One of the joys of having a Blog is being able to post whatever the hell you want. Used to be, a novel that fizzles after 23,000 words like this one would just rot in a drawer unless and until I thought of some way to save it. No more! Now I can post chapter one on a slow Monday just for fun. So, herewith, I give you
THE RITE OF DEATH
CHAPTER ONE: Execution Day
This is the story of how I murdered fifty thousand people.
It starts with one murder.
It was a holiday – Execution Day. The mob had started lining up for a good view an hour before, ruining my sleep. I stared up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks in the plaster.
Next to me, she snored. For such a handsome woman, the Lady of BarJef snored like a penny whore. And I knew my penny whores.
I pushed my way out of the bed and stretched until I was rewarded with several loud pops. My back ached. The fresh bruises on my arms had gone purple in the night. It was strangely pleasurable to feel their burn and throb, to relive the echo of those heavy wooden bats. Less pleasurable was my aching head: Three mugs of strong northern cherry liquor too many, as usual.
Naked, I ignored my urgent bladder and stepped to the blurry windows. Pushed one open, leaning out into the thick air, already hot. I scanned the milling crowd, scheming and jostling – and soon, fighting – for position in the huge courtyard. Normally off-limits, one day a month it became a boiling theater. I thought I could almost smell them, these fat, sweaty people, overdressed for the cursed heat of Salan, eager for the fun.
The platform had been erected overnight, in stealth and silence. The ancient block sat like a wart of blackened, polished shadow. Wood, I’d been told. Petrified and stone-like. Carried from the homeland across the mountains so we wouldn’t have to cut one special when we felt like beheading someone. Ancient and revered. I didn’t even like to look at it. How many heads had been chopped off on that ugly square of dense, heavy wood? Thousands, I thought. Tens of thousands. And six more today. Six! Not so long ago six executions would have been an embarrassment. But these were low times. Five simple criminals, convicted by acclamation and held in the palace jails for weeks, now to stand blinking and trembling in the sun for a few moments before Lekum pushed them onto their knees, pronounced their crimes, and separated them from their heads. Five simple beheadings, no challenge to Lekum and his massive shoulders and unkempt beard – a True! Heran! Hero!, my Lekum – but the crowds were swelling because of the sixth. A traitor. No simple beheading for her, thank goodness. Lekum would get some exercise.
We were not a civilized people.
My Lady stirred behind me, sounding, for a moment, as if she were swallowing her own tongue. At night, through a filter of oily smoke and alcohol, Arrise was passably beautiful. In the harsh, hot light of Salan by day, she was six years older than me, heavier than she should be, hairier than she should be.
She settled back into a rumbling roar of contented snoring, and I relaxed. Older and hairy she might be, but Arrise was my patron for the moment, and I had a smiled stored up for her when she awoke.
My eyes found the shadow that was the Block again. The sun could not penetrate it. It was as cold and dark as it had been deep in storage, licked by shadows. The blood of a thousand men and women had stained it to the core, and the blood of a half dozen more today. The crowd would be impatient for the traitor, who was to be Forgotten. The Burgans would call it eairomem oitanmad. Murdered, really, in typically simple Heran style. Her, her family, every last one within two degrees of lineage. So that her name might be removed from the Conquest.
Three children. Small, towheaded, confused and miserable. The crowd could not wait.
I turned from the window. The room was large, with a high ceiling that probably dated to the Burgans. It was sparsely furnished, in a gesture towards the cherished old-time simplicity we Herans paid such lip service to, but expensive nonetheless – delicate wooden furniture imported from Pharse. A useless ornate desk and its tiny, too-skinny chair. A chest of drawers with gold and ruby pulls. A huge cloudy mirror propped against the wall, a frame of black polished wood, silk scarves draped over it in an attempt at decoration. The brass sconces on the wall were native to the palace and had likely been installed by the Burgans themselves, before we came over the northern mountains and stole the palace, and the city, from them. They were filled with yesterday’s dirty oil, the depleted wicks floating like turds.
And the bed. The immense bed of carved wood, the feather mattress, teeming with bugs. The sheets that had been slick like oiled metal a few weeks ago, now stiff and scratchy.
I stepped to the chamber pot, the cold stone of the floor pleasant under my feet. As I pissed I checked for blood.
My eyes roamed the room again. Better than my chambers, a single room without windows down in the depths of the palace. Cold in the winter and baking in the summer. The air brown and thick; you could scoop up handfuls and watch it melt off your palms. Filled with the ancient records of the Purse and my own few possessions. Men had died in those chambers. Men had acquired nagging, persistent coughs that never went away in those chambers. Every night I managed to spend in Arrise’s bed, I was extending my own life.
“You piss like some sort of Ahkmale Chieftain, hands on your hips like a warrior.”
I brought my practiced smile to my face, but did not turn to show it to her. You had to commit to the role. “Do you make a habit of watching men relieve themselves?”
“Young, virile men, yes,” she said. “As often as I can.”
Finished, I turned my smile on the Lady Arrise. She had once been a beautiful girl, bartered and bargained for by her husband’s family. Mertan Hals, eventual Lord of BarJef, had been proud to have such a beautiful young bride, ten years his junior, ripening while he sowed his wild oats. She ripened, he soured. When they married, he was already a scarred thirty, mean and muscled. She gave him three sons in four years, and stopped speaking to him. Three sons, he no longer cared.
Mertan Hals. As I stood there, naked, studying his plump, slightly-too-hairy wife, I pictured My Lord BarJef. Six foot three, wide in the shoulders, legs like oak trees. Black hair going white hanging in his face, black and white beard and mustache foul and uneven. Too much a Heran to groom. I had seen him once toss his nicked and stained battle ax into the air and catch it casually, amusing himself. A battle ax that gave every impression of being welded to the floor via some ancient Toven spell when I tried to lift it.
Mertan Hals de Jef would certainly kill me if he discovered I had touched his wife. There would be a fight, certainly. I would defend myself. And then he would kill me. In the ancient Heran style, by beating me to death after first cutting off my arms. Possibly with my own dismembered arms. Though this perhaps granted Mertan Hals, Lord of BarJef, too much credit for wit.
And he would be within his rights. He would be congratulated. He would be within his rights to cut off my head and store it in brine for the journey back to BarJef, to adorn a spike on his gates. And if I escaped him, if I scampered free and fled, I would be arrested. And convicted. And executed, my old friend Lekum frowning down at me as he raised his huge two-handed sword, a thousand years old. A frown, but no hesitation: Lekum Harrows was High Executioner, and he would cut off my head if his King ordered him to. If I were guilty of adultery. If I ran away from a fight.
Thinking this, I grinned at Arrise as if she were the love of my life.
Making love to Arrise was not a chore; she was considerably handsome and she was gentle and encouraging. With the crowd swelling outside, eager for the day’s murder to begin, with the day’s heat blowing in through her windows, with her imported Mistean sheets stiff and stained from our previous exertions, with my own body bruised and depleted, it was not easy, either. I imagined a girl I had seen the previous day, cleaning rooms in the palace. Fair, busty, young. I imagined her bouncing on my prick with a look of ecstatic joy that was the exact opposite of the expression of pained disappointment she would more realistically have, if previous research had been any indication.
I became aware of the mechanical nature of my own body. Hours every day in the training yards of Salan. Hot, dry pens filled with sweat-shiny giants and wooden swords, free to any citizen who wished to practice. The words of my brother Arase, when I left father’s house outside BarWil for a career in Salan: You’re small, you have elegant manners, you read too much and you studied in Burgan. No one will respect you unless you make them bleed.
Muscles bunched and relaxed. Tendons taut. I felt, for a moment, powerful and content. I was in charge of myself. The king of my physical domain. My body was a smooth clockwork. I pulled levers and the mechanism reacted accordingly. I let my mind wander as I worked Arrise over; I knew her now. What she liked, how she reacted. It was easy. I watched from a near distance. Distracted and detached as I grew less interested, I became a better lover. Disinterest translated to stamina, translated to a clinical application of technique.
The less I liked Arrise, the more she liked me. This had always been my experience.
Full circle. I was lying on the bed again, looking up at the ceiling. She dozed next to me, not snoring. Yet. The hot air poured in and I was sweating. The crowd had swelled. I could hear the piercing shouts of the meat-sellers and water Gougers, offering up sips of stagnant water for copper pennies. I sat up on my elbows and ran my eyes over the disdained, ignored opulence of the room.
The less I liked Arrise, the more I wanted her rooms. The more I wanted her wealth.
Swinging my legs back onto the cool stone, I sat for a moment, contemplating my duties. King Harrith’s Purse was serviced by twenty-seven Crown Clerks. I was twenty-sixth in order of seniority. The First Clerk of the Purse was seventy-four years old. He had been First Clerk for six months now.
Clerks. I snorted, listening to the crowd baking in its bloodlust outside. The Conquest, the cherished, eternal Heran Conquest, had been stalled for a very long time. In that time we had managed to take on the driest, least interesting aspects of civilized life – the pulp, while disdaining the juice. We had stolen the great stone buildings of the Burgans, but lived in them as if they were the wooden feast halls of our forebears. We had borrowed an alphabet and used it to sign Execution orders. We had conquered a ready-made kingdom from the Burgans, and we had used it to create … clerks. The word itself was a borrowing from Burgan. The Herans had no such word.
I looked up at the doorway. Standing there, filling it impressively, was Mertan Hals. My Lord BarJef.
He was fresh from his horse. Sweating, dirty, in ceremonial armor with his city crest emblazoned on the breastplate. Light, useless armor; it looked fine in parade but was not very useful in a battle, but then my Lord de Jef had been hunting in fine company, his business here in Salan complete. No need for the heavy plate, oiled and blackened. He did, however, have the plain longsword with the flat black hilt and grip, carried almost absently in one hand.
He just stared.
When the Burgans painted horrific masterpieces depicting their barbarian neighbors, their partial conquerers, the Herans, they likely painted men who resembled my Lord de Jef. Tall and broad, he stood with an unmovable gravity, as if formed from the bones of the palace itself. Behind his long black and white hair and beard, unkempt and randomly tied into braids, the skin of his face was blistered from the sun and puckered by dozens of scars. A thick rope of scar crossed his forehead almost perfectly between his nose and hairline. His green eyes were clear and fixed on me. His nose flared slightly with each breath.
I was naked. His wife slept fitfully next to me. I had no weapon with me. My clothes were strewn about the apartment. And this mountain of a man, this golem of stone and sinew, was within his rights to kill me. Even if I might summon help, no one would actually intervene. Lekum himself, whom I’d known since I was a boy, would have stood by and let my Lord de Jef slice me up.
We stared at each other. There was some sort of invisible thread between us. While it existed, I lived. The second it was snapped, I would be dead. Knowing this, I sat as still as I could. I hoped that perhaps his vision was based on movement. If I remained perfectly still, he would stand there smelling me, smelling his wife on me, but unable to see me. Assuming he could smell me over himself, which was a stretch of imagination. My Lord de Jef did not favor the baths.
He blinked. “Who are you?”
His voice was gravel. I licked my lips, brain racing through the possible responses. I was a clever man. Nothing clever came to mind.
“My name is Amin Dimser de Wil,” I said.
He continued to stare at me. Next to me, Arrise had begun snoring again.
“de Wil,” he sing-songed. “Dimser de Wil.” He blinked and cocked his head slightly. “The clerk?”
Now he was insulted as well as offended. A clerk, fucking his wife.
“Dimser, of Willem’s City,” he said in that same quiet voice. The sword, heavy and huge, came up. “I will kill you here, Amin Dimser de Wil, and then I will kill your family.”
I thought of Arase, my father’s bastard. As large as my Lord de Jef, and, I thought, likely better with the blades. I managed a half smile. “That will not be easy, my Lord,” I said. My own execution, yes. Arase, no.
I considered the wisdom of obeying this command. Since Hals no doubt simply wished to have a more convenient angle to strike off my head, I decided my longest life flowed down the path of resistance. A miserable few seconds gained, perhaps, seconds filled with anxiety and horror, but seconds of my life nonetheless, and I was jealous of them.
We stared at each other again. Then he came for me.
Hals was a warrior. He had distinguished himself in King Harrith’s raids against the Ahkmale tribes. He moved fast, belying his size and the weight of his armor – ceremonial, but heavy nonetheless – and the huge sword with the strength and agility of a man who was used to heavier, and moving under much worse circumstances. He launched himself at the bed, swinging the huge sword – a sword he had no doubt named, something sinister and horrifying – in a quick, concise arc aimed at my neck.
I ducked and rolled, feeling the passing of the blade inches above me as I smacked into the floor. I rolled again immediately onto my back as the blade crashed into the floor, shattering the ancient tile. He swept it up at a shallow angle, trying to catch my side, but I rolled again, twice more, and pushed myself onto my feet just as he arrived, heavy blade in both hands, aimed somehow perfectly for my throat in a killing thrust. A man trained to slide this blade between plates of armor.
I ducked and the blade sliced the air above me. I pushed myself into his belly, trying to knock him off balance. This was like trying to knock a tree off balance. For a ridiculous moment, I strained against him. The blade was too long for him to bring it against me while I was inside his perimeter. If I’d had a blade of any kind, I could have slid it up into his armpit, or his groin. Killing moves. A big man who had forgotten himself in a rage, and I could have punished him.
But I had nothing.
On the bed, Arrise had begun to scream.
That would do her no good, of course. The crowd noise outside would hide the sound of our struggle from the grounds, and there would be few left in this area of the palace anyway. I wondered, briefly, if she was truly alarmed for me, or for her husband, or if perhaps this was the groundwork for her to claim I had raped her. Crept into their apartments while Hals was away, forced myself on her, again and again, leering and jeering.
Hals roared and took hold of my hair, tearing me from him. Too hard; I stumbled backwards and his one-handed swing of the sword missed my belly by an inch, slicing the air I’d just staggered through. I let my momentum carry me until I crashed into the wall. The heat of Salan pressed against my back through the windows. I swept my eyes around the room again. It was the Lady’s room, no weapons in sight. My needle, long and thin, somewhere, buried under the careless toss of my clothes. Unsuitable against his long blade, at any rate. Better than nothing – if I could remember where I’d laid it drunkenly the night before. Arrise was a Heran Lady, certainly she had knives hidden away – but where?
Hals feinted at me, a quick dart forward, trying to flush me. He wanted my back to him, fleeing. I twitched, stopped myself from breaking, and he straightened, eyes burning.
“I am going to cut off your prick, little man,” he said, not even out of breath. “And place it in your mouth. For daring to touch my wife.”
I kept my eyes moving. It would be rape, then. He had already decided. However he punished Arrise, he would not kill her, the mother of his children, his heirs. Her punishment would be private, hidden.
My eyes landed on the huge mirror. Arrise’ ridiculous Pharsian piece, cloudy yellow glass and the black frame. Large enough for a woman to stand in front of and see her entire body reflected back. To see how dresses hung on her, to see how jewelry caught the light.
I thought, a man might repeat his mistakes. Certainly, I repeated my mistakes constantly.
I looked back at Hals. For a moment, we both tensed and vibrated, searching the other for clues. I forced myself to hold back. I leaned left and then snatched myself back, watching him jerk one leg before catching himself. He looked like a monster. Some sort of half-human, half-bear, his hair hanging in his face, his even, steady breathing whistling in his nose. Like something from ancient legend, when the Toven wizards still cast spells for their Burgan Emperors.
I stepped right, leaning, and then wrenched something in my back leaping left. He took the bait and stumbled in the wrong direction, catching himself too late, his bulk carrying him one more half step in the wrong direction as I sprinted past him. Sweating. Panting. A hundred pounds lighter but somehow in worse shape, despite my hours in the yards every day. I did not fight in armor. I fought the Thieves Way, with needle and speed. When I had imagined myself in duels – and I had imagined it often – I was always able to prepare, I was always armed. I was always wearing trousers. Somehow this exact scenario had never occurred to me.
I snatched up the too-narrow chair from Arrise’ desk and carried it with me. I could not stop, could not slow down; my feint had gotten me past Hals, but he was right behind me, his reflexes battle-hardened and impossible. If I rolled an ankle, stumbled, my head would be off instantly. I had heard that heads blinked and worked their mouths and tongue for some seconds after being separated from the body. That men lived a few moments after beheadings.
Even those seconds, I would be jealous of.
I leaped the last foot and swung the chair, smashing it into the mirror. Glass shattered everywhere, chips of polished wood. I dropped down to my knees, shards of glass sinking into the flesh, and plucked a long, jagged piece from the floor the way I scooped up sand from the ground when some mutant was beating me senseless in the Yards. It sliced into my palm as I closed my hand around it. I didn’t feel any pain. I could hear Hals, a step behind me. I heard him suck in breath. Heard the creak of his armor as he swung the sword up, elbows cocked. He thought I’d given up. Thought I was kneeling in defeat.
I heard him grunt as he put his weight forward, dragging the heavy sword through the air.
I ducked and spun. As before, I slipped under the blade and hugged myself to him. The smell of him, leather and metal oil and horses, filled my nostrils. Using the shard of glass as a dagger, I thrust up and forward, pushing it dripping with my own blood into the dark, exposed shadow of his armpit. Into his beating heart.
He grunted again.
Leaving the shard embedded in him, I scrabbled backward on my ass. I left a trail of blood like slime behind me.
Mertan Hals stood for a moment, arms loose at his sides, head bowed. The huge sword slipped from his hand and crashed to the floor. He leaned his head to one side, as if considering something, perplexed.
Arrise began screaming again.
I thought, that’s the Thieves’ Way.
My Lord BarJef sank to his knees. His head lolled backwards and then pulled the rest of him after it, and he slumped awkwardly backwards and to the side, his legs trapped under his body. A black pool of blood slowly spread from under him. I sat breathing hard for a moment. My hands and feet suddenly throbbed with pain, deep slashes burning.
Arrise had stopped screaming. She was breathing in quick, squeaky little gasps.
I climbed to my feet. I stepped over to Hals. His eyes were open, staring. He had a troubled expression on his face. He had died confused.
I knelt again and found another shard of the proper shape and length. Took it in my other hand, more gingerly. Stepped over to the bed, where Arrise tracked my movements the way she might track a large black beetle making its way towards her dinner, bustling and serious. She was pushed up against the wall, her breasts exposed, her eyes wide.
I nodded. Took hold of the sheets and wrapped them thickly and awkwardly around the glass until I could grasp it without cutting my other hand to shreds.
I was guilty of adultery. I had killed Hals cleanly, but I would face the High Executioner anyway for dishonoring his marriage. I stood for a moment, looking at Arrise. She stared back at me blankly, still in shock.
Still unaware that I had no choice but to kill her too.
Outside, the crowd cheered as the first prisoners were led up onto the platform. We were not a civilized people.
I nodded again and leaned towards her. My arms felt leaden. My wounds burned. I was still naked, covered in blood. My skin burned, as if I were being boiled invisibly. A million stings. When I touched her, closing my ruined hand over her shoulder, she finally startled. Tried to jerk away, her face collapsing into sudden, terrible understanding.
Then her eyes flicked to focus over my shoulder. A second before the blade fell, I smelled it.
The year before, at the Revels called for King Harrith’s fifty-second birthday – a slightly awkward and embarrassed affair, as he was only the third Heran King to live past fifty, most of the rest having had the good grace to die in battle – Saken Estlade brought a cat back to life. It was an old Tom that had haunted the palace cupboards for years. One of those imperious cats who simply walked in from the square one day, sat on a barrel of salted pork as if he owned the kitchens and waited patiently until one of the cooks fed him a small sardine and a bit of milk. We all knew the cat, missing one eye, his tail an angry stump, but soft to the touch and equal parts friendly and grouchy.
Even I, the blackhearted Amin Dimser, had to confess to a moment of grief when the old thing was found peacefully dead on the scrap of burlap he used as a bed some nights.
Estlade had brought the cat in with great ceremony. Laid on a red silk pillow, surrounded by candles. And the dried-up old wizard had read from a copy of the ancient Toven grimoire they had locked up in the palace libraries. A language no one knew; not Burgan, certainly, a language I was fluent in. Similar, in some ways, but different wholly in vocabulary and pronunciation. Our feeble Magician’s Council had been in existence ever since the bloodthirsty Ricca Ur Marrist had claimed Salan from the Burgan Empire so long ago, blood dripping from his beard. The First King had dreamed of mastering the old Toven magic and using it to aid our Eternal Conquest. He had bloody visions of Heran warriors marching with thunderbolts and fireballs to aid them. In all that time, all those years, the Magician’s Council had not gotten very far. It was all they could do to recite one of the few spells they had on paper, left over after the Toven had disappeared, and even then the results were not always what they anticipated.
Thunderbolts were still out of reach.
The cat, coming back to life. It had growled and twitched as Estlade spoke. It had flopped itself around. The hall stood transfixed. As Estlade recited, his old brittle voice growing thinner and shakier, the Old Tom had finally struggled up to its feet and looked around, eyes almost closed, and yowled at us. Licked its lips. Yowled again.
And a graveyard smell filled the air. A stench of sulfur and earth, damp stone and yellowing bones.
Estlade had paused to gasp for air. When he stopped speaking, the old Tom had collapsed again. Dead, again. The smell vanished with Old Tom’s life. But I remembered it well.
I dropped flat on top of Arrise, smothering her as the two-handed blade smashed the ornate wooden headboard, shattering it into splinters that rained down onto my sweaty back.
The recently deceased Mertan Hals de Jef bellowed an insensible roar, and the massive blade wrenched free, scattering more splinters. I pushed off from Arrise, jamming my hands into her soft belly and throwing myself into a roll. Off the bed, onto the floor, and I found my feet and spun just in time to dance back from another thunderous swing of that fucking sword.
Hals was … dead. Black blood still dripped from his side. His skin was white, marbled with blue veins. His eyes had rolled up into his head, leaving them bloody orbs without pupils. The mouth was curved in an idiot’s grin, loose and slobbery. The dead man leaped forward, blade cocked in the air again, and this time, when I ducked to slide under his slash, the slash instead was there waiting for me.
I jerked away from it with primitive instinct and managed to take the flat of the blade on my shoulder. An improvement over taking the edge deep into my side, which was my other choice. My teeth rattled and I flew sideways, arm going numb under the impact. Bones re-arranging themselves, I fell until the wall stopped me.
I lay for a moment with my back to the wall, just under the bank of windows, which spilled in the noise and heat. My head buzzed with a silent noise. I wanted to tell my Lord BarJef that this had been an enjoyable lark, but now I must rest. And the floor seemed a wonderful place to rest. A moment only, and then we could resume our larking.
The corpse came at me like a boulder rolling downhill. Blank eyes and lolling mouth, the two-handed blade was aimed unerringly at my chest, set to pin me to the wall. I noted this academically. Oh, now Mertan Hals will pin me naked to the wall with his drastically oversized sword.
It was funny, and I began to laugh.
He came, the boulder, with the pointy end aimed at me, and I watched with amused detachment, trying to name the tune the buzzing had begun to resemble in my head. Just as the pointy end was about to resolve this conundrum for me, Arrise crashed, screeching, into the animated corpse of her husband and sending him off course.
This was unexpected. The stupid cow was trying to save me from him.
I watched them for a moment. Hals danced about, roaring, while Arrise perched on top of him, clawing and slapping at his face. He tried to reach up to drag her from him, but his impressive arms were too thick for such subtlety, and his armor limited his movements. In battle, if someone managed to climb on top of you and ride you like a showhorse, chances were high you were dead anyway.
Alarm began to nibble at the edges of my cloudy brain. I blinked rapidly, drawing in breath as the world rushed back towards me, as if I’d been drifting away on an invisible current, now reversed by mysterious valve. When he righted himself and lurched back in my direction, Arrise pecking at him, fear finally crashed through the thick noise in my head and I threw myself flat at his legs. He lost his footing and crashed forward uncontrollably. Arrise screamed. I landed on my hands and knees and for one second, one breath, I stared down at the old, worn-smooth tile of the room, feeling the cuts and scrapes on my naked body burning.
Then a calloused hand caught hold of my hair and yanked me backwards. The room tilted. Pain exploded from the roots into my eyes, my jaw. My legs kicked and my arms thrashed. The ceiling in my eyes again as I reach up and grabbed hold of Hals’ thick wrist, cold and slimy, and then everything spun and gravity grabbed hold of my stomach and I was tilting out the window, pulled down by the corpse of Mertan Hals, which kicked and growled beneath me. Just as the sill went rushing by – the hot air closing in around me, a ringing gasp from the crowd below – a small hand shot out and caught me by the forearm. I jerked to a halt and slapped into the rough stone of the palace’s exterior. Hals’ hand slipped out of my tortured hair but caught my ankle.
Above me, Arrise’s pale moon of a face. She wore an amazed expression.
She leaned away from the window, bracing herself, every bit of her strength poured into holding me – and by extension, Hals. I wondered, for a moment, at this incredible stupidity. This did not reflect well on me, on my taste in women.
“Amin!” she shouted.
“Hold on!” I managed to gasp back. I’d lost all faith in her brains, and thought shouting simple instructions was my best tack.
I looked down past my bleeding, naked body. Hals swung from his grip on my ankle. His face was pointed up at me, empty eyes and greasy hair. His weight was excruciating, pain slicing up from my hip into my back.
Past him, the mob. A ripple of faces, white and dark, round and sharp, turning to stare up at us. Impatient, hot and tired from waiting for the Executions to begin, here was a freak show. A corpse hanging onto a naked man, all of us dangling from a window in the palace.
I stared down at myself. Dangling was a good word.
Gathering myself, I kicked down at Hals. I thought shaking a dead man loose must be within my thin spread of talents. I did not think that a fall would have much affect on a man already dead, resurrected by magic beyond what any Heran had ever seen, but it would improve my chances of not dying.
“Amin!” Arrise said desperately. “I cannot – ”
I kicked at Hals’ hand on my ankle. We’d started to swing slightly, and the mob below tracked our arc with a steady hum, increasing in pitch as we sailed left, decreasing as we sailed right. Wooooo — aaaaaaaah. Again and again. Enjoying themselves. Hals’ open-mouthed grin, cold drool drying to white specks at the corners of his lips, made me feel like he knew how this was going to end, and found it hilarious.
The smell of rot and dirt was still in my nostrils. Whoever was casting this spell was still at it. Remembering Estlade’s Old Tom, I thought it likely the spell had to be continuously spoken to maintain the effect.
I kicked again, risking Arrise’s grip on me with a savage downward thrust. The crowd cooed in appreciation, and Hals lost his icy grip on my ankle. He grinned at me all the way down, flipping over onto his back. The crowd below him scattered as best they could, crashing into each other and cheering. He hit the stone of the palace square with an audible thud, bounced, and fell to rest. Eyes closed. Mouth slack.
The smell had vanished.
With the crowd cheering, I clawed at Arrise’s arm. She screamed and stumbled forward, almost pitching forward through the window and killing us both, but I managed to get my free hand on the rough stone of the sill, easing the weight she was trying to hold. Gasping, I pulled myself up, scraping my privates raw, and we both crashed onto the floor. The crowd chanted rude things, trying to coax me back out.
I lay for a moment, calculating. How long before the Marshals could penetrate the crowd to investigate the corpse, how long before they realized it was Hals, how long before they determined the window he had fallen from. How long before they came to arrest me.
Arrise crawled over to me and threw herself on top me, kissing my dirty, bleeding chest, calling me her Love. I paused in my grim calculations to lift my head and stare at her in disbelief.
When my heart had slowed, and my breathing was under control, I pushed myself up from her embrace. She continued to babble as I stooped to pick up Hals’ sword. Using both arms, I found it difficult to lift. The grip was warm in my hands. It scraped the stone with an irritating, dry sound as I dragged it back towards her.
“Yours,” she said, leaning her head back against the wall and closing her eyes. “A spoil of war.” She smiled. “Amin Dimser de Wil, slayer of the mighty Mertan Hals de Jef.”
She was proud of me. A good Heran woman, impressed solely by bloodshed and martial prowess. I stood over her and lifted the huge sword, studying the clean, white skin of her neck. I had committed crimes. I had no intention of being arrested for them.
She opened her eyes. I swung the blade. For a moment, a sliver of a second, she looked at me, and saw me. And was horrified.
As I gathered my clothing in the now too-silent room, I thought she had no right to be surprised. We were not a civilized people.