The Dead Letter Room
Why are these loud metal gears making loud noise so loudly, Wesley wondered to himself. A Vesper thorn had been dropped like a stake in his thigh. The smell of greased metal burned in his nostrils. His arms were straight above his head, shackled to a copper axel that rose and fell, rose and fell, lifting him on and off his toes in slow gyrations. Giant brass cogs spun above his head. Ropes sawed through wooden pulleys connected to things out of sight below. In front of him was the backwards face of a gigantic clock, with a cosmos of white bird shit lines dried down the yellow glass.
“Do you remember this place?” Wesley turned to find the voice. James Gallant strolled down an aluminum spiral staircase, staring at Wesley through the churning metal gears. Curled white locks bounced beside his ears. He held a white cloak shut at his chest. His spotless glove slid along railing, spilling dust up into the night’s breeze. The moon was at eye-level and burned an off-white light through the glass and onto the platform. “I’d be surprised if you did.”
“MMMMmmmm.” Wesley tried to scream but his mouth wouldn’t open; wired butterfly stitches hooked his lips together from corner to corner. His mouth seemed to be a huge empty space. He lowered his head and saw a dried brown stain down the front of his shirt. Thick droplets spotted the wood around his feet. His tongue was a red lump on the floor between his feet. “MMMMMMMMMM.”
Gallant lowered the toe of a shined white boot onto the tongue and dragged it back along the floorboards—it made a horrible squelching noise.
“Your mother used to moan like that in this very place,” Gallant whispered. Wesley pulled down against the chains but only managed to lift himself off the ground. “You can’t break those chains, boy. You were conceived in those very shackles.” He grabbed Wesley under the chin and lifted his face, so that Wesley had nowhere else to look but into the King’s greenish-blue eyes. “I hate that you look like me, Wesley Chambers.” Gallant walked to the edge of the platform, his chin just high enough to see over the arm pointing to a backwards black three. A sky’s worth of orange lanterns burned in the streets below—Wesley realized that the entire kingdom below seemed slightly crooked, when his feet came off the ground he noticed a slightly greater pull against his right arm than his left. Gallant tilted the crown and white wig backwards to itch at a receding brown hairline. “Sheriff Foster poisoned my father.”
Wesley shook his head.
Gallant nodded, he pulled a scroll from his cloak.
“According to this written testimony from your mother, it’s the truth. Just like you thought it was the truth when I pulled you from that orphanage. Your wench mother and that Sheriff Foster had a different truth…”
Wesley blinked the sting from his eyes.
“Look what we’ve built without my father.” Gallant’s eyes were fixed on the streets and rooftops stretching to the horizon—he cocked his head as if it were the world that was tilted and not the clock tower he stood in. He turned back to Wesley. “Our people were starving when I took the throne, but Sheriff Foster refused to believe I was the rightful King. As if some petty ethics came before a Kingdom’s welfare. I couldn’t send one of my Blackguards to assassinate a fellow Blackguard—but then you came along. I’m afraid there was a warrant out for your arrest the moment I sent you to kill the Sheriff for me… but you’ve been a pesky truth that won’t seem to die.”
“I made you a nobody.” Gallant lifted the powdered wig off of his head and spun it on his finger. Brown scraggly hair was tied back at the small of his neck. “Chester Hemlock gave you a name and wiped any connection you had to me.” Gallant smiled wide beneath his green eyes. It was like Wesley was seeing his own reflection in water, only older, cleaner. “We are only who we pretend to be.” Wesley watched Gallant continue down the staircase, putting the wig back on like a top hat. “You’re going to die a martyr for a cause you don’t support, but I assure you it’s for the best of this Kingdom.”
Eventually the King’s footsteps were lost to the sound of churning cogs and axels.
Wesley pulled himself up by the wrists. He hooked one of his heels on the axel above and pulled at the boot lace with his hand. The boot fell to the wooden platform and slid, slowly along the slanted boards, until falling off the edge. His fingers were closed around the letter opener. He jammed it into the lock at his wrist and twisted it between his thumb and pointer finger, then crashed to the floor; right hand hanging freely down at his side. His boot clapped against the floor down below. He reached up and picked the other lock.
The staircase took him in three full circles down to the floor of a stone chamber. Navy blue sky was in clear sight through square rain-drainage openings in the stone. Crosswinds stirred dust into the air, then died, letting the motes glitter silver in the moonlight back down to the floor. His boot was on its side in a crater of grey dust. A trail of footsteps led back and forth to oak double-doors. In the only corner where moonlight didn’t reach, someone sat on a box and slouched back against the wall.
Wesley stared at the figure. It didn’t move. He waved. He lifted his heel out of the dust and took a careful step forward, thumb pressed on the handle of the letter opener. The figure didn’t move. Wesley reached into the darkness and tapped him on the shoulder. Wesley slapped him gently on the cheek. Nothing. He pulled the man forward by the front of his jacket.
Sheriff Kensington fell face-down into the moonlight, toppling a box over beneath him. He landed with a thud in the dust with letters and papers scattering out of the box around him. The Sheriff’s hands were tied behind his back at the coattails of his jacket. Wesley straightened the Sheriff’s long legs and flipped him onto his back. Sheriff Kensington’s eyes were just a shade bluer than his pale skin. Wesley brushed clots of dust of Kensington’s face and blew it off his eyes. Two bullet holes pierced the Sheriff’s coat. The kill shot had gone through the sternum. The other shot, evidently the first, was stopped by the metal flask of whiskey in his breast pocket, over his heart, shielding the pain one last time.
He’d mistaken a sad man for a drunk.
Wesley shoveled all the letters and parchment out of the crate. Every single one of the envelopes had been opened already. He pulled parchment from the torn slit of an envelope. It cracked as he unfolded its two creases and read the faded cursive. I know for a fact that King James Gallant poisoned King Stanley for the crown, the first line read. It was a letter from Sheriff Foster that never made it to the Magistrate. There were others. Letters, notes, formal grievances filed against King Gallant that all ended up in this dusty room.
A bell high on the ceiling hammered twelve deafening times. It seemed to vibrate the air all around him and rattle his ear drums. He covered his ears as it shook the ground beneath their feet. Tonight—today—was the day of his execution. There was the sound of a chain padlock on the other side of the oak doors. Four guards walked in with rifles trained on him. Wesley raised his hands above his head. They pressed him against the far wall and put a fresh pair of shackles on his wrists. Yasmen Lexifer hobbled in behind them, neck bent forward in bad posture, and dropped a letter onto Kensington’s chest. It read “Urgent from Hastings to Kingdom, from Sheriff Patrick Kensington to the Honorable Magistrate Yasmen Lexifer.”