The Paper Axe
Things were becoming clear for June. Clear as glass—glass ground into fine steely bits and rubbed into her eyes. Gallant strode into the gaol, wiping grey dust off the tips of his fingers. Two Blackguards followed behind him. June stood as they approached and kept her big mouth clenched shut.
“After speaking with Sheriff Kensington, it would appear a mistake has been made after all,” Gallant announced with a cheeriness that set her teeth on edge. “You and the Sheriff will be married. It will be a happy ending after all.”
The words climbed up her throat like broken glass.
“Always in your service, your Majesty.”
The King raised a satisfied chin at this.
“So, girl, we understand each other?”
She nodded, not meeting his eyes.
“A girl braving the inhospitable Vesper to deliver the outlaw Wesley Chambers,” Gallows continued. “It is with great pride I make exception in your death sentence. After your marriage, in the public eye, I will name you the first woman Blackguard to ever walk Librae.”
“The honor is mine,” she said emptily.
“The honor is also mine to marry thee,” said the man beside Gallant. It was a tall, skinny man with a sober look and brown hair combed at the part. His little brown eyes were so damned close together she could have blinded him with a nickel. His eyelids sat low over his retinas, “It is customary the bride and groom do not see one and other prior to the wedding, so I must depart. I pray you don’t get cold feet.”
The man left.
“Where’s Sheriff Kensington,” she asked.
“That was Sheriff Kensington,” Lexifer spoke up from his desk. “Unless you mean to tell us that your wedding is based on false identity, with the intention to defraud the Kingdom of tax dollars, a crime punishable by death.”
“My mistake,” June said. “I should have recognized my future husband.”
The Captain, a different Captain than before, fetched a quill and parchment for the only other prisoner left in the gaol. He pushed it through the bars on the floor. She’d seen this done down the hallway exactly ten times last night. This was the eleventh piece of parchment she’d seen given to a prisoner for them to briefly scribble a last will and testament. The guards sniggered as the Captain stepped away from the bars.
“No final thoughts to commit to paper?” the new Captain said to a prisoner who mulled in the darkness; this was their joke.
The prisoner sighed, “You know I can’t write longhand. Can a scribe be provided to commit my words to ink?”
Lexifer shook his head, refusing to look up from the writing on the page and level eyes with a dying man.
“All legal documents must be written and verified by the involved party’s hand to avoid corruption.”
“I want to leave property to my family,” the criminal said.
“It will be annexed as public property under Private Domicile Article VI: All deed holder’s rights and possessions are axed from his possession and submitted to the state upon their execution if found in violation of law,” Lexifer added in a breath of dry memory. “That includes your property.”
The Captain retrieved the blank parchment, and passed it to Lexifer, who stamped the man’s testament as ‘INVALID’ and filed it blank in a cabinet. Her mouth hung slack at this new form of banditry; a banditry that enabled the state “to axe” the citizens from what was rightfully theirs.
Now she knew why parchment covered stone in the rules of Stone, Parchment, Dagger.
The guards seized the prisoner’s chains and marched him up the spiral staircase to the execution square; he did not resist. She was left, once again, to the lone scratching noise of Lexifer’s quill. It drove her mad. The scratching and dabbing and dabbing and scratching.
She paced back and forth to drown it out, having long exercised any attempt at conversation with him the night before.
“May I have something to drink?” she finally asked. Her stomach had settled from the whiskey, and now felt as though it was eating itself in famine. “Or something to eat?”
“Not of my concern,” he responded, showing her nothing more than the balding top of his head, eyes ever on the parchment. He licked the tip of his quill and dabbed it back into the inkwell. Then continued scratching. She stared at him. He hid safely like a rodent, head down, refusing to bear witness to the atrocities happening across his desk. Purposeless minutes passed before she caught the gentle stench of the lantern—it was an unmistakable smell.
“That’s a Hastings pig,” she grumbled. He kept right on scratching, lifting a parchment closer to his eyes and setting it on another pile. “Your lantern is made from Hastings pig fat, and I’m the only damned person in Hastings that owns pigs.” He didn’t answer. “You’re pathetic, Lexifer.”
He raised his head, mouth slightly open, as if smelling cheese. Nobody else was in the gaol; all the other prisoners had been brought above ground for their judgment.
“Pathetic?” Lexifer said, pushing up to his feet from the desk. He waddled towards her with a hunched back, running his fingers across the spines of leather volumes on a shelf beside him. Something cold quickened down her back. “I am many things, Foster girl—pathetic is not one of them.” He returned to his desk, laying down the quill and selecting a metal-tipped fountain pen from the drawer. He limped forward with stooped posture, halting at the edge of the lantern’s glow. Rusted bars separated them like a priest and penitent. Engraved wrinkles cut out from the sides of his eyes. “Your life balances on the thin tip of this pen.” She stared down the brass slit where the ink channeled down the nib. “From the moment I etch your name on a birth document, you’re entangled in the cursive characters of my policy, and they can ensnare you if I so choose.” He lifted a stack of processed documents off the corner of his desk and tossed them into the furnace. “They can erase you if I so choose.”
“Is that what happened to Wesley Chambers?” she cut in.
He continued talking. “War, life, they sway to the tune of the written word, like puppets tied to inked strings of this master loom. Power has never been defined by the shoulders hoisting swords. Power has always been invested in the ideas, and the lexicon which command them. There is no truth and there are no lies. This pen is all swords, it is the only truth.”
“Go hang,” she said, staring down her nose at the razor tip. She could feel the warmth of blood flushing to her cheeks. “Why do you let yourself be part of this awful place?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, she only saw the backside of his wiry hair, returning like a tethered dog to his desk. He pushed the spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. “Everyone has their place, I suggest you learn yours: as a housewife, not speaking out against things bigger than you. You’ll do right to remember that.”
“You’re a coward,” she spat back.
“There are worse things than being a coward, girl.”
She dug her nails into her palms.
“And what’s wrong with being a girl, are we cowardly? I may be a woman, but you, sir, are a pussy. You’ll do right to remember that.”
A steel hinge squealed above. Footfalls of another train descended the metal steps. Two Blackguards entered with Chambers cooperatively at their side. His face was white and lost of color. They corralled him to the cell and he submitted like some broken horse. A sunken posture weighed on his shoulders like she’d never seen, as if gravity had finally worn down his body.
More heaps of blank parchment filled the furnace, combusting orange atop the coals and fully lighting the cellar. In the flare’s light, she caught sight of Chambers as he stepped in the cell. His lips were sutured together with wire—swollen purple and chaffed as though he were some cloth embroidered doll. Leafy green irises popped from bloodshot eyes.
They shared the same cell.
“Last will and testament,” the new Captain said, slipping a dry flake of parchment through the bars with a quill. The other guard chuckled. Chambers spliced his fingernail between the parchment and granite floor, lifting it delicately to eye level with the quill in his other hand. He turned the paper over, as if looking for something more on the blank surface. The new Captain tilted his head with eyebrows sarcastically high.
“You’d ask for a scribe, I’d imagine, if you could open your mouth.”
She could only stand there. Her mind raced to the sight of files burning in the fire, erasing the evidence that people had lived. She thought of the guillotine dropping—an iron curtain severing the crowd from the truth backstage.
Chambers pressed the parchment against the wall. And then, to everyone’s astonishment, the most prolific murderer on the continent of Librae commit the quill to paper, and wrote as though a heartbeat throbbed at the end of a severed tongue.