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"Eva stayed home, did she?"
"Of course she did, Logan. Heavens, I'd have worried if she came."
"No doubt." My friend, the Viscount of Harling, leaned back in the chair, looking about distractedly. "I can't wait to see this whole ordeal over with. The trial was a madhouse."
"Yes," I offered simply.
He wasn't lying. Kurt Weber, Fuchs' second, had been captured in our failed attempt to assassinate the imposter king. In the subsequent months, the man had been put on trial for murder, treason, and several other counts. The trial had been open to the public, a fact Phillip wouldn't compromise on. Although he was as guilty as sin, I had looked on the proceedings with some worry. The galleries were constantly packed with jeering crowds, and Kurt would never find a friend among them. He'd been an accomplice to the killing of one of Riktenburg's most loved kings, and the people loathed him with their entire beings.
Day after day, the courtroom would fill with a hateful audience. In fact, on several times, when testimony was taken about the Faith's actual assassination, the trial had to pause to quiet the crowd. The judges feared a lynching within the courtroom. I'd been present when Fuchs shot King Martin, so I of course testified in the affair, and the raging crowd made me sweat. They'd been more a mob than an audience. With the conviction and execution verdict, the people had gone mad, celebrating in the streets, and burning effigies of Kurt. It was wild.
I looked at Logan again. "I just hope things don't get out of hand today."
"Of course," he chuckled.
"And Mercedes? I hope she didn't come."
"Of course not. The mob might very well kill her too, the bastards." Mercedes Klein, daughter to the traitorous Joseph, had fallen in love with Logan. He'd had to brave the same scornful torrent as her. The people of Teimsfeld had not been kind to the Klein family since Joseph's treachery had been made public. In fact, Adele Klein, Mercedes mother, had fled to Austria to be with husband only the week before.
I heard a noise and jerked towards the sound. Down the opulent hallway, a set of wide double doors were swinging open. "Ah!" I cried. "You're late, but you're here. Did you party a little too vigorously last night?" I called.
Jacob Douglas, the American, sent me a lopsided grin. "Now, you know the answer to that question. Besides, a gentleman never tells."
"Of course not. That's why he asked you," shot Logan.
"Har . . . har. Anyway, are we ready for this?" Jacob nodded down towards his attire. He wore the same black uniform as we did. It was modeled after the royal guard, but ours had an extra scarlet stripe along both shoulders. The king had needed new attire for our newly-created positions.
I pointed down towards the other end of the hallway. "No, we're still waiting. It'll be soon enough anyway. Mass and confession aren't always lengthy affairs."
"Well this devil has a lot to confess, so who knows," said Jacob.
Logan nodded. "Quite right, but that's none of our business. Devil or not, he's about to die. I say we give him what dignity he can find."
Jacob didn't let up. "And what dignity did they give King Martin?"
"Cut it out," I shot back. "We're all nervous enough as it is. We can't change Martin's death now. Let's just make sure things go as planned today."
The other two nodded as another set of doors opened at the other end of the hall. A tall man wearing the same uniform as us sauntered our way, his fiery hair bouncing with his movement. He possessed a flowing grace
We stood, and I grabbed the newcomer's hand. "Simon. Welcome."
Simon Duval, Riktenburg's finest swordsman, looked back, but his face was devoid of any smile or happiness. "We're ready, gentlemen. The prisoner's finished with his priest. It's almost time. The crowd's ready too. We'll be starting very soon."
"And the king?"
"He's waiting for you, just through there," Simon pointed back to the doors from which he entered. "I've a few details to attend to." He nodded towards us, turning. "I'll see you on the scaffold." Without another word, he moved away down the hallway.
I looked at the other two. "Well, friends. We've a king to see."
Logan chuckled darkly. "'Once more into the fray.'"
After a short wait, the four guards posted outside led us into the throne room. Normally, the massive chamber was resplendent in decorations and brimming with people. The laughter of courtesans' jokes and the clink of champagne glasses would bounce around the room with wild abandon. Business was conducted here, but celebration was no stranger to the room we entered.
But not today.
Black tapestries draped the walls, shrouded tears dripping through a silent hall of pain. Only two small candles lit the space. The throne itself disappeared as a faint outline.
"Your Majesty?" I called into the gloom.
No one answered.
"King Phillip?" said Logan, the voice disappearing in the expanse. We walked closer.
At last, a man raised his head. Like some shrouded phantom, the face the light illuminated was haunted, the eyes sunken. He'd lost weight since he'd retaken the throne, and the accumulated stress was more than visible in his haggard face. Seeing us, the man managed a small smile and a low chuckle. It disappeared just at quickly, and he spoke. "The ministers of monarchical security! Welcome gentlemen . . ."
We bowed. "You Majesty," offered Logan.
The king nodded. "I'm to be protected today, am I?" In the wake of the recent disaster, Phillip had appointed us, along with Simon, to be in charge of his bodyguards and personal safety. When in public, the king never traveled without armed soldiers. They presented a strong presence to any remaining Courtiers or other scoundrels hoping to take advantage of Riktenburg's current recuperation. We'd not had to use our talents yet; no one had assaulted the king. But that didn't mean we let our guard down. They'd killed his brother, and I'd be damned if they would kill him too.
"They say we're ready. Have you spoken with Simon?" continued Phillip.
Jacob answered. "We did briefly, Your Majesty—"
Phillip cut him off with a hand. "Please. I've told you before. Call me Phillip, especially if we're alone. If you must use 'Your Majesty,' save it for the crowds." The small grin reappeared. "You've saved my life. I don't think we need to stand on ceremony. Now go ahead."
Jacob laughed. "Yes, Phillip. We spoke with Simon, and he left to prepare the last arrangements. The prisoner has just finished Mass and confession. He's as ready as he'll ever be. The crowds are assembled too. We're the only missing party."
He stood. "Right. Let's be done with it then. The sooner we wrap up these trials and executions, the better. If I never see another diamond medallion or hear about the divine right of kings again, it'll be too soon." Kurt's hanging wasn't the first. Others had gone before, and others would surely follow. Although many Courtiers had managed to flee the palace before Phillip's reinstatement, there was no lack of informants. The Faith had killed Martin, and the people were rallying to avenge their loss.
We exited the throne room, collected the waiting guards, and continued down the passage. After several turns and a descent down the long stair, we came to the main foyer. We paused, collecting ourselves and allowing another ten guards to join our party before we pushed through the massive doors and ambled onto the palace grounds.
We could hear the mob even from the palace's steps. "Good heavens. That many?" I said, staring across the grounds. Beyond the palace's tall perimeter fence, a roiling sea of onlookers was waiting. They swirled about, and their raised voices cried for blood. It was like the painted scenes of the French Revolution. Despite the spring air, I shivered; it wasn't the air though. How had Louis XVI felt facing such a bloodthirsty group? Thankfully, I was on the side of the crowds. Kurt, on the other hand . . .
Phillip pointed. "There he is. Let's meet him." I looked to where he indicated. A black carriage, draped in long, shaded fabric was rolling towards the perimeter fence.
"Ah," I m
uttered under my breath. Kurt was inside this coach of death. The priest would, even now, be continuing to console him as he approached the mob. Guards walked along with the vehicle, ironically protecting the man about to die. It came to the gates and stopped.
The others had continued moving, so I caught up as we walked across the lawns. "What're the orders for the ceremony, Your Majesty?" I asked.
Phillip looked as if he would correct me for not using his name, but he pursed his lips instead. "The man will be given last words. Whatever his delusions, he remained loyal to his order and was a brave soldier, if a bloody scoundrel. After the final pronouncement, he'll hang, we'll be done with all this, and we'll retire for lunch and the afternoon's business, I think."
We nodded, and moved closer to the king as we approached the perimeter fence. Despite the dozen guards surrounding Phillip, as well as the fiercely loyal mob, the chaos surrounding the hanging would make for a perfect assassination. As we approached the gates, I noticed Simon waiting for us. At his signal, the guards swung the gates open, and the mob moved aside. A deathly, eerie silence descended.
We passed the carriage, and despite myself, I looked inside. Kurt Weber sat across from his priest, a large, young man I didn't recognize. The condemned looked calm enough. He had his head bowed, his manacled hands folded gently across his lap. His lips mouthed words I couldn't hear but I assumed were prayers. The massive scar that cut across his entire face moved with the silent words. As I stared though, his head suddenly snapped up. His piercing eyes cut into mine. I paused, transfixed.
This man had loved my intended. He had touched her, kissed her. And she'd loved him back somehow. Yet, I'd seen the man kill in cold blood. I'd watched as he gutted his enemies, and I knew him to be a monster — a religious fanatic who threw down a king into the mire and claimed divine righteousness in doing so. A monster indeed. As we stared at each other, I nodded simply, not saying anything. He inclined his head, blinked once, and grinned.
I don't think I've seen a more terrifying sight.
But then it was gone, and we moved onwards. The guards formed a cordon, with my friends and I closest to Phillip, and we walked into the mob. The people stepped back, leaving us a corridor to approach the scaffold, which waited at the center of the city square beyond. We walked forward, and the carriage followed in our wake.
I could see the gnarled scaffold ahead, the single noose moving slightly in the wind, waiting to grasp its lonely victim. We walked along, and although single hecklers called out to the condemned, the once raging mob continued its silence. The carriage tracked its way through the throng. Finally, it came to a stop at the foot of the platform. We led the king up the steps, and the guards split off to form a circle around the base. Logan, Jacob, Simon, and I could certainly handle guarding the king now.
Waiting atop the grisly stage, I watched Kurt exit the carriage. Although nothing cinctured his feet, he tripped, catching himself with the manacled palms. His priest came next, steadying the prisoner. I couldn't help but remark his size again. The cleric was a granite cliff. His cassock swirled about him like a waterfall as he assisted Kurt up the scaffold.
As the man reached the top, the crowd found its voices again. A wall of sound rose up, the jeering redoubled. Fruit, rotten vegetables and other objects were hurled towards the platform, and I grimaced. Had society not stepped forward at all since the Middle Ages? A few pieces of pungent refuse hit Kurt, and he stumbled. I was closest, so I reached out and grabbed him, surprising myself.
There, standing in rot and a mob screaming around us, we locked eyes again. The confidence I'd glimpsed in the carriage had wavered, and he looked at me like a sheep looks before its death. An animal terror was present in his scarred, haggard face. Kurt Weber was running towards death, and he knew it. I leaned in, and for Eva, said "It'll be short. It washes over you."
As I leaned back, a sense of determined calm now rested in his eyes. He whispered "Thank you," before his priest took him and angled him towards the executioner. A drum started rolling from the cordoned guards along the ground.
I gulped air, suddenly winded. I moved back towards my friends and stood at attention beside the king, my hand resting on my saber.
A herald mounted the steps and read the charges. They were long and contained an artful memory of King Martin, as well as a passionate haranguing of the Faith. At their conclusion, the executioner stepped forward. He motioned to Kurt, and the condemned turned. In response to the unasked question, Kurt refused, and the executioner set aside the black sack. Kurt would face his death with eyes open.
The condemned ascended a small box, planting his feet to wait for the drop. With slow, delicate precision, the executioner settled the noose around Kurt's neck. It rested like an old friend, and I watched Kurt's neck calm, his muscles relaxing. He continued speaking under his breath, praying.
"Does the condemned wish to share any last words?" bellowed the herald. The king inclined his head, giving the man permission. Kurt glanced over and smiled, then he turned to the crowd, lifting his manacled hands.
They started to boo him down, but Phillip raised his hands as well, and the mob silenced instantly.
Kurt drew in a breath and paused. He spoke. "Riktians. My . . . people. I see no friends here."
"You’re right there!" screamed an unseen woman from the vengeful throng.
Kurt swallowed but continued. "I see no friends. My friends have either abandoned me, been killed, or never existed. I am . . . I am alone." He drew himself up to his full height. "Yes. I am alone, I am accused, and I will die. But I'm dying justified!" He tried to wave his hands, perhaps forgetting the cuffs that bound him. The result was utterly comical, and the poor man had to wait another moment for the noise to die down. I almost felt sorry for the poor wretch. He looked weak and afraid, piteous even.
"I was justified in my actions. God Himself called me to my actions, and the foolish thoughts of a wicked king are beneath my worth. I should be lauded, not condemned! I kept the faith. I am the Faith! Kill me, and let your city be plunged into fire and rivers of blood. Know that we are here! Know that the Courtiers do not forget! Let them kill me, for hundreds more will rise to fill my place!" By now, the crowds were screaming over him, and despite my closeness, I could barely hear the man.
At last though, he turned to the priest, and together they said "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritūs Sancti. Amen."
Then Kurt turned to the executioner and continued. "Do it. I am ready."
With a look towards the king, the executioner nodded. The crowd screamed, and the executioner kicked the box out from Kurt's feet.
For a moment, he danced, his eyes bulging. It was sickening.
But only for a moment.
I had blinked, and when I looked again, I froze, terror engulfing my frame. Even as I watched helplessly, the massive priest pulled a short-sword from his cassock and slashed. The rope splintered and Kurt dropped squarely on his feet, the noose hanging comically behind him. Without waiting a moment, the priest tossed him the sword and drew another small blade. Together, the two sprinted to the edge of the scaffold and dove into the crowd, weapons slashing. They cleared the cordon of guards with their jump. Next they cut down several foolish onlookers who tried to stop the crisis unfolding about us. The priest drew a pistol and began shooting. Despite their numbers, sheer amazement and fear held the crowd in check.
Then, with a final, triumphant glance back towards the king, the Courtiers streamed through the mob and out of sight.
I looked at the others. Logan's mouth was agape, and Jacob looked as grim as I felt. "Damn," said Simon before we threw ourselves into the throng, racing after the scoundrels.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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