Seven Deaths of an Empire by G. R. Matthews

Seven Deaths of an Empire

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On Character Voice


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Monthly Short Story Winner: Betrayal

We’ve been getting such good feedback for the short stories our members have submitted in our Monthly Short Story Competition that we have decided to post them on the main site at a rate of about one a fortnight. Today we will be looking at the winner from our January 2014 contest.

Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings

“Et tu, Brute?” Allegedly voiced by Julius Caesar and made immortal by Shakespeare and countless others, this is probably one of the most prominent betrayals in history and literature. It’s said that Caesar resisted his attackers at first, but when he saw his closest friend Brutus among them, he resigned to his fate.

Reading about a betrayal, like Frodo trusting Gollum and chasing Sam away, usually evokes strong emotions in the reader. Lucky as we are, we can only imagine how it feels when a mace crushes our arm or a sword opens our belly. But we all have been betrayed, no matter if it was a small betrayal by your kindergarten friend or something big by a partner or your parents.

Betrayals are never expected and they don’t cut your body, they cut your mind.

“The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies. It comes from friends and loved ones.”

Your challenge this month is to write about a betrayal. It doesn’t matter if you write from the perspective of the person betrayed or the one betraying or a third party.

For those unfamiliar, here are the ground rules:

1. This can be prose or a poem.
2. Must contain betrayal and elements of fantasy.
4. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
5. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
6. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That’s why they’re called limits.

This month we had two winners! Both stories are below. You can see all the contest entries here. And here are the winning stories!

– – –

Stab and Twist
by ACSmyth

By dawn, the children were already carrying water from the well for washing. We used it cold. Not even a betrothal warrants wasting precious fuel to heat water. In the desert, we are used to discomfort.

I made sure to wake Pietrig myself. Aithne and Kael’s wedding celebrations had gone on late, but Pietrig had come home later still, and filthy with it. He’d been with Sylas; I could tell. Our father and Sylas’s had gone to great lengths to keep them apart, but the soot from the kiln—their meeting-place of old—gave them away.

I pumped Pietrig for information, though he was barely awake. “Did he say anything? Is he willing?”

Pietrig spluttered as I poured cold water over his head. He scrubbed his fingers through his dark curls, rubbing behind his ears and down his neck. Funny. I used to help wash him when he was little, and here he was, wearing the gem in his ear, a grown man. Sooty water ran in rivulets over his shoulders.

“They’ve told him.”

“Is that all? Does it please him?”

Pietrig shook the water from his hair. “What do you think?”

I didn’t have to think; I knew. I’d talked to Sylas before he left. All he wanted was to be a changer and escape the village, his father, the linandra pits—everything that makes our people the lowest of the low, and him lowest of all.

“I think he’d want to stay at the Aerie.”

But his father would never allow that. After only three children, one dead these several months, Craie needed grandchildren to raise his status. Although most suspected Sylas would sooner lie with a man, Craie would still force him into marriage for his own ends.

“I know why this betrothal is happening, Fienne. To free me from the dig team. Father’s giving me a future by taking away Sylas’s. It stinks.”

Pietrig wasn’t meant to be a linandra digger; he was meant to follow father as village elder. But if Sylas took his place in the pits, Pietrig could come home, and Sylas marrying me would drag his family off the bottom rung of our village’s ladder.

As a marriage proposal, it did indeed stink.

* * *

The morning was cool; the clean dress fresh against my skin. Sylas was freshly scrubbed, all hints of soot washed away. The linandra bead that marked his adulthood glinted in the early sun, but the bead on the thong about my neck was a sham. It proclaimed me a woman, but I was seventeen, nearly eighteen, and I had never bled.

My stomach fluttered. It’s expected for the girl to be nervous, but Sylas looked just as tense, and I wondered what had passed between him and his parents. When I tried to catch his eye, to give him a reassuring smile, he looked past me, to where the rest of my family stood. To Pietrig.

Can there be anything more soul-destroying than knowing your betrothed loves your brother better? I’d guessed years ago. Pietrig would flirt with the village girls—sneak a kiss when he could. But Sylas only had eyes for Pietrig. Would Sylas even want to take me to his bed when we were married? Had that too been part of my father’s plan? To blame him when I failed to conceive?

When my father suggested the betrothal it seemed ideal. I loved Sylas like another brother already. He’s a good man, kind and gentle. But I didn’t think they’d trick him; I thought he knew. I’d sooner he had been happy about the match, but could I lay my hand on my heart and say I wouldn’t marry him even if he was unwilling, knowing this might be my only chance? The Lady knows my shame, I reasoned, and still she has brought this man to be my betrothed.

As we stood, waiting to be joined, my betrothed-to-be tried to catch my brother’s eye. When at last he succeeded, he tensed and looked uncomfortably away. Shifting, he stared across the circle to where his own family were gathered. He and his mother were so very close. What were they conveying to each other with those lingering looks?

My father took my hand to lead me towards Sylas. Sylas’s father took his elbow and tried to do the same, but Sylas shook his father off. He muttered something. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I could guess the intent from his truculent posture. A chill ran through me, and my heart beat so hard, I thought my father could hear it.

My father leaned close, his breath tickling my ear when he spoke. “Take his hand, child. Many men are nervous when it comes to it. He will do it for you.”

I held out my hand, and Sylas looked at me, his eyes full of pain. He didn’t want to hurt me, I could tell, but he would do it all the same. I wanted to run. To hide. To pretend this wasn’t happening. But the whole village was watching. I had to see it through.

He looked like an animal in a trap. “I’m sorry.” He barely whispered the words, but I read them from his lips.

His father yanked his arm. “Take it. Take her hand, damn you.”

The look he gave me broke my heart. “I can’t. Fienne, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

It’s only nerves, I told myself. It has happened before, one partner hesitating, realising the importance of the vows. But I could hear villagers shuffling behind me. This was not just nerves. They could tell something was wrong.

“Please, Elder Skarai. Don’t do this to her. Take her back to your wife. Say we made a mistake. Say she refused me. Say she loves another. Please don’t do this.”

I tried to speak, could feel my lips trembling as I did so. “But I would not refuse you. You are the gentlest man in the village. I would have you as my husband before any of them. When my father asked me, I agreed right away.”

He raised his head and looked over my shoulder, far into the distance. I didn’t need to turn to know he was staring at the mountain on which the Aerie lay. Thinking of his dreams of changing; his future, left in tatters because of me.

“I cannot marry you, Fienne. I will not.” Then to my horror, he raised his voice so all the village could hear. “I will not take her, do you hear me? I will go back to the Aerie. I cannot marry. Not Fienne. Not anyone. I mean to be a changer.”

“You’ll do as we say, young Sylas!” My father tugged at my hand, and Craie did the same to Sylas. Was there ever a less auspicious start to a marriage than a man and woman’s hands being joined by force?

I wanted to scream at them to stop, but I controlled myself. “No,” I said, and the words caught in my throat. “If he does not want me, I would not have you force him.”

“He will do as he is told, girl, as will you.” My father would never normally speak angrily to me. “Who do you want in the desert: Sylas or your brother? Your brother, who will lead after me?”

Pietrig was right, I thought bitterly. All this was to release Pietrig from the digging—from the life in the vents that rotted men’s lungs and ate the skin from their faces. Had he been part of their schemes?

Sylas raised his voice. “They try to trick my father. The girl is barren. She has had no flows. She should never have had the bead. I will not marry her.”

No one moved. No one spoke. I stared at him, speechless. He might have come to this betrothal unwillingly, but to shame me before everyone…

My eyes threatened to overflow, but I would not cry in front of him. I would not let him see how deeply he had wounded me. “Who— Who told you? They said it was a secret—that no one beyond family knew of it. How could you do this to me, Sylas? In front of everyone. Omena’s wings, but I thought you cared for me a little.”

No one beyond family. I had washed the soot from Pietrig’s body myself. Pietrig had slept with Sylas last night, of that I was now certain. And at the kiln, in the throes of lovemaking or in the quiet after, he had told Sylas my secret. The one thing he had sworn no one outside family would know. He had told him I was barren, and now the entire village knew.

I ran home sobbing. Sylas was not my betrothed, nor ever would be now, but he had been my friend. Pietrig was my own blood.

A friend’s betrayal stabs deep, but a brother’s betrayal twists the knife.

– – –

Jing Ke – A Tale from the Stone Road
by G_R_Matthews

“Your tea, Shifu.” Haung handed the small, delicate porcelain cup to the old man sat across from him. They both tapped the table twice with the fingers of their right hand and then sipped the hot, green and fragrant liquid.

“Haung, Jing Ke is…complicated,” Shifu began. “He is not one man alone. There are a multitude of him. It is how he operates. He finds likely candidates, teaches and trains them to play his role and use his name. His fame and legend spreads with each atrocity. Some only days apart, but thousands of miles distant from the other. You killed one of those men. The real Jing Ke would have killed you in short order.”

“Shifu,” Haung halted as the old man raised his hand.

“Haung, I was tasked with tracking down and killing Jing Ke many years ago. I killed four of his men and never came close to finding him,” Shifu explained.

“Yes, Shifu.” Haung looked into the other’s eyes. “I am sure I can handle an assassin.”

“Haung,” Shifu shook his head, “Jing Ke is not an assassin. He is a warrior, and a master. He may take work as an assassin but that is not how he was trained. I should know. I trained him. Believe me when I tell you, you could not stand against him. Not yet.”

Haung took a deep breath, his fingers gripping the thin porcelain tightly enough to cause the glaze to crackle. “You trained Jing Ke?”

“To be a fighter. I trained him to be a Taiji, not an assassin. He was, is, one of the best students I ever had.” Shifu looked away from Haung and took another sip of his tea. “He is my son, my adopted son. Let me tell you how I found him…”

* * *

The young officer did not wait for the horse to stop before leaping from the saddle. He sailed through the air, tucking into a somersault and landing on his feet, balanced. The long, straight sword appeared in his hands and he struck, twice. The bandits fell to the ground, blood spraying from their necks and swords tumbling from lifeless fingers.

Bandits in mismatched armour spilled out of the ramshackle houses that lined the muddy road, the village’s only thoroughfare. The weak cries of their victims followed them through the doorways.

“Get him,” screamed the largest and they all drew steel; swords, axes and rust-spotted daggers.

The young officer flicked the long braid of his hair around his neck and with a sharp cry he jumped forward into the midst of the on-rushing bandits. His sword flowed like a river over their guards and parries, washing away lives in a flood of bright red.

The young man smiled, proud, as the last slipped off his sword with a soft sigh.

* * *

“…I killed them. Twelve in all. Back then, when I was young, that was my job. If a problem arose and it needed a quick resolution, I was it…”

* * *

His fingers felt the neck of every villager in every home. He closed the eyes of the dead and eased the passing of those too injured to save. The sharp knife he kept in the intricately inlaid sheath the best mercy he had. And, when possible, he bound wounds, or cut and cauterised if needed. The smell of burning flesh was sweet but repellent.

The village was finished. There were simply not enough people left alive to farm the land. The few survivors were staggering away from the ruins as the rain began to fall and the young man emerged from the last house, a small wailing boy in his arms.

* * *

“…they didn’t want him. His mother was dead, as were his three brothers. I never found the father. For all I know he was amongst those stumbling away. To them he was another mouth to feed, a drain on their non-existent resources. I burnt the village to the ground.”

“Shifu, how could you burn the bodies?” Haung asked, “Won’t they rise as ghosts?”

“To haunt a patch of land? No, Haung, I am sure even the dead will never want to return there.” Shifu looked down at the table, tracing the inlay with one finger. “I brought him home with me and raised him as my own.”

* * *

“You have to stand up to the other boys.”

“They’re all bigger than me, Dad.” The little boy’s sad, soft eyes looked into his father’s and the older man was tempted to gather him into his arms, to make it all right.

“Jing Ke, size does not matter. Heart and courage are enough for this.”

“They’ll hit me. They’ll hurt me.” A sob followed the words.

“Yes, they will, Jing Ke. But, by standing up to them, by fighting back, you will teach them that you are strong. That you are brave and not an easy target.”

“I can’t, Dad. I’m scared.”

* * *

“They picked on him because of his size, always small for his age, and because he was my son. They tried to get to me through him. It was not an easy childhood but he was bright boy. Timid and tearful but he cared for others. I loved him. So, I taught him.”

* * *

“Here,” he handed the boy a wet cloth, “wipe the blood off your face. The same boys again?”

“Yes, Dad.” His son’s voice was on the cusp of breaking and deepening.

“How many this time?”

“Four of them,” the boy pulled the cloth away from his face and examined the smear of blood upon it. “I gave them something to think about.”

“They’ll be back again, Jing Ke.” He put a comforting arm on his growing son’s shoulder. “Perhaps I should speak to their parents.”

“I can handle it, Dad. You’ll only make things worse.”

* * *

Shifu finished the last of the tea and placed it on the table. Haung followed suit and then looked up into the old man’s eyes, recognising the faraway look in them.

“He was a good son, a good student. He got stronger and faster…”

* * *

The loud, repeated thumping on the door reverberated throughout the house. It echoed from the walls and bounced down the corridors.

He sighed as he stood and, putting aside the scroll he had been reading, moved to answer the summons.

“How can I help?” he asked of the two red-faced and sweating men outside.

“Is your thug of a son at home? I want him punished. I want him beaten. Look at what he has done to my son,” the first man, dressed in the robes of a middle ranking administrator, shouted. He dragged his son forward, pointing at the teenager’s puffy and grazed face dominated by the large purple bruise around the left eye.

“And look at what he did to mine,” the second father, in the robes of a trader, waved at his son who limped forward, dragging his right leg and cradling his left arm.

“Are you sure that my son is to blame?”

“Both of the boys said so.” The Administrator raised an accusing finger at the home-owner whose gaze never left the loud man’s face. The finger drooped.

“In that case you had better come in to discuss the matter. I am sure we can resolve this,” the home-owner stepped back to allow them to enter. “Please, take a seat and I will find my son.”

He walked past the variety of swords that hung, displayed, on the wall towards the door at the rear. The two fathers and their battered sons stood in silence.

The owner returned with Jing Ke in tow. The boy’s face showed its own evidence of violence. The other boys saw him and took a protective step behind their fathers.

“My son, Jing Ke,” the owner indicated his boy with sweeping, open palm. “I have been given a brief account of the attack and it is a shameful business.” The two aggrieved father’s nodded, the Administrator going so far as to raise the accusing finger again before thinking better of it. “We, Jing Ke and I, wonder where the other five boys are?”

* * *

Haung saw a small smile form on Shifu’s lips that died a slow death.

“He was my son, my best pupil, and he became an assassin. He betrayed all my teachings and I had to stop him. I failed and now the task is yours, Haung.”

– – –

Congratulations to our winners G_R_Matthews & ACSmyth! If you would like to enter this month’s contest or vote for last month’s winner, check out the Monthly Writing Contest board in our forum.


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