Authors: Megan Whalen Turner
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #Legends; Myths; Fables
For Sandy Passarelli
I DIDN’T KNOW HOW LONG I had been in the…
TWO GUARDS CAME FOR ME late the next morning, and…
I WOKE IN THE MORNING in one of the inn’s…
WE STOPPED AGAIN EARLY IN the evening. Earlier than the…
Earth was alone. She had no companion. So she took…
IN THE MORNING WE ATE the last of the food…
GOOD FEELINGS PERSISTED BETWEEN MYSELF and the magus until the…
“WE’LL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL nearly midnight,” said the magus.
I SLEPT THROUGH THE DAY with sunlight and blue sky…
WHEN I WOKE, THE SUN was up and the day…
I HEARD THE TUMBLERS CLICKING as the guards unlocked my…
THERE WAS A LEDGE ON the far side of the…
DIDN’T KNOW HOW LONG
I had been in the king’s prison. The days were all the same, except that as each one passed, I was dirtier than before. Every morning the light in the cell changed from the wavering orange of the lamp in the sconce outside my door to the dim but even glow of the sun falling into the prison’s central courtyard. In the evening, as the sunlight faded, I reassured myself that I was one day closer to getting out. To pass time, I concentrated on pleasant memories, laying them out in order and examining them carefully. I reviewed over and over the plans that had seemed so straightforward before I arrived in jail, and I swore to myself and every god I knew that if I got out alive, I would never never never take any risks that were so abysmally stupid again.
I was thinner than I had been when I was first arrested. The large iron ring around my waist had grown loose, but not loose enough to fit over the bones
of my hips. Few prisoners wore chains in their cells, only those that the king particularly disliked: counts or dukes or the minister of the exchequer when he told the king there wasn’t any more money to spend. I was certainly none of those things, but I suppose it’s safe to say that the king disliked me. Even if he didn’t remember my name or whether I was as common as dirt, he didn’t want me slipping away. So I had chains on my ankles as well as the iron belt around my waist and an entirely useless set of chains locked around my wrists. At first I pulled the cuffs off my wrists, but since I sometimes had to force them back on quickly, my wrists started to be rubbed raw. After a while it was less painful just to leave the manacles on. To take my mind off my daydreams, I practiced moving around the cell without clanking.
I had enough chain to allow me to pace in an arc from a front corner of the cell out to the center of the room and back to the rear corner. My bed was there at the back, a bench made of stone with a thin bag of sawdust on top. Beside it was the chamber pot. There was nothing else in the cell except myself and the chain and, twice a day, food.
The cell door was a gate of bars. The guards looked in at me as they passed on their rounds, a tribute to my reputation. As part of my plans for greatness, I had bragged without shame about my skills in every wine store in the city. I had wanted everyone to know that I
was the finest thief since mortal men were made, and I must have come close to accomplishing the goal. Huge crowds had gathered for my trial. Most of the guards in the prison had turned out to see me after my arrest, and I was endlessly chained to my bed when other prisoners were sometimes allowed the freedom and sunshine of the prison’s courtyard.
There was one guard who always seemed to catch me with my head in my hands, and he always laughed.
“What?” he would say. “Haven’t you escaped yet?”
Every time he laughed, I spat insults at him. It was not politic, but as always, I couldn’t keep an insult in when it wanted to come out. Whatever I said, the guard laughed more.
I ached with cold. It had been early in the spring when I’d been arrested and dragged out of the Shade Oak Wineshop. Outside the prison walls the summer’s heat must have dried out the city and driven everyone indoors for afternoon naps, but the prison cells got no direct sun, and they were as damp and cold as when I had first arrived. I spent hours dreaming of the sunshine, the way it soaked into the city walls and made the yellow stones hot to lean on hours after the day had ended, the way it dried out water spills and the rare libations to the gods still occasionally poured into the dust outside the wineshops.
Sometimes I moved as far as my chains would let me and looked through the bars of my cell door and across
the deep gallery that shaded the prison cells at the sunlight falling into the courtyard. The prison was two stories of cells stacked one on top of the other; I was in the upper level. Each cell opened onto the gallery, and the gallery was separated from the courtyard by stone pillars. There were no windows in the outside walls, which were three or four feet thick, built of massive stones that ten men together couldn’t have shifted. Legends said that the old gods had stacked them together in a day.
The prison was visible from almost anywhere in the city because the city was built on a hill and the prison was at the summit. The only other building there was the king’s home, his megaron. There had also been a temple to the old gods once, but it had been destroyed, and the basilica to the new gods was built farther down the hill. Once the king’s home had been a true megaron, one room, with a throne and a hearth, and the prison had been the agora, where citizens met and merchants hawked their jumble. The individual cells had been stalls of clothes or wine or candles or jewelry imported from the islands. Prominent citizens used to stand on the stone blocks in the courtyard to make speeches.
Then the invaders had come with their longboats and their own ideas of commerce; they did their trading in open markets next to their ships. They had taken over the king’s megaron for their governor and used the solid stone building of the agora as a prison. Prominent
citizens ended up chained to the blocks, instead of standing on them.
The old invaders were pushed out by new invaders, and in time Sounis revolted and had her own king again. Still, people did their trading down by the waterfront; it had become habit, and the new king continued to use the agora as a prison. It was useful to him, as he was no relation to any of the families that had ruled the city in the past. By the time I ended up there, most people in the city had forgotten the prison was ever anything but a holding pen for those who failed to pay their taxes and other criminals.
I was lying on my back in my cell, with my feet in the air, wrapped in the chain that led from my waist to a ring high in the wall. It was late at night, the sun had been gone for hours, and the prison was lit by burning lamps. I was weighing the merits of clean clothes versus better food and not paying attention to the tramp of feet outside my cell. There was an iron door that led from the prison into a guardroom at the narrow end of the building. The guards passed through it many times a day. If I heard the door banging, I no longer took any notice of it, so I was unprepared when lamplight, concentrated by a lens, flared into my cell. I wanted to look lithe and graceful and perhaps feral as I unwrapped my feet and sat up. Caught by surprise and nearly blind, I was clumsy and would have fallen off the stone bunk if the chain had not still been wrapped around one foot.
“This is the right one?”
No wonder the voice sounded surprised. I levered myself upright and blinked into the lamplight, unable to see much. The guard reassured someone that this indeed was the prisoner he wanted.
“All right. Take him out.”
The guard said, “Yes, magus,” as he unlocked the barred gate, so I knew who it was at my door late at night. One of the king’s most powerful advisors. In the days before the invaders came, the king’s magus was supposed to have been a sorcerer, but not even the most superstitious believed that anymore. A magus was a scholar. He read scrolls and books in every language and studied everything that had ever been written and things that had never been written as well. If the king needed to know how many shafts of grain grew on a particular acre of land, the magus could tell him. If the king wanted to know how many farmers would starve if he burned that acre of grain, the magus knew that, too. His knowledge, matched by his skills of persuasion, gave him the power to influence the king, and that made him a powerful figure at the court. He’d been at my trial. I had seen him sitting in a gallery behind the judges with one leg crossed over the other and his arms folded over his chest.
Once I had disentangled myself from the chains, the guards unlocked the rings on my feet, using a key as big as my thumb. They left the manacles on my wrists but
released the chain that attached them to the waist ring. Then they hauled me to my feet and out of the cell. The magus looked me up and down and wrinkled his nose, probably at the smell.
He wanted to know my name.
I said, “Gen.” He wasn’t interested in the rest.
“Bring him along,” he said as he turned his back on me and walked away. All of my own impulses to balance and move seemed to conflict with those of the guards, and I was jerked and jostled down the portico, just as graceful as a sick cat. We crossed through the guardroom to a door that led through the outer wall of the prison to a flight of stone steps and a courtyard that lay between the prison and the south wing of the king’s megaron. The megaron’s walls rose four stories over our heads on three sides. The king’s tiny stronghold had become a palace under the supervision of the invaders and an even larger palace since then. We crossed the courtyard, following a guard carrying a lantern, to a shorter flight of steps that led up to a door in the wall of the megaron.
On the other side of the door the white walls of a passageway reflected the light of so many lamps that it seemed as bright as day inside. I threw my head sideways and dragged one arm away from a guard in order to cover my eyes. The light felt solid, like spears that went through my head. Both guards stopped, and the one tried to grab my arm back, but I dragged it away
again. The magus stopped to see what the noise was.
“Give him a moment to let his eyes adjust,” he said.
It was going to take longer, but the minute helped. I blinked some of the tears out of my eyes, and we started down the passageway again. I kept my head down and my eyes nearly closed and didn’t see much of the passageways at first. They had marble floors. The baseboards were painted with an occasional patch of lilies and a tortoise or resting bird. We went up a staircase where a painted pack of hunting dogs chased a lion around a corner to a door, where we stopped.
The magus knocked and went in. The guards, with some difficulty, navigated themselves and me through the narrow doorway. I looked around to see who had watched my clumsy entrance, but the room was empty.
I was excited. My blood rushed around like wine sloshing in a jar, but I was also deadly tired. The walk up the stairs had felt like a hike up a mountain. My knees wobbled, and I was glad to have the guards, graceless as they were, holding me at the elbows. When they let go, I was off-balance and had to swing my arms to keep from falling. My chains clanked.
“You can go,” the magus said to the guards. “Come take him back in half an hour.”
Half an hour? My hopes, which had been rising, fell a little. As the guards left, I looked around the room. It was small, with a desk and several comfortable chairs scattered around it. The magus stood next to
the desk. The windows behind him should have looked out on the megaron’s greater courtyard, but the tiny panes of glass only reflected the light of lamps burning inside. I looked again at the chairs. I picked the nicest one and sat in it. The magus stiffened. His eyebrows snapped down into a single line across the top of his face. They were dark, though most of his hair had gone to gray.
“Get up,” he commanded.
I leaned farther into the feather pillows on the seat and back of the chair. It was almost as good as clean clothes, and I couldn’t have gotten up if I had tried. My knees were weak, and my stomach was considering tossing up the little I had recently eaten. The chair back came to just behind my ears, so I rested my head back and looked up my nose at the magus, still standing by his desk.
The magus gave me a few moments to consider my position before he stepped over to the chair. He leaned down until his nose was just a few inches from mine. I hadn’t seen his face before from this close. He had the high-bridged nose of most of the people in the city, but his eyes were a very light gray instead of brown. His forehead was covered by wrinkles brought on by a lot of sun and too much frowning. I was thinking that he must have done some sort of outdoor work before he started reading books when he spoke. I stopped thinking about his complexion and shifted my gaze back to his eyes.
“We might someday attain a relationship of mutual respect,” he said softly. First, I thought, I will see gods walking the earth. He went on. “For now I will have your obedience.”
His ability to convey a world of threat in so few words was remarkable. I swallowed, and my hands shook a little where they lay on the arms of the chair. One link of chain clinked against another, but I still didn’t try to get up. My legs wouldn’t have lifted me. He must have realized this, and known also that he had made his point, because he stepped back to lean against the desk, and waved one hand in disgust.
“Never mind. Stay there for now. The seat will have to be cleaned.”
I felt my face getting redder. It wasn’t my fault that I stank. He should spend some months in the king’s prison and then we’d see if he still smelled like old books and scented soap. He looked me over for several moments more and didn’t seem impressed.
“I saw you at your trial,” he said finally.
I didn’t say that I’d noticed him there as well.
“Tell me,” said the magus, “have you found yourself reluctant to leave our hospitality? You said at your trial that not even the king’s prison could hold you, and I rather expected you to be gone by now.” He was enjoying himself.
I crossed my legs and settled deeper into the chair. He winced.
I said, “Some things take time.”
“How true,” said the magus. “How much time do you think it’s going to take?”
Another half an hour, I thought, but I didn’t say that either.
“I think it’s going to take a long time,” said the magus. “I think it could take the rest of your life. After all,” he joked, “when you’re dead, you certainly won’t be in the king’s prison, will you?”
“I suppose not.” I didn’t think he was funny.
“You boasted about a lot of things at your trial. Idle boasts, I suppose.”
“I can steal anything.”
“So you claimed. It was a wager to that effect that landed you in prison.” He picked a pen nib off the desk beside him and turned it in his hands for a moment. “It is too bad for you that intelligence does not always attend gifts such as yours, and fortunate for me that it is not your intelligence I am interested in, but your skill. If you are as good as you say you are.”