Aravel looks at the place where her hand used to be and smiles.
The light in her cold cell of wet bricks and black moss is poor, but she can make out the frayed linen bandage capping the stump of her wrist. Yesterday it was a soaking crimson; now it’s beginning to crust and turn brown. And again, there’s a faint smell like burned oranges and tomb dust. It’s not coming from her hand.
She wonders if they will hold her until she rots. Until she looks all over like her ruined arm. Pinched flesh, muscles consumed, veins just grey streaks.
They haven’t fed her. What little water she’s had to drink has come from the cracks between bricks and tastes of decay.
But she thinks they don’t want her to die. They wanted the hand, not her life. If they wanted her dead, she wouldn’t have the bandage. She remembers the surgeon, the one with the bad teeth, holding her down by the stump of her freshly-dismembered arm. She remembers – he tied off the veins and pushed her stump into the burning coals until it sizzled like steak. Only then did he apply the bandage.
She remembers. The recollections are hazy, through the wall separating her from the worst of the agony. But Aravel remembers.
The voice from the next cell, hissing again. The madman, spitting his words like they’re made of salt. Aravel has listened to him all these hours, snuffling and babbling vicious insults at some tormenter only he can perceive. A few times he has turned his wandering attention to her, which seems to anchor him in coherence, if not sanity.
“Poisoner! Hexen! Foreign scum!”
She’s as Pylorian as he is, but she knows it’s not worth her breath to correct him. She says, “Just a thief, old man. And not a very good one, to be so easily caught.”
“Oh, you do yourself a great disservice, Lady Nyles,” comes a haughty voice from the corridor outside her cell. A face made of deep lines cut into marbled steak appears in the viewing slit, stroking a sharp moustache. “You led us on a very merry chase through the streets of Calloix. I’d almost given up hope of taking you alive.”
“Better for us both if you hadn’t, Inspector Gossard. Better if you had simply shot me dead, that I might float face-down in the Jounte-Bellon and wash away out of your life.”
The Inspector beamed, nasty in his triumph. “Another anonymous thief dead in the river is nothing to me. But the famous burglar Vincenze, revealed as a Lady of the Court? Madame, my career is made, and I have you to thank for it.”
“The hell with your career, murderer.” Aravel coughs, deep and bloody. She spits on the floor, not heeding whether it splashes her tattered silk shoes.
“She’s a monster! Don’t let her touch you!”
“Shut up!” says Gossard. Then, to one of the square-shouldered guards who dress in violet and black, he adds, “Shut him up.”
A door creaks open. An old man whimpers. Something hard hits something soft. Something cracks. Then again, and again, until the whimpering is done.
Aravel watches Gossard’s face as they listen to the beating. A form of ecstasy is written across the Inspector’s stony features. She imagines the same look on his face as he wrought his “justice” upon her brother Somer. She finds it easy to harden her heart.
“You have something of mine, I think,” she says. The effort of standing makes her faint. The end of her wrist flares with an undiscovered species of pain. But she stands. She faces Gossard through the bars. His breath smells of rare beef and good liquor.
“Do you mean this?” He steps back, grasps the gold chain about his neck, and raises it. She would recognise the hand dangling from it anywhere. Long fingers, sharp knuckles, finger pads stained by a thousand tinctures, extracts and acids. Its twin is shaking at the end of her left arm. “You are mistaken. This is mine now, forever.”
She shakes her head. “Very well. I was done with it anyway.”
Inspector Gossard smiles unkindly. “You will not need it, Lady Nyles. The headsman knows his manners. He will assist you on your ascent to the block.”
Aravel regards him as she might one of her specimens. As though he is a wriggling thing on a slide, thrashing about his tiny spot of pond water. “You are not satisfied just to take my hand for your trophy? You must insist on my life as well?”
“As you said before, Lady Nyles. Better for us both if you do not live to see another sunset.”
Neither says what is unspoken. They both know what poisonous secrets Gossard protects, his own and others. Nothing will come of her speaking them aloud. The guards’ loyalties are bought easily if not cheaply, and Old Saltrum is not a prison where the inmates entertain visitors.
“So be it, Inspector. I hope, very soon, we can resume our acquaintance in hell.”
The vice within her chest grips her lungs in a vicious squeeze. Her composure collapses, and she coughs hard enough to weep.
Gossard barks once. “I think not. I plan to live a long and comfortable life. Goodbye.”
Gasping for air, unable to lift her face from the cold stones, Aravel listens to Gossard’s confident footsteps recede. She thinks she can make out the sound of the gold chain bumping its grisly weight against his chest.
Pain coils inside her. Aravel doubts she will survive until her appointment with the headsman. She thinks of Gossard, dining with his corrupt patrons. She thinks of her brother Somer, the great burglar Vincenze, betrayed by his accomplice.
And she thinks of the disease – that tiny, wriggling pond-worm, so happy to feast and multiply until it has spread to every cell in her body, here and elsewhere, and soon everywhere – and wishes it godspeed.
Well that got dark. A friend mentioned on Facebook that this week is the 29th anniversary of The Cure’s album Disintegration, so I listened to that and let the vibe lead me astray. (“Lullaby” may be the greatest creepy body horror song of all time)
By the way, I am currently participating a mass free book giveaway. There’s over 130 fantasy titles available to choose from, so even if you already have your copy of Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales, there’s probably something in the lineup to catch your eye. Check it out here, and feel free to send the link to anyone who might be interested in a cornucopia of zero-cost fantasy (offer runs until the 15th of May 2018)