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The Fraud

Wesley lifted a leg up through the bars to kick the brick wall, but the carriage didn’t budge. He’d have to move the ground beneath his feet this time. The mules shifted weight on their haunches in front of the caravan. He watched one of their tails swat lazily at a fly, then looked to the lantern hanging from the ceiling; the flame guttered low inside the yellow wax, casting a dull and shivering light down the tarp around him. If there was some way he could burn or startle the horses they might tear the ropes from the wheels. But, if the lantern fell or splashed on the tarp—he shuttered at the thought—he would drown in the flames. But this was no time to play it safe, Kingdom was nearly within hiking distance from where they were now. If he threw the letter opener like a knife and stuck it into the rear of one of the mules, it might run. He gripped the bottom of his boot. He let go of it. Chester Hemlock stood at the front of the caravan between him and the mules.

“Shouldn’t you be sipping moonshine?” Wesley asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t deserve to,” Hemlock said. He stood with hands clasped on his bald head, elbows forming a triangle pointing downwards on his shoulders. There was a desperate shame in the man’s eyes. “Because I’m a fraud.”

That, Wesley believed.

“Who are you,” Wesley asked, “like, really.”

“I’ve lost track of that,” Hemlock said, pinching the black fabric of his robe as though it disgusted him, as though anything could be underneath it but himself. “What I can tell you is: I’m the one who gave you your name.”

“If you tell me you’re my father, I’ll see myself to the guillotine,” Wesley said. He meant it. His stomach felt as though it dropped out from under his chest. But Hemlock shook his head.

“I’m afraid you’re in this mess partially because of me,” Hemlock said in the tone of a sigh. “And I’m going to help you escape. But you have to stay quiet. I’ve untied the mules.” The mules whinnied. What looked like four ghostly blue hands reaching forward grew bigger and bigger in the trail—they were antlers. Hemlock spoke in flat, detached words. “It’s by my design that the Sheriff will die in that distillery tonight.”

The two bears pawed around the corner, drawing the chariot of Jimmy Gallows quietly behind it. A handful of men wearing the heads of beasts stepped out. Wesley shrank onto his knees, watching Gallows duck his antlered cloak out from the chariot and step down to the grass.

“Chester Hemlock… you’ve outdone yourself,” Gallows said.

Chester reached through the bars and placed a finger on Wesley’s lips, then walked coolly out the front of the caravan. Wesley curled onto his side and hugged both knees. There was no way Gallows could see him unless pulling the carriage away from the building and looking into the back hatch. The group’s footsteps walked past the carriage and into the chapel.

“Chambers is below with Sheriff Kensington,” Hemlock said with a confidence Wesley had not heard before.

Wesley got right to work, slipping his boot off and setting it on the floor. He lifted the silver letter opener out of it and tried to pick the back lock, but its face was pressed flat into the bricks. If he threw the letter opener at the horses he had one shot—but then he couldn’t pick the lock. Instead, he sat on the floor of his cell, holding the letter opener in the candle’s light and hopelessly looking into his own two eyes in its warped reflection.

Gallows returned out the chapel doors followed by two other shadows breezing past the tarp. Wesley peered up over the mules and saw a man wearing a stag’s head drift past.

“They can barricade that tunnel for years if they have Chambers down there,” the man said with surprising eloquence.

“Then we smoke them out,” Gallows said. “I’ll see to it that Wesley Chambers is damned to the very fire he started.”

Wesley ducked just in time to see a figure enter the carriage and unhook the lantern from the ceiling, grabbing oil and some of the moonshine, and leaving with what little light there was. Soon the smell of smoke was unmistakable—it was a rubbery, unnatural smell of smoke. Orange light grew brighter and brighter through the tarp overhead. Stone fell loud against stone.

“Run you dumb animals,” Wesley hissed at the mules, careful not to be heard. The animals weren’t even tied down, yet they stood idle as if bound like prisoners—a flaw he thought was only capable in people. The heat gradually increased but the horses didn’t move. He wondered if they would stand there until they were ashes.

A small flame skirted up the corner of the tarp, eating wider out above his head. He cursed and looked around, then cursed. He rattled the bars of the cage, but still no reaction from the horses. The Sheriff and the Foster girl were as good as dead, but he could’ve cared less; they wouldn’t lift a damned finger to save him if he were inside. All that mattered now was getting those horses to move their asses just half a foot so he could squeeze out the back door. Smoke crept into the hatch and reached down into his lungs. He coughed up the wretched stuff and his eyes soaked with tears.

“Run you stupid creatures!”

He curled his legs into his chest, gasping for the scarce air on the floor but only drinking in smoke. With blotches of darkness clouding his vision, he took one last look upwards. Through a halo of flame eating the tarp outwards, he could see up the entire chapel wall.

The stone burned.

He did not know why or how, or even care. But it burned. And it burned thicker and brighter than any wood he’d ever seen burn. The panes of a stained glass window twinkled above—it was the depiction of King James Gallant. The blues and reds and whites of the glass melted together in the frame, into an awful purple color. Wesley rubbed the pale stripes on his wrist, a nervous gesture, as he looked up from the fire. And even as the heat rose around them, the horses stayed obediently in place.

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