The incessant drip drip drip of water was enough to drive any man insane. He’d been half way to the mad house before he was brought to this prison so he decided that it no longer mattered. I am going to die. Tylak grinned. The thought should terrify rather than amuse him. He giggled, confirming his descent into lunacy. Yes, he was crazy, and he would die alone and mad in this dank and dirty cell.
He could hear them, the mutterings and groans of those around him. Too long in the darkness and solitude of the dungeons had reduced each of these poor souls to little more than mumbling fools. And he was becoming one of them.
Maybe before everything had happened he would have resisted. The old me would have been busy plotting an escape. The old me would never give up. But that was before, when he’d had something worth fighting for. And even if he wanted to fight now, how could he? Once again he was nothing, stripped away from any value he thought to hold. Once again he was Tylak the slave.
His thoughts drifted off to Sykk and the promise he’d made to his mother. Tylak had never known his father but his mother had been enough. She was kind and good. He could picture her now, worn and tired but ready with a smile for him and his young brother. “Remember, you are strong. You can make a difference, in Sykk’s life, in your own. You can shape your destiny.” Those had been her final words.
When he was fourteen he’d taken a job as the blacksmith’s assistant, eager to do the manual city labor and earn an honest pay. A slave earning an income. He had been so proud. He and Sykk had celebrated the day he’d brought home his first two weeks of pay. He’d earned five water chips and an entire gallon of water. An entire gallon. He’d been so shocked he’d almost dropped the priceless liquid. They’d shared a loaf of flat bread and fresh meat and had drank themselves silly. To Tylak, water had never tasted sweeter. Back then he had still dared to believe that things could improve for him and Sykk. He had dared to have hope. It was all a joke Tylak thought. People like me can’t shape their destinies. He felt foolish that he’d once held on to the beliefs that he and Sykk’s lives could change. All those hopes were gone now. The world was a cruel place and the rich got richer while the poor stayed poor. A slave would never be any more than a slave.
Never again. He made the silent vow, feeling the anguish of his loss tear through him once more. He pushed all thoughts of Sykk away from his mind. Don’t think about him, not anymore. Give up.
He lay down on the floor and drank from his glass. How ironic that here in this prison he could have more water at his disposal than he’d ever dreamed possible. The rich and powerful didn’t have to worry when they would have their next drink of the precious liquid. For them, water was only a purchase away. And there was none such display of this opulence than that of the palace. He’d seen the garden on his way to the judgment hall, the lush green and fragrant flowers had disgusted him. And there had been a fountain, a damn fountain! The sheer waste of it all made his skin crawl. He figured his cell was probably beneath the gardens. That would explain the occasional heady waft of the flowers and the constant drip of water into his glass. He took another greedy gulp. He might die here in these dungeons, but he wouldn’t die thirsty.
The scrape of his heavy cell door opening was deafening and he jumped to his feet. He hadn’t expected for them to come for him now, in the dark of the night. His adrenaline surge was fleeting and he slumped back against the wall. What does it matter? If my time is now so be it.
Despite the fact that he told himself he didn’t care, he still watched the opening door with interest. He couldn’t hide his surprise as his captor approached.
“You,” he spat. “What are you doing here?”
She widened amber eyes. She was probably surprised at being spoken to in such a way. The shock in her face almost made him smile. He would have, if he hadn’t been so angry. She and her kind was the reason he was in this mess.
“I’ve come to ask you some questions. You will answer them truthfully.”
Bossy little thing. He frowned at her.
Her voice was low and husky, a surprising feature on her delicate frame and a direct contrast to the squeak he’d heard earlier when she sentenced him to be executed. If the situation was different Tylak might have thought her beautiful. She had delicate features, a slender nose, tiny pouted lips. Her hair, long and black, hung down to the small of her back, shiny as obsidian. Her almond shaped eyes dominated her tiny face and they were full of wonder and… was she frightened? Good, let her be afraid. He spat again. “What do you want?”
She took a careful step back to avoid the puddle of saliva and clasped her hands behind her back.
She lifted her chin. “I have questions slave, and you will answer them.”
She tried to look stern but her spectacles slid down the bridge of her nose and he laughed.
He stood up, closing the distance between them and taking pleasure when her tiny pink lips parted into a delicate O. Her Arbe closed rank around her, yet another reminder of her status. She waved them back.
Interesting. She’s brave. Or maybe she just realized that my chains prevent me from getting any closer. He narrowed his eyes and scowled down at her.
“I am known as Tylak.” He kept his voice steady, even. He was doomed to rot in a prison cell until his execution but he was not her slave. He stared her in the eye to make sure she saw he was unafraid.
“I am Jura, daughter of Justir, First of the Thirt–”
“I know who you are.” He snapped.
She bit her bottom lip and furrowed her brows. Tylak enjoyed watching her squirm and said nothing. She doesn’t know what to make of me. Good.
“I have some questions for you. If you answer them to my satisfaction I will see you rewarded.”
She was persistent, he had to give her that. Tylak smiled.
“What could you give me that I would want?”
“Well, your life for one.” Though her statement was smug, her voice was hopeful and her eyes pleaded with him. “Freedom, perhaps? A chance to start again.”
He chuckled. “If it’s just the same I’d rather not accept any favors from one of the Thirteen. Thanks for stopping by though, I’m sure you can see yourself out.” He sat back down on the cool stone floor and turned his back to her, staring at the wall. He took another swig from his glass of water, ignoring the sound of her gasp. He wanted to be left alone.
“You’re drinking bath water.”
“The water dripping into your cell.” Her voice had become lilting and amused. He liked her better when it was laced with desperation.
“I happen to know you’re directly under Councilman Beshar’s bathing chamber.” She wrinkled her nose. “He’s very large and sweaty. Though perhaps it’s safe. He doesn’t seem to bathe often, at least if his odor is any indicator.” She shrugged. “I think that’s why he favors that floral perfume.”
Do not let her see you’re disgusted. Deliberately he set the glass back down. He sighed, it didn’t seem he would get rid of her so easily. “Ask your questions and be gone.”
Her smile widened. It was a nice smile, though he would never admit it.
“You’re here because you stole from the Everflame.”
“That’s what I’m told.”
“Well,” she cleared her throat. “How did you do it? Only Fire Dancers can manipulate Fire. So how did you steal it?”
He sighed again and leaned his head back against the wall. He wanted to bash it in and be done with her, with everything. “I didn’t steal anything.”
“Well then, were you a Fire Dancer once? Relegated back to mere slave after you committed some crime?” Her eyes were earnest and she ran the tip of her tongue against her pink lips.
“I’m no Fire Dancer and I’m not a slave either. Not anymore.” He glared at her. “And I didn’t steal Fire. Look I can’t explain it to you and there’s no point even if I wanted to. I’m being executed tomorrow, why does it matter?”
She frowned. “You’re not making any sense. Are you saying that you never had any Fire in your possession? That the guard lied or was somehow confused? I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand. Go away.”
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and shook her head. “I was hoping–”
“Hoping what? Listen, I don’t have any evil scheme, I just…what is it? Do you feel guilty? Is that it? I’m a dead man,” he growled. “Go back to your palace and leave me in peace. I want to spend my last hours alive in silence.”
“N-no. I was hoping you’d tell me where you’d learned to do such a thing, that you could teach me. You could help me with– oh never mind, this is foolish.”
Her outburst was unexpected and he cocked his head to the side regarding her with new eyes. “You want to learn how to steal Fire?”
“Yes,” her voice was defensive, she frowned down at him.
He couldn’t help it. He threw back his head and roared with laughter.
“Enough,” she seethed, placing her hands on her hips.
Was she about to throw a tantrum? Oh, he really hoped she did.
“I can’t help it,” he gasped. “You’re as mad an anyone in here. Greatness, as far as I know, stealing Fire is a feat only done by Fire Dancers. I can’t teach you. Why in the name of the Everflame would you want to? Surely you have Fire Dancers in your own employ to help you?”
“Of course I do. It’s just that…” She trailed off. She appeared to be blushing though it was hard to tell in the dark cell.
She cleared her throat and continued, “I thought if I could steal Fire that they would have to take me. That they would let me in.”
“Who would let you in?” The humble look in her eyes was really quite charming.
“The Shadow Dancers,” she mumbled, looking at the ground.
She really was mad. Completely and utterly insane. Why do I always attract the crazy ones? “The Shadow Dancers don’t exist.” Tylak rolled his eyes. “And even if they did they wouldn’t let you in their midst.”
“Please,” her voice caught in her throat. “I’m desperate.”
“Clearly. And more than a little insane.”
She nodded. “ And it would appear I’ve wasted my time.” She lifted her chin. “I’ll leave you to your death then.”
She walked back toward the cell door, calling out for one of her Arbe to open it for her.
Tylak watched her, battling with himself. Her kind wasn’t to be trusted. She was privileged, pampered, and represented everything that he hated.
And she was his only chance at survival. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.
She stopped and turned around, frowning at him.
Tylak heaved a deep sigh and lifted his arms. He couldn’t tell her everything, but he was a fool if he allowed himself to stay in this prison waiting for his death. “I may not have been entirely forthcoming with you. I know something that can help.”
She tossed her head at one of her silent giants and the member of the Arbe undid his chains. They fell to the floor with a beautiful clamor.
Tylak rubbed his wrists and followed her out of his cell. He couldn’t trust her, but he had every intention of using her.