You’re sleeping when they arrive. You’re not unused to having servants coming into your chambers when you’re sleeping so you wake up but you don’t startle. You don’t think anything of it.
Lately there has been rumbling about what should be done. The gods spoke. The gods denied you your reward. Your people are not pleased with that announcement but, somewhat unfairly, they are mostly displeased with you.
You think that perhaps your glaives are here to protect you from yet another assassination attempt. They haven’t happened too often lately; mostly they were a problem when you first started healing. Jealousy. Uncertainty. Fear of the unknown, of the new, of change. Your glaives were chosen from the most loyal of your servants and knights the day after the first attempt at your life. They have protected you since.
You sit up. Sleep around your eyes. Depression and rejection and the twice-damned sickness have made you sleep so much, so deeply. You look to the captain of the guard for an explanation.
You only recognize that he’s coming for you seconds before he has you. It’s too late. You are too surprised, too fatigued, too ill, too corrupted to fight back in time. They put a sack over your head. They tie your wrists together tight enough to cut off the circulation. You cry out for them to stop and they kick you in the stomach until you cannot form words any longer, but it does not stop you from making noises.
Broken and wordless and pleading. They ignore you.
You’re carried. It feels like three men, your men, that lift you up and carry you out of your room. Out of the halls. Out into the courtyard. You think to summon a weapon. You wonder if you could warp out of the hands of your glaives with your head covered. You’ve never tried to do that blind. You should have. You should have trained harder. You can nearly hear Gilgamesh’s voice, chiding you for your laziness.
Where is Gilgamesh? He, like you, would have no reason to distrust your small chosen army but surely they would have had to get through him to get to you?
The warm smell of chocobos fills the air and you can hear soft, sleepy kwehs. The air is knocked out of your lungs as the glaives drop you onto the hard wood of a cart. What you assume is a cart.
The gentle tug at your own magic, taken from you too quick for you to think to stop it. Your lending should have been revoked the second they put a bag on your head. But it’s too late. Again, it’s too late. Misplaced trust making you slow.
A glaive, and you would put money on it being Avius since he was the one who always understood the more vague kinds of magic, puts you to sleep. He uses your own magic against you. You don’t have the time to feel outraged before the darkness washes over you and unconsciousness takes hold.
It was still night when you were taken from your home. You have no idea how far you have traveled or how long you spent in an unnatural sleep, but when you come to once more the bag is gone from your head and you can see a sliver of golden light through the thin stone window of the room you are now in. You don’t know where you are, just that you are uncomfortable. They never untied your wrists and your hands are cold. They hurt and they sting and they’re cold. You’ve been left kneeling and whenever you try to move you run the risk of falling on your face without your hands to steady you. And you are alone.
The light from the window moves quickly across the room. Of course it does. The days are barely days lately, since the last time the gods spoke. Since you were rejected from your calling. Nights stretch out before your kingdom. You fall asleep twice but not for very long. The pain in your wrists and your arms keeps you from a satisfying rest. Fortunately, you have experience in ignoring hunger pains too; while out on the road with your companions, while out healing your people, sometimes all of you went for days without a good meal. It didn’t matter too much at the time.
Good friends, you would say, are better than any platter of fruits or breads. You had been lying but it had sounded right. It made Izunia roll his eyes even though he smiled. Gentiana would put a cold hand on your shoulder, doting but regal. Gilgamesh leaned against you in hungry solidarity.
None of them were with you now, though. Good friends would be welcome, as would fruit and bread. Anything would be welcome. The silence is smothering. It feels like an age before you hear the noise of many footsteps coming towards you. Voices. It’s night outside now, but the voices bring soft lights with them. Torches.
You lift your head when the stone door in front of you scrapes open. Your glaives stand before you, grim-faced and pale. You wonder how bad you look.
They line up formally, filing into the small stone room that you are in. Their torches light up the room better than the pitiful sunlight could have. There is just enough room for them to fit. The last one, Gilgamesh’s dearest Machaera, comes into the room and is the only one that meets your eyes. She blinks once and looks away. You say nothing.
They snap into a formation you have seen a thousand times before, a step to the side and a turn so that they are forming a hallway made of bodies. You at the end and at the head of the line, two people stand at the room’s entrance.
Your brother, Izunia. His mouth in an emotionless line. You can see his godsdamned blue eyes from here. You hated them as a child because he got to look like your mother and you were stuck without. You hate them now, impossible to read and devoid of feeling.
Beside him is Gilgamesh. Your shield, your best friend, your only hope for getting out of this. You try to sit up but the pain tears through your muscles. You hiss, face crumpled, and wait. Hopeful and silent, you watch your blood and your shield walk toward you.
“No words now, Ardyn?” Izunia asks. You could say something to him but, instead, you narrow your eyes. He coughs a laugh. “To think this was all I had to do to get you to shut up.”
“Your doing, then,” you reply, voice scratchy from yelling and crying and not speaking and from drying out in this stone casket of a room. You try to match his conversational tone. If nothing else it might rile him up. You’ll take your victories where you can right now, at least until Gilgamesh gets you out of here. “Seems like a lot of trouble to go to if all you wanted was some quiet. You’ve been watching too many plays.”
“He calls me the dramatic,” Izunia murmurs to Gil. He gets no response, but he doesn’t wait for one. Instead, he turns so that all you can do is watch his back and feel your hands get colder, colder, colder. Gil faces the glaives with him. “The gods have spoken to me, as they once spoke to our king. The Chosen One, the King of Light, the Healer of the People, he has fallen to ruin. Our days lengthen. Monsters are at our doors.”
His arms wide and inviting. You stare holes into Gilgamesh, pleading in silence for him to turn around. Look at you. Anything. Anything.
“Our salvation lies in simplicity, as it often does. How easily we forget that the gods once brayed for blood to appease them.”
You close your eyes. Would the gods say that or is Izunia making it up? Both options are as probable as the other. Gods are treacherous and your brother even more so.
“Izunia,” you hear yourself say.
He ignores you. “If we want to do what is right, if we want to bring the sun back to our land, we all know what we must do.”
“You all know what you must do,” Izunia finishes. He doesn’t look back at you when he steps away. Unthinking, panicking, ungraceful, you forget that you are still tied and try to reach for him. You unbalance yourself and fall to the floor. By your head, Gil’s foot turns a little. A hesitation.
He follows Izunia down the hallway of bodies made of your Kingsglaive.
When they come for you, you don’t fight right away. The betrayal is sits heavy in your heart. Too late, always too late now, you call out for Gilgamesh to look back at you. You scream his name. What use is it to be careful with your voice if they’re going to kill you anyway? You scream. You watch him walk away. You turn your begging to his beloved, to Machaera. You ask her to see reason. You remind her of that time two summers ago when all three of you spent the weekend at the lakes. Together and comfortable and loved and so perfect. You plead with her to stop as she cuts your ties only to move your arms in front of you.
The relief was short-lived. She ties you up again. She looks haunted. You hope the shame eats at her. You hope they all burn with guilt.
You are ignored by all of them. Pietas is crying when he knots a rope to the ties on your wrist but he doesn’t look at you. Solus says nothing but shushes you gently when they start to pull the rope, when they start to lift you up, when they start to rip your shoulders from their sockets and when your begging turns to ragged cries of pain instead.
Someone puts a dagger to your throat and you think that this might be it but you can’t stop the noises that escape you. They don’t cut your throat, but your clothes. The blade drags down through the fabric and the noise stays in your ears, sharper than your own sobs of pain. Your bed-shirt now hangs at your waist, forgotten. The cold against your chest. Hands help to lift you up. Five pairs. You see Dilectio hold one of your legs, off to the side. Avius is pulling the rope that lifts you. The rest, Machaera and Solus and Pietas, lift you onto a beam that you had failed to notice. The remainder of your guard stand and watch.
You recognize what’s happening through a haze of pain. This execution is used for heretics, thieves, and traitors to the crown.
The irony is not lost on you.
Once raised, they stand back from their work and they look at you. Your breathing is loud in the small room. It’s difficult to focus on any of them. They leave you there, walking out one by one. Solus is the last one left. You taught him how to hold a sword on the day he turned fourteen. His father died of an illness you were not there to heal. For some reason, you had blamed yourself. You brought him into your court, made him one of your glaives. Eventually, even he leaves.
No-one comes back for at least a day. How are you to know how long it’s been? It could be mere hours. Your face is still wet with tears but you haven’t stopped crying. You can’t stop crying. You can’t feel your arms. Your shoulders have gone numb. There is little physical pain left to feel, your body trying to shut down to save itself.
The first person you see is another glaive. Telum. One of the first chosen by you to stand at your back. Stiff posture and sharp eyes. You remember, when you chose him, that you knew he would be quick to punish those who would want to harm you. He was always quick to use destructive magic.
Thinking faster than you thought possible at this stage, you remember to take back your gift to your glaives, your magic. He stumbles, shakes his head, but continues toward you.
“A smart move, my liege,” he says softly. Regret on the edges of his voice.
“Am I?” you ask, just above a whisper.
“Once,” he answers, then pauses. “I am sorry. I am.”
“Will your sorrow save me?”
“No.” Telum was always so blunt. You used to like that about him. What you wouldn’t give for a kind lie. He manifests, in a flash of shocking ice blue, an ornate spear. He does so in silence, but it is a clear message.
The gods had spoken to Izunia after all. And, like you, he must have accepted the blessings from the Crystal. He’ll soon learn the folly of that choice. Had he not cursed you to a slow death by the hands of your own men, you might have warned your brother. But, then, if he were the kind to listen to you then you would not be in this mess, would you?
“You cannot impale me yet, dearest Telum,” you say and it’s not quite smooth but it’s not as broken as you feel. “Jumping the mark, are you not? First I must die slowly. It is an agonizing death that my brother has chosen for me.”
Against his will, Telum smiles at your drawl. “He sent me so that you would know.”
He looks at the spear and it disappears into crystalline shards. “I believe you do, my liege.”
“Then begone. I have dying to do.”
He lingers but he doesn’t have to listen to you any longer. You’re hardly at your most regal right now. Your head hangs, but he lingers. You can hear him breathing.
“If I leave, this will continue,” he says. You grunt in response. Your words fled, left you like everything else. “They are waiting behind that door.”
You lift your head enough to look at him. Telum manages to maintain his stoicism while looking contrite. You believe his intention, but don’t care. What can his pity do? Will it change Izunia’s mind? Not even your shared childhoods could change your brother’s mind. You have no use for Telum’s pity.
“For the gods’ sake, send them in,” you hear yourself say. It makes you want to laugh. Lately, any talk of the gods is worthy of a laugh, though your laughter has been getting more and more bitter. “If it’s a kindness you’re looking to bestow then you must know by now that it would be kinder to get it over and done with. In fact, why wait? Run me through, my friend. End it now. You have your king’s magic. Use it and finish this torture.”
You mean to sound sarcastic. Take the truth and lightly dust it with a joke, that’s what Gil said you did with words. You mean to make a joke of the situation, but it runs away with itself. The tears are back. You choke on them as you speak. The tone is wrong, all wrong. Everything’s wrong.
You smile at Telum. He steps back, despairing. “I will send them in, my liege.”
“Am I?” Your question now a dark joke on your lips. Telum’s stoicism falters. He looks away, to the ground.
“Once,” he answers. A whisper. A confession. “Always. No longer.”
You nod. Your head falls again. Telum leaves you, a single torch flickering for a moment of peace before the door opens and your Kingsglaive—Izunia’s Kingsglaive, now—march in.
They take you down from the beam, from the rope. Blood rushes back to your limbs and you remember what that pain feels like. You try not to make any noise but it escapes you. Your control is shot. You don’t bother to talk to any of them this time. You barely look at them but to see what their next task is.
Your hands are free for a moment, a breath. You took your power back from them all when Telum came in. You think to call fire to your hands. You even try it. Your skin warms but…
Too weak. Too sick. Too tired. Too hungry. Too heartbroken. Too alone.
You are laying on the beam, now laid flat on the cut stone floor of the room, and you’re not moving. You could fight, or you could try. But you don’t. You let them raise your arms above your head. You wince when they have to force your stiff muscles. Whenever you blink, tears fall. The sobs, however, have left you. One thing you are glad to see go.
You want them to remember you with at least a little strength left in the end. You hope the memory poisons them.
There is another flash of traitorous blue. You turn to look at Avius. He’s produced a crude looking mallet. Five long, thick nails. Ah, you think. They’re starting in earnest. You didn’t train them to do anything by half-measures, after all.
You look at the nails in your glaive’s hands. They are roughly made, pig iron. About the size of a bolt for your crossbow, yet the craftsmanship is drastically different, woefully ugly. Funny that your people perfected beautiful weapons but not beautiful practicality. You never bothered to enhance anything to do with manual labor, did you? There was always something more important than that. You were a fool.
You meant to get around to upgrading the aqueducts too. You’ll never do that now. Izunia will find your and Gentiana’s plans for the future and he will take credit for it.
You close your eyes when Avius steadies his hand, holding a nail to your bared arm, and wonder if Izunia will be loved or feared. Will he rule with the cruelty he can so easily show?
When the nail first drives into your flesh it doesn’t hurt right away. Your flesh is over-sensitive from the blood rushing back into your arms so soon after being freed from your bindings but it’s almost like your body cannot register new pain so quickly. The mallet comes down a second time and you know, you know, that it will take several attempts to drive into the wood of the beam. Avius strikes once more and you’re screaming. The fourth strike pins you to the beam and when your hand twitches the tendons by your wrist rub against the metal.
“His blood,” someone says. Do you care who?
“I see it,” another answers through gritted teeth. “Then it’s true.”
“You followed our orders thinking it was all lies?” Avius’ voice by your head, thin and distant and full of disgust. You know what your blood looks like. It is a result of your healing; did they think that such power came without a price? It is true that you hid your affliction from your people, that it was not public knowledge. But could they not have exercised just a nugget of common sense once in a while?
You are shocked out of your quiet judgment when Avius strikes once more, securing your arm and surprising a yell out of you that is very close to angry.
“Warn a man,” you rasp.
Out of your field of vision, a glaive gives a guilty laugh. The kind of laugh that happens when you meet a friend’s eye while worshiping in a temple. The kind of laugh that is inappropriate and impossible to squash.
“If you were still a man, perhaps he would have,” you look over to who spoke and it’s Pietas and why does that hurt you as much as the iron driven through your flesh? Why the words of this one man? Pietas had always been so devoted, perhaps. It could be the look on his face. Torn and hurt himself, like you had personally harmed him instead of the opposite. Betrayed. No guilt in his features. His tears from before dried up and replaced with cold resolve.
Avius moves your other arm into place and continues his work. You scream, of course, because you cannot help it. The noises are forcibly ripped from your lungs and they scratch your vocal chords to shreds. The noise is swallowed by the dull stone of the room, of the prison, and soon enough you can’t make another sound.
The glaives use their rope to raise your beam up once more and isn’t it a blessing in disguise that your screams are spent because your meager weight now pulls on your fresh wounds. The pain blinds you for a moment.
You don’t see him come into the room. You don’t hear his footsteps on the stone. You don’t notice someone new until he speaks. And when he speaks, your focus narrows. “His feet,” Gilgamesh says evenly. “For gods’ sake, nail his feet too. It would be a kindness.”
A hesitant silence.
Shuffling of cloth and boots.
Hands on your feet tickle at first, stacking them in a way that meant they could only use one nail. Efficient, you think distantly. Why waste more nails than were necessary?
The nail pushes bones out the way on its journey into the wood behind the meat of your feet. You can feel them shunted aside but not crushed. Your body is shaking, but Gilgamesh was right—he’s always right—that it lessens the strain on your arms.
“Thank you,” you say mindlessly. You mean it. You’ve never meant anything more in your life. Your voice is ruined but it is grateful. You repeat your thanks. Over and over and over again, you thank him. You can’t stop.
You want to. You want to stop. You don’t.
Gilgamesh makes a soft noise at you, shushes you, and it feels like another kindness. You can’t scream any longer but you can cry. The tears come easy and, like your thanks, cannot be stopped. While you weep, Gil sends the glaives away. His voice now like the stone surrounding you, he even banishes his beloved from the room. When you finally lift your head again you see that they have followed his orders.
“Ardyn,” he begins, but stops. He looks uncharacteristically nervous. It makes him seem younger. It reminds you of when you first met. All of thirteen years and as tall as a man, possessing none of the grace. Gilgamesh as a teenager was clumsy and fierce and embarrassed by the length of his limbs. You had loved him straight away and you never hid it.
That had embarrassed him, too.
You lick your lips. “Gilgamesh,” you say. You’re still crying. Both of you ignore that. “You’re looking well.”
His laughter is thick and heavy. “Ardyn,” he repeats. Chides you. You smile tiredly through the tears. “Can you not stop?”
“I assume that eventually, yes, I will,” you reply. Speaking hurts but so does everything else. “I regret, however, that it seems as though that might take a while.”
“Izunia wants to wait until the right moment.”
You think about that. Having Gilgamesh there helps you form real thoughts, through the pain and the hunger and the thirst. And you think about his words. You think about Izunia’s words when he had been there with you, when he gave his little speech.
“He is waiting for the dark to fall,” you guess. Gil nods grimly. “And then he’ll bring the dawn once more.”
“Yes,” your Shield and protector says but his tone is layered, even with one word.
“What is it? I realize that I am going nowhere, Gil,” and when you call him that his face crumbles and you think good, vindictive and terrible, “but I would still appreciate an amount of urgency.”
He still hesitates. But you’re right and you have nowhere to go. Instead, you study his face, take advantage of how crisply your brain works when he is in the room with you. The lines of scars and the beginnings of wrinkles. The light brown, dark gold of his eyes. Chin scruff that looks coarser than it feels. Two thick, long, intricate dark braids coming down on either side of his head. You envied his hair. Dark and thick. He looked more like Izunia’s brother than you did, with all your traits taken from family members long forgotten. Weak traits, your father had called them. Delicate fingers and red hair and strange eyes. They were not traits of a warrior leader, but of a follower.
Shows what he knew.
“When the gods spoke to you,” Gil eventually starts, slow and careful. “I went to Izunia. I thought that, since he shared the blood of the Chosen, he could petition to the gods. Maybe convince them of their mistake.”
“That’s sweet,” you comment. Stupid, but sweet.
“I was with him. I heard their words. I had,” he swallows. “I had never heard them before.
“They spoke of the corruption, said it was your curse. They said that, since the Crystal had chosen you long ago, that one person should have been able to do what was to be done. That one person, one mortal, could bear the burden.”
“And I failed,” you finish the unspoken accusation. You remember what they had said to you. “I was not enough.”
“They said as much, yes. But they granted an alternative,” Gilgamesh continues. Now that he had started, he would finish. He’s like that, you think fondly.
You’re so tired.
“Two people, one of your blood and another, would bear the burden of caring for the Crystal until one is Chosen once more.”
The sentence hangs in the air, limp and disgusting. You could hear their intention in Gil’s words. You could feel the way their words scraped against his skull when they spoke. You knew what it meant.
“Izunia was not Chosen by the Crystal,” your words come out of your mouth but you feel distant. Apart. Sticky black blood is running down from your arms to your shoulders, down your back and soaking the remains of your clothes. You’re so tired. You’re so cold. You feel like you are watching all of this from afar but can feel every single thing.
“He was not.”
“He cannot bring the dawn.”
“Not…ultimately,” Gil says. “But your death will seal his covenant.” You say nothing. Your shield swallows once more, then speaks. “Our covenant.”
“Gilgamesh,” you say and the urge to go to him is overwhelming. Not thinking, you strain and the pain in your arms makes you dizzy. The flow of blood is almost tangible. You hang your head, panting, trying to focus. “What did you do?”
He steps forward. So close. You’ve never had to look down to meet his eyes in all the years you have known him, such was his height. You do now. You look down, and he looks up. His hand reaches for you and you want him to stop and you want to feel his touch and you want to run away and you want him to take you down, take you down, make this stop.
“I loved you, Ardyn,” he says. Another confession from a cherished friend. Another group of words that wound you despite their gentleness. “But I did what I had to do. In the beyond, when I reach it, I hope you will tell me that you understand.”
“But I don’t,” your words sound petulant. You’re crying again.
His hand hovers, ghosting the skin of your stomach. You can feel the heat of him.
He leaves without a word. He didn’t touch you.
When you sleep, it’s not a true sleep. It’s an exhausted collapse of your nerves and heartbreak, fatigue born of physical and emotional hurt. You don’t dream and when you wake up, you wake up to the sound of footsteps.
You wonder what they will do to you now.
Pietas first. He stands at the door of the room and he watches you. He’s there for what must be hours. You dip in an out of consciousness, missing when Pietas leaves. Dilectio next. He stands in the same spot but never looks up from the floor. You’re conscious when he leaves, watching the relief blossom on his face when Machaera comes in. She stands in the same spot as he and Pietas had, hands clasped behind her.
It dawns on you: it’s a deathwatch.
“Not long now,” you say. You haven’t said anything since Gil’s visit. It can’t have been too long ago but your voice sounds strange regardless. Dehydration and abuse robbing you of your dulcet tones. A crime before man and gods. “Perhaps you will have the last watch.”
She doesn’t avoid your gaze as Dilectio had done. Even from here you can see the tears in her eyes, glittering in the torchlight. She doesn’t speak to you. If you have requested that your glaives stand a deathwatch over an enemy of the crown, you would tell them not to engage as well. Izunia was, at least, not an idiot.
“I know,” you say softly, comforting. You could never stand to see her cry, could you? “But it will all be over soon. Hopefully, it will grant Gilgamesh whatever he seeks.”
Her brows knit imperceptibly. You gasp and, though it sounds sarcastic, you are sincere in your surprise. “He never told you,” you declare and her concern is obvious. Honestly, if you were not able to read her face by now then you would consider yourself a complete loss. “My dearest. I am sorry. Gil did something so, so foolish. I cannot possibly guess how foolish.”
“Ardyn, please,” she says softly. She does not whisper, but her quiet words feel like a prayer. “I don’t have the strength to face your barbs tonight.”
“I promised you once that I would not harm you,” and you had. The situation different but no less intimate. “I will keep my word. I do not seek to harm.”
She doesn’t answer and for a moment, you can’t think of what to say. For a moment, you forget what you were saying in the first place. The room goes dark but, like the time before and the time before that, you swim back to consciousness. Frantically you look around, willing your vision to return. Panic. Did you miss the change of guard? Was Machaera gone already?
There she stood, where she had been standing, looking at you closely.
“You look concerned,” you tell her, relaxing as much as you’re able from your panic, and her lips twitch. “If it would soothe your conscience, I would very much appreciate some water. I would appreciate some wine even more.”
“You know that I can’t do that, my—” she pauses, surprised at herself. Trained responses. You nearly feel sorry for her.
“Liege?” you offer. A smile tugs at you and you can feel how cruel it must look. “King? Lord? Love? Dearest? ‘My regret’, perhaps, would be best for now.”
One of her held tears falls. You blink slowly at her. “You said that you would not harm me.”
“You said that you would protect me.”
“Gods,” she pleads quietly. “How do you still live, Ardyn? It’s been so long. It’s like you are haunting us with your persistence. Do you think any of us enjoy this?”
“I’m sorry. I seem to be unable to feel sympathy for any of you right now,” you reply. “Perhaps it has something to do with how I find myself nailed to a plank by your hands.”
“Oh, no, you didn’t. You didn’t drive the nails in yourself. You didn’t decide to do this and you didn’t make the plan. But you saw it to completion. You stand there praying for my death, along with the rest of them. Am I to mean nothing more to you than a burden, than a regret, than a torture to watch die?”
She stands still, mouth open. Still only one tear has fallen but she looks stricken. Good, you think once more. Good, good, good. You imagine the warmth of Gil’s hand on your stomach where he didn’t touch you. You remember the regret in Telum’s eyes. It can’t eat away at them enough, you think darkly. Not enough to make it stop. Not enough to grant, at least, some mercy.
“You choose this for yourself. You choose to follow my brother. Out of what, fear? Not of Izunia. My love for you has soured, dearest, but even as it curdles I could not imagine you a fool. So it’s fear of something else.”
“We barely saw an hour of sunlight today, Ardyn,” she replies and it would be reasonable for her voice to tremble, you expect it, but it doesn’t happen. “You would be scared too. Even you.”
“Do I not look scared?”
“No. You look—” she begins, then she takes a step forward. Your breath catches and you must look scared now. She keeps walking toward you. “You look impossible. You have not stopped bleeding, if you can call that bleeding, since you were nailed. You are wasting away, Ardyn, but you have not died of starvation. You fade away from us for moments only to come back and meet our eyes. I have known you for a long time.”
She’s as close to you now as Gil had been. She’s not as tall—but who is? Her gaze drags up your body, her head just about reaching your knees. She doesn’t reach out to touch you and you want to thank her.
“I have known you for so long,” she affirms. “And I have seen you do amazing, terrifying things. But this?”
She stands in front of you, eyes wide. Her words do not match her tone. “They say you’re cursed,” and it’s a tone you’ve heard before. Chosen. Savior. Healer. It’s a kind of fear, this awe, and you learned that early. It’s a kind of fear and it’s a kind of respect and it’s a kind of adoration and you love it. You’ve always loved it.
You look down, meet her eyes, and another tear falls. She looks beautiful. Green eyes and ashy blonde hair cut short and a constellation of freckles on the bridge of her nose.
“Machaera, let me down,” you request. You command. You hope. That hope doubles when she pauses and looks back at the door. “We can leave. Find Gil. Do something about this. We can still fix this.”
“Ardyn,” she’s trembling. “I can’t.”
You push a frustrated breath through gritted teeth. “Did you once believe in me?” She nods, silent and strong and lost and so, so beautiful. “Do you believe in me now?”
You look at each other for a breath that lasts a lifetime. Then, in a blur, she moves to the rope tied around a hook, the same rope holding your beam up. She’s strong, wondrously strong, and she’s able to lower you down alone and slowly. Quietly. Her hands slip on the nails, fingers dipping into your wounds, when she tries to pull them out of the wood. You bite your lip and taste blood in an effort to stay quiet.
Everything’s moving so quickly and you’re dizzy and you’re tired and you’re cold and you could not be happier.
She pulls the nails out of your flesh with her bare hands and it takes so long. It feels like it takes so long. Slow. Slow and agonizing, you can feel the metal tug at the meat of your arms, tearing tendons. Your feet are freed last.
You need help to stand. You need help to walk the ten and a half steps to the door. It’s slow. Everything is slow, but you feel like you’re rushing. Machaera is holding you close and upright, a pillar of strength and anxiety, her eyes darting around as soon as you both leave the room.
There is no-one nearby.
The entrance to your prison is right in front of you both. With Machaera’s help, you stumble towards the opening. You can smell the sea in the air. Where did they bring you? You suppose you’ll find out soon. You think about the sea and the sky and fresh air and you’re crying again, you think, but you don’t care.
A shadow passes by the entrance, by your exit. “No,” is all you hear from Machaera. She stops in her tracks, terror-stricken, and you have no choice but to stand with her. The pain in your feet radiates up through your bones when you place any weight on them. You wonder how long it will be until you can heal them yourself, or if you’re too weak to do anything without help.
Your thoughts swim, thick and sluggish, around your head. You can’t focus. The shadow at the entrance is getting closer. Machaera doesn’t move you away.
The shadow comes into view. Your brother. Behind him, like before, stands Gilgamesh. Machaera adjusts her grip around your waist but she stands tall and firm. You don’t look at her but you can picture her face; brows drawn, mouth in a tight frown, barely blinking and daring, daring, Izunia to shame her. You smile at the image in your mind’s eye.
“This is regrettable,” you hear Izunia speak, but don’t raise your head. “Since he doesn’t look dead to me.”
“He is not, m—Majesty,” Machaera replies and her voice carries strongly in the tight space of the corridor. You wonder if Izunia heard the hesitation at the title.
“Most regrettable, then.” Izunia turns on his heel and mutters something to Gilgamesh. Your shield shifts on his feet, something he wouldn’t normally do, and whispers back. You can’t hear Izunia’s words but you hear Gil’s, clear as day.
“Please. I cannot.”
“I will repeat myself once, Gilgamesh, but not again,” Izunia replies and Machaera’s fingers are digging into your side in an effort to keep you standing and, yes, it hurts but it feels like an embrace. “Bring them back inside, gather the glaives and dispose of the traitor.”
Gilgamesh doesn’t move. You lift your head slowly to look at him. His features are hidden by shadow, you can only make out the grim line of his mouth. Izunia places a hand on his arm and somehow this is what makes you angry.
“I don’t enjoy this, Gil,” your brother says softly, gently, but he’s a liar. He’s always been a liar. You used to laugh about it as children, that you were the only person that could tell when he was lying. “We have to do what needs to be done.”
His words do something to Gilgamesh’s resolve. You watch him nod, take a breath, nod again.
Machaera gasps beside you and takes an instinctive step backward. You go with her because you have to. Your feet drag across the stone ground. Your blood trails with you, black as the shadows around you.
Gilgamesh steps past Izunia, herding you and your would-be savior back into the room with the beam. Silently, Machaera shakes her head at her beloved as she steps backward, backward, never looking where she’s going. Your ankle catches on a stone, then a step. The noise of your groans and hisses of pains echo around you all but Machaera doesn’t look where she’s going. She can’t stop looking at Gil.
It takes less time to get back into the room than it took to leave it. Gil stands for a moment at the door, staring at his love and you, his former charge. He takes another breath, nods once more, shuts his gold-brown eyes, then closes the door. It’s the first time you’ve seen it close properly and the absurdity of pulling a giant slab in front of you causes a harsh, hysterical laugh bubble out of your throat.
“I have condemned you,” you say, unable to stop laughing.
Machaera sits you both down on the ground heavily. “I was condemned anyway,” she says softly, contrasting your relentless laughter. “We all are, for what we’ve done. It will take lifetimes to wash away this guilt from us.”
Your laughter continues but it doesn’t sound right any longer.
“Stop crying, Ardyn,” she says. Her head in her hands. You think about trying to comfort her but your arms and your hands are covered in blood and it hurts to move and you’re both going to die here. What could you say? She’s right, though; you’re crying, not laughing. Again. You’re crying again.
You try to stop. It’s so hard. Your chest feels like it’s collapsing, like you’ll never breathe the same ever again. Every gulp of air makes you feel like you’re drowning and the noises you make want to be laughter but they’re just broken, jagged, terrible sobs and after a moment of this losing battle Machaera places a hand on your aching shoulder. It doesn’t help, but it does.
Some time passes. Your sobs die. Machaera’s silent tears dry. The door scrapes open and, one by one, the whole company of what was once your Kingsglaive file into the room. They line up. The don’t look at either of you.
All that time was used to tell them what they were about to see, if you were to guess. You were always meant to be a sacrificial lamb to Izunia’s new cause, but now Machaera was to be an example. You look at the faces of the men and women, some of them are so young that you feel guilty, and you can see sadness. Fear. Apprehension.
The last glaive walks in and takes her place and is followed by Gilgamesh. Izunia is behind him, hands behind his back. At least he has the grace not to look excited. Without a word, Gilgamesh walks up to where you and Machaera are sitting. She looks up at him. Her tears have returned, falling down her cheeks and ignored. Her hand still on your shoulder.
“One of our own turned against us,” Izunia speaks and he speaks of loyalty, the weasel. “Obviously all of us know what it’s like to trust the Accursed. We all, here, know that he was once a person. So we cannot blame our comrade the lapse in judgment.”
He looks at you. You look back. He doesn’t blink.
“But we cannot abide it,” he finishes.
It happens quickly. Gilgamesh steps forward, take Machaera in his arms. He whispers something, eyes tightly shut, but you don’t hear it. It’s not for you anyway. You just have to watch. This is as much a lesson for you as it is for the Kingsglaive. Gil’s dagger is in his hands in a brilliant flash of red and deep inside Machaera’s gut as quick as a blink.
A strangled cry of surprise more than pain.
You think, numbly, that at least Gil knows how to kill someone quickly. Once she is gone, he gently lays Machaera’s body down onto your lap. Her skin is, of course, still warm. You can hear her last gasp of surprise in your ears, echoing. Your hands don’t work properly but you manage to wipe away the last of her tears from her face. You close her eyes. Gil’s breath above you is shaky, his body still. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the flash of red magic, dispelling his weapon and—
That’s not right.
You look up then, catching his eye. You have seen Izunia’s newly granted abilities look like yours but don’t. He’s bestowed an ice-blue flow of magic to your glaives and, if you’re being honest, you just assumed that Gilgamesh would be part of that. You tore your magic away from the Kingsglaive when you spoke to Telum, yes, but Gilgamesh hadn’t been a glaive. You were too busy watching your best friend kill the woman he loves at the behest of your brother to notice at the time but had you felt the tug of Gilgamesh fetching his weapon through your magic?
Time slows. He looks at you. Molten eyes that you had always loved, distant and sorrowful in a way that you have never seen before. You, a healer, unable to cure this pain. Barely moving enough to notice, he nods, and you know. He used your magic.
You hope Izunia saw. You hope that he knows that he can’t kill his way to loyalty within his ranks.
Machaera is heavy on your limbs and no-one moves to remove her. Her death literally on your hands. You brush away the short hair from her face as Gilgamesh walks away to stand by the king he has pledged to but does not trust.
“Put him back up,” Izunia’s voice. They move to follow their orders. You don’t fight them until you realize that Machaera’s body will just be left on the ground, falling from your lap as they lift you, unceremonious and disgraced. You yell. You try to kick. You try to pull your arms free. You’re too weak. You plead with them to do something about her body, they knew her, they must have loved her. To know her was to love her.
Gilgamesh closes his eyes again. Izunia stands silent and still, watching.
The nails are back, driven into your still bleeding wounds. Your screams echo in the room and in your head and back again, dragged breaths just to scream again, just to deafen you again. Your throat hurts. Everything hurts. Your heart, your head, your arms, your legs, your heart, your heart, your heart.
You scream and you cry and they must be used to it now because no-one reacts. Dead-eyed and, for all that it’s worth, loyal to your brother’s commands. They all pitch in to have you back on the beam in record time. Their faces in the haze of pain. Pietas and Dilectio and Avius and Solus and Telum and Cultellus and Timore and Lacertus but not Machaera. She’s on the floor in a pool of her blood, of your blood.
Soon enough there’s only one person standing in front of you.
Izunia looks conflicted.
“Faced with death,” you rasp, still gasping for breath after your thrashing and yelling. Blood drips down your back. “You were never good at that.”
“I’m taking the path of least resistance,” he answers. You think it might be the first time he’s spoken to you properly in days, weeks, months. You know the words he spoke to you when you first arrived here but did he really speak to you? Did you really speak to him? You try to feel sad about it but all that happens is your gaze drifts. To Machaera’s body. To Gil’s shadow at the end of the room, still, barely breathing, in shock. “You were never good at that, if you remember.”
You’re done with niceties. You are too weak to fight, but you were always better with your words than with a sword. You whisper. “The gods will tear you apart. Second choice. Second best. How awful for you, brother, to never win a race. Forced to cheat to get noticed. I should have pitied you when I could. Your failure hounds you, it must, but I admit that it was my fault.”
His lip curls. “If that’s how you want to leave things, so be it.”
“This has nothing to do with what I want.”
He opens his hand a second before the spear appears there. The light hurts your eyes. “You would let me call your weapons,” he says and you can tell, can’t you, that he doesn’t want you to reply. He won’t even give you the chance. You hate him. “But you never spoke about the rush of power to wield your own. You never talked about the freedom or the way the magic feels against your skin. You never told me anything.”
Oh, you hate him.
“You would call me jealous,” he continues. He weighs the spear in his hand. It’s the same one that Telum had. Of course it is. “And perhaps I was. But you, brother, were selfish.”
He readies the spear and you’re not scared. If it were anyone else perhaps you would be. Instead, you feel hatred. You can’t feel fear, you can’t feel sadness. You hate every word of his, dripping with his hungry envy. You hate the way his eyes gleam, you hate the way you had actually trusted him once, you hate that you had wanted to make him laugh when you were children, you hate how he wears his stupid hair, you hate his eyes, you hate, you hate.
He kills you slowly, but you already knew that he would. If he had wanted to stab you then he would have done that days ago while you slept, like a gentleman. No, he wanted to watch you waste away. He wanted to turn your people against you. He wanted to see the whites of your eyes as his spear plunged into your heart. It hurts, but you barely make a noise.
You think about the noise Machaera had made moments ago. It’s not dissimilar. You’ve heard so many people die, but not by stabbing. Not by heartbreak. Death rattles, you discover at the end, is situational.
A wet laugh escapes your lips. Izunia’s eyebrows tick into a frown, and he twists the spear into your breast. Your body shakes, your vision slips, and you can only hear one voice. Your brother never knows when to shut up. Family trait.
You don’t have the energy to laugh again.
“The king is dead. Long live the king.”
The sun is up. You can hear birds outside. You look around, slowly. You feel like you could drink a river’s worth of water.
You’re still in the stone room but there’s no-one there. It feels empty in a way that it hadn’t before. Machaera’s body is gone, even.
You’re off the beam, laid down on a flat stone slab. Your arms crossed over your chest. You had done the same thing when your father died.
They left you for dead, the fools. They would regret that.