Prologue: "What Should Never Be"
Fingers tangle into his hair, wrenching painfully tight as they snap his head back. His throat is exposed, open and vulnerable. His gaze is trained on the shocked and shifting crowd yards before him, dirty and bloody – the results of a failed rebellion that has led to this very moment. He searches through the faces, none nameless, all known to him, all familiar and friendly but none are those he wishes to see.
And that is a good thing. A very good thing.
Yet that does not mean he doesn't wish to see them, that he doesn't want some level of comfort during his last few breaths. He is scared. He is terrified. He doesn't want things to end this way – he doesn't want anything to end. But this is the way it needs to be.
His life for hers.
He'll give it willingly. Anything for her because he loves her, and he will always protect her. He just prays that this is enough; that she'll be safe after this. He hopes she'll move on. He wishes that she will leave, start over somewhere now, somewhere better.
"The Nobles will not be denied," a voice says evenly from behind him, loud but not overly so, attention grabbing but not seeking. It is smooth and cool. It is deceptive as it promises freedom so long as rules are obeyed; so long as the people gathered before him live their lives as the Nobles demand.
The voice is full of falsehoods and illusions.
"Let this be a lesson to the rest of you. Any further resistance and this will not be the end."
He is forced up from his knees, dragged across the cobblestones. He doesn't know where he is going or why until he is standing upon the harbor-master's platform, above the crowd, a spectacle they are all forced to watch.
The voice is back, whispering in his ear, hot and heavy like a muggy Summer's day. "One last chance, Child. Tell us where to find her and you can go free. You will live. All I need is to know where she is. . . . Is she really worth dying for?"
His heart thrums in his chest, a crescendo of blood and throbbing, beating in his ears until all else is drowned beneath. His breathing grows heavy, lungs straining. He really doesn't want to die. It's too early. He has his whole life ahead of him. It shouldn't be his time . . . but . . . "Yes," he wheezes. And then he works up his nerve, pulls a page from her book, and spits. "Go screw yourself!"
Eyes of frosted stone stare into his, penetrating and reading. It leaves him exposed, vulnerable – even more so than the position he is forced to kneel in. They barely react to the globule of saliva that trails down a smooth, blemish-free cheek, a thin finger rising to swipe it away. "Your decision is made?" the voice persists, as soft and calm as ever.
He leans forward, his scalp pulling tight at the continued hold on his hair. "Do your worst," he dares through his grinding teeth.
A bare shoulder rises in a nonchalant shrug. "Okay." The voice addresses the forced gathering, speaking as though this isn't a public execution; anything but what it really is. "Watch and remember what happens to those who defy the rule of the Nobles. Let this be a lesson to never disobey. . . . Heroism is overrated at any rate."
One last time he looks out over his home, along the faces he has grown up with. To the rear he sees pale hair and his blood runs cold.
No, no, nononono—
A hand lowers to his forehead.
He flinches as a cool palm presses against his temple.
He screams as a pressure unlike any he has ever felt before compresses against each of his bones. It is agony; fiery, aching, overwhelming agony; the kind that steals the breath by forcing it from the lungs in a never ending shriek. He cannot escape it. He cannot do anything but writhe and scream as each of his bones snaps, one after another, from the ribs in his chest to the minuscule bones of his littlest toes.
It hurts. It hurts so badly that he wants it to just be over with.
He is doing this for her though. This is for her, he reminds. She's worth it. Don't break. This is for her. It doesn't matter as long as she's safe.
Above it all he hears his name being screeched.
"Get her!" a man orders.
His efforts will be wasted unless he does something. One last thing. For her.
With failing lungs, collapsing beneath the strain of shattered ribs, he forces out his last breath, hoping that is carries and that it is obeyed. "RUN!" Then his breath is gone, he is left suffocating, the pressure creeping into his spine. The last things he sees before his vision whites and darkens is the clear blue sky overhead that had once promised a bright, peaceful day.
His spine snaps and then everyone and everything falls away, lost in a never ending nothing that no one has ever come back from. Not even him.