Vex passed the guards on either side of the hefty wooden door with a nod. He entered the room behind the door silently and observed a large, black-cloaked shape sitting casually at the table in the center of the room.
Vex cleared his throat. “Milord, you wished to speak to me?”
“Yes, yes indeed...” Darigan indicated the space beside him with his hand, motioning the Mynci over without turning around. Vex walked over, and Darigan sat there in silence for a few minutes; he seemed to be deep in thought. Vex tapped his foot, coughed, and fidgeted around until it was clear that Lord Darigan was paying no attention to him.
“Milord?” Vex asked again, more insistently.
Darigan looked up, his face blank—or, more correctly, his emotions hidden behind a blank face. “Ah, yes. I require a favor of you, Vex.”
Vex nodded, mentally running through a list of things that Lord Darigan could require of him. Take care of a new prisoner? Spend less time playing Cellblock? Keep his cell guards in line?
“I would like you to release a prisoner,” Lord Darigan said lightly, turning away from Vex again.
“Release?” Vex sputtered. “We haven’t released a prisoner in—as long as I can remember!”
“Yes,” Darigan agreed, his expression still perfectly calm.
“Why would we release a prisoner?” the Mynci blurted out. He then seemed to realize how disrespectful he was being and took a deep breath, composing his emotions carefully. “Milord, I must question your motives for this action.”
“You don’t need to know my every thought,” Lord Darigan reminded Vex as he stood up. At his full height, Darigan was easily twice Vex’s size. “Though it may be prudent to inform you of the basic nature of my plan.”
Vex nodded silently.
“There are those who are unhappy with me,” Darigan began.
“Surely not, milord,” Vex said obediently.
“Oh, yes.” Lord Darigan smiled grimly. “There are those who think I am cruel for imprisoning a helpless child, a puny boy, a mute, and a crazy old man. They do not understand my reasons. But, in order to regain their trust, I have decided to release one of the prisoners—to showcase the fact that I do show mercy. Even if it’s after decades of imprisonment, in some cases.”
Darigan stopped, tilted his chin up, and spoke with his eyes on the ceiling.
“You’ll do as I say.”
Vex frowned and grudgingly said, “Yes, milord.” He was unwilling to let go of someone who had been with him for so many years. The prisoners were bothersome, of course, but without them he would not have a job.
“You see, Vex,” the huge Korbat said, taking a leisurely pace as he walked around the room, “I had half a mind to let you choose which prisoner to release.”
Vex immediately began thinking about which prisoner he’d like to be rid of the most. Clop was annoying, for sure, with all those hoof beats, but at least he wasn’t as whiny as that Meekel kid. Barallus was also an irritation to Vex because he required additional work and supervision, despite being just a puny Korbat in a straitjacket.
“However,” Darigan continued with a slight smile on his face, “your... inquiries... today has caused me to rethink that plan.”
Vex struggled to keep his face expressionless. “If I may, milord, I would like to ask which prisoner you wish me to release.”
This was an acceptable solution to Vex. The crazy old Lupe was constantly banging on things with his walking stick and shouting ancient curses and doomsday predictions. It would be a relief to get him out of there.
“Of course, milord. Shall I do that now?”
“Yes... you may go.” Lord Darigan sat down at his table and resumed his relaxed position. Vex bowed to Darigan’s back and left the room as quietly as he had entered. The guards outside looked at him with disdain in their eyes; presumably, they had been eavesdropping on Vex’s conversation with the Lord of the Citadel. Under any other circumstances, Vex would have discreetly reported them to Darigan, but now he found it more prudent to go directly to the task Darigan had given him.
He smiled blandly at the guards and set off down the stairs.
Vex liked the stairs of the Citadel. Each wall was covered in hanging tapestries and flags depicting scenes important to Darigan and his people. There was even one of him; it showed him glaring at a nameless Kougra prisoner while his two guards shut the pet into a cell. Vex always liked to stop and gaze at that tapestry for a moment, but now he walked right past it with only a short glance. He could almost feel Darigan’s presence hovering over him, telling him to get on with his assignment.
Vex strode into the dungeons with a tight frown. He grabbed his ring of keys from the table, leaving a gash in the wood as proof of his anger.
Galgarrath and Haskol, his two guards, looked up from their Cellblock boards. The Grarrl was winning against Barallus, and the Skeith was apparently losing to the Yellow Knight.
Vex peered over Haskol’s shoulder and shook his head. “You disappoint me. That,” he said, pointing to a move the Skeith had made, “was a very preventable mistake.”
Haskol growled and shoved the board, sending pieces flying all over the room. “Pick them up!” he instructed the Yellow Knight. Grumbling, the Chia prisoner crawled around as best he could while fettered at the ankles.
“So, Boss,” Galgarrath spoke up as his fellow guard stomped around angrily. “What happened with Darigan?”
“I have an assignment he wants me to do,” Vex told him. He looked down at his key ring and picked out the key to Number Five’s cell.
Galgarrath looked interested, and even Haskol stopped his destruction to watch what the boss would do.
Vex marched over to Number Five’s cell and inserted the key into the lock. Inside, the decrepit Lupe looked up with a kind of feverish hope in his eyes. Vex tried not to look the prisoner directly in the eyes as he declared the speech he had learned when he first became the dungeon keeper. “By order of the Ruler of the Citadel, Lord Darigan, our Lord and King, who saved us from the traitor Kass... who put you here in the first place... uh...”
Vex abandoned the scripted speech and threw the cell door open. “You’re being released.”
Number Five stood up, shakily, like his legs hadn’t been used in a very long time. “Released?” he croaked.
Vex pursed his lips. “Yes. Released. Get out of here.”
Immediately, Meekel, the Kacheek prisoner, began to cry heartily. “I w-want to go h-home,” he blubbered. “My f-family must miss me so b-bad! I didn’t know I w-was going to be here for s-so long...”
“Shut it, Squire,” Haskol rasped, dealing a heavy blow to the bars at the front of Meekel’s cell. The young Kacheek began to cry more quietly.
Incensed by the boy’s wailing, Clop began to gallop around in circles within his cell. CLOP-CLOP-CLOP-CLOP-CLOP. His hooves on the stone floor made a terrible noise.
“Stop it!” Vex hissed at Clop, who put on the brakes so fast that his hooves almost screeched. “And you, Meekel, shut your mouth! Maybe someday Lord Darigan will have pity on you as well. That day isn’t today. Number Five, I said get out of here!”
The Lupe nodded energetically—“Hope that doesn’t make his spindly neck snap,” muttered Galgarrath—and began to slowly limp towards the stairs. At the foot of the staircase he turned around and opened his mouth.
“I said GO!” Vex roared.
Number Five said nothing. He turned around and began his slow and torturous progress up the stairs.
Vex turned to find four prisoners and two guards staring at him with mouths agape. He glared at them angrily, stomped over to the table, and sat down.
Clop began to gallop again. Barallus returned to his game with Galgarrath. Meekel continued to cry quietly. And the Yellow Knight sat in his cell, watching Haskol, who was wearing a murderous look.
Vex sighed and closed his eyes.
Number Five, an hour later, had made it out of the Citadel and was standing in line to be carried down to the Meridellian hills below. Not many people liked to leave the Citadel, but when it was necessary, flying down on the back of an Eyrie was preferable to jumping.
He kept his head down, even though it hurt his neck and back. He couldn’t think of what would happen if someone recognized him, but he had a vague feeling that it would be bad.
He painfully climbed onto an Eyrie and held tightly to the harness that kept him from flying off into the air. If he fell from this height, he would be dead before he even got to taste freedom.
Five thanked the Eyrie when she set him down on a flat field, forgetting his resolution to hide his face. She looked at him for a moment, and then recognition flared in her yellow eyes.
“Did you escape?” she asked, her voice almost as hoarse as his. She must be very old, Five thought.
“Did I?” he wondered aloud, unable to remember.
She snorted. “Crazy old idiot.”
He stumbled backwards, shocked at her insults. The Eyrie gave him a sort of disdainful glare and leaped into the air again. Her wingbeats disturbed the still air, sending down cool breezes in his direction.
Number Five took stock of his surroundings. Off to his right, perhaps a five minutes’ walk for him, was a homey-looking farmhouse. In every other direction—fields. The decision was obvious.
He knocked on the farmhouse’s door, sweat pouring from his wrinkled skin. He was exhausted after a five-minute walk. This seemed slightly wrong to him.
A small blue Kacheek opened the door. She was missing a tooth, which was obvious when she grinned at him. “Hi, mister!”
“Hello,” he rasped.
“Do you want something?” she asked.
“Do I want something?” Number Five repeated. “Do I... oh, well. I think I’d like some... food?” He nodded decisively to himself. Yes. Food sounded like a good thing to ask for.
The little girl nodded seriously and opened the door for the aged Lupe to hobble inside. “My name is Aless. We’re having potatoes, and carrots, and green beans, and steak, and...”
Number Five tried vainly to remember what those things were. He remembered potatoes, of course; potatoes were those brown lumpy things with the white insides. But steak? Green beans? What he’d gotten to eat in the dungeon couldn’t really be called “food” by anybody’s definition. “Slop,” more like.
Aless and her parents (blue Kacheeks all) sat Number Five down at their table like they didn’t mind him being there. They fed him potatoes, and “carrots” (weird orange things), and “green beans” (which were exactly what their name sounded like), and steak, which he hadn’t eaten in more than a decade.
After he had finished shoveling the food into his mouth at the speed of a dive-bombing Eyrie, Aless’s mother asked him where he was from.
“I’m not from anywhere,” he said honestly.
Aless looked confused and asked what he meant.
“I was stuck somewhere... for a very long time... but I’m not from there.”
“Oh!” Aless exclaimed. “You mean like my brother!”
The little Kacheek’s parents exchanged a look. “Now, honey,” her father interrupted quietly, “I’m sure the nice man doesn’t want to hear about that. It’s not something we talk about to company.”
“What about your brother?” Five asked Aless, ignoring her parents.
“He’s being held captive in the dungeons of Darigan Citadel,” Aless said in a matter-of-fact voice.
Number Five almost started hyperventilating. His vision began to go blurry and there was a roaring in his ears.
“In the dungeons, you say?” he asked, trying to make his voice sound normal.
“Yeah. Meekie has been gone for a long time.”
Aless’s mother looked flustered. “His name was Meekel. He was captured in the Meridell-Darigan War. We don’t have much hope of him returning, but I just hope he’s all right.” She sighed. “Now, I’m sorry to be so abrupt, but it is Aless’s bedtime, and I would like you to continue on to your destination.”
“Of course,” Five murmured. He limped outside and said goodbye to Aless, who had followed him out.
“You’re not crazy,” Aless said.
“You’re not crazy. Everyone says you are. But you’re not.”
Number Five was taken aback by this piece of information. He wasn’t crazy? Then why did he have the overwhelming urge to tell Aless about Jelly World?
“You’re not. Really.”
And Aless disappeared inside.
Vex was playing a game of Cellblock against Barallus when he heard a noise on the dungeon stairs. He whirled around, expecting Lord Darigan, but instead he saw...
The two guards jumped up, hands on their weapons, and shouted threats at the former prisoner.
“I’m going to rip your old head off!” Haskol thundered.
“How dare you show your face here again, you ingrate!” Galgarrath chimed in.
“Relax,” said a silky-smooth voice from behind Number Five. Darigan himself pushed his way past the Lupe, almost knocking him over, and leaned against the wall with a self-satisfied smile.
The guards, as well as Vex, hastened to bow to the Citadel Lord.
“Number Five has given me a tantalizing offer that I cannot pass up,” hissed Darigan, smiling indulgently at the old Lupe. “Vex—please release Squire Meekel.”
Vex looked surprised, but checked his protest before it exited his mouth. He unlocked the Kacheek’s door and booted him out into the center of the room.
Darigan walked over to the small, trembling Kacheek and put a hand on top of his head. “Do you know why I’ve released you?” he asked.
“N-no, Lord Darigan.”
“This crazy old man has volunteered to take your place. How noble! How strange!” Lord Darigan smiled, his bloodless lips curled into a terrible grin. “So you’re free to go home.”
Meekel bolted for the stairs without thanking Number Five. The Lupe didn’t look bothered by that, however, as he calmly made his way to his old cell and sat down, waiting for Vex to lock the door.
Darigan left without saying anything more, and the prison warden came over to lock Number Five in. Vex held his head close to the bars, pretending to struggle with the lock, while he whispered, “Why did you do that?”
“He has a family who misses him,” Number Five said. “I don’t.”
Vex turned the key and pocketed his key ring. He looked directly at the Lupe for a second, and then said simply, “Good to have you back.”
Vex walked away.
Number Five began to sing a song about Jelly World.