Cages

 

Light crashed into the room. The man in rags and chains threw his arms over his head and scurried into a corner. There came the gentle tap of hard boots on stone, the grinding of a dragged chair, and the slam of a door closing.

“Ambassador!” a familiar voice called, half greeting, half chiding. “Please lower your hands. I won’t harm you.”

The man in rags and chains risked a furtive glance through his fingers.

A single torch lit the room. The cell hadn’t changed from the last time he’d been indulged with light, except now there was a chair, and a king sitting on it.

“Ambassador,” said the king, “do join me. I’d hate for the relations between our nations to deteriorate further than they already have. Besides, I’ve brought you a gift.”

The ambassador’s hands shook as he lowered them. “Please,” he said, and hated himself for it.

The king’s grin became predatory. “All in good time, Ambassador. First, help me with my little problem. You do remember my little problem?”

“Please,” the ambassador said again. He heaved forward, throwing himself at the king’s feet, but was pulled short by chains at wrists and throat. He crumpled. “Please.”

 Amusement slid from the king’s face like chalk washed by the rain. He let long moments pass in silence. Finally, he sighed. “As you wish.”

He stood and stepped closer to the chained ambassador, but not within reach. “If I give you what you want, will you answer my questions to the best of your ability?”

The ambassador moaned, wretched and broken. “I—” he started, licked his teeth with a dry tongue and tried again. “I cannot.”

“I only ask that you answer as fully as possible.”

Strain wracked the ambassador’s face. His shaking grew violent. His chains clinked and chimed. “So be it,” he whispered with eyes downcast.

The king didn’t bother gloating. He reached into a pouch and drew out a cage, smaller than a man’s fist. Tiny hands gripped the wire bars and tiny eyes peered at the two men.

“She doesn’t have much light left, does she?” the king asked.

It was true. The fairy’s glow could barely be seen against the torchlight. She looked worn, used up. Her purple wings, wilted. Her eyes, hollow.

The king shook the cage like a dice cup. The fairy thrashed frantically. Violet flecks of light sprang loose and drifted toward the floor.

The ambassador caught them, scrabbling madly with his hands, licking the light with his tongue. The effect was instantaneous. His eyes dilated. His tremors subsided.

“Good,” the king said. He set the cage carefully out of his captive’s reach, then produced a sheet of vellum and smoothed it on the stones. It was a map. “Let us discuss the city of Kish and its hidden tunnels.”

“I— Forgive me, Majesty, but I cannot help you.”

The king’s grin returned. “Everyone has their binding. You know I cannot lie, and, I suspect, you cannot betray.” He leaned close, nearly at the ambassador’s ear. “But even bindings have their limits.”

He gestured to the map. “You cannot reveal your city’s weaknesses, yes? But you can tell me where your city isn’t weak.”

The ambassador swallowed.

“Tell me,” the king continued, tapping the map with a finger. “Does the north half hide these tunnels?”

“I cannot—”

“Does the southern half?” the king interrupted.

The ambassador paused. His eyes flicked to his captor’s face, then to the caged fairy. He chewed his lip.

The fairy stared back.

“No,” he said at last.

“Good, Ambassador. Good.” The king tapped another location. “Northwest quarter?”

Sweat seeped from the ambassador’s brow. His eyes slid from the map to the cage. “No.”

“Northeast quarter?”

“Majesty, I cannot answer.”

“I see. Do the tunnels run under the timber fields?” His captive flinched but said nothing. “Are they under the middle market? Grave Hill?”

“I— Majesty, I have family in Kish. If you would spare them, I would cooperate.”

The king leaned away and considered his captive. He nudged the little metal cage. “I will permit you to spare one life. One, Ambassador.”

His captive blinked away tears. He tried to cross his arms as if to warm himself but sat at the end of his chains. In the end, he dropped his hands in his lap. The tremors were already returning. “I have a niece,” he whispered. “She’s just a child.”

The king nodded. “No violence will come to her from me, those who serve me, or any that I can protect her from. You have my word.” He waited only a heartbeat. “Now, are the tunnels under the timber fields?”

“No,” the ambassador whispered.

“The middle market?”

“No.” It was a ghost of a word.

“Grave Hill?”

The ambassador took a deep breath and tore his eyes from the fairy cage. “I cannot say.”

“Grave Hill,” the king repeated. “Excellent.” He rolled the map and stood. “When I sack Kish, every last person, save your niece, will be put to the sword. She will be escorted to her bed chamber, the doors will be sealed, and she will starve to death.”

“What? You promised!”

“I promised to let you spare one life. And I will.” He kicked the fairy cage toward his captive. “Let her free, or kill her for her last flicker of warmth. I care not which.”

“No!” the ambassador screamed. He threw himself at the chains, tearing and struggling, begging and threatening. The king ignored him, taking the torch and leaving. The cell door boomed shut. The man in rags and chains raged until his strength failed him. He wept until empty of tears.

Silence descended.

“Please.” The tiny voice came from the tiny cage.

The ambassador stared at the fairy. Hours seemed to crawl by. Then he laughed like a broken man, fumbled the cage open.

He caught her with shaking hands, felt her panicked fluttering. And crushed the last light in his cage.

End