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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER THREE

Fingering his amulet, Thomas thought about his father's advice.

He leaned back in his chair behind the desk. Upon settling into the holding prison, he had positioned his desk so that it was facing the door to his room, in order to give an official atmosphere to the setting. The position of the desk could not disguise the fact that his room was actually a bedroom. Even with the prison's guard reduced to a skeleton crew, there were too few rooms in the building to allow Thomas both an office and a bedroom. "That could be an advantage," Pugh had told Thomas in his coarse manner.

Gamble high, his father had said when he first taught Thomas how to play dice, at age five. Sometimes you'll lose everything. But if you're skilled enough, you'll win it all back.

"Oh, Merrick," Thomas murmured, "am I gambling too high this time?"

There were steps at the door. No time in which to undo his collar again and thrust the amulet down his shirt; Thomas let the amulet fall loose around his neck, trusting to the high desk to hide it from view.

The door opened. Blythe escorted in the prisoner, not touching the man, which showed that the guard had a certain amount of native sense. "Shall I stay inside, or guard the door?" he asked Thomas.

"Neither," Thomas replied. "You may return to your post, Mr. Blythe."

Blythe looked startled; then, as Thomas had known it would, the guard's gaze shifted over to the bed. "Ah. Well. We'll be within shouting distance, if you need us."

The prisoner was looking at the bed too, but as the door closed, his gaze snapped over to Thomas. He was unbound; Thomas had managed to convey to the night guard his firm notions about keeping prisoners unbound except during punishment. The night guards had grudgingly accepted his eccentricity, since his skill with a whip was well known.

Unbound, Ahiga had chosen to cross his arms. That position made his considerable muscles bulge. He looked furious, as well he might.

Thomas tried not to think about what he knew of this prisoner's past history. "You are Ahiga," he said.

The prisoner made no reply. He was still bare-chested. He was youthful in appearance, but with a hard set to his mouth, and harder eyes. His long hair was gathered in a knot behind his neck, in the fashion of Ammippian warriors.

Thomas flicked the briefest of glances at the prisoner's records. The prisoner had requested and used an interpreter at his trial. Most Ammippians refused to learn the languages of their conquerors. Thomas weighed that fact against what he had witnessed in the cell.

He tried again. "I generally address prisoners by title and last name. But Ammippians do not adopt a career name upon adulthood, and they have no family names, because they believe it shows dishonor to their ancestors to reuse names and titles. So I will address you in the Ammippian fashion, simply as Ahiga."

Still no response. Scorn glazed the eyes of the prisoner.

There was an easy way by which to tear away the prisoner's complacence. But it was not yet time to roll double sixes, so instead Thomas said, "I have claimed you. Do you know what that means?"

A deepening of the hatred in the prisoner's look was the man's only response.

Thomas abruptly decided that he despised the desk. He had not broken through Merrick's considerable barriers by sitting behind a desk and reciting officialese. He stood up and walked forward, saying, "I want you to understand that I am not—"

Ahiga attacked.

Thomas had a split second in which to decide what to do. That was to say, he had ample time in which to decide what to do. The prisoner was too close for Thomas to use his whip. At the rate at which the prisoner was attacking, any use of the dagger would have deadly consequences for the prisoner.

Against that, there was knowledge of the prisoner's death toll.

Gamble high, Thomas's father had advised, and Thomas did so. He put out his hand, like a soldier directing traffic.

Ahiga paid no attention to this mild defense. He thrust Thomas against the wall and grabbed his amulet, shaking it in his face. "Thief!" he shouted.

There was only one response Thomas could make to this that the Ammippian would understand. He threw his dice.

"Youngest of the young," he said in the Ammippian tongue. "You dare to touch the sacred body of your elder?"

o—o—o

He had a split second in which to assess the chances of survival for himself and for Dick.

The chances weren't good for the lad. Dick had been standing next to the boxcar door; the brakeman, swinging himself in with lightning quickness, had managed to place himself behind the lad. The brakeman's revolver was now pressed against Dick's back.

Which meant that the brakeman's back was to the other occupant of the train, standing half-hidden in the shadows. If this had been Mercy Prison, and the brakeman had been his prisoner holding a knife – or even his father holding a knife – the man would have been easy enough to disarm.

But even though he was a guard, he had never touched a gun; firearms were rare in Mip. He had heard enough about them to be reluctant to attack a man wielding one. Instead, he remained silent, watching the drama take place.

"Off," said the brakeman.

"We're going too fast!" protested the lad – who, to his credit, had said nothing about the second occupant of this car. Perhaps he was simply hoping to be rescued.

"You should have thought of that before you stole a ride on the company's property. If you haven't jumped in nine seconds, I'll shoot you. Nine, eight, seven . . ."

Dick twisted his head around to give a despairing look at the brakeman. Beyond him, the open boxcar door revealed that the train was presently making its way along a trestle over a steep ravine. If Dick jumped now, he would certainly end up dead at the bottom of the gorge. It wasn't clear whether the brakeman cared.

It was time, he decided, that he tested whether the brakeman cared. Slipping the memorandum book into his pocket, he took out his pipe, tobacco, and matches.

The sound of a match striking the box caused the guard to swing his head around. "What in Hell's name . . . ?"

Dick – who should have taken this opportunity to wrench the revolver out of the brakeman's hand – stared too. His face was drained of all blood.

He lit his pipe in a leisurely fashion, long enough that the train made its way off the trestle. Then he said, "Push him."

"Beg pardon?" The brakeman, understandably, was disconcerted by this unsolicited advice.

"Push him. I needed to get to my destination in a hurry, so it amused me to hire him to show me how to hop freights. But he has bored me with his endless chit-chat. So push him off the train. He's a penniless orphan; if he breaks his neck, no magistrate will bring a murder charge against you."

He had always possessed a talent for putting into plain Mippite the deeds that other guards tried to hide from their consciences through mealy-mouthed euphemisms. Now, as so many times before, he watched the other man's face change as the brakeman fully grasped what he had been about to do.

The lad – hearing only the words, not seeing the effect of those words – had turned his white face toward the apparent traitor. He said nothing, but his eyes spoke of Hell's domain.

The brakeman cleared his throat as he clicked the change lever to the safe position on his revolver. "We're about to arrive at Big Pool. I might as well let you both off there."

The brakeman was as good as his word. The train slowed as they approached the freight station, a small wooden building with broad eaves that protected the barrels and crates waiting to be loaded. Dick promptly jumped off, landing on his knees. He scrambled off.

Following in a more leisurely fashion, he handed the brakeman the note he had scribbled in the interval, using a bit of paper torn from the memorandum book. "What's this?" asked the brakeman, staring at the name and address.

"A good legal counsel. You'll need him if you continue to follow your present course of action against illicit riders."

It was as bold a lie as he had ever told. It was quite true, what he had said before, that no magistrate was likely to care about the death of a tramp who had been found hopping a train. But from the expression on the brakeman's face, it was clear that the brakeman didn't intend to test the matter further.

Swinging down from the train – the wrong side of the train, away from the platform – he paused a moment. Partly this was to catch his breath. The extremities of his body were still throbbing from what he had witnessed. All his extremities. Tapping his pipe clean of the tobacco, he waited a minute for the hardness to soften; then he took an assessing look at the landscape. The broad body of water in front of him – the "Big Pool" from which the station took its name – had a spillway across it. He thought a moment, then followed the train track in the direction of Big Pool.

He caught up with Dick on the canal towpath; the lad had stopped to nurse his scraped knees. Dick scrambled to his feet as soon as he saw the intruder. "Don't come near me!" he cried. An open penknife appeared in his hand, from out of nowhere.

He took a long look at the knife, wondering where Dick had hidden it – wondering too why Dick hadn't used it back in the train, when the man who had hired him had ended up lying on top of him.

After a while, Dick said in a shaking voice, "Go away."

"Here." He tossed Dick the memorandum book. "You're an intelligent lad, to have survived this long on your own. All you need to make it through life is one skill you've missed: the art of creative falsehood."

Dick – who had caught the memorandum book in his left hand without letting go of the knife in his right – stared at the book, and at the piece of paper sticking out from within its pages.

Perhaps he thought it was a bribe.

But no, evidently the lad's ability to assess the motives of men and women was as keen as ever. Dick raised his eyes, swallowed, and said, "I don't want to lie."

He shrugged. "Then learn to keep your mouth shut. You told me more than you should have; I could have used it against you, if I'd chosen. Keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open. You'll go further that way."

Dick slowly put away the knife and pulled the piece of paper out from the pages. It was a twenty-dollar bill, enough to keep the lad fed and sheltered for a month. Dick said softly, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I've fooled more experienced men than you." He jerked his head eastward, in the direction of the opposite end of Big Pool. "Come on."

Dick fell into pace beside him, stuffing the book and the bill into his pocket. "Where are we going, mister?"

"You ought to have figured that out by now." He amused himself by showing the lad his dark smile. "Compassion Life Prison."