When I regained consciousness, the world around me seemed warped, objects spinning and rotating without rhyme or reason. Whatever magic Karnax had used, he hadn’t made any attempt at being subtle or sophisticated. He obviously didn’t care whether or not I suffered negative effects from the magic.
I was tempted to close my eyes. The constant motion was almost enough to sicken me. But I knew that it wouldn’t help, so I forced my eyes to stay open. Eventually the world began to settle as the magic wore off. On one hand this was relieving, but on the other hand it was also worrying, since it meant I must have been unconscious for a long time. It was a powerful burst of magic he had used, after all, and there was no way I would have recovered in only minutes.
The iron prison room was familiar to me now, in an infuriating way. I cursed, pulling myself off of the cot I’d been lying on. My head was completely clear now- I’d suffered no negative aftereffects. Useful, but also slightly suspicious. I knew how magic worked- I was sure there would be some sort of drawback later. But until then, I thanked every god I knew of that I did not remain in a drugged-like state.
The door to the room opened momentarily, and a Hâfléng child entered, carrying a tray of food. She approached me warily, like one would approach a wild animal. She lightly placed the tray of food on my cot, then sprang away as if she was anticipating an attack.
“If I wished to hurt you, I would have done it already,” I commented. “You shouldn’t be frightened.”
“I was told you’d try to escape,” the child said hesitantly. “And that I was to keep that from happening at all costs.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I replied. “As I said, if I wished to harm you, I would have done it by now, instead of allowing you to let your guard up.”
“Oh,” she cocked her head.
“And besides,” I continued, “I have no intention of harming a child.”
“I was told you would try it.”
“Who told you this?”
“My Lord Karnax,” she said. The respect in her tone angered me. Karnax didn’t deserve such respect, not from anybody.
“He is a lord now?”
“Yes,” she said, eyes shining eagerly. “Don’t you know? He’s the most powerful caster in the entire world. You’re lucky he wants you by his side- not all of us get that chance.”
My anger increased. This girl was no more than ten, and she envied me because she believed Karnax favored me? What lies had he been feeding them? For the first time, I wondered if the Hâfléngs were less at fault than I had believed.
“You’re wrong, child,” I snapped. “Karnax wants me as a slave- or dead. Not at his side, but beneath him. You’ve been lied to if you believe that being in his favor is a good thing.”
“He said you had a temper,” she frowned. “Just not that much.”
“You shouldn’t believe what he says. He’s a liar, and a murderer.”
“Well that’s not my business,” she replied. “If he’s going to bring us back to Simar, I’ll follow him. I’ve never seen Simar. What’s it like?”
“Beautiful,” I replied briefly.
“Oh…” she smiled. “That’s good. I’ve been told it’ll belong to us someday. But that doesn’t matter to me. I’m just doing what I’m told. Karnax handpicked me as one of his servants. It’s an honor. You should be honored too. He’s never taken more interest in anybody.”
“Don’t tell me how I should feel,” I replied. “You know nothing.”
“I know more of him than you do,” she replied angrily. “And I’m the one that doesn’t need to be locked up here. You should eat the food. I didn’t take all that time to bring it in here just so you could ignore it.”
She left the room, and the door swung shut behind her, locking. The clicks echoed through the room, reminding me of my situation.
I didn’t eat the food. For all I knew, it was most likely drugged. I would expect no better of Karnax. I set the tray on the floor, pushing it away with my foot.
I wondered what Karnax would do this time. There were many possibilities. But in the end, I knew it would all come down to a single choice. Join him, or remain loyal to the Sivva Council.
I could almost hear Éif’s voice in my head. I know you’re loyal to them, but is your loyalty really worth dying for?!
I supposed that I would find out when it was time to choose. Until then, I had to do something. Anything. If it harmed Karnax, then I would have accomplished what I needed to. The end goal was to either subdue him, or, if that didn’t work, kill him. The second was only a last resort though, to be used only in a desperate situation. But then again, if it came to it, I wouldn’t need much of an excuse. Karnax was simply too dangerous. He could not be allowed to escape punishment again.
The next time the Hâfléng girl entered the room, I pretended to be asleep. Good thing too, because she wasn’t alone.
“She hasn’t eaten, my lord,” the Hâfléng girl said.
Karnax’s voice responded moments later. “That was expected. Don’t worry, you’ve done nothing wrong. Take the tray, and leave.”
“Yes my lord.”
I waited until I heard the door close behind her. Then I heard Karnax approaching.
“Get up,” he ordered. “I know full well you’re conscious.”
I opened my eyes, sitting up. “What do you want now?”
“Direct and to the point, I see. I simply came to assure that you were undamaged.
“As if you would care.”
“As a matter of fact, it is of the greatest importance to me. You are no use to me damaged.”
“No use to you.”
“None. I need you prepared. You will join our cause, voluntarily or no. It matters not. It will be easier for the both of us if you simply comply, and agree to join my cause with no violence. I know you value words. What if you could use the right words to end this without blood? Convince the Sivva council to stand down? I know you could do it.”
I frowned. I had assumed he wanted me to use as more firepower. But was there really another reason?
“You want me to speak to them?”
“Oh yes. Once you agree to join, you will prepare a speech to deliver to the Sivva council. A speech that convinces them surrender is in their best interest. I am sure you will find this a simple and effortless task. You are well educated in the ways of words, and this would hardly be any different from convincing them not to kill you. Now you would be convincing them to save hundreds of lives. War is only a last resort. And believe me, if they engage in a war, they will lose. I have armies enough to overpower them. A surrender is their only hope, and I wish for you to convey that. If you are successful, then it will end well for all of us. However, if you fail, or ignore my advice, encouraging them to stop me, then you will usher in what I promise will be one of the bloodiest wars in history.”
“They would kill me instantly.”
“Ah, but they have had the chance to do so before. Each time, you have been permitted to speak in your defense. I believe that they have quite a bit of sympathy where you are concerned. They would not kill their favorite trainee so quickly.”
“And if I refuse to speak?”
“Then the war begins. It is all in your hands.” He leaned forwards, looking me in the eyes. “Thousands of lives are depending on your decision. Choose wisely.” Then he stood and swept out of the room. I stared after him, his words echoing in my ears. Thousands of lives are depending on your decision. How could I choose? Could I betray everything that I had been taught for this? Karnax seemed confident that he could win.
Perhaps I could evade a war. I knew that if I denied Karnax, refused to speak, refused to comply, then he would kill countless innocents. But if I agreed, I would lose everything I had ever known, be declared a traitor, and killed. Instantly. I feared this fate, but what option did I have?
I looked up to the iron ceiling, sighing. In that brief moment, I longed for the sky, for the sun. I had been imprisoned too long.
I could imagine Karnax laughing, convinced that he had me. I could see Éif’s reproachful expression in my mind, and knew that she would, again, advise me to go with what I believed was right.
But what was right? Agreeing to aid Karnax, who sought to conquer all of Simar, overrun Zila, and then rule all of Shivax itself? Or siding with the Sivva Council, and allowing war to tear our lands apart?
I sighed, closing my eyes. This decision wasn’t an easy one. I knew that the fate of possibly my entire world rested on my shoulders. It was my choice. Mine. But that’s what Karnax wanted. For me to be torn apart by indecision.
I calmed myself, breathing deeply. I just had to look at this logically. My emotions were getting in the way of my judgement. I had to think.
I closed my eyes, assessing the probabilities of both sides. Yes, Karnax wanted the Sivvas to surrender. But why could he not have told them himself, in the form of a message? Why would he send me?
A good point. My troubled mind began to settle into the familiar pattern of logic.
If Karnax had wanted a surrender, he would have sent a message already. I would start from there. Now I had to pose an argument for myself. This would be easier if I had someone to do it with, but I was alone, so I would pose my own questions and arguments.
What if Karnax wanted me to be the one to pose the argument? After all, he seemed to know of my talent with words. A convincing speaker would serve him well in this case.
Ah, but Karnax himself is a clever speaker. He wanted it to be me for some reason.
So what does Karnax want from me?
He wants you to be under control. On his side, or otherwise out of the way.
Pieces began to click together in my head.
Karnax had framed me to see how I would speak in my defense. With the boundaries down, he would have been scrying, to see if I had the convincing talent he needed. When it was confirmed, he brought me back here.
But we’re back to where we started. Why does it have to be me?
More pieces. Still they came together.
Because he knows I’ll never help him. But if he makes me think I would be saving lives, then most likely, I would speak to the Sivvas face-to-face. Giving them full evidence that I was a traitor. I would be sentenced to death. And, just like that, one of the things Karnax considered a major threat to his return was gone.
I smiled darkly, my confidence restored. I murmured a quick prayer of thanks to Kivra, goddess of knowledge, for aiding me in organizing my thoughts and growing to understand Karnax’s plot. Now that the pieces were assembled, it all made sense.
But there was one small problem left. My original capture. Its purpose?
To set up for the framing, of course. But the fights?
Probably a test of my magic, of strength. Everything I had done here was a test. Karnax was searching for the perfect Sivva for the job. And whether or not I had known it, I had managed to fit his qualifications perfectly. And as a reward, I would get to aid Karnax in the destruction of the Sivva Council, and, as a matter of fact, the entire Sivva governing system.
But Karnax wouldn’t know that I was aware of his plans now. All I had to do was play along. Then, at the right time, I could outwit Karnax and use his own arrogance against him. He believed that I was under his control. I would use that belief. Let him see what he believed. Then, when he expected it the least, I would turn on him. And he would meet his downfall.
Of course, such a plan was only easy in thought. In action, it would be much more difficult. I could not allow Karnax to catch wind of my plan. If he did, all was lost. I doubted he would give me the chance to devise a second plan. Therefore, it was essential that I kept this one a secret. The easiest way to do that would be to appear to surrender, to comply with his wishes, and to do what he wanted. And meanwhile, I would be plotting his downfall. Karnax was clever, there was a very good chance he’d see through compliance. But I had to try. I had to rely on his arrogance to blind him; I couldn’t sit still and watch him begin a war.