. He fought to get to his feet, but the guard kicked him in the side, and he fell again.
Kefari bit her lip until the blood came.
The whip cracked once more, and a small, barely audible grunt of pain sounded in Jackal's throat. Kefari began to curl up into a ball, and although in anyone else it would have been seen as a sign of frailty, Numair got the distinct feeling that she was holding something back, gather her strength. He realized that he had taken three or four steps backward now.
The whip sounded twice more. Jackal fought just to get to his knees, and then the whip lashed against his shoulder blades; he fell to the ground with a cry, and as his voice echoed off of the stone walls of the courtyard, Kefari snapped.
With a roar, she was on her feet, and she lunged for the guard, knocking him into the dirt. Several of the other guards moved to go to their comrade's aid, but Dones motioned for them to stay put, sure that Kefari would be easily overpowered.
She delivered a series of solid blows to her opponent's face, but suddenly his fist caught her on the jaw, dazing her and gaining him the advantage. After scuffling in the dirt for a few moments, he threw her from him and she lay in the dirt, panting, coughing blood and dry heaving onto the ground. She struggled once to get up again, but her arms buckled beneath her, and she fell, and simply lay there, defeated.
Dones said, "Continue."
The guard hesitated, then took up his whip once more and cracked it again, creating another bleeding welt on Jackal's back. That was all it took; Kefari was up again and the force of her body drove the guard to the ground. Numair expected a similar scene to the previous one, but it was not to be so. The woman pulled a knife out of nowhere; it had been hidden somewhere on her person, and plunged it deep into the left side of the guard's abdomen, wrenching it across his body, and then up. She rolled off of him and crouched low to the ground, her narrowed eyes glaring at the man's body, as if confirming that he was dead.
She remained like that for a moment, only a moment, and then her arms and legs gave out beneath her, and with a rattling breath, she relinquished consciousness.
Her audience, convicts and guards alike, stood in shock, as if the murder that had just played out before them was still registering in their minds.
Numair felt bile rise in his throat, and he was afraid that he would vomit. The ground spun crazily beneath him, and he stumbled away from the scene, dropping to one knee and dry heaving for several minutes. When he had recovered, he considered returning to the nightmarish spot to join the others again, but just the thought of it… he couldn't do it. He stumbled to his feet and stood there with his back to the body until the warden joined him. The two of them were quiet for a very long while.
At great length, Numair asked, having cleared his throat once or twice, "What just happened here, warden?"
Dones swallowed and opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He tried again, then rasped, "I have no idea whatsoever." He paused, blinked, and then seemed to shake himself, snapping to the remaining guards, "Take that – that Jackal back to his cell."
He turned to go. One of the guards faltered as he stood over the unconscious prisoners. "Sir? What about the nokym? What do we do with her?"
Dones looked over his shoulder at Kefari. "The bistar, you mean?"
After a moment's deliberation, he answered, "Put her in an isolated cell. And half-rations until further notice. Understood?"
As the guard moved to do his bidding, Dones murmured, "Consular, come with me, if you please."
Numair hesitated, then turned and followed Dones out of the courtyard. The warden said nothing as they passed through the gate of the inner wall and continued on through his quarters to the ornate study. He sat quietly at his desk and Numair took a seat in a comfortable armchair; a servant brought wine at his own discretion.
It seemed impossible, in the stillness in the almost-peacefulness of the study, that a man had just been gruesomely murdered before their very eyes.
At length, Dones said, "I would greatly appreciate it if you didn't speak of this incident to His Majesty."
Dones frowned and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The situation will be remedied, of course. Not only has she made a rather flagrant escape attempt which, by the means employed, is punishable by death, she has committed a murder on top of that crime. There is only one solution. Needless to say, I will be glad to have it done and over with. Kefari Stone has been a thorn in my side for quite some time, now."
Numair said nothing for a long while. He was tempted to ask the warden what he meant by his words, but there was a sick feeling in his stomach that told him that possibly he did not want to know the answer. He tried to convince himself that his feelings were ridiculous, that he should care nothing for her fate – by the gods, he had just watched murder a man in cold blood! And yet, she had done it in defense of her friend. Of a man who had used to be Riyad Airell Sahiri. His stomach churned with frustration.
"What will happen to her?" he asked.
Dones sighed again. "We'll take her with the next group to Delphair for trial," he answered. While Numair had been lost in thought, he had already begun writing out a report. "She'll be guilty of murder, and then she'll hang."
Numair leapt to his feet, restraining a cry of outrage, knocking over his wineglass in the process. The wine soaked into the rug, but neither man paid it any mind, never glanced at it. They held each other's gaze firmly. Numair took a deep breath; the muscles in his neck were stiff with fury. He realized the position he had put himself in, and knew how carefully he must tread from here.
"Is there any other course for her?" he asked.
Dones held his eyes a few moments, his brows furrowed quizzically.
"She has just murdered one of the guards in my employ, Consular," he answered. "You saw it yourself."
"But in the defense of her friend," Numair pointed out. "A man who, in all honesty, did not deserve to be punished in such a way. Surely that could absolve her of some culpability."
Dones blinked at him a moment, and then shook his head. "The heat has obviously affected you, Consular," he said quietly. "I don't know what it is about Kefari Stone that you find so interesting, or what His Majesty might want with the likes of her, but I cannot allow her actions today to go unpunished. If I do, then it might inspire the other convicts to greater acts of rebellion, and I cannot have that." He returned his attention to his report. "I have much work to do, Consular," he said. "I wish you good day."
Numair, taken aback and infuriated by the warden's manner, hissed, "Did you hear what I-"
"Good day, Consular!" Dones snarled, lunging to his feet. For a moment the look in his eyes was one of rage, and Numair decided that it was best to go. He left without another word, not even bothering to shut the study door behind him. Halfway down the corridor, he heard the warden slam it shut anyway.