How long did it take for one’s nose to become accustomed to the dank, sour scent of rot and mold?
Without daylight to offer insight into time, Lilica really had no way of measuring just how long it had been since she had last breathed fresh air. Since her abrupt arrest in the middle of the night, followed by a short trip to these damp and somber dungeons, she had succumbed to sleep twice, for hours at a time; surprise would not suffice if she found she’d been incarcerated for less than a couple of days. But certainly no longer than that, given that she had yet to grow used to the acrid fragrance of decay, neglect, and whatever the hell happened to be growing on the walls.
And, for once, this less-than-human treatment resonated as entirely undeserving, for perhaps the first time in her pointless life. Misfortune was to blame for her current residence; a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and encountering the wrong people, who suspected her under the umbrella of mere assumption and paranoia.
On any other occasion, she might not have blamed them. But how was she to know that the puny, insignificant kingdom of Amaijah struggled within the clutches of a civil war? Or that her mere presence, a being who—however involuntarily—thrived on everything that light could not penetrate, would be so easily detected under the country’s sensitive precautions?
What were the chances that anyone would believe she had been lost, wandering? But she already knew the answer.
The heavy creek of a wrought-iron door broke the eerie, lonely silence the moment she closed her eyes, in an attempt to speed up time with slumber, and the dark one opened her eyes with a start, heart accelerating as footsteps approached her tiny, windowless cell. She thought her memory had a vague recollection of the armed men who occupied her space, but given the lack of light to illuminate the details of their features, they could have been anyone. “We’re still waiting,” one commented, standing in the doorway. As if his presence was more of a barricade than the door itself. “You ready to tell us what you’re really doing here?”
Apparently, they couldn’t get enough of her answer. “Walking. Wandering. You already know.” Were her hands not bound, Lilica would have massaged her temples. The redundancy was giving her a headache. “I’m sorry I’m not creative enough to provide you with an answer that you want to hear.”
“You realize you are only wasting your own damn time. And your own life,” the other anonymous guard spat. “It’s just like Syxer to deploy a carrier of darkness to take us on. What we want to know is why he would be so daft as to send you alone.” Lilica couldn’t quite tell, but it looked as though his eyes narrowed. As if he was trying to see through her to the ‘truth’ that he already believed. “Just how powerful are you?”
If only she knew the answer to that question. “For the last time, I don’t know who you are talking about.” Her words resonated with defeat, because they were all she could offer, and they would not be enough. The cell suddenly felt colder. “It appears that you already have an answer to which you’ve committed, though. So if I am really such a threat to your petty little empire, then do the both of us a favour and do away with me already.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m apt to do anything to get away from the smell of this place.”
The two men exchanged irate glances, one putting a hand on the hilt of a shortsword at his hip. The gesture annoyed Lilica more than it intimidated her. “Your attitude is beginning to tire me,” he mentioned casually, as if he really thought she cared. “The higher ups want an answer, and I’m going to bloody well get one from you, even if it means cutting off one finger at a time until you disclose the truth—”
“You’re honestly pathetic, Sayar.”
Not a voice that Lilica recognized as belonging to either men. That was when another pair of footsteps echoed off of the dank dungeon walls, light, rhythmic and with purpose. “This, clearly, is not your calling. I’ll step in from here.”
She must have been delirious, because the woman—woman—looked nothing the part of what Lilica would expect to encounter in a place with damp, stone walls and rat feces littering the floor. Her hair, from what she could tell, hung in long, pale blonde curls down her shoulders and back, tucked behind her ears with bejeweled combs that matched the dazzling lining of her knee-length tunic. She had the air of someone who avoided damp places that might frizz her carefully-styled mane at all cost, tall yet dainty, and perceptibly unarmed. All topped off with the fierce glint of the sapphires that were her eyes, her shoulders held an air of importance which only further confused the shackled conduit of dark magic.
What the hell kind of business did someone with the air of a damned princess have here?
Apparently, Lilica was not the only one with that thought at the forefront. “And what is your place here, exactly?” The man with his hand still at the hilt of his sword scowled when the newcomer pushed him aside. “Last I checked, your place was on the front lines bandaging wounded soldiers, Silvanys. Or hanging on His Majesty’s every damn whim. Get out of her before you get your little hands dirty.”
“You see, it is because of my ‘place’ that I am here. Because His Majesty was wondering just when you were going to disclose that you had taken a prisoner. Surely you are aware that he should be the first to know.”
The cell went quiet. Lilica couldn’t be sure, but the colour appeared to drain from both men’s faces. “If you’d just let us do our job,” the other man huffed, but his bravado suffer from the tremble in his voice, “then we would have more than a nameless bitch to bring to His Majesty. We’d have information. Look at her; she just reeks of darkness.” He pointed an accusing finger at his prisoner. “There is no way she is not a minion working for Syxer. She’s not important; what she can tell us is.”
“And how has that worked out for you? Are you a wealth of information from what you have gleaned from this ‘nameless bitch’?” The blonde woman quirked an eyebrow and settled her hands on her hips in an oddly assertive and finalizing gesture. “You broke protocol, morons; and even if this louse has anything that she can tell us, you won’t get it from her. Get out, before I decide to report you.”
It must have been some marvel, the power that this privileged-noble type must have had over two men twice her weight. Neither dared to put forth more than scowls and glowers in retort, and took their leave without another word of opposition. Not only am I a prisoner, but evidently, an illegal one. Lilica couldn’t bring herself to care with much more than a sigh.
Unfortunately, the discussion did not end with the exeunt of her initial captors. “So.” The woman who they had referred to as Silvanys did not budge from where she stood, am pillar the two sentries had been forced to push past just to take their leave. “Is it true? Are you a nameless bitch, or is there some way in which I should address you?”
Was this conversation actually taking place, or had she just grown delirious from the smell of the place? “Are you asking because it matters, or because you have time to kill?” Lilica narrowed her dark eyes. “You seem the type with far too much time to kill.”
“Shows where assumptions will get you. And yes, it does matter, if you value your freedom at all.” The woman pursed her lips. “The way I see it, you’re either a nameless bitch who is not worth my time, or anyone else’s, or someone with a name who might be willing to talk and shed light on your situation—for your benefit. Which is it?”
“You must really like to hear yourself talk.” Yearning to rub her temples, but for the weight of the shackles about her wrist, the dark one closed her eyes. “I’m tired, I don’t have the patience. And I don’t have anything to say to your benefit, so either let me go, or do away with me now.”
Boots scraping across the wet stone floor as she closed the distance between them, the woman scoffed audibly, her displeasure echoing off the walls. “Don’t fool yourself. Nobody ever finds solace or success in such a defeatist attitude. And if those imbeciles are right, and you really are nothing but a filthy minion of Falna Syxer, then I want to know. And don’t think—” Her words fell into an abyss of silence as she came to an abrupt halt, eyes widening as though something had just occurred to her. She studied Lilica with the intensity of someone watching their own life flicker before their eyes, and before she could react, the woman’s firm hand came down upon her shoulder. “You’re sick.”
Had she the energy, Lilica would have laughed. “You sound as though you already know me.”
“No, I mean, you’re ill. Something is festering with infection. Here; stand up, if you can.”
The dark one looked on in confusion as her shiny new captor removed a ring a keys from the belt straddling her hips and unhinged the chain from the heavy shackles that slowed the circulation of blood to her fingers. Was she letting her go? After days of torturing her with the scent of mold and rat feces? “What… are you doing?”
“I’m doing you a favour. More than you deserve, most likely, but if you’re sick, then I am not convinced you even have enough access to your own cognitive faculties to be of any use to us. Come on, what are you waiting for? Stand up.”
“I’m fine. It’s just… ugh, the smell.” That was what she had thought, at least, until she attempted to stand for the first time in days. She must not have noticed because she had been confined to a sitting position and too distracted by dehydration and the distinct aroma of a dungeon, but a searing pain tore through her left leg as soon as she put a fraction of her weight on it. Falling forward with a hiss, she caught her body with her elbows, scraping prone skin against the filthy floor. Her stomach lurched with the sudden urge to expel whatever contents her empty stomach might have contained, head spinning and pounding in a merciless whirlwind of pain…
And then there was nothing.
…can’t believe you would go against… who do you think you are?
…not your concern. They broke protocol… she is… could be of use…
…and if she is dangerous? You’ve put us at risk…
Lilica could have easily slept through the throbbing pain in her leg, or the aching of her tired, cramped limbs. It was a nuisance, but did not hold up in comparison to blows that she had suffered in the past. What dragged her mind through the fog of sleep and back to harsh reality was the obnoxious back-and-forth of a prattling argument with no point, and no resolution. The dark one could practically feel her subconscious resist this call to wakefulness, struggling to push the duo of voices to the periphery of her attention, but it was to no avail. The harder she tried to ignore it, the more she became aware of her own wakefulness, at which point she also became more aware of her pain, until a headache was at the forefront of her attention.
“Could you just… be quiet?”
The voices came to an abrupt halt. Startled by the silence, Lilica forced her eyes open to take in the wary expressions of two faces. One was familiar; the woman from the dungeon, she recalled, noting the spill of golden curls down her shoulders and the cold azure of her eyes. The other, a man with hair a shade darker pulled into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, did not strike her as someone she had seen before.
And it was only then that the revelation occurred to her: that horrendous smell no longer assaulted her senses. This place was not the dungeon where she had been bound and incarcerated for days.
“You… Do not even toy with the thought of moving a finger.” The man’s firm mouth drew downwards into a frown. He pointed in Lilica’s direction, but made no move to approach her. “Or so help me—”
“And do what, Kian? Look at her damned wrists; I did not remove the godforsaken shackles, I merely had the chain severed in the middle. She couldn’t summon magic if with those on if her life depended on it.” The woman, evidently braver than her conversation partner, folded her arms across her chest and crossed the room to her former prisoner—or, still, prisoner. With what little Lilica could glean from the situation, she had no idea about the status of her freedom, or lack thereof. “And it isn’t as though she will be running very fast on that leg. She is practically harmless; we still have the upper hand.”
It is as if I am not even here, the dark one mused, and contemplating pointing it out to her captors. But there was an advantage to allowing this free flow of commiseration, so she let the two continue and silently lapped up the insight that their bickering provided.
“Fine. If you are so convinced that you have this under control,” the man spread his arms and took a step back, before offering what was very clearly a mock bow to the woman, “then I shall leave you to it. That way, we should all know who to blame, when this so-called ‘upper hand’ that you claim goes up in flames, and takes Amaijah along with it. I’ll have nothing to do with your petty quest for usefulness and self-fulfillment.” A pause: “You aren’t fooling anyone. Had you truly any faith in this idea—in this woman—then you’d have admitted her to the sanatorium right away.”
Turning on his heel, the heavy footfalls of his sturdy boots were the only sound in the exquisite bedchamber that she occupied. With the high ceilings, tall windows and a bed that could have easily fit four fully grown adult bodies, it was a far cry from any sanatorium the way she had come to understand them. Not to mention a far cry from the conditions in which she had been kept previously, prior to involuntarily falling unconscious…
The mattress beneath her aching frame was like a dream. There’d have been no effort in returning to slumber, and for a second, her eyes dared to test the theory, inviting darkness from behind her lids…
But sleep was not meant to be. “Do not even think it.” While the woman’s tone had been firm and commandeering before, it had acquired a conspicuous bite in the absence of her conversation partner—perhaps making up for the flack that he’d have thrown in Lilica’s direction, had he remained. “You’ve slept for over five hours since I dragged you from that pit down below, and have been treated for the infection in your leg. Any further convalescence in relative comfort is a privilege, contingent only on your cooperation in telling us what you know of the plans of Falna Syxer.”
The dark mage furrowed her brows, her mind turning over her captor’s words, again and again, still struggling to make sense of them, as well as what had happened. Not to mention what sort of ‘cooperation’ she expected from her. “Infection…?” She averted her gaze to her left leg; sure enough, her calf, from the back of her knee downward, was heavily bandaged, though she could not recall injuring it. Yet, testing its movement resulted in regret as sharp as the pain that coursed through it, intense at first, then diminishing to a faded pulse. The wince and grimace that accompanied it was not overlooked.
“When I said you were treated, I meant that your blood is no longer slowly poisoning your body,” the woman clarified, folding her arms across her chest. “I did not mean to imply that you are as good as new. I figured you might be best persuaded to talk if I dangled the option for pain relief in front of you. Just because I do not believe in torture as a means of garnering information is not to say I will not pass up the opportunity to use natural consequences to my advantage.”
“Is it that you wish for me to talk, or to utter the very words that you want to hear?” Lilica spoke through teeth clenched so hard her jaw ached. “Are you going to ask me the same questions as did your friends back in that dungeon? Because I regret to inform you that I cannot inform you at all. Not on whatever it is about your petty civil war, or this… Syxer fiend of whom you speak. I know nothing, and want less to do with any of it.”
The woman sniffed her displeasure, either in that she did not buy the dark mage’s plea, or that she did and wished it were different. Perhaps in denial of the fact that she, like her brutish comrades, was wasting her breath and her time. “Amaijah is no place for bearers of darkness, like yourself. And there should be no reason for your presence here, but to upset the balance that this self-sufficient empire has built for decades… which is precisely Falna’s endeavor. So,” Further narrowing her blue eyes, she pursed her lips as if tasting something sour in her mouth. “I ask this: do you truly, honestly expect me to believe that you just happened to wander onto Amaijian soil, during one of the most heavily guarded and tenuous times of this kingdom’s history?”
“I cannot make you believe anything. So I am not even going to try.” Lilica had tired of this conversation from the first time she’d had it, bound as she’d been in the dungeon with equally unsavoury people, in far more unsavoury conditions. It showed in the droop of her eyelids and the monotone of her voice. “But I will tell you exactly what I told the swine who brought me here: and that is that I am of no use to you. You would do best to either let me go now and leave me at the mercy of one bad leg and the perils of a kingdom caving in on itself, or kill me now and save the both of us any repeats of this conversation.”
That was the response that had gotten her days and nights without food or water, and very limited movement, not long ago. Lilica therefore had every reason to believe that it would land her back in that tiny, rank cell of stone and mold and moss; and at this point, she couldn’t much bring herself to care, either way.
But that brisk return to squalor never came. Instead the dark one’s disinterested reply was met with silence that was, by comparison, laden with intrigue. The fashionably-dressed blonde dissected her with her sharp eyes, not only weighing her words and their credibility, but also pitting them against the measure of just how much she trusted her gut feelings, it seemed. “You should know that there are ways within our means to search your mind and determine your sincerity,” she said, at last. “And they can leave you completely wrecked. It is not up to me if the powers that be see fit to resort to that, but I might have a word in dissuading them from such controversial tactics. So, if I have not made myself completely clear, then it is within your best interests to convince me you aren’t lying.”
“Then here is my convincing.” Lilica met the woman’s stare, ice for ice. “Let them. See what they find in the depths of my memories. But I will warn you that they will not like what they find, nor will they find it to be of any use to their cause. Are we quite finished, now?”
The tension in the room both tightened and broke, simultaneously. Arms dropping to her sides, the dark mage’s pristine captor closed the distance between them, the heels of her boots clicking behind her in a rhythm that denoted a temper tantrum. Lilica involuntarily braced herself to be struck; it never came. “You are either the most obstinate or more honest captive I have ever had the displeasure of encountering,” her captor huffed, as if she were more of an inconvenience than an opportunity. “Though, I am morbidly curious… what display of dark magic landed you in our dungeons?”
Lilica hesitated before answering, for what if her answer condemned her? You do not really care about that, or else you would already have told them what they want to hear to earn your freedom, a cynical voice at the back of her mind reminded her. “Your men sensed and pursued me,” she went on to explain, feeling those cold, blue eyes on her like a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I ignited a series of bushes to distract them… a spell that also ended up killing the earth and the grass and everything within ten feet. Needless to say, they grew rather… concerned.”
The primped woman snorted, unappeased. “Fire. An elemental?”
“You sound disappointed. Allow me to allay your let-down and merely say this:” The prisoner’s eyes narrowed, meeting those of her captor’s. “Do not belittle a fire that you have not seen…”
“What exactly is it you are trying to say?”
“Precisely what you want me to hear; the truth. That I am dangerous, beyond imagination. That the magic in my veins is something to be feared and reckoned with.”
“Really. And just why, then,” the captor drawled, tapping her chin with her index finger, “would you be so honest as to incriminate yourself? Where is your self-preservation?”
By now, the dark one seemed to have grown bored of the conversation and reasoning. Having turned her gaze away from Sybelle, her eyes traced the swirling patterns of the high ceiling. “Left behind, a very, very long time ago… I will not deny that I could cause a problem in your pretentious little kingdom. But, as of now, I have not, and have no intention to do so.”
Her captor stared, and Lilica could practically read the unspoken monologue in her eyes: Just who was this woman, who she was near convinced must have completely lost her will to live? This dark magician, who denied nothing, save for any fraternization or association with East Amaijah’s sworn enemy? A potential threat, but not an intentional one, and as things stood, no guilty of any morally punishable crimes… So where did this leave the verdict? “You starve and dehydrate and sicken from infection down in that dungeon, when a chance at freedom and leniency is dangled in front of you, and you really couldn’t care less if someone tampered with your mind.” She pressed her lips together in thought and, perhaps, some frustration. “Lack of simple self-preservation aside, I am almost inclined to believe you came here with a bloody death wish.”
Lilica made no reply, and instead waited for the woman to come to her own conclusion, or at least make her damned point. After a pregnant pause rapt with uneasy eye contact, the blonde woman turned on her heel and stalked to the doors. The dark one was convinced she would leave without another word, until she paused, one hand, white-knuckled, gripping the brass handle. “I am not unreasonable. And I am willing to give you a very tentative benefit of the doubt,” she said. “But—if you really, truly are the lying swine that appears to be everyone else’s consensus, some minion of Falna Syxer’s implanted to dissolve East Amaijah’s defenses from the inside out,” she said, her words quiet and as dark as Lilica’s hair, “then know now that I will give you the bloody reprieve from this life that you so desire. I will kill you myself.”