Claudia woke up on the stoop of her apartment: a decrepit single room that shared walls with two other rooms on the south side of Mirek. She had no memory of leaving the palace, but her leg and shoulder were wrapped in rich silk bandages. Her best guess was that she had been treated by a royal surgeon after the mage blasted her. I knew he still had mages in his service, the cur! Then someone dropped her here.
The pebbles and sandstone on the stoop were further scratching the abrasions on her exposed skin. Claudia held in a whine as she tried to get up without using her injured leg. It took a few tries, but she finally pushed herself up to her feet. I see they didn’t return my equipment. I was going to take the hook and rope back to Augustus. Not only have I been caught, but I am now truly destitute. What a joyous day.
“You in any trouble?” someone with a tenor’s voice asked from behind.
Claudia slowly turned. It was her somewhat familiar neighbor with the distinguished nose. He was maybe twenty-seven to her twenty-nine, with long black hair. Mirekian men did not usually share the hairstyle of the King, so he was likely foreign. Not dangerous, but probably not helpful either.
“I live next door,” the man said. “I saw them dump you here.”
“Them?” Men, plural, drop me off in torn clothes and I can barely walk. He probably thinks I’m a whore.
“A few shiny-armored folks, royal attendants I suppose? They were in a hurry to leave. Didn’t want to be seen.”
“But you saw them?”
“Sort of. It’s... sort of.”
Claudia raised an eyebrow as she opened her front door. “Well, anyway, I’m perfectly fine. So thank you.” With that, she shut the door, hobbled over to the window above the grimy washbasin, and pulled back the curtain. The daylight helped a little.
Claudia lost her balance but managed to catch herself on the unsanded dining table. She clumsily propped herself up with her left hand. Why am I so weak? Is it whatever herbs the surgeon probably gave me, or the magic spell? She didn’t want to think about how long it’d been since she’d eaten.
Rather than being relieved that she’d been freed—and grateful for King Sallith’s excellent aim which had left her with no permanent damage—Claudia felt humiliated. It really would’ve been better if I'd simply been shot through the face. This is an all-new low for me. No, that’s not true. I am glad to be alive.
She stumbled to the bed in the corner of her small room and fell asleep.
Claudia woke up late the next morning. It seemed the magic had worn off. She took a bath and dressed in a more conservative blue frock.
She walked to Calceria Stockade, Mirek’s legendary prison for the highest offenders. It was near the east end of the Colosseum, making it a conveniently short journey for criminals who wanted to risk their lives to gain their freedom instead of rotting away in prison.
Claudia stepped inside the off-pink complex. Prisons, like courts, were her arena. She walked under Calceria’s low ceiling to the visitors’ desk. “I’d like to see the latest prisoner admitted.”
“We got seven inmates over the last day, some around the same time,” the disinterested man said with half-closed lips. One of his eyes was a black glass orb.
The officer looked up. “Reginald?” he called to the prison guards. They nodded once.
“Assets?” said the officer.
“We need something to seize if you violate the rules.”
I know, you fool. Claudia had sold absolutely everything. She was only living in the apartment because she’d paid rent a few months in advance. When that ran out she’d have to go back to her mother’s on Street Ten.
“No assets, no entry.”
“A home on Street Ten.” Claudia winced. “Eighty-two.” She hated what she’d just done.
The officer knocked on the table as he recorded her information. A guard opened the barred door.
“Stay in front of the guards and follow their instructions,” said the officer. “You may enter the prisoner’s cell if you wish, but the guards will not.”
Two armor-plated titans with enchanted steel talon hammers escorted Claudia into the arched sandstone hallway. The purplish-black iron bars on the cells cast long shadows on the smooth curved ceiling.
The guards followed closely behind Claudia. Their magical weapons were famous for tearing through iron bars like cobwebs. Knowing this made Claudia feel somewhat safe as she walked down the long row of cells with many peering males on either side.
They stopped at a cell at the end of the hallway.
“I’d like to enter,” Claudia said.
“Make a noise when you want to get out.”
One guard unlocked the sliding iron gate and the other shoved her inside. They immediately locked the gate behind her.
Reginald was lying on a small stone bench in the dimly lit cell. His head was cradled firmly on his hands and there was sandstone dust in his hair.
“So, Sallith kept his word,” said Reginald. “Despite everything else, he always does that at least.”
“So...” Claudia leaned against the wall across from him. “Why’d you do it?”
“Take the fall for me. What are you after? Were you trying to get in here?”
“Will you please explain why you gave up your freedom for my sake? I’d like to know.”
“It was nothing to do with you, really.” Reginald opened one eye. “Latalla requests sacrifices, burdens redirected, lives made easier for others. Your predicament gave me a chance to serve Latalla.”
Latalla was a lesser deity of selflessness. Her followers were both humans and elves, but mostly humans. The people of Mirek weren’t fond of the cult, but they didn’t consider it evil like many others.
“I suppose you despised your job,” said Claudia.
“Yes. Sallith is a hypocritical tyrant. I gladly stopped serving him when I saw he’s also the kind of man who treats desperate women like animals. It was an opportunity to serve Latalla... and to leave a life that didn’t serve her. I took it.”
Claudia blushed. “How did you ever bring yourself to work for him in the first place?” Maybe it was her mother’s influence, but Claudia never liked the prospect of Sallith taking the throne. She couldn’t imagine ever trusting the man enough to serve him.
“I had little contact with the King, even after I became Palace Captain.”
“Would it not have been easier just to resign?”
“Quit a position with the almighty Sallith? I still would’ve ended up in here.”
They both laughed.
“Reginald, is it?”
“My name is Claudia Nierra. I’m a jurist and I can get you out of here.”
Reginald opened his other eye.
He sat up with a snort. “You’re a jurist who steals from the palace? Please, have a seat.”
Claudia’s stomach churned with an embarrassing hum and gurgle as she sat down on the stone bench next to Reginald. Getting off her leg was a relief. “Do you know how hard it is for a legal defender to find work in a city-state run by a tyrant? While trying to serve the poor?”
“I can imagine.”
“I’ve been unsuccessful. I thought I could get away with stealing from the bastard who forced me into penury... just once. A merchant told me about the unlocked window in the tower. I bought a hook and rope from him with my last coin. Now I don’t have a single coin to my name.” That reminded her, she’d have to watch out for Augustus, the swine who started this.
Mild altercations between other prisoners echoed in the distance.
“I’m pleased to know my sacrifice was made for a good young woman,” Reginald said. “And I appreciate your offer of help.”
“Thank you. And believe me, I can help you.” Claudia stood up.
“Just a moment. Did you not cause this? How could you possibly represent me, be my jurist?”
“I can’t,” she said. “I’ll help in other ways.” She jiggled the rusty iron bars with her foot and called for the guards. They came and opened the cell.
“I’ll be back soon, just you wait.”