Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 53
Stories
Not on the Gallows
by Harry Turtledove
The Fairy Godfather
by Tim McDaniel
Carry On, Torus
by Gregor Hartmann
Turncrowe
by Michael Meyerhofer
It Becomes You
by Laura-Marie Steele
Why Death is Silent
by William Fischer
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Toll
by Chuck Wendig

Turncrowe
    by Michael Meyerhofer

Turncrowe
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

The first lie they tell you is that it smells like wildflowers in there. Actually, it's more like burnt cinnamon. And he's not totally whole, just sleeping, like the priests say. Yeah, he's all there--no rot, no limbs or digits missing--but that doesn't change the fact that he's been dead for roundabout six hundred years. His cheeks are all sunken in and his arms look like broomsticks wrapped in leather. He's kind of grown into his chair, too, so that if you look real close, it's hard to say where the stone ends and the Saint begins. But he's not a skeleton. I guess that's what's important.

I still remember when Hughes brought me in to take my oath. It was pouring rain outside. You could hear the wind howling through the eaves, like it was about to tear the whole damn roof off the monastery. Not that you'd guess it by the way the priests were acting, though. Half of them were off meditating or stirring the slices of apple in their porridge. The other half were fast asleep. So there was no one else in the chamber when I took my oath--besides Abbott Hughes and the Saint, of course.

I was nervous, sure, but it wasn't like I expected. Growing up, you hear the village priests talk about the Saint like any second, he's just going to straighten up and get out of that chair and go back to performing miracles. You see him sitting cross-legged, half-smiling, on every coin and temple sign, carved into the wooden face of begging bowls. Sure, the priests insist he's not really a god, but you wouldn't know it by the way they pray to him. When you actually see him, though, it's different. For one thing, he's tiny, not much bigger than a child. For another, you can tell right away he's dead.

"Now, my child, swear fealty to he who has gone and shall one day return."

It felt weird to be called my child by a man whose vows meant he'd never undressed a woman in his entire life, but just the same, I knelt down like I was supposed to, in that chamber full of candles. The Abbott handed me a sword--not my old bastard sword with all the notches in the handle, but a ceremonial thing bound in brass and pretty stones. I laid it at the feet of the Saint and kissed the bare stone floor, which was about as clean as stone gets. The candles hissed and sputtered.

Meanwhile, Abbott Hughes said some words I couldn't understand--Old Frayd, I guess--while I knelt there with my hands folded and tried to look humble. Really, I was staring at the Saint's toenails, which looked like tiny ovals of blackened firewood. I wondered if they still grew. Wouldn't that be a miracle? I figured they must not, because if they did, the priests couldn't wait to tell everybody about it.

Anyway, when Hughes was done praying and chanting and carrying on, he touched my shoulder, and I actually had to kiss the Saint's feet. I wasn't looking forward to that, but I did it anyway. The Saint's skin wasn't warm, like they say--another lie. No, his feet were cold and clammy, like my Sorah before I buried her.

Still, being that close to somebody that important, alive or no, it gives you the shivers. When I straightened up, I half expected the Saint to be smiling at me. But no, he was still sitting there in his gray stone chair, his face the color of bronze in those flickering candles, his eyes closed. Oblivious. Wise or dumb--I couldn't decide.

"Welcome, my child," the Abbott said, formal as an icicle, and showed me to my quarters.

It might sound crazy that a dead man would need a bodyguard, but you'd be surprised. There's always some desperate soul who thinks touching the Saint's chilly hands or cutting off a piece of his robe will give magical powers, and you can't very well free half the dukedom to manhandle a venerated corpse, now can you? Eventually, Abbott Hughes decided it was either ban people from visiting the monastery--which would foul up matters for the collection plate--or hire somebody like me to keep watch.

As far as guard duty goes, this is probably as good as it gets. I've definitely had worse. See, I fought for Duke Heldane in the wars. Truth be told, I fought for the duke's enemies, too, depending on who paid more in a given month. Crowe the Turncoat, they used to call me--or Turncrowe, for short--but no matter what they say, I never backstabbed anybody, and I never broke a contract.

My job at the monastery's pretty simple. One day a week, the priests let the ordinary villagers come in and see the Saint. When they do, I just stand there--armed and armored--and keep an eye on things. Really that just means crossing my arms, scowling, and trying not to fall asleep. Sweet gods, it can be boring! But the priests won't even let me sit down, so long as there's somebody in the chamber. And every once in a while, I get to knock some dope across the head if he gets too close.

But most folk just kneel there, all nice and quiet, and meditate. Some pray out loud. The worst are the talkers, though. They come in and sit down and talk to that corpse like the Saint is their best friend, the way I've seen people talk to graves. Makes my skin crawl.

The commoners are bad enough, but if you ask me, it's the rich ones that are the worst. Noble lords are always coming to the monastery to get the Saint's blessing on their kid's birth, or some war they're planning, or some poor bastard whose throat they're going to cut. The Saint never answers, of course, but the way they carry on, you'd think he got out of that chair and danced a jig.

The worst was when Heldane himself showed up, about a year ago.

Now, I know that's what you want me to talk about, but a lot of things happened, so you're going to have to be patient and let me tell it my own way. See, back then, Heldane was between wars and even though the towns and bannermen were glad for fewer funerals, you could tell the duke was getting antsy. Word was, he was imagining plots behind every door, assassins in every shadow--and seeing him, I believed it. Like I said, I'd fought for Heldane the first time, before my Sorah died. I was just a common soldier but I'd seen him from afar, all strong and proud, with a look that could tame lions.

When he showed up at the monastery, though, he was a different man--and I don't just mean that he was older. Take away the enameled armor and the jabbering advisors and the gold-and-ruby rings on his fat fingers, and the duke could have passed for one of those madmen that the priests take pity on. Only this madman never slept under a bridge or had to live off the charity of monks.

Maybe that's the problem.

This one time, an old woman got to talking to the Saint about her dead cat. Wolves got to it and she was hoping the Saint might bring it back to life, since to hear the old woman tell it, that cat was the only friend she had. Looking at her, I wasn't surprised. You know how sometimes the gods are less than kind? Well, other times, they're downright cruel.

Take this old woman, for example. She only had one eye, but not like she'd lost the other one in a fight or an accident or something. No, I mean, one of her eyes just never grew in, plus her nose and mouth were pushed off to one side, so half her face basically looked like a blank piece of cloth, stretched taut.

"Ain't no kind world for women," she liked to say.

That was bad enough but the worst part was that she was always smiling. Gods only know what she had to smile about. Even when she was talking to the Saint about her damn dead cat and praying for its resurrection and tearing up in her good eye, she kept on smiling. Grated on my nerves for some reason. I clenched my sword-hilt until my fingers hurt.

Meanwhile, the whole time she's chattering, the Saint's just sitting there with his bony hands turned up on his lap, eyes closed, his lips tugged up just a little bit, like he died just as he was about to smile.

I know, I know. You want to hear more about the duke. Maybe you even heard about what happened last year, and you want me to tell you if the stories are true. Well, maybe I will and maybe I won't. I'm taking a hell of a risk writing this, so I'll have to give it some thought.

In the meantime, I can tell you what happened when the duke got to the monastery. It's not like he strode in with a torch and a drawn sword, but right away, you could tell something was wrong. Abbott Hughes and the priests had a big welcoming ceremony planned but the duke just walked right by them to the Saint, straight as an arrow. He made his bodyguards wait outside. He let me stay, but he told me to keep still.

"Don't speak. Don't even breathe."

I nodded.

Then the duke knelt down and started praying. And the whole time he's praying, he's working these prayer beads in his hands, twisting them like he's about to garrote someone.

I'd heard he'd come to the monastery with his new wife--a wispy thing, maybe thirty years his junior--so I thought maybe he was praying for the usual: a son, an heir, a wife he wouldn't have to lock in a tower like the last two. Only I was standing close enough to pick out a little of what he was muttering, and I noticed he kept repeating two words in particular: Cassandra, which was the name of his new wife, and traitor.

I guess the Saint didn't answer, because after a long time, the duke got up--furious--and told me to tell Hughes that he was spending the night. I obeyed. Preparations were made. Afterwards, I asked Hughes about the new duchess, and mentioned what I'd heard.

The way the Abbott looked at me, you'd think I'd just insulted his mother! The old priest actually slapped me across the face. "Your task is to guard the Saint," Hughes insisted, grabbing me by the hair. "Nothing else. Is that understood?"

"Of course," I said, and resisted the urge to break his fingers.

I should have gone to bed, but instead I wandered around the grounds for a while. I told myself that I was just going on patrol, to make sure none of the duke's men were tormenting the priests or shooting arrows at the stray dogs in the courtyard. Landed bastards love to do that kind of thing, you know. But really, I think I wanted to get a look at Cassandra.

Finally, I found her in the garden. The sun was going down and she was sitting between two rows of turnips, her long hair the color of tilled soil. She had this silky nightgown on and she looked halfway between girl and woman. She had three bodyguards standing around her, but they weren't the friendly sort. When she turned her head and smiled at me--shy, kind of lonely--one of them stepped in the way and ordered me to leave. I did.

Most of the time, there's not much to do here. The Abbott says I don't have to guard the priests. In fact, I'm not even supposed to talk to them. And they don't much seem to want to talk to me, either. So I wear a sword--my old one--but I leave off the armor, and I just kind of pace around the grounds. There's not much to do in a monastery if you aren't into praying or gardening, and Hughes won't let the priests brew beer anymore, so once in a while, I'll off.

There's a rocky path behind the monastery that leads down to Dragon Shore. Don't ask me why these little plague-fodder villages always have to give themselves dramatic names, but I've been all over the continent, and it's like that everywhere. That little fishing village next to a muddy lake? Why, that's Silken Bay! And that half-frozen cluster of huts on the back of a damn icy mountain? That's none other than Godsfire Point!

Dragon Shore's basically what you'd expect: some straw huts, a sour-tasting well, and an adobe tavern with a faded sign that hangs by one chain and spins in the breeze like it's trying to fly away. The tavern doesn't even have a name. But it does have mead that you can drink, provided you don't smell it first.

That's where most of my coin goes. Sometimes, the boys in Dragon Shore like to play dice. Once in a while, one of the younger toughs will get drunk enough that he thinks he can best me arm-wrestling. I always win. But whatever I win, I spend anyway, so I guess you could say I break even.

"What's it like working with those priests?" they'll ask me.

"Could be worse," I say.

Then before long, somebody asks, "What's the Saint like?"

And I want to say, He's like a dead body, except he doesn't rot, but that kind of talk could get you killed. So I just say, "Amazing. He's really amazing," and hope they'll stop asking.

You want to hear what happened when the duke came back. Fine, I'll tell you. It started when Abbot Hughes woke me up, a little before dawn. He was none-too-gentle about it, either. In fact, he shook me awake and held a lantern in my face until I sat up, then he told me to get dressed. Hughes himself was still in his underclothes, believe it or not, but he said he needed me in the chamber as fast as I could get there. I thought he was mad but after a few seconds, I realized he was terrified. Instead of fussing with all that armor, I threw on a priest's robe, girded my sword--my old one with the notched pommel--and took off. I heard the duke shouting as soon as I stepped into the hallway.

One thing I forgot to tell you: There's no special name for the chamber. The priests wanted it that way, to echo the fact that nobody even knows the Saint's real name. We just call it the Chamber. As you can imagine, though, it's not the kind of place where men go to shout. So the priests were all waking up and milling in the hallway, angry and afraid, but nobody seemed sure what to do.

When I got to the Chamber, Heldane was in there, all right. And as you might have already guessed, poor Cassandra was with him. Her nightgown was all torn up and Heldane had her on her knees, holding up her head by a fistful of dark hair, so that she had to look at the Saint.

"Confess," he kept screaming. "Confess!"

The duke's bodyguards--or maybe they were the duchess's--were massed at the door to keep the priests out. They looked none-too-comfortable with what was going on, but they also didn't look like they planned on lifting a finger to stop it. One of them even yawned.

I looked past them, at the duke and duchess, and wondered what in all the hells I was supposed to do. Obviously, as far as the priests were concerned, this was blasphemy. I didn't care much about that, but watching a man treat his wife like that--no, that's not something I care to see. Then again, we're talking about a duke known for boiling his enemies alive.

Finally, one of the bodyguards made the decision for me. He was the biggest--the one who yawned--and he shoved me back so hard, I nearly fell over. "Don't flex up on me, Turncrowe," he warned, and drew his sword.

"Turncrowe," one of his friends echoed, and laughed. Pretty soon, all three bodyguards had their bright shiny blades out and they were staring me down, like they knew me.

My face probably turned the color of a tomato. I remember touching my sword-hilt, and wondering how they knew my name. I wasn't about to back down, but I wasn't quite stupid enough to draw steel on the duke's own bodyguards, either.

Luckily, the Abbott showed up. He'd gotten dressed in his most impressive ceremonial robe and he stepped between us, going on and on about how this was the Monastery of the Unknown Saint and even the duke's men were banned from committing violence here. The bodyguards rolled their eyes, but after a few moments Hughes talked them into sheathing their blades.

Then a gaggle of the duke's advisors swept in, all talking at once. They told all the priests to go back to their rooms, and when nobody moved, they rushed into the Chamber and closed the doors behind them. The last thing I saw was the duke--still ranting like a madman, ranting so hard he'd pissed himself and didn't even seem to notice. And Duchess Cassandra on her knees--crying. And the Saint, staring straight ahead with his eyes closed.

To be honest, Sorah wasn't beautiful. No noble lord was going to ride past on his horse and see her picking turnips and fall in love with the way the sun shone through her hair. No, I guess you could say she was plain. But gods, how I loved her.

It started the first time I came back from the wars. We weren't married, but we were kind of sweet on each other, and she waited for me. And back then, there weren't no priests to tell a couple orphans they couldn't live together and laugh and be naked, if that's what they wanted.

Only the kind of things a man sees in wars--all those bastards bleeding and crying, rivers with chunks of bodies floating by--gods, it stays with you. When I came back the first time, I thought maybe I wouldn't be able to stay with her. I mean, can you imagine making love by the firelight, and all of a sudden, remembering the guts you carved out of some bastard who was trying to cut your head off, and how as he was lying there dying, he cried and begged you to finish him quick?

Hard to stay happy for long, with thoughts like that rattling around inside your head. But Sorah wouldn't let me go. She held my hand and made me tell her what I'd seen. And I'm not ashamed to say I broke down crying like a baby. And Sorah cried, too. But she didn't let go, and she put my head on her lap, and every time I looked up, she had her eyes open and she was looking down at me, smiling.

I opened the Saint's eyes once. I know I shouldn't have done it, but it was late, a few days after the duke left, and I'd snuck a pitcher of mead back from Dragon Shore and drunk the whole damn thing in my room, and once I got the idea in my head, I couldn't push it out.

All those people wandering in to pray to a dead man, all those mad bastards thinking said dead man was just going to stand up sooner or later and straighten all that's crooked in the world . . . I got to thinking maybe they were right. Maybe I was the bad one, for not believing. After all, wasn't that why I'd come to the monastery in the first place? Didn't I think maybe if I served the Saint well enough, if I prayed hard enough, he might bring my Sorah back?

So I got out of bed and got dressed. I didn't even light a lantern. Once I got my clothes on, I remember sitting there in the dark, holding my swords, wondering which one I should gird. Eventually, I put them both down and walked out unarmed.

The monastery was dark and quiet. It was still a few hours before dawn, and the only light came from a tallow candle left burning in the hallway. I could have found my way blindfolded, though. Thing is, even though I'd made that walk a thousand times, this was different. By the time I actually stood in front of the Saint, I was shaking like I used to when I came back from the wars, and I'd wake from nightmares, and Sorah would hold me and sing. The way I still shake sometimes, if I go too long without mead.

There was that same smell again--burnt cinnamon. Another candle had been left burning. Just one, though, so the flicker looked eerie as it slid up and down the Saint's face, shining off his tiny bald head. I found myself edging toward him, turned to one side, like I was sneaking up on an enemy whose throat I planned to cut. When I finally stood in front of him, the shadows put these deep pools of darkness right on top of his eyes, so that even if he'd opened them, I wouldn't have known it.

For a long time, I stood there. I felt scared at first, then I reminded myself that it was just another corpse. Hadn't I seen thousands of them in the wars? Hadn't I found Sorah's when I came back the second time, and there she was--moldering, her eyes wide, her clothes ripped off?

Thinking about Sorah did something to my fear, changed it to anger, so I started asking questions. I asked the Saint why he let things like this happen. I asked him if there was any justice, any point to any of it. I asked why nothing I'd done since Sorah died had given me any peace.

The Saint didn't answer. He just sat there, bony hands on his knees, palms turned up. I imagined him almost smiling in the dark, like he didn't care about me, didn't give a damn about anything. Then, before I knew what I was doing, I went and got the candle.

I brought it close to the Saint's face. Real close. Then, I touched one of his eyelids. He didn't have any eyelashes--I guess they'd all fallen out--and his eyelid was cold as the rest of him. Still, I pried it open. I don't know what I expected, but his eye just looked like a smooth, dry rock. A faint smear of color--green, though maybe without the candlelight, it would have been blue. I let go and the eye closed, like a hungry mouth.

I stepped back, still holding the candle. Shadows closed over the Saint's face again, like the darkness was eating him. He didn't say anything, didn't move, but I imagined him screaming. I dropped the candle and ran back to my room. I don't know why, but I swear on the gods, I've never been more scared in all my life.

"Easy, Turncrowe. Don't take it personal. We didn't know she was yours." That's what Peter said. He actually said that. Like it matters.

Truth is, right up until then, I didn't even know it was Peter who done it. Trail was weeks old, washed out by rain. For days after I buried her, all I did was wander around and cry and yell, and swing my sword at anything that got close. Word spread that I'd gone mad. When I ended up in Godsfire Point, I guess Peter thought I'd finally tracked him down. I stumbled into the tavern and there he was, pale as the snow piled up outside. Still, if he hadn't said anything, I'd probably have kept moving.

"Easy, Turncrowe."

I remember he held up his hands, and at first, I couldn't figure out why.

"Let my boys go," he said.

Peter's boys looked scared as hell--which was funny, since they'd gotten a lot bigger since I'd seen them last. The four of us had fought for Duke Heldane, before I switched sides. That's where I'd met them, and I'd never talked about Sorah--I wanted to keep her separate from what we did--so I guess it wasn't their fault they didn't know about her. What they did, though . . .

I don't even remember the fight. But Peter had always been fast, and he wasn't alone. Four against one, I should have gotten cut to pieces. But when I came to, there I was--sitting on the floor like a drunk, broken chairs all around me, my sword slick with blood. I turned my head and there were Peter and his boys, lying there all twisted, eyes and mouths wide open.

The Saint might be six hundred years old, but his robe's a lot newer than that. Abbott Hughes explained it to me. Once a year, to keep him from looking dingy, they replace his old white robe with a crisp new one. I wanted to know how they did it, since his body's pretty much fused to the chair. I thought maybe they draped it over him like a tablecloth and stitched it on. I asked, but Hughes wouldn't tell me.

Here's what I did know: It's a big, solemn ritual and only priests are allowed to be in the Chamber when it's done. That means I have to wait outside and guard the door. When they're finished, the priests carry the old robe out to the courtyard and burn it on a big funeral pyre. Villagers come from miles around to pray, and to collect some of the ashes. There's always talk that the ashes have healing properties, but really, I think the whole thing is just an excuse for the party that comes after.

They change the Saint's robes at dawn on the last day of the year, and by sunset, the fire's pretty much burnt out. There's wine and music, and dancing and girls with wildflowers braided in their hair. The duke usually sends an ambassador with a wagon filled with gifts, and the priests pass them out to the people--especially the children. Even the Abbott smiles a little. I still have to wear my armor and keep watch, in case some fool tries to get into the monastery without permission, but it's not so bad.

That last time, though . . . Maybe you've already heard. Nobody's supposed to talk about it, but I've already said plenty that could get me killed, so I might as well tell you the rest.

For starters, the duke was late sending the wagon. It usually gets there a day or two before the ceremony. This time, the wagon got there just as the robe-fire was sputtering out.

Late as it was, people cheered. Probably the drinking had something to do with that. And the kids were excited, as soon as they saw that wagon wobbling up the hillside. But right away, I knew something was wrong.

Usually, the wagon's driven by some silky ambassador and flanked by an honor guard--everybody all smiles--and the ambassador makes a big speech that thanks the people for their faith and their service and their taxes. Only this time, the wagon had a whole squad of mean-looking soldiers guarding it, and the driver was this officer who looked like he hadn't successfully used the privy in days.

Next to the officer sat a well-dressed young man who wore his orneriness like shit wears flies. He had a scepter in his hands--a wooden thing bound in leather, then banded in heavy brass rings. He kept waving it around as he hopped down from the wagon, shoved a path through the crowd, and whispered something to the Abbott. Whatever he told him made Hughes turn the color of bone. The priest ran to the wagon and looked in. What he saw inside made him go paler still. Priests and peasants crowded around but Hughes should at them, warned them to keep back.

The guards took action, too. They drove their horses into the courtyard, nearly trampling the children, and started waving their swords around. Hughes started shouting--I think he was telling them to stop--but the ornery man knocked him across the head and before you know it, everybody was running. The peasants left the monastery. Some of the priests hid. Others protested.

Me, I dragged three of those landed bastards from their horses and rubbed their faces in the mud. I think I even broke one soldier's arm. Ornery Man didn't take too kindly to that. Unfortunately, he knew not to meet me face-to-face. Still, another second and I would have seen him swinging that damn club at my head.

There weren't any dungeons, so the duke's men locked me in a storeroom. I kept waking up and passing out. There wasn't any light but I could feel dried blood crusted on my forehead. I shouted but nobody answered. Nobody fed me, so I ate dry handfuls of the grain kept in bags in the corner. There was nothing to drink, though, and I had to do nature's business in another corner.

Finally, after a couple days that felt like years, Hughes came down and let me out. He still had a bruise the size of a baby's fist on his forehead. He didn't say anything, but handed me a cup of water and some bread. He pinched his nose while I ate and drank, then he helped me stagger out of the room. I saw the duke's men--laughing--but I tried my best to ignore them.

Then, I saw something curious. As Hughes was leading me up the steps, I passed another storeroom, one we hadn't used in years. The door was closed and a man stood guard. Through the bars, I saw somebody pacing inside--a slight person with long, dark hair. I started to ask but Hughes hurried me on.

"The duke misread the calendar," the Abbott said, once he got me in his office. We were alone. I was filthy and tired, but he seemed hell-bent on telling me something. "He thought the Burning was next week, not last." Then he handed me a slip of paper. I guess he forgot I couldn't read. Not that I needed to.

"Is that Cassandra?"

"Duchess Cassandra," Hughes corrected, but nodded. "The duke has uncovered evidence of her betrayal. He wishes to see her dressed in the Saint's old robe and burned, so that the flames might purify her sin before she meets the gods."

I reached for my sword before I remembered I wasn't wearing one. "The duke's coming back here?"

Hughes shook his head. "The duke does not wish to have anything further to do with his former wife. Instead, he--"

"Former wife?"

Hughes looked ill. "The duke has already remarried." He cleared his throat. "He sent Lord Simon, his nephew, to see it done."

I thought of Ornery Man and wished I had my sword again. "Not going to happen. Let her go." I thought fast. "Her storeroom has a ground floor window. There aren't even any bars! We'd have to lower a rope, but we could easily sneak her out of the monastery. Then she can get a boat at Dragon Shore and--"

"No," Hughes said. "I think he put her in that room on purpose, to test us." He held up his hands and I saw they were shaking. Even though he'd closed his door, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Lord Simon has been very clear. Unless he returns with the duchess's burned body, all of us will take her place!"

"We didn't he just lock her in a tower like his other wives?"

Hughes lowered his voice still further. "This one is different. She fought back. The allegations that she was planning a revolt might actually be true."

I thought of the crying girl in the Chamber, the lonesome thing in the garden, and had a hard time believing that was possible. Then, I frowned. "Abbott, why are you telling me this?"

Hughes clenched his stomach, like he was about to be sick. He stood up and paced for a moment, then sat back down. "I've been pleading with Lord Simon," he said at last. "He couldn't care less about the duchess, but I suspect he has thoughts of succession. I assured him that the Monastery of the Unknown Saint could prove a powerful political ally, if he were willing to . . . amend the duke's orders."

"Then he'll let her go after all? I thought you said--"

"No, the duchess must be put to death. That can't be changed. But Lord Simon is willing to overlook how she meets her end." Hughes gave me a long, pleading look.

Finally, I understood. "You want me to kill her."

"You've killed before," Hughes said. "This would be no different. In fact, this would be an act of mercy, certainly preferable to burning. The Saint would approve."

The Saint . . . I smiled, and I guess Hughes figured out what I was thinking, because he turned livid. "No," he said, on his feet again. "Even if I cared that much for the duchess, Lord Simon would never be fooled."

"When does he want it done?"

Hughes blinked. "Tonight. He said he was willing to wait until you--"

"Are you going to repeat the Burning?"

"Yes," Hughes said.

"Then yes," I said. "I'll do it."

The Abbott blinked again.

I don't think he could believe I'd changed my mind so quickly. I stood up before he could ask questions. "When you're done changing the Saint's robes, give them to me. I'll take them down to her cell and finish it then. Alone." I added, "That's the only way this gets done. Otherwise, tell Lord Simon he can kill her himself."

Hughes drummed his fingers on his desk. "I think he'd be fine with that."

"But you're not," I insisted. "We both know the duchess is innocent. If she has to die, let it be a good man who sends her to the gods."

Hughes offered a wry smile. "So Crowe the Turncoat is a good man now?"

I shrugged. "Good enough."

The Abbott mulled it over for a while. Finally, he nodded. "It must be done soon. Wait outside the Chamber. I'll bring you the Saint's robe when we are finished." He hesitated. "Lord Simon has agreed to let you give her a quick death, but I'm sure he'll at least demand to be outside her cell when she dies."

"Agreed," I said, like I had any choice.

So that's why I was standing outside the Chamber, waiting. The duke's men were milling around, too. Lord Simon passed by, waving that damn scepter of his. He prodded me with it and said some stuff not worth repeating. I waited for him to go away. Eventually, he wandered down to taunt the duchess through her cell door.

As soon as he was gone, I took a deep breath, opened the door, and strode into the Chamber. I closed the door behind me. The priests jumped. A few of them shouted. The Abbott held up his arms and sprinted toward me, surprisingly fast for an old man. When he moved to strike me, though, I caught his wrist and twisted his arm until he cried out. Then I let him go.

Looking back, I'm not exactly sure what my plan was. I think I meant to take the Saint's body, wrap it up somehow, and switch it for the duchess. Of course it wouldn't have worked, but I wasn't thinking clearly. Or maybe I was just sick of people venerating a man who had been dead for six centuries and not giving a damn for the people right in front of them. Regardless, I started forward like I meant to toss the Saint's body over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Naturally, the rest of the priests stood shoulder to shoulder and formed a wall to block my path. I shoved them aside, taking great pleasure in spilling a few of them onto the floor. I was wearing both my swords but I hadn't bothered to draw either of them. I just shoved my way along until I stood before the Saint. I gambled that this ritual was too sacred for the priests to call on the duke's men for help, and for once, I was right.

I'd always thought the Saint's body had been in that stone chair for so long, he'd become part of it. About that, I was wrong. The Saint lay on the floor--composed, motionless, naked. The priests had not yet had time to get the new robe on. It looked identical to the old one, save that it was still neatly folded. As for the Saint, time had shrunken his body to the size of a child, tightening his flesh like old leather.

I stared. I stared and stared. Candles sputtered and hissed. When Hughes came rushing up, I grabbed him by a handful of his hair. "The Saint," I said. "She's . . . a woman!"

You can pretty much imagine what the Abbott said. Maybe you can imagine what I said, too--about the lies, the foolishness, the lack of miracles. I told them that the Saint being a woman might make it easier to switch her for the duchess. Of course, the Abbott said no. He also pointed out--and rightly so--that Lord Simon would have to be some kind of royal idiot to mistake a bald, shrunken, bronze-colored corpse for a beautiful young woman with hair down to her ankles.

Then it happened.

I don't expect you to believe me. Honestly, I don't care. I know what I saw. One minute, the Saint was what she was. The next, she started to change. There weren't any cinders, no magic fog. But the smell--it wasn't burnt cinnamon anymore. More like wildflowers. Wildflowers, at last. And we all smelled it, and felt it, and we turned and she just. . . changed.

When it was done, you could have sworn that it was the duchess lying there. And she was breathing! She didn't open her eyes, though. She just smiled, like there was a secret joke only she knew.

I don't think anybody said a word. But old Hughes was crying. So was I. So was everyone. The priests dressed her in one of the gowns, gentle and respectful as you please, then I stepped out of the Chamber. I didn't know how we were going to do this, but when I opened that door and peeked out, all the duke's men were gone.

I heard them down in the cellar, laughing. I heard Lord Simon, too. I stood at the top of the stairs and heard him saying all sorts of vile things. His men laughed.

Finally, a strong voice answered them. A woman's voice. She rebuked them, she called them cowards, but she didn't weep. The more they mocked her, the stronger she sounded. In time, although I couldn't see them, I imagined Lord Simon and his men sulking around that cellar like frightened, scolded boys.

And the whole time they were doing this, the priests were carrying the Saint out of the Chamber. I tried to calculate how long it would take them to carry her out of the monastery, to the place where the duchess's window overlooked the courtyard. I waited a while, imagining the priests explaining the plan through the window, then the frantic change of clothes. When I thought enough time had passed, I went back into the Chamber for the second robe. It felt warm. I don't know why, but I started to think of Sorah.

Then I left the Chamber, which suddenly seemed huge and empty and sad, and went down to the cellar. Lord Simon turned to look at me, twirling that damn stick in his hands. I felt a knot of panic in my throat, but I swallowed my fear and drew one of my swords.

"What I have to do is not fit for your eyes. Everyone, wait upstairs."

The duke's men stared at me like I'd gone mad. Lord Simon laughed. "I don't take orders from peasants with swords. . . least of all turncoats."

Some of the men laughed, but their laughter sounded strained. I'm not saying they were frightened of me, but something wasn't right, and they knew it.

I fixed Lord Simon in the hardest gaze I could muster. "Wait upstairs, M'lord," I repeated. "I'll bring you the bloody sword when it's done." I added, "If you're so worried I'll try and let her go, put guards in the courtyard."

"Oh, I'm not worried," Lord Simon answered with a smirk. "Either the duchess dies, or everyone--including you--gets their skin boiled off. Either one suits me fine."

Still facing him, I nodded slowly. "Agreed. The duchess dies. I swear it on the Saint."

Lord Simon blinked. I could tell he was trying to figure out if he'd just accidentally agreed to something. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder, back into the duchess's cell. I was afraid of what he'd see, but evidently, the priests were still waiting outside.

Finally, Lord Simon shrugged. "So be it." Leaning toward the door, he said, "Farewell, dear aunt. We'll see if your blood's as pretty as your face." When the duchess didn't answer, Lord Simon turned--laughing again--and shoved past me, up the stairs.

The duke's men hesitated, then followed, edging around my drawn sword. A couple of them shoved me, but I didn't react. When they were gone, I sheathed my sword. I started toward the door, which was locked from the outside by a crossbeam. I lifted the crossbeam and unbarred the door. It swung open. I half-expected the duchess to run out, or maybe I'd walk in and see her shimmying up a rope that the priests had just lowered.

Instead, the duchess sat on the floor, cross-legged, eyes closed, with her hands folded on her lap. She wore the simple robes of a priest. Though her face was dirty, her hair tangled and unbraided, her slight smile showed an eerie serenity. I looked up, at the window. I couldn't see anyone in the courtyard, but I got a bad feeling that I was wrong. Maybe the priests had lost their nerve, and the duchess--the real duchess--had already been wearing a priest's robe. Then I saw booted feet outside the window and realized that, despite what he'd said, Lord Simon had sent men to the courtyard to keep watch.

Lord Simon himself stuck his head in front of the window a moment later. A wolfish grin spread across his face. He held one finger to his lips, ordering me to be silent, and lowered his gaze. I realized he meant to watch.

I didn't know which sword to draw, so I drew the one with the brass hilt. The one the priests had given me. My hands were shaking bad. The duke's men had left a torch in the room, so the shadow of my sword-blade waved along the wall like I was chopping at thin air. Finally, I took a deep breath, blocked out Lord Simon's smirking face, and fixed my gaze on the Saint.

At least, I hope it was the Saint.

She was breathing easily, like she didn't know I was there, and wouldn't have cared if she had. I started forward. I thought about what I was going to do, and the guilt tightened my chest so bad, I couldn't breathe. I must have stood there for a while, because finally, Lord Simon cleared his throat.

I didn't look at him, though. I kept my eyes on the Saint, still half-expecting her eyelids to flutter open. Then I stepped forward and shoved my sword between her breasts. It went in so easy, I might as well have been stabbing air. I pushed the blade until it came out her back and jarred against the wall behind her. I left it there for a moment. Then, I pulled it out.

A great red stain spread across the front of the Saint's robe, like a gigantic blossoming rose. It seemed for a moment like the Saint's smile broadened a little--that her eyelids fluttered, like they were about to open. Instead, she slumped to one side and stopped breathing.

Lord Simon stopped smiling when I handed him my bloody sword and told him to keep it. He didn't thank me. Instead, he personally dragged out the Saint's body and tossed it on the fire. He looked like a man who was furious, but didn't know why.

A few days later, the priests announced that the Saint's body had disappeared.

Word spread far and wide--another damn miracle. Some said the Saint must have finally ascended to the gods. Others said he'd been with the gods all along, but had been sent back so as to defend the weak and champion the righteous. Duke Heldane even insisted that the Saint had personally visited him in his bedchamber, bestowing a blessing upon his troubled reign. I doubt many believed it, though--least of all Lord Simon, who made a similar claim right before he declared war on his own uncle. They say eventually the king got involved, and corpses littered the fields and choked the rivers. I don't know how it ended, though, because I left the monastery as soon as the Saint's body was done burning.

I asked Hughes what happened to the duchess, but he wouldn't tell me, and I felt too scraped out to wring it out of him. So I went to Dragon Shore to look for her. Only nobody had seen her. So I just kept wandering, farther and farther east. Wandering and looking.

And that's what's funny. You'd think I'd be furious, that I never found her, that I still don't know whether that was the Saint or the duchess that I killed. And yeah, sometimes, I am. But mostly, I keep coming back to this dream I have. I'm not saying it's another damn miracle, but I started having the dream pretty soon after I left the monastery, and it's almost always the same.

In the dream, I'm coming back from the wars to find my Sorah--only she's not dead. Instead, she's lying in bed, waiting for me. Her lips smell like wine, her skin like wildflowers. She's wearing a crisp white robe, clean as freshly fallen snow. I take her in my arms, and I'm surprised at first because her robe is warm--like her skin--but then she smiles, and she wraps her hands around my neck, and her robe slides down like a puddle of white fire.


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