Kravitz comes to with the sound of a clanging and a creaking that splits his head in two and makes him blink blearily in the dark.
The sound of his cell-door opening.
And Kravitz is filled, suddenly, completely, with an overpowering dread.
Because there is only one reason that anyone would come to open his cell.
He recognizes the guard, he thinks, the one at the cell door. But he’s so tired, he’s so tired and he’s been in the dark so long he can’t think – he can’t –
There’s a hand on his arm, and he’s pulled roughly to his feet, and there’s – are there two guards? Someone’s putting a rope around his wrists, someone’s binding him and he tries to fight back but he’s so tired, and the guards feel so strong and before he knows it he’s bound and being shoved down a hall, being forced to walk, one stumbling step in front of another, away from his cell and to – and to –
The moment Kravitz enters the light he’s blinded.
It’s so bright, and it’s so hot, and Kravitz has spent so long in the cold dark that he can’t see, his eyes hurt as they try to adjust and he wants to close them, and then there’s a hand across his face, hard, and he gasps and stumbles, back into the arms of another guard, and he’s in the dirt-covered yard, and the sun is so bright.
“Wake him up,” someone says, voice rough and commanding. “He’ll be up in a half hour and she'll want to see his eyes.”
There’s grumbling, and Kravitz is being shoved around roughly, and then he’s underwater, or his head is at least, cold, cold, they’re drowning him, and he struggles, and is very much awake.
Before he can get enough of a grasp on his faculties to realize that he should grab a drink while his head is under, they’ve pulled him back out. So much for it.
Now alert, it all comes back to Kravitz in a rush, and yes, he can name the guards that flank him on either side, and can feel the raw and painful gnawing in his stomach that makes him want to double over, and the pain in his throat like the claws of some feral animal dug in deep, and the pounding in his head and the exhaustion settled into his bones and his veins.
Then there are blows. He doesn’t know what hits him as he huddles on the ground, but he brings up his arms to try and protect his head, and feels the sharp crack of canes, or swords, or whips across his back. Feels the tears in his skin and the blood begin to flow, the heat of it, his shirt shredded. He doesn’t know how long it goes on, but the pain consumes him, like fire on his crumpled form.
And there’s a weight in his chest, one that Kravitz can name. One that he’s been carrying for gods only know how long. One he can identify and refuses to pick at, for fear that in this moment, the careful control that has kept him holding on in that black, stinking place will shatter, and that they will get the satisfaction of seeing him crack on this, his last day.
He is bound, and beaten, and starved, but he is not broken, and he will not allow them that.
So he schools his expression and his breath as best he can, as he is taken through the yard, flanked on either side, and loaded up in a cart, made to stand there, hands bound, ankles tied down, as it begins to move, as the palace gates swing open, and Kravitz is brought out into the square.
The first thing he hears is the roar of the crowd, screaming and shouting so that he is deafened. The first thing he sees is the gallows, standing tall and proud in the center of the square. The first thing he feels is the crack of something on his face, and the first thing he smells is rotten egg, shortly after.
He gets a chance, then, as the cart pulls slowly forward, to take it all in.
It seems the whole of the Astral City has come out today to see the spectacle, and Kravitz holds his head high as more projectiles are lobbed his way by a crowd nothing short of furious. They yell at him, and they scream, words like scum and traitor and other horrible things. There are people on the balconies of the buildings surrounding the square, and most notably, across from him, opposite the gallows, a raised structure, like stands, under a canopy of black fabric, black curtains closing it in on three sides, and Kravitz can’t see inside of it but he knows without having to that that is where She sits. That the seats are fine velvet and that she will be placed quite directly in the middle, where she can see the faces of those who hang. Where she can see their necks snap and the light leave their eyes.
Where She will watch it leave his.
It makes it all the more important that he not allow himself to break.
But the journey of the cart is slow, and the sun beating down on Kravitz combined with his lack of any semblance of strength or health and the pain, the pain is making him dizzy, and he almost fears he will faint. He has to steady himself as all manner of refuse is hurled at him from the shrieking crowd below. When he reaches the gallows, it is almost a relief, even with his heart beating a mile a minute, and the weight on his chest suffocating and having taken up a remote residence in his gut as well, his whole body being slowly inhabited by dread, and fear, and – and –
His feet on the hot, rough wood of the platform feels so sharp, and so real, and suddenly it hits him.
That this is it. That in a few short moments, he will be gone, and regret, regret, white hot and sharp lodges itself in him right over his heart, and Kravitz finally allows himself to understand exactly what will be lost here today.
The trapdoor is slightly shaky under his feet as he stands above it, just that much less secure than the rest of the platform, just enough to alert one to its purpose, and the sun beats down, and somewhere behind him and to the side of him people are shifting around, taking places, preparing.
The roar of the crowd is somehow stronger yet. And there are drums - how did he not hear them before? Drums that he's known since - he can't remember when. All he remembers is that he used to rejoice in them, and now...
There's a crescendo, and Kravitz lifts his eyes to the stands in front of him, and he can’t see into the shade, but he fixes his eyes, there, there in the very center, right where he knows She will be, and he doesn’t flinch as the rough rope is pulled over his head, as the noose is secured around his neck. Doesn’t flinch as his bonds on his wrists are tightened one last time, and his ankles, too, so that he cannot move from his place.
He just looks straight ahead, and hopes that something in his expression will compel Her to face what She has done.
It bubbles up from somewhere deep in him, unbidden, and Kravitz resists for the smallest fraction of a breath, before he allows it to consume him.
Taako, Taako, Taako, Taako.
Taako will miss him, he’s sure, when he hears what came of this. When he finds out, he will mourn, surely. But Kravitz has enough energy, enough presence of mind to hope that he will not hear of it for a long while yet. That somewhere, Taako is holding hope in his heart, that the news of Kravitz's fate will be slow to reach him, perhaps so slow that it will all be over before Taako has the chance to know grief.
That is Kravitz’s greatest regret. That he will never see Taako again, certainly, but more that Taako will have to suffer because of him.
Taako, and it’s a desperate thought, and Kravitz wonders what he wouldn’t do to see him again, one last time. His face, illuminated by candlelight - even a glimpse of his hair in the sun, of his spells -
Something flashes in the corner of his eye.
Strange that he looks away, so intent is he on staring down his one-time mother, but he does, a mindless reaction, and it only takes him a moment to spot, on the executioner’s hand, a ring.
Fourth finger, on his right hand, and it strikes him as odd – don’t the executioners wear gloves?
It's as though time slows, and Kravitz's mind with it, because it takes him far too long to recognize... he knows that ring. He’d know it anywhere, in a thousand years.
Taako, he thinks again, only now it means –
The floor drops out from under him and Kravitz goes down.
Kravitz keeps his eyes shut against the flickering candlelight, feels the hard stone floors beneath his knees, pressing, hard enough to hurt as he kneels before her Majesty's throne. He can feel the weight of her scepter as it presses against his shoulder, his head.
"Rise, Admiral," Her Majesty's voice caresses his ear like the friendly embrace of a winter's night. And Kravitz obeys, a swelling in his heart, turns to look at the assemblage before him, gathered in their many black cloaks and silvered jewelry, looking on in imperfect silence.
“This is Kravitz,” the Raven Queen says, and her voice booms in the room almost supernaturally, filling the corners. “Lay your eyes upon him and see that he is blessed among my people. He has shown himself worthy, has garnered my favor, and as such I have elevated him to power second only to my own. Look upon him, and see the face of one who will bring safety to the Astral Coast. So it is done.”
For a moment he indulges himself, dwells in the feeling of a hundred eyes upon him, relishes the clink of the medals pinned to the breast of his uniform, the way they catch the light of the candles lining the walls and the edges of the Queen’s dais.
And with a trembling heart and trembling hands, he takes his place beside the Raven Queen, standing at Her right hand.
There is a polite clapping, the sound of many gloved hands brought together, and then there erupts in the room the sound of instruments, and the assembly, taking off their black outer garments and handing them off to all manner of valets and servants, looks like a blooming garden as they begin to dance.
“Kravitz,” comes the Queen’s voice from next to him, and he immediately bows his head as She addresses him. “You have pleased me greatly. I expect that you shall continue to do so for many years."
“It is my greatest wish, my Queen,” he murmurs, and bows low, to kiss Her gloved hand.
“Go,” She says, and when he straightens she's smiling at him, a rare, cold thing. “Greet your guests. You will not have long to do so. Your ship leaves harbor at dawn, and I expect your crew to be fully prepared.”
This is news to Kravitz, but he keeps his expression schooled into a sort of impassive pleasantness as he thanks Her and descends from the dais onto the dance floor in measured steps. He is immediately swamped by people, shaking his hand and offering their congratulations, many of them genuine, many more of them with a twist in their smile that Kravitz knows all too well.
No matter. He is Admiral now. The Raven Queen has placed Her faith in him. They are inconsequential.
The evening spins away in bright, shimmering threads of many colors. Kravitz does not dance. He spends very little time in small talk with the many lords and ladies, the gentry that have been asked to a celebration and ceremony such as this, most of them involved in the Queen’s retinue in one way or another, whether it be in monetary support, or by their own hands, or by the contribution of their sons and daughters to Her service. He drinks the Queen’s wine, and talks with them, ignoring as best as he can their covetous looks and thinly veiled criticism.
It is something of a controversy, Kravitz being put into such a position of power now, as young as he is. He’s only been in the Raven Queen’s retinue for maybe… a decade? A criminally short time, in the eyes of many. His humble background, too, is unpopular among the wealthier of the retinue. The highborn families of the Astral City consider it an honor for their children to work for her Majesty, and many of them erroneously expect powerful positions to be given to them in a matter of years.
No one in the assembly could ever verbally disrespect Her choices, though, especially not with Her sitting above them even as they speak, watching the assembly with a practiced nonchalance. The moment one enters Her hall, they are on their very best behavior, and shall remain so for the duration of their stay.
So whisper as they might, not a one of them can touch Kravtiz. He is protected personally by his Queen and Goddess, and for his merit. He has nothing to fear, and even less to be ashamed of.
He spends the evening among the bright swirling crowd, soaking up their praise and suspicion like a sponge, and that evening he retires to his brand-new quarters in palace, said to be the finest next to Her own, with an adjacent office and sitting room the likes of which he has never seen. His bed will be the most comfortable he’s ever slept in, the thick mattress below and the thick blankets above and thick curtains surrounding him in silence and warmth.
It is there he finds a letter upon that very desk, stamped with Her seal.
His orders are inside.
To leave the Astral City the next day, and to take his ship out with its crew for the very first time, a patrol of the coast, an inaugural pseudo-voyage that he might become accustomed with the crew and with his new position. Routine, but Kravitz is already thrilled. It is everything he’s been waiting for, to be recognized as such by his Queen.
He goes to sleep with it on his mind, a sharp satisfaction settled into his bones, his lungs, his mind and his heart.
By the time the dawn hits the next morning, Kravitz is already on the deck of his own ship, his new pressed uniform with its silver brocade shining in the early light of the sun peeking over the horizon as the ship pulls smoothly away from the deck and Kravitz watches the Astral City drift away behind them. Her palace on the cliff’s edge, the slope of the city down to the water, the way the sun casts gold and orange light at the buildings in grayscale stone.
His crew works diligently on the deck, Kravitz having to give them few orders at all, as capable as they are. He simply stands at the rear of the ship, letting his men take them out and away from the city, admires the wide shadow cast by their massive black sails, and let the sun shine on his back until his home is far out of sight and nothing surrounds them but ocean.
Kravitz breathes in deep, the cool morning air of the sea stinging his lungs, and he smiles.
Kravitz leaps from his seat and moves out onto the deck as quickly as he can manage without looking completely undignified, squinting from the brightness of the sun, an abrupt adjustment from the darkness of his cabin. His first mate stands on the deck, spyglass in hand, looking resolutely toward the horizon where Kravitz can just barely see the white sails of a ship.
The man hands him the spyglass immediately as Kravitz comes to stand beside him.
“Looks like our first voyage won’t be completely without excitement, sir.”
Kravitz raises the glass to his eye, finding the ship, and sure enough, there on the mast, a flag. Skull and Crossbones.
Pirates very obviously headed directly into the Raven Queen’s waters.
And now Kravitz smirks, a quiet excitement rolling through him. It won’t take him long to please his Queen. No more than a week to prove himself. And these pirates look to number only one ship, hardly even challenge Kravitz’s. It will take no more than half an afternoon to take them down.
Kravitz turns to his first mate.
“Set a course for the pirates’ ship. They will not trespass upon our Queen’s waters for long.”
True to Kravitz’s expectations, all the pirates are either captured or killed by the setting of the sun, their ruined ship, torn to pieces by the Raven Queen’s cannons, on its way to the bottom of the sea. It’s a decisive victory, and one that Kravitz knows will please Her.
He sends the captured pirates to the brig, all of them guaranteed to be put into the Stockade when he returns to the Astral City. But Her Majesty ordered a month-long tour of the coast, and who is Kravitz to deny Her? Three weeks in the brig will do the survivors some good, allow them to consider their choices to live a life of dishonesty and crime, and if they don’t have the food or water to support the extra passengers, well, that’s not really his problem, now is it?
He sleeps well that night.
By the time he returns to the Astral City at the end of the month, his crew has handily destroyed two more pirate ships, the brig positively full of prisoners, and even more of their kind at the bottom of the ocean along with their useless ships.
He has sent no word back to the Astral City all the long while, partially out of convenience – to dock and send it by land would be take time, and why should he send a letter by sea when his ships are all in use? But even beyond that, Kravitz must admit an element of spite that motivates his actions. When he finally docks, it’s no surprise that his fellow captains and the rest of the retinue, those who have looked down on him for years, are shocked at the parade of enemies of Her Majesty that are led through the streets of the Astral City in chains to face Her judgement.
He gives his report to Her in person. And she raises two eyebrows when he reports to her the number of captives they took. Which is… unprecedented.
He cannot overstate his pride.
And thus it continues. The months in Her retinue are long, and the work is hard. Her standards are high, and to satisfy them, Kravitz must be ruthless. But his conviction never falters. She is omnipotent. She is the avenging force of Justice, and Kravitz Her hand. She will keep the kingdom free, and for Kravitz to do her bidding is the greatest honor on this earth.
He would do no less for his Mother.
Kravitz hunts, and Kravitz kills. Kravitz gives orders and watches as the kingdom is made safe.
And when he lies in bed at night, he thinks to himself that surely…
This must be what happiness is.