There, within the flat center of market square, two bodies were chained to thick, towering posts. I could almost see Corra’s brown hair swirl around her face and felt the singe anew to my own when I gazed at Cid’s tall form next to her.
Were they scared?
My nails, buffed and painted crimson to match my lips, scraped over the rough stone wall. Tap, tap, tapping to the sound of the executioner’s bell that blared six times, loud enough for the entire kingdom to hear. Every resident knew what it meant.
There was a time, however brief, when the sound of the six haunting chimes would chase my dreams into nightmares as a child.
When my father had overheard my mother hushing me back to sleep one night, he’d plucked someone from the dungeon and dragged me out of bed at dawn the following morning.
“Listen,” he’d said, walking me to the square. “They’re a warning. A final beating of one’s heart. A reminder. And one of your greatest weapons.”
“A weapon?” I’d squeaked.
His hands had gripped my shoulders, his voice riddled with that crazed excitement that sometimes scared me. “Yes, yes. A weapon.” Another squeeze, then he’d pointed at where a body was being lifted into the air. “The sound of the six bells are enough to send a stake of fear through any foe’s heart. Believe me, they are your friend, your protector, and your enforcer, all wrapped in six deadly chimes.”
I’d swallowed as we reached the thickest part of the crowd, and he’d moved me closer to the wooden dais that was smattered with speckles of brown stains.
The scent of excrement hung thick in the air. It made my stomach churn and my nose twitch. My eyes lifted, and my spine locked as a man with clay-colored eyes gazed down upon me, muttering, “Please, please, please…”
“Father,” I’d started.
“Quiet,” he snapped. “Watch. If I see your eyes leave the sentenced, I will pick another to hang. Perhaps one of the children who are still sleeping in their beds.”
I’d have given anything to still be sleeping in my own bed. To be able to look away as a guard pulled a lever and the snap of the man’s neck had ricocheted through the square.
His soul fled his eyes, and I swore I felt a cold breeze dust my right hand before the crowd began to part, and he was left there to hang.
“Good,” my father had said, his hands so heavy on my shoulders, and my knees trembling so hard, I prayed to the goddesses’ that I wouldn’t fall. “Now, was that anything to be afraid of?” He shook my shoulders when I didn’t answer.
But my stomach heaved. So violently I’d coughed, then swallowed the rising bile. “No, Father.” I forced my eyes back to the dead man. Forced them to see it for what it was.
Flesh and bone and deceit.
And those who deceive the crown in any way, shape, or form must be dealt with accordingly.
“They’re waiting for you,” Azela said now.
I turned from the wall, my hands stiff and my nails ruined as though I’d dug them into the stone and mortar.
Azela looked from them to me, her eyes narrowing. “Are you okay?”
I tugged my white fur-lined black cloak tighter around me, brushing past her. “Just fine. Any news on Ainx?”
“Not yet, no.”
We descended the stairs, around and around until we’d reached the ground entrance, then crossed through the throne room to the courtyard. “Why did you return with me?”
“You are my queen.” It was said as if it should’ve been reason enough. And perhaps it should have been.
“He needs you, and you’re clearly worried.” I peered over at her as we met with the rest of my guards. They took their positions around us, and we moved to the gates. “You should go back.”
Azela was slow to answer, her blond hair whispering over her cheeks as the wind groaned and swept through the side streets to greet us. “He and I…” She stopped, and I withheld a groan. “We’re not—”
“I’m no fool.” Guards philandering with other guards was not permitted during my father’s reign. Frolicking off duty was fine, but relationships beyond that would have them exiled or hung. “I’m also not my father.”
Azela’s teeth clicked as she shut her mouth.
“But I am a queen, and I don’t like false truths any more than he did.”
The gathered city dwellers parted as we neared, and gradually, Corra and Cid came into view. There were enough guards surrounding the dais on all sides, shields and weapons at the ready, to keep unwanted vigilantes at bay. Rare, but it sometimes happened. Though not often, seeing as it landed them in the same spot as those who were being executed.
Two guards dipped their heads and parted. I walked through them toward the dais and smiled at my two would-be captors and Casilla. The latter was tied to a chair behind the dais, a gag in her mouth and her face blank. “Good morning, friends.”