Thursday, July 29, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XIX

Chapter Seven

September 42, 440 Y.A.

I’ll not forget that day. Because neither of us slept, dawn came tinged with that fatigue that distorts both perception and emotion – and anxiety only took us further. We only stopped standing in her doorway when the first troop of vendors shuffled east, glum and wordless in the dawn, their brown backs bent beneath loads and packs of flour and of yeast. Long ago, the Bakers Guild had realized that market vendors needed breakfast too, and negotiated a special dispensation from the Temple, which insists that selling without sun is sin. What the bakers eat, I suppose, no one has ever risen soon enough to know.

Such were my thoughts. The mind accelerates when worry finds no new information, expanding upon irrelevant detail. But the sound of the baker’s clogs on the stone had startled us inside. When you expect the guards to come for you, every sound brings them near.

“Do you know anyone?” she asked. “I mean, anyone who would know?”

“No one close,” I said, thinking of the aged farmers north of Ariel. “No one in the city. You?”

She nodded. “The owner of a saloon in the Gates, the man who inducted me. He bought a painting from me the very next day and was deliciously embarrassed. But,” she added sighing, “perhaps the square is all the further we’ll need to go.”

I could only nod in turn. Executions take place over the Healing Well, so that the condemned might hope that their souls, at least, will be restored as the First Faith’s once was.

“We should go, then,” I said. “We’ll learn nothing just waiting here.” The executions, if any, will not be announced. The first Faith’s edict that all executions shall be public doesn’t stop the Temple from holding them without announcement. Those who need to see, the Temple argues, will come. Those who would constitute the public eye must volunteer.

Adlasola looked at her paintings, nodding. “Truly, I make nothing today.” We turned out the door and left. Whether we closed it or not, I surely do not know. But I do recall that as we left the first beggar’s wail rang through the streets, their joint ululation an older timekeep than the first clock of the first guild that ever was. It is a song I myself remember participating in, precisely at the sunrise, and I doubt it will ever fail to haunt me. It is the song of hunger and of poverty, and of everything the Temple surely must continue. It is the song of human hopelessness, and I do not doubt that I shall hear it in my grave.

Adlasola shivered, and gathered my great gray cloak around her. I’d given it to her deep in the night, when even Ariel’s mild climes grow chill. Somehow, it felt even colder now, and I saw our breath mist upwards into the sharp sunshine that was just then climbing down into the streets. We walked swiftly as we could, brushing past bunches of jugglers and a brace of knife-makers gossiping about their trade. Every guard eyes us suspiciously, no matter the color of their armor. Both my name and hers would be prominent if they had him, and if Ryn Batyst broke under torture. But I had no doubt he would. The Temple always finds its answers. I have never paid as much attention to a crowd as I did that day, and counted eight eternities until we finally arrived.

The scaffold was huge and wooden and erect, constructed from the same planks the Temple always uses for such purposes. But it was built in the manner common to that of other instruments of its kind, a skeleton of lumber cut to raw planks and beams and weathered from its storage space behind the Temple. I remembered finding that pile many years ago, as a curious urchin child not yet tamed by Historian Staleph’s Rule for Building Productive and Harmonious Youth. Noting that the hired workmen for the most part had departed for the day, I felt little older standing there much later, my childhood quite behind me.

Salaan wasn’t going to dismantle it, of course. A mind as subtle as his would want to know how the populace reacted to the public threat of execution. Adlasola and I stopped cold.

“We don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know who it is.”

I nodded weakly. I had few doubts. It was too much coincidence.

“Ryn Batyst,” a voice behind us said. Adlasola’s face cracked like an egg, though she recovered in an instant. I turned to face the man, and found one of those with pale, plump faces and oversized, pouting lips who tend to populate such events. “Know who that is?” he asked, with repulsive eagerness. Those who volunteer to watch are seldom those who should. I shook my head. Many would not know, necessarily, the Head of the Smiths or a sitting member of the Public of the Guilds. I need not count myself among them. The man passed on, and Adlasola looked at me strangely. I looked at the ground and prayed that the lingering grace of the Profusion would return full flush in the next instant and I would not have to watch my friend die a hanging death.

“You don’t have to,” said Adlasola. “We could leave –”

I shook my head. “I never had a father. At least, I didn’t think I did.” I looked at the ground and thought. Another twelve eternities ground by, writhing and tangling together like worms in fresh-turned earth. The shadows of the scaffold shifted. It turned toward midmorning; noon, I remembered from my instruction, is the customary time for executions. They’re torturing him, I thought. Right now, they’re subjecting him to pain a thousand times greater than that I received in getting my scars. I redirected a second unhealthy man who thought I might have some acquaintance with the accused. A short while later, Adlasola restrained me from pummeling a third. The bakers set out the best of their morning work, and yeast and spices filled the air. A while later and all around us, the beggars wailed for their midday meal.

“It isn’t safe,” she said. “We might draw attention.” Her hand clenched my shoulder and it hurt. I think it took me a long time to answer. All morning long, I had watched only the guards and lingering workmen. There’d been no Historians to recognize us.

“It isn’t even unjust,” I said. “He was really going to try to kill them.” Four workmen were playing one last round of cards. A full squad of eight Green Guards lounged here and there against supporting struts – tired, I supposed, from their long night of excruciation. Had he even killed any of them? Had Batyst so much as gotten inside the Temple?

“It’s unjust,” she said, “that he is there and I am not.” Her voice was small and quiet, like a child’s. I shook my head but found nothing else to say.

When the sun came directly overhead they brought him out. The Temple has its own prison, of course, in the levels beneath its cellar, though it has often been too full of late to hold new arrests, and most of its prisoners end up in the care of the Whites regardless. But Ryn Batyst had been held there for questioning, and they brought him up through a gate in the western wall whose stairs, I knew, went three levels straight down.

First came his grand, proud head, covered in that same jade hood and mask that is worn by the Temple’s executor. The public cheered and I joined in, lest Adlasola and I appear suspicious. Adlasola only watched me anxiously. Then his broad shoulders rose above the earth, garbed in the burlap clothes of Temple prisoners and stooped with, I hoped, the fatigue of his efforts to escape. Then came the ample chest and stomach and hips. Ryn rose, sliding upwards from the earth like some earthen sun.

But he also lurched. He staggered and could barely stand. Two of the Green Guards supported him once he had reached the level of the street. I thought he must have been hot in the coarse burlap the Temple had provided. The cool of the morning had gone and I began to sweat beneath my clothes. I was holding my cloak again, though I could not remember when Adlasola handed it back to me. She looked at me strangely again, and I frowned.

“What – ” I began to ask. The procession toward the scaffolding had paused.

“Del, I –” she started again, then stopped.

“Citizens of Ariel!” boomed a voice from the electronic system that limns the Temple walls. I started not only at the sound, but also at the intonation. Adlasola gasped, though I knew she could not know the man. For she had killed Senre, and not Salaan, and this was not even that latter, whose authority is so supreme that even the urchins in Ariel know the cadences of his voice. No, the Temple had sent no grand official to speak condemnation over Ryn Batyst. They had sent instead the Apprentice Marl, the understudy of a dead and discredited official.

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