Tobias S. Buckell
Let me you tell about the first time I killed a man.
On the morning of that day my father, Anto, lay on the simple, straw-stuffed mattress that I’d dragged out to the kitchen fire, choking on his own life as a wasting sickness ate at him from the inside.
He had been like this for days now. I had watched him grow thin, watched him cough blood, and listened to him swear at the gods in a steady mumble which I struggled to hear over the crackle of the kitchen fire.
I burned the fire to keep him warm, even though winters in Lesser Khaim were not the kind that kill men, like the ones far to the North. Winter was a cool kiss here, in Lesser Khaim, and the fire kept him comfortable and happy in his last days.
“Why haven’t you fetched the healer yet, you useless creature,” Anto hissed at me.
“Because there are none to fetch,” I said firmly, gathering my skirts around my knees to crouch by his side. I put a scarred hand, the sign of my long years of slaughtering animals at the back of the butcher’s shop, to his forehead. It felt hot to my old, callused palms.
There had been a healer, once. A wrinkled old man who lanced boils and prescribed poultices. But he’d been chased away by the Jolly Mayor and his city guards, accused of using magic. The old man had been lucky to flee into the forest with his life.
“Then bring someone who can cure me,” Anto begged. “Even if they are of the deadly art. I’m in so much pain.”
His pleading tore at me. I leaned closer to him and to the crackle of the fire that burned wood we could barely afford in these times, when refugees from Alacan crammed themselves into Lesser Khaim, eating and using everything they could get their hands on.
I sighed as I stood, my knees cracking with the pain of the movement. “Would you have me look for someone who can cast a spell for you, and then condemn us all to death if that’s found out? It would be a heavy irony for anyone in this family to die at the blade of an executioner’s axe, don’t you think?”
I thought, for a moment, that he considered this. But when I looked closely at his face for a reaction, I realized he’d sunk back into his fever.
He was back to muttering imprecations at the gods in his sleep. A husk of a blasphemer, who took so much joy in seeing the pious void their bowels at the sight of his executioner’s axe. This was the man who would lean close and whisper at the condemned through his mask, “Do you not believe you will visit the halls of the gods soon? Don’t you burn favors for a god, perhaps one like Tuva, so that you will eat honey and milk from bowls that never empty, and watch and laugh at the struggles of mortals shown on the mirrors all throughout Tuva’s hall? Or do you fear that this is truly your last moment of life?”
That was my father, the profane.
Unlike his outwardly pious victims, Anto believed. He had to believe. He was an executioner. If there were no gods, then what horrible thing was it that he did?
Now he was going to find out.
It angered him that it was taking so long to slowly waste away into death. So he cursed the gods. Especially the six-armed Borzai, who would choose which hall Anto would spend eternity in.
He swore at Borzai, even though he would soon meet the god. And even though that god would decide my father’s afterlife. Anto was not the sort of man who cared. He had no thoughts for the future, and he dwelled little on the past.
I always had admired that about my father.
My oldest son, Duram, peeked around a post to look into the kitchen, his dark curly hair falling down over his brown eyes. “Is he sleeping?”
I nodded. “Are you hungry?”
“I am,” Duram said. “So is Set, but he doesn’t want to come down the stairs. He says it hurts.”
Set had been born with a twisted foot.
“Stay quiet,” I cautioned as I picked up a wooden platter. I spooned olives from a jar, tore off several large pieces of bread, cut some goat’s cheese, and then lined the edges with figs.
Duram dutifully snuck back up the crude wooden stairs, and I heard the planks overhead creak as he took food to his brother. Soon he would need to work for the family. He’d need to become a man early, to help replace Anto’s earnings.
But for now, I sheltered him in the attic with his brother and their toys. I wanted them both to have some peace before their worlds got harder. Particularly Set’s.
I opened a window and looked outside. My husband Jorda was supposed to be working the field. Instead he was sprawled under a gnarled tree, a wineskin lying over a blistered forearm.
There was always a wineskin. I never passed him a single copper earned from my butchering, but he still found wine. He usually begged them from his friends among the Alacan refugees. He’d sit with them and loudly damn the collapse of Alacan, and they’d cheer him and buy him cheap wine.
With a sigh, I shut the wooden window.
Anto groaned and swore in his sleep, disturbed by the cold air. I would have liked to have had a healer here. Someone who could give us bitter medicine, and hope. A kind ear for the betrayals of the body.
But for all that I may have hated the Jolly Mayor for banishing the healer, my family’s lives had depended on the mayor over the years. My life, my two sons, my husband, and my father. For Anto, skinny, frail, over-tempered bastard and profaner that he was, was an executioner for Khaim and the mayor.
We would have starved a long time ago without that money. The coin tossed in the executioner’s cup by the soon-to-be-beheaded in hopes of buying a good cut. The coppers tossed into the bucket by the crowd. The mayor’s retainer.
So when the tiny bell by the door rang, it was with the authority of a thunderclap. The tiny note floated around the old stone house, dripping into the kitchen, and wrapping itself around me as its quivering tones faded.
This was the first time it had rung since Anto had fallen sick.
He was being summoned, as executioner, to bring his axe to the square by the highest of noon.
Somewhere, across the inky, shoving waters of the Sulong river, which split Lesser Khaim and Khaim, up on Malvia Hill and in Mayors House, someone had rung the executioner’s bell.
The bell was magic, of course. The Mayor swore that the spells that had been cast to create the bells had been formed a long time ago, and that the bells were safe. I wondered if that was true, as I could smell magic softly in the air by the doorway whenever the bell rang. It tasted of ancient inks, herbs, and spices, and it settled deep in the back of my throat.
Once the executioner’s bell was rung in Mayor House, the goddess of a thousand multiple roads and choices, Deka, dictated which executioner’s bell rang back in sympathy. And Deka had chosen ours.
Deka was well known for her tricks. The goddess of dice throwers was playing one last little one on Anto.
I looked back over my thick, wooden kitchen table toward Anto. His brown eyes were wide, his brows crinkled in intense thought.
He rubbed his anemic mustache, which was a sign of his failure: that he had only ever had one child, and a daughter at that.
“The call…” he said, voice breaking. “Tana. Did you hear it?”
I moved to him. “You can’t go. You know that.”
I wondered, as I said it, where the gentleness in my voice had come from. It had never been offered to me in my life by this old man. Not in all the years I’d cooked and chopped wood, or the long years I’d worked as a