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The gallows had been erected in the shadow of the clock tower, partly so that the spectators could witness the executions without the nuisance of sun in their eyes, and partly so that the Tribunal could keep its killings on precise schedule. Order in all things, that was the Tribunal’s motto. I held my cloak tight around my chin, keeping my head down as the crowd converged in the square beneath the clock tower. It was a chilly morning; breath was billowing from my mouth in wispy clouds that rose and disappeared into the fog. I scanned right and left from under my hood, wary. “Good day for a hanging,” a man next to me drawled in a conversational tone. I glanced quickly away, unable to meet his eyes for fear he might notice mine. It wasn’t often that a person was determined to be a witch by such a trivial trait as the color of her eyes, but it wasn’t unprecedented. A murmur rippled across the crowd as two women were prodded up the stairs onto the platform. Accused witches, both of them. The first woman’s shackled hands shook so hard, I could hear the clink of her chains from my distant spot in the throng. The second, a younger woman with a sad face and stooped shoulders, was perfectly still. They were both dressed in rags, dirt caking their sallow cheeks and clinging to their matted hair. They’d probably been isolated and starved for days, long enough to turn them desperate and feral. It was a calculated tactic; if the accused witches seemed subhuman and unhinged onstage, it not only quelled the reservations of the scrupulous few who might doubt the Tribunal’s practices, but it also made for a more entertaining show. The man who’d spoken to me sidled in closer. “Fantastic fun, these hangings. Wouldn’t you agree?” I tried to ignore him, but he leaned in, repeating quietly, “Wouldn’t you agree, Princess?” Startled, I found myself staring into a pair of purposeful, umber-colored eyes flanked by an unsmiling mouth and a cocked eyebrow. “Kellan,” I said in a heated whisper. “What are you doing here?” He set his jaw, shadows collecting in the hollows beneath his copper-brown cheekbones. “As I am supposed to be guarding you, perhaps you can tell me what you are doing here and answer my question and yours at the same time.” “I wanted to get out.” “Out? Out to this? All right, let’s go.” He made a grab for my elbow, but I snapped it back. “If you drag me away now, it will cause a scene. Is that what you want? To draw attention to me?” Kellan’s mouth twisted. He had been appointed as a lieutenant to the royal family’s regiment at fifteen and assigned as my personal guard at seventeen. Now twenty, he was long since oath-bound to protect me. And he knew the only thing more hazardous to my health than standing in the middle of a crowd of agitated witch haters would be alerting them to my presence. Though it pained him to have to do so, he relented. “Why do you even want to be here, Aurelia? How can this possibly be good for you?” I didn’t have a reasonable answer for him, so I didn’t reply. Instead, I nervously fiddled with the charm bracelet at my gloved wrist; it was the last gift I’d ever received from my late father, and wearing it always had a soothing effect on me. And I needed serenity as the black-clad executioner arrived, followed by a Tribunal cleric who announced that the great Magistrate Toris de Lena was taking the stage to officiate. Toris was a commanding presence in his starched collar and stiff black Tribunal coat. He paced in front of us, holding a copy of the Founder’s Book of Commands to his chest, the very picture of somber regret. “Brothers and sisters,” he began. “It is with great sadness we gather today. We have before us Madams Mabel Lawrence Doyle and Hilda Everett Gable. Both have been accused of practicing arcane arts, and both have been tried and found guilty by fair tribunal.” Around his neck hung a vial of red liquid. He raised it so all could see. “I am Magistrate Toris de Lena, bearer of the blood of the Founder, and I have been selected to preside over these proceedings.” “I don’t understand,” Kellan was saying quietly by my ear. “Is this some challenge you’ve put to yourself? Come stand in the midst of your enemies? Face your fears?” My eyebrows knitted together. Being arrested and tried and publicly executed was a very acute fear of mine, but it was only one black horse in my vast stable of nightmares. “My people are not my enemies,” I insisted even as a fist-pumping chant burgeoned around me: Let them swing! Let them swing! Right then I saw a dim shadow pass in front of the younger lady—Mabel—and pause next to her. The shadow flickered at her feet, gathering form from the morning mist until it became starkly clear. The air grew even colder in the square as the spirit pulled heat and energy into his cloudy form. It was a young boy, no more than seven. He clung to the skirt of the shackled woman. No one touched him. No one even looked his way. I was likely the only one who could see him. But Mabel knew he was there, and her face shone with something I could not name: perhaps pain, perhaps joy, perhaps relief. “I know that woman,” Kellan whispered. “Her husband used to come through Greythorne, selling books, at least two or three times a season. He died last year, one of those who caught that awful fever that went around the first part of winter. Him and a son, too, I think.” I knew Mabel too, but I couldn’t risk telling Kellan that. The tower clock showed it only a minute away from the hour, and Toris’s florid speech was winding down. “It is your time to speak,” he said to the women as the executioner situated a rope over their heads and around their throats. “Madam Mabel Lawrence Doyle, you have been tried and found guilty by fair Tribunal for the distribution of illicit texts and for attempting to raise the dead through use of magic and witchcraft, in defiance of our Book of Commands. By the blood of the Founder, you have been condemned to die. Say your last words.” I stiffened, waiting for her to point a finger at me, to call me by name. To bargain for her life with mine. Instead she said, “I am at peace; I have no regret.” And she lifted her face to the sky. A familiar scent drifted around me: roses, though it was too early in the season for them. I knew what it meant, but when I looked right and left, I saw no sign of her. The Harbinger. Toris turned to the second lady, whose whole body was shaking violently. “Hilda Everett Gable, you have been tried and found guilty by fair Tribunal for attempting to use witchcraft to harm your son’s wife, in defiance of our Book of Commands. By the blood of the Founder, you have been condemned to die. Say your last words.” “I’m innocent!” Her voice rang out. “I did nothing! She lied, I tell you! She lied!” Hilda pointed her bound, shuddering hands at a woman near the front of the audience. “You liar! You liar! You’ll pay for what you’ve done! You’ll—” The clock struck the hour, and the bell reverberated across the multitude. Toris bowed his head and pronounced over the sound, “Nihil nunc salvet te.” Nothing can save you now. Then he gave a nod to the executioner, and the floor dropped out from beneath the women. I let out a cry, and Kellan pulled me into his shoulder to muffle it. The bell tolled nine times and fell silent. Their feet were still twitching. Kellan’s voice was gentler now. “I don’t know what you thought you’d see here.” He tried to turn me away to protect me from it, but I twisted from his grasp. Even though being near a transition from life to death always made my stomach turn, I had to bear witness. I had to see. Mabel’s body had gone completely still now, but the air around her shimmered. It was a strange thing to watch a soul extricate itself from its body, slipping out from the grotesque shell the way a fine lady might step from a muddied, cast-off cloak. When she emerged, she found her son waiting and she went to him. In the instant they touched, they were gone, moving from borderland into whatever lay beyond, out of my sight. It took longer for Hilda to die. She gagged and spluttered, her eyes bulging from their sockets. When it did happen, it was an ugly thing. Her soul tore itself from its body with what would have been a snarl, if there had been any sound. Hilda’s specter lunged at the woman she’d pointed at in the crowd, but the woman did not seem to notice. Her attention was on the sloppy sack of bones swaying at the end of the gallows rope. “Would you like to claim your mother-in-law’s body?” Toris asked the woman. “No,” she said emphatically. “Burn it.” And Hilda’s ghost silently screamed, dragging her intangible nails across her daughter-in-law’s face. The woman paled and put her hand to her cheek. I wondered if Hilda’s rage had given her spirit enough energy to exert a real touch. I didn’t envy the daughter-in-law. Hilda would probably remain in the borderland indefinitely, following her betrayer, silently screaming, clouding the air around with her hate. I’d seen it happen before. “Let’s go, Aurelia,” Kellan said. He used my name instead of my title; he was becoming distressed. The crowd was starting to get raucous, pushing forward as the bodies were dragged down from the stage. Someone next to me gave me a hard shove, and I stumbled forward toward the cobblestones, putting my hands out to catch my fall but coming down hard onto my wrist instead. I wasn’t down for long, though; Kellan was already lifting me to my feet, his arms circling me like a protective cage as he forced our way out of the mob. My hand went to my empty wrist. “My bracelet!” I cried, straining to look over my shoulder at the place where I’d fallen, though the ground could no longer be seen through the mesh of bodies. “It must have broken when I fell—” “Forget about it,” Kellan said firmly but kindly—he knew how important it was to me. “It’s gone. We have to go.” I slipped from his grasp and turned back into the crowd with my eyes on the ground, pushing when I was pushed and shoving when I was shoved, hoping for any glimpse of my bracelet. But Kellan was right; it was well and truly gone. He reached me again and this time held fast, but I didn’t want to fight him anymore; the whistles had begun to blow. Within minutes the Tribunal’s clerics would be marching on the gathering, rounding up any who seemed to lack the requisite enthusiasm for the cause. There were two new vacancies in the Tribunal’s cells, and they were never left empty for long.
It wasn’t more than an hour later when I found myself standing in the beam of my mother’s antechamber skylight, staring at the half-finished confection of ivory gossamer and minute, sparkling crystals—thousands of them—that would soon become my wedding dress. It would be the most extravagant costume I’d ever worn in all my seventeen years; the Tribunal’s influence in Renalt extended even to fashion. Clothing was meant to reflect the ideals of modesty, simplicity, and austerity. The only allowable exceptions were marriages and funerals. Celebration was reserved for the events that curtailed one’s opportunities to sin. The dress was my mother’s wedding gift to me, every tiny stitch done by her own hand. I touched the lace of the one finished sleeve and marveled at its fineness before reminding myself how unhappy I would be the day I had to wear it. Every day brought the occasion closer and closer. Set for Beltane, the first day of Quintus, my wedding was now little more than six weeks away and looming large on the horizon. Sighing, I straightened and went through the door into the next room, ready for battle. My mother was pacing on the other side of her table, skirts rustling with each restless stride. Our family’s eldest and closest adviser, Onal, sat straight-backed in one of the parlor’s less comfortable chairs, sipping her tea with pinched brown lips and a carefully cultivated disdain. At the sound of the door, my mother’s blue eyes whipped toward me, all of her anxiety loosed at once, like the snap of a bowstring. “Aurelia!” She used my name like an epithet. Onal took another slow sip of her tea. I thrust my hands into my pockets. The gesture was supposed to make me look sheepish and repentant, of which I was neither. But this whole thing would be over faster if Mother thought I was remorseful. “You went to town alone this morning? Have you lost your mind?” She lifted a stack of papers and shook them at me. “These are the letters I’ve received this week—this week!—that call for you to be investigated by the Tribunal. Over there”—she pointed to a separate pile of paper, two inches high—“are the possible threats against you that my informants have gathered since the beginning of this month. And here”—she pulled open a drawer—“are the more poetic and fanatical predictions of your demise we’ve been sent since the beginning of this year. Let me read one to you, shall I? Let’s see . . . all right. This one contains a very detailed methodology of how to determine if you’re a witch. It involves a sharp knife and a thorough examination of the underside of your skin.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the severed kitten’s head I’d found in my closet last week, laid out alongside a poorly scrawled country prayer to ward against witches; or the red x’s that were scratched on the underside of my favorite saddle, an old hex meant to make a horse go mad and turn on its rider. I didn’t need to be reminded of how much I was hated. I knew it better than she did. “They want to peel my skin off?” I asked lightly. “Is that all?” “And burn it,” Onal supplied from behind her teacup. “One week until you leave,” Mother snapped. “Can’t you manage to stay out of trouble until then? I’m sure when you’re queen in Achleva you’ll be able to come and go as you please. You can go into the city and do . . . whatever it was you went to do today.” “I went to a hanging.” “Stars save me. A hanging? It’s like you want the Tribunal to come after you. We’re very lucky we have Toris there on the inside.” “Very lucky,” I echoed. She might think Toris, the widowed husband of her favorite cousin, was the crown’s trusted ally keeping the Tribunal in check from within, but I’d never be convinced that he didn’t enjoy the part he played up there on the gallows stand. “Aurelia,” she said, taking stock of me, head to toe. I knew what she saw: a tangle of pale hair and eyes that should have been blue but weren’t, not quite, erring more on the side of silver. Outside of those attributes, I was not particularly unpleasant-looking, but my peculiar traits and tendencies made me stand out, made me strange. And Renaltans were suspicious enough about me simply because I existed. I was the first Renaltan princess born to the crown in nearly two centuries—at least, the first who hadn’t been given away in secret at the hour of her birth. It was my duty to fulfill the treaty that had ended the centuries-long war between our country and Achleva by marrying Achleva’s next heir. For 176 years our people believed that the lack of girls born to the royal family was a sign that we were never to truly align ourselves with the filthy, hedonistic Achlevans. Proof of our moral superiority. My birth shook their faith in the monarchy, the king and queen who had the gall to first have a daughter and then keep her. Sometimes I agreed with them. A knock at the door broke the tense quiet. Mother said, “Bring him in, Sir Greythorne.” Kellan came through first, looking around and then giving a wave behind him. A man stepped out from behind Kellan. He was dressed in crushed velvet the color of a twilit sky, with a golden sash crossing his chest and fastened by a brooch in the shape of a three-pointed knot. In his ear winked a rakish ruby stud; on his finger shone a silver signet depicting a spread-winged raven. He had a shock of gleaming black hair, untouched by the silver that should have accompanied his age. Startlingly colorful, he was like a lone stained-glass window in a world made up of plain leaded panes. He was an Achlevan.