Time is something I’ve had for a while now, but in here, it is something else entirely. A whole huge amount of time. On the roads, or even hopping, the mind is distracted with the act of progression. In here, there is no progression. Only time.
Why have I been hauled into the cells? It really is confounding. My best guess is that it is to do with the lot of gold I owe a Mahani prince, but does that really deserve such treatment? I am such a fool.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
But I am a ragged looking fool, so I don’t believe that. On the boat, a guard stared right into my eyes and didn’t see the man he was searching for. Out here? In ‘Zon? Not a chance. It doesn’t make sense.
As cells go, these are probably upper-class. There is a barred window letting in light; the floor is covered in straw, which is changed at least once a span; one side of the cell is completely open, secured by a lattice of steel; there is even a rickety table and chair on the opposite side of the cell from the bucket. There is no bed, but the straw is okay. At least there’s next to no chance of being accosted by a bog-lizard.
The prison itself appears to be pretty full. I can only see a few cells from where I write at the table, but they are all full. In fact, I am fortunate to have a private cell. Many of them are doubled up with no upgrade in facilities.
But the prisoners appear to be higher-class too. No-one is moaning, whining, wailing or crying. In fact, the whole affair is quite civilised. I had a conversation with one other resident, and they were in for falsifying their numbers and depressing the twenty percent godswill owed to the Hânto. Ha! How presumptuous to name a tax god’s will. But as a result of this man’s indiscretion, the Hânto had seized all his property and thrown him in a cell. When he was to be released, he would be thrown onto the growing waste-pile of Xeidani society.
He asked me what I was in for and I said the same. The man didn’t believe me, not least because of my Mandari accent, but left it at that. It was mildly ominous.
The only thing I am really precious about is my writing. For some odd reason, I am celled up with my possessions, most likely because they are out of space to store everyone’s personal effects. They gave it a brief rummage, of course they did, but only found grubby clothes and a few travelling items. They pinched what coin they could find, but I was left with the rest, including my paper. I write in the deep of night, by the light of the gods. It’s quite nice.
Three days into my imprisonment, I am finally consulted on the matter.
“Someone’s here to see you.”
“A guest?” The guard didn’t get my joke and simply turned. He was replaced by a man in rich white robes edged with gold and red. These were Hânto colours.
“You are the prisoner?”
I laughed and spread my arms. “It would seem so.”
The guard brought a chair for the man and he sat on it awkwardly. This was someone who was used to the finer places to rest his arse. I sat on my straw.
“You call yourself Brevit?” I nodded. It was the cover name I’d sprouted on the spot. “And you claim to be from Shietz.”
“That’s where I’ve travelled from.” It was only one of a few places I knew in Xeidan.
“I don’t believe you.”
“And why not?”
“Because you speak with the unmistakable twang of Callij. I can smell the self-indulgence on you.”
Well then. Here was a creature of jealousy. I smiled.
“You snared me. Cunning thing you are.”
“So what is your real name?”
“Brevit. And I travelled from Shietz.”
“You are from Mandaria.”
“Yes, but I travelled from Shietz. I hopped up the coast. Have you tried hopping? It is most agreeable.”
“And how did you come to be in the First Foot?”
“I am blotting my way around Society. The First Foot seemed an important place to go, and so I made the trip.”
“Shietz is a shithole.”
I clicked my finger and thumb. “My impression exactly! Now, can I ask what I’m doing in here? It is rather limiting the progress of my blot.”
He shifted. I knew what he was about to say, but kept the grin on my face. It was my only hope.
“Your research subject is rather divested from your claims of a blot. Tell me. What possible interest could you have in shaping?”
That I wasn’t expecting. The Lady had told me to exercise caution, but I could never have imagined that its very mention would land me in a cell. I gulped.
“Is shaping not a part of our society?”
“Not a part for the masses, no. What do you know?”
“Nothing. Why do you think I wanted to research it?”
“And what possible interest could you have in it?”
“Flip-coin. I played a chap at flip-coin, and he beat me against all the odds. Then the bastard whispered into my ear and suggested he’d shaped the outcome, cackling. I thought I’d see if I could pick me up a bit of talent for shaping.”
That was an excellent ruse if I say so myself.
The man shifted in his seat. “You wanted to make money?”
“Don’t we all?
He shook his head. “You say that you are blotting.” I nodded, hoping he didn’t know what that meant. “If you blot, then you have a means of getting your thoughts down. Guards, rip his bag to shreds. Find his records.”
What a monster. The git smiled from the other side of the lattice. I smiled back. I have grown as a traveller.
“Lord, there is nothing here.”
“There must be. Check again.”
They spent most of the morning checking, rummaging through my cell. They even resorted to stripping me and claimed a few golds from my person. I am officially poor again. But they never found my notes. I had passed them to the agreeable chap in the cell next door.
“How are you going to blot your journey without notes.”
I tapped the side of my head. “Now, please could you tell me why I have been imprisoned for what, to me, seems a ludicrously mild offence.”
He tapped his hand on his leg. “Information pertaining to the art of shaping is restricted.”
“By the Hânto of course.”
“And what if I told you I was working for the Mahan?”
“And how would you know? I have the twang of someone from Callij. My house is just a few steps from their residence. My family have served them for generations.”
He shifted, uncomfortable. He turned and ushered the guards from the prison, but then spied the other cells, residents hanging at the bars. He turned back to me. “You lie.”
“Perhaps, but you don’t know this. Would you like a game of flip-coin?”
“I have relieved you of your coin.”
“A fine chance for me to win it back then, wouldn’t you say?”
“You know nothing.”
I had the gist. “Oh, you’re probably right. But I once watched a Mahani prince play a Hânto ambassador at flip-coin. It was a game of seven-blind, most unwinnable, but do you know what? The damn Mahani prince won and cleaned out the ambassador! As I understand it, the poor chap was relieved of duty soon after.”
He stood. “You know nothing. I will inform my superiors immediately and I’m sure they’ll seek to have you transported for the appropriate treatment. I will await their decision.”
He left, scowling. The prisoners cheered his passing, and I was in trouble.
You see, this is what I’ve worked out:
- The Mahani are good at shaping. I know that because I lost heavily in a game of flip-coin.
- The Mallahn appear to have a strong line too – the Lady evidenced that. Presumably the same is true of the line-Mallahn which expired in Xeidan.
- The Hânto are not strong with the shaping, and they are terribly jealous of this fact. They are protective of information, harvesting it and trying to make it work for them. They also engineered the end of the Mallahn, again out of jealousy.
- And shaping, whatever it is, appears to be fundamental to Mandari Society, and yet reserved for the powerful. It must be more than just good luck in flip-coin, but I can’t for the life of me work out what..
Bang! Bang! Bang! “Quieten down you lot.”
A guard came to my lattice bars and threw in my clothes. He smiled at me before pulling keys loose of his belt and unlocking the door. He was vaguely familiar.
“Get dressed. You’re coming with me.”
“Am I to be transported for punishment?”
He smiled. “Just get dressed.”
I did, but somehow I also needed to get back my leather wallet with my writing material. Now, the clever among you will realise that I’m still writing, so I must have got the material back somehow. But how?
Well, I was wringing my mind, desperate for a diversion, but it wouldn’t come. I started walking to the exit, and the guard interrupted me.
“Aren’t you going to get your papers?”
My eyes widened. It was Hop-Man! He’d come to break me out and I was humbled by the confounding events. I nodded, retrieved the articles from my neighbour, and then left the prison with my guard in tow. There was a whooping from the other prisoners.
He marched me straight from the building and straight through the town to the landward gate. There we ducked behind the walls and sat in a quiet space.
I opened my mouth, ready to thank him by name, and stopped. I didn’t know his name. I resorted to my only option.
“Why are you speaking like that?”
“Tha’s how I speak.”
“But you just spoke rather more properly.”
“Tha’s a matter o’opinion.”
I shook my head. “What are you doing here? And… How?”
“You think the Lady’d leave you alone. I was sent’a look after you. Didn’ expect ta be needed so soon.”
“Ah, yes. It was a bit of a fail, wasn’t it?”
“Aye. You won’t find shapin’ anywhere obvious. Knowledge of it is hoarded like treasure.”
“’Cos shapin’ is power and control. Come.”
We left ‘Zon and hit the road. He handed me a purse of gold which was way more than I’d started with. This was getting serious.