The darkness of night meant that I had only three days left. Through the bars of my window, the night had consumed the sky as the sun had knelt into the ground. This night had more clouds than the last had. It was probable that a storm was pending. Would the clouds cry rain when my neck snapped from the rope of the gallows? Would I slip on the sodden wood, or would it be a mere annoyance, the pecks of tears on my cheek as I looked up to the heavens? There were so many possibilities, all uncertain.
But I had ample time to contemplate my fate. Months before now, rotting in this stinking cell, and now it would end. Three more sunsets. I leaned back onto my rank cot, sunk with odors before even I arrived. How many before me had laid on this cot? Slept on it, ate on it, urinated on it even, as evident by its smell. And who would hold it after me? Another innocent indicted, doomed to wait out their days staring at the small window as I had.
More questions to ponder. The metal of my collar applied unwanted pressure to my throat as the back of my skull hit the cot's scarce cushion. I fidgeted, as I always did, for long moments until the metal bracelet was no longer in danger of crushing my larynx. It was a dangerous binding in more ways than one. Sleep was always short and uncomfortable, lest I roll over and begin to cut off my own air supply. And there was the bauble inserted near the front of the collar, by the hollow of my throat. It glowed a pale green in the darkness of my cell, the only light, save for the fading torches deeper down the hallway. Green was my enemy. It meant I was helpless.
I glanced back slowly, shuffling to see the cell that was perpendicular to mine. I could glimpse it just enough from the views that the bars on my door granted me. Regret was a weakness that I couldn't hold in this place, but I felt it nonetheless, seeing the emptiness of that hole.
There were no friends in places such as these, and only a fool would think so. But in the long hours of loneliness, another person, someone to converse with, was all that kept me from going stark-raving mad. And now he was gone as well, gone to his death by the gallows, and I would follow him soon. I did not know his name, nor mine his, nor for what crime he had been given this sentence. But we had talked, even if it was only to stave away the fear of loneliness. He had been lucky, going first. I still had to wait. I had reached my limit to look into his empty cell; my throat was closing, strained by the cursed necklace. I settled back into position, eyes glancing at what little I could see through the window. Three sunsets left.
Footsteps caught my attention. My stomach growled, hollow, but I knew they were not here to feed me. Had I not a window, the only sense of time I would have was the two meals I was brought each day. I had already had my second, although I would always wish for more. I had never been a big, beefy woman, naturally slim, but prison had taken me far beyond that. I was a mere skeleton now. My red hair, once compared to fire itself was dull and thinner. Why waste food on those who are set to die anyway?
"Is this the Talent you spoke of?" The footsteps have only come nearer, and this time it is a curious, low voice. There is no-one down this set of cells. They're laid out in a pentagon, one across from the entrance, and two on each wall facing each other. The most mine has ever been filled was two others, although one died almost immediately from sickness, and proceeded to stink for hours before the guards had taken it away. The other had been my nameless friend, who was taken away over a week ago. Had it really been that long already? It didn't matter. My stomach, my empty, hollow stomach clenched, my throat dry. The pitcher of water I am given each day is already emptied. They are not in the habit of wasting water among the soon to die either.
"Yes, Lord Lachlan." The response was swift, docile. My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. Lord Lachlan? It was not possible, a cruel joke, two guards playing out their fantasy. Except neither of their voices were family, and their tones were deadly serious. Lord Lachlan was the one and only advisor to the Emperor, his Majesty Caedric. I knew the stories, as everyone did. They were friends since childhood. Lord Lachlan was the son of the General and became General in turn. Caedric, of course succeeded his father after the late Emperor died a couple years ago. Under their shared leadership, our kingdom had strengthened greatly. Their kingdom. I wanted no part of it anymore.
"I wish to see her." I sit up on my cot, an action that I would have once performed gracefully, but with the weight on my neck, and the muscles that hunger has eaten away, I move much slower now, pressing myself against the cold stones of my cell. Questions pester my mind. Why? Those who have shared these cells with me have never been graced with the presence of someone such as this before. And why at this time? There are three days until my death comes.
"Of course, Lord Lachlan."
Lord Lachlan, the General, is coming to my dank and dirty cell. Perhaps I would have been embarrassed, but now, I am curious mixed with spite. He is to see me at my worst, as this decrepit pitiful woman who can do nothing but wait in her cell for her end to come. Nothing but a rat to nip at his heels, but I do intend to nip. What worse can they do to me now?
I narrowed my eyes at the light that followed. There is the Baron, the head of the prison, the one who informed me of my fate and a man who I have never seen, except from a distance. Always at the Majesty's side. The light of the flames bounce off all of their faces, but his is the one I watch. I've no need to see the guards, those who leer at me, threaten to withhold the food if I don't approach the bars near enough to touch, and have indeed made good on their promises at my refusal.
Lord, or General, was older than he looked. A young general at his age, no doubt due to his close relationship with the emperor, but it seemed as if he had much practice making himself appear more mature. Even so, I could not place his age at anything more than late twenties, despite the light brown stubble on his cheeks and the lines in his face. His eyes looked merely gray in the firelight, and though he wore mainly a black cloak, I could see the fine livery poking out underneath, his solder's attire. I wore nothing but the shaming brown of prison clothes. To his credit, I did not see him flinch at the stench of the cell, and I had doubted he had been in the thick of the prison cells very many times before.
"She's younger than I expected," the same deep voice, his tone carefully indifferent, and even with practice of reading people, I could find nothing in his voice, nothing to explain why he was here.
"She's twenty, milord."
"Yes," Lord Lachlan responded absentmindedly. " If you would unlock the door to her cell, Baron. I wish to examine her more closely."
My stomach churned, uneasiness in my veins. What was this? What was going on? The guards have threatened me many times with opening the door to my cell and ravaging me, but it is strictly forbidden, They don't want to trifle with one of my kind, even with this collar on me.
"But milord?" The baron questioned, hesitating. I have been among those who are superior, and those who are beneath them to know what is expected next. Despite the order being strange, those who are commanded are expected to obey, no question, no reluctance, nothing. Such things could easily cost them their lives. I suck in my breath at the same time the baron does, realising his mistake. He's the predominant here, in this sunken hole of a prison.
But to my surprise and to no doubt the relief of the Baron, the General did something unexpected; he laughed. Not a cruel, cold laugh preceding a punishment, but a sincere one. The lines on his face transformed to something less sinister. "I thank you for your consideration, dear baron, but if I were to be bested by a half-starved little girl, well, that would be embarrassing, would it not? Come now, unlock the door and leave us, I will talk with her alone." His humorous tone turned serious near the end, a gentle but firm command. I felt my hands start to tremble, twisting my fingers together in order to hide it.
This time there is no wait. The hard jangle of keys, the squeak as they are twisted into my lock. I have not heard this sound since I was first put into this cell, months ago. My food and water are given to me under and through the bars, spaces that I will not fit through no matter how small I become. My breath slowed as Lord Lachlan stepped into my cell, amongst the cold stone floor and scattered straw. The baron, unusually without his guards, closed the door but did not lock it, retreating as the general had asked. Leaving the door unlocked. The door to my cell unlocked, with one obstacle in my way. Lord Lachlan. The thought did not evade me, quickening the beat of my heart, and the rush of blood that spreads through my body, even to my cheeks, normally as cold and as white as the rest of my body.
Lord Lachlan stands a few feet from me, holding in his hand, a torch. It radiates light, light that I am not used to, and I find it hard to look at him without squinting. He is shorter than I imagined, not the giant I expect him to be, but still towering over my sitting state. Why is he here? My experiences with men and their thoughts leave me with the possibility that he is here to take advantage of me, but it is unlikely that he would travel so far to this dilapidated, disgusting place, to be with what—a food-starved, stinking skeleton who barely has any traces left that she was ever a woman. He's the general, and I doubt that would ever be his reasoning for coming here. If he wanted sex, there are plenty of brothels throughout the city, even I knew that, as isolated as I was.
His eyes continued to look at me, piercing. They must be blue in better lighting, but I could not tell. It didn't matter. For a long moment, neither of us spoke, a silent, staring war.
A smile appeared on his face then, easygoing and wide, reflecting none of the tension I felt through the muscles in my body. "A quiet one, aren't you? But I can see that you're stemming to the top with questions. Why don't you ask me one—"
"Why are you here?" I blurted first, my voice as hoarse as I expected, but stronger than I thought. Harsh, and as quick as it ever was, far from the normal soft demurring tones that women were wont to have. The smile on his flame flickering face did not differ.
"That is a very good question. And the answer is quite simple. I am here to see you, Nerine."
My body has gone cold, but sweat still seems to trickle down the back of my spine. My mouth has gone completely dry, parched. I clenched my jaw, teeth grinding together. I ask the next obvious question. "Why?"
"Oh, it's my turn. It's alright; I didn't outline the rules of our conversation. Question for me, question for you, it's not too difficult?"
"You're patronizing me," I growled, and his right eyebrow rose in response to my anger. It is usually an upset for me, as I preferred to be the unreadable one, the mask, the one without emotion. It gave me more control, more power to be the one less trapped by feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness. But impatience runs rampant in me as well, and he has sat me long enough with these thoughts of uncertainty. He knowingly holds the power, and he has me wait. Whether he is surprised, or angered, or merely amused, I cannot tell. It is only by the smile on his lips that I know anything at all, but whether that is an act or not, I do not know. Perhaps his laughter is genuine, or it is all a trap to make me feel at ease.
"A little, truthfully. Alright. When is your sentence set to be carried out?"
I am not surprised that he is uncertain. What does he care about the death of one insignificant woman while he is controlling armies, ruling a kingdom with his emperor. "Three days," I answer breathlessly. Despite reminding myself of it, telling myself at each opportunity that the time is rapidly approaching, it is still a hard thought to bear, and here it is, out in the open. Three days.
"As I thought. And now, for the answer to your question. Well, you were one of the Order, were you not? You possess the magic, the ether in your veins, and as I have heard, you had quite a aptitude for it."
"Isn't that another question?" I asked, hypocritically doing the same. Lord Lachlan let out a slow, cryptic smile, crossing his arms across his chest. He was being patient, I knew, but I didn't want it to run out. "Yes," I answer, albeit reluctantly. "I have the magic that you speak of." Or had, rather, this damned collar around my neck enchanted with a power stronger than mine. One that suppressed my ability, all of it. I almost contradicted the fact that I was once one of the Order—I had been a neophyte for so long. But in the last months that I had been among my magic brethren, I had in fact scaled the ranks and earned my robe, rising in the ranks and beyond that of a mere student. Where I had been before it was all taken from me and I had been thrown to the dungeons. Where I was now.
"Why does that matter to you?" Although my eyes have adjusted to the light, I keep from looking at his face. I don't hold his gaze with mine, I look to the walls, where the shadows of fire dance across them. My jaw is hard, my eyes not moistened by tears.
"Do you wish to die, Nerine?" I glance back at the General, seeing the smile wiped from his face. He is curious, although I find the question unnecessary, and I say as much.
"Does anyone?" My voice is near a whisper, hoarse and week. At that, the smile returns.
"In that case, His Imperial Majesty and I have a proposition for you. Return with me, to the palace, bind yourself to the emperor, your eternal, unquestionable loyalty to the end of your life, which may be short or long, depending on you, or stay here for three more days until your sentence is carried out."
It takes me a long moment to realise I have been holding my breath. I release it sharply, suddenly angry. "How dare you?" I snap, furious. "Is it not bad enough that my end will come soon, that I have been left to rot here in this place? You come here to play a joke on me?"
"I am flattered you think I have nothing better to do than smash the hopes of our prisoners," the General replied, chuckling, without a pause.
"How about a third option," I growl, pushing myself slowly to my feet, needing the support of the cold wall as I do so. The General's eyebrow raises once more, but he does not flinch, does not step away, despite our close proximity. "Since you left the door unlocked, I kill you now, and run for it?" Damn this collar. Even being as starved as I am, as drained as I am, I would still be able to reach my ether, use my power and kill him where he stands.
"Feel free to attempt," Lord Lachlan responded amiably. "I have a sword in my sheath, I suppose if you reach it, you might have some chance to kill me with it."
It was my only chance. What he was saying was ludicrous, a lie. There is no way he would grant amnesty to me, not in my final days. It was too easy, too good. And there were far too many people expecting to see my body hanging from a rope. I came from no noble family, from nothing at all. Once you were taken into the Brethren, you had no family anyway. Your thoughts and actions were regulated, controlled. Well, they tried, anyway. And this was my attempt.
I lunged for his weapon, but his hand was there first, lightning fast and resting on the hilt. Before I could even reach for it, something solid hit me in the throat. He had drawn his sword, and with expert precision, had hit me on the collar, right above the green bauble. I fell backwards, coughing haggardly, in truth lucky that the collar had been there to soften the blow. I tried one more feeble kick at his calf, knowing it was useless, but wanting to give him at least one bruise for him to remember me by, but he sidestepped that easily.
"My apologies, Nerine." He spoke, without sounding much sorry at all. But there was no fury in his voice, or even a conniving urge to manipulate. Instead, there was amusement. "That will work out very nicely. But I am on a tight schedule, and can't spar with you any longer. Your answer. Stay here, or come with me."
"I don't believe you," I gasped, forcing myself up onto the floor, knowing better than to fight him again. "Why would you do this?"
"His Imperial Majesty and I have our reasons. So what will it be, Nerine?"
I gulp down a deep breath, hand still at my throat, fingers touching the edge of my bauble, the harsh metal of my collar. Slowly, I raised my gaze to meet his. The choices are simple. Wait to die, or leave with him. The thought that this could be even worse than dying was evident. Many wanted to see me die. Waited, all these months to see me die. This move would anger them, surely. But their feelings mattered naught to me. I didn't deserve to die, I knew that as much. And to swear absolute loyalty to the monarch. But for what purpose? I didn't know. But I didn't want to die. I would fight to the end. Whatever was offered to me, I would see it to the end. "I'll go with you."
AN: Thanks for reading!
So, I am terrible at finishing stories, normally I have too many ideas, and then never get very far, but I'm hoping by posting it on here I'll be able to change that.
Any critiques or comments would be fantastic. I know I make many mistakes, and thoughts and suggestions would be wonderful. If you're terribly confused about something, let me know, although the next chapters might clear it up as it progresses. I don't really have a plan as to where I'm going, just key moments. Well, we'll see how it goes!