[WHAT WILL YOU DO?]
“Is that a direct order, my lord?” you ask after a moment.
Lord Anselm gives you an unreadable look. “Does it have to be?”
“No, my lord,” you reply softly. “I understand.”
“Good,” he says. “Come – the sooner we get this done, the better.”
Adrian is putting the final stitches on the Penitent’s chest as the two of you enter his room. Lord Anselm coughs quietly, and your colleague looks up from his patient.
“Oh, no,” he says. “No, no, no.”
“Good stitching,” Lord Anselm says. “But a regrettable waste of effort. Forty-Seven, if you would be so kind?”
You sit down at the head of the bed and place your hand on the Penitent’s face. His breath is shallow and ragged, little puffs of air against your palm.
So fragile, you think to yourself. Just–
“STOP,” Adrian growls. The room shudders under the weight of his Influence, air and wood shivering and warping in defiance of all natural laws. You rise from the bed, curling your hand into a fist.
“Don’t do this, Adrian,” you say. “We both know what will happen.”
“I know. But I can’t just stand by and watch…” Adrian takes in a shuddering breath. “Watch you kill him.”
You look to Lord Anselm, but he remains cruelly silent.
“He’s… broken.” The words are bitter in your mouth as you repeat your superior’s argument. “There’s nothing we can do. It might be a mercy–”
“He smiled,” Adrian interrupts, eyes raw with anger and pain. “When I cleaned his wounds and started stitching him up, he smiled. You pulled him out from his own personal Hell and gave him hope, and now you’re TAKING IT AWAY?”
“The world is a cruel place,” Lord Anselm murmurs. “But we cannot afford to defy Imperial justice, and I would rather not see this poor soul back under the torturer’s knife. If he were in any shape to talk, I am certain he would ask for death.”
Then the Penitent’s head twitches ever so slightly.
Slowly, with great effort, the broken prisoner – traitor to the Imperial Court, bargaining chip in a high-stakes game between empires, victim of unspeakable torment – shakes his head.
“My Lord!” Adrian cries out, and both of you turn to look at Lord Anselm.
“This changes nothing,” your superior replies. “His survival will cost us too much. The negotiations are far too important to be jeopardized by… this.”
“Might there…” you say tentatively, and Lord Anselm turns his gaze on you. “Might there be some way to use the Penitent to our advantage, my lord?”
“Hm.” Your superior frowns for a moment. “Such as?”
“Perhaps he knows something we could use, my lord.” Adrian suggests. “Or someone who could give us an edge in the negotiations.”
“Unlikely,” Lord Anselm says. “I would rather not take the risk–”
“There will be none, my lord,” you say quickly. “Give us until evening. If his survival is of no use to us by then… I will do what is necessary. We will be none the worse off for the delay.”
A moment of tense silence.
Then Lord Anselm sighs. “Very well. Evening, and not a moment longer. Until then, I will be in the study.”
“Your will be done, my lord,” you say.
As soon as Lord Anselm leaves, the two of you leap into action. Adrian snatches up a brush and paper from the table, and you grind an inkstick into a dish of water.
“Can you write?” you ask.
After a short while, the Penitent nods.
“Great,” Adrian says. “We’ll try to get you out of this, but we can’t do it without your help. Will you answer our questions?”
The Penitent nods again, more quickly this time. His eyes, previously glazed and vacant, wander warily around the room before focusing on your colleague.
“Are you in pain? Do you need anything? Food? Water?”
The Penitent shakes his head.
“Who are you, then?” Adrian asks, dipping the brush in ink and handing it over.
The Penitent stares at the brush for a long while. Then he lowers his hand shakily to the table, and begins to write. His handwriting is clumsy and slow, like a child’s first foray into calligraphy.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, this unworthy one thanks you. His tears fall freely, soaking into the paper and smudging the ink, but the words are still legible.
The Penitent takes a deep breath, composing himself, and continues.
My name is Li Qingshan. I was a captain in the Crown Princess’ army when she and her brother waged war…
As he writes, his hand becomes steadier, each stroke of the brush surer and more certain than the last.
We fought and killed and died for months, painting Reshan with soldiers’ blood. Brown soil, green fields, blue rivers…
Then the Princess fought her brother. I was there when Dragon dueled Phoenix, splitting the heavens and shaking the earth. I still remember the moment he struck her down. The world held its breath as she fell and fell and fell…
I ran. So did my men. We split up and laid low, hoping to make it out of the Empire. But my luck ran out. They found me. And the rest…
Li shrugs and looks up from his writing. The rest is as you know it.
“I’m sorry,” Adrian says.
Li smiles weakly. Don’t be, he writes. I still live, and…
His gaze flickers down to the brush for a moment. Then he shakes his head. It is of no consequence. Is there anything else you would like to know?
“Forgive my bluntness, but do you know anything… important?” you ask. “Our lord is an ambassador from Imvarr-Across-the-Sea. He desires something that will aid him in his negotiations with the Imperial Court.”
Li furrows his brow for a long while, then shakes his head. Only rumors and superstition from my time hiding in the countryside, he writes. Some believe that the Emperor had his mother murdered before she could crown his sister. Others believe that the Crown Princess still lives, and that the droughts are a result of the Dragon’s absence.
The head of the brush dances faster and faster, almost a blur on the parchment as he writes like a man possessed. They believe that one day she will march on the Capital at the head of a new army, and the downtrodden and the oppressed will rise to overthrow the Court’s opulence.
He lets out a soundless chuckle, finishing off the last character with a theatrical flourish.
A fool’s hope. But there is nothing else for us, now.
“We need to find something,” Adrian whispers as Li rises unsteadily from the table to pour himself a cup of water. You offered to help, but the former captain was insistent in doing this himself. “I don’t think Li knows anything important.”
“I have my duty,” you reply. “If he is of no use to Lord Anselm by evening, I will kill him.” It will not be the first time you’ve taken a life to prevent further suffering. It will likely not be the last, either.
Adrian makes a hopeless noise. Then he frowns. “Wait. Why did Li shake his head?”
I shook my head, Li writes a while later in response to your query, because…
He stares at the brush again.
“Because?” Adrian prompts gently.
Xiaoque, Li writes. My little sparrow. I– we– were married, and she was with child when the Empress was killed. When the war broke out, she packed her things fled to East Mountain. Far away from the fighting. I don’t know whether she made it. But…
I don’t care what happens to me, he writes, and the tears begin to fall again. But – just once more before I die – I want to see them again.
“We’ll help,” Adrian says.
“–nothing.” You finish, giving Adrian a disapproving look. “You heard my lord earlier, Li. If we have nothing to give him by evening…”
Li nods. I know. A swift death. It will be an honor to die at your hand.
You shake your head. “There is no honor in death.”
Perhaps you are right, Li writes. Perhaps not. Still, it will be far preferable to the alternative – five more months of torture as they acclimatize my body to the biomancy. Then the transformation into a war-creature, mad with pain and flesh-hunger…
“What?” Adrian says, leaning closer to read the words. “You can’t be serious.” The warbeasts of Reshan and their means of production have been a jealously guarded secret for years.
I am, Li writes. Those who could not endure the… rigors… of the knife were fed to the beasts, and we were made to watch. I envied the end to their suffering. We all did.
Adrian looks up, hope in his eyes. “Good enough for you?” he asks.
“Absolutely,” you reply.
“Interesting,” Lord Anselm says in the study. “Obtaining the location of Li’s prison will present a… unique opportunity. Finding out how the warbeasts are made far outweighs the drawbacks of keeping him alive.”
“It’s not a certainty, my lord,” you remind him. Adrian narrows his eyes at you.
“Nothing in life is certain,” Lord Anselm replies. “But this is good enough. Good work. If we find out where the warbeasts are held or made…” he trails off.
“Of course, my lord.” You answer his unspoken question.
“Excellent. Now, listen carefully: I will need Li to write a letter…”
Li’s eyes widen when you return to the room and convey Lord Anselm’s instructions. A thousand thanks, he writes with a shaky hand. I… have not dared to dream since I was captured. But now…
He looks up, and you see gratitude and joy and determination in his gaze. Now I have hope. Thank you.
“I suppose you found your answer in the end,” you say to Adrian a while later. Li is in the next room, working on Lord Anselm’s letter – through the wall, you hear the shuffling of paper and the grinding of inks against stone.
“I suppose I did,” your colleague murmurs. “So much for being a dutiful soldier.”
You shrug. “Kindness is rarer than obedience. More valuable, too.”
He frowns. “Really? I’m not sure if I agree.”
“I think your actions spoke loudly enough,” you say.
“Yours, too,” Adrian replies, and you blink in surprise.
He grins at you. “For all your talk about duty, you have a softer heart than you let on.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you say, hiding a smile. “Every member of my Order is forged in the crucibles of the Golden Tower. Our bones and flesh are cast from tempered steel, our skin and hair spun from bright copper, our eyes carved from the finest of gemstones…”
Your colleague rolls his eyes. “And what happens when you pull on your leg, like you’re pulling mine right now?”
“It comes right off,” you lie. “Screws and bolts everywhere. An absolutely dreadful mess.”
He lets out a bark of laughter, and you go on: “In all seriousness, I don’t know if you meant that as a compliment. But… thank you.”
“Any time,” Adrian says. “You know, some of my fellow mages believed the Knights were…” he trails off.
“Were?” you prompt.
“Inhuman,” he mutters.
“And what do you think?” you ask softly.
Adrian looks you in the eye. “I think my colleagues were wrong.”
1. [YES. Regardless of the procedure that made you a Knight, you are still human.]
2. [NOT ENTIRELY. You were once like any other. You are something else, now – something simultaneously greater and lesser than a mortal man. But that doesn’t change the way you think or the way you feel…]