Almec Caedir awoke to a horrific stinging, his slight frame wracked by a fiery sensation that lanced through him, like sweating acid. His back arched. His legs tensed. His jaw and throat clenched and spasmed in a futile, primal attempt to be free, but he was chained fast to the metal chair, the binders clamped down around his wrists and ankles so tightly that just moving was torturous. It was oppressively hot. The only light in the dark room was a single white stablight, suspended somewhere very, very high overhead, slicing out a narrow cage of light for him in the echoing shadows.
From somewhere close by, a faint hissing became audible, like a vox-set that had been activated but was receiving no signal. Slowly the stinging began to subside and he hung forward, limp, held only by the fasteners affixing him to the seat. His raven-black hair, normally so delicately curled, hung in lank strips over his face. His fine Verbrin silk shirt and delicate Damask waistcoat clung to his sweating body like meat-packing plastic. One of his feet had been cut badly on the sole, and it oozed smears of dark blood on the spotless white floor.
“Good evening, Mizzer Caedir,” the unseen speaker piped up, the voice sounding too-low and distant.
“Thank the Throne,” he said, slowly turning his head from side to side, “Who is that? Dryden? This has been a stressful ordeal. I could do with a stiff drink.”
“Mizzer Caedir,” the muffled voice intoned, “I don’t believe we understand one another just yet.” The speaker had an odd cadence, a disjointed way of speaking. The emphasis landed on odd syllables, and some words seemed to stretch out for half a second too long.
“My good sirrah,” Almec said through a sigh of chagrin, “Is this aught to do with my father’s wager with Lord Algol? Because-”
“What did you eat this evening?”
Almec stopped cold and swallowed hard. For the first time, he looked up and tried to peer into the shadows. The bright light made it difficult. “Sirrah? What’s the time? I must be getting back. I’ll be missed.”
“Where did you take dinner this evening, Almec Caedir?”
An ominous rumbling quivered his gut. His throat was suddenly dry. “I… uh… I skipped dinner this evening, you should know. I’ve been out with friends. They’ll attest it. I can give you their names.”
“We know the names of your ‘friends’,” the stranger replied, “and we have already interviewed them, thoroughly.”
Desperation was seeping into his chest, hard and ice-cold. Its edge reached the back of his mind and gorge rose in his throat. “Then you know who my father is!” He failed to keep the panic from his voice. “And you’ll make things easier on yourself if you let me go! I promise I’ll petition him for leniency if you-”
“Mezzir Caedir, you have already destroyed yourself, and done irreparable damage to your family in the process. I rather suggest you answer my questions.” The tone, even through the electrical burr of the vox system, was as final as the grave.
Almec’s head hung. His voice was a dry whisper. “I… I dined with the Pratrices.”
“What did the Pratrices provide you?”
Tears stung his eyes and slipped down his cheeks. “Creme Ghouslou. With a flake tart.”
The young nobleman sobbed out a whisper.
“What did the Ghouslou contain?”
“The forebrain of a Szelari Dreamthief.” Silence stretched out. Faint clicks and distant scratches could be heard across the speaker. “Hello?”
Caedir frowned. “That’s all. Just the forebrain, and an iced lactate soup base, with local berries.”
“What else did you have there? Besides the soup and tart? Were you given any written materials, or ritually cut or marked in any way?”
Almec craned his neck again, trying to see beyond the pool of light. “Um, no. None of that. We had some wine. It was… well, it was pretty lovely. Light and fruity. I think Thebe-“ He fell immediately silent.
“Who is Thebe?”
He swallowed hard again. Throne, but his throat was dry. “I misspoke. I’m a bit parched. Could I have some water?”
“We do not think that would be a good idea,” the vox-set said.
“Why not? If I drink water will that somehow allow me to escape, dangerous criminal that I am?” He was angry now, and found he could not stop himself. The words poured out, his fury making his dry throat ever more raw. “Stop me before I eat again! Is that it? All the wars will surely stop! The Imperium itself will grind to a halt if I dare take a sip?!” He was howling. His wrists and ankles ground hard against his bindings, skin tearing. “What a horrific crime! He’s eating! How dare he!”
Suddenly there was a ghastly tearing sound, the most revolting, unnatural noise he’d ever heard in his life. Almec looked down at his right hand. Actually he stared in disbelief at the ragged stump of his right wrist. The hand had come off entirely, still shrugged into the dangling binders, a long shred of flesh trailing from it. At the end of his arm, black blood had congealed around the knobby stump of bone and bare muscle. There was no pain.
The speaker piped up. “We believe water would accelerate the process.”
Almec just stared at the wound, glistening in the beam of light. There was a smell, like spoiling milk. “The… p-process?”
“That’s correct, Mezzir Caedir. You have been clinically dead for five hours.”
“I have. Been. Dead?”
His head swam. The stinging feeling was coming back, seeping into his skin all over his body. His throat was so dry. “How… how can that be?”
“If you would just cooperate,” the speaker intoned dispassionately, “that’s what we’re trying to find out. For starters, Szelari forebrain doesn’t do that.” There was a brief silence. “Do you recall what the label on the wine bottle said?”