I suffered a blow across my face. The force of it knocked me sideways, throwing me to the floor. I took care to prevent my head from slamming into the ground, taking the brunt of the impact on my shoulder instead. With my manacled hands, I tried to push myself back into a sitting position, but my attacker struck again, this time kicking my side, forcing me back down. As I grimaced in pain, my attacker – a soldier who wore a veil that obscured his face – continued his farce of an interrogation.
“Hurry up and admit your crime! The longer you hold out, the more you’ll suffer.”
Taking my time to answer, I tentatively touched my tongue to my inner cheek – it stung. It seemed that the blow had at least caused the skin inside my mouth to tear apart. The tang of blood spread through my mouth. I gathered it up and spit it out in a gob of blood-soaked saliva.
“How do you expect me to confess to something I have not committed?”
“Again with the fucking lies!”
My interrogator kicked me again, this time in the stomach. I doubled up, the pain lancing through my body. I glared at him, intending to spit out a curse, but I controlled myself and instead smiled at him weakly.
“Kicking me’s not going to make me any more guilty, you know.”
The man, enraged, began to kick and strike me repeatedly, swearing and cursing as he did. Throughout the pain, I remained resolutely silent, not answering a single one of his questions even as constantly taunted me with promises that a confession would alleviate the suffering. Finally, my body could take no more, and I passed out.
When I came to, the interrogator was gone, and I was once again alone in my cell – a sparse, gray room made of rock, with only a single barred window, high up near the ceiling, to let in a minimum of light. In the corner of the room was a bucket that, judging by its odor and the stains on it, was to be used as a latrine. On my first day, I had wondered how the waste was disposed of, but I quickly learned that the prisoners took turns to collect and dispose of it every three days. I, certainly, was not anticipating my turn at the task, and thus wished for my imprisonment to end swiftly, before it could come to that.
I slowly pushed myself up, forcing myself to endure the pain that surged through my body with every movement. I managed to move myself into a sitting position, whereupon I looked down and examined the damage that had been inflicted upon my naked body. Nearly every inch of my skin was bruised or bleeding – only my groin was left unwounded, through some small mercy on my questioner’s part, either directed by orders or by his own conscience.
How long had I been in that cell? The light that flooded my cell had vanished twice, so if I were to use that as a guide, it meant that two nights had passed. But that didn’t account for the time I spent unconscious. Still, as I had no way of knowing how long my bouts of unconsciousness lasted, it was the closest thing I had to an estimate. So, roughly two nights had passed.
After we had been arrested at the Theatre, Elysium and I had been seized and detained in separate cells. Rosalind alone had been brought before the Emperor, at his request. I knew not what had become of her, but if everything was going according to plan, I would hear of her circumstances before long. What she had set out to do was hardly inconspicuous, after all.
Up to this point, everything – including our detention and isolation – was unfolding as per Elysium’s predictions. While it was by no means a desirable situation to be in, I could not help but admire Elysium’s ability. She perfectly understood the character of Julio and the Emperor, based purely on her singular encounter with Julio and the gossip surrounding the Emperor. Indeed, while the details of Protocol Crescendo left a bitter taste in my mouth, it seemed that all parties involved had acted exactly as Elysium surmised, puppets dancing on her stage. If things continued to follow this flow, then I could be assured of my freedom within the next day or so. Still, until that day came, I was stuck in this cell, extremely bored and hurting all over.
In addition to the periodic (futile) interrogations, Every now and then, a guard would bring a meal to the cell door – a simple meal of stale bread and water. Eating such a mean meal was almost nostalgic, calling to mind the days of thievery and starvation I had left behind. Occasionally, my thoughts would turn to Anneliese – if we were to follow Protocol Crescendo to its climax, she would have a major role to play from here on. All the branches of the Ezov would. It would certainly be far more than they bargained for, but I knew that Anneliese, of all people, would be able to handle it. There was a reason nobody ever made untoward advances toward the Syrens, back in Frunzeit.
But even more so than Anneliese, as time passed in my cell, I found my thoughts increasingly turned toward the enigmatic Alpha. I wanted to know more about her – who she was, why she acted so unnatural, what her circumstances were. She was a puzzle to me, and I wanted to figure her out. The similarities in our circumstances were too evident for me to be disinterested in her as a person – I felt a deep curiosity about her, about this person who was so like me and yet so unlike me. My thoughts kept turning to her, thinking about how she passed her days, whether she experienced the same problems and trials I did, whether her face was in fact capable of showing any expression.
Of course, I have now matured to the point where I can put a word to my fascination with her, but at the time, young and inexperienced as I was, the thought never occurred to me – though it was likely that it did, and I merely battered it down in denial. Regardless, I found myself unproductively occupied with such thoughts, and therefore resolved to turn my attention to something more useful – that is, the analysis and understanding of the mode of my confinement.
The large, metal grille that barred the entry to my cell was inscribed with the same markings as my manacles – an engraved spell, similar in function to a magic circle. Its function was to restrict the use of magic within its vicinity. Examining the workings of the spell, applying what I had learned from Ruth, as well as drawing upon my own research about the art of magic inscription – an art that still had many mysteries, even to its most devoted researchers – enabled me to understand the nature of the restriction.
When I finally deciphered and understood the function of the spell, I burst out laughing, incredulous. Of course, the art of engraving magic in the form of symbols was as yet young and under-developed, and hence nothing too complex should have been expected, but even so, the method by which the shackles obstructed magic was hilariously ineffective. Simply put, the inscription was designed to insert a pulse of foreign magical energy into any spell being cast in the affected area, distorting the mana composition of the magic with impurities, thereby rendering the spell ineffectual.
To be fair, such a method was effective – any individual who was blindly constructing magic without an understanding of its true nature would have found it impossible to complete a spell that contained mana belonging to two different people. Yet, to anyone who was aware of the nature of magic as information – an understanding that had been drilled into me by Ruth – it was exceedingly simple to alter the nature of the spell such that it would no longer make a distinction between differing sources of mana. This record is not intended to be a textbook of magic, but for the purposes of accurately reproducing my thoughts, I shall explain what I mean through the use of an analogy.
Think of a spell as a line of squares. What the shackles and the door to the jail did was to insert a triangle into the line of squares. The moment this action is taken, the line ceases to be a line of squares – similarly, the spell collapses in on itself, as its form has been altered. Now, consider an alternative spell: one that was conceived of as a line of shapes, rather than being limited to only squares. Inserting that same triangle into the mix would not cause the form of the line to change, for it would still be “a line of shapes”. Accordingly, a spell shaped in such a way would not collapse, and would be activated without issue.
Of course, preparing one’s spell in such a way had its own share of problems: the least of which being that another, equally savvy spellcaster would be able to interfere with one’s spell, possibly changing its target or its effect. But in this situation, where I was isolated in a cell, that was a moot concern.
Testing my theory, I formulated a simple light spell in such a manner, and on casting it, was gratified to see my hypothesis proven right. With this, I had a way to escape the prison if necessary – though hopefully, that would be unnecessary.
Having broken the secret of the anti-magical measures, I inspected the second layer of detainment – the barrier outside the door of the cell. A magical barrier, again using a magic circle, was erected that prevented movement between the cell and corridor. The construction of this barrier was a lot sturdier, as the spell involved was far simpler. That said, it was not a very strong barrier – if I battered it with magic, it was likely to shatter. Unfortunately, for the magicless Elysium, that would not be an option – indeed, it was likely that this barrier would be the largest hindrance to her escape, were she to attempt it. However, it was not without its faults – the barrier was deactivated whenever someone entered the cell, such as the individual who brought me meals, or the man who interrogated me. In other words, if Elysium acted in the brief span of time when the barrier was brought down, she would be able to escape easily.
Having fully understood my surroundings, I leaned back, the raw skin on my back smarting as it contacted the cold stone wall. How long more would it take…? The pain was one thing, but the boredom was the real issue at hand.
…Odd. When did I become so bothered by boredom?
I was no stranger to boredom – it was a constant companion for much of my early life. When I had just completed a theft, when I had nothing to do, when it was a slow day with no good marks, boredom was all that kept me company. Back then, if I had been thrown into such a cell, I would likely have spent the day staring at thin air, unthinking. In contrast, I found myself thinking about various things, considering various outcomes, analysing my surroundings, my mind uncomfortably active. When had I begun to spend so much time just thinking? I concluded that perhaps keeping company with Elysium and Rosalind had changed me more than I realised.
The thought made me smile. My journey with the two ladies had been a spectacular one. I had learned a lot. I had changed a lot. And, if the plan succeeded, the new experiences I was exposed to would only increase in volume and scale from now on. Unable to restrain myself, I licked my lips in anticipation, impatient for the next phase to begin.
At that moment, the barrier outside my cell was deactivated. A helmeted soldier walked in, bearing the clothes I had been wearing on the day I was detained.
The soldier spoke, and I could tell from the voice that it was not my veiled tormentor. His tone was haughty and condescending, as if he was some benevolent superior bestowing salvation upon an unworthy lesser – which, admittedly, he probably thought he was.
“Elysium Ling has confessed to charges of treason. Furthermore, she has testified that you and Miss Rosalind had no part to play in the foul attempt on His Imperial Majesty’s life. In his great mercy, the High Chancellor has ordered your immediate release.”
I displayed the expression of shock appropriate for one who heard that their employer was a traitor to the crown. As I stood unmoving with my mouth agape, miming surprise, the guard dropped my clothes on the floor and, taking a key from the loop on his belt, unlocked my manacles. He walked out of the cell, leaving the door invitingly open, for me to exit as I chose.
After I judged that the appropriate amount of time had passed to make my performance of shock and betrayal convincing, I hastily got dressed and exited the prison, emerging on the East side of the capital, breathing fresh air for the first time in days. I began to stagger in the direction of the inn where we had stayed, moving in an affectedly dejected fashion. People around me whispered and pointed – many knew my face from my position at the Ezov. As if ashamed, I kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with everyone. Yet, once I was a good distance away from the entrance to the prison, my mouth curled into a smile.
Well then, let’s begin.