On the Night

This is the complete text of this story.

This was the first story I sold, to Robert Kilheffer’s sadly inactive Century. I post it here in its entirety in honor of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.
David

Enter THE REBEL TRUGAREZ, escorted by GUARDSMEN.

There are four of them, dressed in black, in imitation of the Emperor’s judges — cheap black, coarse cloth, gone dusty charcoal in the harsh tropical light. Two of them catch the actor’s arms as he stumbles on the steps. His hands are bound behind and the guards’ rough pull wrenches his shoulders.

There is a trick the swordmasters teach in far Nanchoria that begins with a stumble, a shuffling of the feet to drop behind and then a quick left-to-right movement, sword out of the sheath and back again and two heads rolling in the dirt. Trugarez remembers they used it once, right here in Stolnitsa — for Auberon and Lucrece, the betrayal scene. But it was awkward, the business with the wax heads.

And here there are four guards, not two. Nanchoria is a long way away. His hands are bound. And anyway, he has no sword. He stumbles because his feet are shackled and the steps are worn.

But he catches himself on the last step, and achieves a weary dignity as he shuffles to his place, center stage.

The wooden stage is bare and narrow and really too small for such a large cast. Four guardsmen are too many. They have no lines in this scene. Two of them, or even one, would be enough. And then there is Trugarez himself in prisoner’s gray, and the executioner in his mask, and the judge.

Elias, the judge, wears silk brocade, no frayed linen like the guards. There is no colour on the stage but his yellow hair and his copper crescent-sun brooch, his badge of office. The guards, the executioner are unknown quantities, but the judge is an old friend, a trouper.

Trugarez steps up to the scuffed line that marks the trap, waits for the guards to find their positions. (The blocking is not the best.) He lifts his head and the executioner lowers the noose.

Executioner, hangman, headsman — is there a difference? Or are they all the same, officers of the same office? Trugarez has played them all, at one time or another: for executioner a long iambic line, headsman a troche, hangman two long, deliberate, separate syllables.

Today he is to be executed, certainly; hanged, yes. Not a headsman, then. A nobleman would be beheaded — Trugarez remembers a shouting match, Pol Madern and old Van Rodov. Auberon and Lucrece again, was it? Or The Witch of Ijevitsa? An argument over the staging of an execution. The script called for a noose, common sense for an axe — or perhaps it was the other way around. Nobility would demand the axe, and get it. But for the rebel Trugarez, the noose.

Hanged, drawn, quartered. There is a pot bubbling nearby for the quarters, stage right. The fire below it adds to the already stifling heat of a Stolnitsa summer midday. The air is so still, the crowd so quiet, Trugarez can hear the thick slapping of the waves on the other side of the harbor wall. The sky is clear, and empty of birds. Even the monkeys in the trees around the edges of the square are silent, somnolent, too worn out to fight or steal.

The executioner steps back, the noose settled to his satisfaction. He catches the judge’s eye and nods; the judge glances at Trugarez and when Trugarez glances back quickly looks away, flushing, as if caught out of character. He lifts his lacquered iron staff to thump the stage once (though the crowd is silent) and begins his speech.

Behind the stage the solid stone wall of the prefect’s palace, a sounding-board; the judge’s voice, too deep to carry of its own, here echoes off the stones.

The speech is a formula that Trugarez has heard before. He looks over the crowd, satisfied to see the Plaça Veliknija full, the groundlings rapt. And even among the quality, beneath their bright silk canopies, there is none of the fidgeting, none of the giggling, none of the chatter behind painted fans that mars the usual performance. Perhaps it is the spectacle, perhaps it is only the heat.

On the right, not far from the stage, the largest of the pavilions, the Emperor’s drooping banner, copper thread on black, and then below, incongruous, the prefect’s, a white crusader’s rose on pale blue. In the shadow of the white silk, the prefect himself slumps in his throne, drunk at midday, a sweating jug of sherbet at his left, his bored and elegant lady at his right. Behind them and on either side, servants waving long, futile fans.

The air was cooler, but dank and close, beneath the palace. They brought Trugarez to a cell that was like a tomb. He joked with Elias and the jailer, saying:

‘You seem experienced enough in your profession. Surely you know the order is: hanging first, and then the burial after. Or am I to be entombed alive?’

The judge found no humor in the situation; the jailer laughed, but he locked and barred the door just the same.

That night Trugarez slept badly on damp stones. In the morning, when they came to take him to the prefect, the jailer’s lantern woke him from a dream of mountains in the south, pastures, a lake; choices he might have taken otherwise.

Alexander’s prefect in Stolnitsa was a small, round-headed, round-bodied man named Eladio Illán. He came from Palesa in Endenna, a month’s sailing north even in good weather, and the year Trugarez was hanged he was forty-six years old.

He had been prefect of Cismontane Selvia for seventeen of those years. It was ten of them since his hands had held a sword or a pistol, in duel or war. In all his tenure the prefect had left his prefecture just once, in the year of the famine, to account for Selvia’s unpaid taxes. To the disappointment of the prefect’s enemies, the Emperor accepted his account, and allowed him to return to his province. He never left again. In his capital the prefect had everything he wanted; or, at least, everything he thought he deserved. The prefect liked to think of himself as a practical man.

He had two pretty daughters, and a beautiful wife ten years his junior, whom he loved without reservation, and who felt for him only pity and a little contempt. He took little pleasure in riding or the hunt, but he had a fine garden, a menagerie, a collection of rare birds, and the largest library in the Western Lands. He spoke four languages fluently and was quiet and polite in all of them, even to his closest friends. Under his rule taxes had been reasonable, soldiers well-behaved, and neither wealth nor privilege allowed to impede the Emperor’s judges in their application of the law. On the whole, he did not deserve what happened to him.

At first Trugarez thought the little man behind the desk was a clerk. He had expected an audience hall, but this was a secretary’s chamber, a counting-house. It was a large, bright, breezy room high in the Round Tower, with long windows that let in the sun and the wind off the harbor, so that each pile of papers had to be weighed down with a stone or a statuette or an inkpot, but it was hardly the throne room he had imagined. This could not be the prefect.

But then the man looked up from his papers, and said to the judge:

‘You needn’t stay, Elias.’

‘Sir, your guards will not be pleased, if I leave you here alone.’

The prefect raised an eyebrow.

‘Is he so dangerous, then?’ he asked.

The judge turned to Trugarez as if to pass the question to him. Trugarez shrugged.

‘No, sir,’ the judge said, turning back.

‘Then we will let them be displeased, this once,’ the prefect said. ‘You may wait without if you wish.’

‘Sir.’

The judge bowed, more deeply — Trugarez thought — than was called for by the prefect’s rank, and withdrew.

A portrait hanging on the wall to Trugarez’ right caught his eye: a pale, thin, brown-haired man of perhaps thirty, in black like a judge, his face, the drawn face of a consumptive, lit by a single candle. A dying man, one would say; hardly an immortal ruler. Still, there was the inscription, on an unassuming plaque screwed to the frame: ALEXANDER. No number followed. There was, and would be, only one Alexander.

It was hot as it always was in Stolnitsa; the current of air from the open windows was sluggish, thick, and smelled of fish. Trugarez could not remember being cold at any time in the three years since he came down from the mountains. When he tried to remember cold, all he could think of, ridiculously, was himself on stage as Auberon, shaking and praying as the wax-flake snow fell on the painted towers of besieged Epona. After three years in the lowlands ‘cold’ was a set piece, a performance, something he could imitate to perfection but in truth knew nothing of.

Not unlike dying. Trugarez stood there, sweating, aching still from the blows of the judges’ rods, and as he looked away from the colorless eyes of the man in the portrait, eyes that knew death intimately, he shivered.

The prefect cleared his throat.

‘So,’ he said, and stopped. He looked down at the pile of papers in front of him as if it were a book he had been reading, in which he had forgotten his place. Then he pushed the papers aside and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. ‘So,’ he repeated. ‘Your name is Conn Trugarez.’

‘Yes.’

‘Jowan Trugarez was your father?’

‘Yes.’

The prefect shook his head. ‘He was an admirable poet.’

‘I am surprised,’ Trugarez said. ‘I would not think to find the prefect reading the vernacular.’

The prefect sighed. ‘His Majesty has no taste for poetry. He cannot tell good from bad; he finds some slight amusement in rewarding those who flatter him. Court poetry is thin stuff.’

‘I am surprised again to hear you say so.’

‘To say that Alexander has no taste? It is no lèse-majesté, believe me. The Emperor himself admits it freely. He says that dead men have no use for such things.’ The prefect waved a hand. ‘Who was your mother, then, son of a poet?’

‘My mother’s name was Elowen. She died in bearing my sister and me. I had a locket with her picture but your soldiers took it.’

‘I have it here.’ The prefect opened a drawer and drew the locket forth. He snapped it open, examined the picture inside for a moment, and closed it again. ‘Take it,’ he said, tossing it to Trugarez, who caught it in his bound hands.

‘Thank you.’

‘I am sorry to inform you that the picture is in fact a copy of a famous portrait from the reign of Demetrios the Second. Ginever of Severna, I believe.’

Trugarez shrugged listlessly. The prefect looked him up and down; he paused, and seemed to examine the actor’s face. Then he shrugged in turn.

‘I suppose there is a certain resemblance,’ he said. ‘But then you claim to be descended of the blood of ancient kings, do you not?’

‘I never said so.’

‘But you let others say it of you; raised the banner of the Princes of the Sun, and fought under it. In Stolyarin you tore down the Fire Tower and set up a shrine to Bright Havera in its place. Did you not?’

‘Not personally, no.’

The prefect chuckled. ‘I like that. “Not personally.” When they say I killed you that’s what I shall say.’ He looked down at his desk, straightened the edges of the nearest stack of papers, and looked up again, almost shyly. ‘I saw you once, performing in Korzenov’s Feast of Crows. You played Zamin’s ghost.’

‘Not Alain’s best work, I think,’ Trugarez said, ‘but Zamin is one of his better parts.’

‘Yes.’ The prefect smiled reminiscently. ‘“As by these children’s hands is empire toppled / And the work of centuries cast down . . .”’

‘As I recall you had the theatre closed,’ Trugarez said, ‘and Alain was forced to flee the city.’

‘I had to.’ The prefect waved a hand. ‘It was a subversive play. The young Alexander, at first a pawn, then a traitor and a deicide . . . the script performed was not the one that passed the Emperor’s censors.’

‘And a good thing, too,’ Trugarez said. ‘Only doggerel passes the Emperor’s censors.’

The prefect shook his head. ‘I was sorry to do it, if that is what you want to hear. “As by these children’s hands . . .”’ He shook his head again.

They were both silent.

‘So,’ the prefect said after a moment. ‘You were an actor. Now you set yourself to the toppling of empires.’

‘Whereas it is your task to prop them up.’

‘To prop them up indeed. Do you know what the prayer of every servant of the Emperor is?’

‘The Emperor’s long life and happiness, I suppose,’ Trugarez said.

‘That would be a prayer wasted. The Emperor is dead as are the gods you serve — if you had spoken to him you would not doubt it. Whatever he has you cannot call it life. And he is always unhappy.’

Trugarez glanced at the portrait on the wall. It was true, the face was not that of a happy man.

‘What is it, then?’ he said.

‘Every servant of the Emperor knows the Empire’s days are numbered. Each of us prays only that the end not come too soon; only that it not come in his lifetime.’

Trugarez looked at the portrait again, the sunken eyes, the too-red lips.

‘What do you want from me, prefect?’ he asked, turning back. ‘Your prayer granted, is that it?’ He lifted his bound hands. If the ropes had been chains he would have rattled them. ‘Do you think my death will give you that?’ He let his hands drop. ‘Or is it absolution that you want?’ he said, more softly.

The prefect winced and looked away.

Trugarez shook his head slowly. ‘When you pray for the empire, prefect . . . what do you pray to?’

The prefect would not meet his eye.

They sat that way in silence for a little while, until the judge came in and took Trugarez away.

On cue, the trap falls, and the rebel Trugarez falls with it. His neck snaps instantly. The audience is disappointed, but the executioner has been given strict orders, and the eyes before which he holds the heart and entrails see nothing.

Exeunt omnes.

They boiled his bones, and afterwards buried them in an unmarked grave.

The day after dawned misty and unseasonably cold. When the prefect’s soldiers came to tell him that followers of the rebel had found the grave and stolen the bones, he only nodded slowly, as if it was no more than he had expected. The next day he found a ship bound for Palesa and put his wife and daughters aboard.

That afternoon he sat for a long while in his chamber in the Round Tower. Occasionally his eyes went to the portrait on the wall; more often to the picture in the rebel’s small gold locket. Most of the time he spent staring out the window at the harbor.

The fall storms were unusually severe that season. ✪

Copyright © 2001 by David Moles.

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