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Darren Shan

The Thin Executioner

DEDICATION

For:

Jebel Rum’s beloved

OBE (Order of the Bloody Entrails):

the country of Jordan, which inspired much of this book’s setting and plot, and whose landmarks provided the names of all the characters (with three exceptions) and places

Stella Paskins honed the editorial blade for the final time.

The Um Little put their heads on the chopping block next to mine, as always.

CHAPTER ONE

The executioner swung his axe—thwack! — and another head went rolling into the dust. There was a loud cheer. Rashed Rum was the greatest executioner Wadi had ever seen, and he always drew a large crowd, even after thirty years.

Five executions were scheduled for that morning. Rashed had just finished off the third and was cleaning his blade. In the crowd his youngest son, Jebel, was more interested in the high maid, Debbat Alg, than his father.

To Jebel, Debbat Alg was the most beautiful girl in Wadi. She was the same height as him, slim and curvy, with long legs, even longer hair, dazzling brown eyes, and teeth so white they might have been carved from shards of the moon. Her skin was a delicious dark brown color. She always wore a long dress, usually with a slit down the left to show off her legs. Her blouses were normally cropped and close-fitting, revealing much of her smooth stomach.

Rashed Rum tested his blade, then stepped forward. He nodded at the guards, and they led the fourth criminal — a female slave who’d struck her mistress — to the platform at the center of the square. Jebel slid up next to Debbat and her servant, Bastina.

“I bet she’ll need two blows,” he said.

Debbat shot him an icy glance. “Betting against your father?” she sniffed.

“No,” Jebel said. “But I think she’ll try to wriggle free. Slaves have no honor. They always squirm.”

“Not this one,” Debbat said. “She has spirit. But if you want to risk a bet…”

“I do,” Jebel grinned.

“What stakes?” Debbat asked.

“A kiss?” It was out of Jebel’s mouth before he knew he’d said it.

Debbat laughed. “I could have you whipped for suggesting that.”

“You’re just afraid you’d lose,” Jebel retorted.

Debbat’s eyes sparkled at the thought of having Jebel punished. But then she caught sight of J’An, Jebel’s eldest brother, handing his father a drink. Debbat would have welcomed a kiss from J’An, and he knew it, but so far he’d shown no interest in her. Perhaps he thought he had no competition, that he could claim her in his own sweet time. It might be good to give him a little scare.

“Very well,” Debbat said, startling both Jebel and Bastina. “A kiss if you win. If you lose, you have to kiss Bastina.”

“Mistress!” Bastina objected.

“Be quiet, Bas!” snapped Debbat.

Bastina pouted, but she couldn’t argue. She wasn’t a slave, but she had pledged herself to serve the high family, so she had to obey Debbat’s commands.

“Bet accepted,” Jebel said happily. Bastina had a sour, pinched face, and her skin wasn’t anywhere near as dark as Debbat’s — her mother had come from a line of slaves from another country — but even if he lost and had to kiss her, it would be better than a whipping.

On the platform the female slave was motionless, her neck resting snugly in the curve of the executioner’s block, hands tied behind her back. Her blouse and dress had been removed. She would leave this world as vulnerable as when she had entered it, as did everyone when they were executed. When the wise and merciless judges of the nation of Abu Aineh found you guilty of a crime, you were stripped of everything that had once defined who you were — your wealth, your clothing, your dignity, and finally your head.

Rashed Rum drank deeply. Refreshed, he wiped his hands on his knee-length bloodstained tunic, took hold of his long-handled axe, stepped up to the block, and laid the blade on the slave’s neck to mark his spot. His eyes narrowed and he breathed softly. Then he drew the axe back and swept it around and down, cutting clean through the woman’s neck.

The slave’s head hit the base of the platform and bounced off into the crowd. The children nearest the front yelled with excitement and fought for the head, then fled with it, kicking it down the street. The heads of um Wadi or Um Aineh were treated with respect and buried along with their bodies, but slaves were worthless. Their bones were fed to dogs.

Debbat faced Jebel Rum and smiled smugly.

Jebel shrugged. “She must have frozen with fear.”

“I hope you don’t freeze when you kiss Bas,” Debbat laughed.

Bastina was crying. It wasn’t because she had to kiss Jebel — he wasn’t that ugly. She always cried at executions. She had a soft heart, and her mother had told her many stories when she was growing up, of their ancestors and how they had suffered. Bastina couldn’t think of these people as criminals who had no right to life anymore. She identified with them and always wondered about their families, how their husbands or wives might feel, how their children would survive without them.

“Come on, then,” Jebel said, taking hold of the weeping girl’s jaw and tilting her head back. He wiped away the worst of her tears, then quickly kissed her. She was still crying when he released her and he made a face. “I’ve never seen anyone else cry when a person’s executed.”

“It’s horrible,” Bastina moaned. “So brutal…”

“She was fairly judged,” said Jebel. “She broke the law, so she can’t complain.”

Bastina shook her head but said nothing more. She knew that the woman had committed a crime, that a judge had heard the case against her and found her guilty. A slave had no automatic right to a hearing — her mistress could have killed her on the spot — but she had been afforded the ear of the courts and had been judged the same as a free Um Aineh. By all of their standards, it was legal and fair. Yet still Bastina shuddered when she thought about how the woman had died.

“Why aren’t you muscular like your brothers?” Debbat asked out of the blue, squeezing Jebel’s bony arm. “You’re as thin as an Um Kheshabah.”

“I’m a late developer,” Jebel snapped, tearing his arm free and flushing angrily. “J’Al was the same when he was my age, and J’An wasn’t much bigger.”

“Nonsense,” Debbat snorted. “I remember what they looked like. You’ll never be strong like them.”

Jebel bristled, but the high maid had spoken truly. He was the runt of the Rum litter. His mother had died giving birth to him, which boded well for his future. Rashed Rum thought he had a tiny monster on his hands, one who would grow up to be a fierce warrior. But Jebel never lived up to his early promise. He’d always been shorter and skinnier than other boys his age.

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