Source: Pixabay

I’m going to use you

Chapter 2, part 1

I killed the prince.

I killed the prince.

I killed the prince.

It’s all Kora can think as she stares down at the still-warm body that was, until moments ago, the crown prince. It happened so quickly. She acted on pure, terrified impulse. She pulled the knife from her skirt and slipped it into his chest. By sheer accident, she found his heart.

She remembers slaughtering pigs when she lived on her aunt’s farm. Her uncle would catch a squealing barrow and tie his feet. She would slide a knife not so different from the one she carries now under the shrieking animal’s ribs. At least, she thinks, the prince died quietly. He coughed. His pupils dilated, perhaps in disbelief. And he was gone.

A dark hilarity bubbles in her chest and boils from her lips. Maybe the prince was really a pig in disguise. Her laughter resonates in the cavernous hallway like a forbidden song. She knows she should run away, or hide the body, or something. But she can’t stop laughing, even as footsteps and clanging armor echo in her ears.

Even as professionally thuggish men shout epithets and grab her arms.

Even as she is dragged up the stairs, her feet scraping against each step.

Even as she is held outside a chamber she has seen many times before.

Only when a guard cuffs her mouth, and she tastes the coppery tang of blood, does she fall silent. After a satisfied grunt, he drags her into the King’s bedroom. She stumbles into the sitting area, smashing her knee on the polished marble floor. He shoves her into a chair and holds her there.

The King, elegant and pomaded is always, sits behind a gilded desk. He whispers to a bald man in a strange black uniform, as rough as the King is refined. The bald man’s scalp is covered with white, zig-zagging scars. His head is square, like a butcher’s block. His forearms bulge like uncut hams. He tugs on Kora’s memory like a fish nibbling on a worm.

“Here is the woman who killed your son,” says the bald man. His careful diction is undercut by a nasal, South City twang. “She has quite the pedigree. I burned her parents more than twenty years ago.”

Kora gasps. He is an inquisitor. She remembers snippets from a time before the farm. Before she and Lelora became servants in the palace. Before her sister opened her veins and her legs. She lived in a fine townhouse and wore organdy dresses. Her mother smelled like lavender, her father like freshly polished shoes. Origami butterflies flew through fresh, airy rooms.

The King regards Kora with a weary expression. He wrinkles his nose. Kora is confused. She can’t believe he isn’t threatening her or smashing his gilded knick-knacks. After all, she killed his son. In the vast expanse of her shock, she feels an ember of contempt for this bloodless, selfish man. All he cares about, she thinks, are his books, his women, and his perfumed air.

The King sighs. “You grew up on your Aunt’s pig farm, then you came to the palace?” His voice is the sound of hollow reeds in a strong wind.

She nods. She doesn’t trust her voice. He has all the power in the world, and yet he abandons his people to filth and decay. She imagines Lelora’s weeping bedsores and her children, whom Kora will never see again. The ember ignites into a fury that reddens her cheeks.

The King does not notice. “You had a good job. A place in the palace barracks. Someplace warm and dry,” he mutters, as if she has betrayed him.

“I carried your shit pot to the chute ten times a day. I could barely afford to eat, let alone get my sister out of your tenements. You expect me to be grateful?” Her voice is a soft hiss. She knows she is a dead woman, but she will die with the truth on lips.

His pale blue eyes are glassy and still like the surface of a pond on a still day. He asks the only question that matters to him. “Why did you kill my son?”

She squeezes her hands into fists, so her nails dig into her palms. He could never understand. He has never been defiled. She purses her lips and shrugs.

The King’s expression hardens into something distant and cruel. He nods to the inquisitor. “Take her away. Test her. Make sure she isn’t a witch like her mother.”

The inquisitor raises his bushy brows. “But she hasn’t shown any evidence of …” he says, trailing off. “Oh.”

The King’s dungeon is as bad as Kora imagined. Addicts lie on the damp, stone floor in various stages of withdrawal. Other prisoners, men and women with bruised faces and knotted muscles, prey on them, stealing food and blankets. The bulky predators move like lumbering ghosts, their features indistinct in dim light filtered through small, barred windows.

Kora knows her life is over. The only question is how she will die. Her parents, for instance, died in the flames with their lips sewn shut. She remembers now, although she wishes she didn’t. She and Lelora were forced to watch from a tumbrel, burly guards at their side. If they had inherited magic, if they had spoken and tried to douse the flames, they would have burned, too.

Kora blinks. A woman clothed in an assortment of rags stands over her. She is tall and sturdily built, about three times Kora’s size. Kora wishes she had her knife. All she has now are her fingernails and the last, sputtering coals of her rage.

“What do you want?” asks Kora, tensing for a fight.

“Here,” says the woman, thrusting a small, rusty cup at Kora, who takes it warily.

She sniffs it, wondering if it’s poison. It smells caustic. “What is it?”

“’Shine, strong enough to knock ya out. They’re going to test you, see if you’re a witch. It’s a hard death. I’m sorry for ya.”

Kora flashes back to her parents and glares at the woman. She hurls the cup onto the ground, chin jutting defiantly. “I don’t need your pity.”

She raises her hands, preparing to lash out. She relishes the coming fight. It will take her mind off the horrors to come. But the woman does not engage. She turns away, executing a slow, full-bodied shrug, eloquent in its stolid indifference.

“Suit yourself. It was good ‘shine.”

As the woman walks away, Kora’s rage sputters out. She is leaning against the wall, wondering if she should rest on the damp, filthy floor, when she hears the clatter of keys in an iron lock.

A loud voice booms into the dungeon. “Kora of the Golden Pot, step forward. It is time you are tested. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Kora is shackled to a cold, rough wall by her wrists and her ankles. Some sort of vise grips her head and neck, holding it perfectly still. “We can’t be too careful,” mutters the bald inquisitor as he fiddles with a gray box on a plain, wooden table.

Kora’s heart is quivering so fast she wonders if it will burst. She hopes it will burst. Nobody ever survives the royal test for sorcery. Either you have magic and burn, or you die during the test.

The inquisitor stands before Kora, silently watching. His head is pale and vegetal, lined with folds and white scars. He reminds her of a late-season turnip, plucked from the root cellar at the end of winter. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice a mournful rumble. “This is entirely unnecessary. I’ve kept track of you for years. You’re not a witch.”

Against her will, Kora hopes, just a little. Perhaps he will let her go. Or maybe he is willing to bargain. “I will do anything you want,” she whispers, bile rising in her throat. “Anything.”

He sighs ruefully. “Your sister said that, too. I was sure she had a touch of the magic, but she begged so prettily. I didn’t test her. I gave her the gorgon instead. Tell me, how did that turn out?”

An icy horror creeps down Kora’s spine. This is the man who destroyed her sister. What she feels is too vast and arid for words.

“Enough,” says the inquisitor. He stuffs a rag in her mouth and returns to his table. “You killed the prince. You are already dead. The test will proceed.”

He opens the gray box, and a dark mist floats out. It moves quickly and sinuously, as if it were alive. Kora holds her breath as it envelops her. It feels oily against her skin. It coats her eyeballs, smearing the shadows around her. She coughs and inhales. It rushes into her lungs. Now it is in her blood. Her head buzzes like it’s filled with hornets. Her skin prickles. Her limbs vibrate. She feels like she’s coming apart.

Instead, she comes together. Her eyesight is instantly crisp and clear. Her hearing is painfully acute. She can sense the inquisitor’s heartbeat. Its irregular boom- boom-gurgle pounds in her skull. She wishes it would stop. She tries to speak around the gag. The inquisitor raises a hand to his chest and flees the cell.

Moments later, another man enters. He is swarthy and handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a generous, hungry mouth. He wears the dark green robes of a High Priest. He chuckles and waves his hand. The mist, like a trained dog, pours out of Kora’s nose and back into the box.

Without the mist, Kora is empty. Bereft. Depleted. All she wants is to fall into sleep. She doesn’t care if she wakes up. In fact, she would rather not. She has survived the test. She is, despite all evidence to the contrary, a sorcerer. A witch. And that means only one thing: the flames.

The Priest is soon upon her, pulling the rag from her mouth and tucking loose hairs behind her ears. His touch is queerly tender. She regards him with bleary, skeptical eyes. She knows she should be afraid, but she is too tired.

“When are you going to burn me?” she asks.

The Priest chuckles. “Burn you? Goodness no, baby witch. I’m going to use you.”

Thank you for reading! This is the second installment of a serial novel titled The Half Life of Shadows. You can read the first ones here. The tip jar is here. And you can use this form to get email updates when I post new installments.