Man of the Mask

The Sickest Time – Chapter Four

Despite all efforts of both spiritual and administrative natures, it seemed nothing would stop the sickness in Villearrièr. The priests and coroners were soon overwhelmed by the influx of bodies, more so when they themselves succumbed to the sickness. The darkest day came when governor Bouchepourri’s own messenger fell ill, just the same as those outside the fine walls of the castle. Of course, it was not the sickness that eventually ended the good scribe, but rather the punishment for allowing himself to catch it; a swift guillotine blade to the neck.

With the remaining scribes too afraid to exit the castle and the townsfolk still locked down, many found their only course of action for the disposal of bodies was to leave them in the streets. As more piled up among the refuse that already ordained the town, the miasma set in. While a perfect habitat for flies and rats, the air hanging low in the streets was even more potent than the most aged of Roqueforts.

One day, a stranger arrived in Villearrièr, desiring to sew hope for a change for the better. Unfortunately, any words from the stranger— calling himself Dr. Malbec— were ignored in favor of the criticisms of his garb.

“You resemble a bird, my friend,” said a villager on the edge of town not long after his arrival.

“Your town here is suffering under the throes of this plague,” he said in response. “I’d love if you could direct me to your governor, so that I may offer him words of advice.”

“Caw! Caw!” The villager teased, flapping his arms like a bird.

Under the pointed mask, Malbec was able to smile and nod, but he knew that wasting the energy on any such thing was pointless. “Oh, well, I suppose that is where your governor resides, up there in the big stone building on the hill.”

“Fly away now, bird man! Caw!”

And so did the fair doctor continue on his way, albeit on foot as always. Upon his terrestrial journey, he saw what had come over the town; human refuse on the streets, those seeming to be homeless passed out among it, others clearly disfigured by the sickness walking freely as if they weren’t a few steps from death. Somehow, though, they acted as if their oozing boils and bleeding gums, and uncontrolled bowel movements were nothing but an everyday occurrence.

“Excuse me sir, but has your governor not imposed a lockdown? It may be healthier for the others to stay at home.”

“Shut your beak, bird man,” came the response. “I need ale.”

“I see.”

“What do you know? Go to hell.”

“I think I may just be there, don’t you worry.”

The smell of the streets had wormed its way into the slits in the pointed mask, but the fine graces of the herbs that inhabited the tip continued to work against the sick air. Even the front of the castle smelled of death and sickness, but the guards blocking the way seemed to not care either way.

“What’s your business?” Asked the man lazily standing at the entrance, closed tight.

“I am a doctor.”

“We don’t need one here, nobody’s sick beyond these gates… or else.”

“Well, I’d very much like to talk to the governor about your situation here in this town.”

“Normally the scribes would see to someone reaching out to the governor, but they are piss-babies that don’t want to work anymore, despite every last bit of recognition and exposure they’ve received as payment.”

“Ah, yes, exposure. So what are my options?” Malbec asked, trying to glance around for any possible way past.

The guard crossed his arms and shifted in the way. “So… your option is to screw off. Isn’t that mask uncomfortable? It is the freakiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes upon.”

“It keeps me safe.”

“Safe from the sickness? Don’t you have an immune system?”

“Yes, same as all the others laying face-down in your streets.”

“Those are just the transients.”

“No, the ones with the boils.”

“I don’t know anything about anything of that sort.”

Malbec nodded. “What do you know, then?”

“I know that I can’t let you through.”

“Hold now, good guardsman,” a new voice came from behind the wooden gate. Malbec spotted a pair of eyes through a port hole that had slid open. “This man speaks in ways that the governor warned us to keep an eye out for.”

Malbec smirked, the sentiment carried by his face luckily hidden away from both parties of the castle. “You can perhaps get me to the governor, good sir?”

“We’ll see,” said the pair of eyes. “Let him through.”

The guard stepped aside, allowing space for the smaller portal of the gate to open for the first proper visitor in some time. The pair of eyes were attached to a man who led Malbec to the courtyard, not quite yet to the interior of the castle and the court of the governor. The doctor looked up at the open sky above, then to the eyed man. “No further, I assume? I see you understand distancing here, at least.”

“Do not move. Someone will be here shortly.”

Shortly turned to longly, but someone did come to replace the eyed man to meet with Malbec finally. “Are you the governor?” he asked, releasing his anticipation like pus from a boil.

“His greatness can not possibly meet directly with outsiders, obviously,” said the red-haired foxy man. “You may call me Renard, I am Bouchepourri’s adviser. If your words are deemed worthy, I shall reach him through me.”

“I see-“

“But first,” the foxy man interrupted, “I ask that you remove that mask.”

“You can hear me properly, though?”

“Not to hear your words, but to see your face. In case you are secretly a man from the east.”

“I can show you my proficiency with a fork and knife, if that would suffice.”

The foxy man snapped his fingers. “Off with it.”

Malbec straightened his face and fiddled with the strings at the back of his head to relinquish the mask from his head and face. “Please do not judge my mask hair,” he said, taking in a worried breath.

Renard squinted at him and nodded, a smile creeping across his face as he stepped back. “So you are not a bird, after all. But we can fix that,” he concluded, clapping his hands loudly.

In a sudden deluge, a wave of tar fell from the wall of the castle above, coating Malbec in its warm, sticky essence. A wash of feathers descended next while he flailed, attempting to free his eyes and nose from the sickening coating.

“Doctors in masks?” Renard huffed. “Such nonsense, the sickness will solve itself. The governor bids you adieu, Mr. Bird.”

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Man of the Castle

The Sickest Time – Chapter Three

If anything good was to be said about Governor Bouchepourri of Villearrièr, it would be that he was well-known. So well-loved he was that many came to the doors of the castle to call out to him in hopes he would offer a solution to the spreading illness. As more and more people got sick, he decided and decreed, with utmost certainty, that nobody would be able to leave their homes and keep the sickness within the confines of their own walls. To the old tallow-faced governor, living in the castle at the edge of town, it was perfect.

“But what of food? Water?” His trusted aides asked.

“Do they not have vast pantries and livestock and barrels of their own? As we do here?”

“No, sir.”

“Fine, I suppose we can have shops still open. The merchants would throw a fit if they couldn’t work eighteen hours a day, anyways. But make sure we are still taking the proper tariffs from them.”

“Of course. But what of the people’s business amongst each other? Or of receiving of complaints and praises from them when they cannot come to the castle here?”

“Complaints? What sort of things might they complain about?” Bouchepourri huffed from his wide seat in the empty hall. “If they desire to wish us well… once more, have them write their messages to us.”

“Monsieur Governor, it seems that many do not know even how to read or write, sir.”

“That is their fault for being lazy, then,” the powerful and humble man leaned on his knees. “Fine, then we may send a scribe or two about to listen to and write down their messages.”

And so did the scribes zoom about Villearrièr, collecting all sorts of messages to trade with other townsfolk, the merchants and finally bring those left unanswered tiredly back to the castle.

“Tell me, what are the people saying?” Bouchepourri sat up, intent to hear the words taken down.

“Ahem,” the scribe began with the first. “Governor, I find it regrettable that the bakery near my home has stopped making and selling gluten-free loaves, citing that the clay and chalk used to make them has been made contraband as it is from the east. Please allow at least some of these ingredients, properly sourced, of course, be able to return to our local bakers. That is all.”

“I see. And what pray tell is gluten?”

“I have no idea, Monsieur Governor.”

“Next.”

“Indeed,” the scribe said, shuffling the papers. “Governor Bouchepourri… I am contacting you about your carriage insurance… perhaps we forgo this one. Hum… Good Governor, I can no longer stomach the confinement with my wife after all this time. Our marriage has been quite pleasant, as long as I was able to be at the forge for most hours of the day. But with my business being shut down, I have had to listen to her desires and stories that are better met by the ears of other housewives. I believe my only way out is to have it appear as if I had died in an accident while out of the house. I ask of you to arrange this for me, and in exchange, I will work inside the castle, free of charge until my body can no longer.”

The governor stood and paced, taking in the request. “I believe I understand the trouble of this man. Make it so.”

“I shall find the right folk to undertake it. Care to hear the final message?”

“Fine,” Bouchepourri sighed, sliding back to his seat.

“Let’s see… Monsieur Governor, the number of rats that roam the street and invade our homes has become unbearable. Any food we bring inside is gnawed at by them, and when they become bored of that, they strike at us with their sharp teeth when we are not looking. I am sure I saw one rat with the same particular boils that the sick carry. Our neighbor has even succumbed to the sickness, and not soon after being bitten. I am afraid there may be some sort of connection.”

The Governor held his chin in his hands, waiting for the message to reach its end. “Rats?” He wrinkled his nose.

“So it says here, Governor.”

Bouchepourri glanced about, along the edges and into the deep corners of the stone chamber. “I see no rats here.”

“Not a one, sir.”

“And on the streets?”

“Some, sir, but no different from any other time.”

“These people know nothing. That is the last one? You may be excused.”

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Man of the Cloth

The Sickest Time- Chapter Two

As foretold, the sickness did come to Villearrièr, visiting the homes of several individuals, then their families, and then their neighbors. The criers spoke of staying at home if one was sick, and of keeping distance from those showing signs of the sickness, but somehow the malady spread still. The governor, still of good body and sound mind, put it on only the most astute of folk to seek out a solution to the spreading sickness; those of the clergy.

At first, a great mass was held by those still unconfined and untouched. Packed inside the church of Villearrièr, the people prayed as a whole for the sickness to be ridden from their land and for those stricken by it to be cured. After all was said and done, little had changed— rather, the number of cases had instead risen. With options dwindling, the men of the cloth descended from their church upon the hill to seek out the source of the sickness directly.

Frère Jaques and Frère Sebastian were on the streets that day, hoping to intercept those who could be passing on the goods that were rumored to be carrying the taint. In their long tan cloaks, rosaries, and sporting haircuts akin to that of men a decade older, their presence was well-noted.

“Peace be with you,” Sebastian said to the passing fellow, his hands pressed together, nudging Jaques further to the opposite side of the street.

“Oi, you’re making me walk in the piss and shit here, Sebastian,” Jaques whispered to his partner while carefully placing his steps.

“Can’t be too careful when crossing paths with these random folk.”

Jacques took a long stride forward, just enough to pull past Sebastian and out of the gutter. “Oui, but he looked quite fine. Even for someone who lives in this part of town. In fact, I believe I’ve seen him working a market stall before.”

Sebastian shrugged. “Yes, exactly. Merchants like him are essential workers.”

“No doubt. Thoughts and prayers, of course, but I have not seen any of our material resources spared for them.”

Sebastian held a finger to his lip before resigning to a shake of his head. “Nor have I. I suppose it’s not our job. But what we’re doing today will certainly keep them safe.”

“Let’s hope,” Jacques said under his breath, bowing and wishing well to yet another passerby. Just slightly further down the hill was the bay, its water glimmering in the midday sun and the gentle breeze bringing forth the smell of refuse and rotten fish.

A wide flat ship was just beginning to furl its sails as it pushed into the slip where it could be unloaded. The clergymen drew attention as they marched onto the quay as the sailors tied the vessel to land. The gangplank clattered loudly as it was set against the rocky landing.

From the ropes and the walkway, corpulent rats skittered down, running underfoot and hiding in the voids between rocks and among old crates. Sebastian jumped and lifted the hem of his cloak to keep them away from his legs. “Get, away now!”

The captain of the cargo vessel was already engaged with Jaques by that time. “Good day. I’d like to have a look at what you’re carrying.”

“Of course you would. And I wouldn’t want to be upsetting the governor or the Lord. Well, get on up then, but make it quick.”

Jacques marched up the gangplank. Sebastian followed soon after, catching the frustrated look of the sailor. The movement of the tide rocked the boat like a fat baby in an undersized cradle, and Sebastian felt immediately put off.

Jacques threw back the front of a canvas tarp, revealing the crates and barrels beneath. With tender fingers, he pulled up the lids and checked the insides. The other priest wandered among another pile of goods, his nose taking in the smell of something familiar and scandalous. “Hmm. Care to help me over here?”

“You have something?” Jacques redirected himself and approached the smaller collection of crates. Sebastian had the tarp up, revealing the tiny stems of the round fruits protruding from the burlap sacks. “I see. Good nose.”

The sailor approached them. “Something the matter?” He asked innocently.

“Cerise,” Jacques proclaimed, pulling the first of the sacks open. “Contraband fruit.”

“Those? Well, this is the first I’ve heard of such a prohibition,” the seafaring man sighed, hands on his waist.

“They’re from the east.”

“From the east?” The sailor puzzled, glancing off back in the direction of the sea. “The seller I got those from was in the port to the west.”

“Yeah?” Sebastian leaned into the sailor’s face. “But where do these little fruits come from originally?”

“That’s not really my job to know. A tree?”

“Ehh—“ Sebastian buzzed annoyingly. “Well, I can tell you… fruits, trees, whatever— they’re not from around here. And that makes the Governor and the high priest worry. Have you ever heard of Marco Polo?”
“No.”

“No? Jacques?”

The other priest perked up. “Polo? The Venetian? Right, he went all the way to the east. China was it called?”

“Oui, China,” Sebastian murmured. “They eat with sticks there. At least from what I’ve read. When you have ten full fingers to do the job.”

“Is that why you’re afraid of people from the east?” The sailor asked, attention draining.

Sebastian scowled. “Well, I’ve never seen one, an eastern person, but there would be reason for worry. Anyway, back to the Polo fellow… the nice diaries he left us told about what he saw there, eating-sticks aside. These cerise are but one thing that he mentioned. Now, they say the sickness is from the east. Ergo, anything from about those parts could be the catalyst for all these folks getting sick.”

“Which is why, regretfully, they must be coming with us,” Jaques concluded.

The sailor scratched the back of his head. “I see. Well, I don’t want something so dangerous on my hands. They were thrown in as extra, anyways.”

Sebastian took up one of the remaining sacks and eyed Jaques. “Someone was trying to send the sickness our way, perhaps? I’m sure the high priest would like to know about that. We’ll take these for now, and have some of the others by later to pick up the rest. Just don’t eat them yourself? Or worse, try to sell them.”

The sailor nodded and bowed his head. “Thank you for watching out for us.”

“All in the service of God,” Sebastian took leave down the gangplank first, sack slung over his back, with Jaques quickly after.

Up the hill a slight amount, Jacques rolled the sack back over his shoulder and reached into its opening, tied loosely by an old rope. He came back out with a couple of the small fruits stuck between his fingers, rubbed them on his cloak, and popped the first into his mouth, keeping their stems locked in his grasp. After gnashing and separating the flesh, he turned his head and spat out the pit into the road.

“Sweet?” Sebastian asked, peering into his own sack.

“Oh, yes.”

The other priest almost took one for himself, but a sudden yelling shattered the aura of pride they had earned from their deed. “My good brothers,” an older woman whined and flapped her hand at them from an open window on the second floor of the road’s housing.
“Yes, Madame?” Jacques stowed the bag under his arm and peered up, hand to his brow.
The old woman shook her head, defeated, with nearly tears in her eyes. “My husband. The sickness is taking him! Could you read him… his last rites?”

Jacques made eye contact with the other priest first. “Eugh… I suppose we have to, don’t we?” he said in a low voice. “But… the sickness.”

Sebastian nodded with a furrowed brow. “The woman doesn’t have any of those boils. At least not that I can see.”

“Well, I’d say you should get some glasses, but they haven’t quite come this way yet.”

“Let me guess, they’re being invented in Italie currently, are they?” Sebastian said, arms stuck to his sides.

“Yes, but… well, forget all that. If we go in there, we’ll likely get sick.”

“The grace of the Lord will protect us?”

Jacques rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course.”

The woman at the window cleared her throat. “Uh, gentlemen?”

“Oh, uh!” Jacques perked up. “Yes, of course! He deserves his last rites, doesn’t he? Perhaps… just maybe… since we’re on our way back with contraband and must truly make it quickly… you can prop the man up in sight of the window?”

The old woman looked back, then down at them once again. “If… yes, I suppose I can do that,” she said, lowering her eyes and retreating back inside her abode.

Sebastian crossed his arms, still looking up at the window. “She said read him his last rites, non?”

“Oui.”

“In fact, neither of us has the good book.”

Jaques shrugged optimistically. “Yes, and neither do any of these folk. They can’t read, after all. I know enough of the words, I shall offer them.”

“Well, then, don’t let me take up your stage, then.”

There was a loud scuffle at the window, followed by the appearance of an aged, disfigured face. The old man was tarnished with rat bites and blood and puss from the boils that had taken to his skin like barnacles on a fishing boat. The old woman strained heavily, her arms up under his, as he finally managed to shift his weight to hang off the sill above them. “Please, gentlemen. There isn’t much more time left for him. Husband, listen closely.”

Jacques puffed out his chest and stepped forward, sack of contraband hanging from his hand. “Lord, oh Lord, be prepared to take this man from us, for he has been with us so many years. Take him, and return him to your side, and allow him peace. And oh Lord, in all your grace, fix his gruesome visage, so that he may spend eternity with you looking proper, like Anakin Skywalker’s force ghost at the end of the re-release of Return of the Jedi. In God’s name we pray, amen.”

The prayer cut off, leaving only the sound of a tricking chamberpot from the neighbor across the street, releasing its contents into a wide cascade of splashes.

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A Man of the Town

The Sickest Time – Chapter One

Benoit du Villearrièr had been forced to lie about the existence of his hangover that morning, and furthermore, forced out of the house to go to market. Madame du Villearrièr was heavily pregnant with their first child after all, and would not take ‘non’ for an answer— nor would her cravings.

Benoit repeated the name of the fruit she had called out so desperately that morning through his splitting headache. Cerise, cerise, he said to himself, shuffling over the ill-maintained cobbles. Ahead, a chamber pot was being emptied into the road from the first floor, splashing and coating the ground with mess. Benoit almost made a mess himself in the road from the smell but managed to pass by with only a few distant drops from the cascade making contact with his body. If he could only reach the market square, he could purchase himself a waffle or a crepe to full his lonely stomach and perhaps avoid digging into the promised cerise that were supposed to make it home.

The unavoidable bustle of the market square was just bearable on a good day, but the combination of Benoit’s unsettled entrails and head, as well as the incessant words of the crier, offered an attack to nearly all of his senses. And what a tale the crier was speaking of, atop his wooden crate, gathering a crowd enough to block that corner of the street.

“Hear ye, hear ye— be warned of the sickness overtaking the land! The sailors and traders and merchants bring word from the east! Is is a fowl sickness in the air, filling men’s bodies with pestilence, bringing forth bubbles that raise the skin and ooze puss, an overwhelming fatigue that empties bodies in all ways imaginable!”

It was, indeed, Benoit’s imagination of such symptoms that caused his stomach to finally empty itself on the curb at the far end of the crowd while attempting to round the puzzled and somehow still concerned mob. He felt a hand at his back, one belonging to a not-too-distance neighbor, Michel, and his wife Isabella. “Dieu, you look just awful,” the husband announced, pulling Benoit away from the half-digested puddle of his own making.

Benoit huffed and snorted and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and rested his hands on his knees. “Oh no, not as awful as I might be if I don’t return promptly with.. what was it… apples? Pears? No, no—“

The wife of the neighbor hung to her basket of things purchased and leaned into her husband. “The sickness, cherie. Do you think…?”

Michel pulled on Benoit’s arm, straightening his back up. “Non, those are silly words. One more little sickness floating about the air? I have gotten sick tens, dozens of times. My dear, how many times can you remember me loudly emptying both my stomach and my bowels simultaneously out into the streets? And I am strong still despite those bouts.”

The wife crossed her arms. “But what of little Colline, succumbed to a little rash within a month of being born?”

“Eh?” Michel scratched his head. “The second child? I didn’t realize she was even offered a name by that time. But, er, Benoit here is just hungover, anyway. You escaped to the tavern to give the wife some air last night, did you? My good man, let’s get a mug into you for some mal par le mal, a good hair of the dog for you. Missus, do you mind heading on home by yourself?”

The wife sighed and shrugged but complied, shaking her head the whole way.

Still holding onto Benoit’s arm, Michel forced the two of them through the backside of the crowd and forward to the relatively more tranquil square, absent of troubling news. Benoit regained his balance and wiped his brow down of the sweat that hadn’t been there before. “What sort of speak was that? What that loud-mouth was preaching.”

“I’d say it’s better than the usual decrees they try and force upon us,” the neighbor clicked his tongue. “What was it that you dragged your out here for? In such a condition?”

Benoit scanned the merchant’s stalls, nearly cleared out by the early morning shoppers who weren’t burning off ethanol from hours before. “Indeed, what was it? Fruit? The wife has no mind but for her cravings. Last week it was salted and brined cornichon. Eugh. This week, sweets. Ah, cerise,” his mind reconciled after glancing the neat stems and shiny red skin of the petite stone fruits.

Michel shrugged as they made their way for the stall. “The crier gets his keep saying such nasty words for whatever sake the governor wants. Before you came by, there were telling people to stay in their homes, to distance from each other. Who has time for that, when people want to work, get their hairs cut, or drink in the bars? Maybe they want the streets clear for some sort of parade… is some dignitary visiting? One of those elite fools getting married off, and they want to be able to hear the church bells instead of us people walking around in our own streets?”

Benoit paid more attention to the individual fruits from there on out, finally pointing at the least desiccated bundles of cerise. “How much for a handful?”

“Five francs,” the stall-keeper bargained.

“Eugh,” Benoit passed the hard-earned money and took up the fruit, but Michel snatched up one to examine it before they could be pocketed. “The man was saying that the sickness comes from the east. I think that’s also where these fruits come from, non? Italie?”

Benoit shrugged. “I do believe that those old Romans cultivated these wild cherry types, but current refrigeration and transportation technologies would make it impossible to get individual fruits so far away from their source. These fruit come from trees that were brought over here countless years ago, likely right in this man’s backyard.”
“Huh?”

“We’re supporting the local economy, Michel.”

“Hell, do we have any other choice?” he huffed, tossing the ceries back into his neighbor’s hands. “Hey, after you feed the wife, do you want to stop by? We can invite Mattieu, he was a boating man back in the day. We can ask him about what he thinks about this whole ‘sickness’ situation.”

“Sure, if I have the chance. But you never know what the woman’s pregnancy brain will want next.”

Next Chapter –>

Onlookers

Salvation: Chapter Ten [Final]

The constable came to take Gadreel away before the day’s work was directed to start. The others looked on as the men stood outside of the worker’s dwellings, peering in the doorway. Gadreel had already risen, sitting on the edge of the cot awaiting them. A few stepped out and watched him trek across the yard with the captors.

“You get the day to rest,” the silver-toothed man offered them before departing the yard. “But be sure to listen for the sound of the blade slicing and the people cheering. You’ll face the same if you try anything funny, y’all know.”

Most of the prisoners barely nodded, with no other thought than the breakfast they would be getting that morning. A few gathered by the barrier to watch the departure. They found him again, walking past the fence on the street outside. Gadreel caught sight of Piers and Arthur, watching silently through the gaps of the tall stakes, arms crossed with uncertain faces allowing him to leave.

Gadreel’s shoes were worn through from the various treks. They were never fine to begin with. The clothes upon his back were none too different, ones given to him by the prisoners to replace the ones ripped from his back after his capture. The cold air dragged past him as he walked among the constable to the destination further in the city.

The castle was in sight of the city center. On any normal day, the city folk would be there in masses, chatting, shopping, filling pails of water in the center fountain, or simply crossing through on their way from place to place. The few who had already shown up there on that cold morning were there to stay and watch.

The tool planned and set up on a tall wooden platform for Gadreel’s dispassionate demise was a guillotine, made up of a wide plank for his body to lay and tense and wait for the blade, the blade itself shining in the early morning light, strung up and waiting patiently for it to be released to gravity.

The man waiting to do the solemn job stood at the top of the wooden stairs next to the tool. His face and hair betrayed many years of life and of carrying out many punishments. The constable delivered Gadreel to him, who looked the prisoner in the eye with hardly a spare blink.

“Lay down. But don’ hold yer breath, the blade won’t drop until his highness is here to witness.”

Gadreel nodded and placed himself front-forward on the platform, his hands grasping at the sides to position himself where it was desired. The executioner placed the wooden stock down around his neck, holding him in place, before grasping at his hair. “Bright locks,” he mumbled to himself, yanking the strands between his knuckles tightly. “Your head will be a nice one to display, maybe even for a few days more than usual.”

Gadreel stared at the ground several meters below, the cobbles appearing as the very same stones he had hammered away at in the yard with the prisoners. The townsfolk still assembling for the spectacle passed by him, hissing teasing words, huffing and spitting at the ground in his direction. The spectacle’s guards offered just enough effort to allow Gadreel from being attacked directly.

In some time, the hum of the crowd simultaneously rose and silenced itself. The sole remaining clamor came from the direction of the castle’s entrance. Gadreel was able to tilt his head up just enough to see the tight formation of the castle guard approaching on foot, making way among the commoners to approach the plaza. The guardsmen spread out and allowed the King to step forward, as fresh and befitting as any other day. He blinked at Gadreel before mumbling to the side as his companions.

The King spoke in a low tone to his orator, who delivered the words exactly to the crowd in a sensational voice. “My subjects, you have gathered to look up the execution of a dangerous, disdainful individual. He, a stranger to this land, a disfigured monstrosity, has decided to spread his words of treason, of uncertainty, and plague. A plague of the mind, for which he is surely affected. Such acts will not stand, no longer be able to spread worry among those who hear them. Today, he will lose his head. Alas, he may deliver us his last words, perhaps those of remorse. Prisoner?”

Gadreel swallowed hard, his neck pressed against the unforgiving wood of the stock. “Good King, I accept this punishment. I am but a messenger. The task I was ordained to undertake has been completed, even if just to a small measure. In that sense, I do feel remorse. I know, I feel that my message of salvation has not reached you, your people… not even those among your land’s prisoners who have little to nothing else. I do not understand why. But know that those who have heard, but have not been allowed to take those words within themselves… they have been pushed away from salvation. That is your doing, something I am powerless to change, even if circumstances were not the same as they are. To you, this action is a punishment, for you fear death and the end that it means to you. To me, it is simply a transition, one that I am not afraid to meet. What lies there at the end of your life… the lives of all people who my message has crossed… it is then, and only then, you will know what salvation, or the lack thereof, truly means. But for many that chance will be forgone, forgotten. It is not part of my duty to say so, but for these reasons, I pity you. There are more of my kind out there. If, in the future, they or those who had heard their word comes across this place, I can only hope that things will be different. At this moment, do as you will.”

The executioner’s hand was already readied and firm on the rope holding the blade of the guillotine millimeter from its descent. The King sucked in a low breath, broke eye contact with Gadreel, and nodded at the man with the grim duty. And so did the blade drop, and roll did Gadreel’s head.

[End]

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