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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER FOUR

Locating the right prisoner in the infirmary turned out to be easy. All that Ulick had to do was visit the fifth level at a time when it was empty of all guards, knock on each cell door, make a quiet enquiry in the three languages he knew, and harden his heart against the entreaties for release.

He had heard many such supplications during his years as a guard, of course. Most of them came from men who would have had no hesitation in returning to their criminal ways if released. Ulick found, however, that it was different to listen to pleas from men gasping so hoarsely that their voices were little more than a death rattle. It was yet another level of difference to listen to pleas from a prisoner who barely managed to stop his endless screams of pain.

The cell that Ulick had been seeking was quiet. The man behind the door did not plead for release; indeed, he seemed reluctant to speak at all. He confirmed, however, that he had communicated with another guard since his arrival on the fifth level. With even greater hesitation, he supplied the name.

Ulick's first impression, upon slipping into the prisoner's cell, was that he had just walked into a packing factory that dealt in month-old meat. The air stank so much that Ulick immediately placed his handkerchief over his mouth and nose. The room was also completely dark; the cell's only door was solid, with no opening except for a hinged panel that was currently locked from the outside. The sole light in the cell – and the sole source of air, it seemed – came from the slender gap between the floor and the door.

"You should have drawn a lamp into this cell." The prisoner's voice was reassuringly far away.

"Is your lamp not working?" Ulick asked. His left hand was keeping the handkerchief over his face, while his right drew his blade, in case he should need it. He wondered whether he should reopen the door to let in more light – and perhaps some fresh air – but dismissed the idea. No doubt the prisoner was hoping for that, and would try to make his escape when that happened.

Besides, there was always the chance that Sedgewick would walk past the fifth level.

"Lamp?" The prisoner sounded amused.

Ulick was silent a moment, weighing the statement against what he already knew about Mercy Prison. Then he put his handkerchief-covered hand behind him, groped for the door handle, and opened the door wide.

The prisoner was at the far end of the cell. He was a big man, northwestern Vovimian in ancestry by the looks of him, but his accent had already revealed that he came from the Riverbend district of Vovim's capital, where many commoners settled. He was clutching a tin cup in his hand.

His tallness was not matched by bulk. "The wasting disease," they called it, and Ulick, without having to ask, could guess that this man had tuberculosis. Ulick recognized the signs, for his niece had died of the disease at age eight. Any class might be afflicted by TB, though commoners, living in their crowded tenements, were the group most likely to catch the contagion. Commoners and prisoners.

Bones sticking out from flesh that had wasted away, the shine of fever on the forehead, a rasping breath, and in the next moment, a cough that racked the prisoner's body. Ulick wondered how far along he was in the disease.

However far he was, this wasn't the place where he would recover. Ulick looked over the stark cell silently. The cell held no lights. It was the same as the other cells he had seen at Mercy: a hard bed-shelf, water trickling down the wall to a cesspit, three blankets . . . No, two. The prisoner was wearing one.

"Where are your clothes?" Ulick asked.

The prisoner jerked his chin. "Hanging on the door 'hind you. I sweat at night. I hang my clothes up to dry in the day. Some days they're dry 'fore I go to bed again."

Ulick knew better than to look behind him. He still had his dagger out and was wondering whether he should remove the handkerchief from his face and take hold of his whip; this prisoner, ill though he was, looked as though he could disarm Ulick if he came close enough. But the air remained fetid; letting himself breathe in the prisoner's fumes might be as mortal as failing to hold him back from an attack.

"Have you asked for an extra set of clothing?" Ulick enquired, his voice muffled by the handkerchief.

The prisoner gave a slight smile. "Asked who?"

"The guards who tend you."

"They deliver food. They draw from this cell my slops, through that panel there. That's all. They never give tale to me. They never catch tale to words I speak." The prisoner's voice was matter-of-fact.

"Your medicine . . ." Even as he spoke, Ulick knew the answer.

The prisoner shrugged. "Haven't seen the prison's sawbones since the day he had me thrown in this place. He was drunk when I saw him." He paused to cough into his cup, holding it carefully over his mouth.

Ulick waited until the prisoner was finished, partly to give himself time to cool the slow burn of anger that kindled through him. He had met prison healers like that, but at any decently run prison, they lost their jobs soon. Ulick said, "You were visited by Sedgewick."

"Once. Just once. He'd given tale to me 'fore, but that was the only time he opened the door. It didn't occur to me to ask him for anything. I was too busy trying to figure out how to punch him." He smiled at Ulick's expression. "See now, when he tapped messages to me from the next cell, he'd given me to have mind he was a fellow prisoner. Learning he was a guard – that was a shock. He's sly, that one."

This was hardly news to Ulick. As the prisoner coughed again into his cup, Ulick glanced around the cell. Dark, damp, stifling . . . Exactly the opposite conditions that consumptives were supposed to live in, if they were to have any hope of recovery. This place was no better than an execution chamber.

"What did he want from you?" Ulick asked when the prisoner had caught his breath again.

Wariness entered the prisoner's eyes. "Why are you craving to know?"

"I'm working for him now – or rather, I'm working for Mercy's Keeper, but Sedgewick is the one supervising me."

"Ah." Suddenly the prisoner's expression went blank, as though a pall had been thrown over it. "He's alive, then?"

Ulick stared. "Didn't you know?"

The prisoner shrugged. "He stopped coming, all sudden-like. I had mind it might be he'd lost his job, or even died."

"When did this happen?"

"I'm not knowing. What time of the year is it? It was just started fall when I arrived. Is it yet winter?"

"No," Ulick said slowly. "No, the year has turned to spring."

The pause that followed was so still that Ulick could hear the trickle of water in the cell, underlying the cries and moans from the prisoners elsewhere on this level.

"He's in truth working for Mercy's Keeper 'gain?" said the prisoner.

"Yes." Ulick said nothing more. He had no proof to offer that his tale was true – no proof beyond what his father had always said was his best asset, namely his honest face.

The prisoner looked troubled for the first time, chewing his lip. He was quite young, Ulick suddenly realized – more than a decade younger than Ulick.

"I'm sorry," Ulick said. "I ought not to be searching you for information on matters you are honor-bound to remain quiet about."

The prisoner gave a slight shrug. "'Tisn't a thing of honor. He never made me swear to keep quiet about his visits. He wouldn't have had mind any folk would ever come visiting me, see?" He chewed on his lip a moment more before saying, "He didn't send you here?"

"No."

The prisoner's mouth twisted. "Then he's dead or he's sacked or you're telling the truth, and he's not caring 'bout me. If ever he did."

"What did he care about, then?" Ulick asked softly.

"This." As he spoke, the prisoner moved, as swift as a thrown dagger.

Ulick was startled into silence. The prisoner, having pulled back the blanket to reveal what lay beneath the bed-shelf, retreated as far away as possible. Ulick moved forward slowly, half an eye on the prisoner, half on what had lain hidden beneath the blankets.

He had to kneel down to be sure. He pulled out the chest, opened it, picked up one of the objects lying inside, and unwrapped the oiled cloth around it.

A revolver glistened in his hand.

He had last seen a revolver two days before, when he had handed in his own gun to the armory of the holding prison where he had worked. The gun had been carefully inspected, photographed, shown to the prison's Keeper, recorded in a ledger, tagged, locked in a gun chest, and placed in the armory's safe. Then – and only then – was Ulick granted a receipt showing that he had returned this precious item.

The rest of the chest in this infirmary cell was filled with revolvers, as well as cartridges. The revolvers were of different makes, but they all took the same size cartridges, Ulick noted.

The prisoner, whom Ulick had nearly forgotten, said, "I never had mind I'd be guarding a treasure like Yclau's crown jewels."

Ulick counted silently. There were as many guns here as were likely to be seen in all of Mip's prisons combined. "Did he bring these here in the chest?"

"Nay. He was drawing the chest in first; then he handed me the guns through the food slot, one at a time. Whenever he did take a day off from work, next day he would draw one of those little jewels in here."

Ulick carefully closed the chest and looked up at the prisoner, who was still standing on the other side of the cell. "He stored the ammunition here too. You could have used one of these guns to fight your way out."

The prisoner shrugged. "To start the first act, I'd've had to have battle against him. And he gave tale these were important. Learned me they could help the other prisoners. Called me their guardian."

Ulick slowly rose to his feet and looked down at the chest, no longer bothering to keep his eye on the prisoner. A chest's worth of guns. So many guns that they could not have been bought legally . . . even assuming that private ownership of guns was legal in Mip. No, these guns had come from Mip's gun-runners. And the gun-runners – Ulick knew from having attended a trial or two of them – charged a small fortune for each gun they smuggled into the republic.

The crown jewels indeed. Sedgewick could spend his life in prison for such a crime.

"No wonder he left them here," Ulick murmured.

The prisoner came into sight. He was nodding. "Aye. That's what I was figuring. Smuggling guns into a prison, that's one thing. Smuggling them out again . . . He gave tale that the guards at the gates, they inspect everyone that leaves, even the other guards. Once he'd gone and brought the guns in here, he had to leave them here . . . or use them."

"He hasn't been back, though."

"Nay. I'm figuring he had knowing it would be safer to stay away. No one will ever enter here – not till I'm gone."

Ulick turned his head to look at the prisoner. The man was staring, not at Ulick, but at the guns.

Ulick asked, "What will you do, now that he has abandoned you?"

The prisoner continued to stare at the guns. "I'm not knowing. You have mind he was right? That these could help the other prisoners?"

"I don't know. I don't know what his plan was."

The prisoner gave a shrug and moved back. "Not my choice, anyhow. You're working for Mercy's Keeper. I'm figuring you'll tell him."

Ulick looked at the guns. Sedgewick's life lay in his hands.

And so did the prisoners'.

He knew what would happen if he reported the cache to Mercy's Keeper. This was too big a find to be dealt with by Mercy Prison alone. With firearms found in a prisoner's cell, the magisterial seats' riot soldiers would be brought in, and every prisoner would be questioned to learn what he knew of the guns. The riot soldiers had a reputation for extreme harshness when handling prisoners.

Especially a prisoner whose cell had been used to store the guns.

"I want to find out what his plan was," Ulick murmured. "Not a prison break-out, surely. That would be too crude for him. And he was fighting in a suit that would have affected the prisoners in all the life prisons. How do these guns fit in with his plan?" He turned his head to look at the prisoner. "Did he talk to you about the Boundaries of Behavior?"

Suddenly the caution was back in the prisoner's eyes. "Aye."

"He told you what they were?"

The prisoner was silent.

After a minute, Ulick knelt down, quietly closed the chest, and pulled the blanket down to hide it. "You're still their guardian," he told the prisoner as he stood. "I need to find out more before I decide what to do. Keep your eye on these."

"For sure, I'll be here as long as you're liking." There was amusement in the prisoner's voice now.

Ulick, on the point of stepping out the door, looked back at the prisoner. The man stood where he had been at the beginning of the conversation, covered in a blanket, holding his cup.

Ulick said, "My brother owns several shares in a pharmaceutical store. I'll see whether I can get you some medicine."

The prisoner tilted his head to one side, regarding Ulick. "Sedgewick finds you're coming here, he'll tear your body to ribbons."

"He has other plans for me." Ulick turned away.

"Hoi!" called the prisoner. As Ulick looked back, the prisoner frowned. "You gave tale you're working for Mercy's Keeper. But you're drawing me drugs, and you're hiding this." He gestured in the direction of the chest. "Whose side are you on, anyhow?"

Ulick said quietly, "I'll bring you the medicine as soon as I can. May your gods watch over you."

He left the prisoner in the dark, damp, stifling cell and made his way off the fifth level, his heart pounding as though he had just been thrown off a cliff.