Marka Lakmera looked up from her cart of empty dishes to see the skinny blond boy running down the corridor toward her, a guard trailing half-heartedly behind him. “What is it, Simon?”
“It’s Seoc! He collapsed at work!” The prisoner was on the verge of tears. “You need to help me take him to the infirmary!”
“Anyone else can’t?”
“He can’t walk, and no one else wants to carry him. They’re afraid of catching whatever he has. Please, we have to hurry!”
“Whatever he has I want not, either.” She resumed pushing the cart. “I’m sorry.”
The guard finally caught up to his quarry. He seized Simon by the scruff of the neck, then turned his cruel eyes on Marka. “Come on, grunie bitch. I have a corpse for you to dispose of.”
“He’s not dead!” Simon cried. Both Marka and the guard ignored him.
“I am worker in the kitchens,” she said quietly. “This is not my job.”
“You are a servant indentured to Waelyngar Penitentiary. Your job is doing as you’re told.”
Marka sighed and followed the guard and Simon, who was now sobbing openly, along the corridor, through a set of heavy iron doors, and down into the mines.
Seoc was lying on the dirt floor at the end of one of the tunnels. Simon had been right. He wasn’t dead. He was still breathing—loudly and raggedly, as if each inhalation was tearing holes in his lungs—and he was writhing in pain. Strings of cloudy saliva hung from his mouth, dampening the soil in the vicinity of his head. His face was ashen and slick with sweat. Around him, the air smelled foul, as if he were already beginning to rot. Marka definitely did not want to pick him up, but she had to, so she did.
Once she had him cradled like a large baby in her arms, he seemed to relax a bit. His eyes drifted halfway open and he gazed vaguely into her face. He was so light, his body felt to her like that of a child.
“Take him to the crematorium,” the guard said from a safe distance. “Go ahead and stick him in as soon as you get there. We don’t need an outbreak on our hands if whatever he has is contagious.”
“But he’s still alive!” shrieked Simon, his voice cracking.
“Not for long.”
Marka was inclined to agree. She had seen many things die, and Seoc was showing all the signs of a creature in its final moments. As soon as she had him out of Simon’s sight, she would put him out of his misery. It wouldn’t take much—a quick twist to the neck and a backwards tug. Easier even than killing a fish, since he wasn’t flopping around. She started to go.
She stopped, and Simon rushed over. He grabbed Seoc’s clammy hands and clutched them to his tearstained face.
“Simon,” Seoc rasped with difficulty.
“Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me here alone. You’re all I’ve got!”
Simon leaned suddenly forward and kissed him on the mouth. Seoc’s eyes popped open in surprise.
“You idiot!” The guard gave Simon a swift boot in the backside, causing him to fall on his face in the dirt. “Check yourself into the infirmary immediately after work.”
As Simon’s anguished wails echoed throughout the earthen chambers, Marka carried Seoc up the tunnel and out of the mines. His body began to shudder, and for a moment, she thought that he had at last come to the final seconds of his life. Then she realized that he was stifling laughter.
“Rezyn,” Seoc whispered, grinning from ear to ear. “I didn’t expect him to kiss me!”