He was an only child and his parents wept when the men in golden masks came, tried to hold him close with shaking hands even as he was yanked away.
“Please,” they cried, “you can’t,” and the man in front drew his sword and told them it was Whitecliff or a cut throat, and didn’t they love their son?
“He’s been Chosen,” the man said. “You know what that means. Either we take him, or the Outsider does.”
The blade was very cold on his neck, and the cold feeling persisted well after his parents had returned to the house and the man sheathed his sword and they led him down the path towards the wagon. There were other boys there, young like he was and skinny too, with wide frightened eyes and scuffed knees. They ate the apples and hard cheese that were handed to them in silence.
No one cried.
No one spoke.
They picked up three other boys that day, and he never learned their names.
That season, he was one of only five to survive the Trials of Aptitude. More than twenty started, and even now, years later, he still jerks awake with the memory of screams ringing in his ears. And it’s odd, because…
Because they never screamed. They just…waited, waited for the blades with hollow eyes and dull faces, and the only sound had been the shriek of the gulls wheeling overhead and the soft thud of bodies hitting the sand.
One after the next.
He never saw his parents again.
During his training, he was too afraid to seek them out. Other boys tried; the punishment that inevitably followed left him with nightmares, and even though he wrote them letters in his weaker moments he always burned them later. As he grew older, he forced down the desire until he could barely remember it was there at all.
Restrict an errant mind, went the recitation, before it becomes fractious and divided.
He dreamed of hollow-eyed boys in the wagon and his parents’ tears, he dreamed of little bodies hitting the sand (they didn’t scream), and during his waking hours he prayed and he prayed and he prayed, until his throat was raw and his knees ached; he prayed, and he ground bone charms into dust, and he prayed, and he killed a man they named a witch, and he prayed, and he—
He hid behind a golden mask.
He set the hounds on fleeing civilians.
He recited the Strictures to block out the dreams, and he prayed, he prayed, he prayed.
Until the day came when they went from house to house, in the cities, in the fields, ripped frightened children from the hands of their wailing parents and in his mind’s eye he saw little bodies crumpling to the sand, one by one, not making a sound—
When he came back to himself, the children were watching him warily and his hands were tacky with blood. Formerly bone-dry earth was now muddy with deep dark red, and the crumpled bodies were larger. Wore masks. He tore his own free and dropped it to the blood-soaked earth, wondered bleakly how long it would take for them to find him.
One of the boys stepped forward. Pale and gangly, all elbows. “What do we do now?”
The man passed a shaking hand over his face. Stink of wet copper and salt on his gloved fingers. “You can’t go home,” he said at last. “That’s the first place they’ll look. You have to leave Gristol. Never come back.”
The boy looked him straight in the eye. “You did this,” he said, furious and scared and so, so grateful. “You did this, so you help us.”
And so they dragged the corpses into a hollow and kicked fresh dirt over the bloody earth. It took them two days to reach the port on the coast, and when he couldn’t find a captain willing to give twelve children passage he found a way to smuggle them onto a ship instead. He was glad to see them alive, glad to see them on their way, but mostly he just felt numb and hollow. Sick with the knowledge that he had condemned their families to death even as he secured their freedom.
There was a man in gray, stern-faced and severe, waiting at the docks when he returned. The man held a blade in one hand, and he was flanked by men with tattoos and dark leathers.
“How interesting,” the man said. “A bloodied Overseer, creeping away from my ship after stashing a small pack of children there. Tell me – over which of the Seven Strictures should I slice out your windpipe? Roving Feet, perhaps? Restless Hands? I feel obliged to warn you that if you answer Wanton Flesh, I won’t bother to kill you quickly.” The flash of a smile, small and cruel and merciless. “Even I have standards.”
The point of the blade touched the overseer’s throat (it was cold, so cold and so familiar, and he was no longer an overseer, not anymore), and he closed his eyes.
Leaned into it.
And the inside of his mind went mercifully silent.
“The Seventh Stricture,” he said finally. “An Errant Mind.”
The sword drew back. “Is that so.”
“’Restrict an errant mind—‘” The words hurt as he forced them out, salt-bitter like seawater. “’--before it becomes fractious and divided. Can two enemies occupy the same body? No. For the first will direct it one way and the second another, until they stumble into a ditch. Likewise, two contrary thoughts cannot long abide in a man's mind, or….’”
He choked, unable to continue. Or he will become weak-willed and subject to any heresy. The words turned to ashes in his mouth.
The man with the sword cocked his head. “Tell me, Overseer,” he said, and his eyes glittered oddly and his voice was very soft. “Whose blood are you wearing?”
The overseer shook his head. The man obviously knew; he didn’t need to say it.
That smile again. “When they first took you,” the man said. “How old were you?”
“And how many were in your cohort?”
“And how many survived?”
The overseer’s throat worked, and he finally forced out the word, “…five.”
The man circled him slowly, boots creaking on the sodden wood of the dock. The overseer had seen an illustration once in a book, massive saw-toothed fish surrounding a harpooned whale. Blood in the water. The ocean churned into pink froth.
The man’s expression reminded him of those fish. Hungry.
“Five,” the man said. “I see.”
He stopped. Eyes shadowed, a strange trace of humor there. He leaned in and pitched his voice low.
“Poor little Overseer,” he said. “It must be so loud inside your head.”
(--he’d spent so many nights praying, so many nights and so many days, head bowed and knees scraping the stone floor and nothing ever answered, nothing ever answered, the world was empty and cold and absent of gods and demons both, and he was a man divided--)
A gloved hand on the back of his neck.
“How would you like,” the man said, “for it to be quiet?”
And the overseer whispered, “Please.”