Chapter 24 – In Custody
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The city guard had come for us and seeing as we were outnumbered and most likely also outskilled, we had no option but to give ourselves up. Sarita was fuming, she jumped around and screamed and just as we were walking towards the guards to be taken into custody, she decided to make a run for it. 

Mere feet away from being put in iron shackles, she broke into a sprint. The guards tried to reach for her, but the girl ducked below their arms, made tight squeeze between two of them and was beyond their lines, heading for an opening to a tight alley. The guards yelled and screamed, two ran after her, but Sarita was already at the entrance to the alley. 

She recoiled from a sudden wall, fell backwards, holding her head and nose, screaming muffled curses. A solid pane of stone had risen from the ground less than a finger’s width before her nose. The mage of the guard responsible for the spell smiled and barked orders to the others. Sarita too was put in shackles. 

All of us were put in chain and coifs put over our head; the worked iron would prevent us from casting any spells, should we have the ability to do so. Similarly, Chrysita’s rune-inscribed crystal was put into a thick metal box, which was locked close with a padlock, the golem body was wrapped in chains and left where it was. 

Mister Wyde came out of his store, blustering and yelling at the guard, something about them not knowing who he was, what they could or could not do and what consequences this would have, but the guard merely scoffed and ignored him. 

We were led away, Sarita most outraged, still trying to get out of her shackles. I had pity on her, but my own situation did not look that good either. Professor Scutolith was scolding his niece about what her stupid good will had gotten us into when in reality, it had been my stupid good will. Brad was grinding his teeth, scowling at the guards, but also at Sarita. 

We were taken to another building standing just at the edge of the Slab’s shadow. It rose like a solid block of grey stone dropped onto a green pasture. Immediately after being brought inside, we found ourselves in some sort of processing room, tall and with a gallery above. Many other guards were close by criminals, troublemakers or just citizens with grievances they wanted to voice. We were not taken to any seat, instead immediately shoved towards a stairwell leading down to the basement. A cell already waited for us. The coifs were removed and replaced by a locked cage over our head, one by one, then all six of us were thrown in most carelessly. 

The reinforced door was slammed shut and the last guardsman laughed an insult through its tiny window. Sarita continued to bark insults, some of which I actually came to understand. “Son of a whore” and “I’ll castrate you and feed your balls to the hogs” were just the mildest phrases coming out of the educated pottymouth. 

The rest of us was still somewhat stricken. We had spent barely six days in civilized society and already made the natives our enemies and ourselves criminals. I blamed myself and nobody disagreed with me. Sarita eventually gave up, sat down and slumped together into a pile of misery. 

It was not long after when keys jingled at the door and it opened. Sarita scurried away from the door and readied herself, obviously not having given up hope and fighting spirit just yet. The man who entered was a crolachan of especially slender built and in clothing fitting a high-ranking official. He smirked as he laid eyes on Sarita, then he turned around and nodded to the guard who had opened the door for him. Sarita seemed to recognize the man and hurled insults at him, too, which the man retorted with a reprimanding tone. He was obviously a representative of Uvraitam or whatever political body chief Avantyet was part of. 

Before turning around and leaving the cell, the man turned to the Professor in particular. “Magus Jayatan will have his fun with you, old man.” The door slammed shut behind him and we were alone in our cell. 

Sarita continued screaming more obscenities through the small window in the door, then finally resigned to pressing her forehead against the door until Anne put her arm around the girl. Nobody said anything and silence joined the dim darkness as an occupant of our cell. 

It was certainly close to dinner time when we again heard a presence in the corridor as fast steps came down towards our door, reprimanding orders were being barked by a female voice and finally, the cell door opened. 

The human woman who entered had hazel hair tied tightly into a greying bun and wore a fine dress that spoke of authority and status. She was smaller than Brad and even Sarita would have probably outgrown her in one year – or five duochs as one would say down below the surface – but she appeared much taller than all of us with her straight posture and judging gaze. The woman addressed us in ceremonial Pliranti. 

“I am sorry for these inconveniences, guests. I am councilwoman Signi Wyde. It seems that a bounty had been out on your heads by the Assembly of 88 Chieftains. Such bounties are not allowed to be pursued within the city walls, I have corrected this problem for now. You are free to leave here, as long as you do it in my company, for now, I am vouching for you.” She gave a nod to the guards, who approached us with keys to our iron shackles. “What is your answer?” 

We looked at each other for only a moment before nodding all in unison. Our shackles were removed and the guards stood aside to let us leave the cell. Chrysita’s crystal was handed back to the Professor with the note that his golem was for now confiscated. 

It was an odd feeling, surrounded, captured, thrown into a cell and released again. What I needed now most was some good dinner to take away exhaustion and confusion. 

We followed our benefactor out of the guard’s building as we were obliged to. There stood, awaiting us with a beaming smile, Thorin Wyde. He spoke many words of jubilation and thanks and together with him, we followed Councilwoman Wyde. She led us up the spiralling ramps to the topside of the slab. The buildings here impressed with pointed arches of stone framing glass windows as tall as three or four men, finely carved stones and rich flower gardens. 

We soon arrived at the mansion of the Wydes and were greeted by a young man wearing fine clothes befitting a higher servant. He opened the door for us and led us to an already set table. 

“I welcome you in my home, guests.” The councilwoman announced as a maid put the last plates of food on the table. “Sit down, partake with me and I shall offer you a future.” 

I had to raise an eyebrow at that odd invitation. Anne also seemed to have noticed the hint of a deal we were about to be offered, but said nothing. Brad remained silent, while the Professor accepted readily and loudly. Sarita gave no response and instead simply eyed the food on the table. 

We took seat and the councilwoman offered us the various dishes on the table while explaining their name and origin. Us surface dwellers were all impressed with the wide variety of food before us and tried again everything, while Sarita ignored most and went straight towards what seemed to be a whole roasted chicken in a breaded crust. The food was delectable and plentiful. I enjoyed a large cut of a roast together with mashed Vrata and sour berry sauce.

It was not until most of us were done that Councilwoman Wyde actually addressed the issue for which she had invited us. 

“My dear guests.” She cleaned her mouth and put aside the napkin. “I owe you an explanation of the situation. As a member of council, I have always sought to ensure the neutrality of the City of Slab. It sits on the borders of many political territories and just keeping this vast, fertile chamber for ourselves is difficult enough, even without chieftains, governors and generals trying to push their influencing fingers inside.” She made a short pause. “And to ensure political neutrality, I need to think of the wealth and business of the city’s inhabitants, I hope you understand?” 

The Professor answered for us. “Of course.” 

“Well then, I guess you owe you an explanation of your current status. As refugees under my vouch, your status is unsure. If you agree to take residence within the city’s chamber and not leave it for twelve duochs, you shall attain citizenship, given good standing and no offenses against our laws.” 

I could already see us not staying in this place for that long, but I did not speak up just yet. 

“Citizens of this city enjoy all the legal protections as far as our trade routes go and the right to take residence, open shop and voicing your grievances to the council and assembly.” 

The Professor spoke what we all knew had to come. “We thank you for your offer, but we must continue our search, I hope you understand.” 

Councilwoman Wyde smiled, softly, but I could see something behind that smile I did not like. 

“I assumed you would, but I have yet to make my offer. I do not share my husband’s enthusiasm for tall tales, myths and legends, but occasionally he does present me with interesting evidence to back so claims up. Is it true that the mages of your supposed surface world are in possession of a substance known as flux that allows them to draw on vast stores of energies?” 

The Professor nodded eagerly, but I realized what deal the Councilwoman was preparing to offer; the Professor had apparently not yet. “Yes, it is true.” The Professor answered, and before he could go on of explaining the intricacies, the Councilwoman continued her proposal. 

“Are you capable of recreating this substance then?” 

“Yes, of course, my niece is an accomplished alchemist of the guild, she knows the method well.” 

I shot a glance at Anne and she knew what both of us were thinking, a look to Brad confirmed that even he smelled the deal growing questionable, Sarita was cleaning her teeth with a long splinter of wood and only cursory paying attention.

The Councilwoman’s smile widened to a suspicious size. “Excellent, then I can make you a great offer: If you were to produce this flux for me – and only me – I will be able to allocate great resources to you for your twelve duochs here. While you are confined to the city’s chamber, you shall not want in sources to read and we might even be able to mount expeditions in your stead. I assure you, you will find a way back home by then.” 

Our worst assumptions had been proven true. 

The Professor almost jumped from his seat. “Excellent. I believe we have a deal then, Councilwoman Wyde. I think we would all be-” When he turned to us, his face took on a much more reserved look. “-what?” 

Anne stood up and faced the Councilwoman. “I have to protest, we cannot make any such accord just yet.” 

The Professor awoke from his dumbfounded daze and raised a vexed voice at his niece. “What? Lieschen how dare you just speak out while I am negotiating for us? Sit back down!” 

But Anne did not sit back down. She instead threw a glance to both Brad and me. Both of us nodded to show her that we were backing her on this issue. Sarita noticed she was being left out and reached for a smal dessert pastry while carefully observing the situation unfold. 

“Uncle, may I remind you that you are not authorized to distribute Flux outside of University?” 

“What?” the professor furrowed his brow. “There’s no point to sticking with protocol so tightly here. It is all for naught if we do not find a way out either way.” 

Anne sighed. “And furthermore, the refinement of flux is the Alchemist’s Guild’s work to do. You have no say in this.” 

“Oh, is that so?” Councilwoman Wyde seemed not much dampened in her enthusiasm to negotiate. “Then I shall address you for that issue, would that be in accordance with protocol?” 

Anne remained opposed. “I am sorry, but I do not have the authority to make any such deal. The production and distribution of flux is strictly regulated, and for a good reason so.” 

Councilwoman Wyde raised an eyebrow but did not rebuke Anne. “Well, if that is the case, I will have to retract my offer. You will have one full cycle of the fog to leave the city’s chamber before your provisional protection under my voucher ends. I wish you fare well.” 

The Professor made a final attempt at bringing the conversation back to his side, but I addressed him before he could do so. “Professor, this is truly an issue that Anne would be better suited to discuss, it is obvious she possesses the better sense for business and negotiation.” 

Protest had already formed on the Professor’s face but then ebbed away just as fast. It seemed to me that this discussion was one he had had and lost already before. 

We thanked the councilwoman for her decency, hospitality and discretion, then we were escorted to the door by the servant, only for Thorin to quickly catch up to us. 

“I am sorry my wife is so stringent, she is a busy woman who has many lives depend on her, she needs to think about profit. If you come by my store in the morning, we can finalize our dealings and you’ll be off with all you want to know, I promise.” Then he gave us a piece of paper with some words scribbled on in haste. “Go to the Long Vine Inn and show this to the keeper, they will let you have a good room for cheap.” 

Sarita took the paper, then we thanked Thorin and headed for the ramp downwards. The Professor wanted to protest loudly at Anne but was quickly shot down. We would all have to have a talk about authority within our group of seekers once we had the time. 

Before we descended I got a view over the city below and the entire chamber. The lights in the windows dotted the vast interior walls of the city chamber where people had carved their home right into the stone. As much as I had just a few days before felt that we had indeed reached civilization, just as much did I then feel that such a civilization would always be utterly foreign and exotic to me. I felt lost, again, alone in a sea of people with only this tiny raft of companions to cling to.