2: The Keeper
The door let out a long, sighing scream of tired metal when the guards unlocked it a few days later. It was only the second time Iliya saw it open. The first had been shortly after the Keeper’s visit when a doctor came to see him. She was less afraid of him and less repulsed than any of the guards and didn’t waste her time asking questions, but told Iliya to open his mouth and then to pull up his shirt so she could listen to his chest. Shortly after that visit, a guard pushed the most substantial meal Iliya had seen in a long time into the cell. A mug of herbal tea accompanied it, and whatever was in it made him tired, but the pain in his throat and his head subsided a little.
One of guards motioned for Iliya to stand up and hold out his arms. Iliya gritted his teeth. His hands were shaking worse than ever, and he had woken himself up that morning with a scream, thinking that he was choking, but really it was only the taste of nightmares and memories. The guard produced metal shackles and clamped them shut around Iliya’s wrists. Another set of shackles with a slightly longer chain were put around his ankles. He waddled out of the cell and down the corridor between the guards.
As soon as he left the enclosure, something shifted in the back of Iliya’s mind, like a headache suddenly lifting. Only that one cell was heavily warded to suit the purpose, then. They passed two other cells on the way, but they were empty.
A flight of stairs brought the trio to ground level. Iliya had to concentrate not to stumble because the chain between his legs was too short. No one said where they were taking him, but Iliya could make a qualified guess. The Keeper had sent for him. His fate was about to be sealed. Desperate questions were squirming around in his head. If they had gone to such great lengths to get someone as important as the Keeper, they could not possibly mean to execute him without further ado, could they? Still, it may well be a matter of protocol and formalities only. Well, whatever the case, should the Keeper supremely rule a death sentence on him at once, he had at least had a few good meals and been allowed the honour of talking the most powerful magic user on the continent before he went to the scaffold.
The guards brought him outside into a courtyard. Iliya squinted against the daylight. The buildings around them looked stern and rigid like building blocks. And they were large. This was not a small town prison. How much had he lost, apart from his sanity and life? How much time had passed? There had been no such structure close to the battlefield where he assumed he had been captured. Could it possibly be Larkon? It was the most infamous and famous prison in the country. Notorious for the sheer number of felons incarcerated there and famed for its security due to the number of guards and remote location. If that were the case, they would have transported him at least for a few days, and he recalled none of it. It was a little cooler outside than he remembered, but it could just be the weather. The leaves hadn’t fallen off the trees in the courtyard yet. He decided he could not have lost more than a week or two between then and now.
They crossed the open space and entered the building on the opposite side, ascended another flight of stairs and came into a clean room which was sparsely furnished, but equipped with a table and three chairs. In on of them was, indeed, the Keeper.
“Hello,” the Keeper said. He did not stand up, but why should he stand up to Iliya? “Thank you. Would you get rid of those?” The last part was for the guards, uttered in the Keeper’s impeccable, aristocratic accent that matched his impeccable, aristocratic appearance. He waved a hand in Iliya’s general direction. It looked like it had never had dirt under its nails or seen an honest day of hard labour.
“Sir,” spoke one of the guards, “I should remind you that he is a dangerous criminal who could ...”
“No,” said the Keeper, drawing out the vowel in a half-sigh. “You shouldn’t. Please remove his restraints unless you are too scared to do it, in which case I ask you to leave the keys here.” His hands now rested in a perfect triangle next to a stack of papers on the table in front of him.
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” stammered the guard and retrieved his key ring. He unchained Iliya’s hands and feet and then stepped backwards so abruptly that it looked more like a leap.
“Thank you. That is all. I will call for you when I am done,” the Keeper said.
The two guards bowed and walked backwards out of the room.
Iliya straightened his spine, painfully, and put his hands behind his back like he would in front of a general.
“Have a seat,” invited the Keeper.
“Thank you, sir.” Iliya pulled out a chair and sat down. There was only a table between them now and the power emanating from the Keeper was even more obvious than it had been in the cell.
The Keeper studied him for a moment. “Do you know why I am here?” he then asked.
Iliya met the other man’s eyes. His hands may be trembling and there was nothing flattering about his unwashed curly hair or his unruly beard, but he trusted his gaze to be steady regardless of how red his eyes probably were. “I believe I can make a qualified guess.”
“I assume they did not know what to do with me and called for you to be my judge. I am honoured. I had not thought that Master Wizard Cornelius Rowenheall himself would get involved in a case like mine.”
The Keeper smiled, but there was no kindness in his eyes. “Then you don’t realise how serious your predicament is.”
Iliya matched the grimace. “Well, I did think I would be executed,” he said.
“I am not your judge, but I am here to advise the judge and will have profound influence on the outcome of your trial,” the Keeper explained. “But you’re partly right. Under normal circumstances, someone like you would be executed without further examination.”
“What makes my case different?” Iliya asked. He could hear the venom in the Keeper’s voice. Someone like Iliya. Someone who had violated everything the Keeper believed in. Someone who had done the one, unforgivable thing and broken the most sacred vows and rules of their profession.
“You do,” said the Keeper as if that explained everything. “I am obliged to be impartial in this matter, and I expect you to cooperate during our meetings and to be truthful. I’m your only hope for a milder sentence.”
Iliya inclined his head and then looked back up at the Keeper. “Yes, sir. I have nothing to lose. I have nothing to hide. I will tell you everything you want.” Clearly the man was disgusted by him, as any sane person would be, but as the Keeper, he was bound by law to be neutral and listen, and Iliya would talk.
“Good. Now, my first question is this: Do you think you should be allowed to live? Do you want to live?”
Iliya frowned. What kind of question was that? He almost tried to buy himself some time by commenting that it wasn’t one, but two questions. But this was no joking matter. This was no time to act like the impulsive brat he had been when he decided to join the army. The man in front of him held, no matter what he said about trials and judges, Iliya’s future in his hands because he was the highest authority when it came to magic. If Iliya didn’t show respect and full cooperation now, when would he? “I find it hard to answer,” he said. “But I do want to live.”
“Yes,” muttered the Keeper, a sigh of disappointment lurking just under the surface of his voice, “otherwise I’m sure a resourceful young man like you would have found a way to take your own life.”
“Indeed, sir.” Iliya could feel himself scowl. He quickly wiped the expression from his face. “As for what I deserve … I deserve to be punished. What I did was against the law and it ...” His voice broke. His throat seized up and his breath came out ragged. For a while he sat there, trying to compose himself, trying to banish the fear and force the explosion of thoughts and impulses into something communicable. The Keeper was looking at him, calmly and without sympathy. It was that cool stare which somehow made Iliya’s own mind grow passionately cold and enabled him to speak again. “I recognise that what I did was wrong and should never be practised. I was raised and trained to know this as well as any other witch or wizard. I did what I did in desperation. I did what I did because I saw the opportunity to save lives, mine and those of my comrades who were still alive. I knew it was wrong, but I saved far more people than I harmed. War brings out the worst in human beings. Horrors happen every day in combat, but no one is tried and judged because what they do is not wrong in the same sense as what I did. So do I think I should be allowed to live? Yes. I think that given the circumstances, I should. But I will accept my punishment. And I do believe I deserve one.”
The Keeper sat studying him. He was searching. Looking for … what? Signs of whether Iliya was telling the truth or not? Of whether he was insane or not? For someone like the Keeper, he must come across as quite mad. Who in their right mind would do what he had done? Well, he hadn’t been in his right mind. Not for a long, long time. “Good.”
Iliya frowned. Good?
“I won’t work with a person who thinks he has done nothing wrong, nor with someone who only desires to die,” the Keeper said. It was not what Iliya had expected, but it made perfect sense. “I am going to interview you extensively over the next few days and then speak at your trial based on what I find.”
“Thank you. I greatly appreciate it,” Iliya said. “I should warn you, however. There are things that I cannot remember. I am not stupid enough to claim not to know what I have done to end up here, but I have no recollection of … the event itself.”
“Perhaps we can find the right pieces together.” The Keeper touched the stack of papers on the table. “But it was not the first time, was it, Iliya?”
“Well, then. I have no more to ask of you today. But I will see you tomorrow morning.” The Keeper leaned back in his chair and studied Iliya once more. “And,” he added, “seeing as we will spend quite some time together, you may as well address me by my name. I’m no military man.”
“Thank you,” Iliya said again. He had not expected ever to meet the Keeper and much less to be encouraged to speak to him informally. Had not expected him to act so much like … Iliya cut off his own train of thought. He would have laughed if not for the grave circumstances.
The Keeper called for the guards, and Iliya was shackled again and ushered back to the cell.
He slid to the floor once more as the door creaked shut behind him. Already it felt as if the Keeper was poking at his past to find the right pieces, as he had put it. Stirring memories into one big mess felt like a more accurate description. He was definitely doing something, discreetly, to enable this. The pieces had been kept in their respective boxes in Iliya’s head for a long time. All that had mattered was the present. Surviving the battle, not being discovered, trying to uphold the fragile truce with himself.
He closed his eyes. Where should he even begin? Well, he would have to trust the Keeper to ask the right questions.
But he didn’t have to wait for the next day before the story began to take shape.