The first thing that hits you on Tanner’s Isle is that it isn’t like the rest of the Great Sea-Whore. Misty Cross is famous for her smells of pine and sweetgrass, but if the exotic fruits and fair orchards of the mainland are like the clean oiled skin of a courtesan at The Gilded Lily, the island is like the unwashed armpit of a Riverside dock whore, up against a piss-coated wall. There’s a lot of reason for the stink, it’s the only place in the city where a stink doesn’t bring a fine, for starters, and since the roads get covered when it rains at high tide, the sewers that make the city famous don’t reach out here. Allegedly it’s for this reason that the city’s bridges to the isle are heavily guarded at night, half a legion and nine mages between the three of them to protect the city from “contagions and ill vapours” from her night mists.
If a guardsman is feeling brave, and is certain the rats of the queen aren’t lurking in the walls, he might tell you they are there because of ‘the undesirables,’ gesturing to the hulking building of the Tanner’s Isle Penitentiary, or the stark stone cube of the orphanage called Strife’s Womb (again, when the rats aren’t around.) It’s not the city pen or the University for Street Crime that gets the bridges so heavily guarded or places two guard barracks on an island with only two streets and less than a dozen buildings, it’s the narrow building of gray brick and grayer mortar with no windows and only one door at 3 Bridge Street, the one decorated only with a tarnished sign reading “Bridge Street Prison.”
That prison, unlike the crowded city pen, holds perhaps only a dozen residents, people with names the wisest among us have already forgotten, Black Baro the Bard, Erin the Enchantress, Bloody Jack, Gorgeous Paulie…poisoners and spree murderers, Black Widows and cannibals, and everyone of them a gods-forsaken graduate of the School of Mystic Arts, Archmages and High Wizards who can crush your heart with a look or cause your brain to melt and flow out of your eyes. A handful of our craziest and brightest, each given the death penalty, each kept alive by the simple fact that the city elders can’t know what spells will go off at their deaths, what dweomers might take out their executioners, their execution room or the city their execution is in.
No one who goes into 3 Bridge Street in the glowing blue bracers of the Inquest or the glowing white collar of the Royal Guard comes out again except as smoke from the lone chimney on the building’s flat black roof. That’s where I come into this. My name is Jamie Tanner, and until I was thirteen I lived in one of the dingiest corners of Strife’s Womb, another no-name basket baby left at the queen’s gates and consigned by lot to the worst of her orphan warehouses. On Midsummer’s day on the year I turned thirteen, as city law demands, I was lined up with all the other non-apprenticed youths in the market square as the city’s elders picked over us, deciding who became a guard, who became a page and who was confined to a short life of drudgery as a sewer cleaner or street sweeper.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I watched that day as the cushy jobs got handed out first. A few orphans I knew got those much wanted positions, even though the kids of the rich and connected went first. Ellie the Finch, whose voice singing out over Tanner’s Isle was one of the only joys of my youth got chosen by a bard, like we knew she would, and Bill the Beauty signed on with some high-end brothel like he knew he would. I then watched first as the sewer rats were taken, passing me over as too skinny to do the heavy work, then as chimney sweeps went by, passing me over as too tall by half. I was marched out into a line with thirty others to get looked over for the guard, and while a lieutenant checked my teeth and fingers, and made sure I could read and make my mark, a fey-looking man with too-blue eyes and hair the color of rusted iron yanked me out of line like I’d done someone some ill and nodded to the man in charge. Before I knew it I was getting out of a hired coach at a mansion in the Oaktree District and was taking the apprentice oath before the red-headed man and a score of household staff, servants and guests. It’d be another three weeks before I learned that the Marcus MacCruithin I’d sworn to was Mad Mark, the queen’s personal mage, or as people would know him fifteen years later, Murderous Mark.
Or as he’s known now at 3 Bridge Street, Prisoner Number Eleven.
I’m Jamie Tanner. Learn that name well because I’m going to be the first man to break someone out of that building and off of this island, because contrary to the names they gave him in the city rags, Murderous Mark MacCruithin didn’t murder anyone. If my name sounds familiar, look at those rags once more. I’m the one he’s supposed to have murdered.