A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull, now you can read online.
The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep. The chains prevented him from lying down. Whether it was truly light or dark he could not say, for his enemies had stolen his sight.
In the distance he heard screaming—the unrestrained wails of a man trying and failing to escape the deepest agony. The unnerving cries echoed from higher corridors, dampened by intervening barriers.
After untold weeks in the dungeons of Felrook the prince could guess what the man might be feeling. Never had the prince imagined anguish so diverse and exquisite as he had experienced here.
He stood up straight, taking some of the pressure off of his wrists. If they kept him chained here much longer, he felt certain his arms would detach. Then again he preferred his current accommodations to the previous room, where the floor bristled with sharp, rusty spikes, and lying or sitting required bloodshed.
The unseen, wretched prisoner continued to scream. The prince sighed softly. Throughout his tortures, no matter what toxins they had forced down his throat, no matter what questions they had asked, he had not yet uttered a single word. Nor had he cried out in pain. He knew that some of the potions devised by Maldor and his minions had power to loosen his tongue and cloud his judgment, so after he was captured, he had firmly vowed to make no sound.
His captors had hounded him expertly. They had tried to bribe him with food and water. They had tried to compel him with pain. Some had come and spoken to him calmly and reasonably. Others had made harsh demands. At times he had faced several inquisitors in a row. Other times hours or days crawled past between interviews. He could not name the array of toxins administered to him, but no matter how they endeavored to blur his mind and weaken his resolve, the prince had focused on one necessity: silence.
Eventually he would speak. He quietly clung to the hope that he would ultimately be brought before the emperor. Then he would utter a single word.
Vaguely, gradually, the prince began to recognize that his mind felt uncommonly clear. A headache persisted, and hunger gnawed at him, but he found himself capable of directing his thoughts deliberately, an ability he had taken for granted before all of his food came laced with mind-altering additives. Aside from holding to his governing rule of keeping silent, his thoughts had meandered hazily over the past weeks, and his identity had felt indistinct.
Without warning, the door to his cell creaked open. He tensed, braced for anything. Keep silent, he warned himself. No matter what they do or say.
“Well, well,” said a warm voice that he had heard before. “You’re looking worse every day.”
The prince said nothing. He heard other men entering the cell. Three besides the speaker.
The friendly voice hardly paused. “If you’re going to host a visitor, we had best get you cleaned up.”
Rough hands unlocked the manacles. The prince felt perplexed. He had never been cleaned since arriving at the dungeon. Perhaps this was a ploy. Or perhaps he might finally enter the presence of the emperor!
Large hands gripped his arms. The hands led him forward, then down to his knees. Coarse rags scrubbed his bare flesh. Before long, unseen hands began trimming his whiskers. Minutes later a straight razor scraped across his cheeks.
A man held him on either side, which gave the prince a good sense for how he might attack them. He could use his legs to take out their knees, then get the razor, and add four corpses to his count. Since his capture, he had already slain six guards.
No. Even if he defeated these guards, without his eyesight he would never escape the dungeon. But he might ruin his chance for an audience with Maldor. The prince shuddered faintly. Some of his best men and closest friends had given their lives, and despite their sacrifices he had failed. His only chance for redemption was to come before the emperor.
“You seem especially docile today,” the warm voice commented. “Could it be you have finally resolved to become a model prisoner?”
Biting retorts sprang to mind. His consciousness had felt muddy for so long, the prince felt tempted to answer. Surely there could be no harm in responding. No, even if his mind felt clear, even if this particular question were innocent, if he broke his pattern of silence, eventually his captors would coerce him into revealing secrets. He only had one word to share, and it would be in the presence of Maldor.
“Ready for a stroll?” the voice asked.
The men on either side helped the prince rise, then escorted him from the cell. He took shuffling steps. As always he wished for his eyes, but he resolutely reached out with his other senses, noting the direction and temperature of a draft, the acoustics of the corridor, the smells of rot and burning torches.
After some time he heard a door open, and the prince entered a new room. His escorts forced him to his knees—locking him there with shackles on his ankles and wrists—and then placed a heavy iron collar around his neck. Without another word the guards left. Or at least some of them left. One or more could have covertly remained.
Minutes passed. Hours. Finally the cell door opened, and then closed.
“We meet again at last,” a familiar voice said.
Chills raced across the prince’s shoulders. Maldor had visited Trensicourt years ago, trying to negotiate an alliance. As a boy the prince had studied his every move, this man who his father claimed was so dangerous.
“I promised that one day you would kneel to me,” the emperor said, his tone dry.
The prince moved his arms slightly, enough to jangle his chains.
“I would have preferred voluntary reverence,” the emperor admitted. “Perhaps in time. I understand you have lost your tongue.”
The prince hesitated. He had to be sure. He had learned this word of power at great cost. The emperor could not possibly suspect that he knew every syllable. Otherwise he would never have come here in person. But could the speaker be a trick? An imitator? The prince knew he would only get one chance at this.
“I had no interest in addressing your underlings,” the prince said, surprised by how hoarse and weak his voice sounded.