When he was sure they were gone, Kenno slumped down against the wall, allowing all the built-up tears from the past hours to form in his eyes. The bruises on his face and body throbbed. How much longer could he keep doing this?
“Hello?” said a voice from outside.
In an instant Kenno pulled himself together, sitting up straight and hardening his expression. They would jump on any weakness he showed.
He would have wiped the remaining tears away, but the cord holding his hands behind his back made that rather difficult. Was this some new mind game? They’d just left, and they were already back. Kenno suppressed his dread at what he knew was coming.
But the door didn’t open. There was no other sound from outside. Kenno frowned, realizing how strange the greeting had been in the first place. Who said “hello” to the person they were about to torture?
It hadn’t been a greeting type of hello, either—more like a question. A desperate hope flared in his chest. What if it wasn’t Rayad? Kenno knew he’d been locked up in the middle of nowhere, and Rayad had assured him many times that no one would find him. But what if he’d been wrong?
“Who’s there?” Kenno tried to call out, but through the gag it came out as a muffled “hmm ehh?”
Only silence in response. Another mind game—it had to be. Kenno couldn’t let himself hope for anything more.
Then a clicking of metal came from outside, and the door opened.
“Oh, Five Powers,” murmured the man standing in the doorway.
He looked to be around Kenno’s age. He didn’t carry any visible tools or weapons, although Kenno knew well enough by now that there were plenty of other ways to hurt people.
The strangest thing was that he had seemed genuinely startled to see Kenno. But his curse had mentioned magic, and there were very few ordinary people who were familiar enough with magic to swear about it. Very few people not involved with Rayad.
“Don’t say anything,” the man said sharply. “I’m going to take your gag off, but don’t make any kind of fuss or it’s going right back in.”
Another questioning, then. But why wasn’t Rayad here? Was he listening outside? Kenno’s gaze darted to the walls, but he couldn’t see anything through the small cracks in the wood.
The man reached toward him and Kenno tensed, but the fingers only touched the gag and untied it with surprising gentleness. Kenno spat the foul cloth out of his mouth as soon as the knot was untied, but he didn’t say a word.
“Who are you?” the man asked, stepping back to look down at him. “Why are you here?”
Kenno gave a sharp laugh. “You really don’t know the answer to that question?” he said. “I won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, so don’t try to trick me into doing it.”
The man looked at him, seeming almost confused. “Who put you here?” he asked.
What game were they playing? Well, he couldn’t lose anything by mentioning this. Rayad certainly knew that he was the one keeping Kenno captive.
“Rayad.” Kenno hissed the name like a curse.
“Kathral,” the man muttered. “Rayad put you here? Why?”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” Kenno demanded. “You clearly know who Rayad is. Aren’t you in on all this?”
“Trust me, I’m the last person Rayad would tell anything,” the man said with a bitter half-laugh. “But actually, why are you here?”
Oh, why not tell him? Rayad already knew this, too. Kenno sighed and reluctantly said, “I’m a spellbinder.”
He hadn’t said those words to anyone in a long time. The man’s eyes widened. “No way,” he said. “You’re really a binder?”
Starting to get frustrated, Kenno waved his tied arms in the man’s face, or attempted to. “I would hope I’m not here for no reason,” he said impatiently.
What if the man was telling the truth? What if it wasn’t a trick, and this was really someone who could help him? He knew far too much about magic and about Rayad, but he genuinely seemed baffled about Kenno and why he was there.
Kenno took a deep breath. He didn’t have anything to lose. “Will you help me?” he asked.
The man hesitated. Then he said, “I can’t.”
“Why not?” Kenno demanded. Someone had actually stumbled across him, like Rayad had said would never happen, and yet they still wouldn’t set him free? “It’s not that hard! Just untie the ropes and—”
“Because I’m working for Rayad!” the man interrupted.
Kenno flinched. No. He’d finally let himself believe he could actually escape, and it had been a trick all along?
“Not like that!” the man said quickly. “I don’t want to—not anymore.” He paused again, then said quietly, “Rayad threatened my son.”
“I understand,” Kenno said, although his heart plummeted. It was true, he did understand. “I—” He cut himself off before he could reveal that he had children. Rayad still might be able to get information from this man. “I understand,” he repeated instead. “Don’t put your son in danger for me.”
The man looked torn. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
“Well,” Kenno snapped, “if you’re not willing to cut a single rope, then— No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
The man gave a short shrug. They both knew that, to an extent, Kenno was right.
Not long after that, the man left, after replacing Kenno’s gag so Rayad wouldn’t know anyone had been there. Kenno was left alone again. He told himself it was better like that—better not to have any false hope.
Rayad probably wouldn’t return for at least a day, Kenno knew. He was busy, after all, and Kenno wasn’t the only problem he had to deal with. Kenno sighed and shifted himself around until he was lying awkwardly on his side. Then he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.