The sun had risen long ago, but its angle couldn't illuminate the cell block entirely. During the early mornings and late evenings, light would shine in through the bars brighter than even during midday. Prisoners were allowed some tokens to entertain themselves so long as they behaved. Some read books about days past, reading a story infinitely more enjoyable and exciting than their current ones. Others instead wrote their own. Of these, a few had been foolish enough to hand them to the guards for their opinions. They never got back their manuscript. Murderers, thieves, political enemies, traitors, for whatever reason, these men had been placed into this island prison. The powers at be had taken away everything from them, and even after receiving such a scant item to own in this hell of cold stone, to have it taken away like everything else caused many to fall into true despair and await death.
Despite their past sins, many of the prisoners showed some compassion to others, warning new arrivals of potential dangers. Most heeded the warnings, some did not. No matter how many times he saw it, Treyce noted how ironic it was for criminals to have more compassion than the guards. Men that by any stretch of the imagination were the monsters of humanity, showed more humanity than the ones who, theoretically, protected the innocent from them.
The item he had been allowed to own was a simple coin stamped with the insignia of the Lomany royal family: a lion on its hind legs roaring at crossed swords. And on the other side, the coin bore the phrase "Gei Kuttre Mu Defvul". He had never fully grasped the intricate nuance of the Loman language in that year or so he had been Lord Frostwyrm. The phrase literally meant "I roar at the heavens," but others had translated it slightly differently, and many people he had talked to proclaimed the official version as most accurate over variations with synonyms. Now, he probably would never know. It didn't particularly bother him though. The point in having the coin was not the faces but the utility.
He flipped it. Heads. Again. Heads. Again. Heads. Again. Tails. Seven out of ten. Treyce stood up for what seemed the hundredth time that day, walked over to his wall of records, and then scratched a small series of incisions into the soft rock to record the results. The wall reached only about ten feet high, but it was almost three-fourths full. Thousands, upon thousands of flipping results were on the wall. All 1,002,569 of them to be exact. So far, it was 501,467 heads to 501,102 tails. The idea had popped into his head a few months after coming to this prison. Now, he had flipped it over a million times, and the highlight of his time here was seeing it land on tails 25 times in a row. He had flipped the coin so many times that he had worn an imprint into the metal, but he didn't care; the balance didn't seem to have been affected in the slightest. The same could not be said for his thumbs. Treyce had noticed after flipping the coin for a few hundred times that his thumb had become inflamed. To alleviate the pain, he switched to his other hand, and by the time that thumb had burned in pain, the first had recovered. Unfortunately, further down the line, both of his thumbs had become thicker, making the rest of his fingers look like twigs. For the next year or so, he devised a workout regimen for his fingers so he wouldn't look like some freak with huge thumbs. It had worked slightly, but even now his thumbs were clearly thicker than they had been before.
And all of this because he simply wished to escape the threads of fate.
Ever since he was a child, Treyce Yates had been able to see the threads that connected people. Most of the time, they manifested themselves as actual threads of yarn zigzagging between people. It had only been once he mentioned them at the age of six did his mother realize he had inherited her gift, a gift that skipped two or three generations in her lineage. With training, the threads had become less noticeable, as he could not stop his younger self from treating the threads of fate and literal threads he had to maneuver around, much to his mockery. Treyce had always relied on the thread to guide his decisions. While he was not perfect nor prescient, his success with predicting people had catapulted him to the top along with his parents. It had never occurred to him that his mother had used the same technique to manipulate her surroundings to her advantage, but it never stopped dogging him when she and his father had been assassinated. It was then that he learned, painfully, that his affinity for the threads and his control over his perception of them heavily depended on his emotional state. The death of his parents had almost driven insane. Mourning the loss of ones parents at the age of 10 would shatter one's mental stability already; seeing the faces and bodies of those who remained as being made of living yarn had nearly pushed him over the edge. From the moment he woke to the moment he slept, he saw nothing but yarn wrapping around and connecting the slightest motion, tick, or word to something that by any stretch of the imagination should have been completely unrelated.
Even at his age, the yarn had threatened to overwhelm him, pulling him to the brink of insanity on that day, that day when everything began to unravel before his eyes. He had done everything the yarn had showed him. Everything. The soft coup, the relocation, the staging of the ambush, the diversion, the party, and the trial. The yarn had said Alice's sister and soon-to-be husband would be together, the crisis with Azara averted, and Alice and he able to live happily ever after. The yarn had continuously updated as the days turned to weeks and months. Treyce had been certain he had read the yarn correct. He had expanded his reading to include as much potential error and as much potential information as possible. He had painstakingly stayed up at night and woke early in the morning to confirm the yarn had not changed. It had not changed to include such disasters. He was in prison, Azara had declared war on Lomany and the rest of the continent, and Alice had tossed him aside for…nothing, not even that captain from down south. She had just left on her own, and she was now God knows where. Nothing had changed. Nothing was supposed to have changed. Yet it did. Right when Alice had fingered him as the leader of the Falcians, the yarn began unravelling into an unreadable chaotic mess. What worse was that the yarn's specific predictions remained roughly the same, but the extrapolation, the thing that mattered in readings, changed almost as soon as he had begun to read it. Instead of trying to cave ice, it had been like trying to carve water. Rough water. And once the reality of her betrayal and condemnation had sunk in, the yarn spun itself around him until all he could see was living yarn, a grotesque version of the living.
The coin had proved useful. Despite being able to predict people's actions, the threads did not handle pure chance very well. What once was a hand of moving yarn tossing a coin was now flesh and blood like normal. He had been doing this for so long that the threads of fate had all but ceased to bother him even when called upon. Every once in a while, he could make out the fuzzy thread of probability connecting his own limbs to the things he touched, but that was the extent of his torment. Treyce had spent many a night pondering over such irony: the time in which he was finally free of those damned threads was when he was in prison for doing what they commanded. Seeing other prisoners without threads attached to them or their surroundings was a novel experience. It fascinated him more than it should have, but it also made him feel naked. Treyce had depended on the flood of information from the threads to interact with others. Whenever the other prisoners tried to pass the time with him in his cell or in the yard, he would give an awkward shrug or jut of the chin. All confidence had bled from him, but at least he was free. That's what he kept telling himself anyway.
As he finished making the recording of 501,102 tails, the door to the prison block opened. Treyce looked over from his cell. It was much too early for lunch, the warden never let them have yard time before lunch, and executions were done at night time. Why were three guards walking down the lane? Treyce was not the only one to notice such an unusual occurrence. Many if not all of the other prisoners stopped what they were doing in order to watch the guards carefully. Such an event could easily herald good fortune as ill. The whole block had gone silent save for the beating of tough leather soles and the iron protection of the greaves on the centuries old stone floor. The three men came to an abrupt halt in front of Treyce's cell. In that moment, Treyce hoped that they would turn away, towards the poor sap facing him, and he could tell that the poor sap also prayed for the same thing. As fate would have it, Treyce could see the threads weakly connecting the guards to his own cell. Sure enough, they turned towards him. Their visors were down, and while it proved to restrict one's sight, it also proved to instill more obedience in the prisoners. More importantly, it also seemed to remove any reservation in carrying out orders. While two ghosts of threads loosely connected him to the guards, upon engaging him, they immediately dissipated. He could barely see any threads connecting the prisoners' expression to themselves in order to read their emotions or get an inkling of what was going on inside their noggin. When faces failed him, he would usually rely on body language. People had ticks or small movements more subtle than normal ones, and threads would connect them. However, the guards of the prison had shown themselves to be highly disciplined, being the only ones with calm threads even before the one million coin tosses. Without a face to read or body language to gauge, Treyce's anxiety began to soar, especially since none of this could be any good.
"Prisoner D041," said the commanding officer in an echoed, metallic voice, "The warden has requested for your presence."
And like that, his heart began racing. Unlike his subordinates, Warden Arein Orlanker engaged the prisoners on occasion at lunch or during yard time with his face bare. Every prison knew or would soon learn the ragged face of a man. The scars and wrinkles in this man's face did not betray age but instead seemed to be physical manifestations of whatever hell was burning on the inside. A cruel smile when a prisoner was about to be beaten or a flare of the nostrils when his rage was unchecked were common. No one particularly cared about descriptions such as coal-black hair or pale blue eyes or even his height. When a newcomer would ask about the warden, the veterans would always describe his mannerisms and ticks. As soon as you saw the man, prisoner or guard, you knew who he was. The only question was what he was, and how far would he go. Treyce almost broke down and cried. Many a man would be dragged to the warden to be tortured and eventually executed for some unknown reason. He had prepared himself for the possibility of death in this place, but the only thing more pathetic than dying in your sleep, surrounded by filth, was begging a demon to kill you as a form of mercy.
The two other guards opened the cell and pulled Treyce to his feet. He steeled himself. If his legs gave out from the despair, they would drag him by the wrists, letting his face cut against the ground. Before leaving, the officer looked over at the wall. Most of the men in D block, prisoner and guard alike, knew of D041's daily flipping for hours at a time. While many considered it evidence of insanity, they left him to his own devices regardless. However, the guards knew what the prisoners knew about the warden's habits. Believing this to be the last opportunity before D041's death, the officer asked gruffly, "Why the hell did you flip a coin a million times?"
Treyce's mouth answered instead of his brain, "So I could be free."
In truth, he could have easily ended it all by refusing to eat or drink, eating his own excrement, slicing an artery, or bashing his head against the wall until the pain stopped. The curse of the yarn would be gone with his death, and he would finally be at peace. Instead, he had chosen to flip a coin. In some ways, the activity was a metaphor of life. The flipping was a birth, and the landing was death. Heads was a good life; tails a bad. And somehow, seeing the strange, capricious nature of randomness brought him a sense of peace. What did it matter if this life of his would end on tails when many others would also and when many other on heads? Even when he tried to affect the outcome of the coin by rigging the flip, his attempt had little effect on the outcome. Why bother with the extra effort when it would ultimately land on its own accord? If it landed against him was that effort in vain? If for, was it wasted since it could have landed like that anyway?
The officer shook his head, convinced the young man had truly gone insane. Whatever the warden had in store for him, it would be better than such an existence. They clasped Treyce in iron but did not leash him. One only had to look at him to know he had no will to escape. His once brown hair weighed down with dirt and grime, and his bright eyes now dull. His skin had maintained its color and his muscles not deteriorated purely because of yard time. Misbehavior would have changed that. And why bother? They were on an island regardless. The warden was cruel but not unfair. Most of the time.
Treyce followed the officer with his eyes down at the floor and the two other guards at his rear. None of the prisoners mocked him or made any noise really. They looked on in sorrow. Many had been here for decades, and they considered the plucking of a young buck to be a tragedy. The four men left D block behind. Hearing the sound of the heavy door closing behind him sent chills down his spine. Part of him still held out that this was all just a nightmare. That sound proved otherwise. He had brought the coin with him out of habit, but now he squeezed it, searching for some amount of comfort in the familiar.
The prison of Yew Island had five blocks: A, B, C, D, and S, enough to hold three hundred prisoners. These blocks were literal rectangles three floors high except for S, which measured five. S block housed the guards' quarters as well as the warden's office. A through D were stationed in a corner of the island, and S was right on top of the entrance facing land. Between the blocks were open-air corridors atop thick, stone walls that let the sea breeze cross the center of the prison: the yard. Much of the central yard was just plain dirt, but it had no ceiling above it except the sky. While some prisoners didn't care for yard time, most adhered to the strictly discipline policies in order to avoid the privilege being revoked. The four men walked down stone stairs and through the yard towards S block. Treyce took what little time he had to appreciate the feeling of the salty air on his skin before being pushed into the guard quarters. Unlike the prison blocks, the hallway was well-lit and clean. Doorways led to the barracks, kitchen, and mess hall. The guards pushed towards the stairs near the rear. Treyce had not climbed more than one flight of stairs in years. While he forced himself to continue on without falter, his breath was ragged by the time he got to the fifth floor. He stumbled at the end and took a second to catch his breath. Bad idea. The two guards behind him grabbed his hands and pulled him like a ragdoll. The stone scraped against his chest and knees. Through sheer will, Treyce managed to tense his leg and chest muscles in order to stand up, much to the guards' amusement. Blood caked his chest, and a few nicks and scrapes showed up on his cheek and nose. The three guards stood at attention in front of the warden's office door. Thick yew wood and caked in decades of sea salt wind. Treyce doubted it could be burned, much less broken.
"We have brought prisoner D041," called the officer through the wooden door. "Permission to enter, sir?"
The low grunting of the warden resounded through the door, "Granted."
Treyce walked forward through the door behind the officer and before the two behind him could shove him. The office contained various trinkets and knickknacks from around the continent. From puzzles to books, fine wine to whiskey, maps to clubs, it was an eclectic collection the warden had. He had a bookcase on the side wall, free of dust and dirt but full of thick tomes. Treyce guessed the warden had not read a single one of them. The man himself sat as his paper-covered desk with the right edge of his mouth curled up in a half smile. Warden Orlanker leaned to one side with his elbow digging into the arm of his chair. "I see you stumbled," he remarked. Treyce did not answer. He spoke little in the prison, and he had no idea what to say, especially without the threads. What he did know was that the warden appreciated submissive silence.
"Well, let's get straight to the point then. Can you read?" asked the warden.
He had not read in years. Before his imprisonment, Treyce would have scoffed at the question as he had devoured books in his spare time. Now, he simply shook his head jaggedly, something he also had not done in a long time.
Another cruel smile followed by silence. The guards remained still. Surely, they had to be unnerved by this situation as much as Treyce was? The warden jutted his chin out to his three subordinates. "That will be all. Leave us."
The officer had reservations leaving a prisoner alone with the warden, but he knew better than to question orders. "Sir, yes, sir." He, himself motioned to his own subordinates to follow him out the office. They seemed to have the same reservations but follow his lead regardless. Once Treyce and the warden were alone, the warden sighed. The threads appeared with a ghostly outline, connecting the man's face to his fingers and then back to his eyes. In theory, the reading should have been that the warden would drum his fingers as he was feeling great sadness in a lost opportunity and then pinch the bridge of his nose before speaking. As it turned out, the warden drummed his fingers then stroked his chin as he reclined on his chair for a moment with his eyes closed. Treyce hated being duped by ghost threads, but he couldn't help but read them in this situation. Perhaps the things he tried to escape from would save his life even fi the reliability was poor.
"I received a curious message the other day, D041." Warden Orlanker held up an envelope with little to no flourish. It had the royal seal of Lomany stamped in official wax. Broken, of course, but still clearly there. Treyce cocked his head slightly to see such an important missive handled so casually. The warden pulled out a letter made of superb vellum and read it aloud in a disappointed voice:
"By order of the crown of Lomany,
The prisoner known as Frostwyrm (registered: No. D041) is to be released with the following condition in effect until he passes to the next world: he is not to enter any land ruled by the royal family of Lomany under immediate pain of death except in possession of sufficient, physical evidence of the express (temporary) permission of the ruling head of the royal family of Lomany. Effective beginning the seventeenth of March this year.
Gei Kuttre Mu Defvul
Office of His Majesty's Department of Security, Jenov Gilthardt
Representative of the Council of Six, Darren Reagan
His Majesty, King Kenneth Horace Albright of Lomany"
Treyce felt numb. Released? That meant…he was free? The king…had ordered his release? Why? Aside from Alice, he was the one most affected by Treyce's actions. Why had the king ended his sentence? Had he felt Treyce had suffered enough? The warden didn't speak of any catch other than he was exiled for life from Lomany and its territories. Technically, Yew Island didn't count, so all he had to do was take a boat to below the boarder and he'd be free. His head spun in circles as his vision swam. The yarn crept at the edge of his vision, covering everything in its grasp, but it disappeared completely wherever he turned his focus towards it. It was scared. As tempting as it was to let the thread take over, he could not bring himself to undo what he had spent such a long time attempting to unravel completely. He pushed it away, banishing it to his nightmares.
"Do you know what the date is, D041?" asked the warden.
Treyce shook his head again, but also replied in a shaky voice, "No, sir."
"It's March 17th."
March 17th…today! He was free today! Then…Treyce's face blanched. No, he can't be…
The warden smirked. "You know me well. I thought long and hard about simply saying you had died in captivity, but that wouldn't serve any purpose. Then I thought about burning this letter in front of you and then saying you died in captivity. Much more preferable. In the short run. I know the human spirit, D041. If you dangle hope in front of someone, not matter how broken they are, they have an annoying habit of reacting rebelliously with that spirit restored, and that rebellious spirit infects others. It's a fascinating form of magic. Trust me, I enjoy my job enormously, but I'd rather stick around by being fair than indulging in the moment. The ship's leaving at noon. If you don't want to stick around, I suggest you get down there now.
Treyce nodded repeatedly. He didn't care how silly he looked or how ridiculous this all was or even not knowing what life would be like on the outside. He was free. Free of the yarn, and now of the prison.
"T-Thank you, sir," he said.
The warden sneered. "If you keep that up, I might actually just burn this damned thing. Now, get the hell out of my office."