It’s funny how people only appreciate something after losing it. Those smalls things that are so taken for granted that one can’t imagine a world without them. Doing so would require a complete change in perspective given how prevalent they were in someone’s life.
Light, for instance. Jon’s brain was so used to its presence that it couldn’t handle so much time in complete darkness. He would often find himself tricked by a flash of light at the edge of his vision, colorful spots floating in the air, or even something slithering in the dark. Tricks of his brain, all of it.
Soundwise, he wasn’t much better. The constant beating of his heart and the occasional rumbling in his stomach were the only things he could hear. Or at least the only things he knew to be real. Hurried footsteps and distant screams started to sound out after a while, becoming more frequent the more time passed. He knew they were as fake as the flashes of light. He was sure of it. Not even rats came this far down.
And yet, he would still wake up with a startle every time.
Couple all of that with the lack of food and water, and Jon found himself at the brink of going mad. He barely had the will to stand up, so he instead sat down on his cell floor, face pressed against the rusty bars while the smell of his wastes emanated from a corner in the back.
How long had he been down there? This far underground, he had no way of keeping track of time. It might have been weeks for all he knew. And how much longer would he be able to survive? At most, a normal person could survive for only a few days without food and water. His cultivated body could endure for longer, but even then it had a limit.
It began as a stray thought in the back of his mind, a simple possibility that he quickly squashed whenever it appeared. The success was only temporary. The more time passed, the more it grew, the more frequent it became. A creeping sense of dread, the looming possibility of dying down there.
The concept of death wasn’t strange to Jon, but he always thought it would come with him either on his feet, weapon in hand, or old in his bed. Either fighting or succumbing to age. Starving to death in a dark dungeon wasn’t something he ever expected to happen. At least not before being locked down there.
Maybe it was time he began praying. Either to God, to whatever deities people followed in this world, or maybe even Chronos. It wasn’t like Jon had anything else he could try.
Another flicker of light on the edge of his vision. Jon looked towards it so that it would disappear like always. It didn’t. Instead, Jon saw a beam of light at the end of a long dark tunnel coming towards him.
It took him a long moment to register the fact that the light was real, that someone was coming. When it did, he grabbed onto the metal bars and pulled himself to his feet. He fell to his knees the next instant as his numb legs buckled over, and everything began to spin after standing up too fast.
The light had already covered half of the distance when he finally managed to stand up straight. By then, it had become so intense that Jon couldn’t even look straight at it anymore, forcing him to look down to his feet. A few more seconds and he could also hear the tapping of shoes against the stone floor. A single set of it. Just one person.
Seconds seemed to stretch forever as the sound of footsteps grew in a crescendo before coming to a stop in front of his cell. “You look terrible,” said a man’s hoarse voice. If Jon had to guess, the speaker was much older than him.
The light was too blinding for Jon to look directly at it, so he continued focusing on the floor. He peered a pair of brown boots and black breeches, both of them too fine-looking and unblemished to not belong to a noble. “My deepest apologies, my lord,” Jon croaked, his dry throat hurting just from that bit of effort. “Wasn’t expecting visitors.”
The man didn’t so much laugh as he blew air out of his nose. “At least you still have your wits with you, that’s good. Let me open this.” Jon heard the rattling of a key entering into the hole followed by the door to his cell creaking open. “Here, drink this.” An unadorned hand offered him a waterskin.
No matter how much thirst he felt, Jon wasn’t about to accept a drink without at least knowing its contents. “What is it?”
“Water mixed with sugar. It should help recover your energy if only a little. Trust me, you’ll need it.”
Jon still couldn’t peer at the man’s face. Slowly, he took the waterskin, uncorked it, and brought it closer to his nose. Other than a hint of sweetness, he smelled nothing else.
“While a certain level of mistrust is healthy, one should always keep it to a rational level. Skepticism can turn into paranoia rather easily, after all. There would be no need for the subterfuge if I truly wished you harm.”
Grudgingly, Jon had to agree. The man was a noble and not a young one. He had never seen a nobleman that didn’t have, at least, the strength of a Crusader. The only exception being those who were in the final years of their lives, which didn’t seem to be the case here.
Jon brought the waterskin to his lips and took a sip. He hacked and coughed as the liquid slid down his dry throat, as if the long incarceration made him forget how to drink. The second sip went down more easily, so much so that he could try to ingest more at a time. He took a big gulp next, immediately followed by a second and a third, ignoring his need to breathe until he found himself sucking on the empty waterskin.
“Thank you, my lord,” he said as he returned the waterskin. His squinting eyes were starting to get used to the light, and he could make up a bit more of the nobleman in front of him. He had a hand raised in the air from which the light was being emitted. His white shirt stopped just below the elbows while his torso was covered by a green and orange striped jerkin. That, coupled with his fire-colored hair, already pointed to him being an Olsandre.
“You should also thank those friends of yours. Both Nevil Ullrich and Bellatrix Teer requested their parents to intervene on your behalf. It’s a rare sight to see those two houses agreeing on a common goal, so you should take pride in that at the very least.”
Jon cared little for the last part, instead focusing on the first one. So he had Nevil and Bella to thank later. Shows what I know for doubting them.
“But don’t get too happy just yet,” the Olsandre man continued. “You managed to avoid Garrel for a whole month. Then you became careless, no doubt believing that he had already forgotten about you. If you plan on surviving here, let this serve as a lesson. Us nobles have long memories.”
Jon nodded in agreement. “So what happens now? Even if Nevil and Bella spoke for me, I doubt this will end with just that.”
“Now, we’ll both head to the headmaster’s office. You’ll undergo a trial with me as the impartial judge.”
“And if I lose...” Jon chose not to ask why the judge was down here talking so casually to him to instead focus on the most pressing matter.
“Then, in the worst case, you also lose your head. Not that it’s going to happen, though. I’ve already decided on the verdict, so the trial is a mere formality. You’ll be declared guilty. In respect to your roommates’ pleas for mercy, the headsman won’t be called, and neither will there be an expulsion. Instead, the first thing in the morning, you’ll be tied up and flogged. Fifty lashes followed by salt being rubbed on the wounds for the rest of the day.”