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Hanoi Tigers

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My husband stands in tailored trousers and Italian shoes, his bespoke shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He holds the sword with a practiced nonchalance as I approach the block, trembling, virginal shift so insufficient against the raw coastal cold.

“Such a disappointment,” he says, and it is almost with despair. “I had high hopes for you. But now; come. To your martyrdom.”

There is nothing I can do but delay, delay: I knew, had seen from the high window that horse and rider were coming. I had seen the skirts hitched high, seen the wild mane of hair, pale as a dawn and bright as fresh snow wild in the wind.

My sister was coming.

I dare to believe that I can hear the pounding hooves tear along the closing causeway.

“Come, you insubstantial thing. I haven’t all day.”

The sword glints in my husband’s hand, and I shudder, unbidden images of my blood and flesh so soon rendered rising. Without thinking, I touch the ruby choker about my throat. That precursor, that omen: I should have known the day he first wound it about my soft, pulsing neck.

I have been my own undoing.

I cast a desperate glance to my lover. His eyes still remain – for now. They are as wide as the sea and as helpless as the bird at its mercy as he watches me slowly, oh so slowly, approach the block. I realise, with a pulsating hysteria, that he will have to watch me die. Watch my blood spill.

Unless –

A distant whinny, perhaps.

Hooves on the stone.

My husband almost rolls his eyes, striding forward, grasping my arm and leads me as a pig to slaughter.

“Must you dawdle more? Leave the boy. He shall be dealt with in good time, I assure you. A less exalted instrument, of course, shall be taken to him – and not to his neck, I can assure you.”

I struggle, pull against his grip – but what use? His hand is iron, a shackle itself, and the cuts on my feet make each step a stumble.

But if she is not yet here… the horse may have fallen, have taken a false step, plunged into the roar of the sea…

My husband lays my cheek against the stone. It is cold and unrelenting, and I fell it seep into my skin, into my bones, into each plane of my face too early – too early yet to be a death-mask –

I cannot see my lover now. I feel his eyes on me, and on the gate that stands now in direct sight, on its side and still, God help us, closed.

My husband draws my hair aside in a thick rope, as he had done once before, and seems to speak to himself with an odd tenderness.

“Such a pretty neck.”

I close my eyes. I do not know when the blade will fall.

The soft brush of his lips on the back of my neck send a shiver down my spine and sweat down my forehead, the anticipation of the cold, ceremonial steel too much, making every moment agony, each breath of wind or footstep on stone a vast spasm of feeling.

Then the cleaving of the air before that heavy blade.

Then –

Then the unholy hush of the courtyard shatters as she – oh she – bursts through the gates left unlocked by servants, horse rearing, screaming like Bucephalus, her hair a white mane, blown out by the sea wind, skirts tucked round her waist and legs exposed to the thigh, the breaking waves a frame behind her, one hand on the reins and the other holding our father’s pistol.

My husband, impotent at the last, stands slack-jawed for a moment, sword still raised.

He roars, but before the blade can fall, my sister takes aim and puts a single, irrevocable bullet through his head.

Silence.

My sister holds me, and frees my lover. She cries and takes no heed of my husband’s still bleeding corpse.

When the police came, much later, I took the key from my husband’s belt without a shudder. I handed it to them and told very simply the directions to the bloody chamber; my husband’s den of iniquity.

We did not hear from them again.

We live a quiet life, the three of us. It has not the glamour nor the impress of my brief, violent time as aristocracy: most of the money I inherited from my late husband (dirty money, I could not help but feel) I gave away, though felt justified in turning the manor itself into an orphanage. I pray the children there are not haunted by the ghosts of wives and girls my sister and her avenging pistol could not save.

As for my lover’s eyes, they retain their lustre, the promise of a blinding ending with my husband’s death. Sometimes, I feel ashamed to meet them, the memories of that time running anew.

But I know, as he takes my face in his hands, that his eyes should bring no shame: he sees me clearly with his heart.