“They deserved it.”
At these words, Romero knew that he was dealing with a madman.
Not that there hadn’t been earlier signs, of course. Nobody survived almost a week of torture in his dungeons without breaking — nobody. But this…. He turned away, making a conscious effort to smooth his expression.
“You confess, then?” he said, sounding far calmer than he felt. “To the assassination of — ”
“Not assassination,” the boy cut across him. “Slaugh’er. They were monsters, every last one of ’em.” His voice rasped like a rusted hinge beneath his Courman brogue; if not for the faint scar Romero had noticed on his neck, he might have thought the boy was doing it on purpose, to try and intimidate him. Intentional or not, the effect was unsettling. “You know what they’ve done. You let ’em, you ordered it….”
“And what of the lowly soldiers, and the city watch? They merely following orders. Do you really think they deserved to die?”
“They’re the worst of all,” the boy snarled. “The worst of any of ’em…power-mad….”
It took quite a bit of self-control for Romero to suppress his frustration; even so, his fists clenched at his sides as he crossed the room to a scrubbed wooden table. His instruments were laid out with great precision on black cloth atop the surface. A whip, a vice, a needle, a pair of pliers, a collection of knives and shears. Some shone with fresh polish; others were splattered with blood new and old. It was a collection that should have made any man alive shake in his boots.
“But you didn’t kill them,” Romero said dismissively as he trailed his fingers along the instruments, debating inwardly which one to choose. “As I thought, the rumors were greatly exaggerated. The Black Death is not the great assassin that all my people believe him to be.”
“Aww, you’re gonna hurt me feelin’s,” the boy chuckled. Romero turned, surprised, to find him smirking. “What, are ya still sore that I’m nae what ya expected?”
Romero chose to ignore this. Only a child, he thought to himself. A child hanging from the ceiling by meathooks, trickles of blood spiraling slowly down his arms. A child who had already been beaten and crudely tortured by his men for several days, one leg dangling twisted and broken beneath him, his face bruised and battered. A child who struggled to draw every breath—yet laughed at him all the same. He shook his head.
“I noticed you have a very strong Courman accent,” he said calmly. “Are you — ?”
“I’m sorry I’m nae bigger.” The boy continued as if he had not spoken at all. “Or older. Or is it tha’ I’m an orphan? Ya just seem so disappointed, poor thing….”
Romero closed his eyes for a moment, taking a slow, deep breath through his nose. “You aren’t the Black Death,” he sneered. “Nobody is. It isn’t possible. You’re merely one of many, part of a large group of anarchists, traitors, and rebels.”
The boy threw back his head and laughed with genuine amusement. It sounded painful. “Just keep tellin’ yerself that, alright,” he chuckled. “Wha’ever makes ya feel better…. I’m nineteen. Same age’s you were when ya murdered yer brother, yeah? You aren’t exactly one t’talk.”
“Rumors,” Romero replied at once; after so many years, the words came to his lips instinctively now. “All rumors.”
The boy snorted. “Which bit? That ya killed the king, or that he weren’t yer real brother?”
Romero did not reply. Instead he lifted one of the instruments, a thick pair of clippers, testing the feel of it in his hand.
“Who sent you after me?” he said quietly.
“Sent me?” The boy chuckled again. “What, ya think the Black bloody Death threw me a few cuprums to try and kill a king?”
“Not a king,” Romero hissed, whirling around. “The king, of the largest Empire in the world! Alronelin is the largest it’s been since the Rebellion! Not even the Conqueror managed to take so much so quickly….”
But he trailed away, narrowing his eyes. The boy’s head had slumped forward onto his chest, as if in exhaustion—but Romero had distinctly seen him roll his eyes.
“Righ’, righ’,” the boy drawled. “The king.” He glanced up, a ghost of a grin lifting his lips. “How’s ya neck?”
Romero’s hand rose automatically to the deep gash gouged into the side of his neck; he jerked it back down, gritting his teeth. It could have been far worse. If Romero had not woken up—if he had not been trained as well as he had—he might not have been able to fend off the boy for long enough for the guards to arrive and chase him away. But it galled him that a teenager, and one who had clearly had no formal training at that, had managed to wound him so badly.
“You’re right,” he said slowly, as if thinking out loud. “No one in their right minds would send an untrained child to assassinate me—not if they wanted him to succeed. No, I’m afraid you’ve been used, boy. Somebody wanted to test my defences, and who better to do that with than someone disposable? Perhaps….” He glanced at the boy’s right arm, where a purplish circle had been branded into the skin. “…an orphan?”
The boy did not reply; his head did not lift off of his chest. He had not been allowed to sleep in days; perhaps Romero’s monologue had lulled him into a false sense of security. He was now either ignoring Romero or drifting into unconsciousness. Romero found neither of these options acceptable. He picked up a pair of pliers and walked a slow circle around the boy, then paused, gesturing to one of the men that stood at attention nearby. The ropes lowered slightly, and the boy sagged, falling to his knees on the ground.
Romero took a finger in one hand and raised the pliers.
The boy hissed and flinched, tensing, his hands curling into fists. His arm twitched as he tried to pull away, sucking in shallow breaths through gritted teeth. But he did not make a sound.
Finally, Romero stepped back, dropping a bloodied fingernail onto the ground. The boy fell limp, his eyes squeezed shut, breathing as if he’d just run miles. Romero circled around to face him.
“Tell me who sent you,” he said.
The boy lifted his head and sneered a colorful suggestion as to where Romero could stick his pliers. Romero shrugged and took another fingernail. Then, after only seconds’ respite, another. The boy tensed, flinched, jerked, but did not cry out, did not scream. When Romero finally grabbed a handful of his hair and wrenched his head back, the boy coughed, gagging on blood, and Romero saw that he’d bitten straight into his tongue.
“Tell me who the others are,” he ordered again.
The boy spat a glob of bloody saliva into his face.
Romero released him and stepped back, pulling a lace-edged handkerchief out of his sleeve. He calmly wiped his face and set the stained square of cloth aside. Then he reached for a new tool, a steel contraption faintly resembling a nutcracker.
“That’s a shame,” he said, and reached for the boy’s hand again.
The tool shattered his knuckle with an audible snap. The boy bucked and began to struggle like a fish on a line, thrashing and arching his back. He groaned between clenched teeth, sucking in a hissing breath, his every muscle tightening against the pain. He tried to wrench free with a grunt, his body twisting with surprising strength. But Romero simply moved to the next knuckle, unperturbed. All his fighting accomplished nothing; it only made the blood flow thicker down his arms.
“Who are they?” he asked calmly.
No reply. After half a beat, Romero bore down on the next bone with a crack. More struggles, more groans, a stream of foul curses hissed under his breath. But no screams.
And no answers.
Romero drew back, tool in hand, and studied the boy. His face was twisted in pain, his breathing labored. He looked suddenly very young — even younger than he was, to a disturbing degree. Pain had that effect on people. He had seen grown men break down sobbing, crying for their mothers. Sniveling, weeping, begging for their lives. All in a matter of hours — perhaps even minutes.
Torture was a sport, an art form — one he thought that he had mastered long ago. The best did not even have to lay a finger on most of their prisoners. A few minutes of negotiation, some well-placed bribes or threats, and men were happy to bare their souls. Only those that resisted fell under the knife. And they always, always broke, whether it took three minutes or three days.
But not this boy.
He decided to switch tactics. He walked away and set the tool back down, carefully nudging it back into its proper place.
“Whoever it was, they didn’t do it for your benefit,” he continued. “They aren’t coming to rescue you. They probably didn’t even expect you to survive. So what do you owe them now? What’s the point of all this pain?I could cut you down right now, you know, and this would all be over. Don’t you want a warm bed, a hot meal…?”
“…an’ a cold mug o’ ale, an’ a pretty girl on me knee, an’ a song writ about me,” the boy mumbled, shaking his head with a bitter laugh. “Right?”
“I’m an orphan, ya bloody idiot,” the boy cut across him. “I’m nae some soft little lord. I eat rats an’ sleep in th’ gutter. What’s next, gold? A title? Ya have nothin’ that I want.”
Romero took another slow, deep breath. Patience. “I don’t think,” he said slowly, “that you quite understand your situation here. If you think your little rebel friends are coming to save you — ”
Romero looked up. The boy’s head still sagged onto his chest, his body hanging limply from his bonds. But his voice, when he spoke, was clear and strong.
“I have no one,” he said. “No one’s lookin’ for me, no one’s comin’ for me. No one’ll miss me. There’s nothin’ you c’n offer me.” His head rolled, his eyes finding Romero’s. “What now?”
“If — ”
“Ya want me alive?” He gave a contemptuous chuckle, his chest heaving with the effort. “Y’ll have t’feed me, let me sleep. Leave me alone. So I c’n heal. An’ then we’ll be righ’ back where we was….”
Romero sneered. “You want to die? That can be arranged.”
The boy laughed—a cold, scornful sound that sent a shiver down Romero’s spine. He looked up; their eyes met, and Romero felt a leaden weight drop into his stomach. Those eyes. Cold, calculating, sadistically amused. Eyes that belonged to a much older man—a man who had lived the sort of life that turned men into monsters.
Yet there was no doubt that he dealt with a monster now.
“Ya cannae hurt me,” the boy told him. “No worse’n anyone else. No worse’n th’ soldiers did. No worse’n me parents….” He coughed, blood dribbling down his chin. “’S just pain. Worst it c’n do is kill me….”
Romero watched him for a moment in silence. Then he raised his hand and gestured to his guards. He heard the faint clink of their armor as they saluted.
“Send a message to the captain of the guard,” he ordered. “Tell him to send every available unit out to find that other boy, the one who was with this one. Arrest him as an accomplice to the Black Death.” He lowered his hand, and behind him, he heard the guard marching away. His eyes met the cold blue gaze of his prisoner.
“If it’s so fun and pleasant here,” he said softly, “perhaps you’d like your friend to join you.”
The boy snorted. “Ya won’t find him,” he said. “Ya couldn’t find your own arse. Where’s this magic group o’ rebels an’ anarchists got tae all o’ a sudden?”
“I don’t know,” said Romero coldly. “You tell me.”
“I told ya everythin’ already.” The boy lifted his head and stood a little straighter, fighting back a wince at the pain it caused him. A fresh wave of blood trickled down the broken scabs of his back where stripes of flesh had been gouged out of his skin with a whip. “I,” he said, slowly, deliberately, looking straight into Romero’s eyes, “am…the…Black…Death. I killed Thomas Salke. I killed Solomon Galen. William Redell. Lucius Carter. Jon Kirke. An’ I came here tae kill you. No’ because someone sent me. Because I wanted tae fucking kill you.”
He spoke with such force, such strength — such venom — that Romero could summon no response; it was all he could do not to take a step back. He had learned a long time ago how to tell if a man were lying, and this boy…. Either every word was true, or he had gone utterly mad. Romero was not sure which prospect was more terrifying.
He started to ask, why? But he caught himself at the last second. He knew he would not want to hear it—not because there was no answer, but because there were too many. Instead, he asked, “How?”
The boy managed a shrug, though it set fresh rivulets of blood trailing down one arm. “Killin’ people is easy. Ya stab ’em until they die, then stab ’em some more.”
“Hmm.” The question he’d answered was not the one he’d been asked, and the answer he gave satisfied neither. But then, Romero had yet to get a straight answer out of him. “If you’re the Black Death, then who was your first kill?”
Romero stiffened, his hand tightening around the instrument he held. The boy’s lips spread slowly, his teeth baring into a feral grin.
“Dunno if y’keep up with news around the lower city, Yer Majesty…. Ever heard of The Fishgut Butcher?”
“I have,” said Romero quietly. “But that was well before your time. It must’ve been ten years ago….”
“Aye,” said the boy. “Nearly eleven now. Would’ve been sooner if I’da been smarter. Me sister even told them it was me, but no one suspected a li’l kid….”
“The Fishgut Butcher,” Romero repeated thoughtfully. “The man who killed William Adeney and his wife, slaughtered them in their beds and gutted them like fish, and orphaned their children…which makes you…?”
“Liam Adeney,” he said softly. “The Second.”
Romero took a step back and appraised the boy. He felt as if he were seeing him, truly seeing him, for the first time; he finally knew what he was dealing with.
The question was: what to do now? A monster like this could not remain alive for long. But then, it was absurd to believe that he was everything the stories made him out to be. He had to have accomplices, suppliers, something….
“Tell me somethin’.”
The boy spoke so abruptly, so unexpectedly, that Romero’s hand shot halfway to the hilt of his sword before he could stop himself. He turned to face the boy again, raising an eyebrow.
“Th’ truth,” the boy insisted. His exhaustion seemed to be catching up to him; keeping his head raised seemed a monumental effort, and his whole body shook with the strain of it. He could not last much longer like this. “Y’tell me…I tell you….”
“Perhaps,” said Romero. He leaned back against a stone pillar, watching the boy struggle to breathe.
“Th’ fire,” he panted. His mind, like his eyes, seemed to be slipping in and out of focus. “Th’ orphanage fire. Everyone said t’was an accident, but I knew t’wasn’t. Did—did you — ?”
“Start it?” Romero completed. “No.” He scuffed one of his boots against the other, dislodging a clump of dried mud from the side. “Not personally. But it was done on my orders.”
The boy’s head dropped; his ruined hands clenched into fists. “I knew it,” he hissed under his breath. “I knew it…you…you murderer!”
Romero shrugged. “What was I to do? You orphans were dangerous — you’ve proven that yourself a thousand times over. You were getting out of control. I knew it had to be done when they came to me saying that some vicious little brat had attacked some woman, just because he — ”
“That wasn’t some brat, you bloody childkiller,” the boy hissed. He hauled himself up onto his knees, his eyes burning like fire. “That was me.”
“What? How — ?”
“They blamed me baby brother f’r that. She accused ’im just tae get rid of ’im, just ’cause he caused her too much trouble. They tied ’im tae his bed, said they’d hang ’im in the morning, an’ I weren’t about tae listen to ’im beg for ’is life, I couldnae stand tae hear him cry a second more. So I broke ou’ an’ went to see th’ bitch meself. After all, if someone’s gonna pay f’r a crime, it’s only fair it really happens—don’tcha think?”
Romero, by this point, stood bolt upright, his hand clenched tightly around his sword. “So y — ?”
“An’ then the place went up, an’ I busted through every door those bastards had locked an’ let all the kids ou’. An’ I pulled ’em out meself, one by one, an’ I led ’em t’ safety before they scattered. An’ they lived. They lived, you monster, you couldnae kill ’em….”
“No, they — they’re dead!” Romero snarled. “We found their remains in the rubble, children’s bodies — ”
“How many, though?” The boy’s voice was suddenly very soft, his eyes gleaming with a strange triumph. “How many of us were there, eh? Didja count th’ bodies? Was every single one of us accounted for?”
Romero gave a shout of wordless frustration, snatching up a crowbar from the table. “Where are they?” he growled. “Where did you hide them?”
“You’ll never know,” the boy told him. “Never. When I die, it’ll die wit’ me.”
Romero swung the crowbar blindly at the boy. It connected with a crack; the ropes swung wildly like a loose sail in a storm, the boy stumbling as he tried to straighten his broken legs. But he only laughed, shaking his head to clear away the blood that dripped down his face.
“Y’ll have tae kill me,” the boy mocked. “Ya know y’will. ’Cause if ya don’t, I’ll come back for ya — ”
Romero swung again; the boy’s head snapped to one side, and he coughed and spat out a bloodied tooth.
“ — an’ I will beat,” he panted, “a blood price…out o’ yer hide…for each kid we lost. Each…an’..every…one….”
Another swing; the boy grunted, losing his breath for a moment, as the thick crowbar connected with his ribs. Romero distinctly heard one of them snap.
“Where are they?” he yelled. “I swear to the Goddess herself, I will rip — ”
Another crack as he swung again, shattering the bones of his arm.
“ — every bone — ”
“ — from your body — ”
“And when I find — ”
“Those bloody kids — ”
Romero knew instantly that something had gone horribly wrong.
A stuttering gasp escaped the boy’s lips, then a breathless sound of pain, somewhere between whimper and moan. He dangled limp from his bonds, his face bloodless as his eyes stared blankly at the floor. His breaths were suddenly fast, shallow, irregular. Romero, staggering back, saw a bloody mark low on his stomach, rapidly bruising, where the crowbar had hit, and he knew that he had made a terrible mistake. He had struck too hard, and in the wrong place.
The boy was as good as dead.
“No,” Romero groaned, “No no, no — ” He gestured frantically for his soldiers. “Dammit, cut him down, now — ”
They cut through the ropes, and the boy collapsed, the hooks through his wrists clattering against the stones. Romero fell to his knees and grabbed his shoulder, shaking him until his head wagged back and forth.
“No, no — someone get a damn healer, now, I need to know where he’s hiding them, he’s got them stowed away somewhere and I — ”
A low, gurgling noise made him jump; it grew louder and higher, echoing around the stone walls. It was only when the boy’s head rolled on his neck that Romero saw his face and realized that he was laughing.
“You…lose,” he choked. “You…lose….”
Romero lashed out with his boot, slamming it into the boy’s midriff. The boy’s eyes rolled back into his head as he fell back with a grunt.
Romero rose slowly to his feet, looking the boy over in disgust. Then, releasing a slow breath, he turned to the nearest of his soldiers. The man saluted instantly, his face pale beneath his shining helm.
“Have him executed at sundown,” he ordered. “I want him burned alive.”
The man faltered. “You said — burned — ?”
“Alive. Let that be a warning to those bloody peasants.” He nudged the boy with his foot, then shook his head and spat on the floor by his face. “And let that be the end of it,” he said.
Liam was hauled out of the cold shadows and into blinding light as they dragged him slowly across the ground.
Where was he? And why? There was only a roar of noise, a vicious stab of sunlight; he could make no sense of it. He was upright, as if they wanted him to walk, but his legs did not respond to his commands.
Something throbbed within him: a deep, twisting pain, low in his gut. It wiped out everything as it pulsed with the sluggish beat of his heart, every trace of hunger, thirst, and inferior, superficial pain. Mere broken bones were forgotten, the memory of them washed away with every wave of agony that broke across him.
He had learned long ago, early in childhood, how to block pain, set up barriers through which it could not pass. Pain was invasive, like a line of spearmen pushing in, threatening to encroach upon the fortress of his mind — but it could be stopped, held back at the walls. This pain, however, was not something he had the strength to fight, and now it washed over him, enveloped him, consumed him. But as it did so, it changed him. Turned him leaden, limp, immobile — but far, far away. Every movement, every tiny jostle, threatened to jerk him back, but he floated above it all like a man floating in still water. Tranquil, silent, still, even as he slowly drowned.
He was going to die. He knew it somehow, with unquestionable certainty. The only question was when. It had been days now, he thought, or maybe only minutes; time had no meaning to him anymore. A slow countdown, ticking away until he sank into oblivion — but then, he thought, hadn’t that always been true? What was the difference now, really? The longer the hammer beat the nail, the more the hammer itself was chipped away, long after the nail was gone, until all that remained was splinters and filings…. He almost laughed at himself; he wasn’t making sense anymore.
They dragged him…up, somehow. His back against something rough. Sticks and logs rattling beneath his bare feet. Pinches at his wrists and ankles. Ropes, he realizes, as the roughness scraped against his neck, wrapped so tightly that they lifted his head for him.
He opened his eyes.
The sight before him was one that had haunted him all his life, lurking just out of the bounds of his imagination. A plaza, lit by the dying sun. A platform around him, raising him up, so he could see the crowds of people that spread out before him, hundreds and hundreds of them. A sense of suppression, constraint, as if the air itself were holding its breath, waiting for its chance to erupt into fire and madness.
He had always known it would end this way. But he had never imagined that quite so many people would come to watch him die. And they were not cheering, taunting, laughing — no. They were watching in silence, their anger bubbling just beneath the surface.
His vision swam in and out of focus, struggling, fading—but still, he persisted with his search. Finally, he spotted it: the familiar face in the back of the crowd.
His best friend. His baby brother. Sometimes he still looked at the fifteen-year-old and saw a little kid. Standing on his own pyre, for the first time in his life, Liam truly believed that there might be a Goddess watching over the world — not for his sake, but for Kayo’s. Something, somewhere, had brought him home safely, and that was enough. It didn’t matter what it had cost.
There were people around Kayo; Liam couldn’t quite make them out, but he knew by their silhouettes who they were. Their brother, their sisters. The only family they had left; the only family that mattered. They stood around Kayo as if protecting him. Well, they would have to now. He had done all that he could.
He closed his eyes.
Be brave, he thought. Be happy. Be nothing like me.
The smoke rose around him, the wood crackling as the flames caught. But he never felt the fire touch him. He slipped away, rising far above the earth, leaving his shattered body behind.
When she had heard that her hero — the only man she had ever admired — was going to be executed, she knew she had to watch. She would never believe that he was dead unless she saw it with her own eyes.
Judging by the crowds that she met at the edge of the plaza, however, it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea. Every street from the castle gates to the entrance to the Gardens was packed to bursting with people, all of them craning their necks to see the gallows. Vultures, she thought scathingly as she pushed her way through, giving as many nasty looks as she received. Then, when she could force her way no further, she grabbed onto a shuttered window and began to climb, scaling the house until she could pull herself up onto the slanted tiles of the roof.
From atop the roof she could see everything: the sea, in almost every direction; the mainland, a faint ridge of green across the bridge to the north; the delicate rooftops of the Gardens; the tangled anthill of stone that was the upper city; the strip of dirt and grease along the harbor that was the lower city; the castle perched atop the cliffs; and the plaza, full to overflowing with a sea of people that ebbed and flowed and surged like a living thing, muttering in a low, uneasy hum. And in the middle of it all, given a wide berth by the nearest spectators, sat the platform, burdened with a pile of wood around the base of a thick pole.
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head at the sight of it. She had never in her life seen someone burned at the stake. No one had, not in many, many years. They said the ruler of Anapoline was the last, burned alive in front of his palace, then, once roasted, devoured by the citizens he’d starved. But that was centuries ago, during the Plague. To bring it back now…. They threatened it sometimes with Divinæ, but they were never able to find any. It seemed it was not so empty a threat.
Suddenly, she wondered if she should be so eager to watch this after all, or if she should even be present. She hesitated, then shrank against the chimney, hiding in its narrow shadow. In the lower city, with its dirt roads and mud-brick walls, her faded rags, sun-browned skin, and filthy, matted hair would have camouflaged her perfectly in the shadows. The upper city, with its grey stone and black shadows, had, however, proven a much more difficult challenge — and the Gardens, clean and colorful, seemed nearly impossible. Yet it was all the more vital here, where a soldier would seize her after a mere glance and throw her into a lower-city dungeon where he assumed she belonged. And he would not be wrong about that.
She hugged her knees and hunched down, shivering as the cold air raked across her bare arms and legs, making herself as small as she could. Then she waited for sundown, watching not the plaza, where nothing was happening, but the castle. It stood still and silent, as it had for hundreds of years, but the pale grey stone almost seemed to glow at this time of day, changing colors with the sky as the sun sank. So frustrating—it was closer than ever, only a few minutes’ walk from where she stood, yet she could see no more of it than she ever had before. It just looked bigger now. Still, she memorized the lines of every tower and roof, imagined what might lie behind each crystalline window, wondering if, one day….
Then the bells in the tallest tower began to ring, their low, menacing tune echoing across the city, and the castle gates creaked open. And suddenly she was reminded of exactly what happened to people like her inside the castle.
The man they led out was barely visible from this height, but she could make out long sand-colored hair, bare feet, tattered pants — and a sickening amount of blood, smeared across his chest and arms from a dozen different wounds. They had to drag him between two soldiers, and where the crowds parted, they remained divided, for he left a trail of blood behind him that no one seemed to want to cross, so thick that she could see it from her perch. When they tied him to the stake, they seemed to need to bind him by not only his wrists, but his ankles, waist, and neck as well, just to keep him upright.
They must be really frightened of him. This she thought with no small amount of pride. They had beaten him half to death, yet still they bound him tightly, still they guarded him with a half-dozen soldiers. It was possible that they had even killed him before dragging him out, as if they were that afraid he’d break loose. And they were burning him, dragging out an age-old punishment in sheer desperation, because killing him wasn’t enough. They had to destroy the body completely so that he could never, ever come back. They were terrified of him — as they should be. He was her hero for a reason.
A herald, standing safely to one side, unfurled a scroll and called out in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
“All present, hear this: by the order of Romero Sangor, the Eagle of Rimerock Hills, King of Alronelin, Ruler of Bermeia, Emperor of the Greater Peninsula, Lord Protector of Courma and Lyrma — ”
The people were growing restless; their muttering rose to a clamor of protest, with some even shaking their fists in the air. Some phrases broke free of the general uproar, originating from people who were clearly emboldened by the anonymity of the crowd to say things they would never utter aloud:
“Fuck the king!”
“Give back Courma!”
“Free the Black Death!”
“Bloody Romero, he ain’t no king!”
“Get out o’ Courma! Get out o’ Lyrma!”
“The Black Death stands for all of us!”
“Out of Savilla!”
“Long live the Prince! Long live the Prince!”
This last cry spread like fire across the crowd, dozens of men and women yelling in a discordant tumult, others joining in, fists raised, creating a chaotic din that made no sense until their shouts seemed, in the same moment, to fall in sync:
“Long live the Prince! Long live the Prince!”
The girl could not help but cheer, clapping her hands together as she took up the cry — but then one soldier lowered his spear, sinking into a fighting stance, and the others surrounding the pyre mimicked him. Others, stationed by the castle gates or at the mouths of the streets leading off the plaza, did the same, and the shouting trailed away into silence almost at once. Nobody needed further reminder of what the soldiers would do if given half the chance.
After a few moments, the herald, who had seemingly grown a bit wiser in the interim, skipped to the point.
“ — this man, identified as the leader of the rebel group known as the Black Death, wanted for heinous crimes against the Crown, including treason, subterfuge, theft and sabotage of Crown property, incitement of anarchy and rebellion, torture, and murder —” The resentment of the crowd was nearly palpable at this point; they dared not cause an uproar, but the girl could almost hear their lips curling — “is sentenced to die. On this day, he shall be burned alive until naught remains but ashes.” The herald lowered the scroll, which snapped back into a tight cylinder. “And may the Goddess show him mercy,” he finished.
This sentiment was sometimes echoed by the spectators of an execution — but not today. Today all present stood in grim silence, every face turned toward the man on the pyre. Toward the Black Death, who was, depending on who described him, a demigod or a walking nightmare, a blessing or a scourge, a hero or a menace. Champion of the downtrodden: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the whores, the orphans. Destroyer of soldiers, nobles, and even — if the rumors were correct — kings.
She wished she could see his face. Artists would put up pictures of him later — probably pictures of him burning, just to make it clear what had happened — but it was not the same. She wanted to meet him face-to-face, tell him how much she admired him, even if he couldn’t hear her. Right now, she could barely see him at all….
But she saw the fire when it started.
It spread in an instant, consuming the oil-soaked wood with breathtaking speed. She winced as the flames licked at his legs — but he didn’t scream. He didn’t even flinch. No matter how high the flames rose, he remained where he was, slumped against his bonds. One of the guards even poked him with the tip of his spear, clearly trying to incite the response that they wanted, but it made no difference. The girl was not even sure that he had survived the herald’s speech. But regardless, her chest swelled with pride. No matter what those bastards did, no matter what they tried, they would never have any satisfaction from him.
She could not see the exact moment that he died. There came a point, however, where no merciful Goddess would have left a soul alive in such a body, and that was when the last faint trickle of hope drained from her. She hadn’t even known until then that she’d been hoping for him to break free, or for a whole swarm of Black Deaths to swing in and rescue him, until that moment. It was strange — such a sudden realization, as if someone had blown out a candle in her mind. A man she barely knew had left the world, and it would never be the same again.
A breeze blew in from the ocean, and she shivered, huddling against the chimney in her torn, threadbare rags. One hand snaked down her shirt, pulling out a long golden chain. At the end of it dangled a shining pendant of gold and iridescent red, delicately crafted into the shape of a blooming rose, which she clutched tightly in her palm. The other hand stretched out, fingers extended.
Sank a ship full of cannons, she listed, counting on her fingers, and three more full of supplies. Snapped the mast off another. Saved a bunch of whores from soldiers — a bunch of different times. Rained coins down in the square by the markets, after stealing it from somewhere. Freed a score of prisoners after the prisons got filled from all the riots. Counting was not her strong suit, but that was, arguably, a lot, and she hadn’t yet gotten to the good parts. Killed that fisherman that ratted people out to the soldiers, and gave out all his fish. Killed that merchant that was driving up prices. Killed that man who came in and tried to take homeless people as slaves. Slaughtered all those soldiers in the night. Crossed into the upper city somehow, scared the hell out of all the rich people who thought no one could. Hung that general from his own bedroom window by the curtain pulls. Left that rich guy, that noble, dead in a fountain somewhere with his head on a pike. Broke into the castle and sliced up the king. Almost killed him, too.
That seemed like everything — or at least, everything she’d heard. No doubt there was more; the announcements posted tomorrow would surely have a long list that someone could read to her. But for now, this was enough.
Almost. She added one more item to her list: He died a good death. And in a world where people like them couldn’t expect to live long, that was what mattered most of all. Die a good death, and leave a strong legacy behind. She could only hope to do half as well as the man below in her lifetime.
The fire sank slowly down into its coals, dying at the same rate as the sun. She climbed down before it grew too dark, but with the crowds thinning, and more people trickling away at every minute, she risked creeping to the edge of the plaza and taking one last look. Not at the dead man, but at the people who had come to see him. They left only when the lack of light and the encroaching early winter cold forced them away, and they left without a single word to one another, retreating in almost complete silence. The girl, watching their faces, saw their grim expressions, their anger, their sadness, their bitterness. The soldiers may have silenced them, but they would never forget what happened here.
It seemed right, to have that silence there. Or at least, it seemed wrong to break it. But it was only as she drifted out of the plaza that she realized that no one had sung for him. She did not dare to shatter that eerie quiet, so she sang it softly in her mind, humming under her breath.
A hundred thousand stars above
Fade and glow, fade and glow
A hundred thousand tiny lights
That point me where I need to go
Over mountains, through the snow,
From treach’rous paths to the roads I know
Yet the one bright star that leads to home
When it fades
When it fades
Where am I to go…?
Kayo heard someone calling him, but he didn’t reply; he stood where he was, watching Liam burn. Despite the cloak he held around his shoulders, he still shivered violently and couldn’t stop.
They found him eventually, gathering around him. Dominic, Artemis, Alysia, his brother and sisters. He expected them to talk to him, shout at him, try to pull him away. But they simply stood by him, placing warm, gentle hands on his back, his shoulder, his arm, seeking as much comfort as they gave.
Together, they watched him burn. Nobody moved, not even as the flames began to die down and the crowds began to clear. Nobody spoke, even as the people retreating past them whispered in anger, in disappointment, in despair. Nobody took their eyes off of what remained of their brother, just visible against a twilit sky hazy with smoke.
Soon, they and a handful of others were all that remained. It was dark now, without a single tongue of flame illuminating the pyre. Even the soldiers were gone. Kayo stood motionless as his siblings whispered to each other behind his back, his eyes fixed on the last place he had known his brother to be.
“Kayo…” Dominic finally said, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “We have to go now, we need to go home….”
“Kayo….” Alysia took him by the arm, tried to lead him away.
“No….” He pulled his arm free. “Not yet, wh-what…what are they…?” He was shivering so hard that he could barely speak. “They can’t just leave him….”
“Kayo, c’mon, don’t you want to see the kids?”
“Wh-what’s going to happen to him? Do — do you think — ”
“We need to find some food for them…they’ll miss you, they don’t know where you’ve been….”
“What’d they do to him? He…he was….”
“Kayo, we need to go home.”
“What if he f-felt all that? Could he feel all that — that fire…?”
“Kayo, stop it. Liam wouldn’t have wanted you to watch all this. He wouldn’t want you to freeze to death out here….”
Kayo shook his head, pressed his icy hands to his face. “What are we gonna do?” he said numbly. “Wh-what are we supposed to….?”
The three others shared a look, but they didn’t answer. They couldn’t. They were no older than he — fifteen or sixteen, maybe older, maybe younger, who could say? — and knew nothing more than he did about the world. They tugged on Kayo in silence, but still, he refused to move.
“What are we gonna do now?” he kept asking them. “What are we gonna do? Wh-what…?”
Nobody answered; there was only silence, so deep and profound that he imagined he could hear the darkness sinking around him, the smoke rising, the sea crashing against the rocks along the distant cliffs. A gust of wind snaked in from the sea, and he shuddered as he caught a whiff of smoke beneath the stench of salt. His legs felt suddenly weak; he reached up to wipe at his burning eyes with his cloak. Someone reached out to support him, whispering in his sister’s voice, and he allowed his siblings to lead him away.
There was nothing they could do.
It was over.
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