Make No Mistake
by Charles C. Cole
The familiar feel of bare sand greets Kaden Nadir’s cheek. He wakes slowly and uncurls stiffly in the oppressive darkness of a cavernous dungeon. He is hungry. He pulls himself to his feet despite his sore back, and his chains rattle when he stretches life back into his arms.
There is no torchlight for the inmate. A small barred window high in the outer wall lets in fresh air. A horse-cart passes in the alley, hinting of better things.
Kaden rattles his chains defiantly. “I still have hope!”
Unexpectedly, someone sighs, too far to see but close enough to whisper to.
“Does it matter?” A woman’s voice.
“Shake your chains.”
“Because maybe I’m dreaming. Are you staying?”
Familiar metal clinks, like a cur scratching for fleas, without enthusiasm or relief.
“The indignity that you should find me a tattered copy of myself. What’s your crime, woman?”
“Existing where not wanted.”
“What did you do? Burn your boyfriend’s dinner?”
“I have no boyfriend.”
“Poison your employer? No? Tell me your sad story.”
“I owned a dog who disliked cats to distraction. We walked down the main street of the bazaar, hoping for handouts. When he saw an orange tabby boldly cleaning itself on the front stoop on the other side of the busy road, my companion charged into battle like it was his life’s mission.
“I ran to catch him before he got into trouble, and so startled a royal rider. The rider pulled back hard, to stop from running over me, he said. Hurting his neck from the strain, he said. I might as well have assaulted him myself, he suggested.”
“And the dog? Did they kill it?”
“For being a dog? He was nothing fancy, but he was big. He could make a fierce protector or even a competitive fighter, in the right hands.”
“How long did they sentence you for bad judgment?”
“Do I know?”
“The judge would say. In the courtroom.”
“I saw no judge. The law has shared no findings. Perhaps they didn’t want to overwhelm a fragile woman, nearly feral for want of a righteous man’s discipline. But the robed traveler who hurt himself, who said I assaulted him, was dressed beautifully in long brightly-colored silks. Even his horse was well-dressed, with a braided and beribboned tail. He is someone. He deserves to feel safe from dangerous criminals like me. My penalty is... obvious.”
The man laughed wickedly, derisively.
“What’s so funny?”
“The guard told me, earlier, that we were having roasted dog for supper.”
“You lie, son of a cockroach!” He could hear her spit in his general direction.
“I lie often and regularly. I have to. It’s a talent that has served me well, mostly, and my father before me. Others do it poorly. When I do it, the listener cannot tell the difference between bald truth and brazen fiction.”
“I knew someone like you. Is that why you’re here? Did you lie to the wrong person?”
“In a way. I told my wife on our wedding day that I would always care for her, even in sickness. That was a lie.”
“You did not care for her?”
“For many days, but not well enough, in the end. She lay covered in lesions, open and tender, itchy and burning. I tied her hands so that she wouldn’t make things worse. The wounds dried, but she was still marked with scars. Her once smooth skin became scaly. Her pretty cheeks were ravaged. I could not stop from staring, even though I was not bothered by them. One night, she wrapped herself up like a mummy and said I was free, because my lovely wife was gone forever. Then she left.”
“People make mistakes. That was hers. Why are you here?”
“I stole a rare medicine.”
“For her? That’s too much! She left you.”
“She’ll come back. We are meant to be together. I will be ready.”
“Will it work?”
“I risked my life. It has to.”
“Do you still have it?”
“I hid it on my person, then buried it here under the sand.”
“May I try it, Kaden? I, too, have these symptoms. That’s why I lived on the street, in hiding, why I ran from you.”
“Kassi? It is you!”
“Only if you cure me. I hang at sunrise, my sweet. Let me die as I once lived.”
“Yes, of course.” Kaden cups his hands and digs against the base of the wall. “I never thought I would unbury it so soon,” he apologizes. “I have it!” He uncovers a small tin flask. “Here.” He tosses it gently. “Do you have it?” He hears her open it, smell it, sigh. “So?”
“It’s working! The scales are peeling off! Such magic! My skin is my own again! Better! But there’s enough for two.” She tosses it back. He feels a tap against his boot.
“I finally get my chance. And now they take you from me.”
“Wash your sad face, my husband, and your weary arms. Let us ascend the gallows together, unafraid.”
“To see you in the light of day, as you were meant to be, would be worth it.”
He rubs the healing oils on himself, feeling refreshed. Where his wet hands touch his restraints, the shackles split and fall away, as do hers. Miracles! He sweeps Kassi into his arms.
At dawn, the jailer releases them from their chains and moves the couple to a corridor outside their cell to await the accuser.
The fancy rider arrives to gloat.
The prisoners, now renewed, glow with resolve.
“Who are you?” stammers the shocked rider. “I came to bid farewell to a hag of the streets.”
“We work in the palace. In the kitchen. We stayed late preparing a banquet in your honor. We came here to rest before going back.”
“Someone will pay for wasting my time! Go! Be gone! Now!”
Kaden grabs Kassi’s hand. “Sometimes terrible things happen. Sometimes miracles!”
The lovers leave quickly, without looking back.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole