On the other side of the bars

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They dropped into the pit.

Above ground, Treydolain had been an empty stage, devoid of actors, its artifice laid bare for all to see. The mesas were abandoned, save for a skeleton staff who wandered about in a daze. Flying over the city the streets had been similarly empty, with none of the life that Kirya had taken for granted. Doors were closed, windows were shuttered. It was a body without a pulse; bloodless and inert.

Descending into the prison reminded her of being taken backstage for the first time at the theatre as a child, an experience she had found both thrilling in its inherent subversiveness and traumatising in its revealing of the mundane truth behind the curtain.

From the cage of the elevator car they could see floor after floor of jail cells, some small and some larger to accommodate groups, ringing the pit's enormous circumference and lit wanly by flickering lamps at sparse intervals. Arms protruded through the bars and unintelligible shouts echoed out, cries for attention and mercy, desperate demands to be noticed. At first she averted her eyes, staring instead down at the corrugated metal floor of the car, the sounds of human pain flowing over and around her in an awful caress. The sounds were enough: she needed no more guilt, not in addition to what she had already endured. There was no accommodating of more regret beyond what had already happened.

The cacophony of despair continued to intensify, a deathly choir which reverberated around the hole, from bottom to top and back again, bouncing off the walls until it was attacking her from all sides.

Through the noise came a lone voice, rising above the incoherence with a forceful demand to be acknowledged. Her name cut through the shots. "Princess," came the shout, "Princess Kirya Tellador!"

Not without some effort she raised her eyes, looking through the open sides of the elevator car, wondering if she had imagined the voice.

It came again, and she reached out and lifted the lever, halting the car's descent. Her eyes searched the hazy gloom for the voice's mouth.

"This doesn't seem like a good place to stop," Tranton said, leaning out of the car's window to look down uneasily. "We're about as vulnerable as we could ever be."

"Wait," she ordered. Roving over the sea of waving arms, the shout of her name came again, a level slightly above where they were. She lifted the lever again, raising them up to the next floor. "How do we extend the bridge?"

One of the Bruckin soldiers whom had accompanied them and had already scouted the interior of the prison reached out and activated a series of switches. A telescoping bridge slowly extended from the car, old metal scraping painfully against ancient runners and joints. It finally locked into place against the walkway on the outer circumference of the hole and a rickety railing lifted up on each side, which looked to be little protection from accidental falls.

"Kirya," Tranton began, but she cut him off with a single glance.

"They're all behind bars," she said, "what do you expect them to do?"

Sliding the car door aside, she walked gingerly out onto the bridge, which flexed disconcertingly beneath her weight. It was unsupported other than where it connected to the car and the walkway, a good twenty feet away. Gripping the railing she made her way across, Tarn following close behind.

The source of the shouts was further around the walkway in a clockwise direction. As they made there way towards it, arms reached out through the bars, many voices pleading for aid.

When at last they came upon the correct cell, for the longest time Kirya still did not recognise the man behind the voice. His hair was long and ragged and filthy, his clothes torn and nondescript, his skin pale and thin, with eyes wild and red.

"Princess Kirya," he said, throat dry and voice hoarse, "do you not recognise me? I am Tristan Verase. You must remember me."

The shock of recognition was overwhelming, as she realised the imprisoned soul was the same young man she had conversed with only months prior at his father's estate on the lakefront. His dishevelled appearance was somehow more alarming, given how she had last seen him, resplendent in his very best.

"Tristan?" she managed, stammering.

"We have spent many happy hours talking," he said, somehow mustering a smile, "setting the world to rights. Do you not know who I am?" His voice became more desperate, more unsure, as if he was himself doubting his own identity.

She nodded vigorously. "Yes, I know you, Tristan." She didn't mention how she remembered their encounters quite differently. "I remember you, of course." His face cracked then into a shattered expression of relief and he began to weep. "How did you come to be here, Tristan? What happened?"

He shook his head, fists clutched around the bars, as other prisoners jostled him where he stood. The cell was overcrowded and ready to burst, with barely any room for the prisoners to move around each other. The stench was unbearable. "They came for us, for all of us. First they froze our assets, then they took me away. One night, they came for all of us. Sons, daughters." He looked out at the darkness of the hole. "We're all here, somewhere."

Kirya looked around her aghast, unable to comprehend the scale of the challenge. They had faced one impossible hurdle after another at every point of their journey.

"They haven't fed us for days," Tristan said, and the other prisoners next to him wailed their own confirmation. "We're starving. I think they've forgotten about us."

Tarn put a hand on her shoulder and she turned away from the cells and looked towards the elevator shaft running down the centre of the hole. "We need to release them," he said.

Her heart wrenched in her chest and she took a sharp breath, then exhaled slowly. "It's not that simple. Many of the prisoners here are real prisoners. Criminals. Perhaps most of them."

Tarn stared at her, as if he did not comprehend.

"Releasing them all would cause panic. It would be chaos." She sighed again wearily, looking up at the light entering through windows in the roof high above, and put her hands on her hips.

Tarn continued to stare, saying nothing.

"It's impossible," Kirya insisted, "there's no way we could safely do it, even if we wanted to. We can't separate the criminals from those who have been falsely imprisoned."

Tilting his head to one side, Tarn raised his eyebrows, then smiled a thin, disappointed smile. "Lagonian justice has never been good at that separation."

She wanted to find words to convince him, to make her point, but found her own argument crumbling to nothing even as she tried to articulate it, as if the last vestiges of her courtly lies were disintegrating at the same time.

"I don't care if it is difficult," Tarn said, speaking slowly. "We find a way."

"Fine," she said, feeling somehow glad to be acquiescing. "But we need to be able to do it safely, or we'll have a riot. There are too many of them and only one way in and out of here."

Tarn looked as if he were about to respond, but instead he paused and shifted his attention abruptly to the depths of the hole, as if he had heard something.

A moment later Kirya felt it: a deep rumbling as if something huge and lumbering were approaching. As the vibrations became more noticeable and severe, she realised they were the sounds of distant machinery.

"She's started something," Tarn said, his face full of worry. "We have to get down there."

Kirya gestured at Tristan's cell. "What about them?"

"We come back for them," Tarn said. "All of them." He took her hand. "Promise it."

She grimaced and hesitated, unhappy to be promising what still seemed to be an impossibility. Nonetheless, they had overcome greater difficulties. "I promise."

Trying to ignore the escalating cries of despair as they walked away, Kirya wiped a tear surreptitiously from her face, unwilling for it to be noticed by her companions.

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