For the TerribleMinds flash fiction challenge, That Poor, Poor Protagonist.
The water woke him. It was, as always, cold as ice. It poured onto the back of his head, around his naked shoulders, down his naked torso and over his multiple wounds. He could drink it, if he wished. They couldn’t stop him from doing that.
He tried the manacles again. Despite how slick his arms became with water and blood, he still wasn’t able to free himself. The manacles offered scrapes, not freedom. Their chain was fixed to the thick hook fixed to the stone ceiling, near the spout for the water.
Soon they’d come take the chain from the hook. Then they’d heat their chain whips and start again. Cold followed by hot followed by cold… days and days it’d been like this. He’d lost count of how many. His torturers had two rules: don’t kill and don’t mutilate. Their master wanted him whole, the better to break into a willing servant.
He’d welcome death first. But apparently even the Collector of Souls had forgotten this dismal place.
He expected the water to last for a long time, as it usually did first thing in the morning. Instead, it ended soon after it began. He blinked droplets from his eyes as light bloomed outside the archway leading to his cell. The light belonged to an oncoming torch. Were they changing the routine? Usually they let him linger in the pitch darkness before coming to begin their grisly work. Instead, he saw shadows, shapes moving against the stone walls outside his cell door.
Moments later, the beefy cellmaster was unlocking the gate. Before becoming cellmaster, he’d been a town crier, speaking out against the sultan’s rule. After two weeks in the dungeons, he’d begged to have his tongue removed in exchange for an end to the torture and a lifetime of servitude. The dungeons, they said, broke everyone eventually.
The cellmaster stepped out of the way and allowed two of the torturers to enter. They carried the torches, and the figure between them carried nothing. While the torturers wore their leather vests and trousers, weapons and other implements of pain within easy reach on their belts, the other wore a robe of the finest silk, brocaded with precious stones, rings on his fingers and in his ears and nose. He approached with a smile.
“A good morning to you, my gentleman thief. I hear my friends here are having some trouble with you.”
Anger coiled tightly in the thief’s belly. “I give them nothing.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. You came to my palace to take, not to give. You are far more inclined to take than give.”
“We’re alike in that, no?”
The sultan smiled. “Taxation is not thievery, my friend. I am a protector of the people, responsible for their health, their food, their infrastructure.”
“And when you annex the lands of your rivals?”
“Not all of my peers are my peers, or cut out for sultanhood. If their people suffer unnecessarily, I intervene to take that suffering away from them.”
That got a laugh from the thief. “And yet here I am.”
“You were already suffering when you came here.” The sultan eyed him. “You think me cruel, perhaps, but I am not without mercy. I will show you.” He turned to the torturer on his right. “Gag him.”
The torturer did so, shoving the bit deep into the thief’s mouth. A moment later, another torch was visible in the corridor. The thief’s eyes moved to the cell door. He felt a chill worse than any caused by the water flow through him. Escorted into the cell were two women, one his age at thirty and one roughly half that age, both in sensual silk veils the same color as the sultan’s robes, the torchlight accentuating their curves through the semi-transparent fabric. The sultan chuckled.
“Your wife and your daughter. So similar in beauty and form they could almost be sisters. Your daughter’s just beginning to blossom, my friend. Had you not noticed?”
He growled through the bit. The women didn’t look at him. They’d likely been threatened that if they did, the whipping would begin. The cellmaster behind him carried the heated chains, the metal links giving a dull glow in the half-darkness. The sultan touched the thief’s wife’s cheek, then his daughter’s. He favored them for a long moment each, then nodded slowly.
“Yes. They are pleasing. Take them to my chambers. I will be along shortly.”
The cellmaster gestured, and the women left willingly. The sultan clapped his hands once, smiling.
“You see? I have not harmed them. I have welcomed them into my home. No harm shall come to them while they stay here.”
The torturer removed the gag. The thief spat. “As long as they’re your slaves!”
The smile vanished. “They do my bidding. You will have access to them if you confess to your crime and throw yourself on my mercy, which pales in comparison to my wrath. And my wrath is considerable.”
“In that, we’re alike.” The thief glared at the sultan. “If you release me all you’ll get from me is a dagger in the throat.”
The sultan studied him for a long, cold moment. Then, sighing, he shook his head.
“Begin again, my friends. Twice the normal regimen, every day. I will be in my chambers. See I am not disturbed.”
They left, the torturers to sharpen their tools and the sultan to… No. He wouldn’t think on it. He’d endured the whips, the clamps, the stretching and the broken fingers. But the sultan had involved his family. The family for whom he’d stolen bread, fruit, water, gold.
Fury and sorrow warred within him when the torturers returned. He waited for them to unhook his chain. They were two, armed and rested. He was alone, weary and bound.
Crying out in rage and hate, he attacked them anyway.