The coppery taste of his own blood was almost enough to make Cecil Privett faint.
Sweat stung at the fresh wounds on his face, and there was no reprieve from the mid-day sun. Nothing but dry dirt surrounded him where he knelt, hot from where the unforgiving rays of light had touched it before him. There was no sound but the soft whinnies of horses and the scuff of boots. His right eye was swollen shut, and his left was filmed with too much blood to be of use.
“He ain’t gonna give,” a gruff voice said from somewhere above him.
Someone spit. “Anyone’ll give if you break ’em enough.”
Cecil’s heart pounded. Faces flashed through his mind, some his interpretation of what he thought someone would look like, some very real and very memorable. He swallowed another mouthful of blood and tried to sit up straight. His throat felt as torn and useless as his face, but he managed to groan, “I don’t know nothin’.”
The two men standing before him both sucked in breath—to talk or laugh or scream, he wasn’t sure—when a voice interrupted them both.
“There ain’t no rest for the wicked, son.”
Boots hit the dirt with a sound that managed to make Cecil jump. They scuffed their way over to where he knelt, slowly, deliberately. He’d recognized the quiet voice that had spoken. It was a voice laced with honey and fire, one he’d never been able to forget. For the first time since he’d been bound and gagged and dragged by the feet behind a horse, he was truly afraid.
“No rest for the wicked once they’re dead, either.” His authoritative voice carried control and promise. It was the voice of reason for a rising population in the Scablands. It was once the voice of reason for Jonas. “You know this, son.”
“Like … I said,” Jonas managed between rattling breaths. “I don’t know … nothin’.”
A hard booted kick to his sternum forced what little air Cecil had left in his lungs out of him. He folded over and wheezed. Blood and spit dribbled from his broken mouth and soaked the soil before him.
What Cecil heard next was the unmistakable sound of a bullet clicking into place. It was something he’d seen the sun-worn hands that belonged to the honey-laced voice do a hundred times before. He knew even without his sight that a barrel was loaded and aimed between his eyes.
The honey-laced voice was calm as the first day Cecil had heard it. He could still feel the warmth of the hand the voice belonged to; the bright irises that held nothing but truth in them. “The golden god does not pity. He does not hold love for you in his heart. And neither do I, son.”
Cecil’s heart became a trapped bird in his chest, fighting to get out. “I don’t know,” he rasped. “I swear … I don’t.” He spit more blood from his mouth, desperation clawing at him. “I can give you other information. I can help you find … the heretic.”
One of the rough men scoffed. “Buried in the ground, like I reckon you’ll be soon.”
“He’s … alive.”
“The penalty for twisting and turning truth is not a kind one,” the honey-laced voice said. “Hiding reality behind fantasy is nothing the golden god favors.”
“He’s been … alive this whole time,” Cecil promised, conviction lacing his voice. He prayed and begged silently for his friend Shia’s forgiveness. The two owed each other the debt that comes with saving a man’s life. Right now, he had his own neck to save. “He’d been … receiving help … from the inside—”
Another kick to the stomach cut his words short. The honey-laced voice was angry now, reminded once again of the one person who had bested him, betrayed him like no other man could. “You impudent little liar,” the voice accused. “Tell me where the girl is and die upright like a man. Waste any more of my time with your lies and you’ll die on your knees like a dog.”
Cecil wheezed and clawed at the ground before him. The girl. The men before him could not find the girl. He had to protect her secret as long as he lived. It was the only thing he believed in anymore. “I swear, King. I swear—”
A clean bullet cut him off completely.