Looking down at the boy strapped to the metal table before her, Kiva Meridan leaned in close and whispered, “Take a deep breath.”
Before he could blink, she braced his wrist and stabbed the tip of her white-hot blade into the back of his hand. He screamed and thrashed against her—they always did—but she tightened her grip and continued carving three deep lines into his flesh, forming a Z.
A single character to identify him as a prisoner at Zalindov.
The wound would heal, but the scar would remain forever.
Kiva worked as fast as she could and only eased her grip once the carving was complete. She repressed the urge to tell him that the worst had passed. While barely a teenager, he was still old enough to discern the truth from lies. He belonged to Zalindov now, the metal band around his wrist labeling him as inmate H67L129. There was nothing good in his future—lying would do him no favors.
After smearing ballico sap across his bleeding flesh to stave off infection, then dusting it with pepperoot ash to ease his pain, Kiva wrapped his hand in a scrap of linen. She quietly warned him to keep it dry and clean for the next three days, all too aware that it would be impossible if he was allocated work in the tunnels, on the farms, or in the quarry.
“Hold still, I’m nearly done,” Kiva said, swapping her blade for a pair of shears. They were speckled with rust, but the edges were sharp enough to cut through steel.
The boy was shaking, fear dilating his pupils, his skin pale.
Kiva didn’t offer him any reassurances, not while the armed woman standing at the door to the infirmary watched her every move. Usually she was given a degree of privacy, working without the added pressure of the guards’ cold, keen eyes. But after the riot last week, they were on edge, monitoring everyone closely—even those like Kiva who were considered loyal to the Warden of Zalindov, a traitor to her fellow prisoners. An informant. A spy.
No one loathed Kiva more than she did herself, but she couldn’t regret her choices, regardless of the cost.
Ignoring the whimpers now coming from the boy as she moved toward his head, Kiva began to hack at his hair in short, sharp motions. She remembered her own arrival at the prison a decade earlier, the humiliating process of being stripped down, scrubbed, and shorn. She’d left the infirmary with raw skin and no hair, an itchy gray tunic and matching pants her only possessions. Despite all she’d been through at Zalindov, those early hours of degradation were some of the worst she could recall. Thinking about them now had her own scar giving a pang of recollected pain, drawing her eyes to the band she wore beneath it. N18K442—her identification number—was etched into the metal, a constant reminder that she was nothing and no one, that saying or doing the wrong thing, even looking at the wrong person at the wrong time, could mean her death.
Zalindov showed no mercy, not even to the innocent.
Especially not to the innocent.
Kiva had been barely seven years old when she’d first arrived, but her age hadn’t protected her from the brutality of prison life. She more than anyone knew that her breaths were numbered. No one survived Zalindov. It was only a matter of time before she joined the multitudes who had gone before her.
She was lucky, she knew, compared to many. Those assigned to the hard labor rarely lasted six months. A year, at most. But she’d never had to suffer through such debilitating work. In the early weeks after her arrival, Kiva had been allocated a job in the entrance block, where she’d sorted through the clothes and possessions taken from new inmates. Later, when a different position had needed filling—due to a lethal outbreak that took hundreds of lives—she was sent to the workrooms and tasked with cleaning and repairing the guards’ uniforms. Her fingers had bled and blistered from the unending laundry and needlecraft, but even then, she’d had little reason to complain, comparatively.
Kiva had been dreading the order for her to join the laborers, but the summons never came. Instead, after saving the life of a guard with a blood infection by advising him to use a poultice she’d seen her father make countless times, she had earned herself a place in the infirmary as a healer. Nearly two years later, the only other inmate working in the infirmary was executed for smuggling angeldust to desperate prisoners, leaving the then twelve-year-old Kiva to step into his role. With it came the responsibility of carving Zalindov’s symbol into the new arrivals, something that, to this day, Kiva despised. However, she knew that if she refused to mark them, both she and the new prisoners would suffer the wrath of the guards. She’d learned that early on—and bore the scars on her back as a reminder. She would have been flogged to death had there been anyone skilled enough to replace her at the time. Now, however, there were others who could take up her mantle.
She was expendable, just like everyone else at Zalindov.
The boy’s hair was a choppy mess when Kiva finally set the shears aside and reached for the razor. Sometimes it was enough to just cut away the tangles; other times, new arrivals came with matted, lice-infested locks, and it was best to shave it all off, rather than risk a plague of the small beasts spreading around the compound.
“Don’t worry, it’ll grow back,” Kiva said gently, thinking of her own hair, black as night, that had been shorn upon her arrival yet now fell well down her back.
Despite her attempted comfort, the boy continued trembling, making it harder for her to avoid grazing him as she swiped the razor over his scalp.
Kiva wanted to tell him what he would face once he left the infirmary, but even if the guard hadn’t been watching closely from the doorway, she knew that wasn’t her place. New prisoners were partnered with another inmate for their first few days, and it was that person’s responsibility to offer an introduction to Zalindov, to share warnings and reveal ways to stay alive. If, of course, that was desired. Some people arrived wanting to die, their hope already crumbled before they stepped through the iron gates and into the soulless limestone walls.
Kiva hoped this boy still had some fight left in him. He would need it to get through all that was coming.
“Done,” she said, lowering the razor and stepping around to face him. He looked younger without his hair, all wide eyes, hollowed cheeks, and protruding ears. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The boy stared at her as if she were one move away from slitting his throat. It was a look she was used to, especially from new arrival...