My Block was a hallway of cells narrow near the center and bulbous at the ends. Candles were lit at night, but the entire corridor had an inescapable shade. Darkness was thick enough to make prisoners invisible if they sat in the right corners.
At the far left of the room was the only exit, a reinforced door that could only be opened from the other side. I held the keys to all of my cells, but even I couldn't leave the corridor without knocking and asking a guard outside to release me. At the far right was an area meant for guards to sit while on duty. It was a barren setup with a wobbling wooden table and a couple of chairs. There was even a supply of chains and instruments one might have used to punish and further restrain prisoners.
Different guards spent their shifts in various ways. Some practiced their carving; others taught themselves instruments. There were many rules we had to abide by, but the simplest was also the most important.
Never be a fool. It meant many things at different junctures. Don't let prisoners out before their time. Never find favor in one prisoner over another. Avoid unnecessary conflict.
My superior would often tell me, "never be a fool," when he caught me talking to prisoners. He meant to say I talked too much. But what more was I to do when there was nothing?
"The punishment for theft is a finger for each stolen good worth that of a silver coin. If the stolen goods aren't worth silver, the punishment becomes a week in confinement," Quill explained.
"So you knew you wouldn't lose a finger. Why still would you choose to be here again?" I asked.
It was another long and painfully dim night. I was seated at the table watching prisoners sleep until I noticed Quill was still awake. He was lucky enough to have a cell to himself, the last cell at the end of the corridor that sat across from my seating area. I perhaps spoiled him by constantly giving him such privilege, but he often repaid it in conversation. That night, he couldn't sleep any more than I. Though I knew what my superiors might have said, I indulged in conversation to pass the frozen time.
"Seven days. For seven days, I'll have a roof over my head and food to eat. The rats are a small price to pay," Quill chuckled before adding, "Some even make good company, better than most men who look down on the rest of us."
"Look down? How else would anyone see those who choose to live as vermin?"
"We can't all have it so good."
"Ask me who cleans your chamber pots. But I have it good?"
"Better than those of us on this side of the iron wall."
He annoyed me, and still, I chuckled. It was the most excitement I'd seen that night.
"Where does a thief learn to speak like you?" I asked and leaned forward in my seat as he did the same in his bed.
"I'm no thief," he said.
"You stole a cake," I reminded with a laugh.
Thief or not, he was a flightless bird.
"Worth less than a silver piece," Quill argued.
"But was it worthless?"
"For a slice of cake, I'll live comfortably for several days."
"Then you've purchased comfort at the cost of your reputation, your name."
"And I'll do it again."
Candles were beginning to die, and the corridor grew darker as they did. Rather than arguing further, I stood to replenish light.
What fool would tarnish their name for a bed?
As I set candles and cleaned oils that ran too far, I looked back at Quil, noticing he had moved. He was standing in the corner of his cell. From the corner of my eye, I watched as his pants shifted till I knew what he was doing. The sound of his relief hitting the pot and the floor was easy to ignore, but I fixated. The shade gave him cover, till he was done. And as he returned to his bed, I continued my walk around the corridor.
Perhaps my fixation was deeper than purely passing the hours. As a guard, it was my duty to watch, so regardless of how exposed my prisoners were, it was common for my sight to remain clear. Had I been beyond The Salt Barrel, such glances might have warranted my arrest. But I was wiser than that.
"Who was your father?" I asked.
Standing a foot, if that, from his cell door, I kept Quill from finding sleep when it seemed sand had finally fallen to his eyes. Not only was I pestering my uneven peer, I'm sure my voice awoke other prisoners. But as a guard, I could do as I wished, within reason.
"How should I know? He ran too soon to remember his name. I perhaps remember his face, but that's no better. "
"Then you're a bastard?" I naively remarked.
It wasn't my intention to offend. Our conversation was all that kept the night from straining, but my tongue began to spit without a filter as my eyes wandered. Malnourished or not, Quill was testing my faculties.
He turned over to ignore me, but my eyes simply roamed down his back.
"It makes a world of sense how you could be misguided without someone to offer guidance."
"I had a teacher," he said.
"Then he failed you."
"She never failed anyone. It's this place that killed her and left me to suffer. But that's living," Quill explained without showing his eyes.
Had I offended him? I thought his skin was tough enough for berating. Perhaps I pushed too far? Apologizing wasn't an option, so I returned to my seat to wait for morning.
The Gods had trapped us in their territories. Ships could only travel so far before hitting what we came to know as an ocean's divide. They were large gaps between territories, between oceans, with the sole purpose of keeping mortals dependent and loyal to their Gods. If a ship tried to cross the gap, it simply fell off the water's edge into a black void of seemingly nothing. No one knew what existed in the void, and no one ever returned from its abyss.