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Mercy's Prisoner

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Mercy's Prisoner #4
ISOLATION

The year 399, the tenth month. (The year 1894 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

"Probably all great suffering comes accompanied with a reserve of strength or with a power of resistance which may even spring from weakness, but which invests the sufferer with courage, and perhaps, too, with hope, to meet it."

—Arthur Bidwell: Bidwell's Travels from Wall Street to London Prison: Fifteen Years in Solitude (1897).

It took me some minutes to figure out that the sawbones at Mercy Life Prison was drunk.

At start, I had mind he was just afraid of me. I'm used to that. My Dad's got the sort of looks that make pit bull terriers whimper when they see him coming their way; I'm the image of him. The scar I got from my last fight – the one that landed me into prison – didn't help my looks. But my looks had helped me in the holding prison where I was stayed 'fore my trial; none of the other cons tried to mess with me. In fact, I was sent to three holding prisons, each Keeper handing me off to the next, like as an uncraved parcel.

Now I was at the last prison of all, the one I'd be at till they buried my body in quicklime.

I looked round about the sawbones' surgery, trying to judge what sort of place I'd been set in. Measuring scales, ointment pots, a bronze catheter, needles, knives, cautery irons . . . It looked just like the surgery I'd been in when I was twelve, when I was fool enough to fight the head boy of the local street-tribe with no weapon but my penknife, and my Mam had got to spend all the month's rent on getting me sewed up. You'd have had mind that would've made me wise to the rewards of behaving well, but my Dad ever been on about how I was birthed without good sense. I figured he was the smart man on such things, having spent half his life in and out of prisons.

Me, I wasn't going to make trouble at this place. That was what I'd figured out on the long, bleak night after the magistrate had tale to me that this would be my new home. It's one thing to make trouble in a district where you can move on if you get too many enemies. It's another to make trouble in a life prison where there's no place to go if the guards have mind they're not liking you.

I tried smiling at the guard who sat across the room on a sofa, reading a newsie. He gave me one long look and then paid no mind to me.

I dropped the smile and looked quick-like at the door. I'd have been running for it – I wasn't that well-behaved – but I had knowing that 'twas no use. Three sets of guards we'd passed to get this far, and three gates with nasty big locks. The guards hadn't got guns, but they looked as if they were knowing how to use their whips and daggers. And my escorting guard looked as if he was just jumping for an excuse to use his weapons. I'd met his sort 'fore.

So I'd be the model con. I straightened up from where I was sitting on the examining table while the sawbones came near on me.

He was wearing one of those funny little things that his kind ever wear in pictures in the newsies: a rubber pipe that went into both his ears and had some sort of nozzle at the other end. He put the nozzle against my bare chest, and I stayed myself from knocking his head off. I don't care for being touched, 'specially in prison. I'd caught tale of what went on in places of this kind, and I'd seen enough in the holding prisons to have knowing 'twas true.

But this sawbones, he looked as if he didn't much crave touching me either, 'cause he barely held the nozzle against my chest for a second 'fore he drew it back, tut-tutting. He turned to the table 'side me and wrote something down in a black book there. Then he frowned, crossed it out, and wrote something new. Then he crossed that out too and stared down at the book. Then he reached over and poured himself a drink from a glass bottle that was near-like empty.

That was when I came to have knowing he was drunk. His breath should have told me, I'm figuring, but I'd had mind till now that I'd just interrupted him during his morning break. The guards at the holding prisons hadn't been above sipping from a flask when their Keeper's back was turned.

Judging from the way the sawbones guzzled his drink in front of the guard, he made no secret of his drunkenness. The guard, looking bored, turned a page. He was reading Mip City's illustrated newsie, the one my Mam and Dad bought some days for the pictures, though none of our family has ever had knowing of the Mippite tongue. Why should we? Round near where we've lived in Mip City, every folk speak Vovimian – the King's tongue of Vovimian, for sure, though the King's tongue is a second language to me. I speak the Riverbend dialect of Vovimian best, that being where our family lived, back in the days when we lived in Vovim. My Mam and Dad also spoke the tongue of northwestern Vovim . . . and northeastern Vovim and north-central Vovim and southern Vovim and eastern Vovim. Our family had moved sacks of times and knew sacks of dialects. But Mippite, no – that's too close on the Yclau tongue. My Granddad had died fighting the Yclau soldiers. Our family had been willing to move to Mip, seeing like as that seems to be where all the good jobs are these days, but we weren't going to be speaking a tongue that was like the one of our enemy. Most Mippites have knowing of Vovimian, so I'd never had trouble finding someone who chatters our way. Even the magistrate had been willing to do the trial in the Vovimian tongue, when he learned I didn't have knowing of Mippite. I'd had some hope then that he was the accommodating type.

Well, I was only twenty-six. The young are often naive.

So I couldn't go and read the words of the guard's newsie, but I could be seeing the pictures, and they gave tale themselves. News from the Magisterial Republic of Mip at the top: that showed a picture of some of the members of the Mippite branch of the Commoners' Guild, shouting with joy on the streets after the courts had gone and made the guild's activities lawful. They'd been in the courtroom next to mine during their trial; I never caught tale of so much shouting back and fro in my life. It was more like as a street brawl than a trial. But the guild had come out triumphant; no longer would commoners be slung in prison for demanding their rights.

Or so the courts claimed. I – who would most like have gotten a ten-year sentence if I'd been mid-class – was more skeptical.

But anyhow, the guild might do some good work in Mip, thanks to the victory. The news from the other two lands of the Tri-Nation area was darker. Down in the bottom-left corner of the page was a photo from Mip's western and northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Vovim. The picture showed commoners grinding away in a new manufactory while their supervisors grinned nearby. Funny, I'd had mind that slavery was no longer lawful in Vovim.

The news from the Queendom of Yclau, in the bottom-right corner of the newsie, wasn't the best either. Mip's southern neighbor, which claimed to be the seed of all civilization in the world, had chosen to celebrate the Autumn Commoners' Festival by sending soldiers to beat up the Yclau branch of the Commoners' Guild. In the photo, there was a kiddie lying bleeding on the ground, her head bashed in by a passing soldier.

"Poor little lass," I muttered. "She should have someone to protect her."

The guard flicked another glance at me – this one a grimmer one, like as he suspected I was muttering curses against him – and then he gave back his attention to the newsie. I felt my chest tighten, having mind of all those poor commoners being beat over the head by the nightsticks of the soldiers. Then I came to have knowing that my chest was tightening for another reason. I was near on having another of my attacks.

I looked round, wild-like. Back in my last holding prison, one of the guards had gifted me with a cup to cough into. There was an empty cup next to the brandy bottle, within reach. I grabbed it and coughed up what was in my throat: a greenish-grey mess, with spots of red in it. The red spots had been worrying me for some days now.

I'd put from mind the sawbones. Right away, with a cry, he yanked the cup from me. I was figuring he didn't much care for having his cups messed up. He stared down at the cup and gave another cry of dismay. Dismally, I wondered if I'd gotten myself in trouble already.

The guard had put down his paper; he spoke something to the sawbones in Mippite. The sawbones turned and chattered away. I couldn't figure out any of the words he spoke, 'cept for one he gave tale to again over and over: Tibby. I wondered if that was the name of his girl. Drunks get soppy with having mind of love some days.

The guard got off his seat with great care. He walked over to where the sawbones stood and stared down at the cup. Then he looked up at me and smiled.

I didn't care for that smile. It was a cold smile, and I didn't have mind that the guard was the sort of man to smile 'cept at another man's bad luck. I held back till he was staring again at the cup, and then I looked quick-like toward the door. It might be there was another way out of this prison than the one I'd come in through.

I took only one step toward the door. I swear it. You can't blame a man for dreaming, can you? But the next thing I knew, I was doubled over, gasping for breath. My belly, it felt like 'twas going to fall out and spill all my guts onto the floor.

The guard had stepped back. Glancing up, I saw he was still smiling while he rolled up the whip he'd butted me with. He said something to me in Mippite when he hooked the whip back onto his belt. I didn't have knowing of the words, but from the way he looked at me, I figured he was giving tale of something like as, "Try that again, and I'll slit your throat."

The sawbones was ignoring all this; you might have had mind that he was used to having his patients mauled in front of him. It may be that he was. Anyhow, he set the cup careful-like inside a big glass jar. Then he screwed on the jar lid. Then he taped the lid shut. Then he put the jar inside a burlap bag. Then he tied the bag shut.

Round then, I got the notion that, whatever it was that I'd coughed up, it interested the sawbones. He took up a pen and stared at the bag. Most like, he was trying to give mind again to the alphabet of his own language. The guard, turning away from me, snatched the pen from the sawbones' hand and scribbled something in Mippite on the bag. The guard had tale of something to the sawbones, and I could tell that the sawbones wasn't much liking what the guard was speaking. But after a minute or three, the sawbones shrugged and put the bag inside a crate nearby, with straw in it. Then he hammered the crate shut and stuck something on the top of the crate. Postage stamps, it seemed like as. Once again, 'twas the guard who scribbled the label.

Then the guard grabbed another of the cups from the table – this one still had a bit of brandy left in it – and thrust it into my hand. He was glaring at me, like as though he didn't much care for having to gift me. Grabbing my arm, he drew me from the room.

I looked round the moment we got out, like as any folk could figure. I was knowing enough of prisons to guess that this was my last chance. But those drilling guards with their drilling whips and daggers were yet standing where they'd been 'fore, staying eye on me, like as I was a dangerous dog. So I'd got to let my escort draw me up the stairs.

I was panting by the time we got to the level he was aiming for. I just didn't seem to have much energy left, ever since I got this bad cold, back in the first holding prison I was stuck in. A dank place my cell had been, cold and musty. My Mam, she had ever insisted that our family live in tenements with big windows and sacks of sunlight. It took some walking round to find places of that kind, but my Mam was sure that fresh air and sunlight was healthy for us kiddies. Seems she was right.

The guard, he took no note of my panting, for sure. He was drawing me into the darkest place I'd been ever during my time in prison. The level I was on now, it was all in a circle. There was a big black pit in the middle of it that held ashes but no fire. There wasn't any stoves round either, just a lamp or three hanging from the wall. No windows. All round the circling wall were cell doors, solid like a fist. I could catch tale of some folk or another sobbing from inside one of the cells.

The guard took no note of that, like as any folk could figure. He'd drawn out a set of keys and was opening a cell door with one hand while holding tight to me with the other. I opened my mouth to give tale to something, I don't have knowing of what, but at that moment my chest 'gan to rack with coughs.

His face screwed up with disgust. He spoke something that sounded like a curse and flung me into the cell. The door slammed shut 'hind me, and I was left in darkness.

o—o—o

All darkness; there wasn't a single lamp in my cell, and the door 'hind me was solid, with no grate. I stood a moment, drawing this in; then I turned and beat the door, calling the guard every filthy name I could have mind of.

He shaped no say-back. I was figuring he had already gone away. After a time, I got tired of hurting my fists; I leaned onto the door and tried to draw back my mind to what my situation was.

My new cell, 'twas cold and damp and musty like as the one back at the holding prison. It had a nasty, sickly-sweet scent to it that made me have mind of my gram in her dying days. 'Side from the very faint rasp of the other con sobbing in his cell, the only sound I could catch tale of was a trickle of liquid.

I followed the sound, groping my way along the stone wall to the left of the door. Almost right away, I bloodied my shins on something hard. Swallowing curses, I leaned over and felt what I'd bumped into. Some sort of shelf shaped of the same rocky material like as the cell, I had mind.

Then I came to have knowing what 'twas, with a right-away thump of the heart: a bed. There were blankets on it, shaped of scratchy wool. No sheets, no pillows – just blankets and that rock-hard shelf.

"Gods of the fields, this is a dungeon of torture," I muttered to myself. 'Twasn't as if I'd been figuring on a feather mattress; the bunks in the holding prisons had abided me awake at night with their lumps. But here I was to have nothing but a cold, hard shelf to sleep on for the lasting of my life?

Trying to pay no mind to the throbbing hurt in my bloodied shins, I stayed on groping my way forward. At the end, I reached the far wall, which was seeming to be wider than the wall where the door was set. Having mind on this, I came to be knowing that this shaped sense, for the outside walls of the prison were all in a circle, bigger than the circle of floor I'd gone and seen when I first entered this level. I traced patterns of geometry for a time – I'd got no schooling, 'cept my letters and numbers, but my Dad, he's a woodworker's helper by trade, so he taught me a bit of figures. A trapezoid – that was the name for the shape of my cell.

Then I put down that minding and started the first act of finding that liquid. 'Twas simple. The liquid, 'twas trickling down the center of the far wall, like as water melts from an icicle. I dabbed at it, tender-like, with my finger. The liquid was cold. I licked it off my finger.

Water. I had water, at least. I'd not be dying of thirst.

I have mind 'twas then that I figured I'd draw no more help. Not from that guard who'd smiled when he punched me with his whip handle – he'd not lift a finger to help even a dying man. Nay, I'd just have got to hope that another guard yielded me food and that I'd be able to find a way to have tale with him when he drew my food into the cell. There must be other guards in this place who were knowing Vovimian?

I wet my finger again and licked it. Then, impatient-like, I set my tongue against the tiny waterfall, letting my mouth fill with the rich drops. After, I was cleaning my face, wetting the handkerchief that had come with my new prison uniform.

I felt better then. Mam, she has ever given tale to that, if you abide clean, half the battle in life is won. Whatever else I did in this place, I swore to the gods, I would abide clean. I'd not let myself grow to be one of those filthy men that Mam has been ever ashamed of.

o—o—o

Took me a time to explore the rest of my cell. I was in no hurry. I was already figuring I'd not be getting visitors.

Aside from the stony shelf for sleeping and the trickling water, there was only one other object in the cell that seemed useful: a shallow pit with a lid.

I could figure what that was for. 'Twas a relief, knowing I'd not got to put up with the stench from night buckets any more. At least, 'twas a relief till I went and discovered that the hole at the bottom of the pit was clogged, and I started the first act at figuring out who'd be doing the digging out the pit.

After a few hours – I figure 'twas hours, though 'twas feeling like as days – supper came. A little panel in the door clicked open wide enough that a tray slid through. I went and stumbled to my feet, calling out to the guard. Whosoever he was, he went and paid no mind to me. The tray was lasting at the panel for a time, letting in a slit of light; then the tray, it just dropped to the ground. I had got to find the fallen things by grubbing round on my hands and knees, groping. The coffee, it had seeped into the cracks of the flagstones.

By that time, I was in a bad way. I ever was, these days, in the evenings. I'd felt scorching hot for the last few hours, and my chest, 'twas hurting real smart. My heart was all a-flutter, like as a bird trying to escape my rib-cage. And then there was the ever-there coughing. My chest was feeling worse when I coughed.

'Tween the hurt and the fever, I wasn't much liking to munch, but Mam ever gave tale that we mustn't be wasting food, so I forced myself to munch the tater and beans, though they were filthy from rolling in the dirt. Then I'm sitting on the cold ground and trying to have mind of things to do, to stay from going mad.

Me, I'd met cons 'fore who'd spent time in isolation. They ever had a wide-eyed look to them when they came out. And those were men who'd only been shut away alone for a day or a week. What would fall to me while week by week was going by? What would fall to my mind?

"Whatever troubles you find yourself in," Mam was once giving tale, "you'll ever find a way out. You just got to keep on."

Dad, like as ever, had been more to the point: "Use your thick head, lad."

Using that thick head now, I went and figured I got to find way to stay myself busy, till I could find out a way to break out of this Hell-hole. Games? My Dad was ever a good man for a dice game. I'd got no dice, but I could be figuring dice in my head, aye? Me, I could roll random numbers, and I could play myself a turn or three. Or thirty. Or thirty thousand. . . .

'Twas then that I was catching tale of the first knock.

o—o—o

'Twas coming from one of the long walls – a wall 'side another of the cells. First there comes a knock, then a soft tap, and at least a screech, like as though some folk was dragging a stone along the stone wall.

Then there was this pause, and then the sounds gave tale again. Knock, tap, screech. Knock, tap, screech. Knock, tap, screech.

I went and caught tale of them for a time, having mind. The sounds, they weren't regular. So they were being created by a person, not a machine. Another con?

At last I went and crouched down 'side the wall where those sounds were coming from. Taking my meal-spoon in hand, I tapped the wall.

The sounds from the other cell, they stopped right away. When they were coming again, they were all urgent-like. Knock-tap-screech, knock-tap-screech.

Knock-tap-screech, I said back with my spoon. Came from that a series of rapid taps from the other side of the wall.

Then 'twas 'ginning again, slower this time: Knock tap screech. Knock tap screech.

I bit my lip, trying to have mind. The sounds, they were plain-like a try at chatter. It may be the other con was in isolation too, and was desperate to find some folk to give tale to. But what kind of chatter could be done through the sound of rocks?

"Hoi!" I shouted, loud as it may be.

There wasn't any break to the knocking. I'm figuring the walls here were too thick to let voices through; only thing they would let through is the vibration from knocking on the wall.

Knocking and tapping and screeching. Three sounds. Why three sounds? Why not one?

It came to me at last. Mam ever gave tale that I got a good mind. Dad, he was on about how I'd run a question ragged, till I was finding the answer.

Three sounds. Just like as the three colors of the heliograph code. Each sound must match one of the colors: red, blue, green. The other con, he was trying to chatter through heliograph code.

That man, he was smart. Only problem was, I didn't have knowing of the heliograph code.

After having mind a time, at last I used my spoon again: Knock tap screech. Knock screech tap. Screech tap knock. Screech knock tap. Tap screech knock. Tap knock screech.

I paused then. For a bit, there was no say-back. Then: Screech. Screech-knock. Screech-tap. Screech-screech. Screech-knock-knock. . . .

'Twas going on that way for a time. I went and counted the number of ways he did it, all careful-like. Me, I wasn't surprised when the number were turning out to equal the number of letters in the alphabet.

So much for dice. I'd got a real interesting game to be giving play to now.

o—o—o

'Twas luck in my path I was able to stay busy my mind in being learned the heliograph code, 'cause life, it just went on being plain awful.

Nights were being the worst. At nights, my chest would ache, and I would cough over and over, and I'd sweat through my clothes, which left me bone-chilled in a freezing cell. I wasn't getting much sleep. And when I went and rose in the morn, I ever had trouble moving my bowels.

'Twas 'coming plain that the sawbones was right in figuring I had a bad sickness. Having been learned the heliograph code well enough to chatter, I went and asked my new mate what sort of sickness I might have got.

"He gave tale it was tibby," I went and knocked and tapped and screeched.

"TB," my mate said back. "Tuberculosis."

My chest was hurting worse than ever, then. "Consumption? I got consumption?"

"Poor appetite? Fever? Cough? Night sweats? Better count your days." He was ever straightforward of that kind, my mate.

I went and spent a long time having mind, after that. Consumption. I got consumption. I would die.

Consumption, it doesn't kill all the time, I'd been catching tale – not if you were rich, not if you had the money to go to a bright and airy sanatorium, with nurses hovering over you.

Me, I was locked in a dark prison cell with no windows. I'd die here.

But I'd have gone and died anyhow, aye? I was in a life prison. All of the cons, they died here. No point in feeling all sorry for myself, just 'cause I was going to be dying sooner than most other cons. It may be I wasn't the only con treated this way.

The next day, I went and asked my mate, "Are you sick too?"

"You could say that." He had a way of giving tale, through his knocks and taps and screeches, when he was amused.

"Can I do anything for you?" Chances were, I couldn't, but 'twas seeming polite to yield him the words. It may be that would make him feel good, to have knowing that some folk cared if he was well.

There was a long silence. At last he went and coded, "Perhaps." And then silence after that.

o—o—o

I couldn't draw anything more out of him on that subject. That was all right. Me, I had sacks of other things to worry of.

After the first day, I'd been learned to be on hand to grab the food tray whensoever 'twas shoved through. I'd also been learned – at the cost of several missed meals – that if I didn't give back my food tray when the slot in the door opened, I'd not draw my next meal. By the time I went and worked that out, I'd gotten a nice stash of bowls and cups and spoons. I went and figured I'd stay them. I was coming to have knowing that I got to get every weapon I could in my battle for surviving.

The guard who yielded me my meals never spoke, no matter how many times I yielded greetings to him. One time I tried drawing my hand through the door-slot when the slot was opening, so that I could peer through and see who was yielding my food. I drew a vicious bang on the hand for that, which was leading me to figure I'd still got the same guard who'd put me here at the start. So I went and gave up hope of help from him.

The waste-pit was growing to be a problem; 'twas full to overflowing. Using a spoon, I went and scooped out some of what it contained into an empty bowl. Next time my meal came, I tried shoving that bowl through the slot. To my surprise, the guard drew back the bowl. I felt a victor after that, having figured out a solving to one of my problems. I felt even more a victor when, on some feast day that I'd lost track of, I was given a withered old corncob with my meal. I went and saved the cob; 'twas real handy for cleaning myself, after I'd used the pit.

My prison uniform was being another problem; it stank from my night-sweats. Rummaging round, I went and found a second uniform in a pile of blankets under the bed-shelf. After having mind for a time, I filled one of the bowls I'd stayed with the cold water trickling down the wall. Then I went and wiped myself clean, using the handkerchiefs that came with the uniform. After having mind a bit more, I tried shoving the first uniform through the slot at meal-time.

'Twas taken. 'Twas given back to me the following morn, all fresh and clean.

I'd got to laugh then. Me, I was going to die in this dark, dank place, but at least I'd do so in a manner that would make Mam proud: I was wearing clean clothes.

After that, I took sacks of care to abide clean. My uniform, I figured from trial and error, was only cleaned once a week, so I would spend my days cleaning it like as best I could by hand, with the aid of the bowl, handkerchief, and water.

'Twas helping to pass the time. Not much else did.

o—o—o

All this while, I looked forward to my three-times-a-day chatters with my heliograph-mate.

We ever gave tale to each just after the meals were yielded. I figure he had knowing that those were the only times of the day when he could be sure I was awake; I'd let slip, early on, that I was so tired out now from the consumption that I was drawing naps in the daytime. After meals, we'd be on for a bit, and then he'd end the chatter right away.

He'd not give tale to anything of himself, not even his name, but I picked up a little about him. He knew the King's tongue – that was why we could give tale to each other – but 'twasn't his native language. He'd been on the lower levels of the prison 'fore he was sent to the infirmary level – "for my sins," was how he put it.

I didn't quiz him on what "sinful" sickness he'd got; nor on what crime he had done. A man has a right to his privacy. Nor did he ask any questions of me. Instead, we gave tale of little things we missed from the outside world: footer games in the streets, dice games in smoke-filled salons, my Mam's cooking and gentle scolding. 'Twas plain enough that he came from the same world I did, though he'd been learned to speak posh.

'Hind all the chatter of stick-ball and Mam's tidy tables and the boxing games at the Young Men's Rebirth Association, I kept on remembering that "Perhaps" he'd once said. He stayed hinting at some great, unmet necessity in my life.

I drew it out of him at the end, through patient questions and reassurances that I'd stay mute of this.

Seemed that, 'fore he'd been sent upstairs to this level, he'd been recruited by cons downstairs to join an Alliance. A dangerous Alliance, aimed at ending the abuse by guards in the prison. Turned out my oh-so-friendly guard wasn't the only vicious man at Mercy; there were sacks of guards of that kind. After catching tale to what things were like for cons on the other levels, I had mind that luck was in my path that my sickness stayed my own guard from visiting me late at night.

"That's Sedgewick," my mate gave tale when I described what fell on my first day at Mercy. "He's the worst guard in the prison – everyone agrees about that. But he's not the only bad one. The bad ones, they imitate one another – egg one another on by competing to see who can commit the worse abuse."

"So what do you and your Alliance do?" I asked curious-like, figuring guards going and having their throats slit.

I could catch tale of the amusement in his say-back. "Those of us who keep the Boundaries provide an alternative model."

'Twas plain enough, once he gave explanation of it. The cons in his group took a vow – a sacred oath, vowed to whatsoever the cons held most high. The con promised that, no matter how much the vicious guards deserved it, the cons would not use unlawful violence against the guards. They would have battle against the guards – oh, they had sacks of ways of having battle against the guards, like as a lawsuit against the prison's Keeper – but they'd not battle the guards by breaking the law.

"If we ever fight the guards with fists and weapons," my mate gave tale at the end, "it will be because higher authorities, like the magistrates, have given us permission to do so. Then violence will be lawful. Until then, we fight the abusive guards with the weapon of our own model behavior. We shame them by behaving better than they do."

Don't have knowing why his vision caught me all on fire. It may be 'twas 'cause I figured I'd not got many months stayed in my life. My cough was drawing worse, I was starting the first act to vomiting in the daytime, and I was drawing fits at night. Whatsoever was stayed of my life, I craved to spend it well.

Mam would have craved that. So would Dad, in his own way. "If you got to go down," were the last words he'd given tale to me, the night 'fore my trial, "then go down having battle, lad. Show them that they can't beat you."

Dad had meant I should have battle at them with fists and weapons. But Mam had ever had her own way of battling, and Dad loved her for it. It may be 'twas time for me to be learned to have battle the way Mam did.

o—o—o

Turned out, my mate craved me to give my oath in person, palm to palm, in the way that Mippites shape their oaths.

"How you going to manage that?" I asked, more than a little thrown off.

"I'll manage it," he said back. "You be ready. Be sure this is what you want to do. Be absolutely sure. You'll be tested."

I could figure what he meant. Every day, the days got colder, and the hurt I was feeling got worse. It 'came harder and harder not to scream at my guard when he yielded my meals – to stay myself from reaching through the slot and grabbing his collar and throttling him.

That was the test. Could I stay my oath? Even while death came near on me?

"I crave to help the other cons," I had my mate know. And I did. I could catch tale of them sometimes faint-like, through my thick door: they screamed from the hurt of their sicknesses, or pleaded to be let out. If all of us who stayed the Boundaries did our work proper-like, it may be some day the cons who got struck down by death-sickness wouldn't be locked away in dark cells to hurt alone. It may be they would be treated decent-like, the way any dying man should.

It may be. I'd be long dead by then, I figured. But at least I'd die having done my part, and knowing that my Mam and Dad would have been proud of me if they'd known of it.

"I'm up to it," I gave tale to my mate that day.

He yielded me his rules then. I was to hold for my meal to come. Two minutes after the coming of the meal, my cell door would be unlocked. I was to go next door – his door would also be unlocked. I'd yield my oath and come back to my cell, where I'd be locked in again.

I didn't ask how he was going to do all this. I was too excited at having mind of being let out of my cell. Oh, I'd come back to the cell almost right away; if I tried to run away, I'd wreck everything that me and my mate were working for. But for a time, just a little time, I'd be free of this dank, stinking cell.

It all fell, just like as he gave tale. The meal came; there was silence; and then the lock on my door clicked quiet-like. I held a minute – that was part of my mate's rules too – and then I opened the door cautious-like.

The light blinded me. 'Twas just a little light – there was no fire in the pit here – but the light leaking in from the stairwell was more than I'd seen for weeks. Closing my eyes, I groped my way to the cell next to me, opened the heavy door, stepped in, closed the door 'hind me, and held for my eyes to grow used to it.

So my nose had time to give tale to me that my surroundings were strange.

I smelled tobacco. The faintest, lingering traces of tobacco, and the mouth-watering scent of meat. There was a smell of flowers too. And leather. From a belt? Or a weapon?

I opened my eyes.

The leather smell came from books. They lined a small bookcase which was topped with a crystal vase filled with fall flowers. Near on to them were several chairs and sofas, all well-stuffed and covered with bright fabric. There were pictures on the walls. And hanging from a wooden hook was a dark blue jacket and a dark blue cap.

This was no cell. This was a guardroom.

A guard was standing there, near on the wall. He had hold in his hand what was seeming like as a paperweight, 'cept that 'twas chipped on one edge. He smiled at me. While I kept eye on him, he struck the wall: screech knock screech, screech, knock screech screech, screech tap tap, knock knock knock.

He heliographed my name, Gavin. Sedgewick, the vicious guard who had stayed me here, had been the one who'd been heliographing me, all these weeks.

I felt hotness of heart sweep through me, like as a fever. I didn't yet having knowing of Sedgewick's reason for fooling me. It may be he craved to lure me into giving oath to join that imaginary Alliance to have battle with guards, so that he could punish me. It may be he just craved to raise my hopes so that he could crush them.

All I had knowing of was that he was amused. He'd got on his face that smile, that vicious smile, I'd seen on the first day of my coming to Mercy Life Prison.

I should have recognized that same smile in the words he had heliographed to me.

"Are you going to attack me?" His smile never wavered while he gave tale. He had a whip at his belt, after all; he could beat me into submission. But not till I got a few punches in; not till I beat that smirk off his face—

"Nay," I gave tale.

Some days I surprise myself. Like the day I killed a man, and the day I gave my Mam flowers for no reason, and today, the day I had mind to stay the Boundaries of Behavior. It didn't matter that nobody else in the prison was staying them. Everything that Sedgewick had given tale to was true, even if he hadn't come to know it. The only way to have battle against him and other abusive guards was by being more good than them. By being the man my Mam had ever craved me to be.

I don't have knowing of how much of this showed in my face. A lot of it, I'm figuring, 'cause his smile right-away disappeared. He put down the paperweight on the bookshelf and walked toward me. I braced myself. Whatsoever fell was going to be bad, and 'twas going to take all my guts not to have battle back with my fists. But Dad had ever been on about how I was the scrappiest battler in all our neighborhood. I'd been learned a new way to have battle, and I'd best learn myself quick-like how to be skilled at it.

"Good." Sedgewick stopped in front of me, close enough to grab me – or close enough for me to spread my consumption to him by coughing in his face. I stayed my mouth closed.

"Good," he gave tale again. "Because the Alliance needs you. We need you very much."

And he took my sick hand in his own and shaped his oath to me, palm to palm.