Chapter 3: Orders
He brushed back his long hair and tied it at the nape of his neck. His mask and hood sat next to his bed. He rubbed his bare face, feeling the night’s growth. He wondered what he would look like if he let it grow. Of course, that was a silly idea. Not shaving each morning was unthinkable. It was required.
He stood and left the mask on the table. He felt exposed without it, the air prickling his bare skin. His dark, windowless room gave him no indication of what time it might be; he guessed before dawn. He didn’t sleep much anymore. Closing his eyes was dangerous. There were too many voices in the dark.
He sat back down on the edge of his bed. There was little else in the room: a bed, just wide enough for him to sleep on, and a small table next to it. A normal room might have a window, a dressing table with a bowl of water for washing, hooks for hanging cloaks or clothing. This room had none of those things. Just the bed, the table and the chains.
His eyes flicked over to the dull silver fetters and his fingers clenched, turning his knuckles white. Four chains were bolted to the floor, manacles for wrists and ankles at their ends. He could remember the cold bite of the metal, his skin rubbed raw to bleeding. Absently, he rubbed his wrists. He hadn’t needed to be bound in a long time, but they kept them in his room nonetheless, a constant reminder.
He sat for a while in the dark and stared at nothing. He’d learned to embrace these moments of silence, cling to them. In the beginning, the silence had been his enemy. He’d paced around his room and walked in circles, trying to escape it. Now the early morning before they came for him was his time. It was the only thing left that belonged to him.
He dressed, pulling on the loose black pants and tugging the black shirt over his body. The soft fabric hung from his lean frame. He slipped his feet into his black boots and fastened the silver buckles.
Eventually, the door swung open, intruding on the silence like an unwanted guest at a dinner party. A servant came in and washed his face and hands, then shaved the stubble from his chin. He complied like a penitent child, sitting motionless and staring into nothing. It was easier this way.
She left him to put his mask and hood on by himself. It slipped over his skin, close and warm. His breath was hot inside it, but he was used to the feeling of warmth over his mouth. It covered his face, the supple fabric clinging to the contours of his jaw, nose and forehead. A slit in the front allowed him to see. He adjusted the fit, pulling the mask into place so it didn’t intrude on his vision. It was a comfort, the pressure against his face and head. He had fought the mask in the beginning. He could no longer remember why.
The wait wasn’t long. He was never sure what would happen when they led him out of his room. He’d memorized the labyrinthine hallways, the numbers of doors, the turns to each place they took him. They could cover his eyes and he could still find his way. His heartbeat rose; it felt like rebellion somehow, knowing the hallways. He briefly wondered if he was supposed to know them, and what they would do to him if they found out. Surely they realized. He had been there so long. Not that he could say how long; his sense of time had long since disappeared. He kept walking, following his guide, and pushed thoughts of time out of his mind. Thinking about time always led to thinking about the before, and the before couldn’t exist anymore.
His stomach turned sour and his heart beat faster as the route became clear. One more hallway branched off to the left and he willed his guide to keep going straight. Don’t turn, please don’t turn. He didn’t want to go there, not today. A few more steps and he would know. His urge to flee was overwhelming, but he buried it, pushed it down with everything he had. Sweat dripped down his temple, soaking into his mask.
His guide walked on, straight. He let out his breath and the tightness in his back and shoulders began to ease. As they passed the hallway to the left, he forced his eyes forward. Don’t even look. It was easier that way.
His guide led him through a door into an open air courtyard at the center of the compound. A stone fountain crumbled in the middle, the water long since having stopped flowing. Ivy and moss crept through the cobblestones, nature working hard to retake the ruin. The cloudy sky was visible high above, towering over the sprawling building. He briefly wondered what this building had been, when it had been whole.
“Number One,” a voice barked, and he snapped to attention, standing erect and staring obediently ahead.
He heard footsteps behind him. Slow, patient. He knew the sound of those footsteps, the precise click, click, click of the shoes on the stones, the swish of the robes on the ground. The mere sound of those footsteps made his stomach clench with renewed fear. He held himself still and suffered the inspection, the scrutiny, as Nihil circled him, looking him up and down. Deep inside, he wanted to scoff, to turn up his nose at such treatment. He pushed the feeling down so hard he almost gasped. Such thoughts were dangerous.
“I have orders for you, Number One,” Nihil said.
Number One gave a brief nod, otherwise keeping still.
“There is another guest I would like to invite into our”—he paused and gestured around at the crumbling courtyard—“home. This person will be a valuable contributor to the work we are doing here. I have very high hopes for him; high hopes indeed.” Nihil took a few steps toward him. “Inviting him here, however, is likely to prove… complicated. This situation requires great care and certain precautions.”
Number One nodded again, a brisk up and down of his chin. Whatever questions he may have had never made it near his lips. You didn’t ask Nihil questions.
“I need you to take Number Four and Number Five with you. Number Two will follow behind to clean up your trail. Sindre will give you the details. As I said, this is an important task. I trust you will keep things well in hand.”
Who was Nihil after that he deemed so important? And why send four of them? Number One often extended Nihil’s so-called invitations alone. Curiosity, a long-since-forgotten sensation, rose in Number One.
“Preparations are already underway,” Nihil continued. “I expect our new guest will be available in a few days’ time.” He crossed the distance to Number One in a few quick strides and peered into the slit in his mask. Nihil’s eyes were unnerving, a swirl of blue and green. Number One did his best not to flinch at his gaze. Do my eyes look like that now? “I expect you to bring our guest here and I expect him to be very much alive and in good condition when he arrives. Is that understood?”
Number One gave another brisk nod.
Nihil walked away, his careful stride clicking on the cobblestone. Number One reached to scratch the back of his neck as he awaited Sindre. Another new guest. If there had been any room left in him for pity, he would have felt it for whoever Nihil was sending him after.