Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 2 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – part 2 of 16

The story starts here with the prologue. New chapter below:



Chapter one
The Drowned Quarter
__

The worst thing about life, Jasper thought, was that there were not enough rhymes for 'water.' Scowling with anguish, he crossed out yet another line, then dipped his pen into the inkwell and poised it over the page, waiting for the magic of inspiration to strike.

It was slow to come, his mind twitching and shying away from what it was supposed to be doing like a startled animal. Poetry normally came easily to him – a refuge when times were bad – but today… He clutched his pen tighter. Daughter, he thought. It didn't help. His father prowled on the fringes of his mind, but Jasper stared at his paper and chased rhymes and tried to keep him away.

Water, he thought. Water… Perhaps he should forget about the rhyming part, and just scrawl down observations about the things that surrounded him, then shape them into rhyming couplets later. Stone, he thought. Casements. Narrow apertures and a cold window-seat. Brown water glimpsed through old, thick glass. Stones pervaded with the miasma of misery… Oh, that was a good one. He turned over a few pages and wrote it down, then turned back to his current black-hatched page. The word 'water' stared back at him, the last word before an expanse of blank. "Water." He said it out loud, hoping something would come to him. "Water…"

Flood, he thought, the word popping into his mind in the way that so often happened to a born poet. Rhymes with blood. His metre demanded a two syllable word, though, so 'flood' just would not do.

Sighing, he put his notebook down on the seat, and wriggled towards the narrow slit that only the most charitable would call a window. Water lapped sluggishly not too far below him, lapping around… No, he had already used 'lap.' Washing around… Though, actually, it was quite still, and rather unpleasant, with a foul smell that seeped in even through the warped glass. Something rather disgusting floated just far enough away for him not to have to try to identify it.

It was a good place to contemplate mortality and to examine the sorry state of the world. Poems written here, in these parts of the Citadel where no-one was supposed to want to go by choice, had a searing honesty that was hard to attain in a feather bed. Everyone else cried out in horror and exclaimed into silk handkerchiefs at the merest thought of coming to a place like this, but Jasper was not like the others. Jasper did not shy away from bitter truths. Jasper had insight. Jasper understood.

Caught a! He scrambled for his pen, and wrote it down before it ran away again. It did not really fit the mood he was trying to create, but perhaps it would suffice. The light of poetry was being crafted here in a place of misery and death, just an arm's reach from the water that had killed so many and had changed everything. Capture was involved in it all somehow. Captured by circumstance, captured by fate.

His pen ran on, adding a third line and a fourth. Half way through the fifth, his father finally broke through the barriers in his mind. "Wasting your life on scribbling and songs," his echoed in Jasper's memory. "To think you are a son of mine!"

"But they're important," Jasper had said. "They're the most important thing of all. You've always said that in order to be a good ruler, you need to understand people. I understand people. I have the eye of a poet and the tongue of an artist." He had realised as soon as he said it that it would have worked better the other way round, but there could be no crossings-out when talking out loud. (He had filed that thought away for a future work.) "I am fit--"

"You are fit for nothing," his father had said, not even bothering any more with fury, "but all that's going to change, my boy."

Jasper closed his eyes, clutching his pen with whitened knuckles. His father, it seemed, had a plan. The plan, it seemed, would start on the first day of the next cycle, and it involved unpleasant things – "I should have put a stop to this nonsense years ago!" – and deprivation – "I blame your mother" – and it was likely to kill him – "Never did me any harm" – and it was horrible, it was horrible, it was horrible, but at least Jasper had his poetry to console him, and poetry was a light in all the dark places of the world, and nothing could extinguish it, nothing.

"You can imprison my body, but my mind will forever fly free." He had said that quite defiantly, but now he found that there were tears in his eyes. Dashing them away angrily, he thrust out his chin. The worst thing in life, of course, was not the lack of rhymes for 'water', but was being cursed with a father who did not understand you – a father with a narrow view of proper behaviour; a father who would be judged wrong by history. Not that the thought of vindication in a hundred years' time helped that much, when your whole life was the verge of being ruined, and your father didn't… He didn't...

A door opened at the far end of the corridor. Jasper scrambled upright and pawed at his face again with the heel of his hand. Tears were nothing to be ashamed of – they showed a poetic sensitivity, after all – but he doubted that the people approaching would see it that way. They were wrong, of course, but… He clenched his fist, as if by doing so he could snatch up courage and hold it tight, then closed his notebook, jamming it into his pocket.

The door clanged shut. Footsteps came closer. There were four, he thought, the metallic clang showing that they were guards, and they appeared to be dragging something. Not a body, he thought, swallowing hard. Please not a body.

Part of him wanted to press himself back against the wall and go unseen, but smoothing his clothes, he stepped down from the window-seat. "My lord." The leading guard saw him and saluted with that crisp clumsiness that Jasper had grown used to.

"I was--" He swallowed again. "--surveying…"

No need to explain himself to such as these, he reminded himself. They were nobodies, just hired thugs who wouldn't recognise poetry if it… if it came rushing up to them in one of their whorehouses and bit them on the buttocks. (Not that poetry would ever stoop to such a thing.) He could go anywhere he liked without explanation. He was better than them, both by birth and by intellect.

"Permission to pass, my lord?"

His hand was pressed to the wall behind him, palm to the stone. He curled his fingers ever so slightly, feeling the cold. As he did so, the man the guards were dragging raised his head and looked at Jasper with eyes that were not remotely cowed. Jasper felt stone against his shoulders, against his back, and it was only then that he realised he had shrunk away from the man. "Who… who is your prisoner?" he demanded.

"A spy from Daryen, my lord. Came in the night before last. He's just been presented to your father for the second time, and now it's the water cell for him. That always ends their defiance nice and quick."

The man was clearly hurt. Did father do that? In all his years of coming to the dungeons to write insightful poetry, Jasper had never actually seen one of its prisoners before. It was a strange experience, rather unsettling – definitely something to put into a poem, perhaps starting with his eyes… Those eyes looked at him, and the mouth turned into something that could almost have been a smile. "Nice hospitality your dad has here," he said, in an accent that marked him as coming from outside Myr, at least, both the city and the hinterland. "You're wasting your time, though. I've never heard of this Daryen place."

"Silence!" The lead guard smashed him across the face with the back of his hand. The prisoner's head snapped round, then that smile was back. Something was different about his eyes, though, and he was pressing his lips together as if to keep any blood inside. Yes, this was a defiant smile of an unrepentant rascal; this he knew.

Wasting your life, he remembered his father saying. How blind his father was! When you had a poetic soul, you understood other people. He knew beyond all doubt that a poet could get truths from a recalcitrant prisoner far more effectively than any blundering bully.

"He is mine," he said, on sudden impulse. "When he's fettered and in place, tell me, and I will question him."

And then you will see my worth, father, he thought, and as the guards marched away with their prisoner, and as Jasper quite emphatically refused to think of certain childhood memories, he realised that 'slaughter' worked quite beautifully as a rhyme.

He pulled out his notebook and started to scribble as one inspired.

******

Kit had watched them for half the day. He had lounged against a gable-end here, had sculled casually on raft there, and lingered on the bridges with water against his bare toes. He had changed his appearance several times, first scowling under a large hat, then thrusting it into his pocket, tugging his hair out of its tie so it half covered his face. Once he had even looked insolently directly at the shorter of the two men, holding his gaze as he spat into the water. The man had looked away, openly disgusted, and Kit had smiled to himself as he had sauntered away.

They were clearly strangers – and Kit knew all about that, didn't he? They wore country clothes, but ill-fitting ones, doubtless plucked from some cottage or ripped from some washing line, leaving a weeping housewife behind. Takes a thief to know a thief, he thought. Stealing from thieves was the best sport there was, because of the challenge of it. Stealing from hypocritical thieves who squawked throughout that they were honest citizens, "and so I swear by all the gods", was even more satisfying. He imagined that the short man would squawk very nicely.

He had to be quick, though, he thought, as he saw Nim watching the three of them. Old Nimble Fingers was missing half a hand and had the face of a harrier, and Kit had never found out if his name was some dark joke, or if it referred to skills long since lost. Now he favoured a swift cudgel to the back of the head and a knife in the guts. There was no artistry to such an approach, Kit thought. Bloody unsafe, too. He preferred to rob people in a way that meant that they only found out they had been robbed when they were back home, and Kit was far away and safely in his digs.

Kit caught Nim's eye, and made the recognised signal: They're mine. Nim's answering gesture was something far more crude, something that even the toffs on the hill would have recognised as an insult. Hadn't someone once said that there was honour amongst thieves, all brothers sticking together? Kit snorted. That someone clearly didn't know Nim; clearly didn't know any of the thieves and cut-throats and fake beggars who made their living from the wreckage of the Drowned Quarter. Bloody little honour there with any of them. And why would you want to be honourable, when there was profit to be made from being a mean-hearted bastard? He'd betray any one of these low-lifes if he had to; take pleasure in it, in some cases.

The three strangers were crossing one of the less alarming bridges that spanned what had once been a palatial square. The big man went first – Kit had learnt long ago that he was called Ronon – and the woman followed, her steps as sure as a carril. The shorter man, who was called either Rodney or McKay and had two P H Ds, whatever that were, and who liked the smell of Ellis' pie stand, but was scared in case the pies contained citrus, and who had once taken a beautiful woman boating, though not in ridiculous sweltering heat like this, followed behind, biting his lip nervously at the water beneath him. He was Kit's target. The other two were the ones who needed sharp watching, though, for even the woman looked hard and dangerous.

He knew they were here to find some news of a man called Sheppard, who was also called 'the colonel' and sometimes called John. Kit snorted in silent disgust as they passed him on the walkway, pressing himself into the arched recess. These people deserved to be robbed! The first rule of surviving in the Drowned Quarter was to be circumspect. You kept your valuables hidden, and didn't speak your name or business any louder than you had to, because people could cling to the underneath of bridges, and there were always rafts passing below, full of people who knew how to take your secrets and run with them to the lower levels, where no stranger would ever find them.

Nim made his move; Kit was faster. His trio of marks had come to the end of the walkway, where the only choices were to climb down and hope for a raft, or clamber up onto the roof. "What sort of a crazy place is this?" he heard the one called Rodney protest. "We've been going around in circles."

They had been, too. Since Kit had started watching them, the bloated sun had climbed to its zenith and then started to sink. They had come in through Bargate, the old main entrance to Myr, at a time when the tide was low. The woman had immediately approached the guards and had asked to be taken to someone in authority, "to explain a misunderstanding," but the guards had laughed in her face, and the next one she had asked had made for his weapons in the way that a crebyn would bare its teeth, threatening violence unless they went away now.

He had lost them for a while after that, stumbling upon them again as they retreated glowering from gate to the Citadel. Since then, they had wandered. The beautiful avenues were now buried underwater, and scavengers and the poor had long-since colonised places where the rich had once strolled. Beggars lived and died in their hundreds on perches in the ballrooms and concert chambers of the wealthy and great, with stagnant water washing beneath their beds. Bridges connected windows that had once been on the second floor, and walkways connected balconies and ran along rooftops. When you knew the street plan that lay beneath it, getting around was easy enough. When you did not, the place was a maze, and there was always someone ready to prey on the lost.

"It has clearly suffered some calamity," the woman said, and Kit almost blew his cover by snorting aloud. Some calamity! Gods! This was a city on the way out, and he for one was going to be in a position to grab what he could from it before it fell.

"We need an official to bribe." Rodney wrinkled his nose. "This looks like the sort of place where everyone's corrupt."

"Or they'll slit your throat first," said Ronon.

"Thank you." Rodney swallowed. "Thank you for that."

Nim was approaching. It was time. Kit slipped through the narrow doorway, leaping ably across the scant remains of a floor that had long since crashed down into the flood below. He knew every way through this adopted city of his, just not the one way he most needed to find. On this day, though, it was enough. He heard the sound of his prey clambering onto the roof, but he was there first, wriggling into the chimney, climbing up using the handholds he had scraped in the brick some years before. There was just time to pull off his jacket and to run his fingers through his hair, twisting it into a vaguely respectable knot at the nape of his neck.

"The man who's following you," he said, quite calmly, as the woman emerged onto the roof, "is a notorious footpad. He plans to rob you, and he's not fussy about whether you're alive or dead at the end of it."

"Which man?" he heard. "What? Oh God! Oh God! Ronon, what are you doing? Watch where you're going! Ow!"

He heard a gratifying snarl, too, and a yelp uttered by a voice he had dreamed of hearing yelping in such a way. The big man and Nim, he thought, would be busy for quite some time. Men like this Ronon, you only had to plant a seed. People only had themselves to blame when they were robbed. They all acted so predictably.

Rodney's face appeared at the top of the ladder. "What's happening? I'm going to fall! He stepped on my hand. He jumped right over me. Is he…? God, we're all going to die here, and Sheppard…" He stopped when he saw Kit at the top of the ladder. "Who are you?"

"No friend of Nim there." Kit smiled, and reached out his hand. "Your big friend seems to be taking care of him. Here, let me."

He was good, one of the best. As he helped the protesting Rodney onto the roof, his other hand was reaching into his pocket, rummaging to see what he could find, but there was nothing there, just fluff and dust. He swore silently, and tried again, making a play for the strange item at the man's belt, strangely like a firearm but far too small. His hand touched metal, his clever fingers almost closing round the grip.

"Stop where you are," the woman said. "Put your hands up."

"Right. Where. You. Are." It was the big man's voice, and Kit felt something cold pressed between his shoulders.

"Oh, shit," he said, and ran.

He barely made it two steps.

******

People had been calling for him, but lost in poetry, Jasper tucked himself into his window-seat and made himself silent and invisible. Let the servants return empty-handed, having failed in their task of finding him. Jasper had more important things to do than indulge the whims of those who wanted to control him. His pen scratched, crafting magic with words. Outside, the light faded, the water turning black.

When the footsteps came from the other direction, Jasper stopped, tucked his notebook into his pouch, and smoothed his hair with one ink-stained hand. Then, with only the slightest pause, he slipped off the window-seat and out into the shadows of the corridor.

"The prisoner is in place, my lord." The guard saluted in that long-familiar way that could not be faulted on paper, but was so very different from the way they saluted Jasper's father. He wondered sometimes if they knew that he noticed; wondered, too, if it was better to pretend ignorance or to confront them about it.

"Very good." He nodded, once again postponing that issue for another day. "Lead on."

The guard was little older than Jasper was, but while Jasper had chosen to follow the path of poetry and the heart, this man had chosen to chain people and to punish worthless wretches with pain and misery. Perhaps that was a fitting subject for a poem. Two babies, born innocent and without guile, but where one looked up and saw wonder in the stars, one never raised his head above the dirt. Was it birth that made you? No, of course it wasn't. Birth gave you the unshaped clay. After that, you became what you chose to be. No power in the land, not even a father, could keep a young man touched by poetry from following where the flame led him.

A door opened with a creak, and Jasper stepped through. It was noticeably colder on the other side, with a smell of rotten water and decaying things. It was darker, too, lit only by a few guttering torches. The guard's shadow stretched ahead of him, twisted and grotesque. The torchlight showed that there was blood on the side of his neck.

"Did he fight?" Jasper wondered out loud, thinking of the caged captive, of the imprisoned brute struggling like an animal, with four doughty men needed to hold him down.

"He submitted, my lord," the guard said merely. Perhaps it was the light that made his voice change so. Perhaps it was the cold and the smell and the sounds that came from the barred doors on either side, and the heavy booted footsteps, and his own steps, light on yellow leather, coming from another world.

They reached another door, then went down a few steps, and it was like descending into the flood itself, sinking down into a place where you could hardly breathe. Jasper could feel his heart starting to beat very fast. He consoled himself by trying to think of rhymes and by hearing in the guard's footsteps the familiar tread of a poem's metre: pain and blood and death and fear and dark and cold and…

Perhaps he should talk. Words came so easily on paper, and this was…

"He is in here, my lord."

Oh. They had stopped outside a door little different from any of the others. It was time. Jasper had vowed to question an enemy of his country, and he had known beyond doubt that he could use cunning words and gentleness to uncover secrets that his father would never be able to discover with all his violence and bluster. It had felt so easy. He would prove himself once and for all, force his father to admit how wrong he had been, force his father to… "I…" His voice dissolved into something little more than a breath. "I shall go in alone. Stand outside, but--" He swallowed; raised his head. "--come in if I command it."

"Yes, my lord," said this guard, this man with no poetry in his soul, this man who had very probably never bothered to learn to read. He unlocked the door, and stepped back, and Jasper moved forward to take the place he had vacated, and then even further forward, heading into a doomed man's last resting place.

It was not like he had expected. He had expected a straw-covered floor and chains on the wall, and perhaps a grating high above, where the despairing prisoner could gaze at the sky and compose a lay about the fall of the mighty and the chaining of one who once was free. Instead it was windowless, lit only by a candle that was already guttering, preparing to plunge the prisoner into total darkness. Jasper stood at the top of a flight of steps, but the next step down was covered with water, and the one below that could not be seen. The water cell, he thought, remembering words he had thought nothing of. The whole floor was flooded with foul and stinking water.

And as for the prisoner… Jasper swallowed, remembering the pallid, bloated corpses that had floated by in the flood. The prisoner was not in the water, though, but sitting on a tiny platform just above it. If he slept, or even if he just relaxed, he would fall into the foul, black water, and swallowing water like that would lead to flood-fever for sure. His chains were long enough to keep him from reaching the door, but not enough to catch his weight and keep him from the water.

"Black coffee," the prisoner said. "Two sugars." He pushed himself higher up the platform. "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were… room service."

"I'm here to question you." Jasper felt the cool air on his hands at his back, coming in from somewhere far away.

"Yeah. I remember." The prisoner let out a breath. "Just my luck to become some kid's science project."

"I'm not…" Not a child, he almost said, then thought that was just the sort of thing a child would say. "You're from Daryen," he said, instead, "and you've been caught spying. You must realise that you're going to die here."

"No matter what I say?" The prisoner raised an eyebrow. "And that's supposed to encourage me to talk why? I think… you need… interrogation lessons. The big guy was better." He let out another breath. "But as I kept telling your father, I'm not from this Daryen place. Don't think he was interested in hearing that."

Jasper had insight. Jasper understood human nature. Through poetry, Jasper had a window onto the workings of a man's soul. With a well-chosen word, he could rip tears from the eyes of maidens and make a strong man quail. "If you aren't from Daryen," he said, subtly reaching behind him for the edge of the door frame, "then where do you come from? If you're innocent, just tell me the truth. I'll make sure nothing happens to you."

"A minute ago, I was doomed." There was a faint tremor in the man's voice, and as Jasper's eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he realised that the prisoner was trembling all over. The platform was sloped, he realised. It wasn't just by falling asleep that the prisoner would fall in, he realised. Even awake, he had to fight every second just to stay on it.

"You must be hurting very much." Jasper tightened his grip on the door frame. He thought of anguish in his poetry, like hot coals, like a brand, like flood water sweeping away something precious.

"Yeah," said the prisoner, "but I didn't confess to… to something I haven't… when that big guy… so I doubt I'll…" He slid towards the water, and hauled himself up again, his bone-white hand clutching the edge of the stone platform. "For you," he finished, as if he had not lost words.

Jasper crouched on the step, still holding onto the door behind him. "I understand how you're feeling."

The prisoner gave a harsh bark of laughter. "Shrinks have been trying to tell me that for years. Didn't open up for them. I don't… I know… It won't…"

"I know that a man like you only gets more defiant when treated cruelly," Jasper said. Tamorlin himself had fallen into the hands of his enemies, and had suffered for weeks, enduring silently, until-- He silenced that thought. "My father does what he thinks is right, but there are other ways to get the truth."

"So you're going to say please to me until I confess to something that isn't true?" The prisoner's feet were trailing in the water. When the man shifted position, pressing his back against the wall, Jasper saw just how much red was already glistening on the stone slab. He almost gasped at that, before reminding himself that this was only a prisoner, an enemy of the Myr.

"Just tell the truth," he urged, "about…" He stopped, pressing his lips together, as he realised that he had no idea what information his father wanted out of this man. Probably something tedious like the military strength of Daryen. It was always about politics and war. Men like his father lacked the wit to comprehend anything else. "About anything I ask," he said, "and I'll ensure you're not hurt again before they kill you."

The prisoner seemed to consider it for a moment, but then, "Sorry," he said with a one-shouldered shrug. "No deal. You wouldn't like my answers, anyway, since I'm not… not from Daryen, and…" His voice trailed off. Jasper watched him struggle to pull himself back fully onto the platform. A night and day of this, the guards had said. Jasper had never realised that such a place even existed under the painted floors of the Citadel.

What would it be like to be imprisoned here, knowing that you were about to die? What sort of stubbornness would it demand to keep clinging on to your platform, and to keep refusing to answer? The man was from Daryen and was a villain, but if he hadn't been, if he had been a hero in one of the old lays, there would have been a certain nobility to his actions, stupid and infuriating as they were.

But when Jasper left, the man would be alone, and when the candle went out, he would be alone in the dark, still clinging to that tiny, sloping platform that was life, above the dank and rotten sea of water that was all of eternity.

Jasper knew all about loneliness. "Did you come by yourself?" he found himself asking. He wondered if the man had friends outside who would miss him when he was gone. "Do you have friends out there?"

The prisoner's chest went still, then continued to move in ragged breathing. "No," the prisoner said. "There's just me."

The candle went out.

******

The first thing Kit became aware of was that his hands were tied. The second was the smell of filthy stone. The third was the sound of people moving. "…help us?" he heard. He opened his eyes and saw a woman holding up her hand, silencing another man. Ah, Kit thought. Yes. Of course. He shut his eyes and ran his lips over his foul-tasting lips. When his expression was properly schooled, he opened his eyes again and rolled onto his back.

"What was that?" he asked. He didn't feel hurt as such, just weak, as if somebody had wrung all the strength out of him.

"You tried to rob us," the woman said, her expression cold.

"Yeah." He shrugged as well as he could with bound hands. "That's what people do round here."

The woman's expression turned even colder. "You told us that the man behind us--"

"Nim," Kit said. "It was true. A trick to get me close to you, of course, but absolutely true. I didn't want him to get to you first. He likes to stick knives into people and leave them dead. I prefer to leave people alive, as a rule – it's better for everyone. Less messy." He grinned the grin that few women could keep themselves from returning, but she remained unmoved. She reminded him of… Never mind. He turned his smile on the others, letting it crash against the unyielding stone of the big man's glare. The smaller man twitched, which was something, at least. "It also gets better results. I'm the best thief in the Drowned Quarter, which is to say I'm the best thief in Myr, since they call them other things up on the hill."

He tried his bonds as he spoke, finding them unyielding. They appeared to have dragged him into the upstairs room of some crumbling tower – one he had used more than once himself when he wanted to lie low for a few days. He swore silently and with feeling. How had they found it? There were no eyes to watch here, and this was not the sort of place where people answered calls for help.

"Not such a good thief as all that," the big man said, indicating Kit's bonds with a sharp jab of his weapon.

"No," Kit conceded, with half a smile. "You're right there, Ronon."

"He knows Ronon's name," the other man squawked. "How does he know--?"

"I know everything, Rodney McKay," Kit had the pleasure of telling him. The man's gasp told him that he had put those two names in the right order.

"He was clearly following us," the woman said sharply, "and listening to us."

"Yeah, well…" Kit shrugged again. He could feel the strength rapidly returning to his limbs, but he didn't try to sit up. "Here's a tip if you want to stay alive in the glorious city of Myr: keep quiet about your business. It's not always golden-hearted young heroes like me who overhear it. Them up on the hill haven't entirely washed their hands of the Drowned Quarter. There's guards, sometimes, dressed like ordinary folk, listening out for discontent." When they were silent, he smiled greasily. "Why, thank you, Kit, for that friendly and well-meaning warning."

Ronon surged forward, and by all the gods! Kit thought. Did he almost snarl for real? The woman looked as sharply at him as she had previously looked at Rodney. Yes, there was discontent here, Kit thought. Ronon probably wanted to throw him tied-up into the water and let him drown. Rodney, he thought, wanted to run away from him. Whatever game they were playing here came from the woman.

He chose Rodney to address his next question to, then. "So what're you going to do to me? You went to the effort of bringing me here. Sensible thing would have been to empty my pockets and run before my loyal accomplices came to avenge me."

Rodney swallowed. "You have loyal accomplices?"

"Oh yes," Kit said with his most charming smile. Still smiling, he turned to Ronon. It was hard not to feel ridiculous when you were lying on your back with someone's feet a few inches from your jaw, but Kit had practice with worse. "So what's the plan? You want to torture me until I tell you where I've hidden my secret stash of treasure that will make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice?"

"We have a friend," the woman said firmly. Sheppard, Kit thought, but for some reason he felt that saying his name would be going too far. "He has been… captured and is imprisoned somewhere within this city."

Kit paused just for a second to make sure that his breathing was how he wanted it to be. "Don't look at me." He spread his fingers to indicate the gesture he would be making if his hands were free. "Thieves only know about prisons from the inside, if you know what I mean." He smiled again. Gods! His jaw would go into spasm if he kept this up. "Not me, though. Best thief in Myr, and all." They gave him nothing for a moment. "So…" He let the smile fade. "What's this friend of yours done?"

"Nothing!" Rodney cried. "Well, of course, he's done lots of things, lots of infuriating things, in the past, but that's… No, don't tell me. Not helping, I know. He just went and crashed into a turnip field, and now this bunch of medieval peasants--"

"He has done nothing," the woman said, "but he was hurt and unable to defend himself, and he has been taken as a spy. He is not a spy." She said that firmly. "He is no threat to your land or your people."

Unless we don't get him back, in which case we will destroy you, Ronon's posture said. And – would you look at that? – Rodney expression conveyed exactly the same, and it was there, too, underneath the woman's carefully-constructed mask. Something twisted inside Kit's chest, and it was almost enough to… No. Almost enough; just almost. "Yeah, yeah, I believe you," he said, making it quite clear that he did not. "Innocent. Wrongly imprisoned. Everybody is. I know. "

The woman grabbed Ronon's wrist, pre-empting some expected reaction. "He is innocent," she said again. "We hoped to be able to reach someone in authority and explain matters, but that was… blocked. We have also been forced to conclude that nobody will believe us."

"And we're no use to him in prison ourselves," Rodney added, "as I keep pointing out."

"So where is he?" Kit asked. "The Bargate Prison? What's his sentence?"

"We were told that he was going to taken to the Citadel," said the woman.

Kit whistled. "The Citadel! Well, it's goodbye to him, then. I'm sorry." He even tried to look as if he meant it.

"How long are you going to dance around it?" Rodney said. "I'm hungry, and I'm… Well…" He moved to Kit's side, kneeling down awkwardly on the dirty stone. He looked very tired up close, like a man who had been through a lot in the last few days. "For once, a bit of polite diplomacy would have been welcome – a 'please, Mr Native, can we have our colonel back?' and an 'of course. Have some cake' – but it seems we're back to the heroic rescue thing again. We need to break him out but we need local knowledge, and if you're the best thief in the city…"

Kit shifted awkwardly. "A figure of speech. I'm not really the best." Frowning, he pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, then let it go. "You must be crazy!" he burst out. "No-one breaks into the Citadel. You'd be crazy to break into the Citadel."

"Yeah. That's us. Crazy." Rodney grunted. "Put it down to a certain colonel's bad influence. But we're going to do it, and that's that."

"Oh," Kit said, falsely polite. "How interesting. They'll kill you, of course, but it was nice knowing you."

"But you are, of course, coming with us," said the woman, smiling for the very first time. Even Ronon was smiling, his teeth showing as he stood over Kit with his weapon. "We are breaking into the Citadel and getting Colonel Sheppard out, and you are going to help us."

******

end of chapter one

On to chapter two
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