The metal doors shook as they slammed closed behind me, a noise I imagined would make any one less self-assured jump. I could see them now: veins thick with cold blood, eyes wide, face prickling with sweat as they realised just where they were going.
Two Guards gripped my arms hard, leading me though the long, painted-brick corridor as if there was anywhere else for me to go but forward. Well, I suppose if I had really wanted to escape I could have run back to the door I had come through, but even the commonest criminal would have heard the clunk of the latches clicking in place behind them and recognised the finality of that sound. No one was getting out that way. Not anymore. I also happened to know that even the Guards couldn’t open that door once it was closed. Through the Major I had heard it. There was another door somewhere further along in the building that would let them out, but its location was so closely guarded I couldn’t glean that information no matter how hard I tried.
Still, that was of no concern to me. I hadn’t gotten myself in here just to escape again. I had a plan. Thinking about it, it was a bit funny how non-existent their security was from the outside compared to that when you got in. All I had to do to get in here was hang around outside the prison and cause a bit of a fuss messing with the Guards as they came in. They didn’t even look at me that closely, not that they would have recognised me anyway with this messed up face and one still-blinded eye. I guess they didn’t expect any one to want to get in. It was the ones trying to get out they were worried about. The ones who would come up with some elaborate plan to tunnel their way out or something else equally ridiculous. So much effort. And almost certainly in vain.
If I had wanted to break out, I wouldn’t try and do it like that. I would have set up a safety net by now, bribing a Guard on the inside or something. Not that I would have to. I was the rebel ‘hero’ after all. There was almost certainly a Guard in here that had rebel sympathies, and there’s no way one of them would stand by as their one shot at freedom was chained away forever. No, they would surely act. And I wouldn’t have to move a finger. If only my plan was that easy.
They released their grip as we reached the stairs, so I lengthened my stride, taking three steps at a time. I heard them grumble a bit as they quickened to keep up with me, they weren’t used to people being in a hurry to get down there, I’m sure. These were Guards trained to push the cowering criminals forward, not hold them back. I shook my head, who ever told the empire that big guys made good Guards? Hell, I was the best Gokheya had and one of these guys could make up two of me. If I had wanted to run, there’s no way they would have caught me. No matter though, they’ll learn soon enough. I wasn’t here for them this time. It was someone else.
Ginger. I know it was a flaw of mine, but I just couldn’t let it go. He had betrayed me, and I had underestimated him. It hurt my pride too much to let him live. I had thought on it a lot while I had been occupying the poor Major’s body and it just didn’t appear fair. To me, it seemed like Ginger had gotten away easy, certainly he had compared to the Major. Frail thing he was now. I had trusted them both as tools, and the Major had done his job flawlessly, Ginger, on the other hand, had gone behind my back with that Lahel and jeopardised everything. For him and the girl to get so close to preventing my plan from going down smoothly was inexcusable. I had to right it, and, if I couldn’t kill the girl, he would do. Maybe the message would finally get to her that way as well, seeing her collaborated dead at my hands, just to prove I wouldn’t let her get away so easily next time.
Even though he was always so irritating I had let him be my partner, thinking that we could be fine so long as he carried on listening to me and not getting in the way. But then I made the decision to trust him, I never would of if I’d known he couldn’t even take a bit of pressure. I wasn’t in the Guard to ‘help people’, like the Old Country recruits often claim. I wasn’t on a mission to serve the empire by civilising the people of the Old Country like the Guards from the Empire were. I also wasn’t part of the many Guards from the Old Country who joined up to save themselves from starving like the rest of their villages did, though I had been in the same situation as them. I was in the Guard because it was perfect. The moment I had first seen the Guard patrolling the streets of the village I was born in, I knew that I wanted that power. Even before this idea of revenge, I had thought it would be the best place for a person like me to be. Better than those uneducated fools who served beside me, who didn’t even know what to do with their own authority. It had given me access to everything I needed. I had simply proved what could be achieved through a bit of authority in the wrong hands, like the hands of those bloodthirsty Empire leaders.
We entered into another long, white corridor. It stretched into seeming nonexistence before me, punctuated by the neat bars of the cells on either side. One of the men locked the door with a huge set of keys and then took back hold of me and we carried on along the uneven cement floor. As we walked past arms stuck from their bars, clawing as their owners screamed and spat, trying to get a reaction. It was probably their only entertainment in here, so I made sure to make look directly into each of their crazy, white-eyed faces with an especially bored look. That quieted some of them down which is good because otherwise I would have gotten angry and side-tracked when I needed to concentrate on doing what I came here to do.
I knew where they’d take me, his was the only cell that still had room. I’d found out from what I had overheard as the Major. They really needed to be more careful about what they said around prisoners.
I smiled down at my boots and suppressed the desire to laugh aloud. That might be pushing it a bit. I couldn’t have them thinking I was too confident. If he angered them too much they might put me in with some of the more dangerous criminals. They liked to do that. I mean, I would be fine, but it would kind of defeat the object of getting locked up in here.
Yes, I had to be able to control myself. This was a mission and I would carry it out. I had to.
The hands pulled on my arms, hard. This was it. I breathed slow, turned with my eyes cast down, then looked up.
He was expecting to meet eyes, that was how he had seen it in his head, but he couldn’t see anything for a few moments. He was shocked, the expectation that he would be waiting, silently, for the inevitable revenge he had already resigned himself to, was strong. He really thought that he would have had at least that much impact. He’d had the perfect last lines, declaring that he would have his revenge. Maybe it had been too stereotypical. Not believable enough.
He was in the corner, on his bed ironically enough. Curled in on himself, foetal. He moved slightly, gripping his hand to his chest. So he was scared then, of something at least, seeking comfort like a baby. Like that would help him now.
The keys jingled in the lock. I resisted the urge to grab them now. I realised that I was tapping my foot with some kind of nervous energy. I just wanted to be in there, couldn’t have them ruining everything when I was so close, sticking those keys in my face as if to tempt me. The Guard looked back at me and sort of smirked, he had a thin face and a hell of an overbite. Looked like a weasel. God, I wanted to knock his teeth out. He narrowed his wide-set eyes as I made sure not to react. The only change was the hard-set of my jaw, I was gritting my teeth so hard I was worried they’d crack. I stopped, calmed myself and smiled back thinly.
The door rattled, and the weaselly-looking Guard grunted as he pushed it back. It was heavy-duty, but I already knew that. In fact, I had been banking on it.
I stepped in and waited as they drew it closed behind him. It seemed the Guard couldn’t resist the chance to try to aggravate him, he shoved his foot into the back of the knee on my supporting leg as he moved, obviously hoping I would trip into the cell and make a fool of myself. It wasn’t a very hard kick though, but it was just about as aggravating as he’d wanted it to be. I stopped myself from gritting my teeth again but couldn’t help glancing back as the Guard locked the door. Just giving him another opportunity to mock me.
He looked up, grinned showing too much gums. He reached out for the bars. “Have fun in there, scout. You know what?” He fake-whispered, eyes wide with exaggerated cheerfulness. “That was my friend you beat up, out there. In front of the door. I’m going to let every prisoner know that your fair game and the Guard’s ain’t gonna do nothing to stop them when they come for you.” That smirking face was starting to make me really angry. I couldn’t make a scene now, if he looked up and told them who I was it would derail the whole plan. And I needed this. I’d been waiting for it since the moment I heard what had happened.
His mouth turned into a frown as he realised I wasn’t going to say anything and he pulled out his keys with a bit too much force and slunk away, the other Guard lumbering after him with a bored expression.
“You know, I was almost hoping you’d come earlier.”
His voice was hoarse and high, like he had to cough. I twisted back to face him, he had turned his body a little, but his forehead was still pressed to the pebble-brick of the wall. A pause.
“I was starting to think you were dead.” I stepped into the cell, towards him.
He laughed shortly and rolled to face me. “And that would have been a shame, wouldn’t it?” He sat up, the bed squeaking on its metal legs, and turned to face me. “My God!” He shouted, “What happened to your face? And your eye?” He drew in a choked breath.
“My face?” I turned my head softly to the side, stroking my hand against that rough skin of my cheek as I did. “Yes. I do find I rather miss it when it is gone. And being blind is not the most convenient thing, I must say. I had to fix one eye up just to come and see you, you know?”
“What? What do you mean? What did you do?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. If it disturbs you so much, I’ll fix it.”
“You’ll what?” But he stopped speaking as I held my hand over the leather that was tied around one eye to reveal the empty socket and the skin that hung, torn from it. As he grimaced, I dig the heel of my hand into the socket and watched his expression change to amazement as I drew it away and revealed the glowing eye that lay underneath, intact. “How…?” He shook. I could hardly hold back my smile for there was something endlessly entertaining about seeing such self-possessed people fall apart with a just few sentences and a look from me. I could never see myself tiring of it. And it only grew more surprised as I ran my hand across my brow and felt the raised scars healing to smooth new skin as I did.
“Why, I have no idea.” I grinned, stretching my jaw as I worked my way into the itching, new skin. “I suppose it must be magic.”
But his answer came quickly and in complete contrast to what I was expecting. “No need to be sarcastic. I know what you are, remember?” His face relaxed far too quickly into gloomy seriousness.
I stopped for a bit. It wasn’t like him to be this composed. He had always been so dull, nervous-looking, a door-mat. The usual him would have fallen over himself backwards as soon as he’d seen me, begging me to spare him. I supposed he’d had some time to think it over, his inevitable fate. It had taken some time to work out where he was, weeks even. I never would have guessed they’d put him here: into the most secure prison in the Old Country. Looking at him you would never think he should have been here; he was so scrawny and haunted-looking. Maybe their concern was less about keeping him in than keeping me out. As soon as they worked out that they were going to capture me they must have gotten concerned about his safety. I had shouted about getting my revenge after all. A bad move but it had felt right at the time and, by the look of his face, it had worked just like I had wanted it. He looked ten years older at least, the psychological effect was visible in his watery eyes, his skeletal face, his world-weary tone. He probably thought I had nothing else to threaten him with. That he was above it all now he was resigned to his death. But I was still going to hear him scream. There was no point otherwise.
I leaned in, uncomfortably close: almost nose to nose. “Why didn’t you just kill yourself before I got here, huh? If you knew I was coming?” I snarled, and the words landed on his skin like spit, though he didn’t even blink. “Why’re you still alive then, you worm. You’re still hoping you’ll get away, aren’t you?” I was going to carry on but my first was already clenching as his face stayed deadpan, staring. I couldn’t get too angry and kill him like this. He couldn’t die while he was still resisting me. He had to be broken, revealed; I wanted him to realise that his resistance was completely hopeless.
“Are you going to tell me what you stayed alive to do exactly?” I said it calmly, with a smile like bared teeth.
He considered that, looked to the side for a bit and then glanced back at me. “To talk.”
“Oh!” I said. “And what did you want to talk about, may I ask?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Interesting.”
“I thought you’d like that.”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that and let you carry on.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I continued. “What enlightening knowledge will you share? I wonder what you know about me that I have somehow failed to notice my entire life.”
“We were partners. I picked up a few things.” Now he was on the defensive. Perfect.
“We were never partners. You know nothing about me.” I growled it, long hair shifted over my eyes.
He grinned like I’d tripped up. “I know that you think nobody can know the real you. You think you’re above understanding, that you’re different. You think I’m too stupid to work you out.”
“I know you’re too stupid…” I cut in, but his voice was getting louder.
“I know other things as well. For example, I know that you stayed away from people because you were scared that you’d learn to like them and then they’d hurt you. You would rather be seen as invulnerable, inaccessible, purposefully unfeeling because at least that way you can pretend you have no one because that’s how you want it to be. It’s because you’re weak!”
He just shook his crazed head and spoke like he’d been holding it in for years. “I know you! You don’t want to kill me because I ratted you out, you want to kill me because I worked you out. I manipulated you, you never even considered that I would be the one to report you but that was what I wanted. I saw that you thought so little of me that you didn’t even consider that I could do anything against you’re orders. That’s why you want me dead. I’m proof that you failed. You underestimated me and I used it against you and you hate that. And you’re especially angry because you actually trusted me. Maybe I reminded you of someone, it doesn’t matter, what matters is that you got it wrong.”
“Stop!” It was loud this time, the sound buzzed metallically in the small cell. I was breathing fast, angry, but at least he had stopped speaking now. He was huffing like he’d been running, staring at me up out of the tops of his eyes and smiling slightly.
The silence stretched.
He spoke quietly when he got his breath back. “You killed people, for no reason.”
I waited, thought. “Not for no reason.” I whispered. “Never without reason. I was compelled to kill each, just as I compelled you to kill.” And he would be next.
“But I admitted it.” He shook his head, not looking at me. “I couldn’t live knowing what I had done. I gave myself in. But you are living still, I don’t know how you can do it, with that pain, that regret.” He held his heart like it was hurting him. How infuriating.
I smirked. “So, you’re feeling sorry for me now?” I spat. “You think that’s going to help you?”
He closed his eyes and then looked down at his hands, clasped on his lap so tight he could see his knuckle-bones through the skin. “I know it won’t. No matter what you have to face up to what you’ve done.”
“Do I? I’ve got away with it for this long, why would I suddenly want to redeem myself now? I am too far gone to regret what I have done now. Don’t think for a second that you have changed anything, child.”
The man shivered. “For each person you’ve killed there will be retribution. You cannot escape it.”
“Oh, don’t get all religious on me, Ginger. You know I can’t stand it.” I stepped even closer, if that were even possible. “But you have made a rather unfair assumption about me: that I want to escape at all. You see, I don’t want to escape. And anyone who thinks they can rein retribution down on me is welcome to try,” I smiled, “you should know by now that I do love a good fight.”
Suddenly snarling, the man looked up at my eyes, darting from one to the other as if looking for something that wasn’t there. “It’s already catching up to you. Your fate. You’re tripping on the traps, and soon you will fall. Your egotism is ensuring your path is that of death and destruction.” He lunged and grabbed my shoulders with surprising strength, almost pulling me onto my knees. His nails caught on the skin of my neck and I felt my muscles twitch, telling me to push him away. Before I could he spoke. “You can still save yourself. You don’t have to live with this guilt.”
“Death and destruction? Well doesn’t that sound like fun.” I chuckled. “I feel no guilt when it comes to my plan. I do not always revel in it, child, but I accept its necessity.”
He shook his head. “I’m trying to help you. To put you on the path of righteousness.”
The pity on his face filled me with revulsion. The thought that he was looking down on me was almost too much. I held back a moment longer though. “Righteousness is subjective. This plan is my version of it.”
His look changed slightly, like he had found something to grasp onto in what I said. “And what was your plan exactly?”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know.”
“Yes, I would like to know. Even if it is the last thing I find out.”
“It would be, I can assure you that.” I paused, he still had that grave look in his eyes like he knew too much already. Though, he was going to die anyway, so what would be the harm in telling him? “My plan is not for your ears. I can tell you the steps I have taken so far, though, if it gives you comfort.”
“It has been troubling me.”
“Yes, I suppose it has.” I could see it in his face. “What do you wish to know?”
“Why Einin. Why did you have her killed?”
“It was simply convenient. She was alone at just the right time, it was meant to be the O’Connor woman, but I had to take the opportunity given to me. She came out of the house that night the rebels had their meeting and I caught her, making her mine and also convincing her to spread the story that it had in fact been Nevan, who was also there, who attacked her.”
“And then she was yours? To call on as you liked?”
“Yes, and most useful she was. It was a shame to have her killed, though it was necessary to ensure my poor father would be arrested as the murderer.”
“But why did you want him arrested? Why frame him for what you did?”
“To start the war, my child, the rebels must believe that the monster was within the Empire’s ranks and that I, their hero, was on their side. This would not be possible if I was revealed as the murderer.”
“What about the other people you killed? What role did they play?”
“The first man I killed really was a thief, just as I told you he was. Finnegan Crowe, on the other hand, was innocent, his death was simply to convince you that I was not the murderer, not that it did much good with that Lieutenant snooping around.” I shook my head. “Quite the waste. It did work to scare the O’Connor woman and Einin though. Got them scared enough to call the rebel meeting, and that was just what I needed. They got scared enough to finally get up and fight.” The concerned look fell away to a smile. “And fear is what I need to pit them against each other: the Empire and the rebels both.”
“I know what happened to the men you met with me, I presume they were controlled by you too, but the child? And the woman who died while you were in jail? What about them, what could they have possibly done?”
“Now you are jumping to conclusions, Ginger, I did control those men but I did not kill the child. Sickness gripped her in the night, I simply made it look like she had been killed. And that woman they found was no woman at all, nothing but a lowly kelpie spirit. She had been perfectly content eating sheep up until now, but had begun luring bigger animals and even tried tempting people into her pond. She would have drawn far too much attention to herself had I let her alone. In that respect, I guess I did your people a favour.”
He didn’t look like he believed that. Well, I imagined it would take more than that to convince him that I wasn’t quite so bad as he had supposed I was. “And the man who killed himself at the Empire meeting? You controlled him too, I suppose, and sent him to his death.”
“No.” My expression grew dark. “He was not part of my plan.” I could tell from his face he had no more questions, though he would probably try to stretch this one just to cling to life just a little longer. But, no, it was the end. I sighed, drew back my fist, and hit.
Skin dark as damp wood, standing up like soft bark and slimy under my finger-tips. I hadn’t even realised I’d reached out until the cold wetness dropped onto my trailing fingers, like water dripping from the bent-back spine of a fern. I stared as it bloomed on the back of my hand, spread its red roots through the thin folds, reaching across the flat plane like it would dye the whole thing if it could. Another followed, and another, ruining the pattern. I looked up.
His head was hanging loosely back, making the spit and blood that ran from the corners of his mouth and nose trickle down his forehead and drip onto me. I sat, open-mouthed, and followed the droplets as they drew symmetrical rivulets down both sides of his face and then sidled down the matted clumps of hair that usually clung to his temples. They gathered there, one by one building into a bulging bead of moisture until they were forced to fall as one to the ground below.
Briefly, as I looked up at him, I wondered how he could support himself with his back bent like that. It was so twisted that even as I sat behind him I could see each detail on the upside-down face above me. But then I noticed that he wasn’t standing at all, the ratty socks on his feet weren’t quite touching the cell floor, though they curved towards it as if they wanted to do so. He could have been dancing, the pointed toes of a ballerina, the flung back head and spread out arms. They spoke of movement, the frantic drama of a ballet-dancer as she hurled herself into her final act, showing her audience the pain, the suffering, the betrayal. As if she were mute but her life depended on her sharing her internal chaos with the world. This body told a different story. It had none of the grace, it was grotesque, but it spoke nonetheless. Impaled on his own bed, it was base-side down with one metal leg dug right into the middle of the raised barbs that marked his spine. I looked up from below, on the bed’s metal frame which impressed red diamond welts onto my skin where I had been sat, cross-legged for some time.
He was topless but it revealed no muscle. If I were him I would have kept it on. Or perhaps I took it off, I can’t remember anymore. The rib-cage that was revealed protruded far from his sunken stomach in an almost jagged, prehistoric way, like the bony spine of a dinosaur. His skin was pale, transparent but yellowed with jaundice, and stretched so thin that it looked painful. His arms were sticks and his trousers were belted twice around his hip bones to stop them falling-down. He was weak.
The face that stared at the barred window behind me was verging on hysterical; bloody mouth open wide like he was screaming, open eyes all white around the edges, veins criss-crossing like his whole face was bloodshot. He had purple scabs from some drug or maybe dehydration and, though he was young, his hair was so thin that the shine of his scalp was clearly visible through it. He looked pathetic, desperate.
Worst of all, his arms and back were tattooed, some kind of bird stretched its feathered wings all the way to the back of his hands. The inky thing was reaching up now, its joints flexing along his shoulder blades, but it was stuck. Pinned in place like a butterfly to a board. Dark black as a bruise, as the him that betrayed me. I traced it again, like I had been doing earlier. Had he had that before? It was curious that he should choose to paint an albatross black. Not that it mattered to me.
I closed my eyes and felt the smile pull back my lips. I could see it even in my mind, the body leant stretched back, arms outstretched and bones jutting out like he wanted wings. The red eyes, bloody mouth, feet pulled together; it was all just how I had imagined it. I got up and waited for the Guards to return. Shouldn’t be too long now. I stretched and grabbed the bars hard between my fists. I felt like I should be able to bend them back like I’d bent him but it was impossible. I knew brute strength wouldn’t get me out of here, it was never in the plan. No, I needed to be patient.