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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The other night guards were asleep. Thomas, lying in bed, stared up at the ceiling, wondering what Merrick would think if he could see his love-mate now.

It was a useless exercise in contemplation. The chances were high against Merrick ever seeing him again. Even if Thomas should be released from his duties long enough to visit the capital, Mercy's Keeper had made clear that he would never again let Thomas past the guarded entrance to his prison. There was no way to contact Merrick – no way, except through one guard there who might or might not be on his way to becoming a friend. And the words Thomas wished to speak to Merrick could not be spoken through a third party.

He nearly turned over restlessly in bed, then remembered, and stilled himself. He was still counting up his vices of the night: Weakness in dealing with the guards who were ostensibly under his control. Tentativeness in dealing with the prisoners. Lack of honesty with everyone, including the prisoner he had claimed. And as for his faithlessness to Merrick . . .

"Sir?"

Thomas turned his head. Ahiga, who had been asleep a moment before, was now propped up on his elbow, regarding Thomas with concern. At his look, Thomas felt a tightness ease within him.

Concern. He was willing to gamble that Ahiga had never felt concern for anyone in his life – perhaps not even for his victims, although the Ammippian had recognized the depths of his crime before he met Thomas. Now Ahiga was taking a step further: he was beginning to relearn the right emotions and actions that had been stripped from him in the terrible, distorted training of his childhood.

He had done so after only one day with Thomas. Ahiga was a quick learner; already he had memorized a handful of words in the tongue of Thomas's grandmother, such as "sir." But Thomas was under no delusions: Ahiga would not have learned any of this under another teacher. It was the bond built between Thomas and Ahiga that had brought the Ammippian this far.

And the bond of friendship, so tenuous between himself and the guard at Mercy? That, Thomas was less sure of. But he suspected that, in the long run, that other bond, whatever its nature, would have greater consequences – not merely for himself, but for the prisoners of Mip's life prisons.

At least that man could guess at Thomas's limitations. Thomas need not hide those from him.

Someday, perhaps, Thomas would figure out a way to make Ahiga recognize his man's frailties as a teacher. Until then – until such time as Thomas could be as honest with Ahiga as he had been with Merrick and the guard at Mercy – Thomas would have to content himself with what already lay between him and Ahiga. Not the bond between two love-mates – no, that much of himself, Thomas would reserve for the memory of Merrick. But the bond between a teacher and his lad was here, in the bed that Thomas shared with Ahiga.

He carefully tucked Ahiga's blanket around him; Thomas had not yet grown sure enough of himself and Ahiga that he could risk sharing the same blanket with his lad. All that he could offer Ahiga now was a time of bed-rest, free from the horrors of Compassion's cell. And he would give that much to Ahiga. What Ahiga gave back to him was immeasurable.

"Go to sleep, lad," he said, making his voice as soothing as his touch; then he reached over and turned out the light.

o—o—o

Keane grabbed him by the elbow, almost the moment he arrived in Mercy's guardroom. "Where have you been? Your leave ended a week ago!"

He simply looked at Keane, saying nothing, until Keane slowly, carefully released him. Then he returned to buttoning up his uniform's jacket, saying, "You couldn't handle him?"

Keane scratched his head. "I'm not sure."

He raised his eyebrows.

"I mean," Keane clarified, "he hasn't caused me any trouble. But he's been asking for you each day – almost hourly. He keeps saying that he needs something that only you can supply." Keane shrugged. "I couldn't drag it out of him. I suppose you know what it is he wants?"

He tossed Keane his civilian clothes. "Here. Hang these up."

"I'm not your—" Keane stopped abruptly, perhaps thinking better of what he was going to say. Instead he commented, "He's sleeping."

"All the better."

At that, Keane rolled his eyes. "You haven't changed in the least while you've been gone, have you?"

"Did you expect me to?" He didn't wait for an answer. Already his mind was away from Keane, toward what lay in the cell.

His prisoner was not asleep. He was sitting huddled in a corner, holding his face in his hands. He looked up and stared blankly for a moment; then he sprang to his feet. "You're back!"

He shut the cell's inner door with a bang. His prisoner grew suddenly still. He appeared to cease to breathe as he watched his guard step forward.

He waited until he was close enough to his prisoner to smell his scent; then he reached forward. The prisoner shivered under his touch.

He kept his hand cupped upon his prisoner's wet cheek. "What do you need?" he asked.

He knew the answer even before his prisoner spoke:

"You."