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Taint of Treason
Artwork by Glen Bellamy
Taint of Treason
    by Eric James Stone

"Just be sure of your stroke, son."

Only I could hear my father's words over the jeers of the crowd. He knelt down before me and nodded to indicate he was ready. Calmly he raised his head, extending his neck to give me a wider target.

My right arm felt suddenly weak, and my grip on the sword my father had given me for my fifteenth birthday was becoming slippery with sweat. I knew he was no traitor. No one had served King Tenal so faithfully, so long, as had my father. Even as others whispered that the king had fallen to madness, Father's lips formed no ill word. He had lived to serve the king, but now stood condemned to die, convicted of treason by the mouth of the king himself -- no trial necessary, no appeal possible.

I did not feel I could do this. But what choice did I have?

The son of a traitor has the taint of treason in his blood, which can only be cleansed if the son executes his father. If the son cannot do it, he proves his own treason and joins his father in death. But my father had foreclosed that option: "You must remove the taint of treason from our family so that you can care for your mother and sisters. It is your duty to them, and the final duty you owe to me."

Perhaps the king was mad, but my father was his oldest friend and closest advisor. King Tenal had been like an uncle to me; as a child I'd sat on his lap countless times as he told me stories of the battles he and my father had fought together. He wouldn't really make me kill my father. I refused to believe that.

Turning away from my father, I knelt before the king. "Your Majesty, by your word is my father condemned to die at my hand. He has accepted your sentence, and has not spoken against it. Does this not prove he is loyal to your majesty? Will you not show him mercy?"

The jeers trickled to silence. The king's eyelids closed, and he muttered while bobbing his head. Snapping his eyes open, he said, "Are you . . . questioning the justice of our sentence?"

My heart fell. There was no mercy in that stare. Knowing I was a knife's edge from joining my father, I said, "Your Majesty's word is law. At your command I will slay my father."

Suddenly, King Tenal's eyes rolled up, his eyelids fluttering. A shudder ran from crown to boot and his back arched in a spasm. Two of his guards reached out and grabbed his arms to prevent him from falling out of his throne, while the royal omnimancer swiftly clapped a hand to the king's forehead and began muttering.

Then, as abruptly as it had started, it was over. He returned his gaze to me as if nothing had happened. "You spoke of mercy," he said. "Yes, perhaps it is time we showed mercy."

I stood motionless, hardly daring to breathe. Was it possible that the omnimancer's treatment had brought the king back to some measure of sanity?

Standing unsteadily, he seized a goblet from a courtier. "We will let the gods decide whether this traitor deserves mercy. We will pour this goblet of wine over his head. If he does not get wet, we shall spare his life." The king giggled and snorted as he came toward my father and me. Courtiers laughed hesitantly, but the crowd roared as the king upended the goblet, the wine spattering like blood over my father's upraised face.

"Well, it appears the gods have spoken. Execute him." Dropping the goblet, the king returned to his throne.

I stood before my father. Though wine ran in rivulets down his face, there were no tears to dilute it. "Tell your mother I love her and was thinking of her. Now carry out your duty." His voice was low but steady.

Blinking the tears from my eyes so I could see clearly to strike, I positioned my sword by his neck and drew it back. If I struck swiftly and cleanly, he would feel no pain.

I held my sword high, waiting hopelessly for a final word from the king to stay me.

"Do it." The king's words were taken up as a chant by the crowd.

I swung my sword. My father was not a traitor. The blade sliced smoothly through his neck. My father had not been a traitor. His head fell back as his body toppled forward, his blood spraying my legs -- his blood untainted by treason. For generation after generation, my family's blood had never been tainted by thought of treason.


Until now.

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