This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Justice and Sandwiches

    The sky smelled like spring storming, but a cloud of bone-dry dust marked Ramlin’s progress down the road. It had seeped into his clothes some miles since, fading them; and his rented horse punctuated every fifth step with a discontented huff.

Leading the beast along by the reins so he could feel the ground beneath his boots for once, the traveler didn’t mind the dust. The evening was quiet and wild–dark-cloud skies and a golden sunset–with yellow light  glowing gem-like through the buds of the willow trees. In spite of the journey that sorely needed finishing, Ramlin walked at an unambitious pace, determined to enjoy the fading vignette of perfect beauty.

The horse huffed again, halted, and refused to walk another step. Used to the beast’s protests, Ramlin gave the reins a gentle, almost indecisive, pull. 

“Come on, girl.”

The horse snorted again, tossing her head and stamping. Head up as high as it could go, she stared into the mass of glowing willows with eyes wide and ears sharp as pinpricks.

“Spooking at rabbits now?” Ramlin asked.

By way of reply, she looked at him with something that might have been uncertainty–or scorn. It was hard to tell with horses.

“Nothing to be frightened of, silly goose.” He walked back to her, scratching along the base of her mane. “I’d like to stay here too, but we’ve got a journey to finish and somewhere to be.”

She whuffled, less than convinced.   

Ramlin turned back to plod on–and found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol. 

“Halt, and state your business!” the man behind the pistol said roughly, the somewhat flamboyant mask over his mouth rumpling with the words. Ramlin frowned–first at the mask, then at the man. 

“I’ve already halted, as you may have noticed. And as for my business, it’s none of yours.”

The brigand looked taken aback, but only for a moment. He scowled, cocking back the hammer on the flintlock–in order to be extra threatening, Ramlin guessed.

“Your money–” he began.

“Is not here,” Ramlin finished. “Do you think I’m an idiot, to carry money around on brigand-infested roads?”

With an indignant huff, the man lowered the pistol.   

“You could try to let me finish my sentences. I may be attempting to rob you, but that’s no reason to be rude.”

I’m rude? You’re the one who’s–” Ramlin halted, thinking. “Hold on, there’s a pun in there somewhere. Let me think of it.”

The brigand threw up his hands in a silent plea to the gods, then wandered to the edge of the road and sat down to wait as Ramlin got his words in order. After a minute or so, Ramlin punched the air.

“I’ve got it! You want me to let you finish your sentences? Well, the only sentence you’ll finish is the one that’ll send you to the gallows!”

The man’s shoulders slumped, and he looked at Ramlin with ironically half-lidded eyes.

“Well?”

“Hilarious,” the brigand said in a tone as dry as the road he sat on. He got up, dusting himself off. “Or it might have been, had you thought of it a minute or so ago. It’s not even a real pun.”

“Of course it’s a real pun,” Ramlin drew himself up in defense of his maligned joke. “A pun is when a word meaning one thing is intentionally mistaken for the same word meaning something else.”

The brigand snorted. “Where did you get that information, Kober’s Universal Dictionary of Jokes?”

“Where else? It’s a perfectly respectable resource.”

“It’s a bookful of outdated drabble written by a drunken university professor who never made a joke in his life,” the brigand returned, fishing something out of his coat pocket. He drew out a book–small and worn, but with a perfectly readable title. Ramlin scowled at it.

The Definitive Listing of Humorous Types, by P.J. Dorbel?” he said, feigning disbelief. “That’s nothing but a doorstopper for uneducated peasants.”

“Of course it is. That’s why uneducated peasants always understand jokes so well.” the man flipped through the book’s pages with an officious eye. “Here,” he said, stabbing the page he wanted with a stiff finger. “Pun. Humor type: low. Benefit to joker: high. Consists of mashing the meaning of one word into the form of  another, creating an ironic but accurate marriage of words. Examples: Punny, Momster, CAT-astophe. The joke is not the joke, the joke is the fact that the joke was made. Perhaps one of the most existential forms of humor, the pun–”

“Cease this orgy of utter idiocy!” Ramlin roared, feeling himself red in the face with purest indignation. “Existentialism in puns? In that type, that horrible type of puns no less? You’re mad!”

“Of course existentialism in puns,” the thief replied. “Where else is it to be found?”

“Sarcasm, of course!” Ramlin threw his hands up. “Everyone knows that.”

“Sarcasm is anarchical, not existential. Everyone knows that.

The horse, a creature generally uninterested in both jokes and existentialism, had slowly wandered off. As the debate raged on, she decided to pass the time munching on willow branches–something which she was very interested in. 

But whether or not she was sensible to philosophical debates, the beast did have a sense of danger. She was not entirely certain what this sense was made up of–the faint crackle of leather soles over the dry ground, a nip of gunmetal scent drifting in her nostrils, the sudden quietness of birds. But as it flickered to life in the back of her mind, she ceased her munching, pricked up her ears, and snorted to warn her master of the approaching doom.

Ramlin, however, was now caught up in arguing whether flippancy was a true form of humor or simply–as the brigand put it– ‘the ghost of a dead sense, moaning its end.’ As a result, he did not notice the danger until, looming behind him, it settled the cold barrel of a pistol at the base of his neck.

The brigand, equally blinded by the fervency of his own statements, noticed the danger the same time Ramlin did; and by then it was too late.

There were three of them.  Dressed in faded cloth and leather spattered with the rust of dried blood, these brigands made the first seem like a character from a stage play–and they had surrounded Ramlin and this opponent both. The group was made up of a hulking axe man, a dark-haired, cold-eyed girl in a tricorner hat, and a lanky fellow who refused to move his pistol from the back of Ramlin’s head. This last spoke first, in a low and gravel-tempered tone that seemed the original to the first brigand’s parody. 

“Ah, Nargle,” he addressed the first brigand, whose face had gone white under his mask.  “I’m afraid ‘tis you who are the joke–and not a very funny one, at that.”

“Brinker,” the thief named Nargle said. “This stretch of road belongs to me. We agreed to that. You’ve no right to–”

“No right?”cold incredulity colored Brinker’s words. “Are you the one to instruct me on my rights?”

Nargle shut his jaw tight over whatever he had been intending to say next. Ramlin, in no better position, almost pitied the thief’s predicament–even if he was a detestable believer in P.J. Dorbel’s lies.

“Besides,” the female brigand said amiably, “our agreement only applies if you’re actually robbing people–not if you’re arguing with them about puns.” Her brows lowered over the edge of her mask. “Add that to a list of things I never thought I’d have to say.”

“So we get to rob the both of you!” the axe man said, as though he was announcing that cake and pies were available for everyone after the show. Brinker gave him a humorless look. 

“Thank you, Torsa–I believe that was implied.”

“Oh.” the axe-man wilted. “So can I–”

“By all means, please go ahead.”

Torsa grinned and hefted his weapon, taking a step towards the suddenly dwarfed Nargle. The smaller brigand cried out in protest–as did Ramlin, once he realized what was happening–but the cry was cut short as Torsa brought the base of the axe down on Nargle’s unprotected head.

   “You’re lucky to be alive,” someone remarked, before Nargle was fully certain of the fact that he was alive. He blinked, forcing himself to focus on the waking world.

The willow branches above his head whispered with the wind, slithering out of the night’s blackness like great yellow-orange fingers. They were unsettling. He tried to get up.

“That may not be the best–”

Nargle’s head spun, and he gagged before lying back down again.

“–idea,” the voice finished. “A blow that hard could well have killed you, and I’m afraid you’re not quite up to doing jumping jacks yet.”

The facts were attempting to reconcile themselves to Nargle’s mind. He rubbed a hand absentmindedly over his face, trying to clear the persistent ache, and came to the realization that his mask was gone. Panic spiked in his chest, gaze snapping to the owner of the voice, who was staring curiously at him across a small campfire.

“They stole my horse,” the man Nargle had tried to rob said. “There wasn’t much to do but patch you up and wait for sunrise. We’ll head for town in the morning.” He poked at the fire. “Report the fellows who jumped us.”

Nargle was silent, unable to view the man who’d seen his face and saved his life with anything but trepidation.

Noticing his expression, the man added, “Seeing as you never actually got around to robbing me, I don’t see there’s any need to tell them that bit.”

Nargle let out a tense breath. He didn’t like the idea of hanging any more than the next man.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” the man replied, “not to anyone. A story like that could ruin my reputation.”

Nargle nodded and immediately regretted it, closing his eyes with a groan.

“So. I gather your name is Nargle,” the man said after a moment, extending a hand over the fire. “Mine is Ramlin.”

Nargle raised his brows and shook the proffered hand, then chuckled. “Ramlin, eh?” he asked. “Not a very fortunate name.”

“Why not?” Ramlin looked genuinely curious.

Nargle laughed. Then, realizing laughter hurt, he stopped. “Well, it’s a perfectly fine name–but you just so happen to share it with someone a little less than fine,” he explained. “Some jumped-up government official who’s been threatening to come out of his ivory tower to sort out the provinces–not that he ever will, but the threat’s enough to get him disliked around here.” He grinned, happy to be the expert on local politics for once. Usually it was a subject he would rather avoid.

Ramlin was giving him an odd look, and Nargle tried to reassure him. “You won’t have to worry about that, though. I doubt anyone will mistake you for your namesake.”

The odd expression on Ramlin’s face hadn’t changed. He stared at Nargle for an uncomfortable moment, then looked at the ground with a sort of half-smile. By the time he looked up again, Nargle had almost guessed the truth.

“Well, I’d show you my badge of office, but that was stolen along with everything else, so you’ll just have to take my word…but I am that jumped-up government official. Duly out of my ivory tower.”

He gave the shocked thief a self-deprecating grin, and Nargle squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden worsening of his headache.

Brinker did not particularly mind robbing fellow thieves, or even leaving them for dead on the roadside. He didn’t particularly mind robbing anyone. It was, perhaps, this uncommon lack of conscience that deprived him of seeing the irony in his next words.

“We’ve been robbed!” he announced, looking through yet another package of worthless stolen goods. “Shirtsleeves and old books–nothing of value at all!”

“Well,” Melli, delicately cleaning her fingernails with a penknife, interposed, “Nargle hasn’t had a penny to his name in ages. And the other man did warn us he never carried any money on him.”

“He also said that Kober’s Universal Dictionary of Jokes was a good book,” rumbled Torsa, in the midst of digging through another pack. “I wouldn’t trust anything he said.”

“But it is a–” Brinker began, then halted, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance. “nevermind, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to find another mark, preferably a richer one. No more dilly-dallying.”

The three brigands hadn’t bothered to flee all the way back to their hideout, instead rifling through Ramlin’s possessions a mere mile or so down the road. The cover of night, broken only by a lantern or two, seemed sufficient to hide them on the deserted road.

“Yes, that’s precisely what we’ve been doing,” Melli said, “dilly-dallying.”

“We haven’t been dilly-dallying,” Torsa sounded hurt by the suggestion. “We robbed five carriages just this week.”

“Yes, but none of them were carrying anything,” Brinker explained, “nothing of value at all. We need to find someone rich and rob them.

“Oh.”  Mollified, Torsa went back to his pack. 

“Of course, that would be far easier to do if we didn’t waste our time bullying poor saps like Nargle off their territory,” Melli said in a faint sing-song, focusing with abnormal determination on her fingernails. Brinker looked at her narrowly.

“I’m sorry, but are you–” he began, but was interrupted by Torsa throwing something small and hard at his head.

“OW!” he shouted. “What are you trying to do?”

“Sorry. Does that look valuable?”

Brinker scowled at the disc, which had landed in his lap. Soon, the scowl disappeared and he picked the thing up. It was simple enough–a circle of wood, carved in intricate patterns and outfitted to hang medallion-like on a chain. Thoughtfully rubbing a thumb over the engraved letters at the thing’s edge, he met his companion’s curious gazes.

“Torsa,” he said, “this is, quite possibly, the most valuable thing we’ve ever stolen.”

Melli frowned. “Really?”

Brinker held the thing up, and her expression changed. “Is that a seal of office?” she asked. “You just robbed a magistrate?”

Brinker shook his head. “I didn’t rob a magistrate.” He tossed the medallion into the air, catching it again with a devilish grin. “As of right now…I am a magistrate.”

The next morning was beautiful, full of sunshine and birdsong. Nargle resented it. As much as Ramlin insisted that his head hadn’t suffered any permanent damage, it felt as though it had been permanently bruised, and everything from light to noise to the very steps he took seemed to aggravate it. Ramlin was trying to encourage him.

“We’re very nearly to the city.” 

“I don’t even want to go to the city,” groaned Nargle. “I want to lie by the roadside and die.”

“Don’t be melodramatic. Do you want justice or not?”

Nargle halted his stumbling progress to squint at his companion.

“As a matter of fact,” he said petulantly, “I don’t care a fig if I get justice or not. Justice can go to rot and ruin, for all I care. At the moment, I would much rather have a sandwich.”

Ramlin raised his eyebrows. He’d never heard anyone say something so sensible and stupid all at once. He was used to cries for justice, pleas for justice, wailing and weeping to escape justice, but never simple apathy over it. He supposed that he never would hear of it, in his line of work; those sensible, careless people were unlikely to be seen in a justice hall. They were probably all off somewhere else, eating sandwiches–and Ramlin almost wondered if those invisible sandwich-eating hordes were not better off than the rest of humanity.

On the other hand, he had just been robbed, Nargle basted and left for dead. As a response, apathy was comfortable but unwise–the next traveler that Brinker and his brigands left for dead might really end up that way, and that was something that Ramlin, for one, did not care to have perching on his conscience. He grabbed a handful of Nargle’s coat, pulling him in an unwilling jumble of limbs down the road.

“Justice first,” he said, abbreviating the full course of his thoughts into single, assimilable points. “Then sandwiches.”

“Magistrate Ramlin,” a steward announced,  and the  entire court rose as the Magistrate, with all his robes, tried to make his way from the entrance of the town’s tiny justice hall all the way into its uncomfortable seat of justice without tripping. He failed. As the magistrate flopped into his chair with a scowl, the steward cleared his throat and announced the first case. 

“These are the two thieves that attacked you, and almost made off with your identity as well,” he said in the brief and somewhat condescending aside that he often used to announce cases. The magistrate scowled, first at the defendants, then at the steward, with equal dislike.

“You can’t be serious.” This from the first of the two thieves, a dignified-looking man, if a little travel-worn.

“Believe me, he is,” the second of the pair, a shorter, flaxen-colored fellow with a bandage wrapped around his head, replied.

The magistrate flipped his wooden seal of office over his fingers pointedly, then looked down at the two ‘thieves,’ a sharp grin flashing over his face. In spite of tangling robes and condescending stewards, Brinker was determined to enjoy his newfound power to its utmost. He aimed the greater part of his smile towards the real Ramlin, who stared back in useless indignation.

“These are indeed the men who tried to rob me–I was lucky to escape with my life,” he announced. “I’ll require some time to think of a fitting punishment for them. Let them await judgement in prison. Guards! Take them away.”

The justice hall only employed one guard, the same guard they had employed for the past sixty years. He shuffled steadily towards the defendants over the space of a minute, reached them, and then began to lead them away with no great increase of speed, bringing Brinker’s resounding command to a bit of an anticlimax.

“Well, that was a resounding success,” Nargle hissed as they were escorted to prison. “Tell me again why we couldn’t just get sandwiches?”

“Shut up,” Ramlin hissed back.

Ramlin had seen prisons before. He had inspected prisons, discussed prisons, and sent many people to prison. He’d always thought that if there was one thing he understood, it was prisons. As it turned out, they looked a great deal different if you were actually stuck in one.

Nargle had sprawled in relative comfort on the floor, leaning his head against the wall and watching Ramlin through sleepily half-lidded eyes.

“Unless you’re planning of wearing a hole through the floor, pacing isn’t going to help.”

Ramlin, who had only partly realized that he was pacing at all, stopped.

“How can you possibly be sitting still?” he burst out. Nargle shrugged, shutting his eyes.

“I’m used to this,” he said. “Thief, remember? I’ve been to prison before. Feeling trapped is normal–in fact, I think it’s sort of the point.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s only the truth.”

“No, really–hush. Someone’s coming.”

Nargle frowned, opening his eyes. “Who is it?”

The door opened almost as soon as he’d asked. Brinker burst into the room, fluttering his robes like the wings of giant raven, with the girl and the axe-man in reluctant attendance. Unmasked, they all looked a great deal different–almost respectable, if Ramlin hadn’t known better. He scowled at them.

“Come to gloat?” Nargle, still sitting on the floor, asked. “Isn’t that rather bad form?”

Brinker turned from his task of shutting the door with an odd expression.

“Gloat?” he whispered, as though unstrung. “What the hell is there to gloat about?”

Nargle shrugged.

“The usual, I suppose. Your clever victory, deceiving the townspeople, gaining a position of power and prestige while putting both of us under lock and key? It seems like something worth gloating about.”

“Power and prestige?” Brinker choked. “I’ve never been more powerless in my life. I had to dodge six secretaries just to escape the justice hall. Even here, I’m not safe. They’ll find me any second, and then that blasted steward will sneer at me again.” He shivered. “You’re more free than I am.”

“I can assure you, we’re not,” Ramlin put in, but Brinker wasn’t done.

“As for prestige,” he said, “there is none. I had more respect when I was a thief.”

“Are you sure about–” Nargle began.

“The court scribe threw an inkpot at my head!” Brinker hissed, no doubt intending to shock everyone. Perhaps Nargle was shocked; but Ramlin only nodded.

“Yes, they’re prone to do that if you get long-winded,” he said calmly. “It’s a difficult job, and it makes them temperamental.”

Brinker rushed at him, grabbing his cloak in desperation. “You have to help us escape!”

“We… have to help you… escape?” Nargle repeated, looking around the walls of their cell in pointed confusion; but Brinker, as usual, was unaware of the irony. Nargle turned to the other two thieves, who were looking as grim as their superior.

“Yes, escape,” the woman said. “You may be in prison, but I’m in a corset.”

“They took away my axe,” Torsa added, as though this was an offense against dignity to top all others.

Ramlin frowned, conflicted. He didn’t doubt that Brinker was telling the truth. The life of a brigand was a far freer and more interesting one than the life of a magistrate. If Ramlin was telling the truth as well, it was probably a healthier one.

But if magisterial duties were truly so confining, what better prison for a heinous thief?

Finally, he made his decision.

“Very well. I’ll help you escape this–if you give your word that you’ll go on to better things than thieving.”

“Of course. Anything.”

Brinker’s eager tone was not very convincing. Ramlin squinted at him, but there was no going back now.

“All right then, here’s the plan. Tonight, you come to these cells with the key…”

The brigands leaned forward in a small, hopeful huddle as Ramlin explained his plan.

Later that evening…

“This is insane,” Nargle announced, as the jailer’s footsteps made their last rounds about the night-darkened halls. “It’s never going to work.”

“Well, it’s better than nothing.” restless, Ramlin shifted. “It’s this or everyone gets a life in their own personal jail–not a very long life, in our case.”

“Just because it’s our only option doesn’t mean I can’t criticize its foolishness. You come up with the plans, and I’m supposed to insult them. It’s called teamwork.”

Ramlin snorted.

“Did P.J. Dorbel provide you with that definition?”

“No,” Nargle replied, “life did.”

After another moment of waiting, he added, “Are you sure you can’t just tell everyone about the mix-up, become a magistrate again? You’re a good magistrate. You could help people.”

Ramlin shook his head. “No.”

“Why not? It’s a lot less crazy than what you’re trying to do now.”

“Because everything that Brinker said about that job is true,” Ramlin said, sudden-serious. “It sucks the life out of you. You can’t help anyone, not really. You watch the same old problems resurface every day with new faces, and you know it’s never going to end–until suddenly you’re old and cynical as well as helpless. Occasionally, you get ink-pots thrown at your head. Or old ladies’ mittens…” he stopped a moment, thinking.  “I’ve got to escape, too.”

The words lingered in the dark air for a moment. Then Nargle sighed.

“Right,” he allowed. “But this is still insane.”

Shuffling was heard along the hall, and Torsa attempting a whisper.

“Do you really think we can trust–” his booming baritone began.

“SHHH!” two sibilant voices rejoined, and the attempted whisper fell dead. A key turned in the lock, and the door to their cell slithered open.

“Thought you’d never come.”

“Of course we were coming. I was held up by another secretary–there’s a whole plague of them around here.”

“Right. Just get us out of here.”

Ramlin led the way down the hall. The prison was somewhat less than well-guarded. It was a small provincial jail, after all, meant for drunks and vandals and second-rate thieves. It was relatively easy to get out the front door, and in the nighttime quiet there was no trouble walking across the open village square. When they reached the gate, Ramlin halted.

Brinker looked into the whispering, forested blackness and thought he smelled freedom.

He turned to Ramlin, gratitude watering his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, handing the seal of office back as though it were something made vile by a witches’ curse. “Take your life back, Magistrate. I’ve no love for it.”

Ramlin looked at the seal, turned it over in his hands–a small, simple thing for all its carvings. “I wouldn’t thank me yet,” he said, almost sorry for what he was about to do. “I’ve learned–you have taught me–that I’ve no love for this life either.” He handed it back. “Keep what you’ve stolen.”

Someone had noticed the prisoner’s absence, and shouting had begun in the town. A flare of torches flickered orange against the city gate. Brinker’s face was white.

“They’re calling for you, magistrate,” Nargle said happily. “Better run back.”

Brinker didn’t mind him, looking instead at Ramlin–the only one present who really understood his terror.

“Please,” Brinker said. “Don’t do this. Take me with you.”

“Magistrate! The magistrate has disappeared!” cried a shrieking voice–the steward’s–and Brinker and Ramlin both flinched at it.

“Find him! Find him!” echoed the secretaries, as red torchlight and a dark-lit swarm of bodies began to fill the square, milling about in search of criminals and Justice alike.

“I’m sorry,” Ramlin said, sincerely.

But sincere or not, sorry wasn’t about to stop him from running.

“There he is! There he is!” the hellish voices cried as the four thieves fled into the forest.

Nargle looked back once. He saw the scribes, the secretaries, and the steward surrounding Brinker with screeches and torchlight. Brinker himself stood statue-still, the seal held tight in his grip like a proclamation of doom–then the lawful horde swallowed him up in its happy embrace, and he was gone.

“Well, that was an adventure,” Melli sighed, once they were well away from the city. “What now?”

They all looked to Ramlin; though it took him a moment to notice. He was their leader now, he realized; as Brinker once had been. He wasn’t the only one to have stolen a life. Perhaps Brinker would make a better magistrate than Ramlin had been; and perhaps, just perhaps, Ramlin would make a better brigand. Nothing had changed, not really; right and wrong were in their proper places, things quite different than lawful and unlawful.

“I think,” he began, “sandwiches.”

Nargle looked at him curiously.

“And justice?”

Ramlin nodded. “That too. But sandwiches first.”

Author’s Note: 

This tale was written in honor of my Dad’s retirement from a job as soul-sucking and unpleasant as a Magistrates’–and subsequent move to something slightly more legal than, though just as adventurous, as brigandry. Love you, Dad!

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Death Wish

 

Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.

Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.

“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.

Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.

“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”

Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.

“Very helpful, Tig.”

The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.

He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.

It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.

“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.

“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.

“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”

“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.

He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.

He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).

Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.

Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.

Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.

Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.

Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.

Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.

“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.

“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.

The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.

But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.

Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.

After all, it was his only option.

Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.

There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.

Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.

The Emperor was arriving.

The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.

“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.

Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.

Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.

He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.

Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.

Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.

Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.

Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.

Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.

Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.

He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.

No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in  a veritable cave of debris.

Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.

“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.

“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”

“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”

And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.

Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.

Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.

It was a man.

He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.

“Help.”

“I’m coming.”

Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.

“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.

“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.

“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.

The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.

“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”

If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.

“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”

Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.

“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.

“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”

Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.

“He’s… important.”

The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?

No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.

Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.

He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…

Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.

“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”

Jax  let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.

The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.

Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.

He turned on the man and tried to smile.

“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.

“Ereb,” he offered simply.

“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”

Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both,  he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.

“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”

Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.

“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”

“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”

With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.

“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.

“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.

Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.

“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”

Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.

“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.

“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”

It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.

“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”

Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.

“More time than–I have,” Ereb said,  as if answering his thoughts.

Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.

There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.

Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.

Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.

Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.

“He’s dead.”

The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.

“How long has he been gone?”

Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.

“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.

The difference wasn’t worth the effort.

“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”

Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.

“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.

“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”

“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.

“What? Let me see.”

“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”

“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.

Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.

The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.

“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”

Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.

The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.

The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–

“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”

“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”

And, in spite of every doubt, he did.