“Was this banru Kaire?” Dax asked.

“He was a boy,” said Athellus, still speaking to the hostile, snickering crowd. “No more than sixteen or so. He was on a mission that involved sabotaging the ancient relay stations, ones the Evinthei had adapted for their own use. He had killed a dozen Evinthei soldiers in self-defense. So I was sent to finish him.

“I found him preparing to blow up a relay junction that sent power to a whole district. I didn’t listen when he tried to explain his mission to me. I was Evinthei and he was an enemy. I didn’t care why he was doing what he did. It didn’t matter. And when we fought… I was taken up with the joy of fighting. I wanted to destroy my opponent, someone set against me—someone I didn’t even know.”

Kaire paused in her translation; so briefly, Dax almost missed it.

“I killed him three times,” Athellus said. “First I shot him in the stomach, and turned away, thinking he was dead. But he lived, and fought on. Then I stabbed him in the throat until blood ran out of him. But he lived. Finally I drove my blade into his heart. And that killed him.

“But he killed me too.”

Athellus rested a hand on the black bandage on his left arm. “As I struck him in the heart, he touched my shoulder. He attached one of the explosive charges he had used to blow up the relay junction. It exploded as he died. My left arm was blown off, and I was deafened, blinded.”

His voice grew softer. “I lay with blood pouring out of me. I could feel it trickling and growing cold as oil, as I began to die. And I realised that whatever else he had been, that boy was still a boy and he would never have the chance to become a man. Like I would never be a father now, or an old man.”

The Taugen were silent now, an eager hungry silence. Dax felt like he had taken a mouthful of ashes.

“I died,” said Athellus. “The Greater Powers came to me as I died, and told me what I had done—killed one of their noblest and most loyal servants. They offered me the chance to become as he was, to heal my arm and give me life and power again. But I was never to know the name of the boy who had fought so well, and I was never to forget. I accepted, because it was the right thing to do. And for that, I was exiled from the Evinthei, and my family suffered because of me.”

He glared at the Taugen. “So yes, I confess. I destroyed a good and unfinished man for no good reason. But I have been punished. It’s not for you to judge me, or Dax, or Kaire, or anyone. You don’t want justice.”

“We demand repayment for the death of Ryss,” Ragged said. “The Evinthei slew him, and the Evinthei are human. You are human, and trespassers. You will pay the debt. That is just.”

“But we’re not Evinthei,” said Dax, finding his voice. “I’m not even from this world. And Kaire—” He bit those words off. “Athellus might have been Evinthei once but you heard him, he’s an exile, they threw him out!”

“He is a savage who carries the blood-guilt of all Evinthei with him. He is not fit to live. As for you—” Ragged glared at him. “The only traffic between worlds is through Gating, the lifeblood of the Guardians. You are a parasite feeding on the corpse of a god. Your guilt is apparent. And this woman… what of her? What crimes does she carry?”

Kaire answered in the Taugen language. Ragged’s mouth closed like a trap.

Wave Mark folded his arms. “We cannot punish the Aeslin commander for the death of the Oracle Ryss. But through the deaths of these, the heretic travellers and the Evinthei murderer, he will be shown reverence.”

Reverence… The word lingered in Dax’s mind. Something. There was something there.

“Bind them,” said Pipe Staff, finally. “Bind their hands and mouths, and call the Takers forward to work.”

Dax’s arms were seized from behind. Instinctively he pulled away, struggling as more Taugen surged forward to grab him, pinning him against the floor. From the corner of his eye he saw Athellus head-butt a Taugen who tried to restrain him; the Taugen reeled back with a bloody nose, but one of those Ancestral weapons was shoved in Athellus’ face. He held up his hands, and was flung bodily to the ground.

Kaire was staring at her hands. Dax saw a shimmer of silver-grey pass through them—a hint of scales, of feathers—but she clenched her fists and with a visible effort, the shimmer was gone. None of the Taugen had seen it; one of them was already yanking her hands behind her.

Dax tried to struggle but a thin, tight rope was already pulling around his wrists. This wasn’t right! After all they’d gone through, to be executed after a bloody… show trial? The Taugen were going to try and execute one of the very Guardians they claimed to revere so much, it made no sense. And in a few minutes his skull would be split just like the—

He froze. Guardians. Skulls. Reverence. Right there. The way out. The way out.

“Hey!” His voice was lost in the hubbub of noise from the Taugen as they knelt between his shoulder blades, snarling and hissing over his head as they bound him. “Hey, listen! Listen, we can—”

A wad of thick cloth was stuffed into his mouth, and he almost choked. No! No, not when he knew how to fix this! Desperately he tried to spit the gag out, but it was being tied behind his head. All he could see was Taugen feet and legs. Any moment now, they would be bringing out the axe.

 

 

 

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