Emerick Reeve stood, arms crossed, near the entrance of the open-air bazaar. The merchant, a quivering, balding man in his forties, stared at him intently, a film of sweat glistening on his forehead.
“Tell me again, what was your price for the horse?” he said, unmoving. The merchant hesitated, eyed him up and down before briefly glancing at the woman standing nearby. She had a pouch of coin in hand, and was about to hand it all over before Emerick intervened. Presently, she was content to simply observe the exchange.
“Well? Tell me,” Emerick pressed.
“Ten pounds, Sire.”
“And how much is the creature actually worth?”
“S-Sire, the beast is a strong, young animal, well suited for all manner of work—”
“Indeed, and yet you demand coin enough for a riding horse, not a beast of burden. I ask again, how much is the creature worth? Speak truthfully.”
The man gulped, then clasped his hands together, raising his glance to meet Emerick in a defiant gaze. Ah, he’s going to stick to it. Poor fool.
The man drew a deep breath before speaking. “As I said, it’s ten—gah!” He clawed at his throat and collapsed to the ground, his voice cut off. The woman stepped back and let out a muffled scream.
Emerick closed his eyes, feeling the burning glow of the seal etched into his forehead, focusing on it. As it cooled and dimmed, the man’s gasping subsided. Emerick opened his eyes and glowered at the cowering merchant now sprawled on the floor.
“I had hoped that we could’ve avoided that,” he said, turning to the woman. “It must be clear by now that you were being deceived. That horse is of a lower breed, likely worth no more than two pounds.”
“… Fifteen shillings, Sire,” the man said, not meeting his eyes.
“Quite right. Let the transaction continue, then. And may you continue to speak truth, without need of a Courier.” Without waiting for a response, Emerick turned and exited the stall, cutting through the small crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. As folk nervously pulled back, he couldn’t help but chide himself for wasting time here. This was no way to start his career; even with his speed, it would still take him several more days to reach the keep and deliver his message. He should’ve been making haste, not trying to enforce truth at every step of the journey.
But deep down, he knew that he couldn’t help it. Truth was, after all, what he had dedicated his life to.
The corridors of Nazari Keep were lavishly decorated, even when compared to Lord Keswick’s castle. Sleek, gold-trimmed wall-banners glinted in the afternoon sun as the guard hurried Emerick along to the Great Hall. The man’s haste irritated him, but it wasn’t surprising. Most folk were uncomfortable around Couriers, and worked quickly to have them deliver their message and leave. It meant that a Courier’s work had no trouble receiving due attention, but it also meant that Couriers had to get used to being rushed.
Well, he wouldn’t have it, not on his first delivery. Emerick slowed down his pace, measuring each stride, savoring the moments, much to the chagrin of the guard. He pulled on the hem of his traditional cobalt-blue Courier overcoat, tightening the fit. He never imagined that his very first delivery as Courier would be to the Count himself! The message was plain enough for now, but it would just be the first of many such deliveries. First impressions were important, after all.
He took a deep breath, adjusted his satchel, and marched forward confidently past the chafing guard. The doors to the Great Hall opened up before him. He continued through the giant room, taking what felt like altogether too long to reach the man waiting on the other side.
On the gilded throne sat Count Gerren Nazari, the sovereign of the fiefdom. His black hair and trimmed beard appeared starkly against his red, silken robe and golden adornment. Jeweled rings glimmered on his fingers, while silver bracelets hung from his wrists. Every ostentatious detail stressed the same thing: this man was important, and very, very rich.
The Count motioned his attendant away, leaving only the two of them in the giant hall. As a Courier, Emerick bowed, but did not kneel.
“Esteemed Count,” he began, “I bring you a message and gift from Lord Keswick, of the western fieflands. He—”
“Old Albert?” he interrupted with a laugh. “This is the first word I hear from him since last winter, and by a Courier no less! Tell me your name, Courier.”
Emerick caught his next words in his throat. He had imagined this as a brief, efficient exchange, but the Count was far more talkative than his appearance would suggest.
“Emerick Reeve, my Count. I completed my training at the Academy three moons ago, after the winter frosts had already claimed the land, and was placed in the service of Lord Keswick. As you know, the western fieflands didn’t yet have a Courier of their own.”
“So Albert has a Courier now? That will simplify communication, no doubt. How long did it take you to journey here?”
“Eight days, my Count.”
Count Nazari smirked, shaking his head. “A fresh graduate, and you already have that inhuman Courier speed?”
“It’s part of the Academy’s training, my Count.”
“I see. Well, what are you waiting for, then? You’ve journeyed long. Give me the message, Courier.”
Emerick twitched, but collected himself. He began relating his message and as he spoke, the spiral, triple-crested seal began to glow on his forehead. As long as he had it, the flame seal would ensure truth for himself and those who witnessed its light.
And so he recounted Lord Keswick’s words with confidence, how many of the fiefs were experiencing grain shortages and how the burden of the prior winter had made many of the roads impassable. He told of the herds that had been lost in the highlands and relayed an official request for aid by merchant and shepherd. In return, Lord Keswick promised a higher tax income and three wagons of gold that had already been found in the ruins of Mount Verdant.
To Emerick’s surprise, the Count listened intently, nodding in silence until finally the message was relayed in full and the glow of Emerick’s seal dimmed. For a moment, the Count simply stroked his beard, as if unsatisfied.
“Anything else?” he said.
“Ah, there was something else, a personal addition from Lord Keswick.”
His eyes lit up. “Oh?”
“Yes, he intends to fulfill his promise from long ago, starting with a gift.” And as he spoke, Emerick opened his satchel and pulled out a large bottle of wine, presenting it under the daylight’s glimmer. “He asked me to pick a gift for you myself, and so I chose the best of the wines from the Verdant Valley.”
The Count’s eyes glinted and he grinned widely, almost unnervingly so. “You chose it yourself, you say? Hah! So Albert still remembered, after all this time. Today is an important day indeed. Bring it here, Courier.”
Emerick obliged, gingerly stepping up to the throne. After presenting the bottle, he bowed and said, “With this, my message is complete. With your leave, I shall return to the fieflands with your response.”
“Wait,” the Count said, still inspecting the bottle. “Won’t you enjoy this wine with me? Only, let me partake first, to savor it.” And as he spoke, he pulled the top and poured a portion into a nearby goblet.
“Regrettably, I do not much enjoy the flavor of wine.”
“Your loss,” he said with a dismissive smile, and brought the goblet to his mouth.
Emerick stepped back down and waited, trying his best to hide any impatience on his face. The delivery itself had been quick and uninterrupted, just as he had hoped, but he wasn’t prepared for these sudden intermissions. Still, the Count would have his way for something as trivial as this, so it was best to play along.
“How is the flavor, my Count?”
Count Nazari coughed, then shuddered. The goblet fell from his hands, ringing off the ground, splashing the purple liquid across the base of the throne. He gripped his throat and gazed at Emerick, his eyes going wide.
“Treason!” he howled, his voice dry and hoarse, as if his throat had turned to stone.
Emerick couldn’t utter a word. He blinked repeatedly, breathed in shallow gasps, his mind raced. He suddenly felt nauseous.
The side doors burst open, guards and servants flooding into the Great Hall, quickly gathering around the Count. He glared at Emerick as the wheezing worsened.
“Poison! There was poison in the wine! The Courier—” He gasped, collapsing to the side. Guards rushed forward, swords drawn. “Arrest him!” the Count screamed. “Kill him!”
A lump formed in Emerick’s throat. He backed away. “No, this is wrong, it must be a mistake!” He pulled his hair back, showing the flame seal humming softly. “Look! By the truth that is in me, I have done no wrong!”
They didn’t relent. The guards had received their orders, witnessed their Count in peril. The seal didn’t matter to them. “Please…” Emerick pleaded.
He swerved just as a blade sliced the air in front of him. With a heavy step, he spun, pulled off his satchel, and threw it at the guards with all his might.
He ran. Straight through the Great Hall, down the corridors of the keep, weaving between startled servants and guests alike. His legs, enhanced by years of training, propelled him forward at breakneck speed, but with none of the grace or dignity that he was accustomed to. His breathing was heavy, his blood throbbed in his ears. There was great commotion around and behind him, shouts of rage and surprise. A shrill military horn blew through the air.
He kept running. He had to keep running. He couldn’t keep running.
No, he had to hide. He chanced to look back. No guards in sight; his speed had saved his life, for now. But they wouldn’t be far behind. He turned the corner, making his way toward the wall of the keep, near the stables. He stepped cautiously yet quickly, finding a quiet, dark alley between the storage sheds and some quarters. A small rainwater catch stood in the middle of the alley. Without much thought, he dunked his head into the cool water, took a large gulp, then leaned on the wall behind it, slumping to the ground. The cold liquid chilled his head, dulling the ringing in his ears. He was still short of breath, and his legs felt heavy, but now he could think.
How could he prove his innocence? He was a Courier. He merely had to say it in front of them, and his seal would validate him. They had to believe him. Why hadn’t they? Why hadn’t the Count?
Frustration welled up inside him. He retraced everything that had happened. He had, of course, spoken truthfully: he had chosen the wine himself. No others came in contact with it, except—
Lord Keswick. He had examined the bottle, handled it himself. Had he placed the poison? Why would he? And why hadn’t the Count suspected him?
The pieces began falling into place in Emerick’s mind, and with each addition his anger grew hotter and hotter. A new Courier, specially requested by the Lord. The wine, selected by the Courier. The personal message to the Count. It had all been planned, and he had been the centerpiece.
But why a Courier? Perhaps the Count wouldn’t trust anyone else. Foul play between the fiefs was exceedingly rare, but that was only because of the Couriers’ presence. What better way to assassinate the Count than to use the one person that could not deceive, nor be deceived.
It didn’t seem to matter. He now knew that he would not live to see a trial if he was caught. He had to escape this place, and the main gate was the only way out. By now, the entire keep would be looking for a Courier. And he’d make sure they would never find one.
Emerick got to his feet. He had noticed some shabby clothes drying on a clothesline further down the alley, and took them quietly. With a tinge of hesitation, he disposed of his cobalt-blue Courier overcoat and slipped into the still-wet clothes, wrapping himself with a gray cloak on top.
He needed a weapon. It didn’t take him long to find an old, discarded blade—likely from the stables. He returned to the rainwater catch and peered at his reflection. The spiral, triple-crested seal hummed dimly, as if it were aware of what he was about to do.
Emerick Reeve, Courier, focused his gaze on the seal on his forehead, gripping the blade tightly. With a heavy heart, he whispered the words of rejection.
“I care not for truth. I care not for verity.” With each word, the seal burned fiercer, until his vision blurred from the pain. He set his jaw and continued.
“I care not for law. I care not for the message. May this burden be mine no more.”
He cut his forehead. The seal faded away and with it the burning pain, leaving just the dull throbbing of the new wound. Emerick fell to his knees, breathed out, and wept bitterly.
The Count had survived.
When Emerick had heard the news, he had to hold himself back from showing his shock. Not only had Count Nazari survived, but he blamed the Couriers for the attempt at his life. At first, Emerick thought it was just a fit of rage, a brazen reaction to his escape from the keep. But as the days went by, the Count’s public accusations became fiercer. The Couriers held too much power, he claimed, with no one keeping them in check. Lords and Ladies across the fiefdom rallied with him, chief among them Lord Keswick, and Couriers were arrested and forced to relinquish their seals. The Academy was destroyed.
That was three years ago.
An impatient knock brough Emerick out of his daze. “Get up!” said the worn voice from behind the door. “You have a letter to deliver today, and you’d better do it quickly.”
Emerick got up from his cot, shaking himself awake. He could barely see the telltale wisps of dawn’s light filtering through the old draperies in his tiny room. The shop wasn’t open yet, and he was already getting deliveries. It was going to be a long day.
As he changed from his nightwear, his mind drifted. More and more often, he found himself reflecting on all that had happened. After fleeing the keep, he had traveled west toward the Academy, hoping to run into other Couriers. But it had all been in vain. The Academy was gone, and Couriers were no more. So he hid. He lived quietly, unremarkably, until he was forced to flee once more. He had been at this village for a while now, longer than any before, and part of him hoped that the endless running and fear were finally over. But his mind realized that they were still out there, scouring the fiefdom for him. Looking for the last Courier.
Courier? You’re no Courier. You’re nothing but a coward.
His forehead throbbed. He brushed it with the back of his hand, the deep cut already an ancient scar. The rest of his face was marred by yet more scars and burns, some self-inflicted, others from close encounters. In a way, he was glad; it made it harder for his would-be captors to recognize him. On some days, he couldn’t even recognize himself.
Fully prepared with bag in hand, he exited his room and went to see Botsa, the owner of the messenger shop. Despite her age, Botsa still retained a youthful vigor, although her appearance gave no evidence of that. After reprimanding him for taking so long to get ready, she handed him his first delivery of the day: a letter to a certain Sir Alfis Rhane, a wealthy local merchant. He took the package without a word and departed.
Emerick was a messenger now. Even without Couriers, messages still needed delivering, so now the task fell to the common person, from the lowly letters between children and parents, to valuable information exchanged between the fiefs. There was no regard for trustworthiness anymore, neither on the part of the senders nor on the messengers. Lies and empty promises freely swept the land as the Lords and Ladies played their political games, and the fiefs suffered for it. Aid between fiefs was always scanty, or never came at all. Merchants overcharged for wares, and the fiefs taxed away whatever was left.
Truth was gone. Maybe it never really existed. The thought left a bitter taste in Emerick’s mouth. He shivered, suddenly aware of the chill that still pervaded the morning. It wouldn’t take long to reach the merchant’s abode, even if he didn’t push himself, but he liked to discreetly keep up his speed. So he set off through the town gate to the east, taking the weaving path through the nearby fields, across the Laomar River, and into the outskirts of the fief until finally he arrived at the merchant’s home a little past midday.
Except, it was less a home, and more a mansion. The building rose high from the landscape and boasted a well-manicured flower garden in the front full of vivid blues and yellows. An elaborate stone wall completely encircled the abode, with a single narrow gate near the front. Emerick rang the brass bell on the outside, then waited, standing respectfully. Minutes silently went by and he was tempted to ring the bell again, but a well-dressed man appeared from behind a flower bush just as he began reaching for it.
“Ye~es?” he said, approaching the gate.
Emerick jerked his hand back, as if caught in the act. He collected himself, then pulled the parcel out of his bag. “I’ve brought a message for Sir Alfis Rhane.”
“Ah yes, Master Rhane did say a parcel was coming, although he expected it later. Please come with me, he’d like it delivered straight to his hands.” He unlatched the gate and beckoned Emerick to follow.
Emerick nodded and did as directed, but felt some unease. It had been a while since he had delivered something to anyone of note. After all, there wasn’t much in this part of the fief, except farmlands. As they made their way through the garden with its aqua-blue fountains and into the building itself, Emerick felt some of his old Courier training resurge. He stood taller, straighter, gripped the letter with confidence. Suddenly, it didn’t matter to him what the letter contained. Whatever it was, it had been important enough to be delivered quickly, so Emerick decided he would play his part flawlessly. That would be his truth.
He followed the servant up the stairs to the third floor, passing several more guards than he expected, where he was led to a large dining room with Alfis Rhane inside. He saw the man as he entered, a refined-looking, older gentleman with graying hair and a hard-lined face, partaking of a freshly arranged lunch of grilled fish and crisp breads. But he wasn’t alone in the room. Across from him sat a striking woman in a dark black dress with even darker hair tied back in a half-braided bun. Her eyes glinted with the azure blue of nobility, but what Emerick noticed the most was her poise, a presence that seemed to fill the entire room.
Rhane did not look happy to see him. “What is so important that you interrupt our lunch like this?”
“This is the messenger, Sire. He’s brought the letter,” the servant said, unable to hide the nervousness in his voice.
“Ah, well then,” Rhane said, clearing his throat. “Hand it over quickly, and be on your way.” He turned to the woman. “I beg your pardon for this interruption, Lady Faye.”
Emerick’s heart sank, his confidence withering into fear. This was no ordinary noble—this was a Lady, the ruler of a fief. One of the ones who destroyed the Academy, who abolished the Couriers. If anyone had a chance of knowing his face, it would be someone like her. Should I run? No, there were guards all throughout the halls. I can’t avoid them all.
“What are you waiting for?” Rhane said. Emerick stepped forward without a word, trying to calm his breathing, to appear as plain and insignificant as he could. He handed the letter over to the irritated merchant and turned to leave.
Lady Faye had stood up. She squinted, searching his face for something familiar. His heart raced, his breathing slowing. Her lips slowly curled into a smile.
“I desire to speak with this man,” she said, casually gesturing at Emerick. “Leave us.”
Rhane was incredulous. “My Lady? I don’t understand. He is just a messenger.”
“I am aware, Sir Rhane,” she said, less graciously this time, “and I believe I was quite clear before. Leave us, both you and your servant, so that I may speak with him privately.”
“Yes, my Lady,” he said, bowing reluctantly. He motioned for his servant to follow him out, giving Emerick a glare as he passed.
Emerick stood tensely, catching himself holding his breath, as the doors creaked shut behind him. His mind raced. Does she suspect me? She must. He glanced at the tableware, the small blunt dining knives laid out next to the plates. I must get out. I could take her as a hostage. I—
“Calm down,” she said coolly. “I only wish to chat.”
A lump formed in his throat. “My Lady, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else—”
“Oh, please, the entire nobility knows your face, Emerick Reeve. You cannot hide behind your scars.”
Emerick set his jaw. That’s it, then. It’s over.
“I am Faye,” she continued, moving slowly, thoughtfully, around the table. “I’ve been looking for you for a while. But I never thought I’d find you here in the backwoods of the fief.”
“… What do you want?”
“I already said, didn’t I? I just want to chat.” She gave an impish smile. “So tell me, why did you try to kill the Count?”
Emerick frowned. “I didn’t.”
“Oh? But you brought the wine.”
“I was set up.”
“But you can’t prove it, can you?” She tapped on her forehead. “No seal, right?”
“That’s right, I can’t,” he said, his fear bubbling into anger. “I destroyed my seal because I valued my life above the truth. I destroyed my Courier seal, my mark of truth, so that I’d survive just like the others that destroyed theirs.”
She crossed her arms, unconvinced. “Can’t you just create a new seal? Don’t you learn that as a Courier?”
“It’s not that easy,” he scoffed, shaking his head. “Not for someone who’s rejected the oath, not for me. I can never be a Courier again.” He wasn’t sure why he was telling her, but the words came out easily, like he had been waiting all this time to be relieved of this burden. He didn’t care about the consequences anymore; he probably wouldn’t live to see the next day.
“So you have nothing, then. It’s just your word against the Count’s.” She sighed. “Couriers were nothing special after all, it seems.”
Emerick felt his face grow hot with fury. All of his growing guilt, his wounded principles, his broken training, they all bubbled forth, demanding to be realized.
“Perhaps we weren’t. Perhaps none of it was worth anything, not the Academy, and not me.” He raised his voice, meeting her gaze. “But know this: Truth is alive. It will survive, it will grow, and when the lies of this world destroy themselves, the truth will reveal itself. So go ahead, Lady Faye, do with me what you will. Couriers may be gone, but the truth will never be.”
For a time, she stood still, simply watching him. Then she grinned and let out a short titter. “Well said, Emerick. The Courier inside you still lives.” She stepped close, bringing her face near, staring him in the eye, smiling. “Would you like to know why Count Nazari didn’t die?”
“Because it wasn’t poison,” she said matter-of-factly.
Emerick blinked, but before he could respond she moved to the table, grabbed a few small, red berries from the plate, tossed one to him, and ate one herself. She scrunched her face as she chewed, as if it were sour.
“Ratberry,” she said. “It has an unsavory name, but perhaps it’s fitting. The berry has numbing properties, and in strong enough concentrations it can irritate the throat or even make breathing more laborious. Frightening, but ultimately harmless—in other words, the perfect fake poison.” She tossed another one in her mouth. “A nice garnish in small amounts, though.”
Emerick examined the small berry cautiously. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the wine was spiked with ratberries, not poison.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The Count is my uncle. I was there on that day, and I saw the so-called poison myself. The berries leave a distinct smell, and the symptoms all fit.”
“So it wasn’t an assassination attempt?”
“Not an assassination, no. My uncle knew exactly what he was doing. You heard the news, didn’t you? It was always about the Couriers. Their presence made it more difficult for the Count and the Lords to move as they pleased. The Couriers weren’t just a safety check between the fiefs, but a beacon for the people. My uncle and the Lords wanted them gone. And you were the bait. Their mistake was that they never imagined you’d escape.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, my dear Courier, I believe you,” she said, leaning on the table. “I want to vindicate you, to vindicate all Couriers. The last three years have shown the limits of a fiefdom built on lies. I don’t want this, not for my people, not for me. And I need your help.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Because I trust you.” She smirked. “And because you don’t really have a choice.”
Emerick studied her confident, poised expression, then turned to look at the ratberry he still held in his palm. He tossed it in his mouth, chewed it, and swallowed quickly. Sour, indeed.
“What should I do?” he said.
Lady Faye grinned. “I need you to pay a visit to your old Lord.”
The sun burned hot on Emerick’s forehead, beads of sweat forming and dripping down his face. He kneeled on a tall wooden platform, arms bound around a pole behind him, with the two guards that had brought him there. He tugged discreetly at the bindings on his wrists, which he had been loosening bit by bit.
Nearby, a noose had been prepared, custom fit for his neck and hung on the gallows in waiting. His mind paid it no heed, nor did it care about the sun’s blistering heat or the chafing bindings. The scene before him demanded greater attention.
A massive crowd surrounded the platform, filling the confines of the castle, beggars and nobles alike pressed up against one another. Some stood in the plaza, others watched from the balconies of nearby buildings, still others stood on wagons or shop roofs. Even some of the local Lords and Ladies were watching from atop their unreasonably tall, shaded palanquins. All of them had come to witness the execution of the man that had tried to murder Count Gerren Nazari.
The nervous clamor of the crowd was deafening. Emerick’s head buzzed from the discord. He shook it, trying to regain a semblance of focus, of preparation. It would all come down to a single moment—a single chance to undo everything.
He had been caught a week prior, trying to sneak into Lord Keswick’s castle. Of course, his arrest had been intentional, but he had loathed every moment of it. In the short time since, he had been bound and battered, mistreated by guards and servants alike. Yet, far worse were the stares of fear and hatred that he had to endure.
It hadn’t taken long for a public execution to be organized, as was the custom for all traitors of the fiefdom. Most such executions were unremarkable, but this was no ordinary execution, and he was no ordinary traitor. Hundreds, maybe thousands had gathered in a vast throng to witness the end of the last Courier.
Just as Lady Faye had promised.
The players were all here. Lady Faye had done her part and now sat on her palanquin directly in front of the platform, waiting. To his right, Emerick saw the castle’s grand overlook extending out over the plaza, with Count Gerren Nazari himself seated at the front, identifiable more by his garish adornment than by any other feature. Emerick felt a surge of simultaneous pity and disgust.
“How kind of the Count to be here for my final moments,” he whispered to himself.
A horn sounded, not a moment late, signaling the arrival of Emerick’s old master: Lord Albert Keswick. The one who had hand-picked him from the Academy, who had promised him the opportunity to carry out truth. And the one who had immediately dashed that dream to pieces. Emerick mulled over what he had to do in the next moments. He gently pulled at his bindings, stretching the cord. He leaned back, feeling in between the rafters for the small knife that had been placed there for him. The metal felt pleasantly cold on his fingertips, but he’d leave it there until the moment arrived.
He didn’t know what would happen to him afterwards. He didn’t care.
Lord Keswick’s palanquin had reached the platform, and he gingerly stepped off, dusting off his robe. Keswick was a plump man, with short blonde hair and an overly well-groomed moustache. He relished in proper, orderly attire regardless of how uncomfortable it would be, and today was no exception—he was sweating profusely under his heavy red overcoat.
The horn sounded once more. It was time to begin. From the grand overlook, an announcer hailed the crowd with a booming voice. The murmuring quieted. With fervor, the announcer described Emerick’s crimes of treason, the miracle by which the Count had survived, and the abolishment of Couriers that had followed, touting how the fiefs had “prospered” from the freedom. Emerick’s throat went dry, a dense kernel of loathing forming in his chest.
“Finally,” the announcer said solemnly, “as per the custom, the traitor is allowed audience with a single member of his household. Today, that person shall be Lord Albert Keswick, the Lord of this great castle, and former master of Emerick Reeve.” With a wave of his hand, the announcer motioned for them to proceed with their final exchange. “You may speak with the last Courier.”
The two guards on the platform stepped to the side, but kept Emerick within reach of their spears. Keswick approached, hands clasped behind his back.
“Emerick.” His face seemed to contort unnaturally as he spoke the name. “It’s been a long time.”
Emerick simply stared at him, a blank, heartless expression plastered to his face.
“Although,” Keswick continued, “I see your seal is no more, so you can hardly be called a Courier any longer, can you?”
Emerick still said nothing.
Keswick furrowed his brows. “Are you not going to speak after calling me here?”
“… Why?” Emerick whispered.
“Why did you do it?” Emerick raised his voice. “Why did you go along with it? How could you betray the Couriers? … How could you betray me?”
Keswick sighed, shaking his head. Emerick glared at him, the kernel of loathing unfurling into indignation inside him. He stretched his bindings once more, then continued. “Can you not see what your actions have wrought? Deceit is flourishing, fiefs are being left to rot.”
Keswick glanced at the guards, then smiled down at Emerick derisively. “How typical of you Couriers to see things in black and white. But things are not so, not in my eyes and not in the eyes of the Count. Know that this is just the beginning. The fiefdom had stagnated for too long, in no small part thanks to you Couriers. It needed rebuilding.”
“Then you have rebuilt your land on brittle lies.”
“You don’t understand at all, do you? I suppose I shouldn’t have expected as much, coming from a traitor.” He seemed to smile as he spoke, as if relishing the accusation.
Emerick laughed, leaning back on the pole and grasping the knife between the rafters. “I’m no traitor, Keswick. We both know that. From the first day we met, you promised me a great role as a Courier, and yet it had all been a front. How you must have prepared your words before coming to my presence, slithering carefully between the reaches of my seal. There is no truth in you at all, is there?”
Keswick smiled no more. “Let me tell you something, Emerick. The real truth is this: the world had no place for your kind, not then, and not now.” He whirled, gesturing curtly to the guards. “We’re through here.”
Emerick twisted the knife across his bindings and lunged forward with his full might, ripping himself free from the pole. His vision blurred from the pain, but he paid no heed, adrenaline pumping in his head. With a burst of Courier-trained speed, he ran at the astonished guards, weaving through the thrusts of their spears. People gasped. He kicked one off the platform, then swept under the other’s feet, causing him to tumble off the edge. Now there was screaming in the crowd.
Emerick took a breath and rubbed his now-lacerated wrists, the remains of his bindings still tied taut. Keswick stood on the other side of the platform, frozen in terror. As he snapped out of his stupor, he dashed for his palanquin, but it was pointless. In a single moment, Emerick reached him and grappled him from behind, pressing the small knife against his neck. Keswick froze in place.
“Stay away!” Emerick yelled to the guards that were rushing to the platform. He turned to face the overlook. Count Nazari stood enraged, leaning over the edge. Emerick smiled. “Stay away, and he shall live!”
The Count raised his hand, putting the guards on hold, his confident fury still glinting in his eye. Surprisingly, the crowd also quieted. The people seemed to hold their breath.
Emerick pricked his finger on the tip of the knife, and blood began dripping down the side. He gripped Keswick’s arms tighter, and the man tensed.
“Tell them!” Emerick boomed, loud enough that the crowd could hear. “Tell them what really happened! Tell them how you conspired with Count Nazari! How you spiked the wine that I had chosen with not poison, but ratberries! How you put the blame on me, and all other Couriers, in order to propagate your lies unabated! Tell them!”
Keswick grimaced, his eyes closed, his breathing shallow.
Keswick grit his teeth. “You may threaten me,” he yelled, “but I will not confirm the lies of a traitor!”
“It is truth! Tell them!”
“They are lies!”
Emerick threw aside the knife, and in one fluid stroke drew in blood the spiral, triple-crested truth seal on Keswick’s forehead. “Truth. Verity. Law. The message. May you bring truth to the people.” He took a deep breath, then bellowed, “Tell them, now!”
“Lies—” Keswick howled, but his voice got cut off. Emerick let him go as Keswick clutched his throat, gagging, the seal on his forehead glowing a crimson red that now almost rivaled the brilliance of the midday sun. The proud Lord fell to one knee, gasping for breath, until slowly the glowing subsided and the blood-seal disintegrated, flaking to the ground.
All had seen it. All knew what it meant.
Keswick breathed heavily, still on one knee. Emerick panted, while silence surrounded him. He raised his eyes to Lady Faye, still seated calmly on her palanquin. Her eyes glimmered. She smiled. It had worked.
But then a pang of despair clouded over her face. She opened her mouth to scream.
Emerick felt a sharp sting at his side. His eyes widened. He slowly looked down to see the spear that had stabbed him, the guard staring at him in panic. The pain hit him all at once and he stumbled back, pulling away from the weapon. The crowd erupted in rage, but their voices quickly became dull. Emerick’s throat felt dry, his legs wobbled. As his vision blurred, he could see Keswick fleeing, the guards panicking, and the crowd rushing at the platform. His legs gave way.
But he smiled as he fell. Truth was alive.
And it would never die again.