The Prisoner and the Benefactor

Riona lived in a town high in the mountains, far from any major city—but drug traffickers found their way even there. Curious and adventurous, Riona experimented and then became addicted. She stole money from family members to feed her growing compulsions. From there, she committed more and more serious crimes.

Brought to court to face numerous charges, Riona was found guilty and placed in a cell in the town’s jail. In an attempt to make communities safer, her country’s laws allowed judges to release prisoners into the custody of whoever could pay—and if the payer lived elsewhere, the convicted was essentially taken off of the community’s hands. The judge in Riona’s case notified her of a particular date on which she would be released to a transient payer.

She didn’t have to wait long. On an overcast, chilly day, a line of dingey, worn vehicles passed through town and paused long enough only to complete the transaction with the judge. A rough-looking man pushed Riona into the back of an old delivery truck and slammed the door. Two high windows let in only slivers of light. Through glassy eyes, Riona watched her town disappear behind a bend in the highway.

The caravan traversed the rising and falling roads of the high mountain passes on their way to the next town. Riona sat in near darkness, wondering what would become of her. Withdrawals racked her body. In coherent moments, she realized she faced a completely uncertain future, not knowing where she’d end up, with whom, and doing what.

At one point when one of the caravan members opened the van to give her a meal, Riona overheard some of them talking. They laughed about how they had introduced illicit drugs into Riona’s town, and it was paying off as they had hoped, bolstering the slave trade.

As the door boomed shut, Riona wept as she realized she had fallen squarely into the trap they had set. Slavers! What will happen to me?

Later that day, the truck lurched to a halt. Riona stood to peer out one of the windows, a frown on her face. They shouldn’t have reached the next town already.

The road ahead curved enough that Riona could see what was happening. A simple car blocked the roadway, and a man stood in front of it, staring steadily at the slaver caravan. The slaver in the lead vehicle seemed to jeer out of his window at the man, who didn’t move. So the slaver got out and approached him. Riona couldn’t see either of them clearly through the unwashed window.

The two men talked, and the slaver soon laughed loudly. But the newcomer kept talking and took something out of his pocket. The slaver responded, and the man reached into his pocket again. This happened a few more times until finally, the slaver led the way to the van. Riona dropped down and huddled in the corner.

Light and sound flooded the van as the slaver opened the door. The man who had been talking to him slowly entered and came closer. Everything about him seemed unremarkable. He crouched before Riona. “What’s your name?”

“Riona,” the prisoner said before thinking better of it.

The man smiled slightly, softly. “Riona. You’re free now.” He gestured. “Come.”

Riona didn’t move. She just stared at him. Who are you? How can this be? she thought.

The man leaned a little closer. “My name is Asriel. You don’t want to stay with these traffickers, do you?” He extended a hand.

“Why should I go with you?”

“I want you to have a better life.”

“Why? Are you taking me home?”

“Yes. But not to the home you knew. A better life isn’t to be found there. The place I’ll take you has no drugs and no traffickers. It’s entirely up to you, but I promise that it’s worlds better than the road you’re on right now.”

It seemed a solid enough argument. It would be hard to be in a worse position. Riona glanced at Asriel’s hand and then into his eyes, which seemed a lot kinder than the slavers’. She reached and gripped his hand; it clasped hers back in a way both gentle and firm. He pulled her to her feet.

The faces of the slavers looked mocking with their cocky and wicked grins as Asriel led the way to his car. Riona sat in the back seat. Asriel started the engine and turned his car around. They quickly left the slaver caravan behind. Soon after, Asriel took a turnoff to a road that led them through a side pass.

Asriel’s car hummed through patches of sunlight as the road gradually climbed higher. Periodically, Asriel glanced at her using the rearview mirror. Riona was afraid to talk, but she had to say something. She replayed the scene in her mind of Asriel’s conversation with the lead trafficker. She remembered seeing Asriel reach into his pocket multiple times and hand the slaver what she assumed was money.

“How …” She changed her question. “How did you know I was in that truck?”

“You may know that these slavers travel the roads of our country frequently. The drugs they distribute end up on the streets of cities and towns all over. It’s quite a business that they’ve set themselves up with. Not everyone whom the state turns over into their custody have taken part, but those who have are almost as much victims of a crime as they are perpetrators.”

Asriel exhaled loudly. “I oppose them in spite of the state’s dealings with them. I decided a long time ago to set as many free from the traffickers as I could. So I monitor the cases that result in people being handed over to the traffickers. And when someone is being turned over to them, I act.”

His eyes regarded her steadily in the mirror; Riona feared he would drive them off the road, but it was as if he knew his route by heart. “Not everyone believes me when I say I can give you a better life. I admit, I’m asking you to trust me before you even know me. But you’ll see before long that what I tell you is true. And you’ll come to know me in time.”

Riona watched the mountainsides and canyons go by for a while, content with the silence. Then she worked up the courage to ask her real question.

“How much did you pay him? You know, for me?” She stole a glance at Asriel.

He kept his eyes on the road this time. “Everything I had.”

He quickly added, “I don’t say that to boast. I say it because every person taken out of their hands is worth any cost. It’s one less person in a system of exploitation. It’s become a game to the slavers. They expect to see me. They keep expecting the price to be too high. They don’t know how I can keep paying it. But I can. And so it goes.”

Asriel went silent then, and Riona asked no more questions.

They hadn’t reached their destination when night began to fall. Asriel pulled over, gave Riona some food and a blanket from a box in his trunk, and told her to eat and then get some sleep. Then he did something strange.

“I’m giving you the keys. If at any point you feel unsafe, go ahead and lock the doors. I’ll keep watch. We should be safe enough, but I’ll make sure.” He handed her his keyring and shut the door. Taking him at his word, Riona pressed the padlock button on the fob, and the locks clicked in place. Asriel walked over to a tree and leaned against it, his features becoming indistinct in the dusk. Riona ate her food, thinking about all that had happened that day and finding herself unable to comprehend it. Then she lay down and quickly fell asleep.

Shouting woke her. A light flashed around the car and played over a hairy shadow next to the back window. More shouting—was that Asriel? She heard a growl, and then the shadow disappeared. The hollering continued for a few moments. Finally, silence.

Riona realized the windows were fogging up from her fearful breathing.

She heard footsteps outside the car. Asriel knocked on the driver-side window. Riona fumbled, trying to find the keyring. She located it and the locks clicked.

Asriel cracked the door. “Are you all right? It was a bear. I scared it off.” He attempted a smile and held up a now-disabled flashlight. “Nothing to worry about. I’m sorry I woke you, but noise is one of the things that will scare them off. Are you okay?”

Riona managed to nod. Asriel lifted a hand in farewell and closed the door. Riona locked herself in again. It took her a while to calm herself and fall back asleep.

She started awake again. The sun wasn’t up, but there was enough light to see. Asriel was knocking on the driver-side window. He pointed at his watch and gestured at the road. Inexplicably, he looked just as awake as he had before Riona fell asleep. She unlocked the doors and Asriel settled in behind the wheel. She put the keyring in his outstretched hand. In moments, they were off.

“We’ll get there at dawn,” Asriel explained in answer to her unasked question. “It’s spectacular. I know it’s early, but I didn’t want you to miss it.”

Another hour passed, and the sun was about to rise when they entered a verdant valley. Day then broke, golden sunlight pouring over the mountains into the valley and lighting up a shining city. Riona gasped, and Asriel smiled.

“As I said, this isn’t the home you came from, but it’s your home now. It’s filled with people like you—those who have escaped who they used to be, escaped the traffickers. There’s a place for you to live, and you’ll have everything you need. And you’ll have ways to contribute for the good of all.”

During their drive through the city, Riona gaped at the cleanliness of it, the exquisite clothing people wore, the smiles on their faces—could it be real? Or was she still in the back of the slavers’ truck, dreaming all of this?

Asriel dropped her off at a building that looked much like the others. A smiling woman showed her to a set of rooms where Riona found a change of clothes that she could call nothing but queenly. A warm bath awaited, and she willingly took advantage. She wanted to be clean like this place, and as she bathed, it felt like she was scrubbing off everything bad she had done. Riona had never felt so fresh and new in her life.

When she next saw Asriel, he looked even more wonderful than everyone else in the city, and she learned that he was its governor. Asriel pronounced upon Riona her responsibilities, and she willingly accepted them. The life she had been leading was already fading in her mind.

It would not fade all at once, however; withdrawals struck her frequently for a time. But somehow, Asriel seemed to be there when they did, holding her and giving her strength to endure the agony. Over time the pains diminished, and Riona grew in her capacity and her contributions to the city. She heard others’ stories and learned of Asriel’s personal attention for each of them. She found the courage to share her story.

Asriel frequently took on his ordinary appearance and drove his ordinary car outside the valley. He always returned with at least one new citizen—someone who had committed some crime, been in custody of the traffickers, and was now free.

Riona lived the rest of her life among them, always seeking to pay back the debt she felt she owed to Asriel, her benefactor, for this life he had given her. She knew she never could, but she would make an honest go of it.

Photo by Anastasiya Vragova on

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