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Chapter One - The Sentencing
“I’m disappointed in you, Flannery,” the tyrant said with an exaggerated sigh. Grat turned away abruptly as he spoke. Adjusting the hearing aid at his right ear with the flick of a long thin finger, he stalked to the window.
As Flannery knelt on the unforgiving floor, Grat’s hard-soled shoes clacked out a deadly rhythm.
Stepping into a beam of winter light that splashed through the tall windows, his back to the congregation, the tyrant said, “I don’t LIKE disappointments. Thought you people understood that.”
The statement burst in the silence like shrapnel. If it could, it would have torn holes in Flannery’s gut. But he was hardened now. Nothing tore holes in his gut any longer. Not even the proclamation of his death, which was where Grat’s speech was heading.
Flannery was a work in granite.
He raised his head, could feel those assembled holding their collective breath. His knees resisted the hard marble floor painfully; resisted the servitude he had avoided addressing all these years; servitude he could no longer endure.
Squinting against the sunlight that spilled around the despot, the sunlight that bathed the evil man in a deceptive glow, Flannery inhaled deeply and stood up.
The assembly gasped.
The guards on either side of the hall shifted feet. One glanced at his compatriot, but neither moved to force Flannery back to his knees.
As light played across the throne room toward the scout, Flannery could almost believe that Grat was not going to pronounce a death sentence. He could almost believe things would work out. His life would continue.
He stamped out leg cramps, making no attempt at silence.
Hard to believe he was going to die. This morning everything had proceeded as nature planned. The sun rose at dawn, sketched a path across the morning sky to afternoon. And tomorrow and tomorrow and the next day after that, it would rise and travel the same route to spring and summer and fall.
But it would rise without Flannery.
Behind Flannery, the expectant silence, which had re-established itself after the initial disruption when he first stood, broke to allow a sneeze. Grat’s hearing aid squealed in response.
Turning to face the congregation, Flannery peered intently into the eyes of nobles in the front row. The court physician, a man by the unlikely name of Barber Lance – a big, lumbering, untidy man – stood beside N’grawn Heldan, the beautiful young woman Flannery had come to hate for her acceptance of Grat’s rule.
With death perhaps hours away, the scout regretted not getting to know some of these other nobles. Being a recluse had its drawbacks. After his parents’ executions, shutting out their friends from his life seemed just retribution to a boy in his mid-teens. Now it only seemed silly. Those friends hadn’t helped his parents, he’d reasoned back then. With bitterness in his heart, he’d cut everyone off. Now, as he faced his own execution, Flannery understood their reluctance to get involved a little better.
Flan had lived a lonely life. Having dismissed all the servants on the day of his parents’ deaths, he had rambled around the family estate, book in hand, for too long in his own company.
N’grawn Heldan had been ten years old when the Rontonians invaded. Flannery remembered her as a lively, happy child. Perhaps if he’d stayed in contact she wouldn’t have turned into the traitor she’d become. Who knew what impact he might have had on her if he’d stayed in touch?
As his eyes met N’grawn’s accusingly, she looked away, the blue silk gown she wore rustling with her hasty movement.
Incredibly, the doctor standing beside her smiled and winked at the scout. Flan remembered nothing of the court physician. Barber Lance had been a lot older than Flan when their world came to an end.
Puzzled by the doctor’s actions, Flannery frowned. “Big oaf,” he mumbled under his breath. “Fat lot of good you’ve done your people. Keeping this ass alive and healthy.”
Lance made a rude hand gesture!
With disgust, Flannery turned to look at Grat, pondering the doctor’s unfathomable behaviour.
Lance’s attention to Grat’s needs soothed the scout in some morbid way. Flannery was not alone in his inaction to free his people. Lance could be blamed in equal measure. Hell, they all could.
“You’ve been in trouble one way or another…” Grat’s words droned on, intruding on Flannery’s thoughts. The tyrant paused, sighing to create an impression of long sufferance. Still not looking back – still unaware that Flannery was standing – he paused for effect. The despot’s hearing aid screeched.
Flannery grimaced at the sound.
Yet again the tyrant did nothing to recalibrate the malfunctioning device. Instead, he clutched his hands behind his back – forever the actor – and continued, “Dozens of times.”
Everyone present had lost the sense of what Grat was saying by the time he spoke again.
Harking, Grat spat on the marble floor.
Flannery moaned with disgust, aborting any attempt to unravel the meaning behind Grat’s tirade.
“Oh you were only a boy, at first.”
“That’s it!” Flannery said in a voice meant to get Grat’s attention. “I can’t take any more of this shit!”
His voice, loud enough to be heard by any average person, brought gasps from the guards and murmurs of fear from those congregated. Still the guards did nothing to force him back to his knees. Just as well they didn’t try. Flannery wasn’t going into that position ever again.
Flan glanced at one of the guards to see if his weapon could be ripped from his belt before Flannery would be mowed down.
The guard met his gaze. His hand nervously drifted toward the butt of his hand laser, a silent testimony that the guard knew the scout’s thoughts. Then he rested his meat hook challengingly on his hip, daring Flannery to try.
Except for those carried by the guards there would be no other weapons in the audience chamber. Weapons were not allowed in Grat’s presence. Everyone was scanned on entry.
Damn, Flannery thought.
He stared with hate, first at one Gridian guard, then at the other. Now alerted to his intentions, they stiffened in their rigid brown uniforms, hands resting lightly on their sidearms.
“You’ve refused to attend court,” Grat whined on.
“Unlike some who practically live here,” Flannery shot a glance over one shoulder, looking directly at N’grawn. The young woman met his gaze defiantly this time, but blushed visibly.
To everyone’s amazement, Grat rambled on. “Flannery, Flannery, Flannery,” he said with feigned exasperation. The beam of sunlight that played around the tyrant continued to accentuate his thin features; touching the dark surface of his coat; making the silver threads in it dance at the shoulders and elbows with every movement. “All the times you’ve defied me,” he babbled.
Flannery’s thoughts blazed with images! He saw Grat’s pinched face at the Harvest Festival; anger thinly veiled behind a mask of self-confidence; fear concealed beneath the anger. He remembered Grat’s look of worry as the guards dragged Flannery in front of him and threw him at the tyrant’s feet.
The knowledge of all the levies Flannery had refused to pay crossed his mind. All the court functions he had refused to attend lodged there suddenly.
Frowning, the scout let the memories run nimbly through his thoughts, stunned by the unexpected understanding that Grat feared him.
“What a fool I’ve been!” he muttered derisively under his breath. The tension in the room hung like a shroud. “I could have risen against you anytime!” But would he have been successful? Well, he sure wasn’t going to be successful now.
Turning back to face the crowd, he said to the nobles gathered at the foot of the raised platform he and Grat occupied, “I’m going to die today. But not before I tell this swine what I think of him.”
Barber Lance winked mischievously. Flannery gaped at him.
“You too have failed to find that DAMNABLE Child,” Grat roared, continuing in his own little world. The whine of his hearing aid increased both in pitch and volume with his raised monotone voice.
“No kidding,” Flannery yelled back, still looking at Barber Lance in the front row. The young woman at the doctor’s side shifted uncomfortably.
Grat’s hearing aid screeched, and he finally adjusted it with the stroke of a scrawny finger, apparently hearing something, although not knowing what.
Turning to face the tyrant, Flannery yelled again, competing with the maladjusted hearing device that drowned out all noise around Grat.
“Full points, Grat, old boy. Full points,” Flannery said boldly. The guards held their breath, looking to Grat for some reaction to this effrontery. Surely Grat MUST have heard this time.
Flannery ignored the guards. Tensing his leg muscles, expecting to be cut down for his outburst, he yelled out his challenge again. With shoulders squared, all six foot six inches of him hardened as the rake-thin tyrant rounded to glare at him.
“Even Braydan…” Grat said, the words spilling out, his mind unable to halt the diatribe in the face of this incomprehensible challenge.
Flannery swept in to finish Grat’s statement. “That filthy Solinian spy?” he yelled. “Your ruthless agent.” The scout continued, glaring at the tyrant. “That PIG, Braydan, has failed to find the Child too? Is that what you were going to say?”
Grat wheeled around and gawked, yellow eyes bulging! One of the guards watching Flannery looked to Grat for direction. But Grat, too shocked to move, stood fixed to the marble floor like a statue.
A thin line of drool dribbled down Grat’s chin.
“You’ve searched for Daniel’s child for thirteen years,” Flannery yelled with contempt. “Face it Grat, old boy. Sorel outsmarted you.”
Repeated gasps rose around him. The assembled nobles wanted him to defy Grat, but they didn’t want him to go this far. Well, you don’t always get what you want when you’re looking for leadership, he thought. His mouth opened to heap still more rebuke upon the pathetic figure that had captured Phile. Or rather, whose brothers had captured Flannery’s world and handed it over to this weakling.
A smile creased the scout’s lips. “She outsmarted your ugly hide,” he said in the same loud voice, taunting the alien he hated, while sealing his own fate. Laughing, Flan jabbed a finger mockingly at the Rontonian, and added, “You were outsmarted by an eighteen-year-old. A mere girl.”
Another rustle from the nobles told Flannery they thought he was going too far. Too DAMN bad! This was the only chance he would get to tell Grat what he thought. He would die later today. He knew that as surely as he knew the sun would rise tomorrow without him.
Grat moaned in disbelief.
“You’ll never find the Child. NEVER! Sorel hid him too well.” He stabbed the air with an audacious finger as he spoke.
Flannery’s face darkened as tragic memories of Sorel’s last day flew through his mind. Anger stirred in his heart at Grat’s treatment of the young queen. His emerald eyes flashed defiantly.
“We will all fail you, Grat,” Flannery yelled, “Because we hate you. We will fail you. You will never find the Child.”
Grat blinked several times, trying to clear his vision, as though blinking would erase the scout from sight. A tremor started in the tyrant’s gut, shaking him visibly.
Seeing that the end was near, Flan shouted, “We scouts are Daniel’s most loyal subjects.”
Flannery pressed on, defying immediate death. “You are a fool!” he said contemptuously. “What did you think we would do? Turn his only child over to the likes of you? Idiot! I am Daniel’s cousin. I was his best friend. I have royal blood in my veins, not vinegar. I would NEVER betray my cousin, or my people.”
As these last words spilled from his lips; with the memory of Sorel’s warm flesh pressed against him; Flannery felt a pang of guilt. He had betrayed Daniel once. In the worst possible way, he had betrayed the man he loved most in the world for the woman he loved most. He shook off the feeling of guilt. There was no time for guilt now. Perhaps guilt had crippled him all these years. It would cripple him no longer. Folding his arms across his chest, he sneered at Phile’s oppressor.
The guards glanced anxiously at each other, back at Grat, then at the assembly of Gridian nobles.
Grat shook violently. A growl began deep in the tyrant’s throat. Giving no signal of his intentions, Grat plunged towards Flannery. “How dare you!” he thundered.
“You’ll be finished,” Flan quickly yelled. “Overthrown. In a few years the Child will come of age and return to claim what is rightfully his.” There it was. The feared word loomed like death itself, black and menacing. Overthrown!
The tyrant flew toward him, his shoes slapping, barely touching the floor, face red with fury and fear. Grat’s hand came down like the smooth swing of a pendulum but with more force than Flannery could have imagined possible. Despite his skinny frame, Grat dealt a fierce blow that sent the scout reeling.
A gasp rose from the assembly, this time in sympathy.
Flannery wiped blood from his mouth as he regained his footing. Then the guards rushed forward to protect Grat.
Grat pulled his lips back over yellow teeth that matched his eyes. “You’ll die sooner for what you’ve said here today!” he hissed.
“Oh great!” Flannery heard the doctor whisper behind him. “Just great!”
“Shut up,” a young woman’s voice murmured back, almost inaudible. Was it N’grawn Heldan’s voice? He’d never heard her speak as an adult. Tall and silent, she had drifted wordlessly at Grat’s side like the traitor she was.
“I hate clandestine stuff,” Barber Lance persisted in a hoarse whisper.
“SHUT UP!” came the muffled but urgent reply from N’grawn.
Flannery wiped at his mouth as the two spoke in whispered tones. He wiped away blood, pondering the significance of the exchange. His long blond hair hung around his shoulders, a thick carpet in stark contrast to Grat’s thinning grey wisps plastered with sweat. He flicked it back off his face.
Turning again to the tyrant, the scout asserted in a calm voice that made Grat strain to hear him, “You can’t kill me now, Grat. I died thirteen years ago when I did nothing to overthrow you.”
Grat scowled at hearing the dread word a second time. “We’ll see if you’re as brave tomorrow morning,” he said coolly. He threw back his head and laughed a dry humourless cackle. Then, stooping until his face was inches from Flannery’s, he narrowed his eyes. Flannery didn’t flinch. He met Grat’s glare. Grat lowered his voice, hissing out the sentence. “When your head leaves your body!”
The assembly laboured to hear the tyrant’s words. Feathers lighting on the marble around their feet would not have gone unnoticed.
The two men stared into each other’s eyes without blinking until Grat finally broke away. His face was so near Flannery’s that the scout could smell his rancid breath. Before Grat could speak again, Flannery boldly declared, “How could nature allow the birth of something as foul as you?”
Straightening, Grat abandoned his failed performance. He towered over the scout, glaring in restored disbelief. “Guards!” he bellowed. “TAKE HIM AWAY!”
He turned and strode angrily to the window as the guards rushed forward.
“I’ll celebrate your death by EATING YOUR LIVER,” Grat yelled, jabbing the air determinedly with a scrawny finger.
As the echo died and Flannery was hauled from the room, he called back. “You’ll choke to death on it! You bastard!”
A guard cuffed him in the head.
Undeterred he screamed out, “And you’ll NEVER find the Child, Grat! Never!”