A six-foot, eight-inch slab of light-green-scaled muscle named Toc loomed over me. The sun shone behind him, casting his features in shadow. I squinted against the blinding rays, trying to make out his eyes. I held my breath, awaiting his next words. He spoke in a voice as deep as a bell.
“Today is the day.” Toc tilted his head to one side. “Are you ready?”
I glanced at the iron-barred gate to our large cell.
“I did all the time they gave me.”
The prison of thick stone and iron bars blocked most sunlight beating down on the city of Tahkath. Deep shadows filled our cells most of the day, keeping the prison cool through the heat. When the sun rose, though, rays of her light reached us through the windows set high in the prison’s tall, stone walls.
The sun rose past the high windows, plunging Toc and I into a world of near-perpetual twilight. When my eyes adjusted, I noticed Toc watching me. Concern pulled at his face.
“You served your time, Rojav. Your release comes with King Dojak’s forgiveness. Your work in Mellida’s prisoner rehabilitation programs earned her confidence.”
But do I really deserve it?
I looked away.
I may have completed my sentence, but I doubt I will ever free myself of the guilt.
“She says Zalko has already made some arrangements for me. I’m supposed to meet up with him at the garden.”
Toc nodded and clasped my shoulder in his giant hand. I looked him in the eye.
“Accept all the help you can get, Rojav.”
I was by no means small for a D’Tali but Toc towered over most people.
Few but Mellida’s mate, Jarlath could match Toc for pure size and power. Jarlath worked as one of the prison guards, and had always been fair to the prisoners he guarded.
Then, Jarlath met Mellida. In the six months since, she entirely transformed our lives.
With D’Tali women so scarce, spending time with one of the human women in any capacity felt special.
I wonder what it would be like to have a woman in my life? No, don’t torture yourself, Rojav. I’m more likely to find a talking rock than a mate.
More than that, though, Mellida had created the opportunity for prisoners to develop new skills with our time separated from the society whose rules we had violated. Many who had stolen to eat before prison now had the opportunity to earn a living.
Jarlath and his fellow guard, Kalan, sauntered up to the gate. Jarlath called into the cell.
“Rojav, Olanth, Madar, it’s your day. You know the drill. Step to the left wall. The rest of you, stay to the back of the cell.”
We prisoners divided ourselves into the requested groups without complaint. We had learned early on that causing trouble was a fast way to lose the chance to do more than sit in a shadowed cell all day.
I stepped to the left wall, lining up between the red-scaled Madar and purple-scaled Olanth. Jarlath unlocked the cell, swinging the door open. Madar, Olanth, and I stepped out of the shadowed cell free men. Jarlath closed and locked the cell behind us.
I wish it were so easy to lock away my own darkness. If only I could step out from under the shadow of my own crime.
We three newly free men walked through the prison’s entrance and into the light breeze blowing through the courtyard. An old numa turned her head in my direction and huffed. For a moment, I let my gaze roam, taking in the world outside of the prison.
I had stepped outside this gate many times, while participating in the various programs Mellida and Zalko had made available at the prison—like the garden work or making leather packs for Mellida’s prisoner release kits.
Mellida, herself, walked up and handed me one. “Here you go, Rojav.”
“Thank you.” I looked the pack over. “I think I made this one, too.”
Mellida smiled. “That pack is well made. I saved it for you, since your release day was near.”
I had to admit I enjoyed learning to work with the pafu leather and constructing packs for the newly free.
Now I’m the newly free. Does walking out of a cell really change a criminal into something new? How can it, when my crime can never be undone?
“Thank you. That was thoughtful.”
“There are a few coins so you can get some personal supplies, enough preserved food for three days, a cloak, and a token for the King’s new workforce program. Take it to Zalko at the garden and he will find you a bunk ‘til you find our own place. He will also help you find honest work, if you want it.”
Mellida handed packs out to Olanth and Madar, as well. I waved, then set my feet upon the path to the garden. Olanth and Madar fell in beside me.
I had never intended to make friends in prison, but, once Olanth and Madar had found out the three of us shared a release day, I couldn’t get rid of them.
Madar tossed his token high in the air, snatching it with a hand. “The last time I got out of prison, I slept in a ditch for a week, stealing bread ‘til I could find a gang who’d take me in. This time, there’s a bed to go to.”
Olanth laughed, showing the gap in his teeth where someone had punched him in a bar fight.
“Are you going to look for work, too, Rojav? Or do you have a job lined up?”
“Been in prison too long to know anybody to give me a job. I’ll take a sure bet on making coin to keep meat on my plate and Zalko has always been honest.”
Madar nodded. “Yeah. Zalko’s from the streets, like us. He understands how hard it is to get by.”
Olanth grinned. “When did you ever imagine you’d become a King’s man?”
Madar shook his head, laughing. “From criminals to working for the King. Life’s looking up, boys.”
Olanth laughed. I shook my head. We had walked this route through the city many times on gardening detail, but, this time, we walked it as free men.
Life is supposed to feel different, now. Isn’t it? Olanth and Madar act like children finally let out to play. Do I feel the same spring in my step?
Olanth punched Madar in the arm.
“What was that for?”
“Cause you’re so ugly.”
Madar laughed. “You’re just jealous of my gleaming, red scales. I am the perfection of D’Tali.”
Even I laughed with them.
We passed through the open plains between the prison and the city. Crops stood tall and high, birthing a bounty of fresh summer fruits. We wove our way through the outskirts of the city until Mellida and Jarlath’s cottage greeted us.
Zalko, an old, teal-scaled D’Tali—a fierce fighter, with a lifetime’s experience on the streets— reached many of the prisoners in a way no one else ever had. He listened to our stories and understood us in a way others couldn’t.
Jarlath has been a great guard, but he never had to wonder where his next meal came from or if Dad was coming home drunk again…
I pulled my mind back from the brink of my darkest thoughts.
Zalko was about to speak and proclaim our future. “Glad to see all three of you made it here.”
We nodded and Madar laughed. “Where else we got to go, Boss?”
Zalko clapped my shoulder, smiling.
“Not to worry. Grab any free bunk in the bunkhouse.”
Zalko pointed to a building set away from Jarlath and Mellida’s cottage. Several other D’Tali I recognized from the prison played cards at a table on the bunkhouse’s porch.
“We provide three meals a day. Well, we provide anything you can’t grow in the garden and you boys do the rest.”
Zalko pointed to the kitchen, a breezy, stone building set away from all the others to prevent any fiery kitchen mishaps from burning down everything. A few men worked the kitchen, preparing the next meal.
“What about the work?”
Zalko grinned. “I was just getting to that, Rojav. Right now, we have a few options. There are always construction jobs, when you can’t find anything else. The foremen come by at sunrise, if you want hard, hot, honest work.”
Madar chuckled. “It’s all hot and hard work, Boss.”
“Most of the time that’s true…”
Olanth cut in. “What about today, Boss? I know Mellida gave us some coin to get us by, but I’m hoping to save that for emergencies. My problem is, I’ve been dreaming of cheap beer for months, and I’d sure feel better about quenching that thirst with a bit more coin in my pouch.”
I shrugged and grinned up at Zalko. “Can’t argue with that logic, Boss.”
Zalko pointed to the kitchen. “All we have today is kitchen work. If anything comes up, I’ll let you know.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Boss.”
Zalko pointed at us. “You three think you’ll stick together for a while? It’s hard to find men who can work together.”
I shrugged. “I suppose Olanth and Madar aren’t so bad.”
Olanth grinned and draped his arm over my shoulder.
“Sure, Boss. We’re buddies. Right, Rojav? I mean, if it will get us more work or coin, we’re best friends and no trouble at all.”
Madar grinned and patted my shoulder. “I can assure you, we are reformed. We’ve learned our lessons.”
“Yeah, Boss. Me and Rojav and Madar, we’re good boys now.”