“All and all, they are very regimented, just like our military,” he finished.
Janine just balked. “Wow. I knew Kagoan temples were different, but…wow.”
“There’s not much to ‘wow’ about once you get used to their size and dramatics,” he responded dryly. “In fact, I never made a habit of going to them outside the Days of Ascent and Descent.”
Janine’s expression turned quizzical. “I thought you mentioned that you were a cleric. How could you be one if you never regularly worshipped Astrid?”
The man in the cell across from hers shook his head. “I mentioned casting spells, but I never claimed to be a cleric. I’m a wizard.” He rattled the shackles that bound his hands behind his back. “This is what they use to prevent me from casting. I almost wish I was a cleric – the standard method of curtailing a cleric’s magic is far more comfortable.”
Janine reached reflexively towards her throat, felling the empty space where her holy symbol once rested. She’d been wearing it nonstop since she first joined the church. She felt naked, powerless, without is comforting presence.
It was hard to believe that she’d been taken prisoner only two days ago. The entire process had been clean, efficient, and well-practiced. After they ambushed the party and knocked her unconscious, they stripped her of her possessions and dragged her to one of the higher-security prisons in Kago within a matter of hours. She’d woken up just in time for a cleric to heal her worst wounds before being thrown into this cell.
Guards came to feed and water the prisoners at noon and sunset. Janine wished she could have called those the highlights of her day, but the food was terrible and the water was worse. Most of the inmates were reclusive and refused to talk, so she had spent her time wondering if and when Lloyd and the others would rescue her.
That morning, she’d struck up a conversation with the man in the cell across from hers, and they had been talking ever since. Most of the time, they talked about the places they’d seen; Janine described all the towns in Laria she had been to on her travels as an adventurer, and he explained the situation in Kago. She couldn’t see his face under the hood he wore, but at least his conversation took her mind off of what might happen to her if she wasn’t rescued.
“So, tell me more about the Larian church,” the man said, trying to change the subject. “We don’t receive a healthy amount of information about the other countries, both because of the hostile military situation and the burning of heretic books.”
“It’s…very large,” Janine said hesitantly. “There are a lot of smaller churches though, and they sometimes have their own individual styles of worship.”
“How do they treat the Plaavan?”
She was afraid that he’d ask about this. She knew most people in Kago treated the Plaavans like dirt, like some disease that needed to be eradicated. She herself and been extremely prejudiced against them not too long ago. Though her adventures had helped her to see them in a different light and realize that not all of them were Evil, this Kagoan wizard had been sheltered from that kind of exposure. He was probably as racist as a person could get.
“Some people sympathize with them, and others think the only good Plaavan is a dead one. Of the temples I’ve been to, most of them avoid talking about it.”
“That is fantastic news,” the man said matter-of-factly. “I was afraid for a moment that the Larian churches were as harsh as the Kago ones.”
“Hold up,” Janine said, confused. “You…don’t hate the Plaavan? You don’t want to kill them all and take their land?”
“You obviously do not, and yet you don’t find that unusual.”
“Yes, but I’ve been places. I’ve had experiences that told me I was wrong about them.”
“So have I.”
“But you’re from Kago!”
“Really, Janine, you need to learn to be less racist.”
She opened her mouth to return a retort, but she couldn’t think of a decent response. Instead, she sighed and crossed her arms. “You never told me our name,” she muttered under her breath.
“I told you my name was Janine. You never told me yours.”
“I suppose I haven’t,” he replied thoughtfully. “You may call me Miles.”
“Miles,” she repeated to herself. She could have sworn that she’d heard that name before. But, how could she have heard about an imprisoned wizard over half the continent away from where she grew up? Perhaps he shared a name with a forgotten acquaintance.
“As for our experiences,” he continued. “Yes, you have traveled to many places that I have only read about, while I have remained here in Kago. But, travel isn’t the only way in which people can learn. I read of Plaavan history, how they were struck by Red Fever decades before it touched the other races. I read papers on Plaavan physiology and how they were more resistant to disease. If we consider these facts, is there any reason to believe that the Plaavan purposefully spread Red Fever in the first place? Could they have been plagued by it too, but were simply able to overcome it with their knowledge of the disease, and we were too stubborn to ask for their assistance?”
“I guess that makes sense,” she admitted. She got the impression that Miles wasn’t a very expressive individual. All through his explanation, his voice had fallen into a near-monotone, and most of his words were analytical rather than emotional. Still, if he was so convinced that his friends and neighbors were on the wrong side, he should have acted at least a little annoyed. She couldn’t see any emotion in him at all. It didn’t help that his hood was up, concealing his expressions, but she guessed that his face was probably as flat as his voice.
“It goes deeper,” Miles explained. “I looked over the military reports. We were slaying thousands of them, and for what? Because their gods might have slain Salblaze so long ago that written history has no record of it? Was it to gain farmland that would remain empty because all the able-bodied men went off to war?”
Miles fell silent for a few moments. “I also had a teacher,” he continued. “Her name was Elizabeth. While everyone else constantly drilled at me that it was my duty to murder the Plaavan and how they were somehow an evil vermin that needed to be cleansed in holy fire, Elizabeth simply taught, as was her job. She never subscribed to the anti-Plaavan viewpoint, but she never made attempts to force her beliefs on me, or anyone else for that matter.”
He fell silent again. It occurred to Janine that she could read his emotions better through what he didn’t do, not what he did do. He didn’t want to talk some more about Elizabeth, so it was probably a sensitive topic for him. Even though she was slightly curious, she decided not to ask about it.
The two of them remained silent for a little while longer, until a handful of guards trudged through the door to serve the evening meal. Today, that meant a bowl of gruel and a jug of water slipped between her cell bars. Janine took the bowl and poured a few dribbles into her mouth. She shuddered a little and the tastelessness and watery texture, but swallowed anyways. Prison was not the place to be a picky eater.
She watched the guards pass out the rest of the rations. As they passed near Miles, they completely skipped his cell and continued distributing food to the other prisoners. He cleared his throat loudly at this, but no one paid any attention. He rattled his shackles, and the guards continued to ignore him.
“Excuse me,” he finally spoke. “I believe you have forgotten me.”
Most of the guards had left by then; only two remained, and both of them froze still at his words. “Yeah? So what?” one of them replied in a rough voice.
“I am a mage,” he said. “It is not unlikely that my level is five times yours. I can perform feats you cannot even imagine.”
“You’re chained up,” the guard spat with a rather annoyed expression. “You can’t do any magic if you can’t move freely. Even I know that.”
“But you are not sure of it,” Miles replied. “In the back of your mind, you think there might be a loophole of sorts that will allow me to escape. For this reason among others, you are terrified of me.”
“I am not!” the guard denied.
Miles continued as if the guard hadn’t said a thing. “It stands that, if you are terrified of me, then you should do everything possible to be in my favor. In your error to account for the extra inmate that was added earlier this week, you brought one fewer serving than what was required to feed us all. I can understand this – everyone makes mistakes. But, what I do not understand is why you would deny me my evening meal, something that would surely mark you as a target of my revenge once I escape. Why not simply return upstairs to collect an extra bowl?”
The guards stood still and silent for several moments, calculating looks on their faces. “Fine,” one of them said. “We’ll be back in five.” Then, they turned away and pushed through the prison door, exiting the room.
Janine couldn’t help but smile. “That was some Bluff,” she complimented.
Miles shook his head. “I wasn’t bluffing. I knew those guards were frightened of me. It was written all over their faces.”
Janine cocked an eyebrow. She hadn’t seen any fear in the guards at all, only annoyance. “I don’t get it. If you read emotions so well, why are you…how do you…”
“Why do I appear as if all emotions have been drained from my body?” he finished. “That is quite easy to explain. A while ago, I performed a study of expressions and body language. I know all the nonverbal giveaways that reveal a person’s surface thoughts and feelings. Thus, I am able to prevent myself from expressing those cues.”
“Really?” She supposed it made sense. As she had learned from Serrin, wizards tended to analyze magic down to a science. He could have easily done the same thing to emotions.
“Yes,” Miles responded. “For instance, you are currently trying to determine whether or not you believe me. For the most part, you do. And now, you are trying to suppress your surprise at my accuracy.”
Janine’s jaw dropped. “You can tell when people are lying to you?”
“On a fairly accurate basis, yes.”
“You can tell when someone is in love with you?”
Miles nodded. “In some ways, it is much easier to spot love than deception. In deception, people try to remain as rational as possible. Love tends to make people irrational.”
“How would you know…if someone was in love with you?” she asked slowly. She had been trying fruitlessly for weeks to attract Lloyd’s attention. Yet, he still ignored her advances. She was almost ready to give up on him, but if she could find one hint that he returned her feelings, then she knew that she could continue to make attempts. Miles could tell her the ways to find those hints.
“There are several smaller signs, but most of them vary from person to person,” he explained. “Since I do not know who you will be testing this method on, I will only go over the basics that hold true for most people.”
“I never said I was going to – oh, what’s the point? Just tell me.”
“Are we assuming that the man in question is trying to conceal his feelings, either from you or from himself?” he asked. Janine nodded a reply, and he continued. “The main idea is that someone in love with you will act vastly different around you than they will around anyone else. In an attempt to hide their affection for you, they will try to smother their emotions whenever you are watching them. This often leads to irrational nervousness or acting the complete opposite of what they feel – instead of loving you, they hate you. Mostly, they will act slightly out of character with no rational explanation.”
Janine thought back to all the time she’d had conversations with Lloyd. Never once had he acted weird or nervous around her. Then again, she knew Lloyd had an amazing amount of self-control. Maybe he had the willpower to completely shield his affection, like how Miles shielded all of his emotions.
“They also act more impulsive than usual,” he continued. “Despite all their attempts to block or divert their emotions, those same emotions take a larger role in decision-making. Hence, the person is more likely to take your side in an argument, or they will impulsively go through great trouble to please you. In extreme situations, they may risk their own safety to secure yours and offer flimsy reasoning to justify the decision.”
No, Lloyd didn’t follow this either. He always chose to think before acting. But still, Miles did say that these were only guidelines. There was still a chance that Lloyd loved her.
“One of the last reliable tendencies of someone who loves you is their level of happiness. Despite all the nervousness, indecision, and complications that arise in your presence, they still yearn to be around you. Aside from what tension they cause to themselves try to hide their feelings, they are more relaxed and comfortable when they are with you. Their world outlook becomes brighter. They are generally happier around you than they are with anyone else.”
Lloyd, if anything, was much more stressed-out and unhappy when she was around. She realized that she couldn’t have been helping matters, being that forward with him, like she expected him to love her as intensely as she loved him. Janine groaned in disappointment.
“What is wrong?” Miles asked.
She narrowed her eyes, completely aware that this question was only a formality for him. “You know exactly what’s wrong.”
Miles dipped his head. “I deeply apologize for your disappointment, though it doesn’t make sense to be mad at me when I had no control over whether or not he loved you.”
Janine turned away from him, hiding the tears that were building up. “It doesn’t matter if you apologize or not. Have you ever loved someone and chased after them for months, only to learn that they didn’t love you back?”
“I don’t believe I have experienced that particular situation.”
Janine crossed her arms in annoyance, fighting the burning sensation in her eyes. “So I suppose you got your girl and lived happily ever after.”
“I haven’t had the chance to experience that either.”
“Oh yeah?” she said with an edge of venom. “How else would a socially-stunted wizard who reads books all day know anything about love?”
“I had the fortune of observing others,” he answered. “One of my best friends, Lexington, played back and forth with his partner for almost a year before they finally admitted their feelings for each other. Besides the obvious joy it brought the two of them, it was also quite informative. I know Lexi and Lloyd are not the most traditional of couples, but-“
Janine was brought out of her simmering by this familiar name. “Wait, hold up,” she interrupted. “Did you just say Lexington was dating a man called Lloyd?”
Miles nodded. “Like I explained, it is not very traditional, but some men feel that way towards each other.”
Janine rubbed her chin in thought. “Was his last name Zephyr? No, wait, you might know him better as Auster.”
“Yes, that is him. Do you know him?”
Suddenly, she realized where she had heard Miles’s name before. “You’re Miles Lamplight! Lloyd told us about you.” Then, another thought crossed her mind. “Lloyd is gay?!?”
Miles shrugged. “Sure. He doesn’t like to talk about it much, but…oh, I see.”
It was at that moment that the guard from before waltzed into the room. He briskly strode down the rows of prisoners, plunked Miles’s bowl and water jug down inside his cell, and walked back out without saying a word. If Miles had wanted to say something else to her, the moment was ruined.
Miles went through the awkward process of maneuvering the bowl onto his knees so he could slurp from it while his hands were shackled behind his back. Janine remained silent, not bothering to finish her own meal. Sadness and hopelessness had dulled her appetite.
Even if Lloyd hadn’t loved her, there had still been hope. If she played her cards right, if she said the right things and acted the right way, there was still a chance he would fall for her eventually. Now that she knew that this hope was utterly false, it felt like someone was taking an axe to her heart.
At least Miles was kind enough to leave her alone. Even after he finished eating and the guards came back to collect everyone’s dishes, he remained silent. Oh, he was still watching her - she could feel his eyes on her when she wasn’t looking. She could imagine him analyzing her emotions, decoding all her thoughts as she subconsciously expressed her sadness. But, he didn’t press her issues. He left her alone so she could mourn her loss in peace.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, simmering in sadness and wiping the slow leak of tears out of her eyes. After some time, however, the emotional exhaustion sneaked up her and she drifted off to sleep.
Janine was running up a stone spiral staircase, winding upwards to the highest rooms in the tower. If she could just reach her own room, she could lock the door and be safe, for a little while at least. But, in the back of her head, she knew she would never make it. She was so small and young, and he was very quick on his feet.
Miraculously, she made it to her room before he could catch her. She threw open her door, ducked inside, and slammed it as fast as she could. Before she could through the deadbolt, though, he tackled the door, throwing it open. The force pitched her backwards, and she knocked into her full-length mirror. It fell to the ground with a smash, its once-flawless surface now marred by a spider web of cracks.
Johan stood in her doorway, a disappointed and annoyed expression on his face. “I told you not to run,” he spoke in a dangerous tone.
Janine swallowed a lump in her throat. “I-I just thought-“
“Then don’t think!” he snarled, prowling further into the room. The closed the door quietly behind him, shutting the deadbolt and blocking her only means of escape. “You should know better than this by now.”
Janine backed a few more steps away from him. She knew the fastest way to get this over with was to just do what he wanted, but she couldn’t bring herself to accept it. “I…I’m sorry,” she choked out.
Johan mirrored her movements, taking a few steps towards her and raising an eyebrow. “You are? Are you truly sorry?”
“Yes!” she cried out.
“Good.” Johan suddenly rushed towards her. Janine stumbled backwards in surprise, but she only made it a few feet before backing herself against a wall. She closed her eyes in fright, though she could feel his muscular hands pinning her down. His body pressed against hers in a way that should have been pleasurable but brought only fear and dread.
“You need to do this for me,” he spoke reassuringly, but it did nothing to calm Janine’s panic.
“No, n-no I don’t… she whispered.
“Yes you DO!” She had only a second to register the sting of a slap to the face before he threw her to the ground. She let her eyes fly open and she glanced up to Johan’s face…no, wait, that wasn’t right. She was looking at her own face. Was she…doing this to herself?
“I know you love me,” her assaulter growled in a voice that should have been hers. “You just need to see it.”
Janine, now confused as well as terrified, scanned the room for something, anything, that could help her escape. She glanced at the broken mirror beside her, then gasped in recognition. Instead of her own face, she could see Lloyd’s fragmented reflection.
Janine found herself catapulted back to reality. She recognized the sigh of the cold, dark cell around her. Judging by the gray light emanating from her barred window, it was early morning. She breathed a sigh of relief, though her heart was still pounding.
It had been months since she’d had a nightmare about Johan. This particular dream had been one of her recurring ones, except for its unusual ending. She should have been happy that it hadn’t ended in its usual way, but she could only bring herself to feel dread and disgust.
“Janine! Are you alright?” a voice called out. It took her a moment to recognize that it was Miles’s voice. For some reason, he actually sounded worried and concerned. She could see him in his cell, leaning against the front bars of his containment to get a better look at her.
“I’m…no,” she answered. “What was I about to do? If I didn’t know about him, how far would I have gone?”
Miles backed away from the bars of his cell, sat down, and crossed his legs. “I am going to have to ask you to explain,” he said, reverting back to his usual emotionless drawl.
“Why should I explain anything to you?” she huffed, sitting up. “You already know everything about me, don’t you?”
“No, I’m afraid I do not,” he responded. “Yes, I am skilled in decoding emotions, but I cannot read minds. I require context to make sense of difficult circumstances. As it is, you are giving off several mixed signals, which makes your remarks that much more confusing.”
Janine sighed in frustration. She was glad that the wizard didn’t have the ability to detect every thought that passed through her head, but she was reluctant to explain everything to him. Maybe this was what he meant by “mixed signals”.
She started explaining from the beginning, when Lloyd recruited her for his adventuring party. She recounted how enamored she’d been with him and the many times she’d made passes at him. She told Miles about recruiting Tinder, how she drank the love potion to get Lloyd to notice her, and their trip to Trassix. She explained her shock when he told them about his past in Kago, but how that still wasn’t enough to make her stop loving him. She kept no secrets from Miles – everything she did in Trassix, the coronation, and everything up until her capture in the Alaavan Plains came out of her mouth.
Miles sat still the entire time, not saying a word but nodding every now and then to let her know he was still listening. When she was done, her voice was a little hoarse from talking and the light from the windows had brightened to a midmorning level.
“Interesting story,” Miles remarked. “Lloyd is the leader of your party. This will make things quite difficult when they eventually try to rescue you. I can now understand why you were so distressed after your nightmare. In that dream, you almost raped Lloyd, didn’t you?”
Janine nodded mutely.
Miles nodded back in understanding. “Still, something appears to be missing. You are still hiding something.”
Janine turned away from him, trying to hide her discomforted expression. She was aware that this action alone probably betrayed her, but she didn’t want to talk about Johan with someone she’d met only two days ago.
“Janine, I can’t help you if you refuse to tell me,” he stated.
“I don’t need your help,” she shot back.
“When you say that, you are not just lying to me, you are lying to yourself,” he reasoned. “What do you have to lose by telling me?”
Unfortunately, Janine couldn’t see anything wrong with his reasoning. She took a deep breath, then hesitated for a moment. Could she trust him? Did she have any reason to? Any reason not to?
“Johan was a cleric at the church I lived in growing up,” she began. Then, everything started pouring out like a waterfall. She was orphaned, her and her sisters, and Johan found them living on the streets. He took them to the church, where they found a place to live and people to care for them. Johan helped her become a cleric and taught her a few clerical spells.
Then, things took a turn for the worse. Janine spared no details when she explained the things he had done to her and her sisters. She knew the other inmates were listening intently to her story, but try as she might, she couldn’t bring herself to stop talking until she recounted how she met Radic and the two of them worked together to help her escape that temple.
When she finished, Miles was quiet for a few minutes. Janine would have thought he was asleep if he wasn’t sitting straight up. When he finally spoke, the words were carefully chosen. “You are afraid that you are becoming another Johan.”
“Yes,” she answered. “What would I have done to Lloyd? He’s such a noble person that he wouldn’t have told anyone if I ended up…hurting him.”
Miles was quiet for a few more moments. “Did Johan feel this level of guilt and disgust whenever he hurt you?”
Janine rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “No. I guess he didn’t.”
“Then, logically, every time you feel guilty about how you have treated Lloyd, you can infer that you are not like Johan. Simply the act of realizing the impact of your actions ensures that you will never travel down his path.”
He made some very solid points. “You’re right,” Janine admitted. “Thank you.” Silently, she also sent up a prayer of thanks to Astrid for the opportunity to meet Miles and have this talk with him. Where else would she have found such a great listener who knew exactly what to say to make her feel better?
“Telling me about Johan must have been very difficult,” Miles remarked. “I estimate that you have told no more than four people about him, including Radic and myself.”
“Right again,” she said.
Miles stood up awkwardly, his balance thrown off a little by his shackled wrists, and stepped closer to the front of his cell. “I want to make this up to you.”
Janine shook her head. “Miles, you’ve helped me enough already.”
“But you have essentially told me your life’s story. Meanwhile, the only fact you know about me is that I am a Kagoan wizard.”
“I know you were conscripted when you were ten, like Lloyd,” she responded. “You were a candidate for Mage General before Rust came along. You were one of Lloyd’s best friends – and like I said before, he told us all about you.”
“That is superficial information,” he countered. “Besides, you told me something that was very difficult to talk about. I should return the favor.”
Before Janine could say anything to stop him, Miles started bucking up and down. She had no idea what he was trying to do until he managed to buck his hood off, revealing a Kagoan-shaped face and a head of matted black hair that covered everything above his dark eyes. He quickly shook his head back and forth, throwing the hair aside and revealing his entire face.
Everything below his eyes looked completely normal, if a little dirty from spending so long in a prison cell. The upper third of his face, however, was marred with hideous burn scars. She noticed that her previous prediction was right – his expression was as blank as an unmarked sheet of parchment.
Then, she suddenly understood. “You don’t have to tell me how you got that,” she said to him.
“I want to,” he stated plainly. “Unless, of course, you believe the story will greatly disturb you, in which case-“
“No, go ahead,” she sighed. “You really believe hearing about this would disturb me, after all I’ve been through?”
Miles shrugged slightly, then began. “Recall my teacher Elizabeth who I told you about last night. She was the Mage General of Kago. One day, Elizabeth and I were doing a practice spar. I had learned quite a few spells by that point in my training, but she wanted to test me to be sure that I could use these spells effectively in a battle situation. She was a fantastic wizard, several levels above me, so we assumed there was no chance that I could actually hurt her. She was old and vulnerable, though extremely careful, so we believed a practice spar would be perfectly safe.
“As it was, my selection of spells that day was poor, to say the least. She made this very clear to me. She told me to attempt more powerful spells, to use any trick I had to gain an upper hand. I could not think of anything that might turn the tide, so I continued to fling my weak selection of spells at her and she continued to counter them.
Janine couldn’t help but notice that the more he talked, the flatter and less expressive he became. She thought back to something he had explained to her when they talked about love; people tended to smother their emotions when they tried to hide them. By becoming so blank, he was unintentionally tipping her off that he felt very strongly about this event.
“I had recently been studying a powerful fire spell,” he continued. “I thought I had memorized it and knew how it worked, and Elizabeth had explicitly told me to use everything at my disposal. I began casting it. At first, Elizabeth was impressed, but then she soon became worried. She tried to stop me from casting, but by then, it was too late.”
He held up a finger. “One flaw. A single mispronounced syllable in the containment phrase was all it took. Fire erupted in what can be described as no less than an explosion. My magical strength drained from my body, leaving me powerless to shield myself. The fire was all around me, searing my entire body but striking my face the worst. I could hear Elizabeth’s calm voice, casting a spell, over the roar of the blaze.”
Miles hesitated for a moment. He blinked a couple quick times, then broke eye contact to stare off into the wall of his cell. “It was a miracle that I remained conscious throughout all of this. I have no recollection of exactly how long the fire lasted, but it was long enough to…She must have been casting a spell that redirected the heat of the fire, allowing me to survive and discover…When the flames cleared, my vision was slightly distorted from the change in lighting, and I was naturally in a great deal of pain, but I was still well enough to see that…She was…She…”
“It’s okay,” Janine spoke gently.
“She was dead!” Miles cried out. “Her spell brought all the fire towards her. It saved me, but there was barely enough left of her to bury! She died saving me from my mistake!”
He completely turned his back on her and faced the inside of his cell. That wasn’t enough to hide his hurt and guilt, however. There was so much of it in his voice that he sounded like a completely different person. “She could have saved herself, but she didn’t. What she did was so selfless, but then the other leaders discovered that she didn’t hate the Plaavan like the rest of this brainwashed country.”
His voice turned vicious. “They called her an addle-minded fool! They blamed the entire accident on me, of course, but they made remarks that her age must have gotten to her if she let this kind of ‘minor’ setback take her life. They never even stopped to consider that she intended to die in order to save me – no, it had to be my incompetence alone that killed her.
“They tore down her peaceful policies, saying they were crafted by a misguided fool. They made public announcements that none of them ever associated with her too closely and that she was suffering in Hell for her crimes against Kago. She knew more about what was going on in this goddamn country than Murphy, Perry, and Bryon put together, and they slandered everything she did!”
He ended his rant, huffing in anger for a few breaths before calming down. “I’m sorry,” he said in his usual monotone. “Like I previously explained, this is a very difficult subject for me.”
“Miles…” Janine spoke softly. “I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t be. This was not your fault in any way,” he assured her. “To continue where I left off, most of my injuries were temporary. Clerics easily healed the wounds on most of my body, but my face was beyond repair. Yes, they were able to heal the blisters and prevent infection, but several of my facial muscles were rendered useless. For months afterwards, even an act as simple as smiling was…very uncomfortable.”
Janine realized that “very uncomfortable” probably translated to “excruciatingly painful”.
“I knew this would eventually subside, but I would never look the same as I once did. No one would regard me in the same way either.”
Janine scoffed. “A little scarring wouldn’t change who you were. You might look a little less…appealing, but if you were training to be the Mage General, then people would still have to treat you with-“
Miles interrupted by whirling around to face her, a broad grin plastered onto his face. She supposed that he must have had a wonderful smile before his accident, but it was ruined by the fact that the upper third of his face was dead flat. The worst part was the asymmetry of it – his right side seemed more badly damaged than his left. The overall result was grotesque enough to leave her stomach churning in revulsion.
His face fell flat again, still slightly disturbing but now within the realm of normalcy. “Now you understand,” he droned. “I knew I needed to find a better method of performing my facial expressions, so I observed the methods of others. Unfortunately, it seemed that there was no easy way to appear normal again.”
Janine wished there was some way she could comfort him. Yes, they had both been through traumatic experiences that still had echoes in the present, but at least she didn’t walk around with a reminder of hers stuck to her face. There were times on her adventures with Lloyd, Radic, and the others when she completely forgot about Johan. He would never be allowed to forget.
“No, don’t feel sorry for me,” Miles told her. “Your abuse under Johan has had only negative effects. My accident, however, had an upside. While studying people’s facial expressions, I realized that movements around the eyes are usually the most involuntary. They are the most reliable was to decode someone’s true emotions...or uncover deceptions. Very adept liars are often able to subdue these movements and display false ones, but they are rarely perfect.
“I could not perform those movements at all. While this was this was the main contributor to my revolting appearance, it could also make me a fairly convincing liar. I simply needed to practice keeping the rest of my face expressionless. I rehearsed this in front of my bedroom mirror as I recovered from my injuries. By the time the last of my bandages were removed, I was a new man – a dead-eyed wizard whose emotions had been burned out of him during the explosion.
“It worked, for the most part. True, no one was able to tell when I was deceiving them, but no one trusted a man who didn’t express joy or sadness like the rest of them. After a few more months of intensive training on my part, it became quite apparent that I was the obvious candidate to replace Elizabeth as Mage General. However, Lord Bryon and General Murphy did not appoint me. Instead, they appointed Rust, someone whom they had met only a few hours prior.”
The door slammed open. The guards were back, come to serve lunch to the prisoners. Miles fell silent as they passed out the bowls of rice and mugs of water. Janine couldn’t help but notice that the guards refused to make eye contact with Miles, even though his scars were bared to the world. Anyone else would have been staring at this sight, but they were acting completely uninterested. Didn’t Miles say at one point that people sometimes hid their true feelings by displaying the opposite emotion?
When the guards left, Janine took the opportunity to speak up. “Who is Rust? I’ve heard about him being the new Mage General, but nobody seems to know too much about him.”
“He claims to be an angel, and he claims to have repaired the wards in Lord Bryon’s room and discovered that Bryon was dead after he did so,” Miles explained. “Personally, I find it much more likely that he lied about the failing state of the old wards and used this as an excuse to kill Lord Bryon himself and set up new wards that were under his control. However, when I tried to explain this to General Murphy and High Priest Perry, they immediately dismissed it. Any other rulers would have at least found the situation suspicious and discussed the idea of investigating the matter further, but Murphy and Perry were too convinced that Rust was a miracle sent by Astrid herself.”
Miles sighed. “It worries me how blindly the leaders of this country will trust someone who subscribes to their over-zealous and anti-Plaavan viewpoint. If Rust was an angel of Astrid, then he never would have condoned Kago’s descent into martial law. Instead, he is its orchestrator. Perhaps it is only my opinion, but I would never consider an angel to be someone who hangs dozens of innocent men and women at the gallows and squanders hundreds of soldier’s lives in useless and unprovoked battles.”
Janine narrowed her eyes a little. “Alright. Hang on, if you were in line to be Mage General, then Rust would have seen you as a threat. How come you’re here in prison, and not…uh…”
“Hanging from a noose?” Miles finished for her. “I suppose I have Rust’s persona to thank for this situation. He has purposefully kept himself shrouded in mystery, you see. Mystery is an effective method of instilling fear. For instance, he has not told anyone aside from the leaders of Kago that he is an angel. Simply the rumor that he is one of Astrid’s servants does a more effective job of aweing the populous than the confirmation of it. A leader who is regarded with fear and awe is not held in suspicion, even when his actions are harsh and questionable.
“I am very lucky that his plans require such a high level of secrecy – he refuses to go anywhere near a Zone of Truth or similar spells. While this kind of practice would normally allow him to freely hang as many innocent people as he desired, it failed in my case because I was very careful in hiding my pro-Plaavan opinions and actions. Thus, he was never able to gather enough evidence to make any serious accusations against me without looking as if he had lost his sanity. He could not frame me for anything serious enough for a death sentence. However, he was able to frame me for a smaller crime and postpone the trial indefinitely, locking me away in this prison to prevent me from interfering with his plans.”
Janine’s face fell. “How long have you been locked up?”
“Almost a month now.”
He had spent the last four weeks in a cold, damp cell, living off of modest rations, his hands shackled so tightly that he couldn’t even practice magic anymore? Just three days without her holy symbol was making Janine itchy. She didn’t want to think of what it was like for him, unable to use his magic for a solid month, wasting away in loneliness while all his friends tried to avoid his fate. Was this what was going to happen to her if Lloyd didn’t come to the rescue?
“All is not lost, however,” Miles spoke up. “You see, Rust has underestimated my abilities.”
Janine quirked an eyebrow. “How? It’s not like you can just-“
She was interrupted by the sounds of shouting and the ringing clangs of metal on metal. The commotion was coming from the other side of the prison’s door, and it only lasted for a few moments before falling silent again. The door creaked open an inch then stopped, as if the other person opening it was waiting for a guard inside to attack him. When no such attack came after a few moments, he threw the door open, charging inside with a halberd held out in front of him.
“Lloyd!” Janine cried out in surprise and relief. The intruder turned towards her, his hair looking a little ruffled by the fight. There were a couple dents on the front of his armor, but she was too excited to care.
“Janine!” he answered. He dashed to her cell, a ring of keys jangling in his hand. He must have taken them off a guard, probably one of the ones he fought outside the door. He started trying keys in her cell’s lock, sighing in exasperation. “I knew I should have brought Matt here with me,” he grumbled after the first few attempts. “How many keys does a single guard need?”
“Where are the others?” Janine asked frantically. “We need to get out of here before more guards show up!”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” he replied dryly, trying a few more keys as he did so. “Radic and Matt are distracting the guards, Serrin’s holding back the wards, and Tinder’s raiding the equipment locker to get you a holy symbol and serve as a distraction.” One of the keys gave off a faint click as he inserted it. He turned it excitedly, a loud clank assuring his success. “Come on,” he beckoned as he threw her cell door open.
Janine hesitated. “Wait a moment. We need to rescue someone else too,” she mentioned, pointing to the cell across from hers.
Lloyd narrowed his eyes and began to turn to who she was pointing at. “Janine, we don’t have enough time to free everyone in the prison, and I can’t of anyone you’d –“ He stopped short when he noticed the occupant of the cell.
“Hello, Lloyd,” Miles said plainly. “Your surprise is understandable. After all, what were the chances that I would be imprisoned in a cell so close to the girl you were trying to rescue? Unfortunately, she is the only one you will be rescuing today. I cannot come with you.”
Lloyd’s jaw moved up and down silently for a few moments. He was simply too stunned by this turn of events to speak. “I…what…how did you end up here? And…well, why can’t you come with us?”
“As for the first question, I believe the word “Rust” is enough to justify my imprisonment,” Miles responded. “And as for the second, no one knows that it was you who has come to Janine’s rescue. For all Murphy, Rust and Perry know, Janine simply happened to be a adventuring cleric with a few mid-leveled friends and family members who sneaked past a couple idiotic guards to break her out. If I escape as well, however, then the matter becomes an issue of national security and political importance. Leaving me behind is the only way to ensure Janine safety, and yours.”
Janine couldn’t help but notice that Miles mentioned her well-being before Lloyd’s.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lloyd refuted. “Serrin told me that she wouldn’t be able to disable the wards in the prison cell blocks. They’ll be able to use those to determine that it was I who broke her out, and then we’ll be national criminals anyways.”
“I believe the wards are no longer relevant,” Miles informed him. He jangled his shackles a little, then continued. “As incredible a liar and caster as Rust is, he tends to underestimate his enemies. When I took the Still Spell feat, I made a special effort to refrain from telling anyone. As a result, I was able to remove all the wards in this area of the prison without any raised suspicions.
Lloyd shook his head in amazement. “Miles , you’re incredible.”
Janine was also impressed, but she suddenly became aware of the dozens of sets of eyes trained on her, Lloyd, and Miles. The wards weren’t the only things keeping watch in the prison. “What about the other prisoners?” she spoke up. “As soon as we’re gone, the guards will question them about what happened.”
“These prisoners will not be questioned by a standard prison guard,” Miles corrected. “This is the highest-security prison in all of Kago. Rust himself will question them. This wouldn’t normally be a problem with him, except for the fact that he is the primary reason why as many as ninety percent of these prisoners are locked up.” He raised his voice a little, speaking directly to the other inmates. “So, gentlemen, what would you do if Rust himself, or even one of his lackeys, decided to ask you a few questions about today’s events?”
The main response was a savage collection of bloodthirsty-sounding whoops and hollers. A few people yelled, “Spit in his face!” or “Claw his eyes out!”, but one of the prisoners gave a loud shout of, “Miles for Mage General!”
When the ruckus died down, Miles said, “It appears that the two of you will have nothing to worry about in terms of secrecy. I must suggest that you be on your way, however. If more guards arrive, you will have a large amount of difficulty retaining that secrecy.”
Janine still saw an issue with his reasoning. “But once Lloyd and I escape, the first thing they’ll do is check the wards. Once they do, they’ll realize they’re gone, and then they’ll put them back up. You probably don’t have enough magic to take them down again, so what happens when-”
Suddenly, the pieces fell into place and the world resolved around her. He was doing this for her. He refused to come with them and escape because it would connect him to her and endanger her safety.
In extreme situations, they may risk their own safety to secure yours and offer flimsy reasoning to justify the decision.
Merciful Astrid, he was in love with her.
Acting on impulse, she pushed Lloyd to the side and rushed towards Miles, grabbing onto the bars of his cell. “Miles, I swear I’ll find a way to get you out of here,” she promised. “It might take a while, but you don’t deserve to be locked up here, not after all you’ve been through.”
“And neither do you,” he replied, taking a couple steps forward to stand closer to her. Their faces were less than a foot apart, but Janine found that this didn’t make her feel uncomfortable at all. “However, I am glad that we have had the opportunity to share this experience. I hope that I’ve been able to teach you something over the last few days. Considering your recent actions, I can say that I have succeeded.”
Janine had so much she wanted to ask him, and so much she wanted to tell him, but she knew she was supposed to be in a hurry. “Thanks for helping me sort out my problems with Lloyd and Johan,” she said simply. “And just because I’ve learned something doesn’t mean I didn’t teach you anything in return.”
“And what might that be?”
“Pretending that your emotions don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.”
Miles took a breath to speak, then stopped for a moment to choose his words. “I know that now,” he stated. “It was…nice to talk about what happened. Thank you for listening.”
Maybe Janine had gotten used to his usually-unexpressive behavior, or maybe Miles was feeling so strongly that cracks were starting to appear in his mask. Whatever the reason, she was picking up a few vibes coming off him. Instinct told her that Miles was fighting the urge to do something. Their faces were fairly close together – did he want to kiss her?
Janine wasn’t sure how to respond to this. On one hand, she didn’t feel the same way towards him as she did towards Lloyd. Her heart didn’t beat fast at the sight of him, and she certainly couldn’t imagine doing anything romantic around him. She felt no excitement at the thought of having sex with him.
On the other hand, through all they had talked about together, she felt that he should have been more than a friend to her. He’d listened to her problems selflessly and was now sacrificing his own chance of freedom to allow her to escape. And, even though he loved her, he had never once taken advantage of her emotional weaknesses to win her over. She couldn’t thank Astrid enough for this opportunity to meet him.
She needed more time to sort out her feelings, but she had no time to do it in. So, she settled for a compromise. Leaning up, she gave him a light kiss on his forehead, in the middle of the worst of his scarring. His skin felt rough and uneven, though warm, against her lips. When she pulled away, she caught a glimpse of a reflexive quirk at the corner of his mouth. In her mind, this translated into the bright and hopeful smile she knew he must have felt inside.
Janine turned away, striding towards the doorway out of the cellblock with determination in her resolve. If he was going to give up his freedom for hers, then she wasn’t going to make his sacrifice in vain.