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Outskirts of Svet-Dmitrin
The Empire of Orm
The immaculate castle Kostjanicz sat glistening in the morning rays of the sun-star Ain, perched on a high outcrop that jutted out of the wild forest. From a distance, it looked as grandiose as a wedding cake, with many fluted towers and delicate stone lace around the windows. Wards of wonder-work shimmered in the air around it, like mirages in the desert. Scavenger birds perched on the topmost platform, picking at the bones and flesh of executed enemies of the Orm and occasionally bickering among themselves in harsh, rasping voices.
From his tiny cell in the tallest tower, Raimut Hellewege sat carefully filing his nails, deeply stoned from laudanum. He had charmed his guard, a young and impressionable man called Eduard, into smuggling the bottle in for him a few weeks ago. The guard, already besotted with Raimut, fascinated by his reputation, had been easy to convince.
It was his last morning. He would be executed at noon, as the sun-star passed directly overhead. It was symbolic, he had been told – the Ghast of the grand city of Svet-Dmitrin, who had wrought dark and evil deeds by night, would face his just death in blinding noonlight.
“Fitting,” he had remarked evenly and the judge had scowled at him. The memory of the judge’s deeply disappointed face sustained Raimut for the first week of his imprisonment. He was not going to be cowed, not by the law, not by its agents, not by impending death.
The nail file slipped and rasped against the soft flesh of Raimut’s fingertip, making him wince. He very carefully put the file aside, hiding it in a crack in the floor and throwing rotten straw over the spot, then lay back onto his stinking mattress and closed his eyes. He was feeling stupefied, slow and impossibly heavy in a most comforting way and he wanted to savour the feeling.
Just on the point of slipping into sleep, three sets of hollow footsteps roused him. Raimut opened his eyes with some difficulty and sat up again, moving as though his whole huge body was made of lead. Three visitors stood beyond the bars of his cell, throwing grotesque shadows onto the wall opposite. He studied them carefully for a whole minute before recognition sank in through the murk laudanum had made of his brain.
One was Eduard. He was smiling at Raimut, nervously. The other two were identical, young, black persons of androgynous appearance. Both twins were dressed in men’s suits the skirts of which were long enough to brush the floor as they walked. The one who wore a black eye-patch was smoking a roll-up. The one who wore make-up on his angular face was wringing his hands. Neither looked happy to be there.
Their names were Siris and Anzu Menelik – though they’d mostly recently been known as the Dmitrin Vultures, nicknamed by the same journalists and gossip-mongers that had termed Raimut the Ghast. Raimut stared at them for what felt like a long time, before Anzu cleared his throat and spoke.
“I’m sorry, dearest,” he said, in a shaky alto, his mouth contorted in dismay. “I’m so–“
“No, you’re not,” said Siris. She took her cigarette out of her mouth and glared at her twin, then switched the baleful gaze of her sole eye to Raimut. “We’re not sorry you’re here. We’ve come to watch your fucking head fly off and smash like a rotten tomato.”
Anzu gave her a pleading look, but Siris kept staring straight ahead at her former master. Raimut looked back at her, willing himself to keep his expression even and slightly bored. Were it not for the laudanum he would’ve been quite angry, but now he was only dully curious why the Vultures had turned up to see him. They’d testified against him at his trial – Anzu with tears, Siris with only a bitter rage – and he had an inkling that they’d been the ones to sell him out to the authorities in the first place.
He met Anzu’s eye. Anzu blushed and immediately looked away. Raimut allowed himself a smile. His erstwhile apprentice was predictable as always.
“You will come to regret this,” he said, slowly and then sighed, suddenly full of a strange, mournful sorrow that settled in his chest as thick as phlegm. “Oh, Anja. Of all the apprentices I’d had, you surely were the most trouble and the one worth the most. A pity you chose to end it all like this.” Raimut made a careless gesture that encompassed the tiny cell that stank of rotten straw and the gibbet waiting far below in the courtyard. Anzu looked down, biting his bottom lip with exquisite, pearly-white teeth and started fidgeting with the Hellewege signet ring he wore on a chain around his neck. His spidery, long fingers were mesmerising.
Despite everything – the squalid prison, the suit he hadn’t changed for weeks,the nearness of death so close he could almost taste ash – Raimut felt a stirring of lust in his belly. His former lover was as captivating as always, even hollow-eyed on no sleep, face drawn in grief and anguish.
“I had to,” Anzu said, finally and Raimut’s lust died a coward’s death. “I had to do it!” Anzu continued. Raimut scowled in disgust. “You … you deserve to rot, darling.” His lips were parted now, his dark face flushed, his Flesh eyes streaming tears that carried mascara and eyeliner down his cheeks. His six Spirit eyes, three blue dots on each cheekbone, were sparking up like a cat’s fur with static electricity. Raimut could see smoke rise from Anzu’s fingers, betraying that he was upset enough to have almost lost control of his inner flame. Like so many shoggot-descended mortals, Anzu was archetypally volatile, emotional, unable to quite manage the trick of not getting overwhelmed by all the sensations of the Flesh. Raimut smiled again, slowly.
“Do calm yourself,” he said. “It won’t be you on the gallows.”
Anzu wailed in anguish. Siris gave Raimut a look filled with hate and threw her arm around her twin. Raimut snorted in derision and looked away from the pair of them.
“Go,” he said. “If you’re going to have one of your little self-aggrandising prima ballerina scenes, then do not have it in front of me.”
“I hate you,” Anzu managed to say, through tears. “I hate you!”
“As you wish,” said Raimut. He’d grown bored already. He looked at Eduard and smiled at him.
“Edja,” he said, softly. “Get them out of my sight.”
“Right you are, Sudar!” said Eduard, saluting. Siris made a disgusted noise in her throat and flipped Raimut off. He pretended to ignore her.
Eduard turned to chivvy Anzu and Siris along, out of the dark passageway leading to Raimut’s lonely cell and down the twisting, slippery stairs. Raimut sighed. He would not have admitted it for all the gold in the whole of the Orm’s great empire, but a note of regret had managed to creep past his shield of laudanum. Anzu was pretty, Anzu was talented and – before Anzu had found morals down the back of the sofa with the spare change – Anzu had been fun.
And now Anzu was going to be his death. Raimut lay back down on the mattress, trying to breathe evenly. He was steeling himself for the walk to the gibbet. He wanted to go out proudly, not like Anzu would go – sobbing and hysterical – nor like Siris would go – dour and sulky – but with his back ramrod straight and head held high, showing the Vodastoj savages that dared execute him how a real Ormish man could face his unjust death.
A beam of sunlight alighted on his face, the sun-star Ain shining through the bars of his tiny window. Raimut took a deep breath and gagged on the smell of decomposing straw. His eyelids sank down. Inch by inch, he drifted into sleep, like an untethered boat drifting into open sea.
He was in a cellar, smelling earth and damp and rot. Around him, the house creaked and groaned, a veritable symphony. Raimut shuddered, almost jolting himself out of the dream. Above and around, the house responded with more ominous sounds of strained wood. Somewhere outside, the wind howled a counterpoint.
Raimut walked forward. The cellar was dark, but he could just make out the shape of stairs up ahead. He walked slowly, as though through molasses, dragging each foot forward. The stairs did not seem to be getting any closer, until he bumped his ankle against the first step.
He began to climb. Up ahead, the cellar door creaked open, revealing a silhouette that looked almost like a man sitting in an armchair with a low back, surrounded by white light. Raimut quickened his step, tripped and–
He awoke, not quite sure where he was. It took him a minute to place the smell of the straw, the long stripes of light the sun-star made through the bars in the window. He sat up and shuddered. He could hear hollow footsteps approaching – two sets now – and knew it was guards coming to lead him out to the gibbet. Raimut heaved a heavy sigh.
“Any god that may be listening,” he said, softly. “Let not my soul wander.”
“I’ve had a good run,” he told the guards, once they came into view. “The things I’ve seen … you’ll all regret not asking me about them.” The guards, neither of them Eduard, looked at each other, then at Raimut. One of them shrugged and unlocked the door of the cell. He entered, eyeing Raimut like he was not a man but a caged and hungry lion.
“Hold your hands out,” he said, brandishing a pair of handcuffs. “And don’t try anything, or we’ll push you down the stairs and be done with it.” Raimut rolled his eyes. He held out his wrists and the guard cuffed him.
“They should be burning you,” said the other guard, suddenly. “For heresy. Hanging’s too good for ghouls like you.”
Raimut said nothing. He got up off the mattress, squared his shoulders and walked out of the cell, the guard holding on to his bulky arm. The other guard latched on onto the other bicep and Raimut laughed.
“I have to say,” he said, “I have not had the attentions of two young men at the same time in quite a while. This brings back memories.” One of the guards laughed, nervously, but the other made a noise of disgust. They herded Raimut down the spiral staircase and out into the sunlit courtyard, where the gibbet loomed like Podvoda’s last judgement.
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