The Murder Theatre
From the cage at the back of the caravan, Wesley could only see a strip of fire reaching between the two mules. The Foster girl had blown out the lantern in the carriage, so he sat cross-legged in a mix of firelight glowing through the tarp and moonlight shining down through the bars. He watched the sky and listened to the slow crackle of logs burning outside. Spits of red ember floated over the back of the tarp and dulled in the trees above him. Smoke clouded any stars from sight but a hazy moon burned through. One firefly occasionally flickered, distinguished from the floating embers only by the fact that it didn’t move with the breeze. Wesley squished his fingers into the bowl of grains, closed a hand around them, then watched them spill from his fingers back into the bowl—he’d let them trickle down his wrist into the space between his skin and the shackle, then shake them out. He placed his left hand on his head and grabbed a fistful of hair. He placed his right hand on the left side of his chin. He pulled each hand in opposite directions until two vertebrae cracked in his neck and one between his shoulder blades. It still didn’t feel as though his head was on straight. He bit off a tiny piece of his bottom lip and blew it off his tongue between the bars. His white shirt was stained yellow in the front from dry piss and it was all he smelt.
The Foster girl had been arguing outside with Horseface, about a bottle of whiskey. She stomped into the front end of the cabin, rattling jars and silverware on the shelves with each step. Wesley didn’t move. She stood, a grey silhouette against the flames, looking around in the sudden darkness of the cabin. Then she shrugged out of the overcoat and draped it carefully over a wooden chest. He caught a waft of smoke off her clothes. There was a sound of metal clicking against metal that had to be her unfastening her belt. She bumped her knee on the corner of the bench and cursed, then cursed again, then pulled each boot off without untying them, and unrolled a sleeping bag. Then it was quiet, again, and he could listen to the bonfire crackle.
Wesley straightened his spine to see over bags of horse feed. Most of her was just a shadow on the wooden floor. She lay with her head propped up on a rucksack in the shadows, holding a small picture with both hands up in the strip of firelight. That dumb bitch stared at it for twenty minutes, probably wondering if it was going to move. Wesley stared at it, too, until it became a loose afterthought in her half-clenched grip. She had this annoying way of breathing where one of her nostrils would slightly whistle with each exhale. Her breath became snores that sounded like a saw cutting slowly into the base of a tree. In and out her breaths went. Up and down her chest went. The girl who thought she was bringing him to his death slept within stabbing distance of his cage. Moron.
Wesley stared at the little square picture that had fallen from her hand; it rested flat on the floorboards, just an arm’s length away. He pulled himself up the bars. The entire floor creaked over the rear axel as he stood. He held the chains against his chest so they wouldn’t jangle and reached through the bars and into the light, sliding the picture closer to him with his middle finger.
It was a faded photograph. A crease ran down the middle between a younger looking version of the girl and her parents—they were definitely her parents by the look of them. They were all sculpted by the Hastings diet of water and corn. If the father grew his black military-cut hair a bit longer and shaved his face, maybe shrunk six inches and slimmed down, he’d look just look the Foster girl.
Wesley stepped out of the heel of his boot and reached inside for the letter opener. His sock reeked of sweat and stale bog water.
His toe had kicked into the grain bowl. He stilled for a full minute. Horseface laughed a single “Hah” out by the fire. The girl kept breathing.
“When I was in the Blackguard, I nicknamed the guillotine square the Murder Theatre,” Sheriff said, perhaps to nobody, then hacked a few coughs. “Like, if a pack of wolves came out of the woods and I only had one bullet, I’d kill the one in the front so the others get scared away—not only does it keep things civil, but they sell tickets now at the Kingdom for guillotines and hangings.”
Wesley peeled the letter opener off the inside sole of the boot and pressed his thumb on the butt of the handle. Holding the shackles against his chest, he reached his left arm through the bars. Long shadows darkened on the floor as he pushed his fist into the light. The blade shined a reflection of the fire down onto her face. All it took was a quick moment of not looking his conscience in the eyes, followed by two well stuffed fingers to muffle the screams. But he pulled his hand back. Pinching the thin blade at the base, he slid it into the cage lock. He jiggled the blade, feeling the tension pins fold one... by... one, then reached his pinky finger in along the top of the blade, pushing back a small bolt. Rust scraped against rust as he turned bolt inwards. The latch clicked open with a simple wrenching motion of the blade. Now for the hatch. He reached out over the hatch gate, feeling along the side for the simple bolt lock he just had to turn and pull—he’d kill the girl and then drop the ramp open. This time, he’d run north.
“That reminds me,” the Sheriff said in a tired voice. He didn’t know the Foster girl was asleep. “Before we go into the Vesper, I have colorful gypsy clothes for us.”
Wesley picked his shackles with the letter opener and coiled them into a ball on the floor. He balled the letter opener in his fist and reached his arm out over her chest.
“Cabbage,” she said.
Wesley drew his hand back.
“Mum and Pops are dead...” Her voice was flat. “I don’t know... I just came home and they were in bed. There was so much blood...don’t cry...Cabbage don’t cry...”
She was sleep talking.
He waited to hear more, but nothing else overflowed from her soul. Her breaths returned to a nasally snore. She snored as if the air were some unsavory chore, as if her next breath had been promised to her. There was a hiss. Light dimmed. Outside, the Sheriff pissed cursive black lines into orange coals. Kensington fell up the front steps of the caravan, sending loose silverware tinkering to the floor.
Wesley spun around and relocked the cage, stuffing the letter opener into his boot and putting it back on—he had no damned idea how to tie the laces. Wesley coughed to hide the sound of his shackles clicking back over his wrists. He put the picture of the girl’s family in his back pocket. The Sheriff slouched over and put a hand on the girl.
“Wha-m-sleeping,” the Foster girl mumbled.
“Ms. Foster, would you mind moving away from the prisoner’s cage?” Kensington asked.
“Ah, yes, protect your captive betrothed,” Wesley said with faux drowsiness. “How romantic.”
The Sheriff had circled around the back of the caravan, eyeing Wesley through the bars of the back hatch.
“Here to kiss me goodnight, Horseface?” Wesley smiled.
Kensington had the blue eyes of a man who bore the weight before a migraine, of a man who would be in pain when he woke up.
And that’s when Wesley saw the fang-sized Vesper thorn sticking out of his shoulder. He jumped up and flicked it off, as if it were some poisonous mosquito. The corners of Kensington’s mouth quirked up in a smile. The tiny spit of sap made his blood run thick as molasses through his forearms. His breaths deepened but he couldn’t seem to get enough air. His sinuses melted down from his forehead, until a warm and steady flow of snot drizzled into his palms. Blood seemed to pool in his forehead, heavier and heavier. He collapsed down against the bars, right arm gimp and useless. His head slouched forward over his knees.
“You stunned me with a stunning Vesper thorn to stun me so that I would be stunned and now I’m stunned because you stunned me,” Wesley said, drooling onto his chest.
The girl still snored, ignorant of her triumph. He could feel sedation bloating in his veins. His vision slowed and his own thoughts seemed to blur. Two stars above faded into the bruised colors filling his vision. The carriage lurched into motion beneath him. Every turn of the wheel brings me closer to the closer castle as we get closer, he thought, no longer resisting the light-headedness as the shadows grew thick between the trees. Every rotation, every squeak of those wheels, brought them closer to the Kingdom. The next time he woke up, he may be strapped into a guillotine.