Vardan shut his eyes when he heard the key in the lock. After years in the dark, he’d earned the kind of vision that turned the shifting black of a windowless room into clear shades of gray, and he wasn’t willing to give it up for a few moments of the torchlight in the hall. Coins clinked a steady rhythm. Someone stepped into the room. The door shut behind him. The man shuffled forward, searching for the opposite wall maybe.
“Vardan?” he asked.
Slowly, Vardan opened his eyes. He didn’t bother moving, seated on the floor, the corner supporting his shoulders. Everard stood like a blind man, one hand to the wall, staring ahead.
“Still here,” Vardan said.
Everard moved immediately to face him, and still looked sightlessly at the wall a few feet to his right. “How are you?” he asked.
He’d asked every time he bribed his way inside over the last five years. At first it had been an honest question. Then time wore it back into the mindless extension of a greeting that it purposed outside those four walls. Vardan could count the number of times it had cut back into honesty since then. He leaned his head back, watching the shadow of Everard. The man shifted and Vardan thought he used the wall for more than just contact. He held his weight on his left side, barely touched his right foot to the floor.
“Are you hurt?” Vardan asked.
Everard straightened, surprised. He put weight back onto his right foot, but not quickly. “No,” he said.
“What did you do?” Vardan asked.
Everard turned his head, listening for the guards outside, measuring their distance by the sound of their ringing steps. It took him a long time to decide they were far enough away. He lowered his voice, until it was barely louder than the dim echo it created. “We got into a fight,” he said.
“Here?” Vardan demanded.
Grudgingly, Everard nodded. “Yes.”
“What were you thinking?”
“We were thinking we could break you out of here!” Everard snapped. “Get back at least some of what’s ours.”
Vardan leaned back, pressed his shoulders to the walls again, forced a breath in and out before he said anything. “I told you to leave me here,” he said.
“We need you,” Everard said.
Vardan shook his head, and didn’t care that Everard couldn’t see him. “I’m where I belong.”
“Jail cells are for criminals,” Everard told him. “Not for men mourning the dead.”
Vardan glared at him.
“Listen,” Everard said, half an order and half a plea. “We’re losing. Damion had a firm hand on the island, now it’s a fist. It’s getting scary just to walk through the city. Damion’s been on the throne so long, people are actually starting to call it his. They’re forgetting the deaths it took to get him there. They’re forgetting he keel-hauled Taben, a real Clan Lord. Or they’re telling themselves that they never had much proof anyway. Best not to lay those kinds of accusations on a such a great man. And I’m not talking about the people who helped him put him on that throne. Regular people, Vardan. Citizens who live and do business and keep their noses clean and suddenly we have to fight them too.”
Shifting, Vardan said nothing.
“Do you know how many of us he has locked up now?” Everard asked. “Do you know how many he’s grabbed out of their houses? Do you know how many of our friends are shutting up? And crite, that hurts worse. Watching them bow to Taben’s murderer. Knowing they’re going to be in our way from now on. We need you. We are losing.”
“I know,” Vardan said.
Everard stopped halfway into the next angry word. “You know?” he repeated.
“I’m not deaf in here,” Vardan told him. He leaned his head back. He took in a long breath, and let it out, too fast. “And you’re wrong.”
Everard shifted, back onto his left side. He hesitated. “What?”
“Jail cells aren’t for criminals. They’re for anyone who shouldn’t be allowed to act outside.” Vardan looked him squarely in the eye, watched him blink, confused and blind in the dark.
“I don’t…” Everard began.
“The idea of bowing to Damion, makes me sick,” Vardan said carefully. “Taben called me a brother. Brothers don’t bow, they hunt the scudge down and show them what iron feels like driving straight through their skull. And I tried. And I got locked in here.”
“I know,” Everard said.
Vardan nodded. “You should. You were there.” He let out another long breath. “But that hard sell for the cause you were giving me sounded like you might have forgotten, so…” He shrugged. “But you don’t want me out of here.”
“Why not?” Everard asked.
“Because everything I hear makes me sicker,” Vardan said, slow. “Regular people, Everard? You mean Clan. The fight isn’t falling on Damion anymore, it’s falling on Clan. And it’s not winning or losing anymore, it’s breaking or not breaking, and I would give every ounce of blood I have left to make sure that coin lands on the right side.” He looked at Everard for a long time before he could wrap his tongue around the next sentence. “I would bow.”
Everard stared back, silent.
“You don’t want me out of here,” Vardan promised him.
Everard stood perfectly still, through a long count. Then he stepped back to the door, and banged – hard – to bring the guards back.
The key turned in the lock and Vardan shut his eyes, holding onto his shades of gray.