THE IMMORTAL PRINCE (Chapter 1)
Hope seemed an odd emotion for a man about to be executed, but that was the only name Cayal could give the thrill welling up inside him as they led him up the steps of the platform.
Soon, one way or another, he told himself, it will be over.
He could see nothing with the black hood over his head, his other senses starved of input by the rough weave of the cloth. He gathered the mask was as much to spare the spectators as it was to offer a condemned man some semblance of privacy. It muffled sound, too, making the world outside seem remote, shrinking reality to only what he could hear and feel. The tall grim walls were gone, so were the overcast sky and the gloomy prison yard. He revelled in his sense of touch; relished the cold air on his bare chest and the musty canvas over his head that reeked faintly of other, successful deaths.
Cayal breathed in the aroma and hoped.
With luck, this might be the last thing he ever knew. Oblivion beckoned and Cayal was rushing to meet it with open arms.
“What the…?” he exclaimed suddenly as a thick, heavy noose was tightened around his neck. He struggled against it, wondering what was happening. They should be ordering him to kneel, making him reach forward to the block.
He didn’t want to hang. Hanging was useless. Futile. And likely to be very, very painful…
“No!” he cried in protest, but with his hands tied behind him, his struggles were in vain. He could feel the hangman checking to make certain the knot was secure and in the right place, just under his jaw below the left ear, the place guaranteed to snap a neck as quickly as possible.
“Any last words?”
The gruff voice sounded disinterested, the question one of form rather than genuine consideration for a dying man’s wishes. For a moment, Cayal didn’t even notice the hangman was addressing him. Then he realised this might be his last chance to object.
In a tone that was anything but repentant, he turned his head in the direction of the executioner’s voice. “What’s going on here? You’re supposed to behead me.”
“The executioner’s on vacation,” the disinterested voice informed him. “Read the charges.”
The order was directed at someone else. A moment later, a shaky voice announced from somewhere on his left: “Kyle Lakesh, citizen of Caelum. You are charged with and have been found guilty of seven counts of heinous murder…”
As opposed to any other sort of murder, Cayal retorted silently, his anger welling up. The headsman’s on vacation? Are they kidding me?
“…For this crime, the Supreme Court of Lebec in the Sovereign State of Glaeba has sentenced you to death.”
Cayal cursed behind the hood, certain nobody would see the irony. He’d killed seven men to get here. Seven worthless humans to get himself beheaded. And the flanking headsman’s on vacation! Still, there was a funny side to this, he thought, wondering what the venerable members of the Supreme Court of the Sovereign State of Glaeba would do if they knew of the seven odd million he’d killed before that.
“Is there any word from the Prefect regarding his grace’s willingness to consider clemency?”
Another question of form, directed at the Warden. A last-minute reprieve could only come from the Duke of Lebec himself, an act that had only happened once in the past fifty years or so. Cayal knew that for a fact. He’d checked. When one was as determined to end their suffering as Cayal was, one did their homework.
Glaeban justice was harsh but surprisingly evenhanded, which suited him just fine. When you were deliberately setting out to be decapitated, there was no point in choosing a country known for its leniency toward killers.
The silence that followed the clerk’s question put to rest any last-minute hopes Cayal had that they might not carry out his sentence. A moment later, he heard footsteps echoing hollowly on the wooden decking of the platform and felt a gloved hand settling on his bare shoulder.
What if I say no? Cayal wondered. What’s he going to do? Wait until I’m in the mood?
“I want to be decapitated,” he complained, his voice muffled by the hood. “Hanging me is just wasting everybody’s time.”
“Do you forgive me?” the hangman asked in a barely audible voice. Cayal got the feeling that of all the questions the hangman asked of his victims, this was the only one to which he genuinely craved an affirmative answer.
“No point,” Cayal assured him.
Blinded by the hood, he couldn’t tell what the hangman’s reaction was to his reply, and in truth, he didn’t care. Cayal was beyond forgiveness. He was beyond despair. Just to be sure, he reached out mentally, wondering if there was any trace of magic left, but he could sense nothing, not even a faint residual hint of the Tide he once commanded. The magic couldn’t save him from the pain he knew was coming…
Almost before he finished the thought, the platform dropped beneath him. He plummeted through the trapdoor without any further warning.
The rope tightened savagely, cutting off his breath. Cayal thrashed as the air was driven from his lungs, the knot under his left ear pushing his jaw out of alignment, snapping his neck with an audible crack.
Filled with frustration, Cayal jerked viciously on the end of the rope, choking, asphyxiating, hoping it meant he was dying. His eyes watered with the pain. His very soul cried out in anguish, begging for death to claim him. He thrashed about, wondering if the violent motion would complete the hangman’s job. The agony was unbelievable. Beyond torture. White lights danced before his eyes, his heart was racing, lightning bolts of pain shot through his jaw and neck, he couldn’t breathe…
Cayal cried out in a language nobody in Glaeba knew, pleading with the powers of darkness to take him…and then, with his last remaining breath, his cry turned to a wail of despair. He’d been thrashing at the end of the rope for far too long.
His cry had driven the remaining air from his lungs. His throat was crushed. His neck broken.
And still he lived.
They left him hanging there for a long, long time, waiting for him to die. It was the nervous clerk who finally ordered him cut down when it was clear he wasn’t going to.
Cayal hit the unforgiving ground with a thud and lay there in the mud, dragging in painful breaths to replenish his oxygen-starved lungs as the noose eased, already feeling the pain of his dislocated jaw, broken larynx and neck beginning to heal of their own accord.
“Tides!” he heard the clerk exclaim as they jerked the hood from his head. “He’s still alive.”
The hangman was leaning over him too, his expression shocked. “How can it be?”
Cayal blinked in the harsh spring sunlight, glaring painfully up at the two men. Rough, unsympathetic faces filled his vision.
“I can’t die,” he rasped through his crushed larynx and twisted jaw, not realising that even had he been able to form the words properly, he still spoke in his native tongue; a language long gone from Amyrantha. Realising his error, he added in Glaeban, “I’m immortal.”
“What did he say?” the clerk asked in confusion.
“Something about a portal?” the hangman ventured with a shrug.
Cayal took another deep breath, even more painful than the last, if that was possible, then lifted his head and banged his face into the ground, jarring his jawbone back into place.
“I’m immortal,” he repeated in his own tongue. Nobody understood him. Even through the pain, with the failure of these fools to give him the release he craved, he found himself losing patience with them. “You can’t…kill me. I’m a…Tide…Lord.”
It wasn’t until later—when the Warden came back down to see what was going on—that he’d recovered sufficiently to repeat his announcement in a language even these stupid Glaebans would understand.
“I’m…a Tide Lord,” he’d announced, pushing aside the agony for a moment. He’d been expecting shock, perhaps a little awe at his news—after all, they’d just borne witness to his immortality—certainly not scepticism. “And as I’ve now proved…you can’t hang me, I demand…to be decapitated!”
The Warden had been far from impressed. “A Tide Lord, eh?”
Ignoring the throbbing in his neck and jaw, trying to sound commanding, Cayal nodded. “You must…execute me again. Only this time, do it properly.”
The man had squinted at Cayal lying on the ground at his feet in a foetal curl, smiling humourlessly. “I must do nothing on your command, my boy. I don’t care who you think you are.”
Cayal hadn’t actually thought about what might happen if they didn’t behead him. Not in practical terms, at any rate. He had wanted to end things so badly he hadn’t allowed himself to consider the consequences, just in case it jinxed him somehow. Lukys would have called him a superstitious fool for thinking like that. But then, Lukys would have had quite a bit to say about this entire disastrous escapade if he’d known about it. Cayal wondered, for a moment, what had happened to him. It was a century or more since Cayal had seen any of his brethren. Perhaps, if he had, he might not have come to this, but finding the others was nigh impossible if they didn’t want to be found. It was easy to get lost in a world of millions when there were only twenty-two of you.
So, alone and despairing, Cayal had waited until the lowest ebb of the Tide and then, quite deliberately and methodically, set out to put an end to his desolation.
And failed miserably; a problem he was only now—as he heard the Warden demanding to know what had gone wrong—beginning to fully appreciate.
“I am…Cayal, the Immortal…Prince,” he gasped, between his whimpers of agony. The damage done by the noose and his anxious jerking about at the end of the rope was substantial. This wasn’t going to heal in a few hours. Overnight, it might, but it was going to take time.
“You’re a right pain in the backside, is what you are,” the Warden muttered, turning to the guards who stood over Cayal, watching him writhe on the cold ground in agony as the healing progressed apace. “Take him to the Row while I decide what to do with him.”
“Didn’t you…hear me?” Cayal demanded as the Warden walked away, wondering if his inability to stand was somehow robbing his words of authority. The Warden seemed singularly unimpressed by the importance of his prisoner.
“I heard what you said, you murdering little bastard,” the Warden assured him, glancing back over his shoulder at where Cayal lay. “And if you think acting crazy is going to save you from the noose, you can think again.”
Crazy? Who’s acting crazy?
“You don’t know…who you’re dealing with!” he tried to yell hoarsely at the Warden’s back. The pain was unbelievable. Healing at an accelerated rate was a very nasty business.
“You’ve got a lot to learn about Glaeban justice yourself, old son,” one of the guards informed him, hauling him to his feet. “Come on, your holiness. Your royal suite awaits you.”
Cayal’s legs hung uselessly beneath him, his shins banging against the stone steps as they dragged him up the narrow curving stairs to Recidivists’ Row while they worked out what to do with the man who wouldn’t die.
The man they refused to acknowledge as an immortal.
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Fallon