Chapter 11: Negotiations
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CW: Imprisonment, Torture, Transphobia, Misgendering, Homophobia

Alena found her way to the back alley behind a small butcher shop on the east side of town. Litter was scattered all about and the alley was cast in harsh shadows. She was supposed to meet Claus here, if she could even manage to steady her breathing for long enough to hold her composure. He had documents for her and she had instructions for him.

Claus was still in a probationary period with the Resistance, so he couldn’t be trusted with much, but he was living up to her expectations. Kurt had instructed Alena on how to gauge Claus’ abilities and the likelihood that he was lying to her. As far as the Resistance was concerned, Claus was her responsibility.

It was hard to focus on that fact with Lotte’s fate still up in the air.

“Alena?”

Alena brushed tears out of her eye to focus on Claus.

“Good, you’re here,” she said, holding out her hand. “Let me have them.”

Claus turned over the documents and Alena stuffed them into her cloak.

She cleared her throat and, not looking directly at Claus, said, “Have you had any luck figuring out where the new codes are coming from.”

“Um… no. Whoever is behind it is a secret and… Are you okay, Alena?”

“I’m fine,” she spat, shaking. “I… I just… I can’t… Fuck…”

She buried her head in her hands and started to sob. Claus stepped forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, leading her toward the exit of the alley. He was saying something in a soothing voice, but Alena couldn’t make any of it out.

After a while of being led around, Alena asked weakly, “Where are you taking me?”

“Home. For some relaxing tea. Because you really need it.”

He brought Alena to a poorer district of the city. The houses here were terraced with only two floors each. The buildings were dirty and crumbling. Claus stopped in front of one seemingly at random and led Alena inside.

“Margarete?” Claus called softly into the building, “I brought a friend home.”

This wasn’t quite as small as Alena’s home, but the kitchen, dining area, and den were all a cramped single space. There was only one window and the door had several locks on it. From the bedroom emerged a tall woman with long dark hair and a stubby nose who looked nervous when she saw Alena.

“Hello,” she mumbled, not looking directly at her. “I’m Margarete.”

Claus sat Alena down at the table and walked over to the kitchen to start boiling water. Margarete stood off to the side, looking away from Alena except for the occasional glance. Alena remembered faintly that Claus had said that she had some sort of disorder, but the details escaped her.

“Margarete,” she said slowly. “What…? How do you describe…? I’m trying to ask—”

“About my condition,” Margarete finished, cringing a little.

“Yes.”

Claus interrupted from the kitchen, “Perhaps it’s not best to ask about that.”

Margarete chewed her lip for a moment, then sat down at the table across from Alena.

“My mother always said that I was blessed by the goddess Adianne. It’s something that happens to people sometimes. I’m really good at puzzles and problem-solving and I love to learn all I can about machines and fishing and weather. I know those things don’t seem connected; they’re not, they’re just things that I love for some reason.”

“A blessing?” Alena asked.

Claus cleared his throat and said, “Our mother was very superstitious.”

“But she was very smart,” Margarete insisted, glancing darkly at Claus. “She came from a university. The only downside is that it’s hard for me to interact with people. I don’t like crowds. Strangers are hard, too. I had a job where I didn’t have to interact with anyone for a while, but they fired me because I would get really frustrated and stop talking.”

“I’m taking care of her the best I can,” Claus said softly, sitting down at the table with them. “Unfortunately, I never learned any kind of trade so the only way I can afford to take care of us both is by working as a guard.”

“I want to keep working,” Margarete insisted. “I hate feeling helpless.” She folded up before continuing, “I know the prefect wants to hurt people like me. I wish that I could do something to stand up for myself instead of depending on my brother all the time. I don’t want to be stuck relying on other people.”

Alena nodded slowly, then asked, “You said you liked puzzles?”

Margarete nodded, but was focused on the texture of the table. Alena pulled a sheet of parchment out of her cloak and set it down on the table in front of her. Margarete blinked in surprise and picked up the coded document.

“Do you think you can break this code?” Alena asked.

“Code?” Margarete sat up straight. “I think I can do that.”

“Then I think that the Resistance has a place for you.”

Margarete’s eyes lit up and she started flapping her hands, a big dopey grin on her face. Alena stared at her in confusion before chuckling softly to herself and grinning at Claus. This girl was something special. Ursel had been right: there were a lot of people in this town worth defending.

***

Lotte stirred when the door opened and light entered the dungeon again.  Her head was still throbbing from the thrashing she’d gotten earlier in the… day? week? She wasn’t sure how much time had passed. She was hungry, but then she was always hungry nowadays.

“How long was I out?” she asked Zisald.

“A few hours. How do you feel?”

“Tired. Weak. Hungry.”

“Stay strong, Lotte.”

Manfred unlocked the door. Lotte didn’t even get out of bed. She was grabbed under the arms and dragged away from her mattress, out of the cell and into a wooden chair. There was a platter of bread and a small pitcher sitting in front of her.

“Eat,” Manfred said.

“Do you get in trouble if I die?” Lotte asked. “Because if so, that might be the more appealing option.”

“If you don’t eat, I’ll force you.”

Lotte snorted. Manfred grabbed the bread in his dirty hands and tore off a piece. With a free hand, he grabbed Lotte’s jaw and forced it open before shoving the bread into her mouth. She wanted to spit it out, but was too desperate for food and chewed it instead.

Instead of letting Manfred forcibly handle her any further, Lotte picked up the rest of the bread herself. There wasn’t much water in the pitcher, but Lotte drank it up eagerly. When she was done, Manfred knocked everything from the table and slammed his hands down, causing Lotte to jump with a start.

“Names, Lotte!” he cried. “Who did you work for?!”

“I didn’t work for anyone!”

She anticipated the hit, pooling a surge of magic into her face just below the skin. Manfred’s fist glanced off of her, only stinging the top layer. She tried not to let him realize that he hadn’t hurt her.

“Things are only going to get worse the longer you don’t cooperate,” Manfred said, pulling a small journal and an ink bottle from his uniform and setting them down on the table. “If you give me the names, the prefect might actually let you see your little girlfriend again.”

“…Elias Fromm,” Lotte said, making something up on the spot. “That’s who we were introduced to. He works out of a bookstore on the east side of town. The two of us got our instructions from him.”

Manfred raised an eyebrow, but quickly jotted down a note.

“What were you two conscripted to do?”

“Alena was supposed to plant contraband on incoming merchants and frame the guards,” she replied, racking her mind to come up with something convincing. “I was taken to see a wizard living in hiding who gave me these powers so I could—”

The door burst open, causing Lotte to jump. The two of them turned to see Gunter the wizard storming in. Lotte’s stomach dropped and Manfred scowled.

“We’re in the middle of—”

“Out!” Gunter cried.

“You can’t—”

“I said out!” the wizard shouted, sparks flying from his hands.

Manfred nearly stumbled over himself on the way to the door, slamming it shut behind him. Gunter walked up to a rack of torture instruments up on the wall and and picked one. Lotte didn’t know what any of those did, but she had started scrambling back toward her cell.

She slammed the door shut and pressed all her weight up against it. He raised his free hand and muttered a spell, which threw Lotte back and falling to the floor. Lotte crawled back until she was up against the wall, and Gunter walked forward to stand over her.

Gunter took what looked like a pair of blacksmith tongs and placed the end around her neck before starting to squeeze. There were small barbs pressing into Lotte’s skin, but she was able to channel enough magic through her body to keep them from piercing the skin. The pressure was unbearable; she couldn’t breathe. Her vision was blurry from tears.

Leaning forward, Gunter said, “I’ll kill you to get that eye back, if I have to. You, and then all your loved ones. Do not test me, boy. The next time that I come down here, I am getting that eye one way or another. Make it easy on yourself.”

Tears were streaming down Lotte’s face when he finally released her. She choked in a breath, heaving loudly. Gunter walked out the cell and closed the door, locking it with a spell. He threw the tongs to the ground and grabbed the lantern before leaving.

***

There was food in front of her but Alena wasn’t very hungry. But Ursel would yell at her if she didn’t eat, so Alena nibbled on the food a bit. Speaking to Margarete had given her a spark of determination, but it was fading fast. If Alena didn’t get Lotte back soon, she was going to burn out completely.

The dining room was empty except for her and the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. Alena didn’t care until she saw Fadia step into the room. She didn’t want to get her hopes up, but her heart was beating a little faster.

“I spoke to Torben,” Fadia said. “He wants to meet you in person.”

“It’s a trap, then,” Alena replied, but Fadia was shaking her head.

“I don’t think so. The offer seemed genuine. He’s willing to consider the possibility of letting Lotte go.”

Alena wasn’t sure about that, but her heart was aching. If there was even the slightest chance this would work… She took a deep breath and stood up.

“Let’s go.”

There were guards outside the Prefecture Estate, but they didn’t so much as glance at Alena as Fadia led her inside. This place was so lavish, even in comparison to Ursel’s home. Fadia and Alena weaved through the crowds until they got to smaller hallways. By the time they were standing in front of Torben’s office, Alena’s heart was thumping in her ears.

“prefect,” Fadia said when they entered. “I brought Miss Kappel, as you requested.”

“Very good, Fadia. You may leave us.”

Fadia nodded and closed the door behind her, leaving Alena standing in the center of the room and Torben behind his sleek desk.

“How have you been, Alena?” he asked.

“Give me my girlfriend back,” she replied.

“Ah, yes, your… girlfriend. I’ve thought it through and I don’t think she’s a real danger to this town. I’ll order her released on the condition that you agree to marry me.”

Alena spat at Torben, but it landed short on his desk.

“There’s no need for that, Alena,” he said, frowning. “Think about it. It’s obvious that—What’s her name again? Lotte?—is much happier this way. But there’s a cost. Obviously, you can’t marry her if she’s going to stay a woman. How would a relationship like that even work without a strong guiding force like a normal marriage?”

Alena was mostly tuning him out. Torben was full of shit, but that didn’t make the answer obvious. He’d make good on his word and free Lotte if she agreed. It would cost Alena her relationship, but her conscience would be clean. Lotte would just… just have to…

Lotte would be heartbroken.

“I won’t do it,” Alena said firmly.

“Alena, please.” Torben stood up and walked around his desk. “I’ve put up with your impulsive behavior this far, but it has to stop now. Think about what’s best for your future. You’re already past your prime childbearing age—”

A punch to the jaw silenced Torben and sent him reeling back a few steps. When he looked at Alena again, his expression was dark. She didn’t wait for him to say anything more before storming out of his office.

***

Torben sat behind his desk, rubbing his bruised jaw. That woman knew how to throw a punch. He was running out of patience with her, though.

There was a knock on the door and Gunter entered.

“You wanted to see me, prefect?”

“Let the prisoner go,” Torben said.

“…Excuse me?”

“Killing her at this point would just turn her into a martyr for Alena. This gambit has failed. It’s time to move on.”

“Sir, if I may, I still have things I wish to learn about—”

“You’ve had time to study her,” Torben replied curtly. “And to be perfectly honest, I don’t care about her magic. Throw her out into the streets and be done with her.”

Gunter nodded and left Torben alone again. He turned to look out the window at the streets below, deep in thought. There was still one play he hadn’t made yet.

***

Lotte couldn’t even move from hunger. Her mouth was so dry. Everything hurt. Manfred had not been kind to her when he learned that she had given him misinformation. Her body was aching from shallow cuts that, in her exhausted state, Lotte hadn’t been able to completely defend herself from.

She was just barely awake when the door to the dungeon opened again and Gunter stepped inside. Lotte panicked and tried to jump from her bed, but ended up tumbling off of it instead. Despite Zisald’s desperate pleas for her to get up, Lotte remained where she lay.

The door to her cell opened and Lotte tried to summon up just a bit of magic to defend herself. She couldn’t lose her eye. It was the source of all her magic. She’d never be able to control her form again if she lost it.

To her surprise, though, Gunter simply picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. Lotte managed to give out a breathy cry of pain before going limp as she was carried out of the dungeon. Gunter was muttering angrily to himself, but didn’t explain what he was doing.

It was dark out and there weren’t any people wandering around. Gunter was walking for a while before he finally said, “It seems unlikely, but I do hope that you die of your injuries before anyone can find you. I’m not sure how you were able to defend yourself so well; you should be in ribbons after everything that’s been done to you. But if luck is on my side, you won’t last long regardless.”

With a heave, Gunter threw Lotte down. The back of her head collided with pavement and Lotte saw a burst of spots. She was wet; he’d dropped her in a puddle. When Lotte could see clearly again, Gunter was pulling a knife out of his cloak and kneeling down.

“Just for the satisfaction,” he said, before slashing the knife right across Lotte’s face.

She would have screamed if she had any strength left. Blood poured from her face, getting her mouth and trailing onto the ground. It wasn’t as shallow as her other cuts.

Faintly, Lotte could feel the collar and cuffs being removed, but it was a muted feeling compared to the pain she was in. She laid there for a while, even after Gunter’s footsteps had faded away. Zisald was kneeling beside her; they’d given up encouragement and were simply watching with pity. That was probably all Lotte deserved.

After what felt like forever, Lotte spit the blood out of her mouth and forcibly propped herself up by her arms. Every part of her body screamed in pain, but she pushed herself, summoning what little magic she had the energy for to fortify her body.

She was only half aware of where she was walking to. Perhaps she was walking this way on instinct alone. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice was telling Lotte that she had to get off the streets before a night patrol found her and finished the job.

The walk was a bit of a haze, but Lotte eventually found herself standing in front of a familiar door and knocking as hard as she could manage while leaning up against it. When the door opened, she fell inside and someone—A woman?—screamed.

Lotte must have passed out after that. The only thing she was aware of for a while was lying on a soft surface while two people bickered and a baby screamed in the background. Eventually, the noise ceased, the lights went out, and Lotte was left in darkness again.

At least she's safe, right?

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