[WHAT DO YOU FEEL?]
You step forward, something cold and brittle uncoiling within you. The torturer doesn’t look up as you approach, but the courtier raises an arm to bar your way. “My colleague requires space–”
You shove him aside, approaching the torturer’s armored bulk. Surprise flashes across the prisoner’s expression for the briefest of moments, then hope…
The torturer turns as his comrade shouts a warning, but he is too late. Eyes widen in surprise behind the ornate grille of his faceplate a moment before your punch lands with enough force to dent metal. He stumbles backward, clawing at his head, and you take his legs out from under him with a swiping kick to the knee.
Isidore all but leaps from his sheath as you take him by the handle, parting the Penitent’s bonds with ease. You tug at an emaciated arm, and the captive emerges from the coffin like a hapless sea creature wrenched from its shell – naked, pink, and quivering. He clutches you like a drowning man, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Rest,” you say as gently as you can. “I have you, now.”
You pivot on your heel and head for the exit, but after six strides a steel chain leaps from the courtier’s sleeve and locks itself around your ankles with a clink. Very slowly, you turn on your heel to regard your captor.
“How dare you,” he snarls, red-faced and trembling in rage as your enchanted bindings tighten. “Interfering in the administration of Imperial justice, laying a hand on an envoy–”
Deep down inside, something snaps.
With some difficulty, you kneel and place the prisoner on the ground. Then you stand up, sheathe Isidore, and take a step toward the courtier.
Tempered steel shrieks in protest for an instant before giving way, shattered links spraying in every direction. The courtier crouches into a fighting stance; the armored torturer gets to his feet, pulling off his ruined helmet and preparing for combat.
“I am about to do much worse,” you say softly. Power leaks from the skin of your palms, heating the air till it shimmers – you pull your gloves off, tucking them into your pockets. No sense burning another pair.
Everyone starts shouting at the same time. The courtier spits imprecations at you, insulting your lineage and laying curses on your relatives, Lady Jin calls for her guards to stand down, and Adrian attempts to defuse the situation.
“We don’t have to do this! Stand down, both of you, and let’s talk this over–” He’s clearly concerned about the diplomatic implications, but you are beyond caring.
The yelling fades to a dull throb as you take another step forward. Your opponents make their move –the armored guard lunges at you in a gleaming blur, far faster than an ordinary human; a swarm of gleaming needles leaps from beneath the courtier’s robes. They’re aiming to kill, years of training backed up by humiliation and righteous outrage.
It doesn’t matter.
You step out of the armored torturer’s line of attack and grab his wrist, pivoting him to face the incoming barrage of darts. A split-second passes, but you don’t hear the ping of metal on metal – Adrian has one hand outstretched, struggling to keep the needles stationary. They quiver in mid-air like a school of fish, and you seize the opportunity with extreme prejudice.
You squeeze down on the torturer’s wrist until metal crumples and bone gives way, then hit him on the back of the neck. The unconscious body drops like a sack of bricks, and you cross the distance to the courtier before he can blink.
He chokes and gurgles as you fasten your fingers around his throat and lift him off the ground. Behind you, the needles fall to the ground in a tinkling rain, but you’re not done. Power surges through your hand, scorching hair and searing flesh, and his eyes bulge out in a silent scream.
As the smell of cooking meat fills the air, you lean in close. “The next time you reduce a person to a helpless, mewling wreck whose only hope is the mercy of another… remember this.”
Then you drop him.
He hits the ground, moaning in pain. After a moment, he looks up at you, and you see only hate in his eyes. “Mark my words, foreign dog,” he growls. “The Emperor will hear–”
“What in all the hells,” Lord Anselm says very quietly, “is going on here?”
You look up. He’s standing three feet from you, still as a statue.
WHAT– when did he get here?
Nobody speaks, and Lord Anselm goes on: “I can see that some sort of…” he makes a show of looking around, “misunderstanding must have occurred. Was it the Penitent?”
The courtier nods, clutching his bleeding neck and glaring at you.
“Ah,” Lord Anselm says. “The Knights are excellent bodyguards, but they tend to follow instructions to the letter. My orders were to protect every living soul under Lady Jin’s roof – it appears they were interpreted somewhat… literally, and you became a threat the moment you harmed the criminal.” He bows his head in supplication, giving no outward indication of the outright lie he’s just told. “You have my sincere apologies.”
The courtier looks unconvinced. “If what you say is true, rescind the order and allow me to carry out my duty.”
Lord Anselm smiles. “All in good time. I will personally see to it that justice is administered, and will reprimand my subordinate for a lack of discretion. In the meantime, good sir, I suggest you seek medical attention. Honorable Lady, would you be so kind?”
Lady Jin snaps her fingers. Hidden panels in the walls slide open, and six armed guards hurry over to the courtier and his unconscious comrade. The courtier’s face darkens at the prospect of leaving without his prisoner, but he leaves without further fuss.
Once the two injured men are out of sight, you bow your head. “I–”
“Follow me,” Lord Anselm’s voice cracks like a whip, and you close your mouth. “Both of you. Leave the Penitent.”
The two of you follow Lord Anselm back to Adrian’s room in the Guest Manor. Once inside, he makes a hand gesture and Adrian extends his Influence, checking for eavesdroppers.
An agonizing ten seconds of silence passes before Adrian shakes his head, and Lord Anselm sighs.
“I didn’t think it’d happen so soon, or I would’ve warned you in advance,” he says. “You reacted with much less subtlety than I’d hoped, but… I can work with this.”
You frown, and out of the corner of your eye Adrian looks equally confused. “My lord?”
“It was a play for power,” Lord Anselm says. “Doing nothing would have been a sign of weakness. Now, though, the court can claim offence at your flouting of imperial justice and try to squeeze more out of the negotiations. Either way, they stand to gain – and all it took was one poor soul.”
You shake your head. “Such an easy decision to make, given that none of them had to suffer.”
Lord Anselm shrugs. “One wretch for the prosperity of a nation. I may not agree with the imperial court, but I believe their decision was thoroughly weighed.”
“On a broken scale,” Adrian says. There’s an unexpected heat in his voice, and his fists are clenched.
Lord Anselm shrugs again. “Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, I do not intend to give them what they seek.” His voice is cold as stone, his gaze hard as flint. “This changes nothing. Make the necessary preparations for tonight.”
Lord Anselm stalks out of the room, muttering something under his breath. Adrian waits until he’s gone, then sinks into a chair. After a moment, he mutters: “Do you think we did the right thing?”
“Yes”, you reply instantly. Then you think again. “Wait–”
Your colleague makes a hopeless noise. “I know. Torturing someone like that… just thinking about it makes me sick. But–”
You consider the situation for a moment. “Perhaps they’re right?”
Adrian nods. “Perhaps the Imperial Court does dispense true justice, and we are the misguided ones,” he says glumly.
You shrug. “The law is the law, and I broke it.”
“We broke it,” he replies. “Whether or not we were justified…”
“Probably not,” you say. “But I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Would you?”
“I…” He frowns, mulling it over. “I don’t know. I’ll have to give it some more thought.”
“Fair enough,” you say. “Let me know when you find an answer?”
“Of course,” Adrian replies, giving you a faint smile. “You know, I could really do with some wine…”
“Don’t even think about it,” you say, moving for the door. “I’m going to bring the Penitent back.”
Adrian nods. “Best to put him in my room,” he says. “I’ll stitch him up.”
You head back to the training room, bandages and a set of Adrian’s spare clothing tucked under your arm. The Penitent is exactly where you left him – Lady Jin is nowhere to be seen, but maids are busying themselves with cleanup, hurrying around with washcloths and buckets of water. None of them dares approach the figure lying on the wood, motionless except for the shallow rising and falling of his chest.
I half-expected Lady Jin to have restrained him or turned him over to the authorities, you think. She probably wants to see what we’ll do.
The Penitent is still bleeding as you patch him up and dress him. He tries to help, but he’s so weak he can barely move, let alone dress himself. You cradle him in your arms and head upstairs, and he babbles something unintelligible.
“Your pain is over,” you say in Reshanese. “I will not let you suffer further.”
After depositing the Penitent in Adrian’s room, you head back to your room and begin preparations for the evening’s banquet. A dress coat in Imvarri red goes over your usual ensemble, and you put Elizabeth and Isidore away. The rules were clear – you’re only allowed one weapon.
Walking over to your chest of belongings, you reach past clothing and travel essentials until you find what you’re looking for – your sword. Your crossbow and knife, useful and reliable beyond reproach, are named for your predecessors – those who bore your Shard before you.
But your sword has no name. The blade is an extension of the body, your masters used to say. The body is an extension of the mind. The mind is an extension of the soul.
You draw your blade silently. Nothing fancy – just four feet of gray steel from crossguard to tip, simple leather bindings around the grip. No decoration besides the mark of your Order on the pommel. No adornment besides your name, carved into the flat of the blade.
The weapon is perfectly balanced, and a flick of your wrist sends it dancing through the air. You long to give it a practice swing, but…
No. You clamp down on the urge. Not here. Not now.
You sheathe your sword and buckle it to your hip, feeling a faint hum of disappointment as you do so. Just then, you hear footsteps, and Lord Anselm walks into the room.
“Forty-Seven,” he says without preamble, “I need you to kill that poor soul. The sooner the better.”
You close your eyes. You knew this order would come, and yet–
“Look,” Lord Anselm says, something like sympathy in his voice. “He’s broken, and no sane doctor or biomancer will dare to fix him. There’s nothing left for him besides a half-life, filled with maidservants and gruel and nightmares…” He trails off.
You sigh. “He’s of no use to us, and helping him further will only antagonize the Reshanese?” The words leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
“I’m glad you understand,” Lord Anselm says. “There is nothing else we can do for him, now.”
You take in a deep breath.
[WHAT WILL YOU DO?]
[Follow your orders. Kill the Penitent.]
[There might be something you can do… (Write-in)]