What bothers Mindfang the most about her captivity is not the chill, nor the pervasive damp, nor the way that the clumsily-bandaged stump of her arm throbs in time with the beating of her bloodpusher.
What bothers her most is the quiet. Stray sounds wither away to silence in the stony lower corridors of the courtblock before they can even begin to reach her, and she is left with only the uneven drip-drop of falling condensation and the shallow huff of her own breathing. Her exhalations echo and rattle in the emptiness of her cell, reinforcing the awareness that she is very much alone with herself. It’s quiet enough that on rare occasions she’s able to hear her blood flowing, a cerulean tide in miniature.
After a while, she begrudgingly concedes that maybe there is a method to the Cruelest Bar’s madness after all; isolation does not suit her. It makes her irritable and savage and not a little anxious; she is not a creature of solitude at all, and the silence folds around her like leathery wings. Better that she be at the helm of her flagship, the ebb and flow of shipboard activity swirling about her like eddies in a current while the gulls scream overhead and ocean spray mists her face and speckles her coat with pinpricks of moisture.
But her flagship is gone with the rest of her fleet, burned to cinders in a conflagration that stretched over the waves, her crew reduced to so many bits of charred and chalky bone.
The dragon and its keeper saw to that, spewing gouts of flame before swooping down to pin her on the burning deck as screaming sailors leapt into the sea. Mindfang remembers it well, especially the sensation of blood spurting through her fingers as she clutched vainly at the mangled stump of her left arm in her struggle not to bleed to death. She can see it now, if she tries hard enough; the blazing rigging, the legislacerator’s triumphant smile, the way her arm dangled limply from the dragon’s jaws like an afterthought. The hatred that the memory brings is bittersweet, choking as woodsmoke and heady as wine, and Mindfang savors the loathing that churns in her gut.
To have her hand around the Neophyte’s neck would be satisfying indeed.
Her stomach gurgles in protest, grounding her fantasy before it can take wing. No one has deigned to come down and feed her for several days. Perhaps that’s part of this little ordeal by deprivation as well. Or maybe she’s simply been forgotten. She wonders with no small amount of amusement just what has happened to her spectacular execution-to-be. Derailed, perhaps? Or simply delayed? The possibilities splay out before her like a deck of cards, and she discards one after another. Occupied as she is with potential explanations, she almost misses a faint, regular noise in the distance, but she does not distract herself for long as the reverberations coalesce into footsteps.
It takes several grating minutes for the owner of said feet to arrive, during which Mindfang stretches lazily, stands, shuffles her feet, and attempts to tug her singed and bloody coat into some semblance of order while wiping a welling, blue-tinged tear from her useless eye. Since the dragon’s gaze burnt it out, not ten minutes go by before she has to dab moisture away from the tear duct. The frequency of this implied weakness is irritating. Perhaps she’ll have it replaced when – or if - she’s once again out in the open air.
Mindfang pulls herself together into an attitude of derisive nonchalance, leaning on the bars as though they belong to her. In a way, they do; they are here, she is here, thus this is her domain by default. She brushes another tear away with her fingertips as the footsteps round the corner and the source comes to a halt in front of her cell.
The Neophyte, she reflects, is much shorter when not astride a mighty draconic hellbeast.
Squinting her remaining functional eye, she does her level best to stare down her nose at her captor. “Ah,” she says. “You.”
“Ah,” says Redglare. “Me.” She leans back on her heels, hands planted primly on the head of the sword-cane that took Mindfang’s arm. “I do hope you weren’t expecting a proper welcoming committee. We of the Cruelest Bar do not extend such courtesy to your ilk.”
“Oh yes,” drawls Mindfang, bracing her remaining elbow on a crossbar and propping her chin on her hand, “my ilk. Scum of the open sea and all that. I’d forgotten for a moment that you disapprove.” She draws out the last word until the mockery contained within it bubbles just below the surface. “So terribly sorry for my choice of career. I’ll just pop round to the Military Quarter and enlist, if you don’t mind. Can’t have me running amok, now can we?”
“Indeed not. Consequently we’ve opted to detain you until such time as we can arrange your execution. Given your catalogue of crimes and frankly implausible renown, it will likely be soon - but not so soon that you won’t notice the wait. Red tape, you know. Bothersome, but there it is.”
“I’m sure I’ll survive.”
“Will you? I do hope you meant that figuratively.”
“For someone holding me in these conditions, you profess a surprising degree of concern for my emotional welfare.”
“For someone professing such contempt for my position, you’re awfully keen to talk.” She pauses as though contemplating some great conundrum, head tilting slightly to the side in mocking inquiry. “What’s the matter, Marquise? I went to a little trouble procuring you some peace and quiet - is it not to your liking?”
Mindfang’s good eye narrows. Wetness on her cheek signals to her thinkpan that her damaged eye is weeping again, and she contemptuously flicks the droplet away with a fingertip. “So this is your doing, then. I should have fucking known.”
A smug little smirk tugs at the corner of Redglare’s lips for a moment before her customary neutral expression resumes itself. Mindfang can practically hear the iron clang of her impassive façade dropping back into place. “Being as I am but a humble Neophyte, I cannot personally claim credit for much at all. However, I will admit to having some complicity in determining the method of your capture.”
Mindfang snarls. “Method? You came in with your bloody great lizard and torched my fleet like a fucking grub roast!”
“Yes,” says Redglare, “but it was an extremely well-planned grub roast.”
Mindfang doesn’t reply; she has no ammunition to fire at that particular target. Instead, she studies her adversary. Redglare does not cut a daunting figure; short and wiry, she seems more suited to administrative duty than riding a dragon into battle. Like a viper, she bears warning coloration, the bright crimson and teal of her clothing marking her more dangerous than she appears. Mindfang’s stump throbs at the thought, and she rolls her shoulder in an attempt to work out the pain.
“What,” she finally asks, “do you want from me? We both know you aren’t here for my brilliant wit and sparkling repartee.”
“An exchange,” says Redglare. “Information for your dignity. Answer my questions and you get a public execution instead of starving to death in this pit.”
“Is that all?” Mindfang purrs. “Come now, Neophyte. Aren’t you just the tiniest bit bothered that I had you chasing your tail for so long? Put a little rancor into it, darling.” She runs her tongue over cracked and bleeding lips, the lipstick she applied on the eve of battle gone long ago.
Redglare’s expression remains mostly inscrutable, though Mindfang can see genuine dislike in the way that her eyes narrow behind her glasses. “Your attempts at black seduction, while flattering, are destined to fail. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Damn,” says Mindfang. “And here I was, hoping to go out with a bang.” Maybe if she needles the Neophyte – that’s a good one, she’ll have to remember it for her journal – if she needles the Neophyte enough, she’ll provoke her into doing something rash, and – no, that’s ridiculous. Redglare is too collected to be harassed into making an error. “Pity, really. You’re detestable.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You should. I have exquisite taste. But really—“ here she leans conspiratorially against the bars, fingers curling around rusting iron, “My burning desire to best you in every possible way aside, feel free to ask whatever questions you desire. I may answer, if I’m feeling generous.” She grins. “Care to try your luck, Neophyte?” Her lazy self-assurance is entirely manufactured; inside she is wary, though the deal is tempting. She has nothing left to lose at this point except her image, and staggering to the gallows as a gaunt and withered wretch would ruin the latter entirely, reducing her to a thing to be scorned. To go out like that would be galling, if not outright humiliating.
Then again, she has no plans to go out at all. Other plans, yes, but not to die. Those, however, can wait. Now there is Redglare to deal with, and her thrice-blasted bargaining chips.
“Another day, Marquise. For now, I have other matters to attend to. After all, yours is not the only case on the docket.” And there is the smile that Mindfang remembers, the one that loomed over her as she bled out, all shark’s teeth and triumphant glee. “Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.”
Redglare’s spectacles glint in the light of the solitary torch on the wall as she turns to walk away, and Mindfang resists the urge to tell her that she’s really not cut out for intimidation.
“What, just going to leave me hanging? I thought we had something.” The only response that she receives is the steady thmp of boots on stone and the sight of Redglare’s back fading into the dark before the legislacerator is too far away to hear. Mindfang’s ears prick up and strain for the sound of her footfalls, but the effort is in vain. There’s nothing more to hear; her adversary is gone. She calls into the mute blackness of the corridor: “You’re a hell of a cold fish, you know that?” There is no answer, only the weight of silence pressing in once more.
“Bloody buggering hell,” Mindfang mutters. She sinks down against the wall, legs splayed in a wholly undignified fashion as she waits.
The hours roll by, or at least it feels to her as though they do. Time is an elusive creature when one has no means to measure it. Mindfang’s breathing acquires a heavy, exasperated quality; the silence is no longer worrying, but merely an annoyance. Occasionally she bellows some insult into the soundless corridor to no avail. Her thinkpan invents things in the dark corners of her cell; shadows twist and writhe and curl in upon themselves in arcane shapes. Sometimes she finds that they look like dragons.
Redglare returns as the sound of her own circulation roars in her ears. Once more, she takes her time arriving; unlike Mindfang, she can afford the delay. The smell of cooked meat wafts out of the corridor, and Mindfang’s salivary glands kick into overdrive as she tugs her singed and bloody coat into some semblance of order. “Hail, the conquering hero comes. Pardon me if I don’t get up, I’ve just settled myself in comfortably.” A euphemism, truly; her legs have gone shaky at the knee and standing makes her slightly dizzy. Redglare will not see that weakness. The legislacerator gazes contemptuously down at her.
“You’ll stand to receive your betters, gamblignant, unless you want me to sit and eat this myself.”
Mindfang snorts, outwardly derisive. “Please. You wouldn’t stoop to taste anything you gave me.” Deep down, however, she’s apprehensive; Redglare may very well choose to take a seat just outside the bars and delicately place each morsel in her mouth, making Mindfang watch every bite as her innards turn and gnaw at themselves out of hunger.
“On the contrary.” Redglare shakes her head, light glinting hard off the lenses of her glasses. “Much as I’d enjoy nothing more than the act of eating just out of your tormented and desperate reach no matter what my superiors deigned to feed you, the choice of repast is mine.” She dangles a bit of meat between two fingers, taunting. It sets Mindfang’s teeth on edge. “They don’t think that you’re worth the resources. Help me prove them wrong, Marquise, and you’ll die with a full belly. Or don’t, if you feel like starving. Either way, I lose nothing of consequence, but it’ll go easier for you if you don’t waste my time.”
At first Mindfang is tempted to turn her nose up at the offer, but her stomach growls a reminder that she cannot afford to. Starvation is just around the corner at this rate, and she isn’t of a mind to walk face-first into it. "Well, for the want of anything better to do with my time I suppose I could be persuaded to play a game or two. How about you name your price for that morsel, and I'll see if I like it?"
“I require the names and locations of your contacts. We’ll start slowly, with the most recent. I wouldn’t want to push you too hard, now would I?”
Mindfang eyes her for a moment before speaking, the dimness and her newfound lack of depth perception lending a sinister cast to Redglare’s features. “Fine,” she says. “I’ll bite.”
Redglare launches into a veritable barrage of questions; who are you in contact with, where are they, what purpose did your connections serve. Mindfang spews lies while holding the truth in reserve, doling it out at her leisure. At every turn, her answers are challenged, half-truths turned back against her to leave her spluttering and lost for words. Honesty grudgingly rears its head, and soon she is giving more information than she can hold back; Redglare is peeling her apart, layer by layer by layer.
Eventually, the Neophyte flicks the bite-size chunk of meat she’s been holding between the bars. It lands on the damp stone by Mindfang’s left boot with a soft plup. Before she can stop herself, Mindfang leans greedily forward and reaches for it with an arm that isn’t there. She catches herself in seconds, but the indignity of her abortive lunge refuses to fade as she sullenly pops it in her mouth.
Redglare simply smirks and moves on to the next round of questions.
By the time the legislacerator departs, her footsteps echoing in the dark once again, Mindfang has wolfed down enough meat to cover her palm; enough to whet her appetite, but no more. Innards rumbling, she curls up on her good side to chase sleep as her stump throbs in protest. Another errant tear runs down her nose, and she growls in irritation before viciously wiping it away on the ragged cuff of her coat.
Her effort to doze off fails, and she lies awake for what seems like hours. Between the dripping, her breathing, and the eventual dull roar of her bloodflow, she’s kept awake and alert for quite a while before sliding messily off into fitful slumber.
She dreams of fire.
When she wakes, it is to the sound of Redglare’s swift footsteps. Hastily, she pulls herself upright. The Neophyte comes to an abrupt halt in front of her cell; Mindfang blinks sleep from her eye and cracks her neck before realizing that the grimness in her face is not imagined. Redglare’s mouth has thinned to a furious black-lipped line and the sharp set of her teeth leaves her jawline in stark relief. “Do you think I’m some sort of imbecile?”
“No more than usual,” mumbles Mindfang, still fuzzy with exhaustion.
Redglare tramples right over her response without so much as a by-your-leave. “You deliberately gave me inaccurate information and sent the Imperial Fleet on a wild honkbeast chase over the entire South Ocean. Well done, Marquise. You’ve earned yourself another day without sustenance.” In a flash she is up against the bars, hissing: “I have a finite supply of food set aside for this venture, and I can make it last for a very, very long time. If you think you miss your audience now, imagine how it will be when you’re too weak to stand.” Without another word, she turns on her heel and strides off into the dark. Mindfang is left blinking and blindsided, unsure as to whether pulling the wool over Redglare’s perpetually obscured eyes was worth the consequences.
The next day, she’s absolutely certain that it wasn’t. She spends most of it curled up on the floor, wracked by violent pangs of hunger and unwilling to try and get up, lest Redglare’s warning about being too weak to stand comes true. At one point, she’s desperate enough to lick condensation from the wall as a way to get something, anything in her belly. Her efforts are remarkably ineffective.
When she reaches down to brush her fingers over her stomach, she can feel her ribs protrude.
Eventually she succumbs to exhaustion once more, and dreams of the blade glinting in Redglare’s hand, orange in the firelight and slick with blue.
She awakens to the sight of Redglare’s boots in front of her face. “My, aren’t we looking absolutely peachy today. How is the nutrient-free diet working for you, Marquise?” With a muffled groan, Mindfang props herself up on her arm and staggers to her feet. The cell spins and lurches around her, and upon catching one of the bars she hangs on until the vertigo passes. Redglare simply watches without commentary. The smell of cooked meat is almost overpowering to Mindfang’s deprived senses, and her stomach does a slow, greasy flip in reactive nausea.
“Are you ready to actually cooperate with me?”
Yes god yes I need it is the first thing that leaps to mind, but Mindfang still has her pride. She does not beg. She merely shrugs her shoulders and rasps, “Since you’re so terribly insistent, I think I might feel like humoring you today.”
This time she doesn’t try for the double-cross. Everything she divulges is accurate and up-to-date. She finds herself struggling to remember small details - cargoes, preferred routes, little things – in order to ensure that what she’s giving is good. A small part of her is revolted by the fact that she’s sunk so low as to cooperate with the authorities, but a larger, more atavistic part is content to survive despite her circumstances. She hides her willingness under an increasingly battered façade of nonchalance. How long it will hold, she has no idea.
The questions stop. Mindfang holds out her hand, expectant, and Redglare rewards her with a fist-sized, glistening chunk of meat. “Good girl,” she purrs, and departs while Mindfang tears into it with her teeth. The weight of it in her gut is such that she almost vomits it back up.
The interrogation doesn’t go quite as well the next day. Redglare is hideously smug and Mindfang, buoyed by yesterday’s meal, decides that no, she will not be a shameless puppet of the law any longer. Slyly, she sneaks in a few erroneous statements.
Redglare catches her on the third and leaves her ravenous and alone, kicking herself for believing that taking that risk was a good idea.
Hunger sets in like a furious beast in her belly, and Mindfang becomes intimately acquainted with the floor she finds herself lying helplessly on. Sitting takes too much effort; standing is far out of her capabilities. Instead, she familiarizes herself with minute imperfections in the stone, the flaws providing a soothing predictability to the seconds and minutes and hours that stretch on and on and on.
She drifts in and out of sleep, dreaming of smouldering sails, wood alligator-scaled from flame, and the wide blue sea. Sleep is easier by far; she doesn’t have to deal with the hunger, or with the constant nagging throb of her missing arm.
At one point, she’s roused from unconsciousness by Redglare kneeling by her head. She opens her mouth to protest, but naught emerges but a wheezing croak. Instead of mockery, the legislacerator nudges a sliver of meat past her fangs with a finger; unable to swallow it, Mindfang succumbs to a body-racking fit of coughing. Redglare waits patiently for her breathing to resume as normal, then carefully dribbles water between her lips. This she’s able to ingest, and sliver by sliver and droplet by droplet, Redglare ensures that she’ll survive to see the coming day.
She wakes again with no memory of Redglare’s departure, but the texture of her fingers persists on Mindfang’s lips.
With that memory still close and fresh, Mindfang is a far more willing partner in their intellectual dance over the next few nights. Squandering what little of her strength remains on pitiful attempts at rebellion is not on her agenda; she loathes the game that they’re playing, loathes it with the passion of a spurned lover, but if she’s to harbor any hope of escape at the end of all this then she needs to play along. Redglare upholds her end of the bargain, stringing Mindfang along from reward to miniscule reward in order to squeeze more leads out of her captive corsair. The few days more of existence that Mindfang ekes out in this way are pathetic ones indeed, but they give her time to plan.
By this time, she’s almost conditioned to salivate at the sound of Redglare’s footfalls; Troll Pavlov would shed a single tear of deepest pride. When the legislacerator comes striding down the corridor, she’s up and ready and practically eager.
God, does she despise herself for it.
Redglare comes bearing a covered tray; apparently today is to be special. Mindfang’s stomach gurgles in greedy anticipation. “Dare I ask what the occasion is?”
“You’ve proven surprisingly useful, so I opted to show my gratitude by providing you with one last meal before your execution.”
“Ah,” says Mindfang, “lucky, lucky me, to be so truly blessed. And what do I get for my final repast?”
“More of the same, I’m afraid,” says Redglare. “As I said, my personal resources are limited. I suppose you’ve earned the rest of it, though. Not that that should matter – you’ve grown quite fond of your little treats, haven’t you?”
Mindfang doesn’t reply, too occupied by her thoughts of the tray’s contents. She can see it now; a fat steak, glistening in its own juices, or perhaps a rack of ribs. For a few seconds, she lets her imagination run rampant on that paltry note, and is entirely satisfied with the results.
She snaps out of her reverie with the sound of jingling keys; Redglare has pulled a large, tarnished ring of them from somewhere and has popped open the lock on the door. “Do step back, would you? I’d hate for you to try something silly.”
Mindfang lurks against the back wall, feeling contemptuous of her own docility; she is no lapdog, and should not be compelled to act like one for the sake of a quick bite to eat. Redglare sets the tray down and steps nimbly back into the hallway, locking the door behind her. As soon as she does, Mindfang lurches forward in one great lunge to kneel beside the tray. With shaking, voracious fingers, she lifts the cover and tosses it aside.
On the tray is a hand, sizzling quietly, thumb and heel missing. Next to the appendage are a neatly stripped radius and ulna; half a humerus lies to the side like a bit of forgotten punctuation.
The bottom drops out of Mindfang’s stomach as she puts the evidence together.
Her head snaps up, and she stares at Redglare the way a deer does at an oncoming train.
Held daintily between two of Redglare’s fingers is the missing chunk of the hand. As she watches, the legislacerator slowly, delicately runs her tongue from the hollow of at the base to the tip of the thumb. The hand is dead, butchered, cooked, but for the life of her Mindfang swears that she can feel the touch on her missing limb, sandpaper-rough and dexterous. A small, deflated nngh noise escapes her as Redglare wraps her lips around the thumb, slides it into her mouth, and bites down; her eyelids flutter in apparent ecstasy. Mindfang’s ears pick up a very faint sqush-scrrr sound as Redglare drags her teeth along the digit, and when it emerges from her mouth half the flesh is gone to the bone.
Redglare dabs politely at her lips with a napkin she produces from a pocket. “Cooked to perfection, I must say. It’s wasted on you, really, but then again it always was.”
Voice thick and rasping, trembling at the edges with barely contained loathing, Mindfang says softly, “I hate you.”
Redglare’s laughter is not the high, shrieking cackle she imagined it would be; it is simply an amused chuckle, low and dark as a swamp. She tosses the thumb, and it tumbles through the air in a gentle arc to land on the floor of Mindfang’s cell. “Bon appetit, Marquise,” she purrs, before dropping her voice to a whisper: “I’ll see you on the scaffold.”
She turns and saunters away, leaving Mindfang to the darkness.