The city was already dark when Perrin looked out the window and caught her first glimpse of the building high atop a ridge overlooking lake Arben. The city was still full of activity, as many of the well to do were heading off to the evening parties and gatherings they held even as the rest of the city starved around them. Women in layered dresses and feathered hats took elaborately decorated carriages to their evening engagements as they sat beside crisply tailored men. Both her own carriage and those of the well off passed by the forgotten poor that lined the city streets. Nobody stopped. No one even acknowledged that the homeless and downtrodden were there.
Many of the buildings they passed had smoke coming from their chimneys. The smoke hung low in the sky tonight, and made the air taste of it. It promised warmth to those who were inside, warmth that she would prefer over the cool smokey air that filled the carriage. For reasons that grew more real as the horses pulled them through the city streets toward the building on the ridge, she would give anything to be anywhere else.
Perrin turned away from the window. It was hard to look out and see the people they passed, both rich and poor alike. The carriage bumped along the stone-paved street. She turned back to the woman on the bench across from her. She had been looking out of the window too, and wore an expression that she had also seen the building.
Perrin didn't know what to do. She was eighteen, and an orphan since she was eight. She'd been on her own most of her life, scratching out a living as a seamstress in a shop in her hometown. Her life since her parents died had been hard, but she had made it this far. It was part luck and part determination that she'd done as well as she had. As the saying goes though, luck had to run out eventually.
She was short and thin, too thin from having too little food for too long. She had long black hair that reminded her of her mother's hair glossy and smooth like a crow, but her own hair was now matted and greasy. Her silver-grey eyes dominated her facial features. They were all that was left that hadn't thinned and wasted away on the streets before she had been caught. She didn't consider herself remarkable in any way. She wasn't as pretty as the other girls were, or as tall, or any of the other things people seemed to value in appearance but she didn't care much. Life was too hard to care. All she saw when she looked at herself in windows was an emaciated orphan, hungry and alone.
"You been in before?" said the woman. Perrin didn't know her name. The woman had stated her name when she got in some days ago in Dereny where their trip began, but Perrin wasn't really listening. She was probably a good ten years older than Perrin, but poverty sometimes had a way of making people seem older than they were. Perrin wondered how old she appeared in the eyes of the woman that stared at her now.
"No." Perrin replied.
"No talking!" someone shouted from up front.
It had been that way the whole trip. Normally by this time, they might have stopped for a meal. Given that they were so close to their destination however, Perrin doubted they'd be stopping until they arrived. They might arrive within the next two hours or so, depending on how well the carriage navigated its way through the streets of Purdun.
Purdun was one of the largest cities in Brelenn, and it was old. The original layout of the city had been enveloped several times, as the city grew and grew with the swelling ranks of the poor that had nowhere else to go. The endless wars between the provinces of Therona left them little option. The laneways of the city spread organically with Purdun as it got bigger over the years. Today, it was a tangled mess of streets and alleys.
A whistle in the distance might have been a train or a steamship, but Perrin didn't know for sure which it was. Purdun had a thriving trade industry, as it took advantage of the central location of Purdun within Brelenn province and the river that connected lake Arben with the sea that surrounded Therona.
Perrin felt the carriage was travelling up a noticeable incline. They were almost there.
"How long you stayin'?" whispered the lady.
Perrin held up three fingers. She didn't really know why she answered, but there was no sense being rude. The other woman was obviously nervous. Her foot had been tapping on the floor for the last twenty minutes, and Perrin would bet that the woman didn't even know she was doing it.
"I got five." the woman said. "You scared?"
Perrin considered it for a moment. She'd be a fool to think that she wasn't. She nodded.
"Keep your voice down." Perrin breathed.
"How can you be so calm?"
"I'm not. I'm terrified. I'm just trying to not let it get to me."
"We'll you're something else then because I'm about to completely lose it."
"Losing it won't help you."
"Nothing will help us. Not anymore."
"No, I suppose not."
"I told you to shut it back there. If I hear one more word, you're both going to have private bunks your first night." said the same angry voice from up front.
"I can't do this," said the woman.
Perrin put a finger to her lips and matched it with a stern look.
"Forget that!" The woman had wild eyes.
Perrin was already fairly certain there was no bringing the woman back from the precipice, but she gave one final try. She pleaded silently with her arms and expression to try to get the woman to settle down.
"Let me out of here!" the woman shouted.
Perrin dropped her shoulders. There was no hope she'd calm down now, and as intolerable as the situation was, it was about to get dramatically worse.
The carriage came to a halt.
Perrin swore a curse silently and stayed as still as she could. The back door of the carriage wagon opened, and she was met by the sight of two men and a woman, dressed in the same uniform. Two of the guards had rifles aimed at the two women inside the wagon as the third opened the door. Perrin had her hands up, at least as far as the chains she wore would allow her to raise them. She was perfectly still as the woman across from her thrashed on her bench.
"You." one of the guards indicated to Perrin. "Out."
"Let me out of here!" the other woman continued on, utterly frantic. "I promise I'll leave the city and never come back!"
Perrin nodded and extended her wrists so they could unlock the bolt that kept her in place in the back of the wagon. The woman continued to thrash and wail and beg to be released. One guard had a rifle aimed squarely at her, and the other guard aimed for the other woman as the third slid the restraining bolt free on Perrin's chains, making sure to stay clear of the other woman and the line of fire of the guard that covered her.
The guard pulled Perrin's chains and she followed him out of the wagon.
"Over there." The guard who had her rifle aimed at Perrin's chest ordered as she gestured a few feet away from the side of the wagon. "Kneel, hands where I can see them, and don't move or you'll be shot." Perrin complied.
With Perrin safely removed from the wagon, she heard the other two guards enter the wagon. Perrin couldn't see as she faced away from the wagon, but she heard the woman's pleas quickly muffled. The woman could no longer talk, though she heard that she kept up a struggle against the guards for another couple of minutes. The signs of struggle were muted when the guards left the wagon.
"Stand." the guard ordered Perrin. "Slowly."
Perrin tried to stand slowly, but the chains made it hard to get leverage to push herself up. She kept her movements deliberate and slow, all too aware that there was at least one rifle aimed at her back. She pushed herself up.
"Get back in."
Perrin entered the wagon to see the other woman now was thoroughly restrained. She wore a hood that covered her head completely. Given the muffled grunts and cries that she made, she was likely muzzled beneath the hood too. Her arms and legs were locked into place with additional restraints, and there were leather straps across the woman's knees, chest, and waist that held her in place. The woman couldn't move at all, but it didn't stop her from straining to free herself even now. Perrin reasoned that the restraints were supposed to be calming by preventing the prisoner from struggling and starving them of their senses, but she doubted it would have that effect anytime soon, if at all. Either that or the guards were just cruel, which was a possibility too.
Perrin sat back down on her side of the wagon, and was fastened back in.
"One peep out of you and you'll get the same treatment, understand?"
The door was shut and relocked, and the carriage continued on its way. It smelled badly, which was to be expected given that they'd been locked in the wagon for several days now. Perrin smelled fresh urine though, and saw that the woman had soiled herself. She felt terrible for her. She was just scared. She was terrified beyond comprehension and the guard's treatment would only heighten it, but there was nothing Perrin could do.
The prison loomed in front of them as their carriage came to a stop. The first gate opened, and the wagon trundled inside and the gate closed behind them. There were more gates in front of her, but that first gate was all that was left of the outside world. When it slammed shut, Perrin winced. The prison wagon passed through two more gates, and came to a final stop.
The back door opened. "Out." she was ordered.
There were several additional guards now. Perrin counted eight that she could see immediately surrounding the wagon, and many more on the walls and towers surrounding the prison. Half of the nearby guards had rifles aimed at her. She was unlocked and waited for the guard to guide her out of the wagon by her shackles. She took one last glance at the woman, locked down on the bench, shackled, bound, and muzzled and stinking of her own urine like a feral animal.
She hoped that the woman would find some strength tonight. She would need it. The worst was surely still to come. She wished she had paid attention to her name now, if only so that she would seem less an animal and more of the human that she was beneath the restraints. She was just afraid Perrin thought again, but it cost her the privilege of being treated like a person.
"Name?" a guard asked.
"Peregrine Abigail Stephens, sir."
The guard checked a manifest delivered by the prison wagon guards, and nodded.
"Take her to solitary." the guard ordered.
Perrin couldn't stop a mixed expression of fear and confusion from washing over her face, but she held her tongue.
"You two were warned to stay quiet. Your friend there bought you both a night in solitary." the guard smirked.
Perrin learned several things that night. She learned that prison was not a place to expect fairness or even humane treatment. Absolute obedience was required. However hard her life had been, it would never get any easier. The three years she was about to spend behind walls was her own doing, for there was no one else but herself to blame. No matter the circumstances or fairness of the life she had led that had brought her here, she had to be better than it.
Finally and most importantly, she learned that she had to grab hold of her sense of self and hold it tightly all night long in the crushing darkness of her confinement, or she would lose it forever.