June sat frozen in a tiny drawing room. Red and slightly pinker red striped wallpaper surrounded her. On the vertical crease where the wallpaper was glued over itself, a perfectly circular clock flicked a black minute hand to half past eleven. With her free hand, she reached to her head, trying once again to brush a lock of hair that was no longer there.
“Please keep your hand on the groom’s hand,” a fat woman said beside an easel. New Kensington watched her hand fall back onto his. He sat exactly beside her on a backless red seat. They both faced forward, remaining upright on their spines. The fat woman mopped a red glob of paint into a white glob of paint, then spread a feminine pink glow on June’s cheeks in the portrait. The painting was intended to honor their “marriage and bravery” for escorting Wesley Chambers to the Kingdom. June and New Kensington were instructed to sit very, very still on the plush cushion. She watched each brush stroke dry across the canvas and felt that if she moved, even the slightest bit, the entire painting would melt off the canvas.
One of the guards peered out the curtain, gazing at the clock tower in the clouds outside. He adjusted the hand on the wall clock backwards two minutes to match it. A tray of square chopped meats stunk in the muggy air beside her. She had gnawed at a cob of corn, trusting the earth candy but nothing more. A black box in front of her feet was filled beyond the brim with gold and jewels—it was her reward money for Wesley Chambers—she didn’t touch it.
“What are you going to do with our riches?” New Kensington asked.
“This gold is worthless now,” she muttered.
“Worthless,” New Kensington laughed.
“They’re your riches, once we’re married,” she said.
He said nothing.
On the other side of the crimson curtain, the crowd roared as one collective voice, swain by one lie. She couldn’t see them from where she sat; she could only hear their gathered hush, followed by the squeaky sheen of the guillotine dropping, and a thud. The crowd would cheer, then.
Blue veins had swollen along the back of clasped hands on her lap. Her dress was just a bit paler than her skin. She kept her gaze forward and focused inwards on her breath. She realized in the stillness, that whoever this creep was the was pretending to be Kensington, his hands were shaking too.
“I trained bears for the circus,” New Kensington said, “before the King took them.” She tilted her head slightly towards him. Thick red stubble grew beneath his nose, as if a proud handlebar mustache had been recently sheared. “I don’t want your money, I just want to get out of this alive.” June turned her head square towards the painter. New Kensington whispered. “If they ask what religion you are, say Kingdom Orthodox. Not compromising the name of your Lord before this audience is a fast way to meet that Lord, I promise you that. And remember, women aren’t to speak in the public domain—especially a married woman.”
“Hold each other’s hands,” the Guard Captain added. She nodded and twilled her forearm around New Kensington’s bony forearm. The back of his fingers were hairy. He gripped her hand. “Remember, you’re still on trial until the wedding is official.”
The Captain latched her left hand to New Kensington’s right hand with handcuffs, then pulled their sleeves forward to conceal the steel bands which bound them.
“Those aren’t too tight, right?”
The booming voice of Parliament’s Speaker echoed through the hushed pantheon. They stood, hand in hand, and admired the portrait. Despite every attempt by the artist to make her look happy, her expression was miserable in the cracking paint.
The Captain pulled back a fold of the curtain and extended an open palm towards the stage. Death was a chivalrous bastard, always holding the door. She took a breath to compose herself. New Kensington stepped forward, she kept pace at his side. The Captain brushed the wedding veil down off her head and over her eyes as she stepped out to the stage. Thin white netting of her dress dragged across the floor and caught on a bent nail. She grabbed a fistful of the back of her dress and ripped it free.
The soft pads of her slippers were silent on the wooden stage of a sky lit amphitheater. Rows upon rows of people sat in a rising crescent around her. Marble sculptures of angels holding the Imperial Scale lined the walls. Aristocrats leaned out over balconies, holding chains of pocket watches and eye glasses steadily on their persons. Crimson banners hung starkly against the bleach marble down both galleries—all the way back to the distant mezzanine where the peasants crammed elbow to elbow, and beyond that, the light side of a full moon had turned its face to them beside the clock tower.
She always had a knack for being alone in a crowd. New Kensington corralled her past the wooden columns of the guillotine. She stared with a gaping mouth up its slender posts. The half dome of the stage rose up over them in a mural of Librae’s history. They stopped at a chalk line drawn across the floorboards. They stood beneath the edge of the ceiling, where the paintings ended and the deep black sky began. Stage boys hoisted the guillotine up its pulley, until its dull side nearly scraped the paintings of Sainted Kings. She watched it rise higher, and higher—higher even than crimson flags sulking in the windless night.
They stood halfway between the blade and the white stone alter to their right. Her eyes remained on a scale in one of the marble hands as the mechanical applause died. Then she felt the scrutiny of countless eyes upon her, and couldn’t help but shift her weight in the tight dress.
A slender man in sleek crimson robes took the stage from their right side. It was Hemlock, wearing all the flare of a Librae authority. He winked to the two of them, lifting a wave to the crowd as he took the podium.
“That coward is the Speaker of Parliament?” she whispered through her teeth. “He’s only loyal to who most recently threatens him.”
New Kensington squeezed her hand at the sound of her voice, scrunching her knuckles until they lost color. The chain links tinkled ever so slightly.
“Do not say a word and do exactly as you’re told,” he whispered.
She nodded. Easy enough, she’d been doing that her entire life. New Kensington squeezed her knuckles once more and she felt her hand begin to sweat against his.
Hemlock read her marriage sentence. The contract seemed to carry a different weight when read in Hemlock’s voice. Eyes in the front row jumped from her to the guillotine, to Hemlock, then back to the guillotine. That blade had fallen here a thousand times, disguised as theatre to the public. It was a blindfold, dropped in front of their eyes over and over like a veil. By its own bloody, lexical right, it had painted the King as if he outnumbered the masses one at a time. They’d walk single file like cattle beneath that blade under his rule.
“The undersigned has vowed the following,” Hemlock continued.
She mouthed Hemlock’s words silently with from memory: “I, June J. Foster, vow my hand in wedlock to Sheriff Patrick Kensington of Hastings.”
In the central gallery, she found King Gallant staring down a cylinder glass from a tall red and gold armchair. She stared true back up the glass barrel, keeping her expression balanced for the crowd, but holding his gaze as long as possible.
New Kensington pulled her along. They stepped sideways along the chalk line to the podium. Hemlock continued with his speech.
“Erm—I do,” June said, when she realized all eyes were on her. New Kensington slid a golden band all the way to the back knuckle of her finger. Hemlock handed her a quill.
“If you will sign right here, I will pronounce—by the authority invested in me—the two of you officially as Mr. and Mrs. Kensington.”
Her free hand stopped. She was the last surviving member of the Foster family. June Foster might die if she didn’t sign the document, but she was already dead if she did.
She did not nod. She lifted her chin and stood straight postured, with a tall man’s confidence, standing as though she had antlers. She’d walked upright in the King’s name her entire life. It was time to start walking in her own. And it was that stubborn Foster pride—an heirloom God himself could not steal—which caused her to step away from the podium and over the chalk line.
There was a gasp in the crowd.
Adrenaline burned proud within. She dragged New Kensington with her to center stage. The crowd watched on in eager silence. Her own footfalls echoed out over the crowd. The trim of her dress dragged across dry bloodstains on the floorboards. She raised a balled fist, and rolled the sleeve back to her bicep, revealing the cuffs to the entire theatre. They had all paid admission to see death, but collectively gasped at the sight of the shackle.
Blood drained from New Kensington’s face. She gripped the chain and jerked back like a moored stallion towards the guillotine; all the while not saying a single word. Guards stood, hands uncomfortably in their pockets, not quite sure of their responsibility.
She slipped her body through the wooden threshold of the two columns with a hard tumble to the stage floor. A joint in her wrist popped from the socket.
The crowd stood only taller at this, each trying to see over the head of the next. Fits of shoving pushed through the crowd as men jockeyed for position, and suddenly the entire theatre was in tumult beneath the starry night.
She sat on the stage, head propped against the front column of the guillotine, looking up to the moon. Her hand rested firm on the wooden chopping board behind her—bloated and purple, as the Sheriff tugged on the other side.
Pops had once bought a dead horse named Deceased.
Daddy’s little girl pulled the string of her own guillotine.
Gravity hurled the iron sheet down its tracks in free fall. She took one last glance at the blue ivy of veins bulging from her upturned forearm before looking away.
The parts that belonged to her fell weightless to the floor, vision rolling in black blotches. She turned on her back and looked beyond the artificial dome to the sky. Her dress was soaked warm in blood, growing redder and redder and redder. The bone of her forearm was cut clean below the wrist.
The Blackguard procession halted at the corner of the stage, unsure what to do until further orders crawled down the ranks. Alex coughed a laugh into the floor panels, wiping a string of spit from her chin. New Kensington stood over her, an empty cuff swung from his wrist, still locked, around nothing. A red drop fell from the metal.
Her former hand remained on the cutting board, still wearing the wedding ring. Its fingers furled into the palm like a dead spider. In her sidewinding vision, she caught sight of a woman in the front row gagging into a coin purse.
“Vow absolved,” Hemlock’s humorless voice boomed out over the theatre. His gavel smacked against the podium until the crowd grew still. “Vow absolved, June Foster has paid one hand in marriage to Patrick Kensington.”
Guards relaxed at the authority of Hemlock’s voice. She let the back of her head rest against the stage in a sticky gathering of her own blood and smiled all the way up to the gallery. New Kensington helped her to her feet as maids brought a basin towel to wrap around the wound.
The clock tower tolled in the clouds to signal midnight. King Gallant still sat, grinning, as the guards approached her. The tolls came between long pauses. Once, twice, and then finally a twelfth time.
“The vow is absolved.” Hemlock reminded from the podium.
The guards stopped.
The tower tolled a thirteenth time, and a fourteenth time. Imperials guards loitered like fools around the stage, unsure whose authority they acted on. One guard refused to move from her way; a man of the same uniform pulled him from her path. And the tower tolled on in the sky.
Applause rose through the theatre in a rising crescendo from the back distant seats of the peasants, until all she could hear was their cheers. Hemlock quieted the crowd with arms raised over the podium.
“That was merely the second most anticipated event of the evening,” Hemlock said, with the charisma of a circus ringleader. He raised an envelope before all of esteemed Librae. “I have in my hands a document signed and notarized by the Magistrate himself—whose word is gospel. It is a written testimony to the truths regarding the eight year case of Wesley Chambers!”
Hemlock continued speaking with evangelical authority, as the bell tower clamored on in the sky.
“By the time this is read, I, Magistrate Yasmen Lexifer will have been murdered by King James Gallant to conceal a most dire conspiracy which I know to be the truth.”
June smiled as maids helped her behind the curtain.
Silence fell like a millstone in the theatre, allowing Hemlock’s voice to carry seamlessly to the gallery. The only other sound was the tower clanging madly like a metal heartbeat in the distance. At this the King rose to his feet, as if the pitch of Hemlock’s voice could shatter the sky bending above him.