“STAY PUT, you spawn of a whore! And no, three silver is not nearly enough to settle this! In my book, anybody who dares pass off rabbit shit as medicine deserves nothing less than a hanging!”
The bellow resounded through the courtyard, silencing the outraged crowd. All heads swiveled towards the shouter; there were even a few whistles from people hoping they could egg on the two men to fight. Thurie shuffled a bit closer.
It was the two men who had been arguing earlier about counterfeit goods. The shorter man, clearly the accused, glanced about the crowd nervously. He was an unfortunate-looking man: pudgy, wrinkled as a prune, with greasy, slicked-back hair and two protruding front teeth. Looking at him, Thurie had the distinct impression of a rodent, a vision aided by the numerous furs the man was wearing. Most strangely, he was standing beside an ugly, ramshackle cart painted in lurid colors. The sign on top read “Bogman Everil’s Goods.”
His accuser, a tall man dressed in respectable, if threadbare, clothes, sensed the crowd’s attention and let a nervous grin slide over his face. He whipped his arms about, as if summoning everyone in the courtyard to battle.
“This man,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at his anxious, fat companion, “is a purveyor of false hopes and false goods. He may call himself a bogman, but he is a scoundrel through and through. I needed medicine for my sickly wife, and he sold me—he sold me—well you heard.” A woman to Thurie’s left gagged loudly.
The tall man’s voice grew louder. “And now this cheat, this liar, will not refund my money!”
The man in furs drew himself up to his full height, though he still only came up to the other man’s shoulder. “I will not stand for you to besmirch my business’s good name. Only if you renounce these words will I refund your money. I have helped thousands of people, who would all tell you—”
The tall man looked ready to explode with anger. “You sold me rabbit shit! Rabbit shit! I would shout it from the mountains if I could. Apologize? You must be—”
“ENOUGH!” The secretary left his position at the door and stalked over to the two men, fixing them with an icy glare.
“You are in the royal palace. Have some decorum. If you think for one moment I will allow such vulgarity in this place—”
“But it’s the truth, sir!” The tall man jabbed another trembling finger at Bogman Everil. “This man is a menace to the city. He cannot be allowed—”
“I’ve already told you—take the matter to a city guard station! This is too small a quarrel to present to His Majesty.”
The tall man scoffed. “Right—the empty guard stations. Where do you think we went first? But no, every guard in the city is out looking for that stagehand—”
A smirk appeared on the secretary’s face. “Perhaps if you two had ceased flinging insults at each other for two seconds you would have heard the news. The killer’s been caught, so stop wasting my time and get out.”
The tall man let out a sharp snort. “Wasting your time? What about wasting all of our time?! Some of us have been waiting out here in the cold for hours—”
“That His Majesty deigns to see you at all—”
It was over in a second. The tall man’s punch connected solidly with the secretary’s head, who staggered and fell to the ground. Thurie gasped as he caught sight of the man’s face. It was a mess of blood, nose clearly broken.
“Guards! Guards!” the secretary called, his voice garbled. They rushed to his side, abandoning their post by the door.
It was an opportunity that would not come again. Dunna’s gruff voice whispered in Thurie’s ear. “Time to go.”
All Thurie wanted to do was run the other way, but he quietly tugged open the door and they slipped into the palace, leaving the gawking crowd and oblivious guards behind. Their hurried footsteps on the marble floor echoed the insistent knocking in his head.
Thurie’s mother had crawled into bed with him during that indefinite period between the dead of night and pre-dawn. She held him close, breath rustling his long, curling black hair. His father often urged his mother to cut Thurie’s hair, but she always protested, liked to rustle it and say what a waste it would be to cut off such thick, healthy locks.
“I can already tell he’ll start going bald, like you,” she’d say, eyes dancing. “Why not let him enjoy his hair while he still has it?”
It wasn’t so unusual that Dunna Jore didn’t come home until long after his official shift ended. Thurie’s father didn’t mind working an extra shift to help out his fellow city guards, particularly if they needed him for a sketch. A good number of guards in Haplyr could barely write their own names, let alone draw a decent sketch, so Thurie’s father was often called to various guard stations around the city.
Three loud knocks at the door shattered the stillness. They both bolted upright, Mona Jore immediately clutching for her son. In the milky moonlight, Thurie saw his mother’s eyes stretch wide with fear before steely resolve stole over her face.
“He must have lost the key,” she said, throwing back the sheets.
But she was too slow. Thurie had seen that split second of fear and knew what to do. His mother shouldn’t be worrying about these things. Ignoring her calls, he rushed to the door, undid the bolt, and cracked open the door, peering out into the inky darkness.
His father stood just outside the door, surrounded by shadowy figures. Father’s eyes met son’s, and Thurie wondered why his father was crying. “Da,” was all Thurie managed to say before one of the figures reached for the door and it crashed open with a bang.
They swarmed into the room, all five of them, pushing the bound and gagged Dunna Jore before them. His face was bruised and bloodied; the way he stumbled into the room spoke of a cruel beating already given.
“Bastards!” his mother cried. She bolted for her son, shoving him behind her. One of the men, his face shrouded by a hood, barked a laugh.
“The happy family, reunited once more.”
Thurie’s mother didn’t wait for him keep talking. She made a dive toward the kitchen knives, but the hooded man, nimble on his feet, blocked her way and aimed a punch at her stomach. She fell to the ground, gasping for breath. Thurie screamed and ran for the hooded man, who loosed another laugh as one of his companions plucked Thurie off the ground mid-stride, arms still swinging.
“Leave them alone!” he screamed, aiming backwards kicks at his assailant. The man’s arms only tightened in response.
The hooded man turned to Thurie. “Ah, but your father didn’t leave us alone.” He looked towards one of his henchmen. “How many of our associates would you say have been locked up because of Master Jore’s artistic abilities?”
“Too many,” the man grunted back. “Must’ve put away a quarter of our men.”
Thurie’s mother stifled back a sob, her eyes shifting wildly from her husband to her son and back again.
“Do you… want money?” she gasped, clutching her stomach. “If… you’d wanted… to kill us… you would have… done it already.”
Dunna violently shook his head at his wife, his voice garbled around the gag. “-On’t give ‘em a damn thig, Mona!”
“She’s a smart one, your wife,” the hooded man said, circling around Dunna. “But no, we don’t want your money—and I doubt you could ever repay all the damages you’ve done.” He walked over to Thurie, who was still thrashing against the man holding him back, and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Let these next few minutes be a lesson to you, son. Some things are worse than death. Your father’s about to find that out firsthand.” The man gave his henchmen a smirk, as if they were sharing a private joke, then strode back to Dunna, who let out a stifled, desperate cry around the gag. The two men held him fast, and another seized hold of his mother.
“It was kind of you, Mona, to show us where the household knives are, but I’ll use my own.” With an easy, practiced movement, he unsheathed a sword from his side. Its long, curved length glinted in the moonlight.
“Hold him,” he said in a low, gravelly voice dripping with anticipation. The two men holding Dunna wrestled him into a different position, forcing both of his arms straight out, as if he were a man in prayer raising his arms in supplication.
The last thing Thurie saw was the sword’s wicked edge glimmering as the man raised it high. He snapped his eyes shut in the next second, but couldn’t block out the unmistakable sound of the sword cutting through the air, once, then once more again.
Over his screams, Thurie heard the thumps of two objects hit the floor. His mother and father were both screaming, and he took comfort in the fact that they were still alive. He didn’t want to look, hoped it was all just a nightmare, but deep down he felt the coldness of some terrible new reality settling on his shoulders. He opened one eye, then shut it with a frantic yelp when he glimpsed the blood pooling on the floor.
He tunneled down deep into himself, gave himself three seconds to breath. Some calmer voice, removed from the terror and the screaming, spoke to him. Even if you can’t do anything, get a look at the man’s face. Get a good, long look so you can find him again.
Three. Two. One.
As his mother continued to curse the men and his father’s cries softened to stifled whimpers, Thurie opened his eyes.
The hooded man had cut off Dunna Jore’s hands; they lay limp on the floor, drenched in blood. The room blurred, and Thurie vomited down his front. Inexplicably, the men who had held his father before were now binding his wounds with cloth. Through the dull pounding in his head, Thurie heard the hooded man’s words once again.
There are some things worse than death.
They wanted his father to live.
The hooded man watched Dunna with a small smile on his face, and then his eyes flicked to Thurie’s mother. He strode over to her and gripped her by the chin, examining her features in the weak light. “Mona. Pretty name, to match a pretty face. Go ahead and say your goodbyes, then.”
She wrenched back from his grasp, struggling to get away, cursing them. She was frantic, wild.
“Nothing I can do about it,” the man said, flashing her a sardonic smile. “We’d lose respect if we didn’t take such measures. It’s just business, really.”
Thurie’s father, weak from shock and blood loss, floundered feebly against the two henchmen holding him, his eyes bulging. Mona sagged at the sight of her husband, and she turned to the hooded man. “It’s all right—kill me. But don’t you dare touch my son.”
The hooded man smirked. “Lady, I owe nothing to you. But you have my word we’ll leave the boy be—something to keep your husband from offing himself.”
Mona Jore turned to her son. He blinked away the tears blurring his vision. “Thurie, don’t look. Be a good boy—I love you so much, and I will always be with you. A ray of sunlight on a cloudy day… the wind drying your sweat—that will be me, with you. Now be good for me, Thurie—shut your eyes, and don’t you dare open them.”
He did, as the sword again cut through the air and his father bellowed and wailed. And then his father’s cries of anguish faded as Thurie fainted, sinking into merciful unconsciousness.