There was a brief moment when it wasn’t fragile pottery breaking on Raulin’s head. It was rain, big fat drops that poured down his hair and onto his shoulders, soaking his clothes and making everything feel heavy. He staggered back from the guard, who dropped the clay base and drew his sword as he watched him. Raulin faltered to the left, grabbing ahold of the banister of the bed, then slid down to the floor.
He tried to stand, but his feet couldn’t find purchase on the floor. Why didn’t his legs work? Was she here again, sorcering him so that he couldn’t escape?
“Got him!” the guard yelled.
“Good,” the another yelled.
Raulin’s head was heavy and his vision blurred. Thoughts crossed his mind in blunt occurrences. Guard. Vase. Head. Guard-vase. Vase-head. Head-heaviness. Concussion. Not woman. Caught.
He wiped the shards of pottery from his mask, then brushed his gloves. The guard raised the point of his blade to Raulin’s chest, which he then smacked away in annoyance. “’M not goin’ ‘nywhur,” he said. “Y’ won.”
The man pointed the blade again, this time pressing the tip into the trirec’s chest. He held his left hand to his right side, protecting it. He was the left guard, Raulin realized, and he chastised himself. Never count a man out of the fight unless he was dead, and then only maybe.
Behind him, two guards entered and drew their swords. “Don’t move,” said the older one.
He wanted to give a sarcastic reply to their stupidity, but his head had started to hurt. Every heartbeat increased the pain, a throbbing stab that started on his left side and radiated throughout his head. Instead, he just moaned.
They hauled him by his arms to standing. The older soldier yanked his knives out of the holsters on Raulin’s hips. He did a quick and poorly done pat-down that missed all the others he had hidden about.
The two guards jerked him forward and began dragging him out of the room. He closed his eyes against the piercing pain and the nausea in the fog. He gritted his teeth as the fire in his shoulder blazed. He made no noise, though, having found a high tolerance for pain a long time ago.
He was brought down four flights of stairs into the cellar, his feet dragging the whole way. It was a large, stone room full of foodstuffs, including barrels of fruits and vegetables, bottles of wine, wheels of cheeses, and full carcasses of meat hanging from hooks. The last image would have frightened him if he hadn’t been in scarier situations many times before.
The two guards held his arms up while his person was searched. This time he couldn’t help but groan when his left shoulder was brought level. “So, they do feel pain,” the sergeant said.
“Shall we take the mask?” the injured guard asked.
“Oh, by all means, please do,” Raulin managed to say with some clarity.
There was a pause from the men. “Why is he so eager?” the younger guard said. “I thought they died once their masks were removed.”
“I heard something like that,” the first chimed in. “If you remove the mask, the body dies, but the soul enters the man who holds it. Then his soul is eaten and his body is just a husk for the spirit.”
“There’s no need to remove it anyway,” the sergeant said. “It’s tight against his face and he won’t be able to escape with it.”
He could, but he didn’t feel the need to share that information.
He was led down a winding corridor full of turns and a few shorter flights of stairs. The stench of mildew and the sea was overpowering. The stone walls dewed and dripped with moisture, visible only from the light of the lanterns two of the guards held aloft. The farther along they went, the shorter the ceiling height, giving the feeling that he was no longer in the castle but in a cave.
The sergeant pulled out a ring of keys and opened the barred door. It appeared to be a jail cell that was used as a larder when the sitting count wasn’t growing colder and stiffer. The other three were already inside, sitting on the stone floor.
The man stood. “Sergeant, may I have a word before you leave? I’m a lawyer and I demand a liaison to the temple of Uvarna be brought here to read our…”
“Oh, shove it, lawyer,” the sergeant said. “Whenever we get around to putting it in, you’ll get your case.”
Raulin was dragged inside and dropped unceremoniously, like a sack of dirty laundry. He crumpled into a heap and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep. But he didn’t, since he knew that could be the death of him.
He scooted to the wall opposite the other three. He took off his gloves, tucking them into the pockets of his shirt, and began to gently probe his shoulder wound. It was significant but not grave, leaking blood rather than spurting. He would need it stitched at some point soon, but with proper care he thought it likely that he would just add another scar to his collection.
The rest of his cuts and bruises were minor. What concerned him mainly was the concussion. Though the light was low and he was unbothered by sounds, his mind continued to addle him. He wanted to shake his head to get rid of the thick cotton, but he knew that it would make it worse.
There was some scraping on the cement floor and someone sat next to him. “Raulin, how are you doing?”
“Telbarisk.” He reached out and found his arm, clasping his friend’s forearm. He quickly drew his hands next to the sides of Tel’s face, in the greeting of the grivven. His arms flopped down after a brief moment. “How did y’ get here? Things okay wi’ your brother?” he asked.
“It is a long story. I think things are not well between us. Were you hurt badly?”
“Cut on m’ shoulder, concussion. I’ll live, jus’ don’t let me fall ‘sleep.”
Telbarisk moved so that their shoulders were touching, but was gentle to not injure him further. “I told you that we would cross paths again.”
“Y’ did. I doubted y’. ‘M sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. We’re together. I’m curious to see for how long.”
“I’ll let y’ lead this time.”
Tel gave a soft but throaty laugh. “We both know I’m not a leader.”
“So y’ say. That I’m right ’bout. S’me day you will, y’ know that.”
“Some day. But not today.”
Raulin leaned his head back gently against the wall. If he couldn’t be free, it was nice to be with good company. “Who’re y’r friends?”
The man and the woman had been laying down in the other corner. He doubted they were asleep, but since they made no move to speak to him, he went along with the ruse.
“That’s Alpine and Anladet. I met them a few days ago. They saved me from being hanged.”
“Huh. How did they do that?”
“I pleaded his case in a court and won,” Al said. “It was easy since he was innocent. Now I won’t be able to help him.”
“I am sorry, Al,” Telbarisk said.
“Why, though?” Alpine said, the pain evident. “Why did you do it? Why did you choose him over us?”
There was a pause while Telbarisk thought about his answer. “I have always cared deeply for my friends. You and Anla are my friends. You have done a great thing for me. But, I have known Raulin for a longer time. He has done more for me.”
“He did more than save your life?” he asked, sitting up.
“You saved my life, yes. I am thankful for that. But, Raulin was with me for some time and we became friends. He listened to me. He taught me about the world and the language of Gheny. My life grew fuller because of him. I’m sure that some day it will be the same between us, but…”
“I don’t understand. How can teaching you words merit more loyalty than someone who saved your life?”
“Raulin is also a hayinfal. I believe you and Anla may be, but I know he is. He was confirmed as one in Nourabrikot by the elders.”
“What does that mean, ‘hayinfal’?”
“Al,” Anla said, “maybe we should just let them be. Let’s deal with this situation in the morning…”
“No,” he interrupted, “I want to know, in case Telbarisk does something stupid again.”
“He’s not stupid,” Raulin said. “He jus’ has diff’r’nt ways of thinking.”
“I have explained kouriya,” Tel said, as if Al hadn’t insulted him. “Kouriya works for everyone, if they are willing to listen. Sometimes kouriya leads people to do things that seem inconsequential or even against their better judgment. Moving a tree branch out of a road or leaving money in a certain spot are examples, as well as me hitting the man over the head with the vase.”
“Are you going to continue to do these things?” Al asked. “Am I going to have to watch over you and make sure you don’t break the law or hurt someone? If we get out of this mess?”
“When,” Raulin corrected.
“It is true I hurt the guard,” Tel said. “But I trusted in kouriya. It would not let me kill him or permanently injure him. That is not the way of kouriya. If I heard it say something else like what I did, then I would.”
Al took a deep breath and sighed with a growl. “Both of you. I should have refused, since you like to leave out important information about yourselves that will cause me a lot of grief for some time. Don’t touch me,” he said suddenly and walked to the opposite corner.
“Bet y’ have some int’r’sting stories,” Raulin said quietly. “How did y’ meet?”
While Telbarisk rehashed his tale, starting on the island and finishing with their retirement that evening, Raulin leaned against the wall to listen.
Tel poked Raulin in the shoulder. “Wasn’t sleepin’.”
“You were. You told me not to let you.”
He waved his hand in dismissal, then shrugged. “Maybe I was. All right. So. We need t’ start formulatin’ the plan. After I heal, of course, but after that, the plan.”
“What plan?” Al asked.
“To escape. We can’t let this go t’ trial.”
“Oh, no. No, no. We’re not escaping. You killed the count and you will have to pay for that.”
“And what of Telbarisk? He’s guilty of aiding me. Are you going to abandon him when you’re freed?”
Anla said, “He’s right, Al. We can’t leave Tel here.”
“I’ll be able to get the charges dropped, like I did before. People will come to their senses and we’ll be able to explain things. Everyone is just hot under the collar right now. We need to give it some time.”
Raulin leaned back. “Yes, sense Where? From the widow? From the sergeant who failed? Or maybe those people in Hanala I heard talking ’bout a freakishly tall man in the same…conversation as kraken, ghosts, and dire lupins. Lupines. People don’t get ‘sense’ once they’ve smelled blood.”
The cell was quiet for a full minute. “He’s right, Al.”
“No, he’s not. We were guests of the count. We dined with his wife and chatted with the guards. We just need to wait until morning, when things have settled and the administration can get involved. People can be civil, even amidst a crisis like this.”
“We’ll see,” said Raulin.