Tabidaque

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TWENTY-ONE

Anyone who sees him deems him
Worthless
Stifled cries
Unheard by anyone
Not inside.

When will you realize you are not the hunter anymore? You are hunted. You are prey.

Maybe we will let you go. Maybe we will let you run a distance just for the fun of it before releasing our hunters to find you and take you down, like the animal you are.

Now, dear, tell me. What is it you want the most? Why does doing all this matter to you? Why do you continue to live?

“I just…” Words falter at the silence inside of me. No, not silence, but screaming. “I just want to be in control.”

Echoing laughter takes over my mind, harnessing the thoughts that used to be mine and stuffing them away, replaced with laughter, laughter at me and my stupidity.

You gave that up a long time ago, remember? When you agreed to let us inside. When you met these people. So don’t act foolishly. Why do you continue to live?

Why, when your only desire faded long ago?

Why?

Why?

Tiny claws sink into my flesh, chewing and biting and scratching away at the outside, leaving only the raw, pulsing heart, exposed to the world and rotting, slowly rotting away.

“Let me go!”

“Really? Let you go? You tried to murder me. There’s no way we’re letting you out of here any time soon.”

Nazka’s grinning face appears before me. I take in my surroundings: a small, sandy room, with no windows and only a single door. Probably underground. I try to move, but my arms are tied behind me. My wrists throb, cut and swollen in the leather bonds. There’s a tiny pricking sensation at the back of my neck, and I can feel a cold, scaly creature pull at the flesh.

Nazka moves closer to me, stands still for a moment before shooting his hand out to grab the little creature. When he brings it into view, I count six legs and a short, muscular tale. Its soft, smooth skin glints with light bronze scales. He holds it up between his hands, squeezing as it squirms in his grip.

“You’ve seen these before?” he asks. When I don’t respond, he shrugs. “Khalibar. Sometimes they get in here, annoy the prisoners. This one’s a juvenile and hasn’t done much damage, but the larger ones…” He slowly shakes his head. Then, with a shark twist, he snaps the creature’s neck and tosses the twitching corpse to the ground. He kneels down to my level, tilting his head in curiosity.

“Why are you so scared? I haven’t even touched you yet.”

I grit my teeth. Why can he see that? Why can’t I hide anything from the world?

“Well?”

I choke out a response, heart thumping erratically. “I don’t like being tied up.”

“A weakness, I see.”

I give him my fiercest glare, but he just smirks. I hear a sudden scream, echoing down the corridor. Thumping on the wall, someone banging on metal. Nazka looks vaguely concerned but quickly disregards it.

Then a thought hits me. Where is it? I frantically tug at my bonds, reaching to my pocket—

It’s empty.

“Looking for something?” Nazka reaches into his back and draws forth a small, leather-bound book, flipping it open. “Time, relentless, pauses and ponders a moment before charging on. A poetic assassin? Now, that, I haven’t heard of before.”

I don’t bother hiding the hatred that burns in my eyes.

He frowns and leans closer. “Who are you working for?” When I don’t answer, he raises his eyebrows. “We found two of your associates,” he says. “We know you were working as a group.”

We? Or was it those guards who showed up too late? Where were they, while you were napping unprotected—”

“You’re right, they were late, so why didn’t you kill me?” Nazka’s expression is smug. “Bad aim? You could’ve stabbed again, you know.”

I raise my chin defiantly. “What makes you so important that you think it was my job to kill you?”

“Well, you told me, but that’s what I was going to ask next,” Nazka replies. “Why am I so important? Why were you assigned to kill me?”

“You know why,” I growl, but he shakes his head.

“Tell me,” he orders. “What am I?”

I don’t like the way he’s telling me to do this. Like he’s trying to trap me. But I respond, because if I don’t, he’ll accuse me of being ignorant. “You’re a leader of the rebels defying the Assembly.”

He regards me, green eyes twinkling, then bursts into laughter. “So, they’re keeping you in the dark, too,” he chuckles. “But I had a feeling this was the Assembly’s doing.”

I grind my teeth so hard my skull winces. I want to wrap my hands around his throat and squeeze the life out of him. I should’ve stabbed twice.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” Nazka muses. “Just a few days ago, a Jagaser tried to sneak up behind me, hiding a knife. I suppose the Assembly is recruiting the new immigrants because you’re all too oblivious of what’s been going on over here to make your own decisions. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why they’re making you do their dirty work.”

He looks thoughtful. “It’s Chiqu,” he murmurs. “Am I right? Chiqu got you into this?”

“How do you know her?” I demand.

“I’ve known her ever since we were children,” he says, affronted. “We were friends…sort of. Once she went to work for the Assembly…well, you could say we parted ways after that, since she’s trying to kill me.”

“Your mother is on the Assembly,” I retort. “Why are you working against them? And why is she fine with having you assassinated?”

Nazka’s wry smile fades, and his eyes grow dark. “I’m working against them because what they’re doing is wrong,” he says. “As for my mother, well, I’m not going to answer that because she’s an interesting case.” He chuckles to himself. “You know, I should be asking you questions.”

“Fine,” I say. “Ask. But don’t think I’m going to answer.”

“All right, how about this,” Nazka replies. “Why are you working for the Assembly?”

“They’ll kill me if I don’t.”

“Well, you’re caught now,” Nazka points out. “How do you know we won’t kill you?”

I don’t answer that. Either way, it looks like I’ll be dead soon.

“Okay, one more question, because I’m getting bored,” says Nazka. “Why did you leave Jagas, other than the fact that it became inhabitable because of the cold?”

I raise my eyebrows. “Isn’t that reason enough?”

“For many, it is,” Nazka agrees. “But I have a feeling there’s more to you.” His eyes sparkle with something I can’t detect, sending a shiver up my spine. He’s different. Almost as if he can see my thoughts.

“Fine, you want to know?” I lean closer to him and lower my voice, tugging at the ropes that tie me down. “I killed my father. Then I killed the chief of my tribe. How’s that?”

“Why?” Nazka asks, still unsatisfied.

“Because I didn’t do what they told me to do. I didn’t obey their rules. And I didn’t die when they told me to.”

Nazka nods slowly. “Sounds like we have a similar cause,” he remarks quietly. “They hated you for things you couldn’t change. I’d like to say Sviros is different. We used to value merit. Honorability. Morality. But…” He trails off with a heavy sigh.

I hear a small knock on the door. Nazka glances back as a guard opens the door with a worried expression on her face. “Nazka,” she says. “We found one of the prisoners. She…she’s dead.”

“What? How?” Nazka demands, alarmed. The guard glances back anxiously. “Drowned herself in the well, by the looks of it,” she says. “I think you should come.”

Nazka nods, stands up, and follows the guard out the door. “I’ll be back,” he promises me, then disappears into the hallway beyond.

Drowned herself. Nazka said they caught two of my accomplices. I know Chiqu got away. So, it had to Sarofa and Mehild. One of them is now dead.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out who.

I wonder if Sarofa knows. What she’ll do when she finds out.

No one returns to my room through the night. At least, I assume the night has passed. Khalibar flit in and out from a hole dug into a crack in the wall. A tiny space, but they manage to widen it into a passageway. Several show interest in me, tiling their scaly heads, black eyes glittering, even chewing me experimentally. I push down the panic that builds in my throat, something clawing desperately to get out. But my bonds won’t break, and I’m trapped here underground indefinitely. At least Mara has abandoned me. I wouldn’t stand her torture tonight.

I haven’t.

No. She can’t have followed me here.

But she has.

The door slowly opens, then shuts. She smiles at me, stringy black hair shadowing part of her face. “You can’t escape now, Luirlan,” she whispers. “Tied up, there’s nowhere to run.”

My lips work silently, no sound escaping as I try to kick her away. She just laughs at my efforts, and her laugh sends sparks of terror shooting up my spine.

“So weak,” she croons. Then she disappears through the door.

After what seems like an eternity of listlessly staring into the cracks in the stone, a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye alerts me, and I glance over. A Jagaser is standing in the corner, watching me through sunken, dull eyes. His face is wrinkled and scarred, his wispy white hair is streaked with grey. Something about him is recognizable. Have I seen him before?

“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get in here?”

He doesn’t reply, just gazes at me with sad, sunken eyes.

Then recognition strikes me.

Epiran. That’s Epiran. He looks…younger. But that’s Epiran.

Suddenly the door flies open. Nazka bursts inside, panting, hair messy and tangled over his face. His eyes are wild, like a trapped animal, and fall on the figure of Epiran in the corner. But when I look back, the Jagaser has disappeared.

Nazka looks as confused as I am. “Did—did you—” he stammers, waving his hand weakly before letting it fall, shaking his head. He stands silent for a moment, staring at the ground. Then he sinks against the wall, hands covering his face, shoulders trembling.

“She—she did it,” he whispers. “She really did do it.”

I don’t answer. His quiet sobs grow louder, more hysterical in the silence.

“Was it something we did?” he says, voice thick. “I didn’t mean for her to—we weren’t going—it was our fault, wasn’t it? My fault.”

“In a way, yes,” I agree, and he shoots me a glare before sinking his face down once more. “She probably didn’t know what you were going to do. Sometimes death is the only escape. She knew that for a long time.”

“I just don’t understand it,” he murmurs.

I scoff at that. “I wouldn’t expect you to,” I sneer. “Rich all your life—you probably never had someone in your family do that, did you? Never knew what it was like when—”

“No, you’re wrong,” Nazka interjects. “I did. My father—well, it was complicated.” He pauses, glancing at me.

“My father was from Jagas,” he continues. “My mother is on the Assembly, but you already know that. He wasn’t her…husband. But I suppose she took a liking to this new Jagaser, and I was born. She tried to give me away to him, but he couldn’t take care of me. She got angry after that, started causing all sorts of trouble for him, until finally it got to be too much.”

He gulps, letting out a shuddering breath before going on. “I think she ordered him executed or said something about him that was as good as a death sentence. But he didn’t want to let them do it. He kept that last bit of power for himself. Took his own life because it was the last thing he had, and he didn’t want them taking that away, too.”

“Was…” I hesitate, gesturing to the corner where I saw the figure of Epiran. “Was that…?”

Nazka stares at me, then drops his gaze and slowly nods.

Epiran…was Nazka’s father?

So what does that mean? He faked his suicide? Fled to Jagas?

Epiran wasn’t a spy for the Assembly. He just wanted to see his son again.

But he never got to. Because I killed him.

Nazka looks at me. “We haven’t been formally introduced,” he says, smiling. “I’m Nazka Yudi’bidu’fadil.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know about second names?” He smiles. “‘Shines with a virtuous light.’ I suppose my mother was severely disappointed. What is your name?”

“Luzile.”

He closes his eyes for a moment, nods, then opens them. “No, it isn’t. What is your name?”

I watch him closely. He’s different. I don’t know how he can tell when I’m lying, but it’s disturbing. It’s as if he can take my thoughts from my head and pick them apart in his own. And seeing as I’m the one tied up, does it really matter if he knows my name or not?

“Fine,” I say. “Luirlan. Why do you want to know?”

“Because you’re not a prisoner,” Nazka says. “I want to tell you about the Assembly, and why I’m working against them.”

“If I’m not a prisoner,” I counter. “Then why am I tied up?”

Nazka frowns thoughtfully. Then he walks over to me, kneels, and begins untying the ropes.

I wait until he’s finished, considering my options. I could take him down and try to escape. But then they’d be hunting me down again, and even if he insists that I’m not a prisoner, it’s clear they aren’t interested in letting me walk free anymore.

I’ll have to go into hiding. But I already have plenty of experience with that.

And this time, if you don’t want to be found, perhaps don’t murder anyone.

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