The fireworks rocketed past the jagged remnants of the palace’s roof, soared above the razor wire, and then cascaded down behind the wall. The gunpowder boomed. The first four nights, my eyes had jerked to the remnants of the roof still clinging to charred rafters. I was sure the concussion would shake the last pieces lose, crushing me. But I had not been so lucky, and tonight I closed my eyes to shut out the lights.
Huddled in the corner, Petrov shifted. I opened my eyes to see him struggling to pull the wool blanket tight against the snow. Only two weeks before, the gold-rimmed dome of the palace’s great hall had cast a yellow tinge on the empire’s largest silk carpet. Now we sat on rubble and slush. The rebels who thought they could rule better than him had looted the gold.
“Are you awake, Jerov?” He asked.
“How could I not be?” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice. I had nothing but the highest regard for the man who had crushed the Charter Rebellion and held the islands together through the bread riots. I closed my eyes yet again, this time against the images of waves crashing over the torn and broken bodies our soldiers had hurled from the cliffs. The images grew still stronger with my eyes closed. There were reasons I was glad I had been Minister of the Finance and not a general.
“I was just thinking,” he went on, his voice quiet and shaky, “that the map to the caves where the desalination plant designs are kept surely burned with the rest of my office.”
“I have no doubt it did,” I assured him.
“You were always better at maps than me,” he continued. “Do you think you could sketch it?”
The last sketches I’d seen had been shoved in our face yesterday. The tall palace guard who usually whistled “The Mourners’ Revenge” laughed when he waved the cartoons of the rest of the royal family at us. Petrov’s wife, my sister, had been stripped naked, the artist exaggerating her breasts and lips absurdly. The first drawing showed her standing by the stocks. The second, with her innards strewn across the barren ground. The last, a flock of vultures vomiting after eating them. The guard had assured us the first two were true, and the last would have been if the rioters had left anything for the birds.
It was my fault. The rioting had increased when we lengthened the period of compulsory military service. Apparently we were supposed to somehow protect the islands without an army. We’d executed over two hundred of the rioters, plus their families, but it hadn’t stopped them. The rioting advanced until we heard them at the palace gates, and then the palace itself. Petrov had handed me his own knife and begged me to see to his family if it became necessary. Then he bolted out the door to command the guards, but the quaver in his voice made his intent clear.
I had raced up the steps to where my sister clutched the curtain overlooking the courtyard. I was no fool, nor was I naïve to the mob’s intent, but when she turned to me, her eyes begging protection, my hand froze. How could I slice her neck and watch the blood spurt like a common soldier’s?
Thankfully, Petrov’s voice pulled me from the memory. “The map, Jerov. Could you reconstruct it?”
I snorted. “You think they’d let us buy our lives with that?”
“Don’t call me a fool.” His voice was soft, quiet. I hadn’t called him a fool. I’d only thought it. “We’re the only ones who knew about the map, and they won’t be able to build any more desalination plants without the designs in the caves. When we die, the plants go with us.”
“Right,” I muttered, relishing our last revenge.
The night sky flashed blue and green for a moment, tainting the snow the same color. The boom came instants later.
He took a slow, ragged breath. It sounded hollow against the explosions and the cheers. “The aquifers will run dry in less than twenty years. They’ll need to be able to build more plants, and without knowing where the caves are, they won’t know how to design them.”
“If they didn’t kill us, we could keep producing water for them. Murdering swine.” It had been my own great grandfather who had sponsored the inventor and then suggested we maintain a monopoly on the plants for just this day. Why should the people have them if we were dead?
His dark outline turned to face me. He pulled his legs up, and the blanket around them. “They’ll never find that cave on their own.”
The blanket slipped from my own shoulders. Cold air slashed across my arms, but seconds passed before I noticed. “You can’t be serious. Not now. Not after all this.”
“This isn’t the people. The people wouldn’t turn against me. It’s heretics provoking them.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was it a greater cruelty to remind him of the crowd chanting for our deaths, or to let him go on with his delusions?
“Heretics that your own people wouldn’t even fight. And it wasn’t the heretics who did this.” I waved at the blackened beams and razor wire shadowing the sky.
Silence settled around us. Through the clouds, the hazy circles of the two moons stared down, cold and indifferent.
“Jerov,” he said at last, “you didn’t carry out my last request. Do this, at least, for me.”
If I were not so weak, I would have had my hands at his throat no matter his station. “Don’t,” I growled, “don’t even start with that.”
“Because it’s true?”
“Because,” I snapped, but stopped.
He didn’t press. A cough penetrated the darkness, and for a moment I thought he was crying again, trying to choke down the sound and hide it. But a flash of red lit his face and flickered to yellow. His lips were drawn in a tight line, his face hard.
There was no purpose in arguing with that expression. I took a deep breath, staring up at the gray sky as if it would release me from the truth. I owed him whatever I could repay, not just because of his station, but for my sister. Why did helping our murderers have to be his last request? Nevertheless, the longer I thought of protests, the more map lines and ridges squiggled into my head.
“They’ll never believe it even if I do draw a new map.”
“They will if we make it look like we were trying to hide it.”
“Of course,” I let the sarcasm drip from my voice. “Fine. I’m sure the guards will be happy to give us the paper.” I went to the door and called, “Hello?”
From down the corridor, close to where his forefathers’ portraits hung, where his should have been placed at his death, came drunken laughter.
“Hello!” I shouted again, louder.
“What d’ya want?” a voice slurred back.
What could I say? That we wanted to help them, truly. Their impudent revolt, the murders, the destruction, were all trivial. We still wanted to be the good and caring rulers that we always had been and to protect them from themselves.
“I need help,” I tried.
Hoots pierced the darkness until a blue shower and another explosion drowned them out. I turned back to Petrov, triumphant.
He still faced the place I had been sitting. “We’re next to the library. You could climb out and get paper from there.”
I sighed and retraced my steps.
I spent the next 30 minutes rolling and stacking stones against the wall. My head fell to my hands when I finished, and he spoke.
“I’m sorry. I know you don’t think they deserve it.”
“I feel our last night would be better spent in prayers.” Or better spent in anything.
“When Naimat was a baby, and he fell and cut himself, and then hit the nurse because he didn’t want her to put ointment on it, did you abandon him to let the wound become infected?”
“They aren’t children.”
“Of course they are. If they didn’t think like children, they wouldn’t have tried to overthrow us.”
“Tried?” The word stuck in my throat.
He didn’t answer, just pointed at the top of the wall meaningfully.
I braced one hand against the wall and began climbing, placing as little weight on any single stone as possible. At the top, straining, I could just reach a handhold where the wall had cracked, but I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself up.
He lurched towards me on his good leg. I wanted to tell him to stop. My job was to serve him, not for him to help me. But the truth was, there was nothing more I could do without help.
He reached the pile and braced a shoulder against the wall, making a step for me with his back.
He took a breath. “Go on. I can’t stay here forever.”
And so I went, forcing my foot to touch his shoulder and then searching the rocks until at last something jutted up beneath my palm. It was a carved leaf of the grape vine that had latticed the ceiling. I cleared the snow off it and leaned my weight back, testing it in the way I had when, as boys, we had dared each other to climb the lighthouse overlooking the Duralaman Cliffs.
The broken rocks tore at my clothes and skin as I pulled myself up, but I didn’t feel it until I panted from the top and looked down the hall. The guards leaned against the table, boots propped against the remnants of portraits clinging to the wall. The nearest one sat with his back to me, waving a crystal and gold goblet in broad, drunken circles as he spoke.
Petrov waved me down, and I realized I was just as visible to them as they were to me. I swung my legs over, found the emptiest place on the floor, and jumped, tumbling forward onto my hand.
Bookcases had fallen, crushing centuries of books beneath them. Others lay scattered on the floor, fragile spines torn. I picked my way through, resisting the urge to straighten and restack the books. Petrov had always scoffed at my love of them.
I was creeping towards the scroll room, having decided they would be the best for a map, when the door opened near my destination and torchlight quavered. I crouched behind a bookcase, lying low to the ground. A pile of books slid under my hand. I grabbed for them, but they slipped anyway. I froze, hoping he would think it was only the weight of the books against each other.
The torch raised higher, moving from side to side, but it came no closer. I realized I had stopped breathing, then wondered why. Was I afraid he would kill me?
Minutes passed before the wooden legs of a chair scraped against tile and the jaunty notes of “The Mourners’ Revenge” lilted out to me. He must have sat down by the door.
I had no other choice. I couldn’t lie there behind the bookshelf all night, and so carefully I crawled backwards, arms bent, belly barely above the ground, like an alligator reconsidering its route. Wending my way around sprawling piles of books and broken bookcases, at last I reached the far wall and sat up. The guard sat less than ten paces from the scroll room. If I had continued walking my current route, I would have had to pass directly in front of him. Now I needed to squeeze down the corridor by the wall and then dart into the room when he wasn’t looking.
The bookcase sheltering me from his vision lay tipped against the wall, allowing me to stand with my head ducked. I crept forward, hand stretched out to guard against the darkness, until at last I reached the end. The door to the scroll room stood four steps away. If he looked away, it would take less than a second to bolt in. If he looked away.
Seconds and then minutes ticked by. My legs began to ache from the tension. If I had something small, I could throw it to distract him, but the books scattering the floor were too big. I had nearly despaired and given in to the idea of sprinting in front of him when a gust of wind from the empty roof made the torch flicker. He looked up at it, and in that moment, I leapt. My feet seemed to pound the ground as I careened around books to hide my footsteps from him. If he heard through his drunkenness, he did not come to investigate.
Once my heart slowed, I reached for the first scroll I saw. The desk back in the corner stood surprisingly well intact, and I took a pen from the corner and a still-intact bottle of ink from the top drawer.
Hiding in the shadow of the door, I waited for perhaps half an hour, wishing I could simply draw the map there. It was too dangerous to wait there long enough for the ink to dry before carrying it back, though, so I watched for an opportunity to repeat my dash to the shelter of the bookcase. At last, his torch burned low and he stood, stretched, and disappeared back through the door.
The return trip was easy. All I had to do was make myself force one foot after the other down onto the books. The bookcases made an easy staircase up the wall. I tucked the scroll under my arm, and deposited the ink and pen in my pocket. What did stains matter now?
From the rock pile, Petrov watched me. I mimed tossing him the scroll, then did so. He caught it with the same deftness he had shown even when we fenced in our youth, and I lowered myself to his side, testing my weight on the rocks that shifted and rolled as I dropped onto them.
At last I sat, resting in front of him.
“You were gone a long time. Did you have problems?” he asked, as if I might have stayed there for the joy of it. Of course, under other circumstances, that might have been true.
“A guard, the one who whistles all the time, came to look. I had to dodge him.”
Petrov grunted. “I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d seen you.”
“Except I wouldn’t have anything to draw on.” I stopped, for the first time wishing I had let the guard drag me back.
He just grunted again, opening the scroll and squinting against the shadows to see it. “Which one is it?”
I shook my head. “No idea. It came from the science wall.”
“You can draw the map after sunrise? Before the guards come?”
“I should be able to.” I shrugged. “But you still haven’t told me how you’re going to get them to believe it.”
He was silent for a time, then. “We could tell a guard to leave it in some unique place. Let him think we expect someone to come. He’d try to sell it instead.”
“Tell?” I corrected.
“Yes.” Then, softer as the realization sunk. “Yes, I see your point.” He paused and my mind worked against the problem when he went on. “A bribe, perhaps?”
Etiquette and years of respect kept me from snorting. “Bribe him with what? The stones we sit on in our final hours?”
His voice raised as if issuing orders. “Outside the western wall, behind the boulder that marks the beggars’ grave, is a smaller stone. Under it is a small cavern. He is to leave the map there. If he returns the following night, he will find his payment. We still have friends. His efforts will be well rewarded.”
I nodded into the blackness. “That could work.”
“It has to.”
Through the night, as the snow fell between us, I watched him. He did not move, but I don’t believe he slept, either. Twice he tipped his head up as if he could see the stars through the clouds, and sat that way until the snow turned his face white. The hours rolled on until the sky tinged orange.
I had completed the inking and was blowing it dry when the bar grated upwards and the door opened. It was, yet again, the whistler.
Petrov raised his chin and waved the guard closer.
“I have a task for you,” Petrov announced.
I had assumed his tone in outlining the plan to me was only habit. I had assumed he would speak it as a request. I had assumed he would not think to give orders.
I had assumed wrong.
“Behind the beggar’s grave is a stone. You are to leave this map under that stone.
The guard stopped. “I am to do what?” He spat out the “what” in a fashion I doubted had ever been used to Petrov’s face.
Petrov continued unflappably. “If you return the next day, you will find your payment in the form of melin shells. My associates will make it well worth your efforts.”
“Melin shells? You think I’d help you for money?”
“It will be enough that you can buy yourself a high seat in the…” his voice quavered for just an instant. Perhaps the guard did not notice, “in the new regime.”
“Would it be enough that if I had it now, I could buy the privilege of holding the sword?”
Petrov took a deep breath. “It would be enough, yes.”
The guard walked over to where I stood, still holding it flat to dry. He yanked it out of my hands, and I fought down the urge to strike him for his impudence.
“I’ll see that your map is taken care of,” he muttered, rolling it and undoubtedly smudging the ink before he stalked out.
The door closed and the bar pounded into place before Petrov spoke again.
“He won’t do it.”
“No,” I answered, fighting down guilt at my triumph. “But we had no other choice. There won’t be any other guards in here today before…” There was no point in actually saying the words.
Several breaths passed. “We don’t have time to make another. We’ll have to draw attention to it when we’re taken out.”
I sighed. It was our last morning. There were better ways to spend it.
“When they take us out,” he spoke slowly, formulating the plan as he went, “whether it’s together or separate, we will each pick someone at random and tell them the guard has it. Loudly. It will need to be someone at the back of the crowd so we can shout it to them. Tell them which guard has it, and that he took it when we were trying to hide it.”
“All right,” I muttered. A few hours from my death, it was not worth debating.
The sky remained gray when the door scraped open. Two new guards entered wearing the absurd red armbands the rebels had adopted. “Him first.” The short one pointed at Petrov, not even granting him his name or title. “We won’t be able to keep the mob under control much longer if we don’t give him to them.”
Petrov stared back at him, refusing to acknowledge them unless addressed him properly.
“Do we get to drag you out?” The taller one sneered, pulling off his armband in what I can only assume was intended as some sort of inane threat. But in the moment of death, threats lose their power.
Petrov stood slowly, dropping the blanket to the ground with a quiet. “Go with them peacefully when they come for you, Jerov,” he said, granting me the dignity of following his orders, not theirs, when my turn came.
I always had the romantic notion that great leaders somehow had profound last words. The final words written in books were always weighty. But in that instant, I realized that final moments are still just moments, and no more likely to be inspired by divine insights than any other moments.
“I will go,” I said, “and I’ll do as you wish, out of respect for you.”
The guards exchanged nervous glances and the taller one yanked him towards the door. The shorter one closed it behind them, staying with me as if they could prevent us from whatever strategy we might be initiating in our last seconds.
His gaze rested on me for a moment, then he turned to run a finger along what was left of a carved ivy leaf above the door.
I finally broke the silence. “Don’t you want to watch your king be killed?”
“Why would I want to watch an execution?”
“I thought that’s what you all wanted.”
He didn’t look back at me, just continued to trace the ivy, running his finger in oblong circles again and again. “We want a country where people aren’t executed for speaking against the rulers. Your soldiers made me watch when they hung my father for saying we could survive the drought if we had more desalination plants. Why would I want to watch something like that again?”
“We are surviving the drought,” I said, pulling my blanket tighter around my shoulders.
“Tell that to the mothers who bury—” His words were cut off by a cheer outside. He didn’t repeat himself and I didn’t press.
He bent to pick up a piece of the ivy that had fallen, pressing it into the jagged hole in the wall. “Your turn,” he said.
I followed his instructions, resting a hand against the wall to brace myself. “The guard who whistles, he has a map to the designs for building more desalination plants,” I said. Was I following Petrov’s wishes or my own?
He didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t even believe me. He just opened the door and stepped aside when the tall guard grabbed me. Outside, the slush-covered grounds were no less dismal than the roofless palace. A split second later, a roar went up. “Kill him twice,” someone shouted, and another yelled, “For my son,” just as a brick hit my arm, stabbing pain through my shoulder.
I raised the other arm when the guard shoved me and I fell forward. I lifted my head and searched the crowd for a face I could call Petrov’s final instructions to as backup, but another rock hit the back of my head and I couldn’t see through the blur of pain. I gasped, throwing up my arms to block when something slammed into my side. I rolled sideways as the blows continued.
I could hear the people cheer, but through the dirty cobbles, all I could see were the stained paper shreds of once-bright fireworks. For a moment, I wished I could cheer with them.