“Those don’t itch?”
“What?” Wesley asked, scanning the ceiling of his cell for a noose, or worse, spiders. A broken spider-web hung down from one of the corners. His hands were cuffed at the small of his back. He looked down from the ceiling. The girl was on the desk against the far wall. She sat on her leg, with the other swinging back and forth just above the floor. Her hands gripped each corner of the desktop. A single vein bulged off each of her forearms and disappeared behind her elbows—she was a farm-girl. Nobody had swept the broken glass off the floor and the puddle of whiskey had sunk into the wood.
“The musket ball sized mosquito bites up and down your neck,” the girl answered. “Those don’t itch with your arms bound behind your back?”
“They don’t hurt.”
“But do they itch?”
“What’s an… itch?”
She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Something you want to scratch until it goes away.”
“Why would I want to scratch myself until I go away?”
Fat black eyebrows shot up her forehead.
“You don’t know what an itch feels like?”
She looked over her shoulder and yelled to another room.
“Sheriff, this boy ain’t normal.”
“Is it normal to detain people in manure smelling cells?” Wesley asked. They’d given him black overalls and a white cotton button-down shirt—he wasn’t sure if he was about to plough a field or attend the King’s Ball. He wore the cleanest white socks he’d ever seen, but they’d taken his boots and put them out on the porch. “Or maybe all of Hastings just smells of a stable floor.”
“All of Hastings smells of manure,” the girl answered. Wesley laughed but there was no humor in her gun-metal eyes.
Sheriff Kensington stepped in front of the cell, rubbing two fingers across his forehead and squinting hard in the candlelight. He was blonde with a sort of golden stubble; a boy’s face on a man’s body.
“A cell is what any doer of illegal acts deserves,” the Sheriff said.
“Illegal acts…but not bad acts,” Wesley answered. “Acts of circumstance.”
Wesley arched his back. He raised his bound arms behind him, cracking the vertebrae in his lower neck as his shoulder blades clicked together, then bent the framework of his joints out of their sockets, contorted his arms backwards over his head, and dropped his hands free in front of him. The Sheriff had his back turned.
“The law doesn’t bend,” Sheriff said in a bored voice, caressing the sigil of the Kingdom’s scale on his sword. “Such acts are made illegal because they are immoral.” Wesley loosened his shoulders muscles in circular shrugs, then crossed his hands into an X at his waist. The chain twisted to a linked noose. “Law is the difference between the civilized Kingdom colonies, and Vesper savages.”
“Is that why you drink whiskey?” Wesley asked, reaching up through the bars and draping fat chains over the Sheriff’s neck. He yanked them backwards. The Sheriff’s head slammed into the bars, knocking his hat to the floor. A delightful shade of brown began staining the back of the Sheriff’s blonde hair. Kensington clawed at the chains, sliding backwards down the bars to a sitting position. Wesley wrapped the chain around his palms like horse reins. The Sheriff flailed his legs, pointlessly, kicking bits of broken glass around the wooden floor. Wesley planted his feet against the Sheriff’s back and loosened the grip, just enough to let the man breath. The girl jumped to her feet, scattering parchment off the desk.
“Girl, retrieve the keys from his front pocket or he’ll never take another breath.” For a moment she was still—personal decisions were never a strength of law enforcement. “Don’t be brave, darling.”
The girl took a timid step forward, brushing a short lock of black hair behind her ear. She crouched with her thin legs together, fishing the key ring from Kensington’s front pocket and lifting it to the door.
“Taking the Sheriff’s keys without his permission, isn’t that illegal, darling?”
“Circumstance,” she said, holding the keys out of Wesley’s reach. “Ease your grip so he can breathe.”
Wesley fed a link of chain through each palm. Kensington gasped one full breath of dusty air, then puked down the front of his shirt. She handed him the keys.
“Do you have a name?” Wesley asked, trying different keys on his manacles. He eyed the curvature of her legs in the cute officer pants. A fat wooden key slipped into the manacle but didn’t tumble the pins inside properly.
The title your parents gave you, not your Kingdom.” The mention of her parents seemed to grab at her face. A grubby metal key split his first manacle open.
“To you, I’m Deputy,” said, apparently, Deputy.
He wove chains between the bars until all the slack was gone, then snapped the manacles shut around Kensington’s wrists—the man looked like a fly caught in some metal web. Wesley balled up one of the socks they had given him and stuffed it deep into the Sheriff’s mouth. He reached through the bars and tried keys until one drew the bolt with a clank. The grate swung forward, pushing the Sheriff across the floor with it. Wesley stepped sideways through the slim opening. Just the grey-eyed girl stood between him and the front door. She was a tall thing; almost eye-level with him.
“They weren’t lying when they said you Hastings girls only eat cabbage and water,” the boy said, lifting the Sheriff’s gloves off the desk and slipping them on. “Girl, could you fetch my boots? They’re important to me.”
Her hand was in the desk drawer. She raised a long blunderbuss and pointed the barrel to his face. The gun was an old make, vascular along the side with brass plates and frizzen springs. Its mouth smelt of gunpowder. He stared into the dark barrel.
“Want me to teach you how to use that?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” the girl said. It was the first time he really heard her voice; it was deep and manly like an adolescent boy’s, or a bullfrog’s…or a Hastings girl. She cocked her head to the side, pressing another pair of cuffs into his chest.
The boy dragged a palm down the front of his face. “No.”
She pressed the barrel under his chin, “Yes.”
He didn’t move. He stared straight down into the grey of her eyes and they listened to the crickets outside. Her confidence felt performed. The gunpowder smelt a little stale.
He smiled down at her.
“This gun isn’t loaded.”
“Try your luck then.” She reached out and clicked the first manacle around his wrist.
“You a farm girl?”
She strolled around him, dragging the tip of the barrel softly across his cheek. The back of his waist pressed against the parchment cluttered desk. A desktop candle browned the fabric of his sleeve at the wrist. He had been so close to getting off Librae, to falling off its drawn map and written rules. His own face, illustrated on a wanted poster, stared up from the desk—stained black into the parchment.
She clipped the second manacle around his hand.
“Back in the cell, boy,” she said to him. A draft blew inwards through the window at his side. The red curtain lifted, just enough for him to see armed townsfolk standing guard outside the front door. Even if the blunderbuss at his neck wasn’t loaded, their pitchforks didn’t need stoking. And just outside town, surely, were bounty-hunters waiting to bring his mangled corpse to Jimmy Gallows.
He bumped the desk with a leg and spilt an inkwell across the desktop. It bled through all the parchment and oozed to the floor. He slipped a letter opener off the corner of the desk into his back pocket, the little scamp didn’t seem to notice. He stepped back into the cell with a smile.
The girl locked the deadbolt in front of him and quickly freed her Sheriff, who tore the slack away from his neck.
“Librae is much safer with Wesley Chambers locked away from it,” the Sheriff gasped, frustrated, humiliated, and wicking his own vomit off the tips of his fingers.
Wesley sat in the corner of the cell, resting his head against cobwebs, and closed his eyes.
“Just because it’s more spacious on that side of the bars does not mean it’s the outside of the cage. I am much safer with Librae locked away from me.”
“Sheriff, look at this,” the girl said. Flipping through a ledger. “They stamped this boy’s thumb for his last six arrest files. His thumbprint is solid black, there’s no identity to match it with... Who is this boy?”
Wesley rubbed the smooth tips of his fingers together.