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Darkling

“Rise up, your highness,” says the mocking voice. “There’s a crowd waiting to see you die.”

Janais of House Sarazine, who had thrice refused the Burnt Crown in the course of one illustrious day long ago, struggles to stand on his own.

He manages, at length, to drag himself up against the damp brick wall. Makes a garbled sound in the back of his throat, which is his laughter now. I am a fool, he thinks, to be clinging to pride, to care about dignity, even at this juncture.

“Something funny?”

The jailer grabs his shoulders, spins him around, and binds his wrists together behind his back. The rope is rough and the knot tight, digging into his skin painfully. His hands will throb and turn purple shortly, for want of blood. They’re hanging my hands before they cut off my head, he thinks. The thought, unfortunately, fails to divert.

He gives no sound other than a short, involuntary whimper as the bondage takes place. Pride again; a fool to the end.

The jailer shoves him out of the cell. He staggers forward, almost collapsing, but the rope pulls him back and keeps him on his feet. So weak, so helpless.

Through the darkness that has become his entire world, he becomes aware of being watched. No, it’s not the sadistic, cock-stain of a man he has come to know so well during his imprisonment; there is another here, someone else. He can feel the heat of the torch close by, in front of him. Can feel the gaze, taking in his mangled, emaciated form.

So he puts on his widest grin. Pain oozes from his swollen face, from where they had taken his eyes and nose and tongue, like an overripe melon leaking juice through the cuts.

It pleases him to hear a gasp, and then, after a short delay, a murmur: “Dear God.”

It is a voice he remembers all too well. He withdraws the smile, the pain just as bad as making it.

“Right ugly, isn’t he?”

“Is he lucid? Can he hear?”

“Oh, well enough. You hear everything, don’t you, your highness?”

A tug of the rope. He feels himself reeled backward like a bait on a fishing hook and falling through the air, only to be caught by a large hand at the last instance and pushed onto his feet again.

“Have a little respect, man! You know who this is.”

“Aye, he’s my prisoner, no more than that. The chancellor himself told me so. You want me to respect him? No self-respecting gaoler would do that, sir, no, not this one.”

“A man of his… distinction, even as a traitor… deserves better than what I’ve just seen. Heed me, or I will take away your position and whatever pensions you have accrued.”

A terse silence.

“I’ve only ever done my job,” mutters the jailer. “That’s all.”

“Then do it now, and go fetch his meal.”

He feels the rope slacken, and then dropped. Hears the jailer step away, cursing under his breath.

The other man leads him by his elbow, gently, and seats him on a stool. The man carries a hint of lavender about his person. His daughter’s scent.

“I am very sorry to see you like this, father.”

Father, he thinks, he dare calls me father still! The irony is exquisite, almost painful. If his mouth isn’t so dry, and if it isn’t so wretchedly difficult without a tongue, he would spit on his son-in-law’s face. Instead, he can only laugh his mangled laughter.

“I… understand your anger. I do not expect forgiveness. Not for what I have done, or for what I am about to do. But I want you to know that Anissa will be safe this way.”

There is truth to that. He had figured out as much, had time enough to do so when they robbed him of everything else. But there is also more, unspoken but clear to him now, now that Iasper has come. He is simply doing what he does best, his dear son-in-law, seizing an opportunity to get ahead. Just as he had done to win his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Oh, Anissa.

The very thought of her chills the rage in his blood, mixes it with despair deadlier and uglier than anything he has ever felt before. His hands are throbbing badly now, behind his back at the base of his spine, as though his heart has sunk and is being torn. What have I done? To our family, to you?

Yet his son-in-law goes on, oblivious to his inward cries, voice calm and genial as ever.

“She won’t be at the execution, if you are wondering. I wanted to spare her the agony of seeing you… well. Like this. She hates me for it already. I am afraid it will last a while yet, this time.”

A life of misery, lived in fear; a slow, degrading mummification of the soul. And it will be his doing, all of it.

“There is something else I must tell you. Jourdain has been found. Yesterday, in a whorehouse by the docks.” A pause, and probably an apologetic smile. “It is always the last place you look.”

That’s all of them, then. All his sons.

“He has been blinded already and will be leaving the city gates, even now.”

He cannot say anything. Cannot weep, cannot tear out his eyes, cannot even make an animal noise at the back of his throat. There is nothing left for him here. In this life. All he can do now is hold himself very still and take solace in the knowledge that he will soon join his sons. And Anissa…

Jude save you, girl, my daughter.

“I doubt he will be allowed to survive the journey. I am sorry, father.”

It is a bitter and strange relief, then, when he hears the jailer return.

“Your meal, prisoner.”

A lidded plate. That must be why the smells waft up belatedly: onions, roast meat, some kind of sauce. There is probably bread, though he can’t smell that. And wine. There would be wine, probably in a skin, not yet unstoppered.

His stomach churns at the smells, groaning aloud at the prospect of a meal that isn’t gruel, although he has no tongue to savour it. Even his own body betrays him, in the end.

“Can you unbind his hands?”

“No. He must be fed by another. I would do it, as it is my… job, to do so.”

“Will you not eat, father? I would be honoured to feed you.”

Janais grunts, and it takes all the strength of body and mind he has left to stand up.

“I don’t think he is hungry,” says the jailer, the sardonic tone returning to his voice. “Sir.”

“Please, father. Allow me.”

He turns to the jailer and flicks his head toward a direction he guesses leads to the stairs.

“I think he has had enough of this life.”

Fingers tapping on the wooden table, followed by a sigh.

“Lead him out, then. There will be Watchmen to escort him to the square. Go with them.”

The rope grows taut again. The jailer steps close behind and ushers him, not ungently, blessedly, away from the table where his last meal remains untouched.

“I will see you shortly, father.” He hears his son-in-law speak, can imagine the look on his face. “I am sorry, truly I am.”

The Day of Solace (cont’d)

She reaches the end of the long, empty street, and looks up behind her before she turns the corner. The curved rooftops with their bronze-plated rims, and high above them, the looming Spire. The top of it split as a tuning fork, as her husband likes to put it. She notes the absence of the spark between the prongs, and the lingering light in the sunless sky, the last vestiges of a drowned sun. There in the far and heavenly edges, darkening like fresh bruises before her very eyes.

She can almost feel it coming. Night is near, Night is fear, an old rhyme comes to her unbidden. So brave your heart by Jude’s fire.

Shivering, she shakes her head clear and steps onto the famed width of Orphan Row.

Eastward she walks, toward the riverfront, past a long stretch of stalls and stores and warehouses, cookshops and taverns and lodgings of various repute. Gone are the hawkers and pickpockets and rabble-rousing philosophers shouting atop their barrel-crates, the porters, the wheelmen, the loitering youth. All gone to pray, gone to mourn; in squares, forums, and places of worship, till the light of Jude’s Flame brought them solace.

Anissa finds it exceedingly strange to walk down this wide, cobbled street without running into an impediment every fourth step. Indeed it is almost eerie, in the semidarkness before Nightfall. The busiest thoroughfare in all the city, whose cobblestones are said to get worn down to sand every other year by the endless throng of feet, wheels, and hooves, now utterly deserted but for an occasional bird or cat.

The Day of Solace

The day of Solace begins with the chants. Distantly, from several city blocks away, Anissa can hear the recitations of the crowd in the hippodrome square. The voices of some twenty thousand people, a quarter of the city if her husband’s estimation proved true, praying in unison for the fallen sun. On such a windless day, laboured across stillborn air, the sound is small and susurrous. A murmuring echo, haunting her steps in an empty street.

Not too long ago, on a day much warmer and brighter than this one, her father had died in that square. Then too, people had gathered to watch him die. A great many people, she has been told, perhaps half the city, which is surely an exaggeration. She knows the Watch had the square blocked off that day, fearing unruliness. There would have been a few hundred people, a thousand at most; only those that live in and around the hippodrome.

A meagre attendance for dying of a great man, though more than enough by far to beget stories, rumours. They portray her father as someone who was utterly unafraid of death, so assured was he of his place in history and God’s bright heaven. He, if the stories are to be believed (they are not), applauded his enemies (with words only, for his hands would have been bound behind his back), bade the city and its people farewell, asked politely of the executioner to make the cut clean, and was laughing when the sword fell. Some go as far as to say that his head went on laughing for a good minute after it was severed, rolling, rolling.

There are manuscripts of his supposed last words, read aloud in winehouses and tearooms of the city in the weeks following the execution (it was so magnanimous and wise of the new Parliament to overlook these fond remembrances of a traitor and tyrant). She has read them all, or as many as she could manage to obtain. Many are eloquently written, even manage to intimate her father’s diction and style. Most likely, they are anonymous tributes from the city’s literary men, for whose craft her father had always been a generous patron. But none of these, it is her misfortune to know, are true. By the time he was dragged onto the scaffold to die, her father’s tongue had been cut off at the root. They had marred him greatly, his enemies. He died a blind and a mute, and with a slit nose.

Even so, she can imagine him laughing, no, chortling, tongueless, as the sword flashes an arc above his neck. Thinks that part of the story may be true, hopes; it suits her understanding of him. So sudden and so great a fall from the height of worldly power, all his life’s work undone in a single season. His sons blinded and exiled and sure to die in prearranged accidents, he himself sentenced to a humiliating, public death by his son-in-law. The irony of the circumstances, such as they were, would not have escaped him.

Just as she, even after all these months, cannot let go of what has happened. The irony of it as it pertains to her, and her own powerlessness and irrelevance in light of it. She has always understood what it was, the point of all her father’s work, his vast and ceaseless striving for wealth and power and influence. He was a man who had wanted to alter the very foundations of the world, to set in motion a course of history shaped in his own will and sensibilities. The money, fame, political power—these had been only tools for him, sought to be used for a singular purpose. Of all his children it was she who truly understood that, not her brothers. It was she, a daughter, who alone grasped the sheer scope and ambitiousness of his vision. Despite—or was it because of?—the fact that she had no place in it.

Her pain and bitterness, now manifold in their growth.

Nothing is inevitable, she recalls him telling her, long ago in her chamber, but that which is wrought by man.

Arrogant words, that had more wisdom in them than either of them could have known at the time. Did he ever imagine they could be applied to the fall of his own family, his life’s work, to his own death? Wrought by man, indeed; jealous men, lesser men. Inevitable in their petty grievances and vanities.

Whatever one might say of him now, her father had always been a man who could laugh at himself, however privately, and Anissa hopes, as much as she can endure such a thing, that this remained true of him in the end, marred as he was.