The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Two: The Faithful False
We retreated into a network of side streets where we could escape if necessary and where we'd easily hear anyone approaching. The night was cool enough to frost our breath. The smell of refuse lingered beneath the familiar city smells of dirt, sweat, horse dung, and boiled potatoes.
When I thought us safe, I turned and held up a hand. “Speak quickly.”
“First let's make certain I have the right person. You are Tibeth, servant at Mirford Manor?”
I nodded, never taking my eyes from the man's face. A muscle in my calf twitched, as if reminding me that flight was still an option.
“My name is Bradach,” he said. “I have traveled many miles and followed convoluted divinations to find Mirford Manor, and you.” He lowered his voice further. “I am on a mission, a dangerous one, involving the house at which you work. I had hoped—”
I held up my hand again. “Before you speak further, you should know that whatever this mission is and however far you've come, you have the wrong person if you think I would do anything to betray my master. He is a good and patriotic man. I would sooner go straight to him with all you've said and risk punishment than be involved in a plot against him.”
Bradach raised an eyebrow. “Your devotion is admirable, and unexpected. Are you not a slave?”
My shoulders lifted and brow furrowed as I took a deep breath. “Servant, if you please. My family has willingly served the Mirford family for three generations. My master appreciates the qualities we bring to his household. In my youth, I was educated and trained in many skills beyond a simple kitchen slave's abilities. So you see, I have no wish to betray the man who has been so kind to me.”
“I do see.” Bradach rubbed his chin. “Yet I must ask, do you know what role your master serves in the city?”
“He is a member of the Revolutionary Council,” I said. “Everyone knows as much. He assists the city in protecting itself and works to uncover those who would harm us.”
“Those who would harm you.” There was no question or malice in Bradach's voice, but I took offense nonetheless.
“Traitors. Sympathizers. Rats that gnaw at the foundation of Galt. My master finds them and has them executed.”
“And every executed person is guilty?”
“Y-yes. Of course, yes.”
"Bradach would undermine the very heart of the Revolution."
“Not a convincing reply.” Bradach's voice was smooth and even, almost gentle. “You're certain only the guilty lie with Razor Jenni?”
“What do you want with me?” I spoke too loudly and cupped my hand over my mouth, hushing myself.
Bradach glanced over his shoulder to ensure we were still alone. “I come from the River Kingdoms. I had expected to find a slave, ill-treated, who would sympathize with my cause. My case may now be harder to make.”
“What,” I repeated, “do you want with me?”
“The River Kingdoms are free, and I wish to spread their message across the land.” Bradach spoke as if he hadn't heard me. “I have my own reasons for wanting to start here. I have researched a spell—it's untested, but I believe it will help release many innocent souls.”
“What is this spell?”
“If you're not willing to help, I'm not sure I should tell you.”
“If you won't tell me, I don't know if I'm willing to help.”
Bradach studied me. I flushed. My quick retort had shown my hand. I was entertaining the idea of helping him, or at least not hindering him. If only he hadn't asked are you certain...
It was her or me!
“The spell,” he finally said, “should release the spirits trapped in Razor Jenni. Though those executed will remain dead, their souls will be freed to travel on to whatever reward or punishment they merit.”
I drew in a sharp breath. The great terror of a final blade is not that it is an instrument of death. As the condemned marches up the wooden steps to where the weighty frame holds its razor edge aloft, his fear comes from the knowledge that there is nothing for him after death. His soul will remain trapped in that bloody blade. It is this fear, my master says, that deters so many from considering or attempting treason.
Then why do so many die? I wanted to ask. If it deters them, then why do so many die? But I dared not ask. Those who ask make that grim march themselves.
“Free their souls...” I whispered.
“Yes.” Bradach's voice grew eager, almost desperate. “To remain trapped forever in that horrible device—I cannot even find words to describe it. Some of those spirits may be guilty, yes, but they were people, people with families, friends... lovers...” He struggled to maintain his composure. “I am here to test the spell. If it works, I will use it to free all such imprisoned. Will you help?”
“What do you need me to do?” I asked.
∗ ∗ ∗
He needed me to betray my master.
Chores always filled my days, and I worked as hard as I could to distract myself from Bradach's proposal. That afternoon I stood in the manor's kitchen, trying to find comfort in the crackling fire. I had not committed myself to Bradach's mission yet, but had asked for time to think about it. Now I wished I had given him either a firm yes or no; the internal debate that kept surfacing in my mind wore me out more quickly than washing windows.
It seemed simple to say no, easy to say no, right to say no. The moment I fixed it in my mind that I would say no, though, Bradach's question resurfaced: Are you certain they were all guilty?
Then I would think of her, and my thoughts would fly apart again.
More than two seasons had passed with no arrests or investigations led by my master. Panic had grown within me. “Those without use to the nation are the first fingered as traitors,” my father always said, and my master had many enemies.
She had arrived in the city the previous week, a human woman traveling alone. I found no relatives of hers in Edme. I followed her. She visited unsavory elements in town, asking questions about noble families executed during the start of the Revolution. One night I observed her prowling around the ruins of an old manor house. She uncovered a book, one of the family ledgers in which the nobles recorded births, weddings, and deaths.
Eager to present my master with someone, I turned her in without further investigation. She was obviously looking for a tie to her family, seeking to prove her noble lineage. The decadent nobility had condemned Galt to years of oppression under imperial rule. To willingly seek out a connection to them was indefensible.
She tried to defend herself. She claimed to be the child not of the noble family, but of the servants who had worked in the manor and had helped overthrow their masters. Her parents, she claimed, were commoners lost in the Revolution, and she was searching for relatives who might have survived. Others had tried such stories before, but she spoke so clearly, so simply, that I believed her.
Or did I? I gasped as I sliced the kitchen knife slid off the carrots and over my finger. Blood pooled on the chopping block. I had no proof of her innocence, but her calmness and certainty in the face of her accusers had caught in my memory.
When she mounted the steps for her final meeting with Razor Jenni, I told myself it was her or me.
“Are you all right?”
I squeaked and spun around. The master stood there, looking at me with concern. He had changed out of his work clothes and into a simple navy robe and slippers. A wooden medallion displaying the flag of Galt hung from his neck. Though I remained young even after my many years of service, he showed signs of age. His face displayed new lines every year, and gray streaked his hair.
“It's nothing, sir,” I said. I wrapped my finger in a handkerchief. “A bit of carelessness on my part.”
“Be careful with yourself. I can't afford to lose my best servant.” He smiled down on me and I nodded. “I'll be leaving in the morning for Isarn. Can you have my things packed and brought down before I retire?”
“Yes, sir.” I swallowed. “That's earlier than usual. Is anything wrong?”
He raised an eyebrow. “A simple schedule accommodation. Should I be concerned about something?”
My mouth was dry. I had to swallow again. “The execution last month... I hope my evidence was sound enough. Those who seek your position might try to discredit you by casting doubt on my findings.”
We had never talked so openly about my work before. Always I reported my investigations to him, clearly and concisely, but said nothing about my motivations, or his. The master crouched down and put a hand on my shoulder. It covered my arm halfway to my elbow.
“Tibeth, there is nothing for you to worry about. Your findings were sound, and had they not been, I would have found ways to compensate.” He squeezed my shoulder lightly. “You continue to find suitable targets and I will ensure there's suitable evidence. I rely on you, you know. You keep both my position and Galt safe.”
My head spun. I thought for a moment I might faint. I forced myself to relax and smoothed the expression from my face. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
He left me standing next to the bloody carrots. I slumped against the counter until the dizziness passed.
For his spell, Bradach needed a bit of heartwood from the tree that died to make Razor Jenni's frame. My master wore a bit of that wood around his neck. I never saw him without it.
I went upstairs to my attic room and laid a handkerchief over the sill as if to dry it, a sign Bradach and I had arranged last night. The wizard would see it and know to meet me in the university quadrangle at midnight. There I would give him the medallion and help set the souls in Razor Jenni free.
∗ ∗ ∗
I stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to my master's room, summoning the courage to take the first step.
In my service to my master, and to Galt, I had followed traitors and seditionists through dark and abandoned streets. I had unlocked windows and searched people's houses for evidence. Once, I had even been forced to fight for my life when I encountered a looter in the building I'd come to search. Still, I had never felt the nervous dread I felt now as I looked up that shadowed staircase.
When I could bear the tension no longer I took the first tentative step. It was easy to make my way silently up the stairs; I knew the creaky boards by heart.
I reached my master's door and stopped. My pulse thrummed in my ears. The door latch stood at shoulder height to me, and I could peer easily through the keyhole. I saw only darkness and heard the even breaths of my master as he slept. When I lifted my hands to the lock, the muscles in my fingers twitched as if rebelling against the act.
I knew of a trap on the door, a simple spring-loaded needle coated in a toxic substance. My master left the trap unset during the day, when I might need to enter his room, and set it every night before sleep. I lit a candle and worked carefully by its meager light. I had seen traps like this before and cautiously traced my way down to the triggering wire. I snipped the wire in half with a tiny blade. I carried the rest of my tools as well as a small dagger, though I could never attack my master. The tumblers in the lock gave me more trouble than the trap did, and it was several minutes before I finally turned the last one over. I blew out the candle and eased the door open.
The familiar objects of the room seemed sinister in the moonlight. The bed, with my master slumbering quietly beneath the quilts, sat in one corner of the room. Four wooden posts, each one twice as tall as I, held up the bedframe. I saw the medallion hanging from its leather strap on the post flush in the corner.
I padded to the side of the bed. My master did not stir. Chill sweat covered my body and made me shiver. I rested my hands on the quilt and, with precise movements, pressed down until I had the leverage to pull myself onto the bed.
My weight was so little that I barely made a dent in the mattress. Still, I waited until I was certain that my master slept soundly before I rose. My shoeless feet found it easy to keep purchase on the lumpy surface. I took slow and shallow breaths between each step, straining to hear any whisper or rustle to signal my master's wakening. I stopped next to the pillows. My master's head rested inches away. He lay on his back, looking untroubled in sleep. Guilt stabbed through me.
Before I could change my mind, I placed one hand on the wall to steady myself and reached with the other. I stretched to my limit until I could grab the medallion with one swift clutch.
It seemed as though a thousand bees stung my palm at once. I howled and fell backward onto the bed. The amulet flew from my grasp. My master woke instantly, bellowing and thrashing in the bedclothes. I rolled off the bed and hit the floor with a gasp, the wind knocked out of me.
I felt a peculiar pang of betrayal. My master had not told me he kept his medallion warded.
A foot crashed down next to my head. I rolled away, sucking in breath as my lungs began to work again. I scrabbled madly on the floor for the medallion. There wasn't much light but I remembered the sound of the medallion landing and followed my instincts.
“Tibeth!” my master shouted. “Tibeth!” It wasn't until afterward that I realized he was probably shouting for me to come, not yet recognizing the thief on the ground before him. I heard him draw a blade from a scabbard. My hand closed over the smooth wood of the medallion.
There was no shock this time. I scrambled to my feet. A sword blade came slicing down. I threw myself to the side. The sword bit into the wooden floor and spat splinters at me. I spun around, disoriented, trying to find the door.
My master raised the sword again and paused, holding the blade aloft. “Tibeth?”
I ran out the door and down the stairs, into the night, holding the medallion before me like a shield.
Coming Next Week: Final blades and first steps in the final chapter of "The Seventh Execution."
Amber E. Scott is the author of "The Swamp Warden" and several chapters in "The Compass Stone: The Collected Journals of Eando Kline," as well as numerous Paizo RPG products such as Heart of the Jungle and Halflings of Golarion. She writes from her home in Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and her two cats, Dabu and ZugZug.
Art by Mike Capprotti.