THIRTY-THREE TALES OF WAR XXII: THE EXECUTIONER
Civil war rages in the black-blooded nation of Kandrisev. Its citizens grow restless. They demand their voices be heard. These are their stories laid out in thirty-three tales of war.
THE sky was a burial shroud: deep grey and shot through with streaks of white. Light rain wet a tall pinewood pole sticking out of the mud in the heart of an ancient redoubt. Under its outstretched arm, a puddle sat stagnant in the shape of two feet. The thin shadow of a rope cut across its still surface.
The Executioner inspected the gallows. It was hastily built, but safe. He tugged the noose. Safe as a gallows could be, anyway.
The condemned had been offered poison: hemlock and poppy wine. It was refused. Poison, the Executioner decided, would be his preferred death were his role ever reversed. To choose hanging seemed foolish. The precedent it set was a grim one. Lots of northern Upperbirths were about to die now that the North had been brought to heel. Lots of debts had to be repaid.
The jail door banged open. Two Roseheart warriors entered the courtyard ahead of a woman clad in magnificent red robes, accompanied by a man who bore a richly-embroidered sling of crimson linen, no less well-dressed than his wife. A child no older than two napped inside the folds of the sling. Behind the trio followed two more Rosehearts.
A second entourage arrived not long after: an aging woman costumed in gold and black walking ahead of four warriors with tarry laurel wreaths emblazoned on their yellow tunics.
The Executioner bowed his head as they passed. The Red and Yellow Queen halted at a small wooden platform built directly in front of the gallows and seated themselves on cushioned stools. The man and child sat between them.
Finally, the jailer appeared from the side door. He pulled an emaciated young woman toward the gallows by a rope tied around her skeletal wrists. Bloody footprints stained the rocky ground: dark, black, and glistening. Despite her withered state, she maintained good posture and stared ahead.
For the briefest moment, her presence humbled the Executioner. This was, of course,the fabled Blue Queen of Kandrisev—the caste whore, the blue bitch, the false prophet. It took seventeen years, but she had finally been deposed: the first and last nezhdoya queen.
The Executioner helped her onto a step stool and fit the noose around her neck, waiting with bated breath for her inevitable cries for mercy. Everyone cried when faced with death. Everyone begged. Everyone bargained. Upperbirth or lowbirth, dignified or ignoble, pure or corrupt, every soul clamoured to remain alive.
The Blue Queen stayed silent.
He frowned. Invoking fear in others didn’t titillate him, but it did signal a job well done. Who wasn’t afraid of death? Even he found it hard to glimpse corpses as they were wheeled away to be burned.
Ah, yes. Burning. The Blue Queen’s soul wouldn’t like that very much. Special instructions had come from the Yellow Queen herself: no trace of her existence was to remain. The last thing the North needed were holy relics. Still, such a fate was taboo in the northern faith.
The Executioner looked to the Yellow Queen. She stood. “I, Elgana Rusalya of the Yolkerev dynasty, Queen of Chariv, Protectress of Ochetsk and Rahvesk, Conqueress of the North and by that right Rirtsriya of Kandrisev, hereby sentence Sofezhka, a nezhdoya woman belonging to the Ranov family, to be hanged by the neck until dead for her crimes against the benevolent folk of Kandrisev. By my mercy she is granted an opportunity to speak her last words.”
Still, the Blue Queen remained silent.
“Ayryi?,” the Executioner whispered. “What say you in your final moments?”
Her voice was thin and quiet. “I pray it is known I have done all I could.”
He raised an eyebrow. For a woman of her import, that was a rather lackluster statement. Even the lowest of Upperbirths had some long-winded speech spun up in an attempt to stall the inevitable. The Executioner tightened the noose. “Are you sure that’s all?”
The Blue Queen nodded.
Smirking, the Executioner readied himself. Even if the Blue Queen put on a good show of stoicism, everyone gasped when they had no air. Everyone flailed and choked, their faces contorting into grotesque and twisted masks of pain. Everyone fought to stay alive, clawing at the rope around their necks, raking their skin until black blood ran down their chests in rivulets just so they might draw breath.
And, when the Yellow Queen nodded and the Executioner kicked the stool away, the Blue Queen of Kandrisev died just like everyone else.