The minutes bled into hours. Leta didn’t know how long she and Fiearius were in the cell. She dozed off and on against the cold concrete wall, her fitful sleep punctuated with violent, vivid images from the combat ring — the man advancing with the rusty knife, hands digging into her hair, and then Fiearius holding him down. She swore she could hear the sick crack and splintering of the man’s neck and see his lifeless eyes —
With a twitch, Leta opened her eyes and bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. It wasn’t the nightmare that awoke her, but the searing pain up her leg. Her calf was hot and throbbing, reverberating straight up to her spine. Fiearius’ shirt — the makeshift bandage — was already soaked clean through with blood. Thick fresh bandages and peroxide, that was what she really needed now. The knife had been filthy …
Her fingertips reached to shakily peel back the bandages when noise reached her ears and she froze. It was the sound, muffled from inside the cell, of excitement: cheering, yelling, feet stomping, hands clapping. So the fights must have been ending. Someone in the ring was victorious, which meant someone else had just been killed …
She wondered if Fiearius heard it too. He was still beside her, leaning against the wall, but he was oriented to the other side of the cell. Half of his face was in shadow, turned away from her, and he was silent.
It occurred to her suddenly that she was not the only one suffering from what had happened tonight in the combat ring. With difficulty, she unlocked her tight throat and asked, her voice hoarse from crying, “You awake?”
Fiearius stirred, looking toward her, but only briefly. “Yeah.”
She watched him wordlessly before her eyes were drawn back to the door. Distant voices were passing behind it. “Sounds like the fights are over,” she murmured, which did not properly express the dread that sank through her: perhaps the guards would return for them now.
Fiearius’ head turned towards the bars. Outside came the sound of a door banging shut, followed by laughter and, for a moment, a piercing scream. It made Leta’s skin turn cold.
After a pause, Fiearius only replied, again, “Yeah.”
The silence unfolded and kept unfolding. It was too much. There was no distraction from the pain gripping her and every second of quiet was a reminder that they might never make it out of here alive. Just when Leta felt a rush of frustration toward him, Fiearius broke the silence himself.
“How’s your leg?”
Feeling it would be stupid to sugarcoat matters at this point, Leta said plainly, “Bad.” Slowly, inch by painful inch, she unwound her leg from its crouched position. “Bleeding’s stopped. Don’t think I can walk on it. Not that … ”
Not that they had any hope of walking out of here, she added silently.
Fiearius’ eyes were fixed on the bloody mess of cloth wrapped poorly around her leg. Forcing confidence into his voice, he assured, “We’ll get ya back to the ship and some real medicine soon enough.”
Actually, the antiseptic and syringes she needed were not on the ship, but still on the shelf of that general store they’d been kidnapped from. But all she said was, “Yeah.” If he could be optimistic, she could try, too. “And Cyrus will have … noticed by now, that we’re missing … “
“Yeah,” he agreed, sounding more sure of himself this time. Or at least pretending harder to sound sure of himself. “He’s noticed. And he’s a smart kid. He’ll have a plan. He’ll be here for us soon.”
It was getting harder and harder to look at him — this false optimism was exhausting. Her eyes moved toward the wall and she said, “Yeah,” with her voice hollow. “Yeah, he’ll … he’ll come soon and we’ll … “
Her voice slowly thinned with doubt and faded into nothing.
Piercing silence fell again. The hallways had cleared, the noise of the crowd gone entirely. It was quieter than a tomb inside the cell and Leta thought she could actually hear the throbbing in her leg. Her eyes watered in pain.
When Fiearius spoke again, it took her by surprise; it nearly made her jump.
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, in a defeated, quiet voice quite unlike his usual self. “For…all of this.”
At first, Leta didn’t speak. She couldn’t assure him it was alright, because it wasn’t. Nothing had been alright since the second she stepped aboard his ship. But the apology in his voice was gripped with pain, and his face looked tortured with apology.
In an empty voice, she finally said, “I know.”
Images of the combat ring returned to her mind. Fiearius had acted so expertly and instinctually when it came to killing that man, like it was his job all along …
Finally she couldn’t take it anymore. With a vague hand gesture toward the door and the basement ring beyond, she asked, “Fiear, what … happened in there?” with awe in her voice.
He looked over and met her eyes, a strange darkness stirring behind them, but after only a second, he looked away. And shrugged. “Survival instinct?” he guessed, to which Leta stared in disbelief. Quickly, he backpedaled and shook his head. “No, I dunno,” he muttered. “I dunno what happened. It just…did.”
But he hadn’t been reacting instinctively, she thought in dismissal. He’d gone after the man himself, attacked him.
Quietly, she said, “No one has survival instincts like that. You learned how.” He was still half draped in darkness, unreadable. Her eyes fell to the black marks that circled around his arm and she found herself saying, “The Society taught you. That’s what you did for them, didn’t you?” Her voice was quiet, wondering. “When you worked for them. You killed people?”
As the question left her lips, Fiearius visibly paused, his eyebrows lifted high on his head and his eyes fixed on the hand hanging over his knee. After a moment, he sighed as though he had expected this and replied tiredly, “Yeah. I did.” He flicked his attention over to her for just a moment before looking away again and adding, “But hey didn’t teach me shit. Though I guess…I never would have learned it without them.”
So he had, in fact, been an assassin for them. The revelation was not as surprising as it should have been. “What do you mean?”
For a moment, it seemed like he might not answer. He continued to watch as his thumb and forefinger absently flicked specks of dust in the air, but he said nothing. Until, “Not everyone in the Department of Internal Affairs are assassins.” His voice was slow and calm, his words chosen more carefully than was typical of him. “I wasn’t. At first. And I didn’t think I was going to be. I had no intention of killing anybody. A bit of half-rate thuggery, sure. But to kill someone? I didn’t have the stomach for it.”
A heavy sigh passed through him as he leaned the back of his head against the wall. “Unfortunately, as I’m sure you’re aware, the Society has ways of making people do things they never thought themselves capable of. Ways of changing people to better suit their needs. I never wanted to kill anybody,” he said again and finally looked up at her. “But sometimes? In certain situations? There’s no other choice.”
Leta couldn’t say she agreed. No choice in killing someone? That seemed like a shoddy excuse at best. But before she could say so, Fiearius turned to her and an odd, agonized expression flashed over his face: he was remembering something. Something painful.
And to her immense surprise, he started to share it.