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The Blood of Whisperers (Book 1 Vengeance Trilogy)
They call him the Usurper.
A man of common blood sits upon the throne. By his command the last emperor was executed, but now the empire is on the brink of war.
Vengeance is coming.
Endymion is an Empath. He was born with the ability to feel another’s emotions and reach inside their hearts for their deepest secrets. Often despised he lives a nomadic existence, but when he finds himself imprisoned for sorcery and facing death, it is his past that will condemn him. Born Prince Takehiko Otako, the only surviving son of the True Emperor, Endymion is already caught in the brewing storm. Fast losing control of his Empathy he seeks revenge against the man who betrayed him, but for Endymion the truth will come too late.
The fight for the Crimson Throne has begun.
And with the fall of the axe comes change
With its sharpened edge, gods perish
Long live Emperor Kin
Chapter 1 – Endymion
We are judged. That is what the Sixth Law says. It says the gods are always watching. That they can hear the whisper of our souls.
‘Are they watching me now?’ I asked whenever Jian stopped the wagon for me to piss.
‘They’ll be watching me bang your head into a tree if you don’t stop asking.’
‘Is it wrong to be curious?’
‘It is to be a nuisance. Be quick, Endymion, or we won’t make it to the next town before nightfall.’
Brother Jian knew all the gods by name. With the reins held slack he would speak of them often. Of Yuki the Courageous, patron of warriors; of Kinshu the Temperate, who had never shown anger; and Dokei, the god of family and blood.
‘Dokei can read a man’s true name in his heart. He knows where we belong.’
‘And where do I belong?’ I said, stroking the fletching of a loose arrow while the road disappeared beneath us.
Jian tilted the set of his woven hat to ward off the sun. Sweat was already covering the back of his neck. ‘With me, Endymion,’ he said. ‘Where else?’
I slotted the arrow into my quiver, my body moving with the wagon as it bounced along the uneven road. ‘I’ve told you before, I would make a very poor priest.’
‘Being a man of the gods is something to aspire to,’ he said, glaring ahead at the ox’s rump. ‘It is not something you become merely by having a natural turn for virtue. Which is good, because you don’t have any.’
‘Not any? That’s disappointing. What have you been teaching me all these years?’
‘Sometimes I ask myself the same question.’
The road ran ahead, shimmering heat rising from the stones. I had forgotten how hot and humid a Kisian summer could get. The air was thick with the buzz of insects, and my linen robe had long since stuck to my skin.
It had been six years, but however long one might live beyond the border, a man born of Kisia could never truly leave. We belonged to the empire.
‘If I am so lacking in virtue you should be glad to be rid of me,’ I said. ‘You can find yourself a novice to travel with too, then you won’t be lonely.’
‘I’ll take you to Kokoro first.’
‘Meeting your brother won’t make me change my mind. I’m not cut out for helping people.’
‘He isn’t my brother.’
‘You had the same mother and you had the same father, what else should I call him?’
Jian shot me a withering look. ‘You know very well that when a man takes the Oath of Word he gives up his family. That is why we travel. We have no family. You will call him Father Kokoro.’ For a long moment he held my gaze, then with a snort Jian turned away, throwing up his hands. ‘Why do I listen to you?’ he said. ‘You know all of this. Such joy you take in making a game of me.’
‘I have lived with you for as long as I can remember. Don’t you think it’s time you stopped treating me like a child?’
‘Perhaps I might, if you stopped acting like one. Be serious for a moment, Endymion, and swear to me you will behave tonight. If you have even a shred of affection for me you won’t embarrass me in front of Kokoro.’
His disappointment was tangible, a sour tang upon the air. I took up the water skin from between my feet and drank deeply. The water was hot and far from refreshing, but anything was better than seeing Jian’s face.
‘Use it, Endymion,’ he said when I did not answer. ‘Help people. The gods say that a man is made the way he is for a purpose, and to seek to alter that is–’
‘Then let the gods live a day in my skin before they judge me.’
I turned away, determined to say no more.
The ox plodded on, the desultory rattle of the wagon our constant companion. Only those with good reason to travel would brave the heat, which meant the road had been empty since noon. It had been a lonely journey from Kogahaera, but the closer we came to the sister cities the more villages I saw, a few tucked away in the fold of every hill. And now, in the distance, the Willow Road bisected fields of green and gold.
While I sat staring at the tiny travellers, I caught the sound of hoof beats on the road behind. I thought nothing of it until galloping thunder split the sultry air. Jian looked back, trying to see around the bulk of the wagon, its bright paint long since faded and chipped. He drew his head back, already tugging on the reins, but it was too late to turn. A line of riders galloped past, squeezing into single file at the edge of the road, hooves kicking up dry clumps of grass. Crimson sashes flew out behind them, gold glinting in the sun as the group of black stallions reformed their lines on the open road ahead.
I coughed, dry dust tickling my throat. More Imperial Guards. We had seen many these last few days, though there was something different about this group, something striking. Each horse perfectly matched its fellows – sleek and black, their tails whipping out behind them like the ponytails of their riders.
The last rider slowed as he passed, turning his skittering mount. Glaring at us, he dragged the reins around, dug in his heels and urged the horse after his companions.
‘What was that for?’ I asked, watching the group disappear into their own dust.
‘A warning, I think. We should have moved out of their way.’
‘They didn’t ring us off. Surely we would have heard the bell.’
Jian shrugged, prodding the ox to keep on. ‘You know how bad my hearing is.’
‘But mine isn’t.’
He looked at me then, and I felt the apology he didn’t speak. ‘You don’t hear anything, Endymion. You don’t see and you don’t feel. You are remarkably selfish for what you are.’
‘And what would you know?’
My words sounded sulky.
‘Nothing of course,’ Jian returned. ‘Because you never tell me anything.’
I retreated to the roof of the wagon after that, and for the rest of the afternoon we travelled in silence.
I had been brought to Jian as a child, too young to remember more than a few closely held memories of my previous guardian. Jian was a priest, but despite the censure of his brethren, he had taken me in. He had treated me as his own; he had fed me and educated me, and kept his disappointment to himself when I showed little aptitude for learning. He had even sold his horse, Tsuyoi, and purchased an ox to pull the wagon, because I had made the horse nervous.
And yet for all his kindness, I had never been able to understand Jian, or he me.
The afternoon shadows lengthened, and not far past Hoturi we joined the Willow Road. No longer alone, we shared the stones with other carts and riders and trains of laden mules, their tail bells jingling. It brought a listless merriment to the day, only adding to the lassitude that clung to me in the sticky heat. My head wilted, just like the red and yellow wildflowers that ran in patches beside the road.
From the roof of the wagon, I watched the sun begin to set, gilding the sharp, craggy slopes of the Kuro Mountains. They framed Kisia, their distant outline a work of art upon the misted sky. Few had time to admire it. The gates of Shimai would close at dusk and remain so until dawn, at least to any common man.
Beside us a traveller set his horse to a trot. Other horsemen followed his lead and a merchant prodded his mules, a peal of bells splitting the air. Soon they all moved ahead and Jian, muttering under his breath, urged the ox on.
Cicadas began their evening call. Clouds of mayflies swarmed above the ditch-water. We were leaving the hills for the humid lowlands, where the Tzitzi River sluggishly bisected the empire. Here it split Shimai in two, a dark ribbon cutting through its walls, only to meander out unchanged. Shimai, the second largest city in Kisia, a shadowed nest of life waiting at the edge of The Plains.
Jian had said I didn’t feel, but he was wrong. I could feel the city now; feel the weight of so many people drawing my attention, stretching it taut like an apple sinking a canvas awning. I wanted to stop, to turn around, but step after heavy step the ox walked on.
Leaving the thinning mountain groves behind, the road levelled onto the plain. Long ago the ground around the city had been cleared, the lack of vegetation making the soil marshy. Some attempt had been made to fence it off, but the passage of many feet had churned the earth to a mess of baking mud.
From this sodden ground the gatehouse rose, a few tiles missing from its gabled roof like a toothless grin. Its painted gates were still open, and against the darkening sky crimson flags snapped. The emperor was in residence. Our journey had not been wasted.
‘I was afraid we would miss them,’ Jian said, giving voice to his thoughts for the first time in hours. ‘They say Kin never stays anywhere for long.’
‘Will we get to see the emperor?’
‘No one sees the emperor.’
A merchant was at the gate, a trio of guards gathered to inspect his cargo. There was some gesticulation, papers changed hands, and the man was waved in.
‘They’re being careful,’ Jian said. ‘You had better get down here. They might take exception to me bringing a monkey into the city with me.’
With an effort, I prised my fingers from the edge of the roof and climbed down beside Jian. The sum of the city’s souls began to weigh upon me.
‘Try to relax,’ Jian whispered. ‘And have your papers ready.’
I took a deep breath and let it out as Jian slowed the cart, bringing the ox to a halt in front of the gate. The guards were waiting.
The man held out his hand and I dropped my papers into it. He was standing too close. Trying not to breathe him in, I stared at the row of gold fasteners along his shoulder, each moulded into the long dragon of Emperor Kin Ts’ai.
‘Endymion?’ the man said.
‘A Chiltaen name,’ Jian returned, leaning a little across me to address the guard.
‘Then he’ll have to stay in the enclave.’
‘Chiltaen by name but not by birth, Captain, as the papers say.’
The captain grunted. On the other side of the wagon Jian’s papers were handed back to him. ‘Have you been here before, Brother?’ the other guard asked. ‘I can provide you with directions to Sanctuary Square.’
‘Yes, I have been here before,’ Jian said. ‘Thank you. On the north bank not far from the bridge?’
The man nodded and stepped back. ‘We’ll search your wagon now.’
‘Am I suspected of something?’
‘His Imperial Majesty is in residence. We cannot be too careful.’
Beside me, the captain was still frowning at my crumpled papers. He let out a discontented huff, his breath sour. ‘You’re not a novice.’
‘No, Captain, he is not.’
‘Let the boy answer for himself,’ the captain snapped. ‘You are not a novice, boy?’
‘No.’ I forced the word out through dry lips, wishing he would step back, that he would take his weight away from me.
‘Yet you travel with a priest?’
The wagon rocked, footsteps sounding from inside. A step, a pause, then the murmur of voices.
‘I am an orphan.’
‘We have come to Shimai so he might take the oath and become my novice.’
The captain glared at Jian. ‘I don’t like the boy’s papers.’
‘They are as the governor made them.’
He looked back at the document, running his fingers over the seal and feeling the paper. I had always carried the same papers, yet this was not the first time they had been questioned.
The others returned from their inspection. They exchanged nods and the captain pursed his lips, his troubles seeping off him like a stench. He looked at me. He looked at Jian. He looked down at the papers, and, licking his fingers, pinched the corner. Long seconds went by. Behind him the others prepared to close the gate. The last of the light was fading fast.
A gong sounded, its deep tone reverberating over the city. Upon the walls a guard rehung the striker, the last light forming a halo about his head.
‘Very well, go through,’ the captain said. ‘But if you make trouble you won’t easily be forgotten. The streets around the palace are closed and a curfew will be enforced before midnight. Enjoy your stay in Shimai.’
He handed back my papers and stepped away, leaving the road open. Jian took up the reins. I could feel his relief, could taste it on my tongue as the heavy wagon rolled into the city.
With a groan the gates closed behind us.
It was my first visit to Shimai, but in the fading light it looked much like every other city. Shopkeepers were closing their shutters and bolting their doors while late arrivals hunted for lodgings. Street merchants filled the dusk, stalking citizens with their produce, their food trailing mouth-watering odours and their hands held out for coins. A boy was lighting a string of lanterns overhead. Perched like a sparrow upon the eave, he held the tinder between his teeth, a bag of candles hanging from his waist. The city bustled around me, yet I could feel uneasiness. People were going from place to place with quick steps, eyes turned warily toward the emperor’s soldiers on every corner.
Jian glanced at me. ‘How are you holding up?’
‘I’m fine,’ I lied. ‘Just hungry.’
‘We can eat as soon as we stop. There’s some left over smoked fish and yellow beans.’
‘If we’re lucky.’
He might have said more, but was forced to mind the road. It was no easy task to avoid the slew of carts and palanquins clogging the streets; these haughty citizens having no time to spare for a shabby prayer wagon.
I closed my eyes, trying not to let my senses wander. Beneath me the wagon juddered along the cobbled street before turning downhill toward the river. The smell was insidious. Too long it had been without rain, its stagnant water turning to dross.
The wagon slowed. Jian grunted as he navigated a sharp turn and some of the noise faded away.
‘We’re here,’ Jian said. ‘I think the walls have grown taller. You would think they were ashamed of us.’
He was right. The walls that encircled Sanctuary Square were nearly as grand as the city walls, except these were covered in a rambling wisteria that lent colour to the space. There was a well and the usual bags of grain, but nothing else to make priests feel welcome. At the other end of the square sat another wagon, shabby brown with once ornate designs faded upon its panels.
Leaving me to tend the ox and gather the meal, Brother Jian went across the square. A lantern hung from the brown wagon’s spar, the only light in this, the city’s blackest hole.
When he returned we ate in silence, Jian not giving in to his urge for speech until our bowls were empty. ‘Brother Catuxi has come from the north,’ he said then. ‘He stopped over in Risian a few nights back.’
I felt tired, constricted into a body smaller than I had woken with, every bone aching with the weight of so many souls.
‘He says there has been trouble in the last few weeks, guards clashing with the townsfolk.’
‘That drifter was right.’
‘War? That’s unlikely. Emperor Kin has held the throne too long.’
I laid my head on my arm.
‘Are you all right?’ Jian said. ‘Why don’t you lie down. We can’t go for a few hours yet.’
I must have done so, must have laid down on the sleeping mat, because I woke amid silence. Above me Jian’s face was draped in shadow.
‘They’ve rung the first curfew warning,’ he whispered. ‘It’s time to go.’
My head felt clearer and I got to my feet, shaking away the last dregs of sleep. Jian handed me a cool cloth. While he moved through the wagon, I washed my face and hands, catching the silk band tied around my left wrist. It was growing tattered and was stained with blots of ink, but to take it off was unthinkable.
Jian was at the door. ‘Brother Catuxi has put out his lantern,’ he said, peering out at the other wagon. ‘We should go before the second warning sounds.’
The heat had not abated. Stepping into the night, I paused only to slide my feet into my reed sandals, the wind whipping at the skirt of my robe. Caught between these walls every breath was saturated with the sweetness of rotting petals, the sounds of the distant city like ghostly laughter on the air.
A gong sounded. Other gongs and bells took up the call, echoing around the city. The second curfew warning.
‘We must go now,’ Jian said, moving more quickly than his usual pious appearance allowed.
‘Do we have far to go?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘A house near the palace. I know the street.’
Together we stepped out into the city. I had expected the worst, but my curse was kinder at night. The sleeping mind is a lazy thing, most thoughts barely reaching the edge of the pillow. Mothers might listen for the sounds of sleeping children and old soldiers never slept easy, but still my curse worked the same, spreading my consciousness to thieve from every mind it found. Each step through the nest of close houses brought something new – the chill of a night terror, a joy that quickened my pulse, and again and again the pleasant lethargy of people so deeply asleep they did not dream. Sometimes I tried to imagine what true peace felt like. The closest I ever came was in solitude, but even then there were lingering shadows, traces of a world increasingly afraid.
The city was almost deserted, street urchins and guards its only inhabitants. The guards eyed us doubtfully – a priest about his business was not to be stopped lightly, yet the final curfew would soon be called. Jian smiled at them and walked on full of purpose, his hands clasped upon the knot of his white sash.
Soon the palace was ahead and Jian turned into a street lined with houses, each one pressed up against its neighbour. It was dark but for a single string of lanterns, yet Jian seemed to know where he was going, quick steps taking him across the road to a yellow door. He tapped on the heavy wood, and in the silence the knock echoed loudly.
‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ I asked.
‘Shh,’ he hissed.
A soft footfall sounded beyond. The door opened just a crack, the smell of salted fish breathed into our faces. ‘Who’s there?’
‘My name is Brother Jian.’
With a grunt from the man, the door swung wide, admitting us into a low hallway lined with screens. ‘The other is here,’ the man said, jerking his head toward a doorway. ‘In there.’
He went away on the words, taking his lantern with him. Left in darkness, Jian hesitated, barely a step inside the door.
Out in the city the last gong sounded.
‘Too long,’ Jian muttered. ‘Bah!’ He scowled, and pulling himself tall, went to the door.
The small room beyond owned a single inhabitant, a man kneeling at a narrow table, eyes fixed on the opposite wall. Jian’s brother. I could not have mistaken him. From the flat forehead to the square jaw; the trappings of the priest only made the likeness more obvious.
‘Good evening, Jian,’ Kokoro said, making the effort to rise. ‘You have grown old.’
‘I could say the same of you. More so.’
Jian was right. The difference in age was marked, although it was possible Kokoro looked older than he was – his face lined by troubles, not years. His eyes had a sharp, glittering look as he turned them to me. ‘And this is Endymion, I presume.’
I bowed, showing the respect his position demanded, mindful of Jian’s plea. ‘Father Kokoro,’ I said.
‘I expected you last night.’
‘We were detained,’ Jian said. ‘We have been having more and more trouble with Endymion’s papers.’
‘That,’ Kokoro said, resuming his place at the table, ‘is because they are forged.’
I stared at him. ‘Forged?’
Taking the offered place at the table, Jian shot me a warning look. ‘That has never been a problem before, Kokoro.’
‘That’s because checking papers is no longer merely a task to keep the gate guards busy. Surely you have noticed the tone of the empire has changed.’
‘We have been in Chiltae for six years.’
‘Then you should have stayed there.’ Kokoro looked up at me with a smile, and indicated a place at the table. ‘Do join us, Endymion. You may as well, since I believe it is to talk about you that I have been summoned.’
‘I don’t want to be a priest.’
Father Kokoro’s greying brows shot up. ‘You don’t want to be a priest?’
‘That is a pity.’
‘Endymion,’ Jian warned.
‘No, Jian. I want to hear what he has to say. Please, Endymion, sit down.’
I knelt upon the faded silk cushion beside Jian, the throb of his mortification like an external heartbeat. Kokoro exuded no such emotion, just sat calmly, his expression one of faint interest.
‘Tell me why you do not wish to be a priest, Endymion?’
How could I put it into words this man might understand? ‘I do not think I was made to help people.’
‘And what were you made to do?’
‘To wander,’ I said.
Kokoro leaned forward. ‘How about to steal and to hurt? I am well aware of what you are, Endymion. Your father was an Empath, too.’
Breath caught in my throat. ‘You know? You knew my father?’
Kokoro looked at Jian. ‘Why did you bring him to me?’
‘I want to tell him. If he will not stay with me then he needs to know who he is. He needs to know who his father was.’
The older man reached across the table and gripped Jian’s clasped hands. ‘Do you have a death wish? Do you not remember what Nyraek told you? He is not a normal boy.’
‘He is harmless. He suffers under a great burden, but that is far from his fault.’
‘You’re a fool. It may not be his fault that he was born an Empath, but he is far from harmless.’
‘I’m right here!’ I snapped. ‘Would you prefer I left so you can talk about me in peace?’
‘Infinitely,’ Kokoro said.
Jian shook his head. ‘No, stay. You are old enough to know.’
‘No. You are of an age to be more dangerous than ever!’ Scowling, Father Kokoro looked even older, his face criss-crossed like crumpled parchment.
Someone cleared their throat. Our host stood waiting on the threshold, a tray in his hands. Receiving a nod from Kokoro, he entered and began to serve the meal. Jian and I never ate what the nobles called their midnight meal, and I stared hard at the bowl of sugared beans placed in front of me. Tea was poured, but it was not ordinary tea. The liquid that flowed from the earthen spout was reddish-brown, its aroma sweet. Roasted tea. It was a delicacy I had tasted no more than twice in my life, our meals more often about sustenance than elegance.
Waiting for the man to finish, Kokoro picked up a bean and crunched it between his teeth. I had no appetite. All I could taste was Jian’s ill-concealed fury.
Our host departed and I pushed the bowl away. ‘Who is Nyraek?’ I asked.
Kokoro ate another bean, but he nodded at Jian. ‘You may answer that. Any book might tell him.’
Turning his shoulder to his brother, Jian addressed me. ‘Do you remember the night you were brought to me?’
‘It was raining.’
‘Yes. Do you remember the man who brought you?’
I put a hand to my neck, drawing free a silver pendant that hung beneath my robes. All I had was a single memory. A careworn man dressed in a dark travelling cloak, raindrops shimmering in his hair. He had protected me from the rain as best he could, holding me close on the steaming horse. When I closed my eyes I could still remember his smell – a mixture of sweat, blood and fine jasmine oil.
‘His name was Lord Nyraek Laroth. He was the Fifth Count of Esvar and worked for a time in service to Emperor Lan. Some–’
‘You should not wear that here,’ Kokoro said, eyes locked to the pendant. ‘It doesn’t mean what it used to.’
‘You interrupt me, brother.’
‘With good reason.’
I tucked the necklace back beneath my robes. ‘Why? What does it mean?’
‘It is called the Eye of Vice and it will do you no favours in Kisia.’ Kokoro sipped his tea. ‘A group of criminals called the Vices use it as their calling card.’
‘We stray from the point,’ Jian said.
‘A point upon which we shall not agree. Go back to Chiltae. Endymion, you will take the oath and give up all family ties to become a man of the gods. For your own good, I suggest you stay away from Kisia.’
Another bean crunched between his teeth, his jaw shifting as he ground each grain of sugar. I watched him closely, wondering if the lines on his face spoke some message his emotions failed to convey.
Kokoro lifted his brows. ‘Trying to read me, Endymion? I know you can lift my emotions out of the air, but I am not one to wear my heart on my sleeve.’
‘I want you to take him to see the minister.’
Kokoro turned his attention back to his brother. ‘I do not think you can hear what you are saying, Jian. Shall I call for a girl to clear out your ears?’
‘I know perfectly well what I’m saying. I have had Endymion with me for sixteen years, and you can be sure I know him better than you. He is no threat. Organise a meeting with the minister.’
‘Lord Darius Laroth does not know Endymion exists,’ Kokoro said. ‘And that is the way it will stay.’
Jian shrank back. I did not need to feel his disquiet to know something was wrong. ‘He doesn’t know?’
A pause, terrible in its silence. Kokoro glanced up and found me watching him. There was a stab of discomfort. ‘We have left Endymion out of the conversation again, Jian. Allow me to explain that Lord Darius Laroth is Emperor Kin’s right hand man. He is also Lord Nyraek Laroth’s son, which is undoubtedly why Jian thinks you ought to meet him.’
Lord Darius Laroth. The name tingled on my tongue.
Kokoro picked up his teacup; his fingers trembled.
‘Drink up your tea, Endymion, and we will be on our way.’ Jian’s tone was jovial, but there was trouble on the air. The men did not look at one another.
‘Why are we leaving?’ I asked, my tea untouched.
‘Because we have made a pointless journey. We will return to Chiltae.’
‘No. I want to know who my father was.’
Kokoro reached for another bean. I wanted to slap it out of his hand, but I controlled the urge and glared back at him. ‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘And I will take the oath and go back to Chiltae.’
‘If only I could believe that.’
‘It is not important, Endymion,’ Jian said. ‘When you take the oath you will have no family. Sign us a curfew pass, brother, and we will leave.’
No family. But it was a lie. Nothing could change the blood that ran through our veins. Dokei would always be able to read the truth writ large upon our flesh.
‘I’m afraid I cannot do that,’ Kokoro said. ‘I gave my word and I will not break it so lightly.’
His hand was on the table, the distance between us nothing. There was no guarantee I would find what I wanted, but I would never have another chance.
I gripped his wrist. Kokoro flinched, but I forced the connection, forced my Empathy through his dry skin. Fear filled my heart. It turned my stomach sick as though every vein ran with its poison, and there in his mind’s eye, I could see myself.
Father Kokoro snatched his hand away. ‘You have no idea what you’re doing,’ he said, his breath coming fast.
‘You’re afraid of me.’
‘By the gods I am and I have good reason.’ He looked toward his brother, half risen from the table. ‘I’m sorry, Jian, but I have no choice.’
‘Sorry for what? Don’t do anything stupid, Kokoro.’
‘I’m afraid it was you who did that. You should never have brought him here. Guards!’
Heavy footsteps echoed through the house, my heartbeat rising to their tempo. Spilling through the narrow door came a dozen guards, each with their hand upon their sword, grim expressions promising no pity.
‘Take the boy,’ Kokoro said. ‘Endymion, you are under arrest. You are a traitor to the great Emperor Kin, first of his name, and to the Imperial Expanse of Kisia for the practice of sorcery. You will be executed for your crimes and your body returned to the soil from which it came, the mercy of the gods willing.’
I heard the words but could not move, could not speak. The punishment for sorcery was burning. There was no other way to release the demon.
A man grabbed my arm, pulling me roughly to my feet.
‘Kokoro, you can’t do this!’
‘I must,’ Kokoro said. ‘Bind his hands and do not touch his skin. I’m sorry, brother.’
Fingers closed around my wrist, but I snatched my hand away, backing across the floor. Three guards followed. I could hear Jian pleading. ‘Just let us go, Kokoro. We will leave. You will never see us again.’
Another step brought me up against the wall, the wood rough and old. One of the guards unclipped his scabbard from his belt but kept his sword sheathed. ‘Come on, boy,’ he said. ‘Fighting us isn’t going to end well.’
Breathing hard, I lifted my hands to strike – the same hands they would tie to the stake before they lit the fire.
The man lunged, gripping my wrist and wrenching me around. The butt of his scabbard slammed into my back. I hit the wall, fighting for breath. Air would not come. The scabbard pinned me like a bug. Sucking hard, I tried to focus. Someone grabbed my arm and I flailed, hoping to find skin, but they held me fast.
Men screamed as they burned.
A rope slid up my arms, tightening around my elbows. Another around my wrists.
When the flames died there would be nothing left of me but bones and ash.
‘May the gods judge me as they judge us all.’