Consigned to Hell
It’s Tuesday, again. The last Tuesday of freedom, after which we here at Caer Dave will be bound once again to the iron wheel of the academic year. Rulers barking knuckles, cryptic and ominous notes home from the Instructors of the Young, the vacant stares of the Progeny and hiding in closets in the vain hope that the glowing-eyed, tow-headed monsters won’t- wait, that’s the wrong story.
Actually, I’m really looking forward to settling into a genuine routine. This summer just past has been a full one. Travel, visits and visitors, events, excursions, solamente parenting, projects, and lots and lots of planning. I’m very much looking forward to putting some of that planning into action. With the Wee Horde suffering in the Pit of Academia (Academia Minora, that lesser hell compared to Academia Majora, wherein the impressionable minds are forced to undergo the greater indoctrination in a cross between Salusa Secundus and a Clockwork Orange), I’ll have time uninterrupted. At least, I hope it’ll be uninterrupted. You see, I have things to write. So. Many. Things.
I felt my face go still.
Jaems’ fleshy lips curled into an unctuous smile at my reaction. Absently, he pulled a vivid, eggshell blue handkerchief out of a pocket and wiped the sweat off his face. He stuffed it back in the pocket, leaving half the cloth hanging out. It was a good complement to the maroon of his suit.
“Why would you think I was a hero of Thebes?” I was proud my even tone didn’t betray the roil of emotion churning inside. My skin felt suddenly too tight, and it was a good thing I was still strapped down to the table. I might have killed the slimy bastard if I’d been free.
Jaems’ smile widened, mounding the tissues of his face into a grotesque grimace more at home on one of the alien gargoyles of the Great Cathedral on Anclemus Primus than on a human. Instead of speaking, he stepped back, leaned against the wall, and pushed a stud on the device he’d hung on the wall.
The small unit shot out a beam of light, painting my retinas before I could squint against the sudden glare. Blinking away the sudden tears, I watched as the light from the now-glowing device coalesced into the smirking face of Perseus of Thebes. The holographic projection washed out some of the almost unnaturally golden tone of his skin and hair. Except for his high dudgeon, Pers looked more human than I’d ever seen him. It would have been refreshing, but for the circumstances.
“Well, Dare,” he twisted my nickname into a mockery of an appellation, “it looks like you’re finally where you belong. You were lowborn scum when you arrived, you were gilded scum when my holy sister elevated you above your nature, and now you’ve returned to your level: scum floating in the deepest pit I could find.”
His handsome face stretched into an entirely unbecoming snarl.
“And you’ll stay there until you come to your gods-damned senses and accept the honor which Her Majesty bestowed upon you!” Perseus’ glowing head bobbed as he continued speaking, and I realized he was pacing. The clanking in the background suggested he was wearing a Guard Suit, and walking somewhere in the Tower, the integrated seat of government, military, and Andi’s home when she was on Antigone. Perseus liked the power the edifice projected.
“Warden Jaems is a loyal son of Thebes, and has accepted the burden of keeping you out of trouble until you come to accept your place in the universe. As encouragement, you will mine the Tartarium that propels the might of Thebes to glory!” He held up a hand enclosed in a gleaming gauntlet and slowly closed it into a fist. If he hadn’t held my fate in his armored grip, I’d have laughed. As it was, I felt no inclination toward humor. His admiring gaze moved from his clenched fist to me, and hardened.
“You’ll be helping Thebes one way or another, Dare. The longer you rot there on Tartarus, the stronger you make the Empire you so hate.”
He stared into the camera.
I was silent.
After a long moment, Perseus’ mouth curved into a stupendous frown. Say what you will, the man was practically designed for the stage of history. Literally.
“Well, lowborn cur, have you nothing to say? No further railing against destiny?”
I blinked, so surprised I spoke the first thing to cross my mind.
“I honestly thought this was a recording.”
“Oh, get off your high horse, Pers.” The frustrations of the previous months came spilling out of my mouth. “Andi-“
“Don’t sully her name with your filthy, common mouth!” Perseus’ face mottled with rage.
“Andi,” I bared my teeth at him, “told me how you came to be, how your entire family came to be. I freaked out and got drunk. And the next thing I know, she won’t talk to me, my friends won’t talk to me, I’m made persona non grata, and I can barely scrape together enough for a ticket off Thebes. And then I wake up here, with a concussion and stasis shock, held against my will and against the laws of Thebes you uphold!
“As far as I’m concerned, Pers, you can go to hell, and Thebes and Andi with you.” My heart twisted as I realized what I’d said. Still, if Andi actually did love me, she could have stopped the whole mess at any time. Autocrats can do that, and despite the Chamber of Peers and Common Assembly, Andi still held most of the power in the Thebes in her own two hands. Hands I missed.
Perseus stopped moving, wherever he was. His face took on a corpse-like pallor clear even under the glowing projections. His eyes took on a strange cast, though that could have been partly an artifact of the hologram. When he spoke, his voice grated.
“Very well.” He stared through me. “Jaems!”
The warden stepped past the hologram, and turned and bowed.
“See that he remains healthy. I want him to have a long time to think about what
he’s thrown away.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Perseus stared at me for a long moment, his expression fixed.
His face disappeared as the projection dissolved into patternless colors.
Jaems turned to me. He smiled the same unpleasant smile, and his face was again gleaming with perspiration.
“Well, Convict, you-“
“You and I both know I was never convicted of a damn thing,” I kept my volume low, but Jaems breath caught at the intensity of my tone. The smile dropped from his face, and a surprisingly pink tongue wet his lips. Then his gaze lit on the restraints holding me to the bed, and his posture regained some confidence.
“Fair enough.” His mouth stretched in that reptilian smile, again. “It hardly matters. Here you are, and here you’ll remain. If you accept His Highness’ gracious offer-“ HAH! “-you’ll be returned home to Thebes proper in the loving arms of Her Majesty’s Guard. Until then, you’ll spend whatever days are left to you digging in the rock of Tartarus, the fruits of your labors going to make the Empire stronger, and ensure its primacy in the age to come.”
I’d heard the same propaganda from all levels of Theban society. Of course, Tartarium’s unique properties seemed to back up what I considered overconfidence.
“And lining your pockets quite handsomely.”
The warden shrugged as though his graft were no matter.
“Many gain from our efforts, here, Mr. Travim. The scientists on Antigone Station gain funding from Her Majesty. The manufacturers gain contracts to produce the tools with which His Highness will bring the local cluster under Theban beneficence. Their employees get paid, and use that pay to feed the next generation of Thebans. And if some of all that largess falls to me, well, I’m the one ensuring that chain is connected to the great machine of society in the first place.” He coughed as though suppressing a laugh. “Even our prisoners, who might otherwise be eliminated for their detriment to Thebes, are provided with a purpose. Is it not grand?”
I didn’t imagine someone with the power Jaems held to actually believe the line he gave me, but I’d encountered stranger things. Sure, people were paid. If you didn’t pay workers what they were worth, they’d go find someone who would. If you forced them to do otherwise, you just enslaved them. I’d seen both ends of that spectrum in my travels, and everything in between.
“So what happens now?”
Suddenly Jaems was all business.
“The good doctor has cleared you to leave the infirmary, so you’ll be evaluated by my staff for whatever training you require to mine the Tartarium ore over which my facility is located. You’ll continue as convicted embezzler Burtran Avender while in my care. You’ll have quotas to meet, and if you don’t, you’ll lose privileges, just like any other prisoner.” His mouth stretched into a vicious grin that never touched his cold eyes. “If you cause trouble, you’ll discuss your behavior with Crind. Like any other prisoner. And lest you think to use anyone else in anything resembling an escape attempt, I swore to keep you healthy and alive, not free from pain. And I can always make certain any confederates of a known traitor suffer unfortunate accidents.”
The smile faded from Jaems’ face, and despite the fat under his skin, he didn’t look soft at all.