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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER FOUR

One must give Dorn credit for novelty: he was the first second-level prisoner I'd ever known who was assigned the leaded whip for any reason other than trying to murder a guard.

One of the few advantages of living on the second level was that it was close to the ground; just a few steps down the stairwell was the prison's main exit. At least, I had thought this was an advantage when I first arrived at Mercy, and had laughed inwardly at the folly of the Keeper's decision to place the most dangerous prisoners in close proximity to their means of escape.

Five tries later – followed by five visits to the cells on the first level – I conceded that the Keeper knew what he was doing. Since then I had watched men far more clever than myself encounter similar defeat in getting past the system of locked gates and guards and passwords that led to the outside world. Still, one would have expected a newbie prisoner who slipped past the second-level guards to make a try down those half-dozen steps.

Dorn did not. He went up the steps, trying to reach the third level, where Harrow was.

He was captured before he could reach the level. This being his third offense for essentially the same crime, there was never any doubt what punishment he would receive. From the moment that news reached our level of his capture, the mood in the cells was a mixture of somberness and bright anticipation. The bright anticipation came from the prisoners who held a taste for blood.

I was not one of those. The fool Tyrrell had once implied to me that I must find floggings exciting, given my background. I didn't bother to explain to him the difference between torture and murder. I was no more inclined than the average man to receive joy out of seeing a prisoner's skin lashed, knowing, as I did, that the prisoner would still be alive at the end of the proceedings.

But I had to admit that there was something special about a flogging such as this. The only cases any of us had ever heard of in which a Mercy prisoner died under lashing had occurred when the leaded whip was being used.

We assembled once more in the dark disciplinary hall. On the balcony where the guards stood, the prisoner had already been strung to the whipping post. None of us looked at Dorn, though; everyone's eyes were reserved for the door through which each level's prisoners were entering, escorted by guards.

Harrow was one of the last prisoners to arrive. There was little in his expression to satisfy the most sadistic observer, though his eyes were turned up toward the balcony from the moment of his entrance. He was flanked on both sides by third-level guards, but Thomas, who was one of the guards assigned to keep watch over us in the hall, came forward and said something inaudible to them. They withdrew, gratitude spread upon their faces, toward the metal stairs leading to the warmer balcony.

Thomas leaned over and murmured something in Harrow's ear. The older prisoner nodded in acknowledgment, but did not move his gaze from the balcony. Thomas returned to his previous position, then looked upward as his name was spoken.

It was Mercy's Keeper. He shouted something to Thomas I could not catch, and the young man responded by running lightly up the wrought metal staircase. There the Keeper spoke to Thomas for several minutes, at one point handing him a piece of paper. The young man glanced at it, then slipped it into his pocket without comment and continued to listen to the Keeper's words.

I grew bored eventually and let my attention travel over to the whipping post. Dorn's face couldn't be seen, but not surprisingly he had begun to shake during this lengthy wait; the cold would have been reason enough for that. I myself was beginning to rub my arms and to blow on my hands, and I was hardly the only prisoner doing so. Amidst the shifting waters of the sea of prisoners, Harrow stood unmoved, a rock with an unreadable expression.

I wondered whether the delay was caused by an inability to reach a decision over who should have the privilege of wielding the leaded whip today. The leaded whip was two feet longer than the whips ordinarily used by Mercy guards, and was knotted with pieces of lead so small that you'd have sworn they'd have little effect, unless you'd seen the whip in use. It was a machine of pain as effective as the old-time rack, and its reputation was such that even Mercy's non-sadistic guards would vie for the opportunity to wield the coveted weapon.

Mercy's Keeper, I could guess, would pick carefully among them, for the leaded whip was also a deadly instrument. It was a hard tool to control; I'd seen it once in the hands of a guard who could not command it, and that was the messiest punishment I'd witnessed in all my years at Mercy. If Mercy's Keeper wanted to ensure that Dorn was still alive after this was over, he'd select a guard who had better chance of keeping hold of the whip. Certainly he'd have enough volunteers to choose from: looking around, I could see a hopeful expression in the eyes of all the guards nearest to me.

The prisoners had begun to grow restless now. The guards who were assigned to watch over us moved forward, whips in hand, flicking their lashes where necessary. I had lost sight of Thomas; he was not at his original station, nor where he had been standing to talk.

Mercy's Keeper had returned to the front of the balcony. He raised his hand, and the lashes on the ground below forced silence. Then he began to explain why the punishment would take place.

I could have recited the speech for him. I let my attention wander, and only came back into awareness as the tension around me alerted me to the fact that the speech was over and the punishment about to begin.

Dorn was now shaking so badly that he looked like a man with palsy. His face was still hidden against the post. I glanced over at Harrow, who had sweat on his face now, and then turned back in time to see the volunteer step forward who had been granted the privilege of wielding the leaded whip.

Among the many things I had anticipated to happen that day, this had not been one of them.

Thomas did not immediately set to work. Instead, he carefully unwound the whip, checking each knot of lead as he went. At one point he paused to tighten a loose knot. Then he let the lash fall full toward the floor, like a tiny black waterfall. I thought that he would test the whip a few times now, but he did not. Instead he leaned over and said something to Dorn, who nodded vigorously. His gesture translated itself quite plainly into words: "Get on with it." Then Dorn turned his head, and I saw that he was biting his lip, clearly struggling to keep as long as possible from screaming, knowing, as he did, that his love-mate must be watching.

There was a pause as Thomas placed a bit of leather between Dorn's teeth, and then my guard stepped back. And back. And back, until I wondered whether Thomas fully understood the length of this whip and the resultant consequences for lack of control. If he did not, the results could be quite nasty. I found myself wincing. I didn't want Dorn dead; that would destroy all my plans. Why had that cursed Keeper chosen a young, gentle guard for this task rather than men who were far better qualified?

I nearly missed the beginning of the punishment; a blink would have erased it. Thomas struck no dramatic poses, did not even pause his arm to judge whether his distancing had been right. He simply drew back his arm and landed the blow in the same movement.

And what followed was a symphony.

Until now, I had only been on the receiving end of Thomas's flogging. Now I saw what Oslo had seen that day in my cell, which must have gone a long way to securing Thomas's good reputation amongst the guards.

Every guard I knew treated whips as bamboo rods that could curve. The only difference between the rod and the whip was considered to be the fact that the rod landed as a straight line, while the whip curved around the back. But Thomas, trained upon the longer black whips used by Compassion guards, had learned that the true difference between a whip and a rod was not in shape but in movement. Whereas the Mercy guards treated the whip as a static creature, doing their best to retain the same shape at every moment in the lash's progress, Thomas used his arm to impart motion. What had been a dead, inanimate object came alive in Thomas's hand.

The movement started from his body, with the whip no more than an extension of the jerk that flowed through Thomas's flesh. It travelled, like a wave over water, down the length of the whip, arriving at the end of the lash at the precise moment that the whip reached its target. If Thomas had been aiming the whip for Dorn's back, the results would have sliced Dorn in half. But Thomas, positioned further than any Mercy guard would position himself, was aiming his strikes at the open air a hand's span from Dorn's back. Only the rippling wave kissed Dorn, landing not in a single line that conformed to the curve of Dorn's back, but as a small, sharp wave that was inverse to the curve of Dorn's back, and that rolled its way lightly across the flesh, leaving a bloody welt as it went.

Even before the first wave reached Dorn's back, Thomas was already jerking his wrist again, commanding the wave to withdraw. The message was delayed, travelling as it did down the long line of ever-shifting leather, and by the time the wave received the message and began to withdraw, Thomas had sent a second wave down the line, which would reach Dorn's back at the precise moment after Thomas moved the whip downward, so that the second wave kissed Dorn's back just below the first.

It takes a long time to describe this; as I say, if I had blinked I would have missed it. It was the quickest flogging I had ever seen, finished before the slower observers had managed to grasp that they were witnessing the most beautiful melody of punishment ever played in this prison.

It was over so quickly that Dorn did not even have a chance to cry out during it. If he cried out afterwards, he could not have been heard. As the last lash was withdrawn and Thomas stepped back, with not so much as a single drop of sweat marking his exertions, a roar travelled up from both the prisoners and the guards that threatened to shake down the building. Anyone standing outside Mercy Prison must have thought a riot was taking place. The roar was wordless, but several of the guards could be seen whistling and applauding. Mercy's Keeper, for the first time since I had known him, looked stunned.

Thomas ignored the reaction of his audience. He turned to say something to Sedgewick, who was standing beside the prisoner who had now gone limp on the post. Sedgewick listened. After a brief pause during which he appeared to consider what Thomas had said, Sedgewick nodded before turning to release Dorn.

I lost sight of Thomas after that; he successfully evaded Mercy's Keeper, who was coming forward to speak to him, and disappeared through one of the doors leading to the stairwell. All around me prisoners were talking at the top of their lungs about what they had seen. Everybody had forgotten Harrow, who had withdrawn into some dark corner where he could witness Dorn's pain in private.

And amidst all the uproar and talk and movement, I stood fixed in my place, like a child who has just felt the blade of death enter and is still trying to grasp what has happened.

I had thought I was setting out cream for a purring kitten. I hadn't realized that I was inviting onto my lap a deadly leopard.

o—o—o

Back in my cell a short while later, I tried to retie my frazzled nerves. The gods of heaven and hell knew I had no one to blame except myself.

He had given me clues enough. His cool eyes . . . His talk of how he resembled his father . . . Even his profound patience, which I now realized arose from a simple recognition of what he could do if that patience snapped. "Keeping control of oneself is half the battle of being a guard." In his case, it was an utter necessity. If he did not exert control over himself, every prisoner who came into his hands would die a beautiful death.

It was odd, discovering that he was someone so like myself, but a master where I was only an apprentice. What I had seen today was something akin to what I had tried to achieve with Sharon, but the lovely flowers I had so prided myself upon seemed like ugly, shapeless masses compared to the sweet flow of pain that he had imparted into the whip. And of course there was one other difference: his motive for his deed. I hoped I was right about that motive, because if I was not, I had been playing a dangerous game with an unscrupulous opponent who would not hesitate to make me pay for my arrogance.

I heard the cell door slide back. My breath jerked out of me, and I turned, half expecting to see a chill-eyed Thomas standing at the door with whip in hand, saying, "Tonight I teach you what it is like to be raped by a virgin . . ."

But when he entered the cell, he looked just as I might have hoped: pale-faced, as though he had been the one to endure the flogging. The only shock came from seeing who accompanied him.

I forgot all my fears about Thomas in the face of this new horror. "What the bloody—!"

"Quiet." Thomas voice was soft, with none of the sharpness of the whip he had just wielded, but I shut my mouth. He was already withdrawing, his gaze focussed beyond the cell. He looked back only to say, "Keep the inner door closed."

For a prisoner to close the inner door when a guard isn't present is a flogging offense. I wondered whether Thomas knew that. I wondered whether he cared.

I sighed and closed the inner door. It was heavier than I had ever imagined it to be, and it took a moment's struggle to slide it closed. Then I turned to look at the other inhabitant in the cell. Silence stretched between us until I folded my arms, leaned back against the wall, and said, "So, is it warmer upstairs?"

Harrow didn't bother to reply. His gaze had jerked toward the door, and a moment later I heard what he had: steps coming our way. The steps of more than one guard.

The outer door screeched as it moved, the inner door opened, and then Thomas and Sedgewick were struggling through the doorway, carrying between them the limp body of Dorn.

There was a breathless battle to get him properly positioned on the floor. If they'd placed him on his back at this moment, he would no doubt have screamed down the prison walls. As it was, I could see that Dorn was biting his lip, fighting to hold sounds in. They spent a moment checking that he would remain where he was on the blankets on the floor. I had time to wonder how Thomas had managed to prepare this cell in the brief interval between the time he escorted me out and the time he joined the other guards making their way to the disciplinary hall. Then Sedgewick stood up with a grunt, saying, "Five minutes. You owe me for this, Tom."

"Thanks, Sedge," Thomas said softly, then waited till the other guard had slipped outside the cell again before closing both doors.

Harrow was already kneeling next to Dorn. If Thomas had envisioned a dramatic reunion, with both parties stretching out their arms to each other and declaring their undying love, he was disappointed. Harrow took Dorn's hand in his own, but what few words I could hear him saying were matter-of-fact. He was apparently asking after Dorn's health and welfare. His voice was low and phlegmatic; only the tears streaming down his face revealed what lay within. Dorn gave broken replies between shuddered gasps. From where I sat I could see the line of crimson welts along his back, each row exactly parallel to the next, with deep holes where the lead had landed. The blood was trickling down, staining my blankets.

I looked over at Thomas. He was kneeling upon one knee, with his head bowed and his eyes closed, as though he were in the presence of a scene too sacred to be witnessed. But slung over his bent knee was his arm, and at the end of that arm was his dagger, which was tight in his hand's grip. I could guess that his ears were attuned, not to the conversation in the cell, but to any sounds approaching.

After what seemed to me to be a hideously long interval, he rose suddenly and went to the door, opening it a crack; then he flung it open.

"They've realized he's missing," Sedgewick said breathlessly as Thomas let him into the cell. "Get him off this level now."

The words were unnecessary; Thomas was already pulling Harrow back toward the door. The older prisoner made no protest, but his face remained turned toward Dorn, who had struggled up onto one elbow to watch him go. Their eyes remained linked up to the moment that Thomas pulled Harrow around the corner.

Then Dorn collapsed with a whimper, rolling onto his stomach in a faint. Sedgewick cursed, managed the awkward task of picking up Dorn unaided, and made his way heavily to the door, through which the sounds of the search party could now be heard like hunting dogs in the distance.

I held the doors open for Sedgewick and his charge. I would have been happy to do anything to get them out of my cell.

After they were gone, I carefully returned the inner door to its usual open position and closed the outer door, trying to make it look as though it was locked. I felt no temptation whatsoever to take advantage of this moment to slip outside my cell. When the search party arrived, they would find me exactly as I always was at this time of day: lying on my bed-shelf, awaiting my guard's evening visit, unconnected in any way with seditious activities taking place at the prison tonight.

I knew that Thomas had succeeded in getting Harrow safely back to the third level when I heard shouts call off the search party, with no glee in the guards' voices to indicate that a punishment would follow. The shouts could barely be heard over the loud conversation between the prisoners who had, during this interval, gradually returned to their cells and were still chattering over what they had seen on the first level. It was the sudden break in that conversation which alerted me to the fact that Thomas was walking through the fire-pit area. I could envision every prisoner and guard falling silent as they caught sight of him. As a Keeper's son, he would be used to that.

He stepped within the cell, showing no particular surprise that his charge remained within the unlocked door. For the first time since he had been assigned to me, he closed the inner door, for which I was grateful. I had had time during his absence to reflect upon what had happened, and I was prepared with a commentary.

The echo of the inner door's thud was still resounding through the cell when I hissed, "How dare you endanger me!"

He paused in the midst of stepping forward. He was difficult to see. The inner door contained a shuttered window; if a guard suspected that foul play was taking place within the closed cell, he could reach through the bars of the outer door and open the shutter. At all other times the window was left shut. With the inner door closed, the only light fell from the narrow slit above the door. The slit was angled to shine light just beyond the door; in the remainder of the cell, little more could be seen than dim impressions of shapes.

I could read the quiet surprise in Thomas's voice, though, as he said, "Endanger you?"

"Yes, endanger! While you were whispering your plans to everyone and their grandchildren, did it occur to you to consult the person most likely to be punished if it was discovered that his cell was being used as a meeting place for clandestine love-mates? Or have you decided after all that it's right to force others to live out your dreams?"

My voice shook with anger. I was vaguely aware that, in light of what I had seen today, I ought to be choosing my words to this man carefully, but I could not stop myself. We had been too close to disaster. I had only one week left in which to make my escape, and I might have spent that week recovering from a flogging.

Thomas was silent for a moment before saying, "I guess I assumed you'd be willing to help."

"Help those bog-scum?" I was so astounded that I forgot to lower my voice. "Haven't I told you a thousand times what I think of the prisoners here? Do you have any idea what these men did to get sent to life prison?"

There was no response from Thomas except for the slightest lift at the edge of his mouth.

It was all I needed for my fury to be pushed beyond all bounds. "You self-sucking baby of a Keeper!" I screamed, balling my hands into fists as I strode forward. "Don't you dare laugh at me! I'll tear your throat—"

A squeaky hinge screeched; Oslo's face appeared in the window of the inner door. His hand, which rested upon the window ledge, held his whip. "Need help?" he asked Thomas politely.

Thomas shook his head, and the window shut promptly.

Thomas, I belatedly noticed, had his hand on his dagger hilt. That should have been warning enough to me to back off, but control had escaped me. I stood where I was, a yard from him, shaking with rage.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You're right, I should have asked your permission first."

"That's not good enough," I snarled. "I want your promise this won't happen again."

This was madness; my anger was all out of proportion with the offense. Since when did a guard consult with a prisoner over use of his cell, much less ask him permission? If any of my previous guards had decided to use my cell for rule-breaking activities, the first thing they would have done was ensure that, if the activities were discovered, I would be the one who took the blame for what had happened.

I had no time to analyze the source of my anger, though, for Thomas said, "I'm afraid I can promise that." Removing his hand from his dagger hilt with a nonchalance that should have been an alarm call that deafened me, he fished in his pocket for a moment before removing a sheet of paper and handing it to me.

Even before I read the words, I felt the blade of despair enter me. With the blood rapidly draining from my face, I lifted my gaze from the paper and said, "Tomorrow?"

He nodded. "I'm scheduled to report for duty at Compassion three days from now. I received permission from Mercy's Keeper to stay here through tomorrow evening, but that's all."

I stared down again at the transfer, signed by Mercy's Keeper and countersigned by Compassion's Keeper. "But your discipline lasts another week," I said blankly.

He shrugged. "My father received word that I volunteered to take the leaded whip. He read this as a sign that I now understand the need for harsh disciplining of prisoners." His lips thinned. "You know why I took the whip."

"Of course." My voice sounded hollow to my ears. "The leaded whip is deadly in unskilled hands. You're Compassion-trained. You were the guard least likely to cause Dorn permanent injury."

"The leaded whip always causes permanent injury; Dorn will have ugly scars on his back till the end of his life. But at least I ensured he was still alive afterwards."

The words cut into me, as nothing else had. He wasn't ready. I wasn't ready. Why hadn't I anticipated this would happen? Why hadn't I assumed that his discipline would be cut short and paced my plans accordingly? Everything was lost now; I was lost, imprisoned for decade after decade in a cold, dark world.

I heard myself say, with no attempt to shield my sarcasm, "Enjoy your trip back." Then I flung the paper at him.

He caught it as it was floating to the ground. He didn't seem angry at my gesture or my words. For a moment he looked at me with that familiar puzzlement, and then he said, "I'm not going back."

"Not going back?" My heart skipped several beats.

"I'm leaving service. I wasn't sure till today, but after what happened with Dorn and Harrow . . . I just can't help support this cruelty any more."

I could have fallen to my knees and kissed his dusty boots. It had all come to pass – everything I'd hoped to achieve was shining before me, and I hadn't needed to do a single thing. He'd done everything himself. Oh, had I seen such fortune since the day that the morning light fell upon Sharon's face?

It took a great deal of effort for me to keep control of myself. I reminded myself that one last task remained, and I mustn't blunder this. If I was too obvious, my plans could still tumble. "Do you think your father will accept your decision?" I asked in what I hoped was a casual voice.

"He'll have to."

I shook my head slowly, worldly-wise. "Has he ever accepted your decisions? Just imagine what it will be like: another long, drawn-out argument, painful on both sides. Except that this argument will last for months and months – perhaps years. If you thought your past arguments with him were bad, what do you think this one will be like?"

I saw his throat move as he swallowed. "You may be right. I won't remain a guard, though."

I snorted. "Do you think I'd suggest that you should? The less guards there are at the life prisons, the better off we prisoners are. All I'm suggesting is that you need to make a clean break from prison life. Remember what I said the other day about freeing yourself from your father? You need to find a way to demonstrate to him once and for all that you aren't proper material for a guard."

"But I am," he said quietly. "That's the problem."

"Because you can wield a pretty whip?" I gave a sharp laugh. "You know that's not the essence of being a guard; the essence of guard-work consists of upholding this system of bloody cattle-slaughter. A guard needs to have the desire to rape a prisoner before breakfast, beat him before lunch, and then end the day with a lengthy session of humiliation. What you need to do is prove to your father you're utterly unsuited to that type of work. You need to shock him by being too merciful to a prisoner."

He shook his head. "I already tried that. I told you, I shouldn't have helped that prisoner try to escape—"

"That was the wrong method," I said impatiently. "Of course you don't want to show mercy to a prisoner in any way that would endanger innocent people in the outside world – but you can find another way to show mercy to a prisoner, one that doesn't endanger anyone. All that you need to do is find a rule so fundamental to the existence of the life prisons that your breaking of it will convince your father that you must leave service."

I would have held my breath then, if I'd had any breath left to hold; I was panting with eagerness by now. For a moment, Thomas chewed his lower lip, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together as though he were an old-timer feeling the dice. Then he said softly, "I'll have to think about that."

I let the matter go then. I'd given him all the clues he needed. He was an intelligent young man; he could figure out the rest on his own.

o—o—o

By the following evening, I was ready to scream the prison walls down.

Thomas's failure to arrive for his usual morning visit had done nothing to heal the rawness that my nerves had undergone overnight, as I contemplated everything that could go wrong at this point. Thomas might leave early. . . . He might fail to make the necessary deductions. . . . He might not be convinced by my argument. Worst of all, it had occurred to me, in light of his behavior toward Dorn and Harrow, that he might treat my reference to "a prisoner" more broadly than I'd intended. Well, curse him, I was his charge. He'd just better remember that.

Not that I had any intention of letting him know how worried I was. When I heard the cell door clang open that evening, I didn't leap to my feet or even turn my head. I continued staring up at the ceiling as I said, "So you're off."

"I'm afraid so." He stepped into view. He was already wearing civilian clothes for his travel, and in his hands was a blanket. It was fortunate I was lying down; if I'd been standing up, my knees would have given way at sight of that blanket.

He gestured toward it awkwardly, saying, "I had to smuggle this in from the outside, but I don't think it will get you in trouble. Your next guard will assume that you had three blankets all along."

I grunted in reply. I was failing in my battle to keep from staring at the blanket.

Thomas stepped out of my view again, saying, "I'll just put it here with the others. . . . You might want to wait till after lamp-dimming to use it, in case anyone notices it and connects it with my leaving."

I grunted again. It was the only noise I could manage at this point.

He stepped back into view. Now that the blanket was out of his hands, it could be seen that, since he was not wearing his uniform, he was also not wearing his heavy belt with his dagger and whip. It said something about him that he would enter my cell unarmed. "Well," he said hesitantly, "I guess I should go. I have a long trip tomorrow."

"Mm-hmm," I said, deciding on a need to vary my responses.

He looked down at his toes for a moment, then said, "I've enjoyed getting to know you. Would you mind if I keep in touch with you by correspondence?"

I began to laugh then, so hard that I nearly rolled off the bed-shelf. I looked over at him in time to see the redness dip its way down into his neckline.

I managed to regain enough control of myself to say, "I was just – just imagining what my new guard would do if I received a friendly letter from the outside world. If I was lucky, he'd simply burn it in front of me. More likely, he'd post it in the guardroom and turn the best bits into ditties for the guards to sing."

"Oh." He gave a shy smile, looking abashed. "I hadn't thought of that; I'm sorry. It's just— Well, I'll miss you."

I shrugged. "We had our time together. Now it's over."

I was cribbing from an old love song; I hoped he didn't recognize that. Apparently he didn't, for his face fell somewhat. After a while he said, "I'd been thinking about the conversations we had about boundaries. It occurred to me . . . When you have a bunch of notes that are all jumbled together in cacophony, you don't need to bring all of them into order at once. You can start with just two or three notes, and work from there. If the initial joining of those two notes is beautiful enough, you'll have the start of a song."

"You think so?" I was trying to figure out how to end this conversation and get him out of this cell. The longer he was here, the more likelihood there was that a last-minute disaster would arise.

"Yes," he said. "It's been like that with us, hasn't it?"

For a moment more I continued to stare up at the featureless ceiling. Then I turned my head and let him see the coldness on my face. "You think so?" I said softly.

I knew that I was taking the greatest of risks at that moment. I should have kept him sweet till the end. If that meant letting him think like a three-year-old, so be it.

But the truth was that I'd gained a good deal of respect for this young man during our time together, and I hated to see him act like a fool. There are guards who spend their entire careers that way. Every time a prisoner, out of sheer self-defense, shows them some courtesy, they leap to the conclusion that this is a sign of friendship. I didn't want Thomas falling into such self-delusions.

He stood motionless, as though a blade had just entered his heart. The skin that had been red was now white. The sight would have broken my heart, if I'd had any heart left.

As it was, I went back to staring at the ceiling. After a while Thomas said in a low voice, "Yes, I thought so. Well, goodbye."

I didn't bother to grunt this time. I heard his slow step to the front of the cell, and the screech of the outer door being pulled back, then the screech of it being pulled forward again. Thomas's key rattled in the lock.

I got up onto one elbow and looked back. "Hey!"

He raised his head. The hope was bright in his eyes. "Yes?"

"Do you know who my new guard is?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Ah." I lay back down. After a while, I heard his steps fade away.

I was barely aware of him. Already he was fading from my consciousness; even the pleasure of having broken a guard was less important to me than what else I had accomplished. It was going to be very hard to wait the two hours before the lamps were dimmed.

Yet I not only managed to control myself that long, I even waited an extra half hour more, in case my eagerness should manifest itself too clearly. Then, as the cells around me began to be filled with the usual evening sounds of moans and screams, I got up slowly, and with my body drumming from the rapid beat of my heart, I walked over to the corner and knelt down.

It was just where I had hoped it would be, folded within the new blanket: my key to freedom from this place.

Thomas's dagger.