Jail

And so it was jail again: he could tell, before he had sight, from the smell. Shit and piss and standing water and stale-peach body funk. He clenched his eyelids against torch-light and let his mind wander along his body: his jaw was fat and sore, his lower back had been peppered by clubs (and worse, he desperately needed to urinate), and his nose had bled, or perhaps he had bitten someone, because his lips and tongue had the metallic taste of blood. A moment of terror seized him: he could not find his right arm and feared it had been torn off. Sight favored him again, though, and he saw that it was manacled above his head, chained to the ancient stone wall; it had fallen asleep while he was unconscious. Jail again, and for no reason: drunk and angry and bored, and now jail again.

Things, he had to admit, were not going well. It was almost a year now since he loaded his car with a reproduction of his world in miniature and drove through a hole in the sky. He followed a phantom, an atmospheric disturbance, a inexplicable recurrence that he hoped on the flimsiest pretext would take him out of his decaying life and into something better. There was this world, on the other side of the sky: this world which was now his home, because he could not return. What he brought of his home was taken away, and what he had of this world was draining him away. Was this what he had to look forward to, from an alien lifetime, a future without horizons: meetings once a week with a condescending, heavy-handed bureaucrat, a slow poisonous death in the same tavern, the same city, the same awful fate like a fallen blizzard, spelled out in simple impossibilities, to be contended with and trudged through and not lived?

Somewhere in an office in the Upper City was the man Mordecai Spitnof, the fat granite-slab-faced cipher who was the only one that knew who he really was or how and why he was here. He was Kenneth Swallowtail, a scientist and adventurer and a man from another world, but his life was as devoid of possibility as the great stone blocks around him. He slept in a tidy angular room in a cheap respectable boarding house where his neighbors were those, not bound like him by their sinister otherness, who came and went as they pleased; he never saw the same face twice. When he was awake it was alone in the city park, writing notes in a little book that no one but Spitnof would ever read or care about, or alone in the Mermaid’s Cove, drinking and being laughed at, or worse, ignored.

He had become expert at eavesdropping on the sordid stories and tall tales of travelers who passed through Kovo’s tavern; fraudulent as they often were, they were all that he had. That he, an intrepid extranaut, he who had faced death and the hell of vanishment, he, a man who had crossed who knows what vast spaces to come here, was reduced to listening in on talk of whoring and bandits from drunken dogsbodys: it was intolerable.

Occasionally, there would be fights and he would end up here. To be honest, if it weren’t for the chain, he could easily have gotten out; hence the beatings beforehand, to weaken the body and the resolve. The Lord Mayor’s justice system was rather effective: everything but the worst of crimes carried no real punishment (other than, of course, the brutal pummeling, which were really just to give the guardsmen something to do – Lord Basham was a firm believer in preventing internal mischief by letting his functionaries play to their strengths) but were laid out on a grid of progressively ruinous fines. These perfunctory nights in the dungeons were a show, to remind the citizenry that Kurtana could still jail someone should the need arise, but the fine system was one of the unique innovations for which the Lord Mayor enjoyed his reputation, such as it was. The fines were so massive (and their payment enforced by the skill of the city guards and their equally lethal doppelgangers, the tax collectors) that a single offense could send you into a spiral of debt from which you might never recover.

Multiple offenders were so far in arrears to the city that their best option was simply to go to work for the city; indeed, the majority of civil servants, from turnkeys and bucket-men to ambassadors and viziers, were criminals working off some debt or another. Practically this meant that the government was largely run by recidivistic crooks, and quite efficiently too, to no one’s real surprise. One of the few things that kept Swallowtail from being bored to death was committing various petty crimes; the spiteful, bottom-of-the-barrel thrill was at least a break in his routine, and he could easily afford the fines out of his never-depleted stipend.

“You. You are awake now? You are awake?” A voice, low and rough, not local. He looked across the cell (it was not one he had been in before; it was ranker, deeper beneath the Lower City, and bitter cold) and saw the twin of the bench where he sat: on it, another man with blood on his face and his good arm chained above his head. He was a giant: sprawled on the tiny rotted wooden bench, his legs splayed like streamers. His hampered arm was marbled with muscle, and Swallowtail could see that he had been struggling against the chain. He was filthy and he stank and it wasn’t just because he had been in the dungeon. His face was barely visible through an explosive mane of long brown hair, matted with sweat and blood. His left arm dangled between his legs and looked like a fallen tree.

“I’m awake. What do you want?” His words snuck out, thick and oozing, from his swollen jaw. He was in terrible pain and he had to piss but he didn’t want to do it in front of the giant (who, from the smell, had no such qualms).

“When will the soldiers come?” Swallowtail placed the halting accent: northern, further even than here. North and east. It was vaguely Nordic, not that anyone on this impossible world knew what that meant but him. The giant was a barbarian, a fact confirmed by his dress: ragged reeking bucks and fur boots, not the cloth and color and crafted sabots of the city. Swallowtail didn’t want to talk to him but he had nowhere to go until the hateful small thing, the power that bound him to his ruined future, came to bail him out.

“The guards come whenever we call them. I mean, I don’t know what you did, but probably there’ll just be a fine.” Swallowtail stretched his legs and sank inside himself, trying to banish cramps and pain. He performed movements, fluid and flowing, from another east. The giant stared at him and did not move, other than to flex his dangling arm.

“Call the guard. When he comes, you draw him near and I will strangle him. Then we get the key to chains, and we get out. They will not make Brog Bingand a slave.” There was a dreadful finality in his voice that sounded of blood and fire.

“Slave? Man, it’s just a fine. I told you. There’s no…you don’t have to strangle anyone. It’ll be all right. Just pay, and they’ll let you go, unless you killed somebody. Did you kill somebody?” This struck Swallowtail as the wrong question to have asked; the giant had probably killed a lot of people, and he was in no hurry to be the next. His life had been deferred by rulebound ciphers, but beaten to death in some sunken hole by an illiterate savage had even less dignity as endings go.

Brog Bingand glowered up from beneath his crown of grime. His eyes were flat and empty and black. “I have killed. I will kill more. A thousand deaths until I am free again, none too much.” His free hand brushed the floor idly with long fingers. Swallowtail felt vaguely nervous; he knew the giant could not reach him, but his arms seemed impossibly lengthy, as if he could reach all the way above the world. There were none like this left in the world Swallowtail came from; barbarism was long dead, wiped out by television and Big Macs and a million other things you couldn’t get here. But the north of this world was teeming with Brog Bingands, with hard-fleshed hawks who killed for what they needed and for whom civilization was a mystery at best and a weakness at worst.

“Right. Well, honestly, there’s no need for that. Just pay the fine, really.” He was fascinated and repelled by the giant, the idle violent mass of him, the dead black eyes that were wild and cold at the same time.

“I have no money. It was all stolen from me by a liar. I punished him for his lies and the soldiers came for me. They beat me through trickery and put me here. Now they will make me a slave.” Recognition overtook Swallowtail, cutting past a waking haze of alcohol and pain. He had seen the giant before, only last night. He had bellowed loudly then, a huge throaty caw removed by hate and liquor from the low growl he had now.

You’re the one, you were sitting next to me at the Cove! You beat the fuck out of that guy and dumped him in my lap, that’s what started this whole shit-storm. Christ, you must have been pissed. Still, you couldn’t have done too much damage or you’d be at the end of a noose instead of here.” Swallowtail stood on the bench, hoping it would not collapse from worms and age and moisture. He continued stretching and tried to put the pain in his kidneys and jaw behind him, and bat away the sticky hangover fuzz from around his brain. Talking to Spitnof was agonizing enough but it was intolerable hung over. He also had a personal stake, out of a stupid misplaced useless pride, at not letting the officious little troll see him at his worst.

“I…I do not understand you. I do not understand what you say. I cannot pay. I will do what I must to be free.” There was an uncertainty in the barbarian’s voice now; Swallowtail wondered for an brief idle moment if he might be mentally disabled. He quashed the thought quickly. Brog Bingand was no doubt simply overwhelmed by the hugeness and strangeness of the city; he himself had been, long months ago.

“Relax, okay? I’ll pay the fine. Forget about it.” He finally could wait no longer and turned from Brog Bingand to urinate into the slop-bucket as best he could. He fumblingly zipped his decrepit jeans and sighed. Somewhere north of this city, there was an icy sea, home to nimble pirates with teeth like razors; there was an island of elves who could swim in the sea like dolphins; there was a dreadful thing, made like a machine but sustained by magic, that floated and breathed fire; there was a dragon, snow-white and prehistoric, with the secrets of this world under his sign. But he was in jail again, in an aging crusted hole forty feet below the streets, pissing in a bucket, putting his cock in his pants with one hand, being glared at by a barbarian who was just waiting for an excuse to throttle someone to death. Nothing was working out. Everything was sour.

He yelled out for the guard. “Turnkey! Coming out!”

“Why? Why will you pay? Who are you?” The barbarian wrinkled his great ugly face in suspicion. “I have told you my name. You tell me your name. Tell me why you will pay for me.” He shifted, as if dazed, from side to side; it was the first time since Swallowtail’s waking that he had moved anything but his arm. Even squat on the table it was clear he was even bigger than it first appeared. Had Swallowtail not personally experienced a handful of bone-shaking beatings administered by the city guards he never would have believed they could have taken Brog Bingand.

“I’ll pay for you because I have a lot of money and I can’t do anything with it. But mostly because I don’t want you to strangle the guard when he gets here. My name is Kenneth Swallowtail. I’m not from around here, either.” The giant looked away, looked towards a sound of approaching steps, sabots on stone. His attention lapsed immediately after Swallowtail said his name; it was clear he wanted no information other than what he demanded.

The guard, a hunching bearded brute in the metal helm and rough brown tunic of the city militia, arrived at last and stood on the other side of the enormous wooden door (made, like all the good wood of the city, of the fine oaks of the western forests).  “What do you want, Swallowtail?”, he asked — the guard knew him; that was good. That meant he would be out sooner. “Time to fetch yourself out? Time for Mr. Spitnof, it is.” The guard, who Swallowtail could not clearly see yet, laughed: it was a greasy insinuating laugh that thought it knew more than it did. It was a fat man’s laugh, a fat man who liked to hit people in the small of the back with a metal knob so they pissed themselves. A hateful inevitability, combined with a wafting funk of contempt, settled onto Swallowtail as the fat voice said his caseworker’s name.

“Yeah, I know that. Get me out. I’ll pay this guy’s fine, too, if he promises not to break your neck when you unchain him. Okay, friend?” The barbarian’s wreck of a head perked up at the words, or at the rattle of the key in the outside lock: he was ready to do something, although he clearly didn’t know what.

You are my friend? You want to be my friend?” There was no happiness, no clichéd finally-someone-loves-me acceptance, in the words, just mistrust, suspicion, bare meanness. “You pay for me. Then you are my friend, huh?” The turnkey released Swallowtail from the shackle, then did the same for Brog Bingand. Swallowtail stood and spun his arm around to move blood and chemicals, chasing the pain; he watched the barbarian’s eyes as the militiaman fumbled with the latch. In Brog Bingand’s eyes he saw death, cold murder: outside, in the world of his body, he sat motionless as the guard freed him, but inside, in his mind, he killed him once, twice, ten times in ten different ways. Swallowtail saw every death, and wondered how many times the barbarian had slaughtered him, in that inner world of waste and destruction.

“Right. You come with me, to meet the man. You’ll have to come with me, but if you do I’ll pay your fine. Then we’ll all be friends. Won’t that be great?” He mustered a half-smile; nothing good was happening, as nothing good always did, but at least he would enjoy watching Spitnof wade crossly through a conversation with this surly behemoth. Maybe Brog Bingand would even become enraged and kill the little fucker; it would make no real difference, since killing one bureaucrat has no more practical effect than killing one cockroach, but he would surely enjoy seeing the barbarian squeeze the life out of him. He decided to tell Brog Bingand, during the long slow carriage ride to the Upper City, that Spitnof was a demon or a homosexual or an eater of flesh or whatever his superstitious kind was afraid of, in hopes that the barbarian would at least beat the functionary into bloody meat. Every cruel thought was the hope of his world.

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