Suen Li didn’t raise her head as the door to the cell block clanged open. Guards entered, their faces obscured by dark glass helmets. They guided her to her feet, secured her wrists, and fitted a blindfold over her eyes.
She didn’t resist as they led her away. She tried not to think about what was awaiting her. She’d read the fanciful stories of the Menoran Inqusition, their cackling torturers and cunning poisoners who could keep a man alive for weeks, but she wouldn’t be facing an Inquisitor, not for standing up for the faith. The Party was going to be involved now, and they’d send in the Huan Shi... she had lost friends, family, loved ones to them. They were brutal, quick - where the Inquisition wielded a lovingly-crafted dagger, the Huan Shi swung a sledgehammer and drove their horses over the remains.
More doors clanged in her enforced darkness. A guard pressed her firmly into a seat. There was a snick of metal as the cuffs came off, and they fastened her wrists to a table. They left her blindfolded.
The guards left, and it was silent again. I am going to die tonight, thought Suen Li. The image didn’t fit. She couldn’t wrap her brain around it, make sense of the idea that this... these dank cells and these cold irons were where she would spent the last, tormented moments of her life.
For the first time since the Watch had seized her at the slave market, a tear dripped down Suen Li’s cheek.
There was another clatter. Two sets of footsteps, the swishing of a cloak.
“Prisoner seven-four-one-six,” intoned a voice. It was hard and cruel, the voice of someone who was used to getting her way. “Degenerate sympathizer. Race traitor. Counterstate subversive.”
Suen Li was shaking now. Out of panic, or terror, or rage, she couldn’t even tell. The Huan Shi was here.
“That’s a bit extreme.” Suen Li felt a measure of surprise at the second voice. It was calm, conversational almost.
“Be silent, oaf.” The arrogant voice of the Huan Shiji again. “Now, degenerate, understand this. You are an enemy of the great Shan people. You will live or die at the whim of the Huan He Lon, and I am its justiciar. I am not interested in your pleas or your excuses. You will provide us with the names of your compatriots and the protocols of your organization, or you will suffer the consequences. If you cooperate, you may even be permitted to repay your debt to the nation you betrayed with a life spent in hard labor. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” muttered Suen Li. Her head jerked to the side as a thick, gloved fist connected with her jaw, and she cried out in pain.
“You will show proper respect due an agent of the Shan renaissance,” barked the Huan Shiji, her voice quivering with rage.
“Gods above and below, Kuin, knock it off!” The other woman’s voice had some steel in it now. “That’s my prisoner you’re knocking around.”
“You are permitted to attend this interrogation by the generosity of the Huan Shi, captain,” snapped Kuin. “That privilege can be revoked if you continue to interfere and compromise our operations.”
“Compromise your operations?” The guard captain snorted. “Calm down before you burst a blood vessel, Kuin.”
Suen Li flinched as she felt a hand touch her face, but the blindfold was suddenly pulled away. She blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the gentle fireglass lamps lighting the interrogation room. There were two women across from her. The captain was seated at the table, dressed in a worn watchman’s cuirass, casually unbuckled, with a cigarette in her fingers. The Huan Shiji, Kuin, stood behind her, wearing a simple tank-top and pants, both made of the black leather favored by Party faithful. On her neck was a collar embroidered with the unmistakeable symbol of the Huan He Lon.
The captain took Suen Li’s manacled hand. “How do you do,” she said amiably. “I’m Len Kuai, captain of the Song Shan guard.” She smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry about Kuin; she’s new.”
“You are acting in willful violation of Party procedures and undermining the authority of its agents!” Kuin snarled. “Tell me, does your love of degenerates exceed your love for your people, captain? It would distress me to be forced to report so to my superiors.”
Len Kuai turned lazily to look at Kuin. “Are threatening to brand me a degenerate, child?” she said. Suen Li heard a dangerous undercurrent in the woman’s calm voice, but it seemed to escape the Huan Shiji.
“There is a word for those who betray the Shan race,” said Kuin coldly. “And those who disrespect the authority of its saviors.”
“I have lived in this city for one hundred and thirty-four years, little girl,” said Len Kuai, her voice now boiling with contempt. “Do you really think I rose to the office I hold today without a single patron? I have permitted you and your little band of upstarts to interfere in our work safeguarding our capital, but if you attempt to bring your nationalist machinery against me the Party will cast you out as an embarassment. Have I made myself clear?”
Kuin’s fists were balled. She said nothing.
Len Kuai turned back to Suen Li, smiling. “Sorry about the distraction. Would you like a cigarette? Tea?”
Suen Li blinked, and slowly shook her head.
“Ah well. Let me know if you change your mind.” Len Kuai stubbed out her own cigarette in the table’s ashtray. “We’ve got some nice Rosamár Red in the break room if you’d like to try any. It’s quite tasty.”
“Do you think I’ll betray my comrades for a fucking mug of tea?” asked Suen Li.
“Show some respect to your betters, worm!” roared Kuin. “You’re not worth one tenth of the worst tea in all Belad.”
Len Kuai patted Suen Li’s hand. “Now, now,” she said. “Nobody’s talking about betrayal. We just want to ask you a few questions, and it’s up to you whether or not to answer them, all right?”
“Just as it is up to you how many fingers you’ll still have at the end of the day!” Kuin had taken to pacing the room, stalking back and forth behind Suen Li’s chair.
“Behave yourself, Kuin.” Len Kuai looked Suen Li earnestly in the eyes. “I hope you haven’t been treated too roughly by my officers; passions are running pretty high right now with the Iwelire and the Church and all that.”
“Let us know if you need any medical care. I haven’t had a prisoner die in my custody yet and I mean to keep that record.”
“Despite the Huan Shi’s best efforts,” added Len Kuai.
“I’ve already told you I won’t give up my comrades,” said Suen Li. “What are you going to ask me, who my hairstylist is? What size my tits are?”
“Mostly I want to understand what made you do what you did,” said Len Kuai. “You committed a very serious crime against the state, Suen - may I call you Suen? You can call me Kuai.”
“I don’t care.”
“That kind of crime isn’t something anybody does on a whim. You had to believe it was the right thing to do.”
“I still do.”
“There! She admits it,” crowed Kuin. “A race traitor through and through!”
“Yes, yes, you can go write that down in your little notebook,” said Kuai dismissively. “You know, the one filled with all the doodles of you licking the Prime Regent’s tits?”
“Vau Shan is a land of heretics and vampires,” said Suen. “That’s why. You’ve betrayed the Church, betrayed our prophet. The elves deserve to be free of your slavers and the Tãli deserve to be free of your warmongering.”
“Oh, so you can talk in the Tully’s little nonsense words, is that supposed to impress us?” snarled Kuin.
“Tãli.” For the first time, Suen looked Kuin in the eye. “At least show them the fucking decency of saying their name right, you Nationalist cunt.”
Kuin lunged at her. “I’ve had enough of your impudence, elf-lover!” she roared, seizing Suen by the collar. “I will teach you to respect the—”
“Huan Shi le Mai Kuin,” bellowed Kuai, leaping to her feet, “stand down or Menora help me I will have you put in irons!” She towered over the younger woman, who shrank back, suddenly cowed.
“You wouldn’t dare—”
“Play your little games as you will, little girl,” said Kuai, “but right now the grown-ups are talking and your inane commentary is growing increasingly tiresome. It would inconvenience me briefly if I had to face consequences for assaulting a member of the Outer Party, but if you continue to sabotage my efforts at protecting our nation, I may decide that inconvenience is worth the satisfaction it would bring me.”
The two locked eyes, and after a moment, Kuin clenched her fists and looked away. “Do what you will, captain. I refuse to be a part of this charade. The Prime Regent will hear of this and I have full confidence that in her wisdom she will see you punished.”
“That’s nice,” said Kuai. “Run along now.”