13: The End of Beginning
For a while, Iliya sat motionless in the cell, staring at the wall, too exhausted to think.
Then he heard a door open and close, and footsteps approached the cell. What now? Couldn’t they just leave him alone? If he hadn’t been so tired, he would have sneered. But he just sat there, listening, waiting and finally, when the footsteps came to a halt outside the cell, he looked up to see the Keeper studying him. He just stood there, cut into fine slices by the bars like the first time they met. Iliya had not expected to see the man again after the trial, but he couldn’t bring himself to really care.
“Hello,” Cornelius eventually said. “I know you’re not used to your situation yet, but I would like to see you right away.”
Iliya frowned. “What for?” he muttered. His voice was hoarse and brittle from crying.
“Are you quite all right?” asked the Keeper. It was hard to tell if he were genuinely concerned or merely interested in the effects of the cuffs. Iliya suspected the latter.
“I have no magic,” he said.
Cornelius nodded. “Well, that was the point. But,” he added, “I can imagine it is very strange and … very limiting.”
“Quite,” Iliya replied as nonchalantly as he could.
“I’m sure you will get used to it. You aren’t the first wizard to … well, not be a wizard anymore. I’m going to make this quick. Come with me.”
“What is going to happen?” Iliya asked again.
The Keeper opened the door and gestured for him to come along. “I am going to test if they work,” he said. “It should be easy enough.”
Iliya put his hand against the wall for support as he got to his feet. “I can assure you that they do.”
“Hm, yes. But are they strong enough? You were not an average village wizard.”
Well, that much was true. Iliya followed Cornelius out of the basement. Walking was easier now, and although he couldn’t feel any magic, although even the Keeper’s presence felt muted, it was not as disorientating as immediately after the shackles closed around his wrists.
They only went as far as the courtyard between the buildings. So the Keeper wasn’t expecting to cast destructive magic this time.
“I would like to thank you for the help,” Iliya said. He hadn’t gotten to say it after the trial, but now it sounded hollow.
“I did what I believe is right,” Cornelius brushed off the gratitude. Iliya didn’t insist. But the Keeper was right. Once he was used to his new situation, he would be fine ... Wouldn’t he?
They stood a handful of paces apart. Iliya hadn’t tried to test the restraints himself. It felt too hopeless to even try.
“Defend yourself,” said the Keeper and raised one hand. He sent a ripple of magic energy towards Iliya.
Iliya put up his arms, a counterattack was on his lips, but nothing happened. He was hit and staggered backwards. It stung, but the Keeper had held back. It was more like a slap in the face than anything else.
“Good.” Cornelius seemed pleased. “Now attack me. With something … more powerful than that.”
Iliya took a deep breath, murmured the incantation for an attack that ought to incapacitate an opponent for a while, and he did feel the magic. For one short moment, he thought the cuffs weren’t working properly. That they only blocked certain kinds of spells. Then he was stuck. He could not make the spell work, could not channel the magic properly. The energy was building up, swirled angrily around and then exploded inside of him. He screamed.
Iliya’s knees buckled under him, his arms became useless, his head was impaled by a thousand shards of glass. His own abilities, his own magic, his own spells had turned against him. His vision went fuzzy and dark, and he couldn’t hear or think until someone shook him by the shoulders and called his name.
He opened his eyes. The Keeper was kneeling next to him on the ground. He looked serious, but not worried.
“There you are. Take a moment to breathe.”
Iliya wanted most of all to curl up and never move again.
“This is what happens if you attempt to actively use magic,” Cornelius said.
“I understand.” Iliya gritted his teeth. A guard passed them and did a very poor job of not staring. Then a woman with a cart full of sacks crossed the courtyard. She didn’t even try to conceal that she was looking at them. Iliya slowly got to his feet after a few more minutes. In an act of unexpected kindness, Cornelius supported him as they went back to the cell. Through the fog in his mind, Iliya thought he sensed less enmity now than he ever had from the Keeper. Had the cuffs washed away the lingering tell-tale darkness around him? Or could he not even sense hatred properly anymore?
“Well,” said the Keeper as he was locking the door once more. “I don’t expect to see you again. The seals on those cuffs will need to be renewed in a few years, but I will see to it that the wizards here are informed.”
Iliya’s fingers were wrapped around the metal bars for support. His knuckles were white, but he was doing his very best not to tremble, and he refused to sit down until the Keeper left. “May I ask you a question?”
Cornelius quirked an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
Iliya cleared his throat. “I was wondering … Did you know … Are you informed of the identity of your successors?” he asked.
The Keeper’s expression revealed nothing at first. Then he smiled. “That is of no consequence now,” he replied. “Your past, Iliya Radov, doesn’t matter anymore. You should concern yourself with your future.”
Iliya nodded. That was probably the only answer he was ever going to get. But Cornelius was right about one thing. He had a future to think of.
Cornelius gave him one last smile, and then he left the basement.
Iliya listened to his retreating footsteps. Then he took hold of the blanket, wrapped it around himself and lay down on the floor to wait for sleep to claim him. There was nothing else to do and he didn’t want to think. Not about his past, not about his future and certainly not about his current state.
Iliya’s right arm was resting on the table in front of him, mocking him with the broad metal cuff around his wrist. The cuffs had only been there for a day, and he had neither gotten used to the sight or the feeling of them or, for that matter, their deeper meaning. Still, those restraints should be enough of a punishment. But who was Iliya to question his sentence? He was alive. He clenched his fist once and then relaxed. It would hurt more if the muscles were tense.
He looked up at the other man. He was exactly the type one would expect. Coarse and strong with big and deft hands. He moved the poker around between the coals in the furnace to make the flames crackle. This was his workplace and what he was about to do, he had probably done hundreds of times before. To robbers, traitors, pirates … But to someone like Iliya? Probably not.
The man pulled the red hot iron out of the fire, turned around and stepped closer. Iliya felt the heat and got a glimpse of the tip of the almost pulsing iron before it was pushed into his forearm. He breathed in sharply. The smell of burnt skin and flesh reached his nostrils. He tried not to cough.
The man shoved at the end of the handle with the palm of his hand and gave the iron an unforgiving push. Iliya forced himself not to look at his arm. The pain was so paralysing that he didn’t need to stare at it to force it to stay still on the table. The man’s face was drawn. His teeth were bared in a grin, but there was nothing malevolent about it. It was only the concentration and physical effort that made him look like that.
There was a small tug when the iron was removed, as if it had been fusing with Iliya’s forearm and needed to be ripped away. Iliya tried not to let it get to him. But the smell made him nauseous and the pain made it hard to breathe properly. Still, a strange calm spread through him. Almost relief. It was over now. He had been sentenced, and now he bore two of his punishments visible to anyone.
The man nodded at the guard who had been standing at the door throughout the whole ordeal.
Iliya stood up before anyone could ask him to or step closer to take hold of him. He accidentally kicked the leg of the chair. It skidded across the floor with a screech. He approached the door at a becoming speed. Controlled. He had tried worse, he told himself. Shouldn’t let this rattle him.
The smell of burned flesh was still lingering when he was alone in the cell again. The metal hugged both wrists mockingly although the cuffs were only tight enough not to be pulled off. Finally he allowed himself to look at his right arm. The mark was simple. A circle with a crown symbolising Gerania and the Queen, and under it the capital letter T. Traitor. The skin was red and small blisters were glistening now, but there would be scabs soon enough.
They came to get him the day after. Two of the guards he had gotten used to escorted him upstairs and out into the daylight. This time they hadn’t shackled him. But then, he already was shackled, wasn’t he?
He was being moved to another part of Larkon. The part of the prison that would be his home for the rest of his life, or at least for ten years to come. And … Iliya ran a hand across his chin. From what he knew, convicts were allowed to shave. They were allowed to bathe regularly. They were given meals at reasonable intervals. And they were required to wear a set of simple clothes provided by the prison. He would leave behind his parody of a uniform along with the rest of his former life.
Being in prison was hard, a fellow soldier and former thief had once told him. Iliya would have to spend his days at a workshop, doing carpentry, masonry or other menial labour. To a lot of people, it would probably seem hard. To some it would seem unfair. Others yet would mourn the luxuries and the people they left behind. But Iliya knew he deserved to be punished for his crimes. He was not used to luxuries. He was not even used to a bed at this point. He was leaving no one behind. And he didn’t mind physical labour. Even without magic and with the pain of the loss, even with the problems he would no doubt run into in prison, his future looked a lot safer and brighter than it would have been if he were still in the army.
Iliya raised his eyes to the buildings enclosing him. A fair breeze played with his hair. The sun was shining. A smile surprised him when it began to tug at the corners of his mouth. But in many ways, this was exactly what he had wished for, wasn’t it?
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