You are the lowest kind of criminal that I can think of,” the Keeper said. “You are an insult to all wizards and witches. You are capable of severely destructive magic and are very potent in, I believe, anything that you do. It is despicable to see your downfall. It is a disgrace.”
He might as well have slapped Iliya in the face. This was a full-blown example of what had been evident throughout their conversations; a relentless wall of quiet hatred no matter what Iliya said. He had cracked his very being open and talked about everything that Cornelius asked him to. From his childhood memories to the recent experiences that stung with every word. Yet, here it was. The sentiment that every sane person would harbour. Iliya couldn’t have replied even if he wanted to.
“However, I have been impartial,” continued the Keeper. “I have listened to your explanations and seen what you are capable of. And this is my conclusion: You must be punished for your crimes. You must be kept from ever doing, of ever being able to do, anything like it again. You may not want to repeat the mistake now, but if you are pushed too far, you will. That is who you are. I do not believe in death penalty for revenge. I believe in it as prevention. However, there are other ways of dealing with your kind. I believe you are not beyond some kind of redemption, and therefore I shall advise the judge to let you live.”
Iliya almost wished they had been inside now. That he had been sitting comfortably. Those words hit him even harder than the insults. They were the words he had hoped for, had clung to more desperately than he had dared to admit to himself for the past days. Now that they had been uttered so directly, without any kind of warning, they almost kicked away the legs under him. He stumbled and regained his balance. “Thank you,” he stuttered.
“I am not doing you a favour,” the Keeper said. “I am merely doing what I believe is right. Now ...” They were approaching the prison again, and the Keeper stopped. “I am going to take you back to the cell. The trial is tomorrow. I expect quick and smooth proceedings. I expect your full cooperation. And I expect that I will get my way.”
“I know you aren’t doing it as a favour. And I understand that you despise me, but thank you. You will be saving my life,” Iliya managed to say.
The Keeper all but rolled his eyes. “Don’t be melodramatic,” he said as if this were not about life and death at all, but merely a small matter that ought to be dealt with lightly.
They proceeded to the prison, down the stairs and past a guard. Cornelius let the prisoner into his cell and locked the door behind him.
Iliya slid to the floor when the Keeper was well on his way back up the stairs. He sat for a long time with his back against the wall. It was hard to believe that this was not the end, after all. That the Keeper meant to give him a second chance. Would he ever see the man again after this? Probably not. But there was a future. There was an after this. He dared to hope now. Whatever the sentence turned out to be, he may live. It would no doubt be a life in prison. It would be a life without magic, and he dreaded what they would do to ensure that, but it would be a life. And that was more than he had hoped for since he woke up in this cell.
The next morning, Iliya was shackled again and herded out of the cell by a pair of guards. This time he was led past the room where the Keeper had met him, down an empty hallway and through a door at the very end of it.
The courtroom was simple and plain like everything else Iliya had seen in Larkon. Chairs were lined up in a row in the back of the room, and there was a surprisingly large number of people present. Who were they? Iliya could make out a man in a general’s uniform, and three prison guards were here too. On duty? Or were they here because of curiosity? A woman looked up at him with a scrutinising expression. She was holding a pen in her hand and quickly looked back down at a piece of paper in her lap. As she began to move the pen, Iliya realised that she was drawing him.
Before the audience sat Cornelius Rowenheall. His chair and the table in front of him were angled so that everybody could see him. He was leaning leisurely back in his seat with a surprisingly congenial expression on his face. He was wearing a dark grey robe with insignia that showed everybody exactly how important he was. Impressive and regal and with that air of power and competence emanating from him. Despite the Keeper’s infuriating composure, a feeling of gratitude that this was the man who would be speaking his case crept up on Iliya.
The judge was facing the whole room. She was a gruff looking woman with hands resting on the table in front of her and her mouth set in determination. Iliya straightened his back and stood on the middle of the room with his hands clasped behind his back while he listened to the charges being read out loud. He tried to lock his knees so no one would notice how much like pudding they felt.
The room was silent for a moment after the judge finished speaking. “What do you plead?” she then asked him. Her voice was cool and calm and left no room for questions.
“I plead guilty to the charges,” said Iliya, for he was. He had not denied it to Cornelius, and he certainly wasn’t going to start now.
After that, it was the Keeper’s turn to speak. He told the audience how he had spent the past few days in the company of the prisoner and had questioned him to be able to reach a viable conclusion and solution. His speech was quick, ruthless and simple, and his explanation of Iliya’s remorse was without sympathy. When the judge asked him what sentence he advised, the Keeper cleared his throat and waited a moment to be sure he had everybody’s full attention. And maybe he enjoyed seeing Iliya desperately trying to stay calm.
“I advise incarceration for a period of at least ten years,” he said. A flurry of whispers ran through the courtroom. The only one who didn’t seem to have an opinion was the artist. She was drawing the Keeper now. “I advise a form of punishment that will render him unable to perform any kind of magic. Without it, he is no more dangerous than a regular thug. And he can still be of use as a labourer in prison. I believe he is likely to reform if kept busy and away from the military and from magic.”
Iliya’s heart was pounding so fast and so hard that the judge could probably hear it. He tried his best to listen to the rest of the conversation, to the discussion between the general, the Keeper and the judge. But half of it didn’t register. The general was worried. The Keeper said something about a greater punishment than any other, about something being necessary and quite possible.
Finally the judge announced her verdict, “Iliya Radov, I hereby sentence you to prison for life. You shall be able to redeem yourself and plead for your freedom after ten years. You will be branded a traitor to Gerania, her Majesty the Queen and the army, and you will be shackled so that you can never again use magic.”
Iliya caught a pleased look on Cornelius’ face before he inclined his head. It was a triumph for both of them, but to Iliya all that mattered was that he was not going to die. The rest he would deal with like he had dealt with everything else that life threw at him. He would be working in prison, and it suited him well. He missed doing simple, physical work. Branding, being shackled … All that he would live with. Because he had that. He had his life.
When the trial was over, Iliya was escorted back to the cell. He would be transferred to another part of the prison shortly, they had said, but not before precautions had been taken. The next day, they were.
Two people were waiting in what looked like a blacksmith’s workshop. One was a wizard. He did not feel nearly as powerful as the Keeper, but he stared at Iliya as if he would have preferred to kill him on the spot rather than overseeing the proceedings. The other person, the blacksmith, put a wide metal cuff around each of Iliya’s wrists. The edges of them were embossed with a magical formula. A chill ran down his spine, but for a moment, Iliya was relieved that the effect of the cuffs was not greater. Then the blacksmith welded each of the cuffs shut.
A strange sensation washed over Iliya the moment both cuffs were closed. It wasn’t the familiar rigid feeling of shackles around his wrists. It wasn’t the knowledge that he would have to wear them until he died or that every witch and wizard in the country would know that he was being punished for horrendous crimes by having his magical abilities removed. No, it was the sheer feeling of not being able to reach out to his surroundings. It was like having a sense removed. They may as well have blinded him or cut off his hands.
He had known he would have a reaction. That it would be strange not to be able to use magic. That it would take some getting used to. But that it would set in immediately, even when he had no desire to perform magic … The gentle sensation of energies around him and in him, ready to use at any time, was gone. He could still sense that the person present was indeed a wizard. Would probably still be able to feel it if he performed magic. But everything else was gone. He hadn’t fully realised before now how natural a part of his life it had been since his childhood.
“Are you all right?” asked the blacksmith.
Iliya nodded. His throat was a tight knot. This was how he was going to live the rest of his life. He almost wanted to tell them that he and the Keeper had been wrong. That he would rather just be hanged or decapitated. This was too much. But he didn’t. He would learn to live without magic. He had never lost a leg in the war. He had not lost an eye or been maimed in other ways. Other soldiers had. He had known an old general who had a stump for a right arm. He had said that he didn’t really think about it anymore. He had learnt to adapt to the situation. Iliya wasn’t sure how much of it was just bravery, but the general seemed to be able to do most things that other people did. Iliya clung to that memory. Had to hope that this was like it. Right now, there was a dark, swirling turmoil in his head, painful and silent. But it was like a freshly amputated limb, wasn’t it? It would never grow back, and there would always be a scar, but the wound would heal.
The blacksmith and the wizard talked to him, but he couldn’t understand them. He was walked back to his cell, but he didn’t really register the trip. Everything had changed. He was blind, he was deaf, and he struggled to maintain his balance as he walked. When finally he was alone, he cried. For the first time in … was it years? He couldn’t recall crying since the first time he puppeteered his dead comrades. Not when friends were killed, not when he was wounded or when he saw his family or even when he decided to let them believe he was dead. But now he did.
He was alone. More alone than he had ever been in his entire life. There was no magic to keep him company. Sobs heaved through his body, and he sat on the floor of the cell and could do nothing but cry. The loss was too great to comprehend, but it was tugging at him, and he had to acknowledge it. Then the crying slowly subsided. And Iliya could feel the void inside and there was still no soothing magic, and he knew that it would probably be a very long time before he was capable of crying again.