I don't know why I failed to use the blade immediately.
It could not have been out of any doubts as to how to use it. The days were long gone since I'd held newbie notions of stealing a guard's dagger and using it to threaten my way past the guards holding the gates to the outside world. The first guard to sight a prisoner with a weapon would let out an alarm call so loud that he'd have the sixth-level guards scrambling down the stairs to help. And then would come the leaded whip. It would be just my luck if they called Thomas back for a repeat performance.
Nor did my hesitation lie in uncertainty as to which technique to use. Although the idea of self-murder had never appealed to me in the old days, I had thought of little else since I realized the impossibility of escape from Mercy by any other means. Any apprehension I had held about stepping into the unknown that was beyond life had disappeared by the second week of my first guard. Nor had I ever needed to worry about pain: I had worked out the most painless methods of slaughter at the time of Sharon. All I had lacked till today was the means to my end, and now I had it.
Logic told me that I should act at once. Every hour's delay increased the chance that I would be discovered with Thomas's dagger and would face the consequences. What held me back, I think, was something I ought to have anticipated.
It was so very sweet to have a dagger in my hand again.
I lay in my bed, curled around the blade, imagining what it would be like to use it, as I had imagined it in the year preceding Sharon's death. The sweetness had a certain poignancy about it this time, as I realized that this might be the only pleasure I received from the act. In the moment that I plunged the blade in, would I retain enough awareness to feel what I had ten years before? If not, then this pleasure now, in the anticipation, was all that I could expect to be gifted with.
Thoughts of who had given me this gift never entered my mind; that part of my life was over. Instead, I fell asleep, drawn back to an older, happier time.
She came into my dreams as she always did, singing.
She was crouched down on the ground, tugging at a flower stubbornly determined to cling to life, and humming a throaty melody that was of her own making. She was a sight to behold: her hair was golden-red and fell in curls that half-hid her face, but at the moment her hair looked brown because the early morning sky was overcast. I thought it was a shame. The bright flowers deserved better treatment today, as did she.
She finally managed to loosen the flower from its roots and scrambled to her feet, holding the flower out to me, dirty roots and all. "Here!" she said.
I took the offering from her and added it to the pile of silken-petalled flowers in the wicker basket I held for her. For a moment we smiled at each other, two fellow laborers satisfied with a job well done. Then she looked back over her shoulder at the small white house in the distance, surrounded by barns. No smoke travelled through the chimney yet; its inhabitants were still asleep.
"We should go back," she said uncertainly. At times like this she most nearly resembled her father, a rough but shy man whom I much liked. The part of her that was my sister, though, was always near to the surface.
"There's no hurry," I said. "They know where we are, thanks to you."
She grinned then, pleased with her contribution of a note that I had shown her how to write, letter by painful letter. With the help of that note, all searches for her would go far astray of her actual location. Days would pass before she was found.
Where we actually were was the glade. The very word made my heart beat faster, so often had I built my plans for this place. It was darker here than I'd anticipated, but everything else was right: the soft green moss sparkling with dew, the brook singing nearby, the birds warbling in the trees. A beautiful resting place.
"I want Mommy to see the flowers when she wakes up," argued Sharon. A little of her mother was surfacing now, though kept in check by the hesitancy she inherited from her father.
"All right," I said agreeably. "Would you like to carry the flowers on the way back?"
Eagerly she stretched out her hands, and I placed the heavy basket in them. As anyone might have anticipated – and indeed, I had anticipated this quite carefully – the basket fell, tipping as it turned in the air, and spilling the flowers around her feet.
"Oh!" cried Sharon, staring down at the gaily colored blossoms with the anguish of a housewife met with an unexpected domestic emergency. She looked up at me. I was standing but a yard from her now, feeling uncertainty race through me.
Perhaps that reflected itself in my face, for at that moment my sister's heritage took hold of Sharon. She frowned, folded her arms, and stamped her foot, crushing several blossoms in the process. "Don't stand useless!" she cried. "Do something!"
"All right," I said. I knelt down, took the dagger from out of my shirt, and stabbed her.
She made no cry – I was pleased with that. I had not wanted to hurt her or even to scare her. All I wanted was what I received now: the image of her body stiffening, her face turning up in shock, and then – oh, so glorious! – her body crumpling, falling into the bed of flowers I had prepared for her.
It was so close to my dreams I could have wept. But fortune had not finished with me, for at that moment, the sun came out.
It fell through a break in the leaves, directly onto Sharon. There she lay, among the flowers shining in multi-colored splendor, the dagger hilt sticking out from her chest with no more than a single trickle of blood staining her white dress. Her curls glowed about her face like burnished bronze, and in her eyes remained the expression of shock I had seen before.
Tears began to roll down my face. I sank down onto my haunches beside the girl, feeling wave after wave of sweetness enter into me, a feeling that made all the sweetness of the weeks of planning seem dull by comparison. I pushed the locks back from her forehead with a trembling hand, and as I did so, the sweetness of the death was joined by an overwhelming sensation of love and gratitude toward the one who had given me this.
"You are beautiful," I whispered to her. "So very beautiful." And I bent down to kiss her forehead. Above us, a lark trilled out its heart.
It was at that moment – the supreme moment in my memories, when I would awaken with a sigh and a smile – that the dream took an unexpected turn.
A heavy weight fell upon my back, and with it came pain – pain greater than I had ever known, beating upon my skin and my muscles and my very bones. I had gone blind – something was tied over my eyes – and I could not move my limbs, for they were held in icy bonds. My whole body, which a moment before had been bathed in warmth, was now chill and shaking, and I could barely breathe because of the weight upon me.
The weight shifted, pounding me over and over. I began to realize that the greatest pain was taking place within me – a harsh, scraping sensation. I screamed.
Hot breath burned my ear; it was accompanied by a chuckle. "You'll get used to this," a voice said.
And then the scene shifted. The weight was still upon me, and I still lay in darkness, but no longer was I bound and blindfolded. I lay this way voluntarily, not struggling against my captor, but accepting with closed eyes and dull resignation all that he did to me. A voice breathed into my ear, "Ah, that was nice. . . . I'm sorry this won't happen again."
And then I awoke, racked with sobs, my hands still clutching the hilt of the naked dagger.
It took me a long while to get my weeping under control. I could hear the sound of my sobs echoing in the fire-pit area, but no one came to investigate. . . naturally. Crying prisoners are a nightly tedium at Mercy. By the time I had managed to control my moist, shaking mass of a body, I was aware that it must now be late at night, for few sounds could be heard coming from the other cells. The rapes were over for the night; the prisoners slept on in their pain and their nightmares.
Except that I had never slept in nightmares. To me, sleep had always been a delicious haven of retreat from Mercy. Why, tonight of all nights, had that haven been closed to me?
I wiped the tears from my face, trying to analyze the meaning of my dream. Of its source there could be no doubt. The first voice in the dream was my first guard, speaking on the night of my arrival at Mercy. It had taken him dagger, whip, chains, and the help of two fellow guards to subdue me. By the time the rape actually occurred, I was bleeding and broken in so many portions of my body that I barely noticed when he entered me.
I had pushed that memory away long ago, or so I had thought. Yet there was his voice again, saying, "You'll get used to this."
I had gotten used to it, I realized slowly. Not simply to the nightly rapes to which the guard referred, but to the old dream that had once been so fresh. For ten years I had relived it over and over: the only time in my life when I had truly felt happiness. It was a wonder that it had not grown stale to me before. If a man has no memory of lovemaking except for a single night, won't he eventually grow weary of replaying the same memory over and over? I was a man who had fulfilled my appetite only once, and now the memory was no longer sweet. It had been nice, but it wouldn't happen again.
It was unfair, so utterly unfair. Only one night more, and I'd be free of this place – was it too much to ask that my final night be filled with pleasant thoughts, not with memories of the pain I'd undergone since then? I couldn't even feel any sweetness now from my upcoming death. I remembered Sharon's look of shock, with nothing following it. It would be the same with me; I would feel death, but none of death's sweetness.
All that was left to me now was the cold darkness of Mercy, and I felt myself rage against it.
And then I became aware that my cell was a little colder than I might have expected, and a little darker.
I jerked up in bed, turning to look at the barred door. I couldn't see it; it was hidden by the closed inner door. Standing in front of the inner door was a man.
It was not my new guard; that screaming nightmare vanished as I saw the slight build of the unarmed man. Thomas's face was directly in the light falling from the window above, but my eyes were too dazzled by the darkness to be able to see his expression.
I could read the hesitancy in his voice, though, as he said, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to startle you. I thought I heard you—"
"Not at all," I said, smiling as I rose. Fortune had been kind to me twice, it seemed. This was like the sun falling upon Sharon's face.
He began to speak as I turned my steps toward him; then his voice turned abruptly into a jerk of breath. He had seen the dagger in my hand.
I walked forward, shifting the dagger so that it was in the right position. No well-trained guard could have mistaken my movement; this one surely did not. But he did not call out for the other guards. I had known that he would not. This was going to be sweet – oh, so very sweet. All I needed was this to carry me over into my final act.
I was close to him now, close enough to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the quick beat of blood in one of the veins in his throat. I felt a faint regret at that. I had managed to kill Sharon so swiftly that she had not had time to fear me; it ought to have been the same here. No matter, I would put that to rights as soon as I could. I came up against him and drew the dagger back.
I had made my decision by then. I knew that afterwards. The dagger would have taken the same path, whether or not I had looked at his face at that moment. All that my viewing revealed to me was the full extent to which I had been wrong about what had been taking place in this cell for these past seven weeks.
For a moment I merely stared, hearing the soft trickle of water down the wall behind me, the hiss of flames from the fire-pit outside, and the moans from a prisoner whose guard had stopped by his cell with thoughts of service in mind. Then I said, "Just to slake my curiosity: When did you learn to play dice?"
For a moment, his eyes remained cool. Then the coolness dissipated, like dew on the morning ground, and the edge of Thomas's mouth lifted. "When I was five. My father taught me."
I had to turn swiftly then in order to muffle my mouth against my arm, else the sound of my roar would have brought the night watch running to see what was amiss. Sobs are common at Mercy. Laughter is not.
You will be wondering, I'm sure, why I wasn't angry. But indeed, anger had boiled within me . . . the previous day, when I first realized how this song would end. There had been that moment when the cell door opened and Sedgewick bore in Dorn – Sedgewick, my first guard, who was the most vicious man I had ever met. A man with a matchless and pitiless talent for tormenting prisoners . . . If Thomas's simple request could persuade a man like that to risk discipline for the sake of a prisoner, then all was lost. Part of me had known from that moment that I was fighting a man much too skilled to defeat.
The rage had come then. Now, as the slower part of me finally acknowledged the truth, time enough had passed for me to see the humor of this.
"I'll bet you've cleared every guard at Compassion of his earnings," I said finally, wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. "Thanks for letting me think I was winning half the time."
He grinned but said nothing. He simply put out his hand palm-up.
I handed him the dagger, saying, "Your stakes were too high."
"Not really," he replied, sheathing his dagger. The very presence of his uniform ought to have warned me before that he was still giving me service. "I knew that you'd make the right decision this time."
He spoke with the relaxed contentment of a man who has just given his beloved satisfactory service in bed, but the blood in his vein was only just now beginning to slow its pace. His fear of me had been real, then, if nothing else had. The faint regret I had felt before deepened into guilt.
In so quiet a manner is a new emotion born. It would not be till later that I identified this as the moment of turning.
Now, I simply repeated, "Your stakes were too high. Even if I hadn't murdered you or myself, I might have betrayed you to Mercy's Keeper in order to gain something. You must find ways to help prisoners that won't risk you losing your guard-work. You'll never make it to the rank of Keeper at this rate."
He shook his head. "I didn't lie to you about that. I'm really leaving service."
I felt a warmth enter me then, a rising warmth like the morning sun. So he did not in fact know all that had been taking place here for the past seven weeks. That was a relief. I had begun to think that my role in this ballad would be confined to standing useless.
Placing my hand against the inner door, I leaned toward Thomas and saw the first sign of uncertainty enter his eyes. I did not move back. "No, you aren't," I told him firmly. "You're going to go back to Compassion and give your father that speech about doing guard-work in the way you yourself see fit. Then you're going to do what you've done here at Mercy: you'll impress Compassion's guards with your skill to such an extent that you'll begin to civilize some of them. And then, when the day comes that you're made Keeper, you'll change your life prison into a place that offers its prisoners service, not unending pain."
"But . . ."
I suppose I ought to have let him offer his arguments. He was still very young; he still found it easiest to reach conclusions with the help of others. But he was capable of travelling the hard road to this conclusion on his own – he had wielded the leaded whip for Dorn's sake. And there was still one service I could do for him, if we didn't waste what time was left.
I smothered his reply with a kiss.
His expression, when I finally drew back, was a sight to behold. It caused me to conclude that there were more pleasant pastimes at Mercy than breaking a guard. With the sweetness beginning to sing through me, I reached up and touched his cheek, smiling at him.
"Never argue with one who loves you," I said softly.
Then I stepped back, releasing all but his hand, which I held lightly. After a minute's hesitation, he let me lead him to my bed, and there I set out to give the young man what he needed to break free of his father.