Out on the heath, Etyan felt the rain coming in his bones. He was old enough now that the sixth sense he once had considered a tall tale was deep and physically present. His bad leg had started to ache in time with the gray storm clouds, the primal current rising up out of the landscape and through his body. He was four score and five years even now by his best reckoning, and he felt that the end was coming up quicker than even he thought. This fall seemed darker and far more menacing than any of the eighty-five others that he had lived through, but the dark seemed less and less of threat as the days wore on. Instead, he felt a warm familiarity in his closeness to the grave. He supposed that he had come full circle as all men do; to come from the dark warmth of the womb to the warmth of the earth. He felt as weak now as he was when he was a babe, only having learned the wisdom and humility not to cry at the coming evening.
He hoped that he died before the frost came or in the spring when it had thawed away. He didn’t want them to have too hard of a time burying him.
So Etyan thought as he sat by the window, waiting for the storm to come in. The heath seemed hazy and dreamlike under his cataracts, the bright lights of homes in the bowers and bogs producing thin rainbows and halos of light. Dark shadow-men obscured them on occasion, chopping wood, speaking with neighbors, fixing the door broken by an excitable ram. It was quiet before the rain, even as people busied themselves with getting all their preparations in order.
Though his ears were not what they used to be, he could recognize the creaking in the floorboards of the house he helped build. He shifted carefully so as to not disturb his elf-shot joints, and saw the hazy image of his granddaughter. She was a mousy little thing wearing the jacket her mother had helped sow. She energetically came up to his side, kneeling by the window. Even with his decaying sight, he could feel her smiling and brimming with happiness.
“Hi, Pyepe,” she said as she grinned, “How are you today?”
“Oh, you know how I am. Well enough. You seem very well, though. What’s got my favorite granddaughter in such good spirits?”
She giggled softly.
“I’m your only granddaughter.”
He leaned down to meet her eyes, and grinned.
“Exactly. So, what’s gone on?”
“Well, I went to school today,” she said, “And we learned about all sorts of things. Mama said I had to go because today is important, because everyone is voting.”
“Oh,” he said happily, “And what did they tell you about this in school?”
“Well, first we practiced our letters and figures again,” she said, “But then the teacher told us about how a long time ago there was a revolution, and we got rid of the king and the nobles and now we vote for people and send them to the senate and things like that.”
“Mm-hm,” said Etyan, “It’s very good. I take it you like that?”
“Yes! But also-”
She seemed to hesitate for a moment.
“The teacher said that you were probably the only person around here who was alive before the Revolution. That you probably fought in it.”
Etyan nodded slowly, and leaned back in his chair. He didn’t show his sadness. It would spoil it for her – the excitement of freedom – to know the grief. He had watched all those that remembered go one by one. First, the old grizzled officers Byekhi and Noshya, who had come back here after the fighting to live out a safe retirement on the heath. Then, more and more were lost to the cruel hand of time. Soon, it was down to two of them left in the village: himself, and Tamya. And then, a few winters ago, Tamya went too into the clay, and he became the sole bearer of those years in the village.
“Indeed,” he said, “Indeed. I was there.”
Of course, his granddaughter knew little of that. She was young and free from the years that had slowly taken so much from him. Her eyes glowed with an awe that warmed him to his core.
“Down in Kallin,” he said, “I was in the thick of it there. It was where I met your grandmother.”
The little girl seemed dumbfounded by the statement.
“I didn’t do anything too important,” he added hastily, “I mostly helped get messages and orders around to the right people.”
“But you did fight?”
“And did you fight a noble? One of the vampires?”
He sighed, and smiled.
“Do you really want to hear of such things, granddaughter?”
She nodded happily.
“Alright then. Go fetch some firewood before it rains and get a fire going, and I will tell you as much as I can remember. But don’t expect it to be exciting.”
She bolted from the place by his side and out the door to do the chore. He sighed again, remembering those younger years. His sight had gone hazy with time but his mind was still more or less as keen as it was in those days. It hurt, the harsh memories, but he could sanitize them enough for the girl. She deserved to know what battles were fought for that happiness.
The first time Etyan saw one of the blooded ones, he was thirteen. The crowd was raucous and wild at their arrival – the true faithful having joined around the parade. Etyan avoided these crowds. He knew what they meant and what they were for. Still, his friends had dragged him here, saying that they had good drink and bread, and he hadn’t had either in too long.
The people were packed so tightly that he felt like a fish in a barrel. The sweating, heaving bodies of the wretched and the criminal all surrounded them. Propriety was long forgotten. Some stood nude amidst the crowd, others too drunk to stand, only suspended by the sheer mass of their fellows. Still, they gave space to the parade, a thin clear line through the street where the blooded one could ride.
Etyan had pushed and dodged his way to the front of the crowd just in time to see her. The sun beat down hot in the summer sky, and in front of her were five strong men bearing swords, to ward off any assailants that might emerge from the crowd. Between them were the criers, painted with ash and blue dye, singing her praises and passing out bread and wine to the crowd.
Then, at last, was the heavy palanquin. Four slaves too low to even feed upon sweated in the summer heat to carry her; four more at rest ready to take up the labour if there was need. The chair was veiled by fine silk and scarlet ropes, the air filled with the smell of incense and perfume as she approached. In the dark of the vehicle, Etyan could see her. A thin woman with dark eyes wearing a fine dress. She bore no consort, but held close to her chest was a small child – an infanta.
Etyan had lost track of his friend. Even if he found him, he felt transfixed by even a moment of her gaze. He was not faithful to the blooded ones – the hidden missionaries of the Sepulcher had done more for him by far – but now he understood better the faith of the masses. Somewhere in them there was a depth that he could not fathom. An eon or more lay somewhere beneath her eyes. He followed her at the edge of the crowd, thronging hands surrounding him and reaching out to her as she approached the square where the slaves set down the car and she emerged into the light of day. Her makeup made her seem ghostly white; a spot of red maudder on her left cheek, and blue woad on her right.
The crowd tried to go quiet as she prepared to speak, but the sheer mass of the squalor of Blackwood murmurs dissolved into a low roar. Still, her mere voice commanded respect. The blooded ones were rarely so merciful as this to the people of Blackwood. More often, Etyan heard them hunting, skimming through the darkened streets at night, searching for those without the proper paperwork or license to be there. He heard their clamor and calls, but had never seen one before in their terrible grandeur.
She spoke shortly.
“My worm has died,” she said, projecting her voice aloud, “And I require a new one to educate my daughter and provide for me. I ask now for a volunteer – a fit man of good intelligence. Come forward.”
The crowd erupted into chaos at once. Dozens came forward, regardless of how well they fit the criteria and it was only narrowly that Etyan avoided being trampled. The air filled with desire and wild abandon as he tried to fight against the press of flesh. He saw old men and beggars and lepers alike come to sit by the planquin before her guards; the one-eyed, the one-legged, the well-bodied alike. A woman held aloft her babe, begging for the blooded one to take it, begging to save him from the squalor here. Her bodyguards repelled the most unfit of the lot, pushing away the woman with a baby and the lepers. Soon, it was only fit men and boys alike at the front.
Etyan stood far back and observed. He’d no desire to be a worm.
The blooded one looked over her specimens coldly, from one to the next. Eventually, she came to one she seemed to like. He was a teenager by Etyan’s reckoning with fair hair and blue eyes. His clothes and face were dirtied by soot, but amidst the lot he was handsome and well-kept. He took him up from kneeling, caressed his face, and cocked her head in observation before nodding, and slowly taking him back to her palanquin. The crowd went truly silent now, seeing one of their own being taken by the blooded one. Only murmurs spread where there was once ardor, and the palanquin proceeded back up towards the
Etyan looked at the bread that he had taken from one of them, and gave it to another man, a pit of disgust growing in his chest alongside his hunger.
“So that was when you knew you wanted to do it?”
“Yes,” said Etyan as his granddaughter stacked the wood in the fireplace, and lit a match for them, “I thought that I could have gone in his place. That I could have wanted to go in his place, and that they had arranged all that squalor for their benefit.”
The girl went quiet in contemplation of that fact.
“That’s the problem when the man at the top is not accountable to the man at the bottom. That’s why things are better now. It’s a tragedy that such things happened, though.”
The murmurs of revolution grew like a tree through Blackwood, taking root in the poorhouses and secret churches, and branching through the streets and bars and even down to the beggars. The air filled with invisible tension as the plans became more and more certain, and eventually it found its way to Etyan. He had heard that there were men planning in a bar down near to the riverside, and so he went to them there. He was old enough now, fifteen and ready to fight.
It was a sooty, ashen place when he walked in. The dark air seemed as full of the stuff as a chimney. It was packed as a barrel of fish, faces glowing under the whale-light. What perhaps surprised Etyan most was the types of people there. It seemed that most every kind of person had gathered there. Fishermen, lamplighters, whalers, and chimney-sweeps; plumbers, beggars, prostitutes and porters; rat-catchers, common criminals and even a priest of the Sepulcher all could be counted among their number. He wore a silver heptagram about his neck, standing at the door and silently blessing those that passed with safety and protection. They had gathered around just a few people – a man who was surprisingly well-dressed. He had an almost military look to him, burnished buttons and a saber at his side. Next to him was a short woman with a listless, drunken grin, and a bulky man wearing a heavy black long-coat and a wide-brimmed hat.
“Friends,” said the well-dressed man, “For you all are my friends today, for being so brave as to come here.”
He paused for effect, taking the opportunity to drink.
“We have gathered to begin a great project. For too long, the Kolet people have suffered at the hands of great cruelty on behalf of the monsters in the nobility. Too long have we waited for their grand ambitions of a better world to come to fruition.”
He spoke well – as if he was well-educated. His voice seemed to hypnotize the crowd.
“We have been told our determination is not in our own best interest. I say that it is, and with no recourse to that interest, a common revolt must begin. We must overthrow the government here in Kallin, and then in the rest of the nation. My compatriots across the land agree.”
There was a murmur among the crowd. Excitement. Agreement. Etyan felt it somewhere in his chest, hearing his hypnotic voice.
“Most of you here are already familiarized with our plans, our odds, our goals. Let me explain to those new. We are surrounded. We are not outmanned or outgunned. There are enough men sympathetic to the cause here in Kallin to make even the great army tremble. As for arms…”
The man in the black coat spoke up.
“We’ve procured a shipment of reliable guns, powder and good blades too. Difficult to smuggle in, but we have them now.”
“Our first objective is to turn Blackwood into a fortress,” added the well-dressed man, “Starting tomorrow, we construct barricades under the cover of night. We seal the streets from their attacks with furniture and bricks, and shoot them as they come. We will make any attack so costly that we can afford to take ground. Soldiering is one thing, but you lot will need to do the engineering of combat. You don’t need to lift a sword to do our cause good. All you able-bodied and experienced with building, stand up, and move to the left of the room.”
Slowly, the builders, the carpenters and their kin shuffled to the left.
“Your work begins at the strike of sunset tomorrow. You, men who have hunted or know to fight, stand to the right.”
And so they went, slowly regimenting the fifty workers present. They whispered with excitement, with bloodlust, powderlust; the great sparking bawdiness that came with cheap brandy and beer. Etyan himself could already imagine it, the gun in his hands, aiming through a slit in the wall, waiting to look his enemy in the eye. The fishermen and merchants were assigned to aiding with supplies and provisions for the fighters; the low-down criminals, the pit fighters and the hunters were to be their rank and file. Some spoke of how there were eight more regiments of them organizing right now across the city.
At last, most of the people had been divided, with only a people left free of work to do for the crusade. The well-dressed man looked about the room before calling Etyan and three others over. One was a slight woman with a broad nose and the other a short but sly-looking man.
“Alright. You three are committed fellows, aren’t you?”
They all nodded.
“We need people to run between the barricades, to get messages from one group of forces to the next. You need to know the streets, be quick with them, and be able to run as quickly as you can between them. Can you three do that?”
Etyan was eager.
“Yes, sir! Quickest there is this side of the Teper.”
The man smiled.
“That’s what I like to hear. You can take the run between the riverside and the southeast barricade. You’ll be carrying between me, and Chera there.”
He gestured to the man in the longcoat. He looked around with trepidation.
“Are you sure you’re up to it? You’re a young lad.”
Etyan nodded in determination.
“Good luck,” he said, “And the Godhead’s blessing to your feet.”
His granddaughter had kindled the fire well, warming her hands by it as the rain came in.
“How did so many people change their minds so quickly about the nobles?”
“They didn’t and they did,” said Etyan gently, “They were afraid and sad and lost, most of all in Blackwood. They were mostly criminals and poor folks who couldn’t afford a better life. When revolution became an alternative, when the Sepulcher became an alternative – they jumped for it. Just as much as they did to become worms.”
The second time Etyan saw one of the blooded ones, he was running.
The danger was everywhere and nowhere; the air filled with the scent of sulfur, burning bodies of the lesser blooded, the distant battle-cry, the war in the city. Hunger pangs struck Etyan’s belly hard as his feet struck the ground. He ran with all the fury of the old legends and the new ones – the way Gyeshi ran from the gods when he stole the fire down, and the way the false priests ran from the temples. The city became a blur beneath his feet, passing the old temple which had been defaced and covered with new heptagrams in honor of the new order of things.
There was no time for sight-seeing. The guards had pulled back their siege of the riverside at the last possible minute, sending what must have been half their men to their weakest side. If he got there in time, they would have time to prepare, and they might not be caught in their sleep.
With his lantern as his sole guide and aid, he rain through the night, pulling his whistle to give three shrill alarms as he ran – the signal for an attack, to rouse the men from their slumber and take up arms.
The whistle echoed down the street as he ran, before he gave it again. Soon after, he heard the barricade ahead of him spring to life, yelling and then screaming. Gunfire erupted in the dark as he turned the corner to see the barricade. Between the flashes of ethereal sulfur-light and the dim lanterns, he first thought that he saw some kind of exotic beast of war mounted on the barricade, a claw deep inside the chest of a screaming man. A slight adjustment to his sight revealed the truth. He was a blooded one, having surmounted the battlement in full armor, a terror of muscle and metal that had abandoned armaments to rip apart his quarry with his bare hands. Another shot fired off that put his face in wild contrast, black eyes and dark hair flying through the night.
In the chaos, Etyan could see the situation. He had been moments too late. Too many had already fallen, holes blasted clean through the barricade, men dying where they lay. He backed away, step by step. They would have to retreat to the next barricade.
It was on his third step that the street exploded.
Etyan would later learn that they had kept a small cache of powder under the street at that barricade, which might have been reasonable if it were not for the fact that it also had a nearby sewer main, where the night soil had grown ripe for an explosion. Furthermore, the nobility had worked for years on making better cannonballs, ones that could be more destructive than even a hot shot – and had invented a bombard for the purpose of throwing bombs in that manner.
Altogether, the entire road was struck by a great tumult and conflagration. His ears popped in the chaos, battered by the explosion, before his vision went black.
When he came too – minutes later, or perhaps hours – his ear was still ringing. Soot and ash blinded him, and he could not bring his limbs to move. He felt very little pain – less than he expected. It felt quiet, or perhaps his ear had just burst and he could not hear anything.
He waited for a long time like that, trying to regain his senses in the confusion. Eventually, he found his way to sight. He had fallen into the sewer. He could tell as much from the foul scent in the air and the way the buildings towered that much further above him. They had been careful to wall off parts of the sewer in preparation for the siege. Now, the way was open.
He let his head fall to his left. He was surrounded by corpses – the sole survivor, as far as he could tell. He lifted his head just enough to see down the way where the barricade once was, the collapsed heap of burning rubble and the remnants of a tenement having collapsed beneath the street. Through the dust, he saw the blooded one, still living. He struggled, but his body was a wreck. His body had been twisted and broken in the blast; his head split open the fragments of his skull still connected by his scalp to reveal his brain in a grotesque imitation of the maw of an octopus.
He was out for the count for at least a week. That was a comfort.
Someone else groaned in the distance, the sound seeming watery and ephemeral in the ringing, pounding noise that dominated Etyan’s eardrums.
In the shadows, he saw them. The dark shadow of a man creeping up from the rubble, so tall and imposing from his position on the ground that he seemed a giant. He staggered through the dust, around the corpses as the other survivor rose.
The shadow grabbed him by the neck, and slammed him to the floor. There was a gurgling scream as he kicked him and then rearranged him so his teeth faced the floor.
Etyan knew he couldn’t do anything. He let himself go limp as the corpses, watching as the shadow brought his boot down on the survivor’s skull. He wasn’t one of their men. He staggered forward through the sewer, his ashen face grimly marching towards the next battlement. He moved quietly, realizing that he could not easily return to the road, instead slowly turning towards the sewer.
The body not far from him groaned and cried out in pain. He watched the grim shadow approach, and Etyan went deathly still. He did not even move his eyes as the monarchist grabbed the man. He was near to death already – his arm had been shredded by shrapnel from the blast – and it seemed the shadow was determined to finish the job. He knelt down with a broken knife in hand, the blade shattered but still sharp, and slit his throat quickly, as if he was slaughtering a pig. The blood that came out was so dark that it was hard to tell from the ash.
When he was satisfied that the job was done, he turned around, and began to walk away. And finally, Etyan exhaled the terror from his lungs. He watched as the monarchist started to find a way through the sewers, and a new terror took him. He still had his patches on, and by Etyan’s reckoning he was no ordinary soldier. He was a scout. If he was given the chance, he’d give away so many positions and movements that they could lose another inch, another block, and then with it the whole of the city.
Silent as the night itself, Etyan drew himself up, his muscles aching but determined. He did not let himself pant with the pain. He observed in the half-light, carefully reaching for his own knife, undamaged and shining like a beacon in the dark.
He walked carefully. Quietly. He could not look down at the fallen, for fear of his stomach turning and making him falter. He could not look up at the sky, for fear that the stars would make him afraid of his fate.
Etyan slid the knife between the man’s ribs, but he did not have his expertise. He cried out and whirled around, but Etyan batted the knife from his hands and was silent as he stabbed him again and again, until he lost track of himself, of time. The memory went hazy here, but remembered the man’s wild eyes, how they changed from fury to sadness to nothing at all as he staggered away with bloody hands, one of two survivors.
He did not sleep that night. He wailed and mourned, though he could not say why.
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
“Yes,” said Etyan quietly, “I never saw his face. I just shot at him, and he was gone. It was not a pretty thing, to turn brother against brother. Most of us on either side were human beings, and it was merely greed, impudence and lies that kept us from being on the same side. That was the other great tragedy of the revolution.”
The tide turned, but it turned slowly. After what felt like a decade of fighting in Blackwood it took two weeks of pitched combat to establish a foothold on the other side of the river. It seemed that every inch of the bridge would be paid for in blood, and when the sun set Etyan swore he could see the Teper glow with the spilt ichor.
His talents, of course, laid in different places from the front. He was the runner-boy of Blackwood; the swift-footed messenger that had earned much of the admiration of the petty commanders that had taken the streets back from the nobility. When he was not needed for that duty, they sent him out to scout in the byways and alleys, to search for the faithful revolutionaries, to spread pamphlets and propaganda, to reach vantage points where he could spy the enemy.
The far side of the river seemed to have more wealth and health than any other place he had seen in his life. The streets were not paved with gold, no, but they seemed almost impeccably clean compared to those of Blackwood. The buildings had actually been properly planned and ordered, not left to grow in a chaotic mess.
It was on one of these outings to deliver pamphlets that he saw a group of revolutionaries trying to breach a door out on the street. They wore their patches proudly – the gold, white and red tricolor adorning their shoulders. He looked at them curiously.
“What’s all this?”
The men all looked at him guiltily. Even the fat one who was trying to kick down the door seemed to stop and give him a sidelong glance.
“Well,” said one, “We were just trying to – we heard that this-”
“You are aware that we are not to be looting, correct?”
Etyan brushed the rough teenaged stubble that had grown on his chin as he judged them all.
“It used to belong to a noble,” said the fat one, “And we thought there might be supplies.”
“Good wine,” added another, “You know, to keep the morale up.”
“Honestly?” Asked Etyan, watching their faces carefully.
“Honestly,” said the fat one, “We’re sure that it belonged to a noble who fled.”
Etyan rolled his eyes and smiled.
“Alright. But let me in on the score, alright?”
The fat one laughed, and with one last mighty kick, the door slammed in, the lock broken. The inside of the home was soft, palatial; white-painted walls and well-carved chairs. The air felt thick with some forgotten perfume, and Etyan gasped at the sheer luxury of it all. He knew that he could not have afforded to make enough money for even a single one of the precious things in the home. It was as if he had walked into the vault that contained the wealth of a small nation. He breathed it in as the three soldiers spread out and immediately began to pry off whatever they could carry. They took fine liquors from the shelves, and the books, and then if they could manage it they took the chairs and shelves themselves.
He wandered for a while down the palatial halls, observing an oil portrait of the noble who once lived there. He was a dark-haired rake of a man, a sly smile captured by the painter’s hand. Etyan continued along the hall until he smelled something odd. It was faint, sickly sweet, but distinct.
He followed his nose until he came to the stairwell. He produced a long match, and descended into the depths of the basement. It was unconscionably dark there, and the rotten sick scent was even worse. He fumbled about until he found a lamp, and he managed to light it properly.
He nearly screamed when he saw the whole of the basement. It was no mere root cellar – it was a slaughterhouse. Bodies hung from the hooks, the sick scent of their rot filling the air. They had been hollowed like the carcasses of cattle, but they were unmistakably those of human beings. Four, or maybe more if his eyes did not deceive him, all hanging from the hooks and butchered.
And then he saw her, at the back of it. At first he thought her dead before he saw her shallow breath. She was bruised, half-naked, with a brand on her shoulder – the same brand on the back of one of the butchered bodies. A line of charcoal ran about her neck. The mark where she would be beheaded.
He rushed to her side and undid the gag he found around her mouth. At once, she tumbled into him ferociously and bit his finger, snarling like an animal, only held back by the ropes around her arms. He scrambled away on all fours. He held up his hands as she panted heavily and looked at him. Her matted hair parted enough to show her bright blue eyes, filled with fear and anger. Etyan could only manage a whisper.
“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not. I’m with the revolution.”
There was a moment of quiet as they both panted heavily. It occurred to Etyan then that they couldn’t have been much older than each other. He slowly reached for his knife, and when he unsheathed it she cringed and backed away. He didn’t move.
“I’m just going to cut you free,” he said, “I’m Etyan. What’s your name?”
She looked at him with a deep suspicion.
Her voice was so faint that it seemed like she was a ghost. Her skin was pale enough to match.
“Where are you from, Tamya?”
“Perasef,” she said quietly. Etyan nodded.
“They took you far from home. I’m sorry. I’m here to let you go free. I can take you to somewhere they can’t hurt you.”
She relaxed, and the bonds loosened as she did. She let him come close enough to cut the ropes. Etyan removed his coat and slid it over to her. She took it, used it to preserve her modesty, and she held it close to her for a moment, seeming to cherish it. She would later tell him how it was the first time in weeks she had felt properly warm. She moved suddenly, gracelessly, and embraced him, and having no idea what else to do, Etyan embraced her back.
“Wait, you met Byeba during the revolution?”
Etyan nodded and smiled fondly.
“Well, we were young and foolish then. We didn’t even know how much we really loved each other until a few years had passed of us being friends, and then we were still so foolish that it took me until I was nineteen to tell her.”
His granddaughter smiled, and his heart nearly broke in two. It had gone from Tamya, to his children, to her. He cleared his throat, and kept himself from crying in front of the girl.
“Now, where was I?”
It took three long months to finally cut the last of the cancer out of the mansions and estates on the far side of the Teper. The day of their trial, everyone seemed to be brimming with glee, Etyan included. They gathered around the new courthouse that had been made of the city hall. They awaited it, the sound of the bell. It had been proclaimed that each time the bell tolled, a guilty verdict had been made of the lot. The first came around midday, then the next not an hour later; and soon the bell was clamoring every few minutes, an echoing clamor that shook the crowd and made them yell with glee. Tamya sat in his arm, content to be his companion for the day. She had taken a shine to him, and she to her. They sat up on the balcony of one of the houses adjoining the square.
When the first prisoner came out of the house, the crowd roared with obscenities and boos. There was nothing but spite for that noble lady who had taken a worm from them not so long ago, stripped of her silks and finery. The men who would be her slaves carried her in chains, and then her husband, and then more and more of the noble family. The crowd screamed as she passed, spat on her. One woman gleefully ran up and ripped away part of her shirt before one of her jailors warded her away. Another threw a rock at her husband, hitting him square in the chest.
The last among them he also recognized. He was short, dark-haired, his head held high and aloof. The painter had truly captured his life in the canvas.
He snarled like an animal before the guard restrained him. So they dragged them, some defiant, some resigned, up to the gallows. One by one, the guards stripped them of even their prisoner’s clothes until they stood naked on the wooden platform where they once had hung peasants who defied them. Eight long ropes, and an agonizing wait as each was tested, the trap doors swinging open with fresh oil.
They were put into the nooses one by one, nude and gleaming with sweat in the august sun. The first to go was the husband. His executioner put him into the noose, whispered something into his ear, and dug a knife into his belly. Etyan didn’t flinch or look away.
Once satisfied with the length and shape of the slit, they finally let the man go down. The door slammed open with a shock that carried even to their distant balcony. His body split open with the force of gravity, the sudden shock of the noose breaking his neck, guts spilling down over his loins and onto the ground. For a moment, he seemed as any peasant would be.
Then, he began to choke, and wail, and writhe at his punishment. As much pain as he was in, he could not die.
The crowd roared.
So they went down the line, a row of writhing bodies, unnaturally sustained, still living, still trying to scream through broken and noosed throats.
They’d hang there and rot for five days before they staked them. Then, at last, the city was won.
The girl was asleep by the time he finished his stories, having fallen near to the embers into a deep slumber. Her mother came in, looking at him chidingly.
“Are you filling her head with war stories? You never told me any of them.”
“She asked,” said Etyan as his daughter slowly wrapped her daughter in a blanket, “You never did.”
“She’ll want to be a soldier now, you know.”
“Good,” said Etyan, “She’ll learn virtue in it. Or at least she’ll come to appreciate this land.”
The girl roused slightly as her mother picked her up. She was nearly ten now, almost old enough that she couldn’t be picked up, but her mother had the strong arms for it. She looked back at Etyan as her mother carried her away.
“Good night, Pyepe,” she said.
“Good night, Danza,” he said back.
Danza breathed in the salty sea air as she walked down the streets in Kallin. She remembered so much of the city from her grandfather that it felt surreal. She felt as if there ought to have been some inheritance of that knowledge, some blood memory, but there was none. Instead, there was raucous noise and happy couples walking hand and hand down the streets. It was so far from the city of war and squalor that she imagined as a child that she felt that the reality felt more dream-like than the fantasy. She knew she was on the good side of the river, far from her father’s home in Blackwood. Still, it felt odd to see it all so prosperous.
That was taking up a small part of her mind. The rest, though, was furious.
Imera had sent her on yet another errand for the investigation into the rogue Inquisitor while they were on the trail of a blueblood. One of the first ones in the country since the largest successes of the revolution – half the reason why the Inquisition was in the country in the first place was to assassinate them, and he was prioritizing a trumped-up street brat who happened to have some sensitive information.
It wasn’t her place to question it. It wasn’t her place to question the torture, either, except to appeal to a court higher than the Dzhemor. That didn’t mean she had to like it.
Edam troubled her too. She seemed to not be able to stomach the idea of defying her cousin, and she practically threw a fit when Danza had suggested the idea. She needed more witnesses to actively work against him in any capacity. While they were supposed to all work in tandem, as equals except in rank, there still was the practical reality of the matter. The Order of Tattered Skin had power over the rest of them as the prime investigators of corruption coming from within the Church’s own power. Now Imera was suggesting that she had some kind of relationship with Ana.
It seemed absurd, and grossly corrupt. A way of silencing one of the few people with a credible word against him.
But she needed patience, not blatant baseless accusations. If she went against him without proper preparation, it’d fall apart.
She sighed heavily as she walked up to the church, through the halls and to the place where the mute scribe was staying. The plump girl was waiting at her desk, reading quietly when Danza came in. She signed hello to Danza, and gestured for her to take up the spare chair.
“What’s the matter, Danza?” Asked Tarnye.
“Nothing much,” said Danza, “Just some loose ends. It’s about Ana. I realized that we had never spoken about her with you.”
“Oh,” said Tarnye, “I’m very sorry about her. I feel as if I should have known what was going on.”
Danza nodded. It must have been quite a shock to the girl to see the sudden revelation of the secret.
“More specifically, my compatriot Imera has asked me to inquire about her relationship with Edam. What would you say that they thought of each other?”
Tarnye seemed to think for a moment.
“I think they were great friends,” she signed, “At first, they didn’t seem to get along. But then at some point, they fell in together. Then they were inseparable. I can’t imagine that Edam took it well. She seems so shaken up by it all.”
“I see,” said Danza, resentfully making a mental note that Imera may have been onto them being close friends, “And did Edam or Ana ever act oddly? Something that might have clued you in to the idea what was going on in their heads?”
“Ana just seemed… normal. She was an Inquisitor, a witch-hunter. She was decent with the Scripture, she even wrote a very nice sermon for our priest once. But I can’t think of anything particularly odd either of them did.”
“Anything. Imera… he’s making me chase down snipes.”
“I frankly doubt that Ana is even still in the country, but both Imera and Edam suspect otherwise. Edam knows her better than I do.”
She repeated a sign a few times that Danza didn’t recognize before becoming legible again.
“Well, just before Edam left for Menale, for her sick leave, I saw her writing in her diary, but when I came to check on her she slammed the book shut. I suppose that seems a bit odd in retrospect, but she was always very private about her diary.”
A diary, thought Danza, her interest piqued, That could be useful. Not only could I get a better read on Ana, but maybe I could glean some insight into Edam. If I did that, I might just have the information to force her into testifying against her cousin.
“Is that useful?” Asked Tarnye.
“Very useful,” said Danza, “Thank you, Tarnye. You’ve been a great help.”