Chapter Four, Part One

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Chapter Four, Part One 

The man you seek lies in the Royal Prison. Third floor, seventh cell.

The decoded letter was so simple that my heart stopped beating. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be that easy.

But now I walk down a dungeon corridor, my heart hammering to make up for those long seconds it stopped. I’m not sure how I’m breathing. It’s a mixture of necessity and sheer will; the air up here is thick and reeks like sewage, and my chest is tight with anxiety.

My footsteps echo off the stone walls, mixing with the steps of the guard escorting me. He’ll probably be fired for taking me up here, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that I could be close to the man who murdered Ashe.

The dagger handle in my sleeve is smooth against the skin of my forearm.

“Now, ya’re sure the king wants ya in here?” the guard asks. He has a drawl that’s similar to Jolik’s, but not quite as intelligent-sounding.

“Of course I’m sure.” I smile up at him and move the letter in my hand closer to him. “You see? It’s all written here.”

One of the first things Jackal taught me—in secret, of course—was how to forge handwriting. Now all it takes is a thorough look at someone’s handwriting, and I can mimic it.

Even Father’s handwriting.

The guard scratches his neck and takes the letter from me—it’s the fourth time he’s read it at an agonizingly slow pace—and then hands it back to me. “Sure looks like royal writin’,” he mutters. “But I just don’t know why he’d want ya up here.”

“A quality investigation,” I say for the fourth time, reciting exactly what’s on the letter. Well, not exactly. The letter says that the king wishes to try to integrate me into the daily duties of royalty, in an effort to heal my mind. My first task is to investigate the Kastellor’s prison to ensure it’s “meets the quality standards of His Royal Majesty”.

It’s my own little joke. Father has never cared about the well-being of criminals or prisoners; he lets the Grand Judge deal out ruthless punishments, and has never bothered to improve the conditions of Irrador’s prisons. Especially this one. The  Royal Prison sits high on the top of a cliff, with the ocean surrounding it on three sides. It’s an ancient building, four stories high and made of the best stone-work possible. It’s also drafty, damp, and freezing. But people say the prison is inescapable, so Father keeps it in use.

“Well,” the guard replies, after pausing for a second, “I ‘spose it’s better to check now than never.”

The corridor we walk down is empty, except for our shadows and footsteps. The guard—Hirard—decided it would be best to take a back way to the third floor. According to him, it would be “scarring” to lead me past the rows of cells and prisoners that line the main pathway.

He obviously has no idea what kind of company I keep during my nightly walks.

“Now what cell did ya need to see?” Hirard asks. “The seventeenth?”

“The seventh,” I correct.

He lets out a long sigh. “Hmm. That’s awfully specific.”

“It’s part of the quality testing,” I say. “I have to check a random cell, to ensure you can’t cheat on the test.”

He bobs his head vigorously. “’Spose that’s only fair.”

We pass six doorways, each leading to winding corridors that lead deeper into the dungeon. I’ve never been in the prison before, but I know exactly where each corridor would lead. The visions of this place—of it’s outlay, its eerie silence, its reeking stench— bombarded me as I approached the prison. I nearly fell out of my saddle as one vision hit me—a vision of a man’s screams as he was dragged toward a guillotine.

Now that I’ve arrived, the visions have faded to soft whispers in the back of my mind. I don’t think I’ll ever really know what my visions are, or where they come from. Jackal calls them “good intuition”, and Farren says it’s a “gift”. Others call it freakish, bizarre, otherworldly. And some call it magic.

My visions became apparent when I was three, and asked Father to take me to the Black Stables. He told me those stables had been destroyed in a fire four centuries ago, and were never rebuilt. From then on, I realized that many of the things I’d “seen” didn’t exist anymore, and were nothing but visions from the past. But certain things—like Kastellor’s main prison and castle—were old enough that the visions rang true.

“Well,” Hirard says as we near a small staircase. “This will take us to the third floor.”

I gesture for him to lead the way, and he does. My legs are sore by the time we reach the top of the staircase, and my heart beats out a frantic rhythm. I’ve made it. I’m here.

But is Ashe’s killer? 

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