The Emperor of Tratovia didn’t spend his lengthy working hours exclusively seated on the cold Obsidian Throne. Obviously, that harsh chair was only ever intended for the more formal occasions, where he addressed his subjects and honorable guests ex cathedra, as an institution.
The Imperial Palace had numerous other, more comfortable facilities for tackling the various mundane affairs related to governing a nation, and it was in one such office that his majesty received princess Yuliana today. It was a room in the quiet northern section of the palace, largely resembling a simple parlor in layout, with a set of chairs, a divan, and an oval table, and one tall window in the back. Under the window's light also stood a heftier work desk. Additionally, there were bookshelves, drawers, and such like set alongside the walls, the sort you would see in the office of any humble civil servant.
Naturally, the aesthetics of the room were a touch above that of a common mansion.
The furniture, fashioned of dark, imported wood, had been engraved all over with ornate, flowery patterns by masters of their craft, further adorned with linings of silver and platinum. The floor was tiled with cleanly polished, white and cyan stone. The air in the room, completely still, bore the weight of many a century, as well as the distinct, mixed scent of old wood, paper, and dust.
It was early in the morning. Not even the sun had risen yet. In spite of Yuliana’s persistent insistence, she hadn’t been granted an audience any sooner. The servants had repeated that the Emperor was occupied and couldn’t be reached.
It had to have been a lie. No doubt this stalling was only another part of the game to take her anxiety and endurance to their limits, and so pressure her to comply with whatever more demands he could issue. Yuliana hadn’t been told when the execution would take place, exactly, but the growing unrest within her suggested that the hour wasn’t far off.
Did his majesty even have any intention to act?
Was he determined to punish Yuliana out of petty pride, for defying him, by letting the Colonel die? No, surely he had to realize he was only damaging his own plans by doing so? There was no reason for the princess to keep her own word, if he decided to betray his own. Rather, in that event, she was determined to resist his every request to the bitter end.
Surely there was still time.
While she struggled with these depressing thoughts, at long last, the princess was taken from her tower, into the palace. Into this room, where the Emperor sat behind the desk by the window, calm and composed, as if it were only another average day of work for him. And perhaps it was.
—“You wished to see me, your highness?”
No matter how many times Yuliana saw him, the looks of the Emperor never failed to unnerve her. His firm posture, strong frame, and the direct, unabashed gaze of his grim, deep eyes, which appeared to see straight through to her heart—that gaze rendered her vulnerable and insecure inside.
This was the man who led the greatest nation on the continent...That terrible burden of responsibility had to have tempered his will to monstrous hardness, the way diamonds are squeezed out of carbon under the monumental pressure of earth’s depths.
Be it in body or mind, Yuliana had no hope of overpowering him.
Then what could she do, exactly?
While Langoria was no small kingdom either, the princess had never experienced her rank there as something particularly cumbersome or painful. Not the same way. Her nation was at peace and she had always had others by her side, to guide her, to advise her, to lend their strength at moments of need. She had been able to share the weight of her royal status with the many people around her, with her family, friends, and devoted servants.
Or, was that it?
Wasn’t her ease of living actually only because nothing was expected of her?
She had no real responsibility, no consequences.
Because she was only a girl, unfit to rule.
No matter how she wished for the opportunity, she would never have to bear the burden of Kingship.
Her only source of stress in life was the fact that she had none.
To prove she was worthy of worrying for the lives of others, she had joined the army. As a knight officer, she had been made to bear the weight of the lives of her subordinates, but even then, she could instinctively sense the truth. It was not enough.
No one is alone in the army—even there she had comrades she could trust, colleagues with whom to share the shackles of duty, and dear friends she could count on with her life.
None of it could compare with the solitude of a King.
Who did the sovereign of this powerful Empire have to support him?
The Obsidian Throne could only be claimed by one.
Countless were the servants around him, but did he have even one to call a friend? Who could this man trust in the eye of the ceaseless struggle for power, which carried on all around him? Here even his friends were his enemies, more than willing to take him apart for the slightest hint of weakness.
Nevertheless, not only that of his city, his country—this man had willingly assumed responsibility for the very future of mankind. Could anyone even dream of matching his resolve?
Nevertheless, Yuliana couldn’t allow herself to be defeated by their differences now.
Once again, as a princess, she had to contain her personal emotions, her fatigue, and worry, and fight her own battle.
“Can I count on your word—are you able to stop the execution?” Yuliana asked the Emperor, without wasting time for greetings.
Not giving an immediate answer, the Emperor stood from his chair and turned to the window.
“You ask certainty of me which I cannot provide,” he finally said.
“Then we are at an impasse,” Yuliana continued. “I have no guarantees that my father will agree to your terms, even if I’m to present them on your behalf. And I have none that you will keep your word, no matter what I promise in exchange. Do tell me then, how do you see this playing out?”
The Emperor gave her a quick glance.
Her tone was sharp, aggressive. How quickly she had bounced back after the shock in the previous morning, the Emperor didn’t fail to recognize it. As if his stalling and their personal disparities meant nothing, she faced him head-on, asking neither for forgiveness nor mercy. Was only youth the source of her vigor? Or was it simply her tenacious nature?
“An agreement would be a start,” the man said. “For me to overstep my boundaries and overrule a legal verdict, exceptional terms are required. Can you offer me such terms, or can you not?”
“All I can offer is my word that I will try,” Yuliana said. “I will negotiate for you. I will face my father, in person. For your right of passage and the construction of the fleet on Langorian territory. I will do all I can to bring him to our side, and this I promise.”
The Emperor turned back from the window and faced the princess—and shook his head.
“Your word alone is not good enough.”
Yuliana scowled at him, as he continued,
“Walking over my generals means taking on their ire. In Tratovia, strength means everything. The army has the strength to overthrow me, as they have done with so many of my forefathers in the past. I am risking an uprising and could lose my head for helping you, for making a deal that guarantees practically nothing in exchange. Did I give you such lukewarm assurances? No. Equality is the basis of all transactions, your highness, and so far as I can tell, this bargain favors you greatly. You will need to do better than that to prove your resolve to me.”
The princess bit her lip.
Speaking of equal exchange, the life of a single person could hardly be valued the same as risking the violent takeover of an entire kingdom; how would the Emperor answer such a retort? No. There was no time to waste on arguing who had it worse, as such cycles tended to be neverending. She had to achieve progress, by whatever means.
“Then what do you propose?” she asked instead.
“I need an insurance,” the man’s basso reached easily across the silent room. “Are you prepared to stake your life, the same as myself? Are you willing to commit in the true sense of the saying? It is only then that we become equal and a contract can be made.”
“What manner of an insurance are you talking about?”
“Either you will turn your father to our cause—or you will carry the cause in his place. Do you understand? If the King cannot be reasoned with, then he must be overthrown. Either through conventional war, or by your very own hands, if necessary. How far are you willing to go for the sake of our world? Do you only preach heroic words of the path of least suffering, or are you able to take us down that road by force, if you must? Are you prepared to swear you will fight for our collective future, vow on it? With a gias?”
Yuliana looked back at the Emperor in dismay.
Gias, a self-inflicted spell, the true oath, an unbreakable curse…Where one’s words lacked power, her very soul could be made her judge. The consequences of breaking one’s gias extended into the afterlife, leaving the oathbreaker roaming the borderlands of life and death as a mindless wraith, forever consumed by rage and regret.
Yuliana was better than familiar with the concept. She had been bound by a gias already once before, in a not very distant past. That immaterial bind still chained her spirit, even now, though she did her best to hide it. The Emperor would have Yuliana take on that dreadful shackle, unaware that she was trapped from the start. The leverage he wished to obtain, he already had, and were he to learn this, there would be no room left for bargaining.
Nevertheless, the way ahead stood grim.
Either Yuliana would convince her father that the Emperor, their greatest enemy, was just. Or else she would make the King her enemy instead and help bring him down.
The King, her own flesh and blood.
For the sake of the world.
For her mentor’s life.
This contract was far from the answer to her wishes, never mind equal. The face that this two-sided blade showed the princess looked by far worse than it did for him—for it carried the danger of having her good will be exploited anyhow, wielded as a tool to enslave her and destroy her people. Just how much black could be mixed into white, while still keeping it acceptably gray and ambiguous?
“And what insurance will I have that you will honor your end of the bargain?” she therefore asked. “You aren’t willing to swear it all the same, are you?”
“I am,” the Emperor said, to her surprise. “I do not know who you take me for, but you do me injustice by doubting my intentions. My priorities are perfectly clear. If you vow to aid me, I will vow to stop the execution. Of course, I cannot vow I will not go to war, as the risk of your failure remains. But I can promise that I will hold from war for as long as you live, that your people will stand for as long as you do. I will sign the terms in my own blood, if I must. So how shall it be, your highness, Yuliana Da Via Brannan? How far do you value Colonel Marafel? Enough to deliver her from a terrible fate? How far do you value the world you inhabit? If Ortho is destroyed, Langoria goes together with it! Do you love life itself more than the old fool of a father, who drove you into exile and branded you a traitor for your selfless sacrifice? It is time we cast our differences aside and looked into one direction. Together.”
“Regardless of his deeds, it is my father you speak of...” Yuliana muttered, but without much spirit.
“My apologies. But time is of the essence. Have you made up your mind? I can stop the Executioner, yes. My word alone can even halt the tongues of flames as they climb up the stake to devour their helpless victim. I can steal the Colonel from that inferno with but one command. But that command I cannot give, unless you give me your word first. So, how shall it be?”
Yuliana raised her face and looked at the Emperor, determined, but not hiding her displeasure.
“I will do it,” she said.
“Now you show the maturity befitting your rank,” he nodded in approval.
“Spare me your patronizing.”
“Sadly, we don’t have a mage skilled enough to enforce a gias at hand, so we will have to do it the old-fashioned way: in writing. The appropriate scroll will be prepared shortly, so be ready for the signing. I will send for you once it is time.”
“Do not stall any further,” Yuliana warned him. “Betray me and I will rather haunt you as a wraith to the end of the world than aid your wretched ‘cause’. Of that, I can give you my word, without magic and theatrics.”
“Duly noted,” the man said, before turning away and leaving the room.
Again, Yuliana was left to wait.
Wait, as if it were her only role in life.
Impatient, she looked at the window.
Outside, the eastern sky was turning faintly blue.
There was still time until daybreak, but the roughly cobbled yard behind the third garrison barracks was already bustling with activity. In that square yard, near the tall back wall, stood an imposing wooden platform. The construct was certainly a show of quality carpentry in its manifold utility, well suited even for musical performances of extravagant splendor.
Of course, no music was going to be played anywhere near that stage.
On the broad platform, near the front edge, was nailed a thick, stained block of wood, where human beings could be beheaded with ease, on top of it providing unobstructed visibility for the audience below on the slightly slanted yard.
High over the stage was also raised a long, thick bar, with several mechanical trap doors under it, enabling the hanging of as many as eight people at the same time, side by side. Additionally, in the ground before the platform, a suitably wide distance apart, two tall stakes were embedded, upon which offenders could be burned without them becoming too much of a distraction from the rest of the show.
Why such a variety of torments for the wicked?
Was not one method of death perfectly sufficient for all?
Clearly not, in the lawmakers’ opinion.
Being beheaded was by all means the least painful of deaths that could be granted to a person by the current standards of technology, and therefore reserved for the less corrupt villains. Random killers, average murderers, repeated offenders—and those who found themselves in the bad books of the elite, through no obvious fault of their own, such people were granted a quick and simple way out of life.
Being hung, slowly suffocating to death—if not immediately freed from the agony via a broken neck—was naturally a level more agonizing as an experience.
It was mostly bandits, pirates, assassins, and others leading a dedicated life of crime, who had this cruel fate coming. One needed multiple innocent lives on their conscience, or to otherwise pose a significant threat to public security and property, before they would find themselves with a noose tightened around their necks. So that they could have a minute or two to reflect on their wrongdoings, before the merciful release of eternity. The Empire was by no means unreasonable or unfair with its verdicts. Generally speaking.
Who then should be burned?
As the most painful and dramatic of all available methods of execution, those to be burned were, as follows, the vilest of lawbreakers known in all land. Conspirators, traitors, serial killers, witches, non-humans, and such, who horrified the common populace with their wicked deeds and loathsome existence alone. Those, who deserved to suffer, suffer, as much as they had made others suffer, and preferably more. Not many of this variety were tried per year, but a few every now and then.
Rumors had it that today was going to be one of those days.
Lured by the gossip of someone being burned after so long, more people than usual had gathered to the execution grounds. Already well before the garrison gates were opened, a crowd of ragtag locals from the slums had pooled in the narrow, squalid street outside, waiting to be let in. Seeing those even worse off than they were, those they could hate without reservation, without fear of punishment—for many in these parts, this was the only solace to be found in their miserable lives.
But no one could foretell exactly what manner of a spectacle awaited them.
As the gates were finally opened and the crowds shifted in, they were met with a sight that rendered them speechless.
The right stake was untaken, but tied to the one on the left, on a delicate little footing high up, was a woman of exceptional beauty. Crimson curls fluttered in the wind, framing a dignified, pale face, where in place of blind fear only a distant, apathetic look could be seen.
The woman’s wrists were bound with shackles connected by a loose chain, and the chain was fastened with rope on a metal ring near the top end of the stake, pulling her elbows above her head in a vulnerable posture. Her waist as well was tied to the stake, preventing the prisoner from moving around much.
The audience followed with confounded looks as guards piled bundles of dry firewood in a tall hill reaching the prisoner’s feet, one after another, then to be doused with a generous helping of oil.
Even as this was done, the woman didn’t ask anyone for help or try to convince them of her innocence. She didn’t plead for her life like most in her position tended to do, sob or scream, but only stared off into sunrise, altogether ignoring the presence of other people.
What had such a noble-looking person done to deserve such a fate? It was a bit difficult for the elderly in the audience to understand. By the costly-looking white shirt and black trousers, the more educated could infer a connection to the military, but no rank insignia or other details to help with identification were visible. The prisoner didn’t even have shoes.
Though they knew not the verdict yet, the majority quickly went on to make up one of their own: a witch.
Surely the woman was a vile demoness, an enchantress who had abused her beauty to mask her overflowing malice from unsuspecting victims, and had crawled and clawed her way deep into the heart of the Imperial capital, before some valorous soul had finally caught her.
With a shudder, people quickly averted their faces.
More guards than usual were stationed at the execution grounds, around the occupied stake in particular. Intimidating, black-armored knights stood among ordinary army troops, members of the legendary Imperial elite. Even the less informed residents of the Gralia district quickly developed a wordless understanding that the execution today—and the identity of the “witch” in particular—was of a very delicate nature.
The citizens were going to witness the making of history and so followed the developments under tense, cautious, but hungry silence.
In time, other prisoners were marched onto the wide stage.
There was a quite a line of them, men and women, young and old, their hands all bound, their faces equally miserable. Mostly criminals from the nearby areas. The great capital had more than one prison, more than one judge, and more than one execution site, for each major district of the city, so typically the faces up there were familiar. Once a sufficient audience had gathered, the garrison gates were shut again and the show was set to begin.
Next, several official-looking figures representing the law in their red-and-white robes came out of the garrison building. Judges, attorneys, local political figureheads, and jury representatives. One of these people, a balding, slim, middle-aged man, took the role of an announcer, to read out loud the secretarial notes. He alone climbed up to the stage, while the rest took seat at a table further in the corner of the yard.
Without much suspense, they got into the business, as usual.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer spoke. “On the dawn of the twenty-first of Maarat, in the year nine hundred and ninety-nine of the thirty-third cycle: in the name of his Imperial Majesty, the following verdicts shall be put into motion, in order, starting with the least grave. The prisoners, please step forward as your name is called. Mister Jarred Bleteu, age twenty-three, for the theft of three apples and a loaf of bread, sentenced to endure thirteen whiplashes...”
“It was only half a loaf, really.”
One by one, the line of wrongdoers was processed with factory-like smoothness.
Thieves were whipped by a guard, their bared backs sliced full of deep red lines. Halfhearted jeers from the audience accompanied the criminals’ cries of agony. No doubt the lifelong scars left on this day would make them think twice before they would resort to theft again—at least, until their endless hunger made the memories of pain fade.
The next time, the number of whiplashes would be doubled.
Those unfortunate enough to get caught for the third time had their right arm cut at the wrist. The saber doing the deed was sharp enough to slice through flesh and bone with unnerving ease, making the whole procedure somewhat surreal to witness. Like the chopping of humanoid cucumbers.
The audience followed the enactment of punishments with scattered interest. These were all mere entrees and everyone was anxiously awaiting the main course.
When the mob was already turning drowsy with tedium, the atmosphere took a sharp turn more tense.
An enormous man emerged from the barracks across the yard.
Around six feet and a half tall, the man’s grotesque body looked both starved and fat, muscular at places, bony at others, his long, rough limbs dry and sinewy, like the roots of an old tree. His round, hairy stomach hung bare under a black, open-front vest. How he had managed to stuff his legs in those tight leather trousers, no one could bring themselves to guess. No easier was it to understand how he had promptly tied up the laces of his huge boots. Someone else had to have done it for him. With no other clothes, save for a black sack he had pulled over his head, hiding his whole head from view, this colossus of a man strode unhurriedly across the yard, towards the platform. Both citizens and soldiers alike pulled away from the ominous figure like he was a leper.
Pausing before the stairs leading up to the stage, the man gave the stake-bound prisoner a glance through the tiny eye holes in the sack.
“It could be that I was born for this day,” he uttered with a relishing sigh.
The prisoner, Miragrave, returned him a glance full of spite and said nothing.
Passing the stake, the man climbed the stairs to the platform, the thick boards groaning under his weight.
Left next to the block, so far unused, was an enormous, wide-bladed axe, which the man proceeded to pick up. With no visible effort, he lifted that grotesque hunk of steel high up in the air and held it there, like a star performer his microphone.
The audience was too frightened by the man’s appearance and reputation to greet him with cheers or whistles, however.
That reputation—how the Executioner tended to have great difficulty limiting his victims to those on the block. And how he, as a privileged champion and a war hero of the Empire, was above the very law he enforced, everyone a subject to his violent whims.
Surely he was not born that way?
Raleigh Vanhersia did once bear a dignified name like any other man. Hardly anyone remembered his full name anymore, however. These days, he was commonly called with names such as, “beast”, “monster”, “asshole”, or “son of a whore”, among many others not much more flattering. Even those, who were in vain trying to promote the man as a hero of Tratovia, had to content with the unimaginative title, “Executioner”.
Raleigh didn’t mind.
“Let’s get this started!” the man hollered and his voice hit the crowds like a sonic blast.
Guards brought forward the next prisoner from the line, a frail, famished-looking woman.
“Miss Dolores Stevall, known also as ‘Dule’,” the announcer read in his dry tone. “Born on the sixth of Selennam, in the year nine hundred and fifty-two. For the murder of her three infants in the years nine hundred and eighty-two, eighty-four, and ninety-six...sentenced to death by beheading.”
The audience booed, slowly overcoming their dread of the executioner. Murderers of children were regrettably frequent in the poorer areas, where the residents couldn’t afford to support a proper family. The majority loathed those who resorted to such desperate measures and showed no sympathy for Dolores. To think she had managed to hide her crimes for so long, only to be exposed by a neighbor—animosity hung nauseatingly thick in the air.
The prisoner was too shocked to even speak. Pale as a sheet, the woman was brought over to the block and forced on her knees by the guards. There was a metal ring on the floor, to which her bound hands were attached, her head and neck left exposed against the block before it. A rough-made basket was placed on the other side of the block, for a predictable purpose.
With brisk steps, Raleigh walked over to the prisoner and, almost as if by an accident, dropped the axe while passing by. Shunk! The blade bit into the block, swiftly separating the captive’s head from the rest of the body with sheer mass, sending it rolling into the basket.
“Say hello to the kids for me,” the executioner remarked.
It was now that the audience broke into bloodthirsty cheers and applause.
As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened—for it was indeed nothing out of the ordinary—the announcer went on.
“Mister Ival Alais Sehekam from Tuval, born on the twenty-eighth of Maarat, in the year nine hundred and sixty-two, for the calculated murder of his son-in-law, sentenced to death by beheading.”
Time after time again, the axe fell.
As if sweeping away garbage someone kept leaving on his block, Raleigh decapitated the convicts with downright disrespectful disinterest. One after the other, the guards kept emptying the basket of severed heads into a pile at the base of the platform, for the audience to gawk at, while the headless corpses were dragged away and cast into a large cart waiting behind the stage. In another quarter of an hour, the stage was made slippery for all the spilled blood.
After about fifteen prisoners had lost their lives before justice, the executioner suddenly lifted his boot up on the bloodied block and stopped.
“I can’t do this,” he announced in a dejected tone.
“S-sir…?” the announcer gave the man a startled look. Whenever Raleigh got into such a mood, no one could tell what would happen next.
“This, this air...I don’t like it,” the man said. “I can’t keep going like this.”
“W-whatever do you mean, sir? It doesn’t seem any different to me.”
“Yes. I’m not you. And you’re not me.”
“T-that’s obvious, no…?” the Imperial official nervously swallowed. He felt the stare of the unseen eyes behind the black hood sink into him.
“You’re stammering,” Raleigh said. “You’re...a nobody. While I—I am an entertainer.”
“Yes. That’s what we’re here for. This is entertainment. These people have come here to have fun. Everything we do is for the sake of their pleasure. For their thrill. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here, now would they?”
“I assumed we were here to uphold the law,” the announcer suggested.
“Which is entertainment,” the executioner replied. “The law doesn’t exist for trifling, trendy notions of right and wrong. It’s to appease people, to humor them, to make them feel things are working out, somehow, that those who do injustice to them are destroyed, because that’s what makes them happy and content. Do you see? In light of this, we are all fools, clowns, you and me, and the main difference between us is that I know this.”
“I-is that so…? And, what exactly do you mean to say by this?”
“We need to brighten up the mood a little.”
“Brighten the mood?”
“Fire. We need fire,” a grim voice carried through the black cloth. “I want to see flames. I want one roasted wench, with screams of agony. Right. Now.”
“But, sir,” the official protested. “We have orders to keep from burning the prisoner until further instructions arrive—”
“—I am the law here!” The large man stepped up to the announcer, grabbed his robe front and lifted him up in the air with one arm. Turning, Raleigh held the official over the edge of the platform.
“To tell you what, I can’t stand it,” the executioner whispered. “The way I hear them speak of that harlot. I hear hope in their tones. Reverence. Reverence, for a hole? No one ever spoke of me with such pride. Though I gave up so much for this land. Do you have any idea what I gave? What I took? For this land that’s not even my own? I GAVE UP EVERYTHING! Do you understand!?”
“Sir, his majesty will not allow—”
Raleigh didn’t listen to the announcer’s objections but let go of him.
The robed man fell eight feet down from the stage, onto the uneven pavement below, and was left lying there, groaning in agony while holding his leg. It seemed he had twisted or broken his ankle. Guards hurried to drag the man to safety.
Meanwhile, the hooded giant approached one of the fire pits set up on the stage and took out a burning branch. Then, ignoring the guards’ alarmed gestures, he turned back to face the prisoner at the stake and held the torch high up.
“Marafel!” he shouted at her. “My gift to you! I’d much like to give you something more of myself—but you don’t deserve it.”
Raleigh tossed the branch into the pile of wood under the stake. Shortly, the flames caught onto the streaks of oil and started to spread. The dour, gray morning was becoming simultaneously obfuscated by black smoke—and brightened up by the growing dance of fire.
Everyone’s eyes, guards and crowds alike, were stolen by the tragic sight of a woman in deadly peril. But Raleigh, too impatient to follow the slow growth of the flames, returned to his prior business and howled,
Stepping forward, the next prisoner approached the block. Indeed, she did so of her own volition, without any guards to force her, as if eager to get rid of her head. The executioner, who rarely paid any attention to who he was putting down, now looked at the convict closer with a frown.
Besides her behavior, there was something else off about her.
It was a young woman, a foreigner by the looks of her. Face too clean and full for an impoverished beggar of the slums. Instead of the prisoner’s garb or civilian clothing, she was dressed in a light, form-fitting gambeson, breeches, and leather shoes. Not a very feminine attire, or cheap. A soldier or a mercenary?
“Well, hello there,” the woman greeted the executioner with a cheerful smile. “Love the sack. I feel easier in the crowds too, when people can’t see my face. Though I usually wear shades, not bags, but I guess this world doesn’t have Ray Ban.”
“And who the Hel are you?” Raleigh asked.
Without the announcer and his list, the prisoner’s identity was left unstated.
“Itaka Izumi,” the prisoner answered on her own. “Born on the twenty-fourth of August, in the year—well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. You wouldn’t believe me anyway, and a woman’s age is something of a sensitive matter. Oh, as for my crime—I tried to kill the Emperor. Am still trying, actually. And pretty soon will.”
“...So there was someone even more insane than I left in this city?” the executioner remarked after a confused pause. “As you wish then. Onto the block.”
Izumi obediently knelt before the blood-stained stump of wood bearing the scars of numerous axe blows. One of the guards recovered enough to come bind her hands to the metal ring next to it.
The audience was torn between which show to watch, the final moments of the valiant redhead witch, or the beheading of the suspicious madwoman.
Ultimately, the former won.
The gluttonous fire was already reaching the young Colonel’s feet. Grimacing for the growing heat, Miragrave struggled to pull away from the flames, but the tight binds did their job impeccably. Izumi’s eccentricity failed to leave an impression next that desperate, hopeless struggle. Not even the executioner himself noticed when the prisoner on the block muttered something quietly under her breath.
In a hurry to get rid of this grating interruption, Raleigh absentmindedly raised the heavy axe into another act of murder, of nominal justice.
——But as soon as he did, Izumi already bounced back up to her feet and faced the axe, her hands released from their smoking bounds. Thrusting her right arm up, she blocked the weapon’s path by seizing the bottom end of the handle, and said,
Startled, Raleigh reflexively applied more strength into his arms, to force down the weapon and cut the woman down. Next to his mass, she was certainly nothing more than a humanoid toothpick. His move unexpectedly met no resistance. Izumi, receiving his wrist, turned away from under the attack. Quickly spinning three fourths of a circle around, she aimed a back kick at the executioner’s left knee to further unbalance him, and then threw the staggered man over her hip.
His shoes sliding on blood, Raleigh rolled over and landed on his back on the block, his raw mass turned against him.
Before he could recover, Izumi lifted her arm high up and dropped to elbow the cloaked face with all her weight. Like a blunt guillotine’s blade, her strike connected. A grotesque crunch sounded from the man’s neck, and the executioner’s body rolled limply down from the platform, dropping onto the pavement below with a nasty, flat slap.
The sudden turn of events finally stole the spectators’ attention. A collective gasp of surprise drowned out even the crackling of flames.
“Okay, here goes nothing...”
Picking up Raleigh’s dropped greataxe, Izumi briefly gauged its weight and faced the infernal pyre. Then, lifting the mighty weapon overhead with both hands, she took a long step forward, drawing forth all her might, and flung the slab of metal across the air.
Slicing through the smoke with an eerie whoom-whoomp, the spinning axe hit its mark, the top end of the stake sticking up from the flaming pile. The stake was shattered by the impact, split lengthwise from top to bottom, with splinters flying in every direction. The audience covered their eyes and recoiled.
Simultaneously, the ropes tying the prisoner to the stake were loosened.
Miragrave’s arms regained a degree of mobility and she hurried to pull them free. Slamming her numb palms down at the binds across her waist, she gathered focus and grunted,
Burned instantly away by a spell several tiers above a mere rune, the robes broke to ash, and the prisoner was released. Bearing with the heat and pain, Miragrave quickly secured a better footing amid the burning mound of firewood, and took a wild leap across the fire. After the steep dive, she landed rolling onto the pavement, before the eyes of the bewildered people. The witch had been released! The spectators hurried to back away the best they could, looking genuinely horrified.
Disregarding their shocked stares and gestures of warding, Miragrave frantically patted out the flames that had caught onto her trousers and shirt hems, forcing out of her mind the agonizing demise she had so narrowly avoided.
It was hardly the time to celebrate.
Unrest spread quickly. The stunned guards were starting to remember their role in the performance and clutched their spears, trying to restore order. Two close by rushed towards the captive to detain her. One was a soldier from the garrison, the other a knight of the Imperial elite, veiled in the ever-familiar black armor.
Dealing with simple guards was one thing, but fighting off the Stohenkartes unarmed was a lot asked. Even if she could move again, Miragrave was far from unharmed or in top condition, never mind ready for a fight for her life.
Fortunately, she didn’t need to test her luck either. The black knight hadn't been in a hurry to apprehend her, after all. Instead, the soldier suddenly tackled the garrison sentry from the side and punched him without much restraint. The guard was knocked out and fell to the ground, adding to the surrounding confusion. Fearing they would get caught in a fight between two armed forces, the locals succumbed in a state of general panic and began to pour towards the exit like one vague, gelatinous mass. Somewhere, an alarm bell started ringing, augmenting the already chaotic assault on the senses.
The unknown knight quickly crouched by the downed guard and went through his equipment, before turning back to Miragrave.
“Colonel,” a light voice spoke through the helmet visor, and the knight threw Miragrave a bundle of keys. “Your chains. Take his sword and fly. We’ll hold them back for as long as we can.”
“...Marceille, is it?” Miragrave noted, recognizing the voice, and caught the keys. “I’m in your debt.”
“No, ma’am. I am in yours. I thought I would go through fire for you, but I found that I could not. Fear held me back. This cowardice will stain my honor to the end of my days. But rest assured, the Divines know I will not hesitate again.”
“Don’t die. That's an order.”
The knight named Marceille nodded and dashed to assist her comrades in holding back the garrison guards, and help the citizens escape.
“Medium-rare, or well done?” Izumi asked, suddenly appearing from the surrounding smoke and chaos.
“How and why in the blazes are you here?” Miragrave asked her with scowl.
“I came to rescue you, why else?” Izumi replied with a shrug. “Although, I have to say there’s no plan from here on. I thought I’d just improvise things until this point, and leave the rest to you. Since planning is more your line of business.”
“It can’t be called a rescue until your target is in safety,” Miragrave told her. “But a distraction you’ve certainly made. We’ll have to make use of that.”
“How do we get out then? Blend with the crowd and sneak past the guards?”
“No,” the former Colonel shook her head. “No one’s getting out. Now that the alarm has been sounded, all the garrison will rush in to restore order. They will seal off the block and comb through the crowds and buildings until they find what they want. And slay those who resist.”
“But there is a way out, right?”
“We must take the path they least expect us to. Head into the barracks.”
“Hiding in the vipers’ nest?” Izumi scratched her ear. “I sure didn’t expect that.”
“We’re not hiding,” the woman told her. “Down in the cellars, there is an underground passage. Not many know about it. It will take us outside Gralia district and to the outskirts. Unnoticed, if we're lucky.”
“Not to look the gift horse in the mouth, but how do you know about it?” Izumi asked.
“I enlisted here,” Miragrave sternly answered. “This place is my second home. Now move it. If we are very, very lucky, the building will be empty. Try not to attract any more attention than you already have.”
Using the bewildered crowds and the smoke from the scattered fire for cover, the two made their way towards the tall barracks across the yard.
“But what’s the catch?” Izumi couldn’t help but ask as they ran. “It’s not going to be this easy, is it?”
Looking cautiously around, Miragrave responded,
“I don’t see Zaxon anymore. He was in the crowd, but disappeared after the commotion began. Expect trouble.”
And, under her breath, impossible for Izumi to hear, she added,
“He’s the one who showed me the passage.”
The barracks appeared largely empty inside. Most troops at the garrison were busy containing the restless locals outside, and trying to capture the rogue knights and prisoners mixed among them. More than a few convicts had managed to get away in the commotion and were fighting for their lives.
Still, it would only be a matter of time before the army would get the situation back under control again, and the search for the escapees would be extended to cover the nearby buildings. They had to get as far away as possible before then. Avoiding the few lingering guards in the hallways and stealthily making their way through the building, Izumi and Miragrave headed towards the northern end and the path hidden in the cellars therein.
On the way, they came to a spacious dining hall.
Dozens of plain, long tables, half-emptied plates and bowls on them, hundreds of scattered, worn-out chairs, some knocked down by the occupants hurried departure. The alarm had caught several diners in the midst of their meal, it seemed.
How nostalgic a sight it had to have been for the former garrison trainee, Izumi could only guess. Even if her companion held some fond memories of the place, the mess hall in its crude simplicity and bleak chalk walls was all-in-all an unpleasant view to behold for the earthling. Izumi would have preferred to keep going, but they were compelled to take a short break. Miragrave had bad-looking burns along her left leg, upper arm, and back, which she now cleansed with water from the kitchen, gritting her teeth but not letting a sound escape.
“Are you going to be all right?” Izumi asked her with some concern.
“This is nothing,” Miragrave defiantly replied, leaning her back on the counter between the hall and the kitchen, gathering her strength. “I am a soldier and not a stranger to hurt. Though you do seem to have a knack for catching me at my less fine moments.”
“Now’s no time for the tough act,” Izumi scolded the Colonel. “Only us girls here. If it really hurts then you should just say so.”
“Hmph,” Miragrave only returned her a wry look. “Speaking of which, you have saved my life once again. What are you aiming for, anyway, going out of your way to rescue one such as I? There is nothing left I can give you, and being so indebted to another is not something I can claim to enjoy.”
“Would it kill you to just say thanks for once? I’d be fine with that.”
“Yes,” the Colonel replied with a faint smile. “See? I am a frigid, ungrateful woman like that. I compare not to your princess in the slightest. Therefore, your recklessness for my sake make no sense.”
“Is that pride or self-loathing, I really can’t tell,” Izumi sighed. “I did get advised against it—but at the same time, there are tons of people who’d hate to see you go, right? Yule for one. I’m not looking to get anything out of this in particular, even though a kiss on the cheek, or a tight squeeze, or something even more fanservice-y would be kind of nice. At the end of the day, I’m just doing mankind a favor. I told you before, didn’t I? I’m the defender of pretty girls everywhere in the world. If I build up enough good karma, it’s bound to pay back handsomely some day. I just know it.”
“As usual, your words remain incomprehensible to me,” Miragrave commented with a helpless sigh.
“Be that as it may, we should probably keep going, if you’re up to it. I’ve a bad feeling about this place, so I’d rather not stick around any longer than we have to.”
“You’re right. The way to the cellars is beyond here, down the hallway past the kitchen, and to the right,” Miragrave instructed the earthling. “There, down the stairs, and across the corridor, until the furthermost storage room. There should be a trap door by the left side wall, covered by a mattress. Through there, we will come to a tunnel that will take us underground.”
“Oh, it’s an underground level next?” Izumi remarked. “Love those. How big are the rats? There aren’t any frogs that spew petrifying gas, are there?”
“It’s not rats or frogs that worry me. But you’re right that we should be on our way.”
Ready to resume their journey, the two women turned to leave the hall.
But it was at the same time, that two soldiers suddenly stumbled into the hall through a side door. For a couple of seconds, the two parties stared at each other in surprise.
Recovering, the guards drew their swords and charged at the suspicious pair. Instead of running away, seeing that there were no more than two enemies coming, Izumi and Miragrave turned to confront them instead.
Surprised by the sudden change of pace, the soldiers halted and hesitated.
“Adena firis!” Miragrave held out her palm and cried. At once, a narrow flash of lightning shot out from the air before her hand, together with a thick puff of black smoke and embers. The obscure bolt struck the closest soldier in the chest and knocked him back like a ragdoll. As the second troop stood stunned by his comrade’s preternatural fall, Izumi dashed at him. Staggering him with a palm strike to the chin, she seized his sword-hand with a firm, two-handed grip, and impaled the soldier with his own weapon.
“You know how to use magic?” Izumi turned back to ask Miragrave. “I thought you were a commando? How come you get to main two classes? That’s just not fair!”
“Thaumaturgical studies are mandatory in officer training,” the Colonel answered with a hint of pride. “And I was hand-picked for Ledarnia. Although, I must admit that my knowledge of the Art is fairly narrow in scope.”
“That’s still a lot better than what I know. Hey, maybe you could—”
“Now’s not the time. More soldiers could be nearby. We should move on.”
Miragrave urged Izumi to keep going and they turned to head in the kitchen’s direction. But at the same time...a wrathful roar came from outside the dining hall.
——“I CAN HEAR YOU! COME OUT AND FACE ME, YOU COWARDLY WHORES!”
The two women paused, struck with disbelief. They could both recognize that coarse, bear-like voice, for having heard it not long ago. What the sound suggested should have been impossible, and yet, their senses clearly assured them otherwise.
“Raleigh...” Miragrave muttered with a disgusted frown.
“What a stubborn scumbag,” Izumi sighed. “I knew I should’ve chopped his head clean off to make sure.” She then gestured for the Colonel to go on. “I really don’t want to fail this rescue mission by getting the VIP killed halfway through, so why don’t you go ahead and wait for me someplace safe? I’ll clean up and follow as soon as I can.”
“There is no reason to stay behind to fight that animal. We should make our escape. He cannot catch up with that body of his.”
“But the noise he makes will bring the whole company to us. I’d like a bit bigger a headstart, since I’m really not the running type. I’ve lost enough weight by now, I only have so many cups left.”
“...Suit yourself,” Miragrave gave up and turned to leave. “Yes, it’s probably better this way.”
“Nothing. I trust that this is not a problem for you, after how you made short work of my company. Happy hunting.”
Masking her feelings in irony, the red-haired woman disappeared through the kitchen door, while Izumi, shaking off the doubts creeping up from her subconscious, stepped in the opposite direction to intercept their pursuer.
Soon enough, the executioner’s large bulk pushed through the doorway in the other end of the hall. Despite the beating Izumi had given him only a short while ago, his malevolent frame appeared to be—if not the very image of good health—at least fully functional, and armed again with his dreadful greataxe.
Finding his prey, the hooded man halted his steps.
“Ah, there you are. How courteous of you to wait for me,” Raleigh remarked. “Yes, I should thank you, wench. Not only have you returned me the thrill of the hunt I’ve missed for too long, you have delivered the good Colonel from the fire. Now I may take my time to inflict upon her every defilement I can think of, while the rest of the Empire presumes her dead.”
“And why are you still walking?” Izumi ignored him and asked. “I’m pretty sure I cracked your neck. Even if you are a pretty big guy, there’s no way your ligaments are any tougher than those of an average person.”
“I know, I probably should have died back there—if only I were an ordinary man, that is,” the brute replied. “Unfortunately for you, this is Raleigh, the hero of the Empire feared across all Noertia, that you look upon! Ha!”
“That really doesn’t explain much.”
“It is a story you want? Then listen!” Slowly waving his hand, as if to illustrate a fairy tale, the man explained. “Back on the night I was born, a bright star was seen in the skies. My father took that as a sign and went to see a wandering prophet, to ask what would become of his firstborn son. Would he grow up a just man, build a name for himself as a hero, prosper, and bring glory to the ancestors? How should he best help his child reach this glorious destiny? That’s what he wanted to know. Well, what do you think the prophet answered him?”
“Let me guess,” Izumi said, “you didn’t win the lottery of life?”
“Ha! ‘Your son will become a downright bastard,’ the old coot told my father. ‘And the greatness of his villainy will only be matched by his hairy, fat belly. He will not die unknown, of that you can be sure, but not a soul will mourn his passing either’. That was it. My father had paid his life savings to hear such words and there was no taking them back. Well, since he knew for certain that his son was going to grow up a wretched asshole, he obviously went on to treat him as such from the toddler up, never sparing his whip. Which probably had a bit of an effect in how I turned out. Funny how it works.”
“Yeah, so sorry for you, but you still didn’t answer the question.”
“But I did, you fool!” Raleigh howled. “Figure it for yourself! Why do you think I wear this stinky sack on my head, you daft assassin? To look evil and mad? ‘He will not die unknown’! Do you understand the power of the prophet’s words? I cannot die, no matter what, so long as my killer knows not my face! HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAH!”
“Oh wow, what a messed-up charm,” Izumi groaned. “But are you sure you should’ve told me? All that means is that I’ll have to pull off the sack first before I kill you again.”
“Don’t think it’s going to be that simple! You caught me by surprise once, I give you that, but you may not find it half as easy this time. Know true despair as you bleed out in agony, knowing your hope was within an arm’s reach, and yet much too far!”
Brandishing his weapon, Raleigh took a step forward.
“If only I got a hundred yen each time I heard that,” Izumi sighed, measuring the borrowed soldier’s sword in her hand, before quickly correcting herself.
“I meant gold.”