“Thank you. No need to salute. I’m a civilian after all.”
Mr. Halifax held out a hand and Sergeant Halser helped him out of the small boat and up onto the shaped stone dock on the lowest section of the ancient castle. He was a short, rotund man wearing a white suit, the shirt of which was still stained with his lunch, eaten aboard the ship that had brought him. Halifax led him up the stone stairway to the upper levels.
“Can you explain to me what happened? The Judge Advocate General was rather vague in his description.”
“As far as anyone can tell, it was some kind of disease. It could have been brought here by one of the guards returning from leave. They were all killed. Most of the prisoners. A few of the boys. The boys might have been less affected because of age or because they were all down near the water. No one really knows.”
“I have no doubt it was due to mismanagement of some form or another,” opined Halifax. “That’s why operations were taken away from the Ministry of War and were given to us.”
They reached a fork in the passageway.
“The north wing is this way, sir. It’s where the offices and kitchen are, and most of the prisoners.”
“How many prisoners are there?”
“There are twelve surviving prisoners in the north wing; one in the south wing.”
“Yes. Prisoner 89 was segregated from the others. There’s no record of why. Perhaps it is because she is the only woman.”
“A woman? Here?” Halifax frowned and licked his lips.
“Take me to her cell.”
Halser led his new superior up another set of stairs and down the stone hallway to a door with a single small, barred window. Halifax had to stand on his tiptoes to peer through. He could see a blond woman inside, dressed in rags, sweeping the floor of the cell with a broom.
Halser unlocked the door and followed Halifax inside. The woman immediately stopped sweeping and stood demurely with her head bowed. The room was clean but Spartan. Only a single window high up on the wall let in a square of sunlight. Halifax glared accusingly at Halser.
“It was worse, when I got here, sir. I had the cot brought in and a chamber pot, and a broom so that she could clean the place up.”
“It’s true, sir. Sergeant Halser has been very kind.”
“Still, it seems poor treatment for a young lady, regardless of your crimes. What is it you are here for?”
“I used magic without approval, sir. And when they tried to arrest me, I fought back. I may have injured a wizard, sir.”
Halifax’s expression said all too clearly that he thought the injury or death of a wizard to be a relatively minor offense. “Well, you can’t do any magic here, so we don’t have to worry about that. And what is your name, my dear?”
“Zurfina. Like the daughter of Magnus the Great?”
“Yes, sir.” Zurfina curtsied.
“Is there anything you need right now?”
“If it’s not too much trouble, sir, I would appreciate a bucket of water so that I could bathe. And if a needle and thread could be had, and some scraps of cloth so that I could make myself something to wear.”
“Sergeant Halser, see if you can find a bucket of water and some soap for the young lady, and a washrag too. You can leave the keys with me. I’ll lock up.”
After the Sergeant had left, Halifax stepped close to the woman and reaching out, brushed the hair from her face.
“You are not unattractive.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Things are not going to be like before,” he said, pacing first toward the door and then back to her. “There will be better food and cleaner conditions. Maybe we could have some decent clothes brought from the mainland for you, and perhaps an occasional sweet.”
“That would be most delightful, sir.”
“When my duties allow, I could come to your cell here and visit with you. Would you like that? Would you be… cooperative?”
“Oh, yes sir.”
He reached out and brushed her hair back again, this time caressing her temple with his thumb. “You do understand what I mean when I say cooperative, don’t you?”
Zurfina looked up from the floor and into his eyes. She reached up and pulled his chubby hand from her face, moving it down to rest on her breast.
“I’m anxious to be cooperative,” she said. “Very, very cooperative.”