“How many more spies are out there?”
This was the second or third time the question had been asked. I wasn’t really paying attention, for there were other things on my mind. Though the welfare of the girls in the dungeons with me occupied some of my thoughts, I was more aware of my physical condition.
My hands and feet were still tied to each other. The rope keeping my hands together had been attached to a hook over my head, keeping my arms raised. My feet were still touching the ground, so technically, I wasn’t hanging there; however, my arms and shoulders were sore.
There were three people in the cell besides me. I’d come to think of them as the boss, the muscle, and the stranger. The boss was a middle aged man with graying sideburns; he had done all of the talking so far. The muscle was a beefy guy who was among those that had taken me from the other cell. I was keenly aware of what he was capable of doing if ordered. The third person remained a mystery, staying in the shadows the whole time.
“I will not ask the question again,” the boss said, his expression flat.
“Good!” I took a deep breath. “I won’t have to hear it again.”
The boss laughed, and he kept his cheeks raised in a smile for several seconds longer. “I am not certain that you comprehend your present situation, Mr. Tilman.”
“I am in the dungeons under the palace at Deramas,” I replied. “I am being questioned and refuse to answer. I think I comprehend quite well.”
“You are a master of your trade.” The boss laughed again. “What you don’t comprehend is how unpleasant this ordeal can get. I don’t want to go down that route if I don’t have to, but I will if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
He paused, rubbing at his chin. “The Iberans are in a state of disarray. Their army is in retreat, unable to mount a defense against the superior Handrin forces. Not to mention that little surprise we had for them. What little information your spy network was able to gleam is nothing in comparison to what is coming.”
“I guess you don’t care to share, would you?” I asked, attempting to shrug my shoulders.
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction, Mr. Tilman. Besides, I’m not worried about my people defeating your people. There’s something else I am trying to figure out.” The boss paused, furrowing his eyebrows in thought.
“Marty Gilheim has told me some interesting things about you. You are well known throughout the villages along the border, and wherever you go, you seem to attract sympathizers.”
“Must be my dashing good looks.” I smiled, keeping true to the lighthearted personality I had chosen.
The boss glanced at the muscle and pointed at me. “I like him. He has a sense of humor. Rough him up just a little.”
I tensed, anticipating whatever was about to happen. A fist from the muscle became acquainted with the side of my torso, and the pleasure was all his. I groaned, feeling the first tinge of pain since my interrogation had begun.
“That might be the only time he has to touch you,” the boss explained. “It is all up to you, Jon. Can I call you Jon?”
“All my friends do,” I replied, pain registering in my voice.
“Thanks for the invitation.” The boss shook his head, smiling at an unspoken thought. “Jon, I just want to talk. Can you supply me with some information?”
“Well, you could have invited me over for tea, at least.” The boss chuckled at my quip.
“I think I understand your game. You have a special gift, which has given you a connection to my people that even the king himself doesn’t have. If you are the only one with this gift, the one responsible for this recent wave of Iberan sympathy, then the game is over.”
Spreading his arms to indicate the dungeons, he continued, “I can keep you down here as long as I would like. There’s no escape. With you out of the picture, Handrin will continue to prosper the way it has since King George took the throne some two decades ago.”
“Why can’t you just leave Ibera alone?” I asked. “We pose no threat. All we want is true independence, a chance to hold our own.”
“That’s been tried,” the boss replied. “We’ve fought a war over that. Ibera gained independence from that.”
“Yet, it is Handrin who won’t let it go.” My lighthearted personality had been replaced with a much more serious one.
“Jon, you were not there to experience what Handrin was like before George took the throne. After the war, my people were devastated. It wasn’t until King George put Ibera under his thumb that the situation improved. Prosperity returned. The famous wealth of the land of Handrin was flowing once again.”
The boss took a step in my direction and with a deep frown continued speaking, his tone dark. “As long as the thumb of Handrin keeps Ibera at bay, my people will prosper. I will prosper, and my daughter will prosper.”
The stranger who had been standing silently in the shadows stepped out, revealing herself for the first time. Her pale skin seemed appropriate for the dungeons. She approached the boss and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Father, you have tried reason. I don’t think he will respond to that. Let’s change tactics.”
“How many more spies are out there?”