“It doesn’t do to dwell upon the past, Cabriabanus Atholine.” The voice was one that had haunted Cab’s nightmares. He could still feel the rage throbbing inside him. Could feel his sword slipping through the air, through the guard, and piercing leather and flesh alike. He saw Iridian’s lifeblood flowing out of him, a stream of hot, dark fluid.
Cab opened his eyes, twitched and winced as the pain of reality came rushing back to slap him. The cold hard ground was nothing compared to the pain of the bolt still lodged in his left shoulder. He tried to sit up and was struck by another coughing fit, which only heightened the pain. He lay trembling, trying to suppress the coughing and finally rolled onto his side to vomit. With a groan he lay back on the cold floor. The flickering light of a torch illuminated little of the dark space, but he didn’t need light to know where he was.
In the black dungeon the cold of the ocean passes through nearly ten feet of solid stone to form a sparkling frost upon the walls. One’s breath fills the air with remnants of heat that only seem to make the place colder. The floor is hard, the iron bars of the cells slick with the same frost as the walls. There is no natural light, and even the heat of the torch seems to shiver in the cold. Reserved for those whom the family of Ur wants to forget, it is a slow, cold and daunting death.
Cantan Iridian, Captain of the Guard, sat on a hard wooden chair outside the cell, his arms crossed over his chest, a heavy winter cloak pulled in around him. He watched the man in the cell with the eyes of a vulture. His hand strayed idly to the scar that ran across his chest. Now Atholine would have a similar one. Not quite as large though, that would not do. The Gods made the world in balance, and in balance it must remain. Scar for scar. He understood that was why the gods had adjusted his aim, why Atholine continued to live. It was all about balance.
Iridian got to his feet and moved to the cell door. His breath billowed out into the air. He was not alone down here, with the prisoner, he had a few good men, but they stood silent in the shadows, awaiting his orders.
“Don’t fall asleep on me, Atholine,” Iridian said, unlocking the cell with a fluid motion and stepping within. The man lay on the floor as though pinned there by the crossbow bolt, the thought made Iridian smile; he wanted to laugh. Instead he gave Atholine a hard kick to the side. The man groaned and coughed and heaved, rolling into his own vomit.
“You are disgusting,” Iridian said, hauling him up to a sitting position and pounding him on the back. Oh, every wince was like a fine wine, to be savoured and revelled in. “We can’t have you choking on your own vomit, now can we?”
“Water,” Atholine croaked. Iridian spun almost gleefully and picked up the bucket in the corner. There was a thin crust of ice starting to form on the top. He turned and tossed the water, dousing Atholine and setting him to further coughing.
“Now, now,” Iridian said, unable to keep the smile from his face. “How am I to beat you, if you don’t stop that insufferable coughing? Have you caught cold, little grave swyver? Shall I fetch the Serenity to lay her healing hands upon you? She does fine work, you know, brought me back from the cold hands of the sweet Lady of Darkness, she did.”
The rumbling coughs slowed and stopped.
“Or perhaps we’ll save that for later, we wouldn’t want to pamper you.”
The darkness was already swirling around him when Iridian’s heavy booted foot made contact with Cab’s face, knocking him hard onto his back. The room melted away in a wash of hot blood down the front of his face and then came back in startling glory as the same foot pressed down, ever so gently upon his chest, just nudging the protruding bolt. He could hear someone crying out, but the pain blinded him to everything. Someone was calling....calling to Bella.
There was a moment when the pain receded enough to grant him vision. His breathing was ragged, gasping. His face and shoulder were wet, but from water or blood or vomit he could not tell, whatever it was, was cold as ice. The darkness loomed around him and then a voice.
“Cabriabanus Atholine,” a harsh sound in the darkness.
“I am dead,” Cab thought. And the voice answered with a laugh.
“No,” Iridian breathed. “But I will make you beg for it.” The last thing Cab remembered was Iridian standing over him. Now, somehow, he was outside the cell once more. He was grinning as he got to his feet.
“I knew it wouldn’t take long,” he said. “You are tough as old nails, that’s one good thing I can say about you.” His antagonist rose from a chair and opened the cell door with a swift motion.
Cab managed to find the strength, though where it came from he could not say, to rise and stand. His body shivered from a cold he knew would kill him, if the man before him did not do it first. The room spun, though it was only darkness and the cruel face of Iridian.
“I prayed for this moment,” Iridian said. “Ever since you stuck me with this scar.” He patted his chest just above his heart.
“Do you pray?” he asked and swung a fist. The sound of Cab’s jaw cracking nearly overpowered the pain and he landed on his back once more. A prayer ringing in his ears.
“Oh Mighty creator of earth and flesh and air. We pray you grant us wisdom and peace in our hours of unknowing. Watch over us with your Eye, and embrace us when we embark upon our final journey. Praise upon your works and may the many know thy name when the end comes.”
Cab felt as though the earth was shaking as he struck it and his hand fluttered up to clutch at the sigil that no longer rested in the centre of his chest.
“Not to the right gods, evidently,” Iridian said. From his belt he pulled a leather cord, on which hung the sigil Cab had been looking for; a lidless eye, with eight points like a compass or the rays of the sun, with a brown iris. It held a strange sheen and light came off it in such a way as to make it seem a real eye, to make it seem like it was looking, seeing.
“Dead gods do a man no good,” Iridian said, tossing the sigil into the dirt. Cab sucked in a breath, readying himself for the beating. When it didn’t come he said, “I should never have tried to stab you in the heart, knowing full well you haven’t got one.”
Iridian laughed at this and kicked Cab in the side until he heard the satisfying crunch of cracking ribs. An animal sound escaped Cab’s lips and Iridian laughed again, reached down and wiggled the bolt in Cab’s shoulder until he screamed.
“You scream like a girl,” Iridian laughed. And he pressed his lips right up against Cab’s ear to whisper, “I remember the last woman I had in here. Some ragged sea wench, I think you knew.”
Cab gritted his teeth, his lungs labouring to pull in breath through the pain, not just physical now. A mental anguish enveloped him, like mist settling in the bay, and a low growl issued from his throat. Iridian’s face changed from playful arrogance to bitter serious.
“There he is,” Iridian exclaimed, voice quiet and hard. “There’s the one I’ve been looking for. I wondered if that weak fool had quashed you, but here you are.”
That was when the real beating ensued. It did not take long for the darkness to consume him.
He had loved her the moment she turned those dark, fathomless eyes upon him, all the more beautiful for the pale skin of her face. Even the harsh words spilling from her mouth, and the slap across his face did not stop him.
“Forgive me, Lady,” he said with a bow. “It won’t happen again, believe me.”
“Lady?” she hissed. “Sweet words will give you no aid, Captain Prince. Say what you like but I know how the guard works. They do as they please and if they get caught doing wrong? Sent to their rooms like children! If this man were not a queen’s guard he would be hanged!”
“Sweet Lady,” he tried. His usual loquacity lost in those eyes of hers.
“The law is the law!” she cried, for all the market to hear. “Except for those who are supposed to uphold it! This man should be tried and hanged in the market square!”
There was nothing for it. He had heard such nonsense before from the common folk who lived outside of the castle. A guardsman could not lose a hand for stealing, the castle needed all the guards they had. Nor could he afford to hang one for attempting rape. He said as much and received another slap. The men with him were shocked that he should allow a commoner to treat their captain as such. But no matter how many times she slapped him it did not wipe the smile from his face. He almost seemed to enjoy it.
“Then cut off his balls,” she cried. “Surely, he doesn’t use them to protect the queen.”
Cab chuckled when he saw the look in Dontu’s eyes, and gave him a reassuring slap on the back. “I cannot, in good conscience, mutilate my men.”
“Then you cannot uphold the law,” she snarled. “And should stand aside for someone who can.”
He was glad she turned her back on him, for he did not know what to say. She glared at the men blocking her path.
“Let her go,” he said quietly. She did not even glance back at him when the guardsmen moved aside. Very few in the market had paid attention to what was going on. Women and men came everyday to the market to rant and rave about one thing or another.
“Ungrateful sea wench,” a man named Gries said. Cab gave him a look.
“What have I told you about respecting women?” he asked Gries, though they all knew he was speaking to Dontu.
“But she’s just a-,” Gries bit his tongue. “Apologies, Captain.”
“Dontu, Gries,” Cab said watching the woman walk away through the crowded market. “Speak to Fylipse about this. The rest of you have plenty to do, I’m sure.” He barely acknowledged their salutes before hurrying after the woman with the mess of long dark hair. She wore a faded blue dress and moved quickly through the throngs of people in the market. He followed her as she moved along the high road towards the docks and into the low district.
He rarely came to the low district. He was Captain of the Queen’s Guard, his duties were in the castle, he had men to patrol the low district. Though deep in his heart he knew that those men did little to quell the crime that festered here, there was little they could do without appropriate numbers. He had maybe five to ten men that would patrol in shifts, not nearly enough for the hundreds who lived in the district. They could squash down the bubbles that rose to the surface, but there would always be darker dealings too deep for the Queen’s Guard to expunge.
He did not notice the emptying of the muddy streets from his presence. He watched her enter a low shack which needed re-thatching, not unlike the others around it. He waited a moment, his chest fluttering strangely, and then knocked lightly upon the door.
“Who’s there?” she hissed.
“Cabriabanus Atholine,” he said softly, leaning against the door frame. “Captain of the Royal Guard and the Queen’s-Own-Blade.”
Silence drifted by, punctuated by the cries of sea birds and the wash of waves upon the shore.
“Go away,” she finally replied.
“I’ve come to extend my apologies,” he said. There was another moment of silence and just as he opened his mouth to continue the door was wrenched open. She stood there, face flushed, eyes hard.
“For what?” she snarled. “Your inability to uphold the law? Your inability to take responsibility for the actions of the men you command?”
That snagged at his fluttering heart, but he said, “For Guardsman Dontu’s behaviour. It was uncivilized and cruel. He will be punished. But I cannot-,”
“Why do you bother?” she asked. “If he’s not given reason to change he won’t. You may as well whip him with a feather for all the good your punishment will do.”
“You do not under-,”
“Don’t tell me what I understand!” she snapped. “You are the one that doesn’t understand. You are blind! You sit up on the hill in that shining white castle, in comfort and splendour while the people of this city starve and shiver in the cold. You throw away more food in an evening than the people in this district see in a month! And you send your little rat-men out to scurry around and pretend to uphold the law. If they accidentally break it, if they accidentally kill someone, or use a common woman like a whore, you close your eyes and turn away! You are blind to this district! You are blind to these people and what they need! So go back to your Queen and protect her from shadows, because you are good for little else, Captain Prince.”
Her words were like a physical blow. He took a step back and she slammed the door shut.
All he had was memories and pain. But the memories were harder and harder to bear, and sometimes the physical pain was almost welcome. Almost. He had not thought on her in a long time, he had forgotten what a fool he had been.
“Did you receive my gifts?” he asked. He hadn’t thought it possible for her visage to darken any further.
“You bloody imbecile,” she snarled. Her eyes whipped up and down the muddy lane. “Are you trying to get me killed?”
“I-I beg your pardon?” he asked, bewildered.
“You’ll get no pardon from me,” she said.
“I cannot believe you are the Captain of the Royal Guard,” she said. “Surely he has more rattling around in his head than you. This is the low district, where the poor folk live, ever heard of them?”
“Of course I-,”
“You don’t send jewels and fancy dress into the low district with kindness in your heart,” she hissed. “If I attempted to wear such I would be murdered before I’d even left this hovel. I couldn’t even sell them, any merchant with more than stones in their heads would have assumed I’d stolen them and have your guard arrest me before I could say a word. You are a fool if you thought you’d done me a favour. Go back to your castle, Captain Prince, and leave me be.”
There was only enough light to illuminate the sparkling frost that lay like a blanket over everything. Cab shivered, tried not to, the pain was too great. He sucked air in through a bruised and swollen throat, air that burned his lungs with cold, made him want to cough. His nose was a pulpy mess of flesh and blood through which he could not breathe. His eyes bruised and swollen almost shut. He tried to keep track of the days but everything was darkness, pain. He drifted on a sea of guilt and dread that his heart could not stand. He tried to distract himself by taking stock. Face smashed to an unrecognizable mess, nose broken, jaw cracked, throat bruised. He was fairly certain that the crossbow bolt had been broken so it did not protrude so much, but the greater part of it was still lodged in his shoulder, which had gone stiff. He could feel the wound festering and was grateful, at least, that he could not smell his own flesh decaying. He could feel it oozing. Several ribs cracked or broken, not to mention plenty of bruising and bleeding. He could hardly move, hardly breathe, but his body would not give up and die. The Gods would be too kind if they allowed him that. Part of him longed to die, the other part knew that he deserved every bit of pain he received from Iridian. Not for Iridian, but for Rora.
He didn’t understand how he had finally won her over. His visits to her hovel were brief and often ended with rejection. He remembered the time it all changed.
“If you would love me,” she said, hesitating, fearful. “Then bring me to your castle. Marry me.”
He was stunned into silence. His mind reeled with the possibility. He was Captain of the Guard, she was a poor woman. He didn’t even know her name, and said as much.
“Rora,” she replied. Her eyes were hard upon him. There was fear there, but could she be afraid of him? Or of his answer? It was too late, he had hesitated too long.
“You won’t do it,” she said. “Because I’m a wretch and you are practically nobility.”
“I am merely-,”
“What do you want from me then?” she asked. “A quick swyve? To stare longingly into my eyes until the end of time? Or are you looking for another handmaiden for your queen? You send me gifts, you come here, I assume, to woo me, but what do you want from me, really? Is it my body? You are a strong man, you could have it, the way your man Dontu tried to take it. Is that what you want?” She let go the door and spread her arms wide. “Take it, if that is what you wish.”
He watched her attempting to control her emotions. Her chest rose and fell in a smooth controlled manner, though it seemed a labour. Her hands twitched only once, but once was enough to tell that they would shake if she let them.
“I will not take from you,” he said quietly. He took a step back, saluted her and walked away.
He could still hear well enough, and those footsteps on the cold stone seemed to ring. A brief flash of flickering light and a small sense of warmth indicated a torch. The cold seemed to attack the flame.
“She was much more fun, you know,” Iridian whispered, kneeling down to speak in Cab’s ear.
“She refused to weep at first. Clutched at her little belly. She tried to fight, and what a fighter she was. Scratched and bit until I knocked her teeth out. Dolan and Kiret and I had our fun though. Got some tears out of her before the end. The child would have been yours, I suppose? You don’t have to thank me for taking care of that for you. Can you imagine the scandal, Captain of the Royal Guard, Queen’s-Own-Blade, impregnating a low-born wench? I did you a real favour.
“Do you want to know how she died?”
Cab tried to escape into his mind, but it was like scrabbling on hands and knees up a loose cliff side. The harder and faster he tried to move forward, the farther down the slope he slid.
“I asked you a question!” Iridian snarled and struck Cab a blow to his broken ribs. His body rebelled, bile rising, blocking his breathing passages, he choked and could not get relief.
So this was it, he would die on his back, choking on his own vomit. The Gods were cruel.
“No, no,” Iridian said, and rolled the prone man onto his side. He hadn’t thought there was anything left in the man to bring up. “You won’t be dying like that, now, no, no. Your death is mine to give. Mine.”
Vomit dribbled out of Cab’s slack mouth and his body returned from its absence long enough to clear breathing passages. He coughed, holding onto consciousness with a desperation he had never known. But it was not enough.
She opened the door. He was not dressed in the garb of a Captain. He wore simple, clean black woollens, common clothes for a common man, except that they were too clean, too new. It took her a moment to recognize him.
“Rora,” he said.
“Captain Prince,” she said.
“I’ve come to speak with your father.”
She laughed and he couldn’t help but smile at the sound.
“He is at sea,” she told him. “He won’t be back for a fortnight.”
“A fortnight,” he said, scratching at the dirt with the toe of his boot. “Is there a tavern I can take you to for a drink, while I wait?”
She laughed again. “You may take me for a drink, but I won’t wait in a tavern with you for a fortnight.”
Iridian stood up, the scar on his shoulder seemed to burn. He had always feared that Atholine would be too strong for this. That he might, somehow, be untouchable, as it had always seemed when they were young men in training. But he was only a man, just like any other. He had his weaknesses, and his body was not made of steel. If Iridian was careful, he could be a cat with a mouse for a very long time.
“Get the Serenity.”