An exercise of desperate powers

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It was hardly luxurious, but the cell was mostly clean and free from the stains of previous occupants. Light and cold air entered through a high, barred window, which would certainly drop the room's temperature to freezing come nightfall. There was no bed in the cell, just a chair and a small table, both nailed to the floor.

Kirya paced the room, indignant, wrestling with her lack of royal privilege and wondering how to navigate the situation without diplomatic leverage. To these people she was another street urchin - they probably thought she and Tarn had been trespassing with intent to steal or cause some other mischief. She hadn't seen or heard from him since they'd been taken inside the guard station. After being caught on the walkway they'd been unceremoniously bundled into the cable car and transported to another part of town, back on the ground level, and deposited with bound hands at the mercy of the local magistrate. She hoped that Tarn would be in one of his less verbose moods; keeping information to himself wasn't in his nature and he wasn't the best judge of character.

She sat, slumping against the back of the chair, her shoulders aching from having her hands bound behind her back. All her life, she had been able to do whatever she wanted, even if it were at the expense of others, and nobody could stop her. She was the princess of Lagonia, heir to the throne, and nobody would dare raise a dissenting voice - none except Fenris, that is, who never let hierarchy get in the way of making his point. That was all stripped away now, her power cut away like her hair - both had gone so swiftly and unceremoniously, leaving her as a commoner. She had witnessed the evaporation of power and influence in others, had watched from afar as political careers had imploded, or as noble families had crumbled through internal strife and corruption, and had assumed it could never happen to her. Genuine calamity had been something which happened to other people.

Kirya had assumed herself immune from the ravages of fate. Yet, here she was, in a cell in Bruckin, with nothing and no-one to save her. If she was to navigate away from this imprisonment, she would need to do it alone.

The cell door clanked and creaked then swung open, revealing a short, rotund man perhaps in his fifties, bespectacled and fulfilling every stereotype of a desk-bound civil servant.

"I am here to officiate your case," he announced, shuffling in to the room. "Your ineptitude as demonstrated by the ease of your capture indicates to me that you are a petty thief, is this true?"

Kirya stared at him indignantly. "I am no thief, sir," she said, her tone more royal than she had intended.

He looked at her over the rim of his spectacles, then removed them and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "Failed common thievery of this sort can be dealt with quickly, through monitored community service or a brief jail spell," he said, replacing the spectacles. "I have many cases to oversee today and do not wish to dwell unnecessarily. If you are not a thief then I can only assume you to be a assassin, attempting to break into the lord's tower with violent intent. That would, of course, entail the death penalty, swiftly and with some finality. Now, are you a thief?"

"I am neither a thief nor an assassin," Kirya said, reaching for a way out of the conversation's dead end, "and I do not mean to waste your time. We were merely...lost."

"I dare say you were," he said, peering more closely at her. "You're not from Bruckin, are you?"

She chewed on her lip, looked about the room and found no inspiration. "I recently moved to the city," she said, at last.

"A southerner, at a guess? You have the skin of a southerner, like someone who has spent too much time in the sun of olive groves.There's no grit in your eyes, as they say."

She did not respond: there seemed little point, given that the man was clearly content to do all the talking.

"I will admit," he said, "that newcomers to our city can easily become lost. But that does not ordinarily include climbing rooftops. Quite a wrong turn, wouldn't you say?"

Kirya rubbed a hand over her neck, which was cold from the breeze coming in through the window. "It was a foolish mistake. My friend and I were merely exploring."

The man's eyes narrowed. "This is a holding cell," he said, gesturing at the walls. "It is not intended for keeping prisoners overnight. You're here because you are of no interest to me, which means you are of no interest to the city of Bruckin. If I were you I would keep it that way. Confess to your intent to thieve and you'll receive a limited failure sentence and transferred to the outskirts to work in the quarries for a month. Hard work but then you'll be free and hopefully I'll never have to see you again."

"I'm not a thief," Kirya said, unwilling to admit to such a thing even if it were the best move strategically. The man seemed an earnest, harmless bureaucrat who could probably be trusted but she would not confess to criminality she had not committed. She drew the line at treason and abdication.

The man sighed, took a notebook from a pocket within his jacket. "You seem even denser than your companion," he muttered. "If you refuse to confess I will have no choice but to escalate your case, which would be tedious for me and potentially deadly for you."

There didn't seem to be a way out. At least if she was moved to the quarry Fenris might be able to find a way to get her free - and at worst she'd be out a month later. But, then, she knew that forced labour as punishment was often worse than one might imagine: Tarn was evidence enough of that. She knew nothing of these quarries and had an instinct that they were best avoided.

"You cut your hair recently?" The man pointed at her head, where she had been running a hand nervously through the spiky tufts that remained.

Her hand froze in place, then she lowered it slowly to the table, feeling self-conscious, as if someone had caught her doing something outrageous. "I like to keep it short," she said. "Makes it easier to clean and keep the lice at bay."

The man shook his head and laughed quietly, then tutted a few times. "No, that's not it. You're not used to having short hair. You haven't stopped playing with it since you got here."

"I'm nervous. Of course I'm nervous."

"I'd guess that you're trying to avoid being recognised," he said. "What is it? In trouble with a gang? Debts? Running away from your family? These could be mitigating circumstances." He flicked a timepiece out of a pocket and frowned at it, grimacing with impatient frustration.

It was her one card. It wasn't a good card, but it was all she had.

"I need to speak to your superior officer," she said, sitting straighter in her chair.

"I am the superior officer around here, girl. I've given you your options. You've got twenty seconds to choose the gallows or the pickaxe."

"Have you ever been to Treydolain?"

"You're not the one asking the questions here."

"If you have, you will have seen the murals of Princess Kirya Tellador. You will have seen the paintings on the sides of buildings."

There was a flicker of recognition and doubt.

"Look at me," Kirya said, "and see me with long hair. Down to the small of my back. Imagine me not in these rags but in the finest clothes."

Colour faded from the man's face as he leaned closer, squinting.

"I'll be damned," he whispered, taking a step backwards and looking stricken.

"About that superior officer. Might he be available for a conversation?"


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