Five: Free Will Sacrifice
Jal shivered and pulled his blanket tight against the cold. He stood out in the prison yard with a few dozen other inmates. The snow was nearly waist deep in places, collected by the ceaseless wind into drifts that looked like small, white waves on a frozen sea. Jal kept his distance from the other inmates, a motley collection of the worst human society had to offer. They were mostly gathered close to the prison walls were the worst of the wind was blocked by stone. Jal himself leaned against the cold iron bars of the fence that surrounded them, gazing out into the world. Orn Tibarn was a cluster of snow-capped buildings west of the prison. Ordinarily, they would belch black smoke and the smells of manufacturing would carry the handful of miles to the prison yard. These days the city seemed deserted. With raw materials in short supply, there was very little to manufacture. The winter dragged on anyway. Food was becoming scarcer by the day. How long had it been? Months, Jal figured. In any normal year, winter would be winding down by now. Yet it seemed intent to hang on, to maintain its chokehold on the world.
“Jal,” someone called. Jal turned to see Hanos Furton approaching. Hanos was a handsome Balkaran, bronze-skinned and stocky with the characteristic dark eyes and hair of his people. He had somewhat more delicate features than most and kept his face clean-shaven where most Balkaran men wore thick beards. Jal smiled at him and Hanos gave him a conspiratorial wink. He glanced around to make sure there were no guards watching before planting a soft, affectionate kiss on Jal’s cheek.
“What news?” Jal asked. Hanos leaned against the fence beside him, watching over Jal’s shoulder where the other prisoners were busy warming themselves at a barrel of burning trash. It smelled positively wretched, but it was better than freezing to death.
“Nothing really,” Hanos said. “They’re going to release another group today.” Given their dwindling supplies, the prison had taken to releasing the elderly and the sick or invalid into the world. They reasoned that the younger, healthier criminals could still cause trouble but the ones too old or infirm could be trusted to wander off and die in the snow. “I don’t think we’ll be among them.”
Hanos seemed genuinely saddened by that. He was a young man, younger than Jal typically favored, in fact. He’d only gotten his man’s height after his arrest. Something about smuggling. Jal got the sense that Hanos himself had taken the fall for someone else, someone he trusted in the world beyond these bars. Young, impressionable, and with a desire for the exotic, Hanos would have been the perfect patsy for a heist. It’s a shame I didn’t meet him before we both wound up here, Jal thought. At least then Hanos would’ve taken the fall for a master thief, rather than some Balkaran idiot. Now he’d likely spend the rest of his twenties in prison and emerge a scarred, violent, suspicious creature. Jal, in a way, had managed to delay that transformation. Seduction was an artform and using it during a heist was one of the most valuable skills Jal had learned. In particular, the type who would be seduced by a Makinarin tended to have the best taste in things worth stealing. Being an oddity, in this sense a fetish, had paid off quite well for him in the past. He expected it would this time as well.
“Just as well,” Jal said. “I’m not sure there’s anything worth leaving here for at the moment. The world is frozen over, food is running low.”
“We could leave Kennor,” Hanos said with such fervor Jal nearly laughed in his face. There was such innocence, and such intensity in the man. “I overhead some of the guards say that the Gan-Kanar is totally frozen. We could walk right into Naltar if we wanted to.”
“I doubt there’s any more food in Naltar,” Jal replied.
“But what about your people? I’m sure there’s still good fishing off Oldibar. We could go there. I wouldn’t mind a good fish fry myself.”
“Dear Hanos,” Jal said. He reached out and cupped Hanos’ cheek in one hand. The man really was sincere. He’d been a wonderful find, arriving not long after Jal made his decision to escape the prison. He’d served as Jal’s protector, battering anyone who tried to bother or intimidate the Makinarin. Jal himself didn’t feel that having a protector was necessary. He’d managed just fine on his own, but he admitted it had been nice to have someone watching his back. Years on his own took their toll. That’s why I’m still here, he thought. I must be getting soft. It hadn’t been difficult, pretending to need the strong Balkaran to keep away the other inmates. Truthfully, it hadn’t been hard to feign his romantic interest either. Hanos really was quite handsome, and he was genuinely good. It had been a pleasant thrill to seduce him, bed him, bring him completely to Jal’s side.
“You don’t think they’d accept me, do you?” Hanos said. His brown eyes sank to the ground and his shoulders slumped.
Jal considered a moment. His people probably wouldn’t spare Hanos a second thought. But the Balkaran didn’t know that. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think they would. Ever since my homeland sank, they’ve been suspicious of outsiders. Its most of the reason why I left.”
That, of course, was as plain a lie as he’d ever told. Thievery was why he’d left. Well, being caught stealing was the reason. Makinarin weren’t fond of thieves, especially one of their own number.
“Then we’ll go further,” he said. “Maybe all the way to Auroth.”
“We’d have to escape here first,” Jal said. “I don’t suppose you have a plan for that?”
Hanos shook his head. They’d been gathering supplies for several weeks now, stockpiling them anywhere they could think to hide something, so it wouldn’t be easily foun...