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Mercy's Prisoner

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Mercy's Prisoner

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

The bladesman whom Ulick had discovered with Merrick stood in his room, gazing through the slit of his window toward the dawn-grey horizon.

His view was partially blocked by the houses here in the southern portion of Mip City and by the high wall surrounding the prison. He thought he could barely see the mountains to the west, but no doubt that was wishful thinking on his part. The pre-dawn sky was too dark.

He felt a familiar pain cutting through him, the pain of loss. He was used to pain by now. It accompanied him every day like a small child that refuses to be parted from its parent: the harsh pain of frustrated lust, the dull pain of hatred from those around him, and the biting pain of loss. Always the pain of loss, of what he had given up in the moment that he decided to keep the Boundaries of Behavior.

And now there was another loss: the loss of guidance that he sorely needed at this stage. Well, pain was to be his lot in life, it seemed. The only question was whether the loss of guidance would prove to be the final blow in his already beleaguered battle.

He set aside such thoughts. He was more fortunate than anyone could imagine, he knew. Compensations had entered his life: gifts which he in no way deserved and which he accepted only because they gave him needed strength to finish this battle. His prisoner was one gift – a bewilderingly unexpected gift, one that still made his mind reel if he thought too hard on the matter.

And Merrick was the other gift. He felt a smile touch his face. A strange sort of gift, and one that was easier to understand. Merrick barely trusted him, and only a strong amount of self-control, he guessed, kept Merrick from trying to strangle him every time they met. But he was necessary to Merrick, just as Merrick was necessary to him. Neither of them could achieve their goal without the other.

And when the goal was achieved . . . He set that thought aside as well. It would do his state of mind no good to dwell on such events. He needed clarity of mind and concentration of purpose, for he was holding the fate of every life prisoner in Mip in his hands.

He heard a step on his threshold, and the sound of a door opening, closing, and latching. Without looking around, he said, "All's well?"

Merrick entered the edge of his vision. He looked, as always, as though he'd been chewing on ice-cubes and not liking the results. "You bloody know-all," he said. "I suppose you planned this as a lure from the start."

"It was a risk." He kept his gaze directed toward the horizon. "Not the worst risk we'll take before the end; it was clear he transferred here out of curiosity to know the Boundaries. He's with us?"

"He's with us." Merrick tilted his head. "Just to satisfy my curiosity, what would you have done if Ulick had resisted the lure?"

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "I had to show him a true test of the Boundaries. He's so quick-witted that he would have sensed it if I'd played him a false game."

Merrick's mouth twisted. "A high-risk gamble. You remind me of another guard I know. Well, we'll need Ulick's quick wits, as well as his gift for silence." He counted on his fingers. "Ulick on the sixth level, Gustav on the fifth, Llewellyn on the fourth, you and me covering the third and second. We have men on each level now that we can trust . . . Or in your case, half-trust." He smiled as he spoke, but there was no smile in his eyes, and his words were no joke. "Compassion. What about it?"

He continued to gaze out the window. He could almost smell the canal-water, so many miles away – could almost see a blue heron arising from water nearby. "Compassion Prison is no longer in our Alliance. I daren't communicate with that prison; I'm being too closely watched."

Merrick sighed heavily. "You're sure?"

"Quite sure. Our Keeper has begun to inspect any mail sent to me."

Merrick swore pungently. "He has that power only because you live in the prison. You could move to the city."

"Not now. Events will move too swiftly after this." Merrick raised an eyebrow, and he added, "The Keeper's Wolf will make life more and more miserable for the prisoners here. At the same time, you and I will make life more and more miserable for the guards who break the Boundaries. Eventually, a crack will come, and then a shattering. We need to be ready for that."

"We should be coordinating our plans with Compassion—"

"We should be receiving commendations from the magisterial seats for our service to justice. Stop using mush for brains." He allowed contempt to enter his voice. He could still permit himself occasional small pleasures like this, when Merrick showed danger of wandering off into the hazy land of his fantasies. Merrick's ability to imagine the impossible was his greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness. It was the reason why Merrick had been singularly successful as a murderer and singularly unsuccessful at covering up his murder. He needed Merrick's imagination when it came time to envision new possibilities, but he needed Merrick grounded in reality when it came time to accept the limitations under which they worked.

Merrick stiffened, and for a bare moment the Boundaries of Behavior hung in balance. Then Merrick relaxed his body with a visible effort. He gave a shrug, as though indifferent to what had been said, and remarked, "It doesn't matter. Tyrrell will take care of things at Compassion."

"You have great faith in him." It was a question; he had never become well enough acquainted with Merrick's former co-conspirator to judge his character.

Merrick laughed briefly. "If you stripped Tyrrell naked and imprisoned him within an iceberg, he'd find a way to melt the ice. Don't worry about Compassion. Tell me what we're going to do here."

He turned away from the window finally, deliberately turning his back on what was now beyond his reach when he needed it most. "What we're going to do," he said, "is melt an iceberg." And then he explained as much as Merrick needed to know.

Merrick's eyes widened as he spoke. That was another small pleasure: that he could still disconcert Merrick, after all this time. He wondered again why he was allowed such pleasures, given how little he merited them.

Then he set that thought aside as well, with firmness. He knew that no divine being was ordering matters here. Nothing would happen, no changes would take place in the merciless world of Mercy Prison, unless he and Merrick took what small talents they had and braved the consequences if they failed.

Mercy's prisoner. He would be lucky if that was all which awaited him in the end. The consequences if they won victory . . .

He surrendered his thoughts to all that mattered – the Alliance's high goals – as the rising sun began to shimmer on the pool of water near Compassion Life Prison.