“Laia.” The word changes utterly when he says it in that voice, no longer a name but a plea, a prayer. “If you want me to stop—”
If you want to keep your distance … if you want to remember your pain …
Keenan. Keenan. Keenan. My mind is filled with him. He has guided me, fought for me, stayed with me. And in doing so, his aloofness has given way to a potent, unspoken love I feel whenever he looks at me. I silence the voice within and take his hand. Every other thought grows distant as calm settles over me, a peace I haven’t felt in months. Without looking away from him, I guide his fingers to the buttons of my shirt, pulling open one, then another, leaning forward as I do so.
“No,” I whisper against his ear. “I don’t want you to stop.”
The unceasing whispers and moans from the cells around me burrow into my head like carnivorous worms. After only a few minutes in the interrogation block, I cannot remove my hands from my ears, and I consider ripping them off altogether.
Torchlight from the block’s hallway leaks in through three slits positioned high on the door. I have just enough light to see that the cold stone floor of my cell is bare of anything I could use to pick the locks on my manacles. I test the chains, hoping for a weak link. But they are Serric steel.
Ten hells. My seizures will begin anew in a half day at the most. When they do, my ability to think—to move—will be severely hindered.
A tortured keen sounds from one of the nearby cells, followed by the gibbering of some poor bastard who can barely form words.
At least I’ll put the Commandant’s interrogation training to use. Nice to know all that suffering at her hands wasn’t for nothing.
After a time, I hear scuffling at the door, and the lock turns. The Warden? I tense, but it is only the Scholar boy the Warden used as leverage. The child holds a cup of water in one hand and a bowl of hard bread and mold-encrusted jerky in the other. A patchy blanket hangs from his shoulder.
“Thank you.” I swig the water in one gulp. The boy stares at the floor as he sets the food and blanket down within my reach. He is limping—something he wasn’t doing before.
“Wait,” I call out. He stops but doesn’t look at me. “Did the Warden punish you more after …” After he used you to control me.
The Scholar might as well be a statue. He just stands there, like he’s waiting for me to say something that isn’t obvious.
Or maybe, I think, he’s waiting for me to stop blathering long enough to respond. Though I want to ask his name, I force myself not to speak. I count the seconds. Fifteen. Thirty. A minute passes.
“You’re not afraid,” he finally whispers. “Why aren’t you afraid?”
“Fear gives him power,” I say. “Like feeding oil to a lamp. It makes him burn brighter. It makes him strong.”
I wonder if Darin was afraid before he died. I only hope it was quick.
“He hurts me.” The boy’s knuckles are white as he digs his hands into his legs. I wince. I know well how the Warden hurts people—and how he hurts Scholars in particular. His experiments in pain are only part of it. Scholar children handle the lowest tasks in the prison: cleaning rooms and prisoners after torture sessions, burying bodies with their bare hands, emptying slop buckets. Most of the children here are dead-eyed drudges wishing for death before they’re ten.
I cannot even imagine what this boy has experienced. What he’s seen.
Another wretched scream echoes from same cell as before. Both the boy and I jump. Our eyes meet in shared disquiet, and I think he’s going to speak. But the cell door opens again, and the Warden’s loathsome shadow falls across him. The boy scurries out, squeezing against the door like a mouse trying to escape the notice of a cat, before disappearing amid the flickering torches of the block.
The Warden doesn’t spare him a glance. He’s empty-handed. Or at least it looks that way. I’m certain he has some torture device tucked out of sight.
For now, he closes the door and takes out a small ceramic bottle. The Tellis extract. It’s all I can do not to lunge for it.
“About time.” I ignore the bottle. “I thought you might have lost interest in me.”
“Ah, Elias.” The Warden clucks his tongue. “You served here. You know my methods. True suffering lies in the expectation of pain as much as in the pain itself.”
“Who said that?” I snort. “You?”
“Oprian Dominicus.” He paces back and forth, just out of my reach. “He was Warden here during the reign of Taius the Fourth. Required reading at Blackcliff in my day.”
The Warden holds up the Tellis extract. “Why don’t we start with this?” At my silence, he sighs. “Why were you carrying it, Elias?”
Use the truths your interrogators want, the Commandant’s voice hisses in my ear. But use them sparingly.
“A wound went bad.” I tap the scar on my arm. “The blood cleanser was the only thing I could find to treat it.”
“Your right forefinger twitches ever so slightly when you lie,” the Warden informs me. “Go on, try to stop doing it. You won’t be able to. The body does not lie, even if the mind does.”
“I’m telling the truth.” A version of it, anyway.
The Warden shrugs and pulls on a lever beside the door. A mechanism in the wall behind me grinds, and the chains attached to my hands and feet pull tighter and tighter, until I am flush against the wall, my body yanked into a taut X.