Awareness came back slowly, agony flaring along his nerves and dragging him out of sleep with the wire-sharp pull of marionette strings.
Valentin refused to groan, riding out the pain with clenched teeth and his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Opening them would have done nothing to lessen the darkness he'd been thrown into, thick as pitch and twice as cloying, and Valentin wasn't in any hurry to face another day of the blind fingers of the Ygrathian torturers as they carved blood and screams out of his hide.
He waited for several long moments, blood pounding loudly in his ears. There was no sound in the dark except the harsh rattle of his own breathing and Valentin relaxed cautiously, relieved to find himself alone. For now. He shifted slightly, wincing as pain shot through his bound limbs.
He couldn't feel his hands.
The swollen joints of his fingers twinged slightly when he tried to move them, though not nearly as much as they should have considering that they'd been broken and set wrong at least twice since he'd been brought here. Valentin felt vaguely ashamed that he was grateful not to feel them.
A soft trickle of sound reached his ears and Valentin started slightly to realize that he was humming, just a little, in the dark. The notes were shredded and raw, more a garble of broken noise than the lovely harmony it was supposed to be. Valentin didn't really care. It had been so long since he'd heard real music, so long since he'd felt the uncomplicated joy of listening to someone's soul take wing on the evening air that not even the scrape of the notes across his abused throat could make him stop. Not when he was alone in the dark with nothing but his memories and the promise of approaching death to comfort him.
He thought of Avalle, the memory of that beautiful city clear as crystal against the blackness. It was probably close to harvest time by now, Valentin thought, and he smiled vaguely as he let his spill of sound shift into another song, one bright with benedictions to Adaon and the bronze burnish of autumn's glory. It was always the crown of the harvest festival in Tigana, this song, the joyous voices of his people twined like branches around the towers while the fires burned and the taverns overflowed with wine and good cheer. Pasithea had always loved the Festival of the Vines, her gray eyes sparkling with laughter and love as they strolled through the streets and their young sons had ranged eagerly ahead. Walking at her side had always made Valentin feel as tall as the mountains, greater than even his station could make him out to be. Triad bless, how he missed her.
The song changed again, only now it was something that made Valentin's heart clench in his chest and made moisture prick at the corners of his eyes the way no physical torment had yet managed. This was the song that his men had sung that night above the Deisa, one last paean to the heavens before the morning had come. Valentin could remember the face of every man who'd been there with him, their brave, tremulous smiles and their sharpened swords and their pride. Always their pride.
His mind carried forward without him, rushing beyond the quiet and hurling him into the thick of the slaughter that had stained the sloped banks of the river as Brandin's wrath fell upon them. All had been chaos and rage, a tumult of young men dying all around him as screams replaced music and his sword grew slick with blood. He remembered shouting himself hoarse, lost to everything but fury as he'd watched Saevar fall, an artist's hands loosing their grip on an awkwardly wielded sword and his blood staining the soft earth red. He'd seen his sons die too; Loredan crouched on the ground with his sword in his off-hand as he yelled for his brother to get up, tears streaking through the dirt and gore on his young face while Corsin's eyes stared blankly up at nothing and a grim-faced Ygrathian came up on him from behind. Valentin had fought like a man possessed after that, his own grief held rigidly in check as he swept through the ranks of Ygrathians, determined to face his own death as bravely as he had theirs.
Yet Brandin had denied him even that.
A noise broke through his reverie and Valentin cut himself off abruptly, his dissonant melody staggering into silence. The steady scrape of shoes against stone echoed in the dark, coming from where Valentin knew the stairs to be and setting his teeth on edge. They were easy and unhurried, those footsteps, and his expression sharpened into a scowl when he realized just who had to be approaching.
The sound leveled out as his visitor reached the bottom of the stairs and Valentin waited mutely as the footsteps came towards him.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
"Prince of Tigana," said Brandin of Ygrath finally.
"Your Majesty," Valentin answered, scorn dripping thick and heavy off the words. "What an unpleasant surprise."
"Ah," Brandin murmured, considerably more in control of himself than he had been the last time Valentin had spoken with him. Which was worrying. "Still not wise enough to give in when you've been beaten, I see."
Valentin drew himself up as high as his mangled limbs would allow. "Even a dead Prince has his pride."
"Ah yes. Your vaunted pride. How could I have forgotten?"
Silence fell again for a moment. It was Valentin who broke it.
"Why are you here, Brandin?" he demanded. He bared his teeth on a snarl. "If you're waiting for me to break you're wasting your time."
Brandin's eyes shone in the dark as he stared at Valentin. "I know."
Valentin rolled his eyes, not really caring if Brandin's spelled eyes could see him. "Then what do you want?"
"I'm going to make you my Fool."
The darkness draped thick and heavy around him while Valentin digested that. "Another punishment?" he asked finally, not quite sure.
"It doesn't matter if you don't understand now," Brandin told him, merciless and cold. He seemed completely different from the weeping wreck of a man who'd told him that the music of Avalle and its towers was gone. Valentin still hoped his wife hadn't had to witness that.
A sigh rattled between Valentin's teeth. "Why don't you just kill me, Brandin? Or is my life not a fair payment for my crimes?"
A whisper of sound in the dark and suddenly Brandin was dangerously close, luminous eyes sparking with fury. "You killed my son," Brandin spat, his breath hot on Valentin's wasted cheeks. Anger bled through the cracks in his armour, searing as lava and twice as deadly. "A thousand deaths wouldn't pay for that!"
"Two of my sons died at Deisa," Valentin answered quietly. He could feel his limbs trembling. "Why aren't they worth the memory of yours?"
Brandin drew in a shuddering breath and stepped back, obviously struggling for control. When he finally did speak, it was in a voice no louder than Valentin's had been. "They wouldn't have had to die if you hadn't killed Stevan."
Valentin wondered when he had turned into such a rash man. "It was you who sent him to us," he reminded, almost gently. "He would not have died if you had better understood the people you were dealing with."
He braced himself, waiting for the blow, and was surprised when it never came.
"Yes," Brandin said unexpectedly. "I am also to blame." His eyes fixed on Valentin's face, flat and empty. "Which is why we're both going to suffer."
Light flared sharply in the dark, painfully bright to Valentin's bleary eyes. "Wha-ngh!" He doubled over in agony as pain crawled sudden and cold through his veins like nothing he'd ever felt before. Valentin screamed, his heart pounding frantically in his chest and his twisted limbs flailed against their restraints. "Haa...haa..."
"This magic is known only to the royal family of Ygrath," he heard Brandin say, the hollow drum of his words echoing oddly in Valentin's ears. "It will remake you from the inside out." A smile touched Brandin's voice, terrifying and grim. "Even your pride won't survive this."
Triad protect us all, Valentin thought desperately, and for a moment it was the Ygrathians who filled his mind. Darkness yawned at the edge of his vision, grasping and empty in a way even this cell hadn't been. He clutched fiercely at the memories of his wife and his children as Brandin's spell scrabbled at his mind, thinking of Tigana the way it had always been. "I...w-won't... haa, forget," he managed through the copper tang of blood in his mouth, and he could almost see Brandin's terrible smile through the streaking flares of magic.
"I know," Brandin said. "I won't let you."
The darkness was getting closer. Valentin groaned in helpless despair as Pasithea slipped between his fingers, the autumn glow of Avalle nothing but a bronze and crimson smear at the back of his mind.
"You're going to pay for his death with your life," Brandin said over the roar in Valentin's ears and Valentin could feel the sharp agony behind that frozen expression inside his own head, love and grief for Stevan twining around his heart tightly enough to choke him. "And so am I."
"Ti-ga..." he tried, and Brandin's face was the last thing Valentin saw before the blackness rose up to swallow him whole, that cold, cold voice the last thing Valentin heard before the song in his heart dwindled and fell, lost and forgotten beneath the weight of mountains.
"Stevan... forgive me."