She stood behind Nevan in front of the town hall in the square, looking out onto the grim faces of the townspeople with concern as they watched her back, in turn, with suspicion. All that repeated in her head was, don’t do it, please don’t do it. She was reminded of Sergeant Murphy’s words: don’t try anything stupid, now. He had said that and she had not understood how he could think standing against him could be stupid, and now, here she was, thinking the exact same thing as she looked down onto these thin-faced people, some of them her relatives, some of them once her friends. She sought her mother’s face in the crowd, hardly discernible from every other old woman even to her. Then she found her, recognising that red coat she always wore when she went out, so vibrant. She could remember hanging on to the back of it when she was a child, fist clinging as she half-ran to keep up.
She breathed deep, closing her eyes as she let out a cold stream of air.
There was an anxious energy in the thin day air. The Guard leaders were yet to speak, they were just surveying the crowd with their arms crossed and their steel-capped boots tapping on the ground with impatient apprehension.
“Your finally here.” One turned to use while rolling his eyes. He turned to General Kai. “They’re here!” He yelled.
“Finally, we were just about to start without you.” He said, though in her opinion he didn’t look ready to do anything of the sort, what with the way he was lounging with one foot against the wall of the town hall and inspecting the sharpness of the tip of his knife with the soft side of his index finger.
“I apologise, General, seems were not quite as on our toes as you.”
He hmphed. “Well, we can’t expect someone of your stature to keep up, can we?” He looked around at his fellows with a cruel grin on his face, and they all laughed rather uncomfortably, shifting from foot to foot.
General Nevan laughed along with him, but the tone he took was sober. “Maybe so.”
“Well,” Kai, straightened his jacket, “We can get on with our speech then.”
”Just be careful, no need to get anyone worked up.” He was already turning away to the heralds, so General Nevan’s whispered warning probably went right over his head. He heard the second part though. “There has been some discontentment going around, not that its serious, but I would just think things through before you say it. Maybe you should let me see what you are going to say before you say it.”
“There is no need for that, Nevan.” He growled. “And I think I can be trusted to write my own speeches, after all I am the General of the Army, Nevan, no matter our past, I have more responsibility that you have now.”
“That’s not what I meant to imply, Kai…”
At the use of informal speech, General Kai interrupted him. “Maybe you cannot handle a bit of discontentment among the people, but I am more than equipped to deal with it. There is nothing in this little town that could possibly threaten our rule. I mean…” He turned out his hand and gestured to the crowd, “look how scared they are, just a look at us and all of their rebellious spirit is quelled. They will not try anything while we are here. If I were you, I would be worried about my own authority over this town if even these lowly people are disobeying you.”
Looking out at the crowd, it didn’t seem that they were scared. In fact, she would say they were looking at the Guard Leaders with barely repressed anger: all dark eyes, jutted out chins and clenched fists.
And it only got worse as he began his speech. “People of Gokheya, under the rule of the Empire you have prospered. When once this town was one of uneducated people, who had yet to step into the world of civilisation, you now stand before me as thinking people, many of you having joined our cause as Guards, and those who have not, able to appreciate and respect the role that they play.” He raised his hands. “Look how your fields are full of wheat, your animals are fat with hay, your children are healthy and strong. What more is there to life! This is what the Empire has granted you. Taken you away from those old beliefs that held you back, those of the strange and supernatural, and brought you into the light of day, and of the new world the Empire is awakening.”
She glanced around at the unhappy faces. My God, she thought, one of them is really going to kill him if he carries on like this.
She leaned towards General Nevan. “They look angry.”
General Nevan said nothing, but she noticed he was actually smiling a little as he held out a hand to her. She took it and he directed her to the left of the stage, away from the grinning group and their leader. He stopped close to the back of the stage, and whispered to her. “Can you keep an eye out here?”
She nodded and then, realising he couldn’t see, said, “It’s perfect.” And it was perfect. It was on the raised stage at the front, so she could see over every head and right to the back of the crowd, and it was away from the Guard leader group and General Kai in the middle of the stage. Which was a good thing as he speech had been getting steadily louder as he built up confidence, to the point where every word was like a stamp on her ears.
Her eyes traced back and forth as she took in all the crowd, so concentrated on what was before her that she didn’t see him sidling up onto the stage from the right. It seemed no one else did either, as there was no reaction until he had gotten right beside the group.
He was cloaked, God damn that attire, for she couldn’t see a thing of him with that hood hanging low upon his face. All she could see was that his skin was dark from the hands that peeked over the long sleeves as he drew the gun up.
“I pledge myself…” his voice was loud and confident, “…against the King and Empire, and give myself to you.” He pointed out into the crowd, causing everyone to turn until no one was quite sure where he had pointed anymore. “Accept my life in aid of your plight, hero, and may it help spread your message across all of our beautiful country!” And up he drew the gun, to horrified gasps from all corners of the crowd, and pulled the trigger at his head. He fell, cloak falling back to reveal the smooth skin of his face, not one of the townspeople, this man was a stranger. As the smoke from the gunpowder dissipated into the air, and with it the shocking sound that had quite winded the first few rows of people at the front of the crowd, it became all too silent. That gun was not like any other she had heard, it slid across the ground and towards her feet, it was a huge, square looking thing, not like the little pistols they used here in the Guard. Where had he gotten such a thing?
She thought of it for a moment before realising that he had been pointed out into the crowd at someone she knew too well. He had said ‘hero’, that could only mean one thing. It had to be him, he was out there somewhere. She felt the shivers running up her arms like cold hands touching her bare skin. As that uncertainty stroked across her body, every hair was left standing on end. The silence whispered that something more was about to happen.
She was just about to open her mouth, to call out to Nevan, or someone, anyone, when she felt it click. An audible sound punched through the air, and suddenly, one keening voice in the crowd pierced the silence. It was Einin, she could see that pale oval of a face, sickly yet still bright among the darker weathered ones that surrounded her, and those too-big eyes open in shock as it hit her.
The bullet entered right in the middle of her chest, and Lahel watched her hold both hands to the quickly spreading, blood mark on her dress, looking down with her hands clasped as if in prayer. And she could swear she was looking right at her as she fell, or, perhaps it was more accurate to say, behind her. As the Guard leaders looked down, at the empty-handed body before them, she twisted around and stepped back, stumbling, and falling backwards to the hard floor. He was there, right behind her. Bright eyes calm, though his hands were shaking the pistol within them. It was not Seth, the Sergeant who had left her staring at the veil of death through the glossy pool of blood that had pooled around her. No, it was a pair of blue eyes that looked past her, at the girl that was screaming as if the bullet had let out the animal in her as her sister held her head on her lap. Major Murphy. So, he had sent him in his place.
She was frozen where she sat, even as she watched the Guard leaders clamour around the Major, General Kai knocking the pistol from his hands with a slapping noise, and another General clapping a pair of handcuffs around his hands. It was all over in a matter of seconds. She looked to her side, there was Nevan with what she knew must be the exact same expression as she had. A look of lost desperation, as his eyes followed his closest friend being dragged away from the crowd by the collar of his uniform. And he was wearing it all, every bit of regalia he owner, so clearly a Guard that no one in the crowd would have considered that he’d been put on leave just the other day. She didn’t even want to look at the crowd, she already knew what they would be doing.
“The monster!” Someone was shouting, Maureen perhaps. “He was in the Empire, they have been hiding him all along.” The women’s voices wailed like they were banshees, washing bloody clothes at the river and singing the death omens of their listeners. They were pushing against the Guards, who had gathered in a semi-circle around the visiting Generals, with such violence that they were actually moving them back. My God, she thought, if I die getting trampled by these townspeople, I would rather have been killed by Seth Murphy’s own hand. At least then she would have died honourably, and with purpose. To someone she hated, yes, but also respected in a strange way. He, at least, was her equal. These people were nothing to her anymore. They were being deceived so easily, as if they were as simple as children, they were playing into his plan so thoroughly, it was as if they had a part in it too. Pathetic. Could they not take a moment to think for themselves. Rather than going along with this group mentality without even a consideration as to what exactly was happening. They were hindering everything, she realised, as she suddenly remembered that she must look for him in the crowd. He would be there. It was part of his character to do such a twisted thing. To stand somewhere within the very crowd he was controlling, so that he could watch his plan unfold. He must be here. She searched desperately for those golden eyes, the curling halo of white-blonde hair, that laughing smile she knew he would be wearing.
But he wasn’t there. No, he must be. She glanced over to Nevan and sae he was still facing the way the Major had be dragged away. “Nevan.” She hissed. “He must be in the crowd.”
He turned his head slightly. “It was the Major, wasn’t it? The one who shot that bullet into the crowd.” Oh, she had forgotten that he couldn’t see. It was so easy to forget sometimes because of the way he acted so self-assured, she wasn’t even sure she saw him jump even though both those bullets were fired right beside him.
She paused, though there was no point hesitating. She didn’t have time for it, and it sounded as if he was pretty certain anyway. “It was.”
He nodded sadly. “And you believe it was Seth who made him do it.” He didn’t enquire as to who had been killed, maybe he didn’t care. And maybe she didn’t either. What mattered was that it was him who had really taken that shot.
“Yes. No, I know it was him.” She said it firmly, trying to make him certain as that waver in his usually solid voice scared her more than the sharp-fisted rebellion before her.
“Find him, Lahel. You must be my eyes.”
She gulped down hard on the lump that was fast forming in her throat at the choke in his voice. “I will.”
“They will send the Major to O’Sullivan’s prison if we can’t prove his innocence. Going there will surely break him, and he’s already unstable enough as it is.” So that’s where his compassions lay, too concerned with his old friend to spare a thought for anyone else.
“I can’t see him.” The desperation in her voice was increasing as she searched every face in the pulsating mass of the mob. None of them were his. She would know him in an instant. Was he really not here?
Then she looked up. Maybe he was in one of the houses, looking down on this chaos, that would also be his style. But he was not in the first house, or the second, she kept looking, and looking, and then she saw a movement in one top floor window. No, just a curtain flickering in the breeze.
As her eyes dropped downwards, giving up, a wisp of hair flowing out of a dark hood on a figure right at the back of the crowd stole her attention. The only one not jostling, keeping his distance from the rest of the rebellion. Yes, she felt time slow down as she watched him tilt up his head so the light could fall on his mocking grin. But, as she pointed, and people in the crowd turned, she felt hands grasp her shoulders and pull her back. She found Nevan jostled next to her and shouted to him as he came close.
“He’s there, at the back.”
Nevan shook his head. “You cannot reach him in time, can you?”
“No. Your damn Empire leaders are trying to drag me away.” She elbowed the man trying to pull her out of the square and away from the crowd, and, as his arms let up slightly, she ducked her way out of his grasp and turned back towards where she had last seen him.
There! People were looking, they had seen him. She was almost relieved until she remembered who they thought he was. Their hero. They were grasping his cloak, calling out to him, some even falling to their knees. They were getting even more worked up than they had been. Her face dropped. They were fooled. So completely fooled. Even as she was dragged away again, and watched him being smuggled under the veil of his loyal subjects, she couldn’t speak a word.
Later, the disruption had died down with some ‘gentle’ intervention from the loud-mouthed Guard leaders and their men. They were in the Guard house now, arguing with Nevan about his position as a General. She supposed they wanted to demote him, that’s what it sounded like from what she had heard before they locked themselves up in his office at least.
She had been abandoned in the break room with some odd-looking kids that had surreptitiously arrived during the aftermath. She gave them a sideways glance with a disinterested expression on her face, pretending not to be curious. General Nevan had said they were some special group in the Empire before he had gotten dragged away. Their job was something to do with undermining rebel plots, though, to her, they seemed a bit young for such tasks. Apparently, the King was very worried about such things happening, what with his wife and son the only ones in Isadora and him over the ocean in Mallogal. That’s why he had created this team specifically for preventing rebel uprisings. She snorted slightly, from what she’d seen today, she couldn’t say they’d been doing a good job of it. As if she had heard the mocking sound, one suddenly turned to her, a girl about her age with dark, empire colouring, and long black hair left loose and straight.
“Oh, hello there.” She grinned with sickening exuberance, flicking the dark red cloak she, and all the others, wore over her shoulder as she did. “You work here, don’t you? You know, I had no idea they let women be in the Guard out here in the sticks!” The girl was practically bouncing on the spot. “How on earth did you convince them to let you join? Did you pretend to be a boy, perhaps?” She said, with a glance at Lahel’s short, choppy-ended locks and rather ungendered face.
“No.” She said simply, putting her chin in her hands and turning away to stare at the wall in a pointed movement. Surely, she would not disturb her once so clearly rejected?
It seemed the message was not so clearly received, however, as the girl was now turning to her comrades. “Isn’t it quite amazing?” She asked them, big, black eyes full of melodramatic wonder. “Most admirable. It is such a shame that this place will soon be under military leadership.”
“What?” Stuttered Lahel, despite not wanting to let on that she had been listening.
“Oh yes.” The wide-eyed girl nodded. “There’s no way Kai will let Nevan keep hold of this place now that the rebels have begun their rioting. It’s just too dangerous, I’m afraid. They can be very violent, I have heard…” and then, remembering herself, she added, “…of course you Guard people are different. You listen to direction, and have been formed under good, civilised leadership. You are no more a member of those people out there than we!” She threw a hand back towards the approximate destination of the square, where she had first seen the townspeople in their little rebellion.
Lahel pushed her teeth together hard. She couldn’t say a thing to these people, who knew what they would misunderstand, and who they would tell. They didn’t even seem to consider that her family may be out there. She thought of her ma’s face in the crowd, hoping she was okay but not wanting to go back home to find out. Somehow, home seemed a million miles away from the Guard house now. It felt almost impossible to return.
“I’m Malevolent by the way.” The girl was suddenly close by her, looking down with those glittering eyes and holding out a hand. “Malevolent Glint.”
Lahel looked up with no friendliness in her gaze but, as the girl kept her hand out as if unfazed by her stare, she shook it anyway. “I didn’t know Malevolent was a name.”
“Oh, it isn’t.” Another voice piped up, one belonging to a boy with dark hair swept over one eye in a strange fashion. He drawled in a sarcastic way. “She calls herself that but her real name is Mona.”
Mona pouted. “You know I hate that name, Tsubasa. You’re always just looking to cause trouble for no reason, aren’t you?” She seemed to have a rather annoying habit of asking questions she didn’t expect anyone to answer, for when Tsubasa tried to retort she had already begun her next sentence and was showing no signs of making room for him. “This is Tsubasa Kyori,” she said to Lahel, “and behind him is Loftus Underfoot, his parents are dwarves, then there’s Haziel and Ida Bloom, the twins, and finally over there is Blanche,” she pointed to a pale figure that appeared to think it was hidden behind one of the twins, and whispered, “he’s a bit shy but were working on it”, with a wink.
Lahel paused, not sure what exactly she was meant to do with all this new information that seemed quite useless to her as of this moment. “Ummm…I’m Lahel.” The girl nodded, obviously this was the answer she was expecting. “Lahel Callahan. I’m a Lieutenant of the Gokheya Guard.”
“That’s not all,” Malevolent beamed, “From what Nevan’s been saying, I hear you’re quite the favourite for a certain promotion.”
This was the first she was hearing of this. Wouldn’t he have told her such a thing? Well, maybe he had. He did seem to be giving her more responsibility as of late, but she thought that was mostly because of the Seth issue being rather delicate, and him not exactly being inclined to share it with any more people, even among the Guard. But then again, if Major Blackwood Murphy really was getting arrested, he would need someone to fill the gap of Major. Still, hadn’t this girl just said that the military would be taking hold of Gokheya, surely then there would be no more Guard for her to be promoted within?
“I don’t quite understand.” She admitted.
“Why, darling,” she said in a tone that made Lahel think she was being considered a young and rather difficult child by this girl who could be no older than she herself was, “he wants you to join us. He recommended you to us directly, and I have a feeling that Kai may just comply, it is his last request after all.”
“Well, there will be no need for a General when the military moves in, and, I hate to say this but, you must realise that he is clearly no longer fit for the job! For goodness sake, there was a murderer right beside him all this time and he didn’t notice a thing! It is quite scary, and for a whole town to rebel like this, obviously they have seen his weakness too and are striving to use it to usurp the Empire. We must take back hold of this town and Nevan will not be the one to do it. Think of it like this, dear, he deserves a break after all these years. I dare say he will need it to recover, he is quite distraught about his friend, even I could tell that when I saw him begging for the man to be pardoned. Clearly this atmosphere has gotten to his head! How can a murderer be pardoned?”
“Because he didn’t do it.” She hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
“Why, who else could have? Kai said he saw him shoot that townsperson with his own eyes!”
“It was Seth Blackwood-Murphy, his son. He made him do it.”
“Ah, you mean the child those folk think is their hero? Oh, well I suppose he did make him do it, in a way, inspiring all this rebel spirit as he has been doing. Do not fear, we will deal with him too. Of course, such an influential rebel leader is too dangerous to have loose. To have a man kill himself for him, it is just terrifying. And we’ve been getting word that the same thing has been happening all over the country. How he could have become so prolific, so fast, we can only guess.”
Lahel didn’t even bother to correct her. She was hardly listening at this point, all that was repeating in her head was the dreadful thought that the Major would be in jail, Nevan would be retired, she would be in this ridiculous group who obviously don’t understand a thing about the Old Country, and Seth would be free. She could see just by listening to them talk with that childish confidence that they had absolutely no idea what they were up against. He would kill them all. And she was going to die with them.