The nights were always hardest, Klauen found. They lacked the stimulation that the days were already sorely deprived of. When they dimmed the torches and the Palace around them settled into silent slumber, Klauen found himself lounged on his bed, ears straining for the slightest sound beyond the whispers of his sentries’ breath.
It was harder to keep his mind off things at night. The darkness and shadows clung to his form like a cloak, but he still found it nearly impossible to sleep. He would count the bricks of the wall opposite, again and again and again, to no avail, and end up sprawled on his stomach over the thin mattress.
He usually managed to drift off just after the third change of the highguard, when the fourth and final crew would relieve the previous shift and take their positions for the night. Klauen watched from his bed as the two new sentries arrived, swords holstered, and dismissed their comrades. They pivoted to fix him with impassive gazes, and Klauen turned back to staring at the brick wall, feeling the minutes drip by with excruciating silence.
It was still better than solitary confinement. Klauen closed his eyes. Anything was better than that timeless dark hell. It had been three days since he had been released and returned to his cell, but the memory was excruciatingly fresh in Klauen’s mind.
Klauen glanced over at the sentry who had spoken, whose head was now turned towards the entrance to the underground cells, gaze fixed on something beyond the Stahlborn’s view.
“Heike,” the other breathed, and Klauen froze where he lay. Perhaps a second of silence passed between them in the terse atmosphere before the highguard was bolting down the corridor, out of sight, bellowing, “Heike Stahldritten!”
The other highguard was close on his heels, drawing his sword as he dashed from view, the sound of their thudding boots fading up the stairs until silence hung around him again. Klauen swung his legs off the bed, rising to his feet to approach the metal that barred him from escape, wrapping chilled hands around the cold metal.
“A lovely trick, isn’t it?” a voice drawled, startling Klauen back from the bars as the figure came into view. Klauen recognised him immediately as the man who had helped his sister Heike amass the Feuer Army – Kuren Rotehre. His dark hair fell almost to his shoulders, his brown eyes alight with amusement as he leaned back against the wall where only moments ago the sentries had stood. His gaze was directed up the corridor after the faded echoes of the highguards’ footsteps.
Klauen watched him warily from the confines of his cell. “What are you doing?” he demanded, and Kuren glanced up for the first time, his features lit with a mockery of surprise, as if he had only just noticed Klauen’s presence.
“Oh, Klauen Stahldritten, is it?” he inquired, stepping forwards to assess him under the torchlight as he leaned a shoulder against one of the bars, a picture of ease. “You’re kinda famous, you know.”
“What does it matter to you?” Klauen said bluntly.
Kuren’s brows rose. “I came all this way to see you, and this is the welcome I get. So much hassle; and I guess you don’t even think you’re worth it.”
Irritation stabbed an ember into Klauen’s chest, all too close to the pit of kerosene that was his stomach, eager to burn and be burned. He swallowed harshly, forcing out a chuckle, trying to brush off how closely that had hit to home. He didn’t even know the man, but he certainly didn’t trust him. “I’ll ask you one more time: what do you want, Rotehre?”
“Oh, so you do know who I am? How unnerving,” Kuren said, his tone lined with hilarity that only he shared. “Well, Mr. Stahldritten, since your beloved sister left you all alone, I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
His fist clenched, wrapping around a dagger that wasn’t there, his pulse jumping to his ears. So he was being spied on by his sister again? Even miles away, far beyond the Realms, he was still within her reach, still able to be coerced and bent. “Fuck you,” Klauen muttered, and forced himself to turn back to the bed. “I’m not doing this again.”
“You’re right, that was too harsh,” Kuren admitted, wrapping hands around the bars as he watched Klauen’s retreat. “I’m not here for Heike.”
Klauen paused, turning back to glare over his shoulder at the man who was playing him, just like everyone else had before. And he was just as blatantly obvious of the fact; and just as helpless to defend himself.
Kuren’s eyes gleamed in the light. “Tell me something; do you regret any of it?”
Another sharp pain of an ember piercing above his navel, disastrously close to the fuse. Klauen breathed deep and gritted his teeth, shoving down his anger and clamping onto it with a resolve that weaken by the second. His tone was sharp when he spoke, “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“What do you mean? Do you not regret every decision that led you to this point?”
Fury burned through Klauen’s veins, threatening to spill from his mouth and his fists. His head was ablaze, logic and rationale enflamed as his mind spat retorts back and forth like sparks.
Did he regret playing Heike’s pet executioner? Yes. Did he regret murdering all those people just so she could get herself a fucking army? Yes. Did he regret having to watch his friends being executed on his orders? Yes. Did he have any choice in the matter? No.
“If you think I actually care,” Klauen responded, his tone low and roiling with a wrath unmatched, “about whether or not I regret any of my actions, you’re clearly not paying attention. My remorse isn’t relevant. Not here, not now.”
“Oh, are you sure about that?” Kuren purred. “You ought to be paying a little more attention, Mr. Stahldritten. I just so happen to be interested in you and your…remorse.”
Klauen snorted, genuinely amused, bitterness sharp in the back of his throat. “People have a habit of doing that. You do know what happened the last time someone took an ‘interest’ in me, don’t you? Herrin’s cell is a few bars down if you’re willing to find out. Better yet,” he added ruthlessly, “I’m sure my brother Korol’s corpse is still fairly fresh in the morgue.”
“Now, now, Mr. Stahldritten.” The epithet sent a stab of hatred ricocheting through Klauen’s skull. “I wouldn’t be here if I were worried for my own safety.”
“What did you do to those guards?” Klauen demanded, desperate to take his mind to anything but this conversation.
Kuren smiled, waving an absent hand. “I showed them what they wanted to see.”
“And what was that?” he pressed between gritted teeth.
“Heike Stahldritten,” he responded with a smirk, his tone light and song-like, reciting as if he were drawing the words from his memory, “stained with the blood of their comrades, freeing her loyal commander – your brother Konnen – from his cell before she escaped into the palace to threaten… oh, say, Empress Adelheid Regenmeer’s life.”
Klauen stared in shock, reassessing the man before him, before it clicked. “You’re a talented mage. You create illusions.”
Kuren only smirked in response, stepping forward to insert a key into the keyhole of the cell door, allowing it to swing open into the corridor. He pocketed the key, and wrapped a hand around the open cell door, meeting Klauen’s gaze. “Now, would you care to lead the way?”
Klauen bared teeth, refusing to budge. “You can start where you came in,” he retorted coldly. “I’m sure you can let yourself back out.”
“And what of you, Klauen Stahldritten? Where will your life lead down here, hmm?”
“I’m this famous and even a councilmember doesn’t know my trial is rigged,” Klauen sneered sarcastically. “I’ve been demoted, as it were, to Rechtlos. I get my brand in four days. You’ll probably get to attend the ceremony.”
“So you’ve given up on living altogether then?” Kuren asked doubtfully. When Klauen made no move to join him in the doorway of his cell, he tilted his head aside. “Pity that… Are you sure? Last chance to change your mind…”
“I’m done playing with sociopaths.”
“You wound me, Mr. Stahldritten,” Kuren exclaimed, smiling. “Though who could blame you. Which will it be, life imprisoned or life liberated?”
“Liberation seems to be your forte,” Klauen pointed out icily. It was Kuren who had convinced Aurel Feuervierte to launch a liberation attack on the Ether Palace, to overthrow Heike, and had, in turn, guaranteed her a thousand more men for her army.
“Do you honestly think I deserve to live? After all I’ve done?” Klauen bit.
“Who cares what I think, Mr. Stahldritten. The question is; what do you think?”
“I think I should have killed you and all of Heike’s pets when I had the chance.”
“And yet here we are; I’m holding the door open to your freedom and you are avoiding my question.”
Klauen snapped back with sarcasm, employing the same sing-song tone the Feuerborn had used only moments ago, projecting him back at himself. “Oh, haven’t you seen the trial? I don’t get to avoid questions anymore. I get every detail of my life spread out in front of me, torn through for every mistake and failing to be pinned on me. So I fail to see what information you lack about me. I thought you’d be able to tell by now that I don’t like sociopaths.”
“My, my,” Kuren sighed. “You’re missing the point, Mr. Stahldritten. Firstly, I’m not a sociopath. And secondly, if you cannot put it in words, the answer to my question is obvious; it’s up to you. Do you think you deserve to live?”
Klauen bared his teeth, clenching his jaw. It would be so easy, so very easy to break his neck, to jam his thumbs into those smug eyes, to wrap fingers around that slender throat and choke the life from him. “I deserve my life more than you deserve yours,” Klauen replied softly, his tone low and violent.
“Are you going to kill me, Mr. Stahldritten?” Kuren inquired with a smile.
“No. I’ve killed enough people. And you’re not worth adding to that list.”
“Are you sure you’ve sated your bloodlust? Your sister told me all about your inclinations.” Klauen’s vision blurred with his ire, and then he was moving forwards to strangle the life from Rotehre’s smirking lips even if it cost him his sanity.
His body seized millimetres from Kuren’s throat, fingers straining, his entire form paralysed. Kuren’s gaze flickered over him, before sliding to the man who stood to his right, visible now that Klauen was a step outside of his cell.
“You have a flair for the dramatic, don’t you?” Kuren asked Herrin, stepping away from where Klauen still stood, unable to move with Blesse’s talent affecting him. He glanced back at Klauen, inspecting Herrin’s ability. “But you certainly have a useful talent. You can make him walk, can’t you?”
“I’d be able to make him walk better if I had more flame,” Herrin responded, but raised a hand nonetheless, beckoning Klauen forward. The Stahlborn was forced to obey, and it struck him that he had never seen Herrin use his movements to instruct his magery before. Then he registered the dimmed torches on the walls, dousing them in flickering light.
Kuren reached up to one, removing its cap and allowing the flame to spring back to light, unstifled by its own smoke and consumption. He passed it to Herrin, who accepted it readily. “Is that better?”
A smile pulled at the corner of Herrin’s mouth as his eyes fixated on the flame. “Much,” he assured him softly, before his gaze rose to Klauen. “We’re going to take a walk, husband of mine.”