I tapped my foot on the tiled floor impatiently. The rebels milled around me, talking about something insignificant like how they were going to fight against the empire with me as their leader. Like that was going to happen. They had no idea that what mattered to me now was no longer this stupid role I was playing, rather it was that man, the one who had killed himself on the stage, in front of the leaders of the Empire. He had declared me the ‘hero’ of the Old Country and then killed himself. That was all good and well, what wasn’t was that I hadn’t made him do it. I had directed the Major in his final stand, but, I must say, my brilliant plan was almost completely upstaged by that strange suicide, and the worst part was that I hadn’t thought to do it myself. It really was a convincing way to set the rebels and the Empire up against each other: a suicide in my name. Really added to my rebel credentials. What worried me, though, was that there was no way that stranger decided to do that on his own. He wasn’t even from this town: how would he have even known who I was if someone hadn’t told him? Someone else must have been controlling him. Someone who knew who I was, or at least who everyone thought I was, and was enacting a plan of their own. Completely outside of my control. Whoever it was, I had to put a stop to their troublesome ways. To be so insulted, and to have not seen it coming, was absolutely unforgivable. And it was the last thing I needed right now, what with Lieutenant Callahan back on her feet and probably, at this very moment, telling all of the Empire leaders exactly what I looked like and where I would most likely be hiding.
She would work it out in a heartbeat, I had been dragged along to the most obvious place. The house where the rebels met that time I attacked Einin pretending to be General Nevan, who had, curiously enough, been there himself. No, I don’t have time to worry about that man right now, they would probably already be on their way, searching houses as they went. And here I was, cornered.
“We’ll have to get you a disguise for now.” One hushed voice said, emnating from a stocky little man with dark brown hair that shone almost red in the candlelight. “The soldiers could be here any minute.”
“Why did you bring him here, Ailbe?” A strikingly normal looking man asked, slightly too loudly. “You should have let him run away, this way we’re all going to be caught.”
The man called Ailbe answered with more anger than was necessary. “Like we could just turn our tails and run from those Empire scum.” He bared his teeth. “We’ve been rebelling under their noses for years, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. And with Seth here, he’s been hiding within their own ranks, in their own houses, in their families, for his whole life. If you’re not brave enough, get lost, but we’re going to stay here and we’re sure as hell not going to get caught today.”
The other man glared at him like a bird that’s had its feathers rustled. “I won’t run, obviously I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to fight the Empire. I’m just questioning your judgement because you seem to be willing to undermine all of that work we did, and even put out ‘hero’ at risk, rather than admit that you were wrong bringing him here.”
I was about to get irritated, luckily another man, blonde-haired, decided to end this fruitless conversation. “How should we disguise him, Ailbe?” He asked softly into the darkness.
“Huh?” Ailbe stopped his glaring and turned towards me with his hands on his hips. “He sure is recognisable, isn’t he? How on earth are we going to hide those eyes.” He said, with an unsettled look at me and the eyes I knew would be reflecting gold like a cat’s in the dark.
“That is my problem to deal with.” I watched them all turn to me, amazed, as I spoke. I hadn’t said a word since they had ushered me from the crowd, in fact, I don’t think I had ever said a word to any of them, even when I was a Guard. Still, they didn’t have to look so surprised.
“Okay.” Ailbe said and a couple of them shrugged. “But you better hurry up. From the sounds of it, they’re not that far away.” He was right, I had been hearing them getting steadily closer for some time now.
I ignored him, looking around the room for something specific. I got up and picked up a few things off the table, looking underneath them and scattering them around when my search proved fruitless.
The blonde one coughed and Ailbe spoke again, a little uncertainly. “What are you looking for there, Sergeant.”
“Don’t call me Sergeant anymore.” I said, now searching a bookcase.
“Oh, right. You never really were just a Sergeant, were you?”
I didn’t feel that needed an answer, I just looked up and asked him disinterestedly: “You don’t happen to have a knife, do you?”
“Eh, yes. Why?”
“It is none of your concern. Just hand it to me.” I reached my palm out expectantly. When he made no movement to comply I continued, looking him right in his dark, blue eyes. “Surely, you trust me that much?”
“Yes…” he paused, and drew a knife out from his belt and placed it in my open palm.
I stared down at that glinting metal, fascinated by the way it curved in the wicked crescent of a moon. I drew a finger across it, liking how the edge pricked my skin. I wrapped my hand around the worn leather of the hilt and pulled it back, far, and then, as their look at me with eyes opened far too wide in shock, I plunged it deep into the socket of my left eye.
The sickening sucking noise it made as it entered made even me flinch, but my mouth soon settled into that same self-satisfied smile. As I pulled it across the bone and towards the bridge of my nose, it carved so deep the pain would have surely made anyone else faint, I, however, revelled in it. Pulling it across the right eye, I let it drop as everything went black.
“God have mercy! Save our souls!!” The rebel’s voices were muffled, I could tell their hands were strapped over their mouths as if to stop themselves from retching. “Why the hell?”
“Eyes too recognisable. Get me some water, and make it hot.” I said, licking at the blood that ran down my face and onto my mouth, iron rich.
“Yes, yes, get him some water!” Someone yelled, by the sounds of it, the blonde one.
“Boil it, make sure it’s too hot to touch.” I added.
“My God.” The normal man grimaced. “I’m getting out of here. This guy’s crazy!”
“Fine, go.” Ailbe said. He seemed offended. “Leave, and I hope you get caught as you go.”
“Aible, keep it together. This is not the time to fight.” The blonde said. “Make sure they don’t see you.” He whispered to the man who didn’t answer, all I heard was the door shake closed behind him. I had a feeling that he was the one leading this rebellion behind the scenes even as he latched the door behind the man. Ailbe was too quick to anger. And he appeared to be readily disliked by everyone that surrounded him. This guy, by contrast, was quite respected. Perfectly so.
I heard the clattering of someone at the stove, the sound of the stove door being opened with a heavy clank, and a copper kettle being filled with water and dropped onto the hob.
Someone put their arm around my shoulders and after a while, and some more frantic movement over by the stove, I was led over to sit at the table and handed a hot towel. “Take this, put it over your eyes.” The one holding my shoulder said, trying to direct my hand to do so.
“No need.” I said, “these eyes are useless now. Pass me the water instead.”
I felt a hesitation in the hand directing mine, and then he spoke. “I understand.” He said bleakly, and pushed the copper pan towards me. I felt out with my hand, yes, it was scolding. I moved my hand up the smooth metal and pulled the lid from the kettle. Lifting it up, I held it up above my head and tipped, letting the burning water fall across my face like flame.
“What are you doing?” The arm touching me receded with a sudden jerk, flinching away from the liquid flame.
Leaving my face tilted up, I breathed out brokenly. Now that did hurt. Maybe it was their silly praying that made it fierce like this. “Was still too recognisable. Lahel would have spotted me in an instant.”
I felt the air move with a collective intake of breath as if they were all about to say something, but as they prepared to do so, there was a thudding sound next door.
“They’re here already.” The person that sounded like Ailbe hissed.
“My God.” The blonde one said, and I felt something sweep over my head, the material rough and heavy like cloth. “Keep this cloak on, and maybe tie something over your eyes.” He said. “Anyone got any leather?” He called out to the others, and then must have been handed something as he quickly began tying some cold fabric around my head. This disguise better be worth the effort, was all I thought. If someone recognised me after all this, I would be quite annoyed.
There was then some rushed sounds, they were probably donning their own disguises, not that they needed them; they looked unlikely enough a couple anyway. Nobody would suppose them for the stronghold of the rebellion: one little man and one tall, rather effeminate looking, blonde.
That was when they erupted through the door. They didn’t knock, not that I had really expected them too, but by the sounds of their feet, they poured through the gap and into the front room with abandon.
“Are these all the people in this house?” Someone called in a thick, Empire accent.
“Maybe.” Ailbe laughed back, not moving from his place at the table, though the table creaked as he rested his chin upon his hand in an overly-relaxed gesture.
He wasn’t laughing for long though, in a series of thumping movements, each of them were grasped by their arms at the back and a voice I recognised as belonging to the Army General spoke out. “What is that meant to mean, you scum? I believe that I asked a simple question, it shouldn’t be so hard for you to answer.”
Ailbe grunted, they must have been doing something to him, “You can get that gun out my face, I will answer you.” They sure weren’t holding back this time, I had to play it safe.
For what possible aim was this man riling them up for? He was undermining everything, a troublesome man to deal with. So, I spoke up. “There is no one else here.”
The voice turned towards me. “Here, you seem to be pretty reasonable.” He got closer, so close I could feel his breath hot and wet upon the tender skin of my face. “But not pretty in the face.” He muttered. “By God, how do you end up like this?”
“Excuse my face, this happened in an accident a long time ago. Long before all of this business.”
“Must have been one hell of an accident.” He drew back. I could almost see his lip curling in disgust. “Lahel!” He called, the sound of her name making my heart speed up a little bit. So, she was here. As I had predicted.
“You see him here?” She must have shaken his head, because he continued. “You said he would be in one of these old houses.” He sounded exasperated.
“I thought he would be,” she said, “Nevan said this was the rebel hideout…”
The man scoffed. “Rebel hideous? These bunch of misfits? Just look at them, there’s no way the ‘hero’ would be relying on the help of this crowd. I certainly wouldn’t, if I were him.” He had gotten that right at least. I wouldn’t have put my faith in them, unfortunately for him, I didn’t need to. All I needed was an unlikely looking crowd that I could blend in with and that wouldn’t hand me in as easily as some in this town would.
“Those scars,” General Kai considered carefully, gripping my shoulder and peering towards me, “they look rather fresh, don’t they?”
“Oh these,” I waved a nonchalant hand through the air, “no, no, these I have been graced with for most of my life.”
He didn’t appear convinced though, and turned to Lieutenant Lahel and she shook her head. “I don’t recognise him…” She seemed to think deeply.
“Well you wouldn’t,” Ailbe retorted, “not as you’ve been in the Guard and hardly payed us people any notice since.” At this point, whoever was holding him must have squeezed his arms even tighter at his back as he talked like he was gritting his teeth when he continued. “He hasn’t been here that long, he’s my uncle from Toboe, if you must know.”
“What? You see something?” General Kai asked Lahel as her feet stopped moving and she turned her head towards me.
She said nothing for a while, and I almost thought that she had realised who lay beneath these ridiculous layers of fabric. But, alas, she said: “Nothing”, and wondered back through the door, though he could still detect the uncertainty in her step.
I put up a hand to my face and, yes, there it was. A lock of hair had fallen from the cloak. I grinned as I tucked it back behind my ear, for hair to almost give me away. Thank God she had second guessed herself, I could stick to the story but I wasn’t sure how far these rebels would go under further interrogation.
“Yes!” Ailbe called into the air with a whoop as soon as they were gone. “That was amazing! Why they didn’t suspect a thing!” He dropped an arm over my shoulder. “Why, you are full of good ideas, as to be expected of our hero! An awful shame about your eyes though, and your face. But I guess these are the scars we must bear for rebellion.” He shouted, as if these were his scars, or these were his eyes.
“I shouldn’t concern myself with such trifling matters as eyes and skin. There are far more important things which, when they are achieved, will make all of this worldly pain seem worthwhile.”
“You are right.” He laughed. “For our rebellion, no sacrifice is too big! How worthy a hero you are, I wasn’t sure for a while then, but I am certain now I have seen how willing you are to face pain for our cause.”
I mumbled some indiscriminate reply, but he didn’t need much motivation anyway.
“Bring out the alcohol, Quinn! We should celebrate tonight.” He already sounded a little drunk on the exhilaration.
And with that the night was gone, swallowed like liquor down our throats and left dripping from our mouths and from the upturned bottles that rolled dangerously across the table-top. Soon they were all passed out, I could hear each snoring and, to check, I let the bottle I was playing with below my palm fall to the floor and smash upon the tiles. No reaction. They slept as the dead.
So up I stood and made my way to the door.
“Where are you going?” So one was still awake. It was the voice of that blonde man, Quinn Galilee was his name, but slurred with drink.
Would it be easier to just kill him? No, they would be useful in the future. Best to keep them alive and trusting in me. “I have some work to do alone. I thank you for hiding me this one night, it was absolutely necessary that I wasn’t recognised, and it seemed you rebel’s presence disguised mine very effectively.”
He groaned a bit, I knew he must be holding his aching head in his hands right now. Well, that was good. It’s best he didn’t get too observant, or, worse, try to stop me leaving. Then I really would have to kill him, and I had a feeling that would have a catastrophic effect on the rest of the plan. This man appeared to me the reasonable one, I needed him to keep the other in check. Ailbe without him would be no rebel leader at all. Just a small man with anger issues, who would follow that? So, before he could start to speak, I edged my way closer to the door, feeling along the wall to find the latch.
“Wait!” He yelled, suddenly frantic, after me. “Where are you going?”
“You must continue to lead this group from Ailbe’s side, Quinn Galilee. The fate of this plan depends on it.”
“Huh?” He said, confused. “But you were meant to lead. You’re the hero, the one the people have been waiting to follow. They even kill themselves for you! I could not possibly lead them in your stead.” He didn’t have to remind me about that.
“To most, I am just a figurehead. They can follow me even when I am not here.” I turned my head slightly towards where I knew he lay, half-passed out on the floor and propped up by a fallen chair. “You must lead, Quinn, for Ailbe cannot do it alone. And all this time you must remember that I will only be two steps ahead of you and all I do is for our cause. Remember that, and preach it to the rebels and they will surely follow.”
“But,” he whined, “If you would just stay…”
“I put everything in danger if I stay, but fear not, I’m sure we will meet again, rebel. For the destruction of the Empire, we will surely meet again.” I called back, singing. Loving the feel of the cold air upon the raw skin on my face as I wandered my way to the field behind my house. My feet knew the path. Every dip in the dust road, every pothole, every loose cobble that rocked beneath my shoes. I clambered over the fence, glad that the fuss had died down and all the townsfolk had returned to their homes for sleep. The Empire soldiers would be around though. A few streets over I could hear a pair of them chattering to each other as they glanced over the alleyways, checking for hiding rebels I guess. If anyone really got caught hiding behind a bin in an alleyway, they kind of deserved it. I wasn’t planning on getting caught yet though. I waded through the long grass of the field and settled down. I was going to be here for a long time, after all. And as I sat there my eyes opened, not the mangled ones within my own skull, but the blue ones that faced the dirty walls of the cell. I looked down at the Major’s hands, feeling the gentle breeze playing at the back of my neck, and turned to the barred window. I held the cold metal of the bars within my hands, and peered out into the darkness outside, seeing nothing but the giant eye of the moon looming before me. Staring back. Recognising its child down there in this strange body. It was easy to take his body from him now that he had given up. He was in so much pain, I could feel the echo of it in his aching muscles and in the tears that marked his face in tracks. It hurt me slightly to think that I had caused him this hurt. He had been my father for a time now. And he had been worthy of my respect in many ways. For him to end up in here was not ideal, but it was entirely necessary. Without him in this place I could never get the insight I needed into the workings of this prison, and I had to know not only for my revenge, but for my plan as well. Maybe I would put him out of his misery once this was over. Though I wasn’t sure I would be able to.
I shook my head, this is exactly why I hated occupying human bodies. So emotional that they effected even me. Still, as I looked out at that terrible eye, the feelings fell off in layers like shedding skin. I grinned, crazy as I bathed in its light, now to watch, and listen, and for the trouble to truly begin.