Part 5: Happiness is a Warm Gun
As much as I'd like to revel in my not-being-buried-aliveness, I need to keep moving. I did call up the hangman, after all. The best place to be if he shows up is anywhere else. I haul myself out of the pool and run across to courtyard to the door Aelia was heading for.
But since I don't want to share her horrible death, I can't take the time to mourn her. Got to keep moving. But where should I go from here?
Siccing Jereth's beloved sister/mother on him is still the best plan I have to get out of whatever it is he wants me to do. She sounds like a very important person, though. Likely to be heavily guarded. I think Aelia was going to make the introductions. Without her, getting an audience with the "Godmother" is going to be tricky. But hey, I'm a thief. Getting places people don't want me to be is what I do.
Off again, down the lovely pottery halls, now cracked and less lovely thanks to the quake. Repairing this place will cost a fortune. Time for a little profitable vandalism. Thanks to the cracks, the fireglass shards in the mosaics are easy to chip out. Behind the ceramic, the wall is mortared basalt bricks. Just like the rest of life, the pretty facade is built on the support of the common.
I wander through the halls unescorted and alone, admiring the high arches, statues, and mosaic patterns. No destination, no immediate danger, no Hangman, no elves. It's good to relax for a few minutes. Come to think of it, where are all the elves? Or the servants? Or guards? These halls are conspicuously empty. They can't still be eating, can they?
Dragon take it. Let them eat their fowl and cake and wine and whatever else. I wish now I'd eaten more of that dinner, but there's nothing to be done about that. I lean against the wall, then slide down and sit.
All my wounds decide to remind me they're still around. There's the bruised rib on my side from the first night, reduced to a dull ache when I breathe. There is the slice in my arm from a Redcap's razor, bound and treated by the guards. There's the spear stab on my left thigh, hurting when I prod it. There are cuts, scrapes, and bruises from dropping from great heights into pools of not quite fresh water in The Belly. There's a lump on the back of my head from where the bullyboy's club knocked me out. On top is another lump I don't remember picking up.
And then there is my hand. My poor burned hand. I play with the bandages on it, unwrapping it and trying to rewrap it for comfort. At least I don't think it's on fire anymore. But by God and the Dragon, it itches.
I absently scratch as my burns with the glass shard. Ah. That's a bit better, but not by much. It's the kind of itch that goes deep. I keep at it. The prickle continues...I could scratch until I bleed, until the skin parts and the muscle falls off, peel it to the bone...I look at my hand, watch the cartilage crack, see the fingerbones glisten red in the fireglass light, hear the crackle as they move.
I raise my skinned hand at Aelia.
"Look!" I grin, and wave my pretty fingerbones at the elf standing over me as she stares down, aghast.
"What are you doing to yourself, sir?" she says. "Get up. You need to get that seen to before you bleed to death." She pulls me to my feet.
My head spins. I stagger a little and try to focus on her. "Aelia? Aren't you dead?"
"What a foolish question that is. Now be quiet, sir. You are distressing me." Fair enough. She leads me to a room with three beds, a cabinet filled with jars of powders and pills, and a table of carefully arranged sharp implements. "Lie down." she instructs.
I eye the pointy tools nervously. If she's at all upset about me holding a glass shard to her neck, there's easy revenge to be had here...
She follows my gaze and gives a sort of sigh down her nose. "Sir, If I am to help you you will need to trust that I will do so. Do not worry. I am a professional. I would not intentionally harm one under my care."
That isn't all that comforting, but my hand has gone numb and I can't tell if my fingers move when I try to wiggle them. I take to the bed. She moves over to a basin, washes her hands, then pulls out a small device like a tin whistle.
"Inhale, please." She says. I do. She puffs into the whistle, and a small cloud of white powder dusts my face. It smells sweet...I think of snowflakes again, and go limp.
The dust doesn't put me under fully. I feel like I'm looking down from the ceiling, watching her work on someone else. She daubs the lacerations I put in my hand with some sort of ointment, then threads a needle and begins to stitch. I lose count after a dozen. She wraps my hand in a clean bandage, tossing the remains of my old one in a bin, then pours something in a glass and lifts it to my lips. I don't want to swallow, but it's that or choke. This, too, is sweet, almost cloying, with a bitter aftertaste.
After a few minutes the haze in my head clears. And with clarity comes questions. "What happened? How did you escape the Hangman? Where is everyone else? Will my hand be alright?"
She tilts her head at me, her face blank. "What hangman?"
"The...the Hangman.” I wave my hand at her...ow. That was a mistake. “The rope...he yanked into the air...your eyes bulged...I thought you were dead..." Relief, confusion, and suspicion all war inside me, rattling around with the questions I can't quite form.
She tilts her head the other way. "Gaven, there was no hangman. We were crossing the courtyard when you panicked, then jumped into the pool. You hit the other wall, and I could not wake you. I went to find help because I could not move you, then returned to find you in the hall." She makes that hand gesture again. "There was nothing else there. It was just a phantom of the delirium, a shadow in your mind."
I stare at her, dumbfounded. Why was she lying to me? I didn't imagine The Hangman. I didn't conjure being buried alive. Too much is wrong. There's still grime beneath my fingers from clawing at the wall. My left boot is missing. And at least an hour passed from the time I saw her yanked up the wall to the time I tricked the shadow into turning the wall to jelly.
I slap the tray of surgical tools with my bad hand. My fingers close around a scalpel.
She shrieks as I leap at her. My weight bears her to the wall. I don't have some broken glass at her throat this time...it's polished steel. Sharp enough to cut a finger off, let alone sever an artery.
“You need to tell me the truth, Aelia.” I say. I'm calm. I'm distant. I'm a thousand miles away. “By God and the Dragon, I will slit your throat and leave you bleeding unless you tell me the truth. Right now.”