Short Story – “The Axeman’s Name”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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The Axeman’s Name

by J. Kraft Mitchell

 

The roar of the throng was a distant thunder, a muffled, unending cacophony, faint but unmistakable. From his chamber deep within the palace, the axeman listened. The faintly echoing din called to him, beckoned him, demanded him. And he would not disappoint.

He crouched in the bare room. The darkness was broken only by trickles of daylight, rays of sun choked by the smog of the city and choked again by the stained glass of small, high windows. The lamps were unlit. He preferred the darkness.

With large, coarse fingers he took his garment from its hook. It had been black once, but thirteen long years of use had rendered it a dull gray. The near-darkness saved him from seeing the stains, red when fresh but now a colorless spatter which the empire’s most gifted launderers could not seem to remove entirely. Layers upon layers of the stains had embedded themselves into the material of the sleeveless garment. Two servants in imperial red helped him buckle it around his towering frame.

The distant crowd roared on.

The hood came next, made of the same once-black cloth. Even the small eye slits through the cowl of anonymity gave him all too thorough a view of the word around him.

He would not at first touch the instrument which gave him his title. The servants had to fetch it for him. They brought it to him together, for what the axeman could lift easily took two men of average strength to carry. He hesitated when they held it out to him. Had he hesitated the same way thirteen years ago? Had his hands moved so slowly the first time they had grasped the long, wooden handle?

The axeman hoisted his weapon at last, eyes shying away from the blade’s fierce curve. There a similar stain, hinting at red, seemed to taint the edge in a way no amount of sharpening or polishing could undo.

He followed the servants into the passage. Longer and darker it seemed than the last time he had walked it. And the din of the crowd grew closer.

Fierce light and sound burst upon him as the servants threw open the doors at the end of the passage. He stepped onto platform. Even the smog-choked sunlight seemed intolerably bright, and the cheers and wails of the onlookers assaulted him.

In the highest tiers sat the nobility, clad in imperial reds, blacks and golds. The men favored tailored suits with embroidered lapels and wore top hats or derbies tilted in precisely the fashion of the day. The women wore elaborate gowns with plunging necklines and laced bodices, and most wore their hair long and waving. Many watched the scene with the same glasses through which they would see an opera or a ballet this evening.

Below the nobles’ terraced seating were rickety bleachers filled with visitors from the Outer City. Their clothes were a uniform drab, their hair largely worn in whatever fashion it had made of itself upon awakening this morning. Along with the nobles, they looked on eagerly. Along with the nobles, they cheered and raised their hands in ecstasy. Yet it was one of their own who would be escorted to the stage of execution; one of their own whom the nobles would deliver to be made an example, just as had happened yesterday and would happen again tomorrow.

Now another door, much larger and more ornate, opened onto a high balcony overlooking the platform. Four men emerged, dressed in black emblazoned with the imperial sun emblem. The same emblem shimmered from the banners and pennants which soared and rippled over the assembly, golden rays stretching across a deep red field. The imperial elders took their seats.

And behind the elders four servants now led out Her Eminence, the Empress herself. The skin of her hands, arms and face was painted the same glittering gold as the silk of her regal gown. Long hair fell to one side of her face in cascades of dyed black and blood-red. She took a seat in a throne-like chair at the edge of the balcony.

It was a special day. Even here in the imperial capital, very few of the daily executions were graced with the presence of Her Eminence.

Yet it was not the Empress whose presence would be the centerpiece of the gathering. It was the poor soul being led even now up the stairs to the landing. He looked little different than the countless others who had been led up these same steps to the same fate. He struggled only a little in the grip of the red-clad servants on either side of him. As they neared the top of the stairs his feet began to stumble across the red-brown streaks and spatters, ancient and new, which evidenced those who had gone before him.

When he reached the landing he looked at the axeman, and the axeman looked back silently. It was not anger which showed in the man’s eyes, nor was it fear. It was simple defeat.

The servants bound the man hand and foot and laid him face-down across the chopping block. With sheer rote motions, springing ever so easily from thirteen years of daily repetition, the axeman raised his blade. Over his head, it glinted in the smog-smothered sun, and as one the onlookers stood. Their roar was an incoming tide, sweeping deeper and louder with anticipation.

Down swung the axe. The tide had become a typhoon. The greatest peal of thunder the heavens could offer would have drowned in the tumult. The stains upon his garments, upon his blade, upon the platform beneath his feet were renewed.

And he was receding through the doors again, down the passage back to his dark quarters in the depths of the palace. Paces behind him, the servants carried his instrument for him. He did not look back.

 

He could see their faces, every one of them – a long, tragic parade through the bleak landscape of his thoughts. Thirteen years of faces, and a new one each day. Their expressions were the same. Not anger, not fear. Defeat.

He stood in the highest tower where one of his status was allowed. Out the windows the city stretched out before him as a map. Immediately below were the impeccably manicured palace grounds, surrounding which were the spires and tiled rooftops of the central districts. Along these cobbled streets ambled finely clothed pedestrians and carriages pulled by automaton horses. Gilded lettering identified the shops behind decorated windows.

But the beauty and luxury ended abruptly at a heavily guarded and spike-topped wall, beyond which the roads turned to mud and wove among hovels and dilapidated factories. The Outer City, they called it. It was here the capital’s lesser criminals – those not found worthy of immediate hanging or imprisonment – were banished to scrape together what life they may. Daily they toiled in the great factories, laboring to give the elite their fine clothes, machines and conveniences. Their offenses may have been as slight as an ill word spoken against Her Eminence, or merely an unproven rumor of such a word. The children born to them were considered heirs of the same guilt, with little hope of ever being allowed into the lavish districts which overshadowed them.

Even these petty criminals did not always escape a death sentence, for each day one of them was chosen at random to be marched up the steps to the axeman’s platform.

The evening waned. Forests of great smokestacks jutting up from among the Outer City slums coughed up billows of black, brown or milky white, all blending together to cloak the sky in an atmosphere of nameless color. And in that atmosphere hovered countless airships, great bloated insects drifting near and far over the city. Freighters, patrollers and pleasure cruisers shared the same murky sky.

Beyond the Outer City, nearly invisible through the haze, stretched the sea. The sun seemed to set into its waters, the smog taming its brilliance to a dull red-orange. There was beauty in that sight, whatever foulness had created it, but the axeman did not seem to see it. He saw only his waking vision of the parade of faces. His eyes held no pity for them, only an empty stare returning empty stares. His occupation had hardened him, forming an armor about him. It was iron, not skin, which held him. It was iron which had held him for these thirteen years.

But iron long in use may at last become brittle and break.

 

He woke to another day one week later, and the roar of the throng was a distant thunder, a muffled, unending cacophony, faint but unmistakable. He could not know that in these last days the shell about him had begun, slowly but certainly, to crack. No, this day seemed to him as any other day these past thirteen years.

His garment, once black but now faded, rimmed with stains.

The hood with its cowl of anonymity.

Servants in red, bringing him the instrument which gave him his title.

The passage, even longer, even darker.

And he stepped again into fierce light and sound, poised on the platform as servants of Her Eminence led the day’s selection up the stairs toward him. His eyes met the victim’s.

The iron was struck.

He could not have said why. It was not the first time a girl had been chosen, nor one so young; not the first time such a small, frail body was cast at his feet, or that such a delicate neck beckoned his blade. As they bound her she looked up at him, not angry, not pleading for mercy–and yet with a look subtly different than any of the others who had come before her. And again his eyes locked onto hers.

The iron was struck again.

She was laid across the blocks. The servants stepped back. Still the girl looked at him. Still something shone in her eyes that he had not seen before.

The throng’s roar shook the foundations of the grandstands.

He stood motionless, a corner of his axe’s blade resting upon the platform as, pensively, he gripped the worn, wooden handle.

Restlessness stirred in the onlookers. Impatient murmurs simmered, growing closer to a boil as long seconds ticked by and the axeman remained a statue. He seemed deaf to their heckling. Their cries, their presence, became things distant, unnoticeable beyond the horizon of the girl’s gaze in which he stood transfixed.

And then – he did not know what spirit he now channeled — all at once he had scooped the girl up and cradled her in one arm while, with the other hand, he swung his namesake in a harrowing radius which kept the guards at bay.

As one the crowd stood and gasped at the spectacle. The elders on the balcony stood also and began shouting panicked, unheeded orders.

From the doorway exiting the platform, the axeman gave a final mighty swing of his weapon and, with the girl clutched safely in one massive arm, disappeared inside.

 

It was as though he watched from outside of himself. Surely it was another, not he, who clung to the frail girl whose head remained very much upon her shoulders. It was another, not he, who ran with long strides through the narrow corridors in the depths of the palace, every step distancing them from opposition. The axeman was one of very few souls who knew his way among that web of dark passages.

Upon his chest the girl laid her head, marveling at the strength and gentleness with which he carried her. She did not yet contemplate an explanation for this turn of events. The blood which ought now to be adorning the stage of execution flowed safely in her veins, and for now that was enough. She clung to him.

At last he paused and set her upon her feet, and though he did not speak the compassion was unmistakable in the eyes peering through the dark cowl’s twin slits. He led her into a servant’s quarters, where he found a simple gown and a hooded cloak which he offered to her.

She did not accept them.

“A disguise,” he explained, his first words to her.

“It was for thieving that I was to be executed, sir,” she replied.

“It was for the misfortune of a slip of paper with your name on it, drawn at random from a hat, that you were to be executed. Please,” he said softly, offering the clothes more insistently.

She took the garments with a reluctant hand. “But will you not need a disguise as well?”

“No one knows my face,” the axeman replied as he removed his once-black jerkin and hood. “Only my mask.”

She looked curiously at the revealed face. It was pleasantly homely, not unkind, almost shy – hardly the face one would have expected to see behind that dark cowl.

“What is your name?” he asked her.

“It’s Alex, sir. That is, my full name is Alexandria, but I don’t like being called by my full name.”

A smile touched the homely face. “Then I shall not call you that,” he promised. “And tell me, Alex, where are you from?”

“From the Paddock District of the Outer City, sir, though I’ve hardly any wish to return there.”

Pity shone in the kind eyes. “Have you any parents?”

“None living, sir, not since three years ago next month.”

“We’re going to escape, you and I.”

“Won’t they be after us, sir, the Empress’s men? That is, the Empress’s men who aren’t you.”

“We’ll get away from them, Alex. We’ll go far away from this place.”

“Where will we go, sir, if I may ask?”

He had not thought upon it. A whim prompted him to ask her, “Where would you like to go?”

Her eyes shifted. “I dare not presume. You’ve already been kind enough to spare my life.”

“Please tell me.”

She hesitated. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, sir, I’ve always fancied a trip to the green hills up north. I’ve never seen them, you see, and I’ve always wanted to.”

“Then you shall see them, Alex,” the axeman promised. “You shall see them before the week is out.”

 

He cast an eye over his shoulder with each passing moment, each and every step, as he led her along a silent garden path, through a little known gate, and away from the palace grounds. Through the bustle of the market they passed, two souls lost among thousands, meeting hardly a glance. Night began to fall and gaslight orbs on iron posts cast halos of amber onto the cobbled walks.

Stars were striving to shine through the haze over the city by the time they had reached the airship docks, great planked platforms where the mighty vessels of the skies were tethered. He found a pleasure cruiser bound for the peaceful northern regions. Four gold coins was the fare, a pittance from the savings he’d accrued from thirteen years with never a use for his wages. He drew them from the bag in his pocket and dropped them in the eager hand of the ticket master with the stovepipe hat.

They passed the time before their departure by milling among the dock’s vendors, where the girl’s eyes bugged at the luxurious wares being proffered. The axeman saw her gaze rest momentarily upon a gown of green and embroidered gold.

“It looks quite your size,” he observed.

“Oh, no,” she replied at the implication, “I couldn’t possibly!”

“In truth, it’s the sort of thing our fellow journeyers will be wearing. We ought to blend in if we can. I’d best find some new things of my own as well.”

“Thank you, sir, but the only thing I really want is a bit of supper, if I may trouble you.”

What a fool he felt at her words! His own appetite, sated often enough by the decadent dishes of the palace, had been squelched by his treason and his sense of the invisible hounds upon their heels. But how could he not have realized that the poor, spindly figure at his side would be in need of nourishment? “You shall have your supper,” he said, “anything you like.”

Her eyes widened. A thoroughly enticing blend of smells wafted from the rows of food vendors. “Anything at all, sir?”

“Anything at all. And when you’ve done–when you couldn’t possibly stand another bite–you shall have your dress as well!”

 

Their cabin on the airship was far better than any place Alexandria had ever called home. The water supply aboard allowed her to draw a warm bath, a rare amenity indeed for anyone from the Outer City. The axeman called for the ship’s hairdresser to give her a shampoo and to style her golden tresses according to the latest fashions.

For several long, breathless moments she stood before the mirror, staring mesmerized at her new gown and her gleaming curled locks. For the first time in many years, perhaps the first time in her life, Alexandria realized she was beautiful.

She was still gaping at her reflection when the axeman entered and asked if she’d like anything to eat.

“But we’ve already eaten supper.”

“Yes, but what about dessert?”

She turned to face him. “Is that common for people of the higher classes–to eat this dessert after each supper?”

“Why yes, in fact it is.”

“All right, then,” she agreed at last.

He led her from their cabin to the dining room, where several other finely-clad passengers were enjoying coffees and desserts of various sorts. She did not notice the axeman’s eyes darting furtively about the room.

They took a seat by a large, round porthole. The sky outside was crisply dark and spangled brilliantly, the smog of the imperial capital now far behind them. A crescent moon hung among the stars. She leaned close to the porthole and gazed at the sight.

“And for you, ma’am?” asked the waiter, who had arrived without her realizing.

She sat up straight. “Well…that is, what are you having?” she asked the axeman.

“A chocolate and coconut cake,” he answered, “with a dollop of ice cream on the side for good measure.”

Her mouth hung open. “Is there ice cream?” she asked him in a whisper.

“Certainly there is,” said the waiter. “What flavor would you like?”

Alexandria blinked. “Are there many sorts of flavors?”

“Quite a number. Our most popular are chocolate and strawberry.”

“Might I try…both of those?” she asked, embarrassed and excited all at once.

“But of course,” smiled the waiter, and disappeared.

“I’ve always dreamed of trying ice cream one day,” she mused, wide-eyed, perhaps unaware that she was saying it aloud.

“You shall have as much as you like,” the axeman insisted.

Her eyes met his. “How terrible of me. You were kind enough to ask my name, and here I’ve just realized I never asked yours.”

He looked out into the night. “I have no name. I am Her Eminence’s axeman. That is all.”

“But surely you had a name once.”

“Once, yes.”

And when she had pressed him he told her, leaning forward and speaking softly so that no one but Alex could hear, the story of how a boy raised in the Outer City was unwillingly chosen for his task because of the strength of his arms and breadth of his shoulders; how for thirteen years he had used each day of his life to end the life of another in the name of the Empress.

She listened intently, interrupting only to query him for more details. When he had finished his tale she asked him plainly, “And why did you not kill me, axeman?”

How many times since this morning had he asked himself the same question?   But he had no answer. He was saved from attempting to contrive one for her, for at that moment Alexandria’s ice cream arrived and arrested her full attention.

 

Along with the dress and several other items of clothing for their journey, the axeman had purchased a nightgown for Alexandria. She marveled that, beyond being expected to wear something different each day, there was a special garment to wear at night as well. She reveled in its silky warmth, reveling the more when she had tucked herself between her bed’s satin sheets. The low lamplight was pleasant, and the gentle hum of the airship’s engines comforting.

He looked in on her before retiring to his own bed in the cabin’s second room. “Are you quite comfortable?”

“I’m sure I’ve never been so comfortable in my entire life,” she answered sincerely. But a slight shiver touched her voice.

“You’re cold?” he asked.

“Perhaps a little. I hardly noticed. I’m not nearly so cold as I’m used being at nights, you see.”

He vanished into his room and returned with one of the blankets from his own bed. When he’d laid the blanket over her he gently tucked the edges around her. “Sleep as long as you like. I’ll save some breakfast for you.”

“Axeman?” she asked him, for he had still not divulged his name.

“Yes, Alex?”

“You’re very like my father was, do you know?”

 

He did not sleep, did not even close his eyes. The contemplative silence in which he sat on his bed was at last broken by a tremor from deep inside his chest–a sob, he realized, too late to stifle it, and others followed.

The day they had come for him, the day he had been named an imperial executioner, he had wept all evening and all through the night. But with the sunrise the next morning came the hardness. With each passing day, with each swing of his axe, the hardness had grown, until that iron casket had deadened him to sorrows and fears imprisoned somewhere far from his consciousness.

But the prison had broken, and now the tears suppressed for thirteen long years came bursting out of him all at once in a sweet and terrible flood. He wept for the boy he had once been and for his home long lost, the tale he had not recounted–had hardly thought upon–until this evening at dessert. He wept for the parade of his blade’s victims, marching in stoic silence through his memory and gazing at him, through him, with sightless eyes. He wept most of all for the girl in the next room who had before this night never worn a beautiful dress nor tasted ice cream; and he wept with desperate relief that, whatever fate had taken hold of him to see to it, her face was not among those in the parade.

 

During the days of the journey north there grew a companionship between the girl and the axeman more wonderful than he had known could exist. Alexandria, much more prone to chatter by nature, at first did most of the talking. But her constant questions and promptings quickly loosened his own tongue so that he found words springing from his mouth more readily than he could ever remember.

At each meal they spoke to each other of things grave or of things lighthearted, sometimes whispering intently and sometimes laughing uncontrollably, so that long after their plates were cleaned they remained at the table, lost in conversation. Laughter, as weeping, he realized, had long been a thing foreign to him; and as the one had seemed to loose his heart’s chains, the other seemed to give his heart wings.

Nights, too, after he had tucked her in, were spent with pleasant words traded through the open door between their bedchambers until they had drifted off to peaceful sleep.

By the fourth morning they were more than halfway to their destination, and the ship tethered at the docks of a small town to resupply. Alexandria wished for the axeman to take her out for a walk during the wait, and she begged him until he could not refuse her.

His heart began to pound. Adrift in the clouds he had almost forgotten his treachery. The incident seemed nearly as far behind him as the imperial city he had fled. But the moment his feet touched the ground again, as many long miles as it may have been from the stage upon which he’d committed his crime, he resumed his constant furtive glances. Along each street and around each corner he half-expected to meet an officer of the Empress come for them.

But the morning passed without incident, and he released a long held breath when they were at last aboard their vessel again.

The following night, when Alexandria’s sweet voice from the next room had finally given way to the slow, regular breathing that accompanies pleasant dreams, the axeman replayed in his mind the scene of five days ago. He saw the servants lay her across the blocks, saw them pull her hair aside to expose that small, graceful neck for his blade. He might have done it — had, in fact, been about to do so. He recoiled at the memory, shocked that he had allowed his mind to so much as entertain the thought.

But wasn’t the only true shock, he realized, that he had not done the deed–that he did not do that day what he had done each and every day for so many years? What miracle had stayed his hand? What enchantment had possessed him? He remembered watching himself, as if watching another man from a distance, as he swept Alexandria into his arms and carried her to safety.

No, he realized all at once, that had been no other man. It had been well and truly himself. The man who for thirteen long years had wielded a great axe in the name of the Empress – that had been another man. It was then, not that moment five days ago, that he had been a man possessed, watching helplessly from behind his cowl as his hands and arms performed their horrific daily task without his consent.

…Until one look from Alexandria’s eyes had freed him. What relief, what bliss, he thought as his eyes closed at last, to be free of that other man.

 

“We have arrived,” his voice awoke her the seventh morning.

Any lingering weariness she might have felt fled with this glorious announcement. With a cry she leaped to her feet and began readying herself. She wore her green gown again, her favorite, which the ship’s launderers had cleaned and pressed for her.

They skipped breakfast, so anxious was she to see the green hills. After disembarking and passing through the small northern village at which the airship had docked, they found themselves on a winding trail through a quiet wood. They were quite alone. At the wood’s edge the trail ascended a ridge, and as they reached its crest the view spread magically before them.

Alexandria drew an astounded breath. How many times had she imagined seeing the beautiful valley her eyes now beheld? How sensational and how vivid her fantasies had been, and yet, as one glimpse now told her, how utterly short they had fallen! How much bluer the sky was than she had pictured! How much higher and greener the hills, glistening like emeralds in the sunlight! How much more beautiful the silvery stream, sparkling like a thousand thousands of diamonds as it coursed through the valley! And in her imaginations she had neglected entirely the sounds of the twittering birds and of the trickling waters, the affectionate touch of the breeze against her skin, the invigorating scent of the fresh air filling her lungs. The smog and squalor of the city in which she had lived her entire life up to now seemed utterly lost behind her as her wide eyes took in the sight.

As for the axeman’s eyes, they were rooted upon the enraptured face of the girl, and he relished his view as much as she did hers. “Shall we walk?” he asked at length, taking her hand.

But she did not walk. She danced, skipped, ran in vivacious circles, tugging him after her all the while. Down the hill and into the valley they tumbled, and she giggled gleefully with each step. Was he giggling as well? He hardly recognized the sound of his own mirth!

As they neared the banks of the river she halted suddenly. “Do you think,” she began, and paused to reconsider speaking the thought aloud. “Do you think we could take off our shoes and run in the grass with our bare feet?” she asked at last in a whisper, as though the very idea might be too appallingly wonderful to suggest.

But of course the axeman was only too agreeable. Off came their shoes, and the running was resumed along with the laughter. Lush grasses sprinkled with wildflowers cushioned their soles and tickled their ankles. Before he knew it, she was pulling him across the stream, and the cool waters splashed over and about them and scattered rainbows in the sunshine. They ran and ran and ran until they had no more strength to run but only to collapse onto their backs in the soft grass and stare contentedly up at the sky.

The sun began to sink below the western hills, and the clouds were painted and painted again in shifting brilliant hues. There were no words; they had spoken enough, voiced enough of themselves to each other in these last days that they could now savor that beautiful, intimate silence shared by only the closest of friends.

 

He had only just drifted off to sleep when something awakened him suddenly. The sunset was dimming and the first stars glittering overhead. He sat up and looked instinctively toward the ridge which lay between the valley and the village where their airship had docked.

Several men were visible against the soft light of the evening sky. Even from this distance he could see that they were armed.

He touched Alexandria and she stirred sleepily. “Get up,” he urged her, repeating the command when he had stood and she had not. He took her hand and tugged her upright, looking back toward the men.

They were approaching.

The axeman looked frantically around. If only the night would hasten and shroud them in merciful darkness! But in the gentle twilight the two of them were clearly, painfully visible on the floor of the wide valley.

“Run, Alex!” he whispered.

The joy which had lent wings to their feet just hours ago in that very place had vanished with the sun; it was dread that now fueled their steps. The nearest trees which could hide them seemed miles away, and long before they reached them another party of armed men appeared in that very place. The axeman seized Alexandria’s hand and pulled her another direction, but yet more of the Empress’s soldiers appeared there like specters.

They were surrounded.

 

The roar of the throng was a distant thunder, a muffled, unending cacophony, faint but unmistakable. From his chamber deep within the palace the axeman listened. The faintly echoing din called to him; beckoned him; demanded him.

But he would not come. He refused to put on the once-black garment, the hood with its cowl; refused to take hold of the long wooden handle with the terrible curved blade fixed at one end. The servants in red glanced helplessly at each other and shuffled their feet.

The roar grew anxious.

An imperial herald entered the chamber. “Her Eminence the Empress to see you,” he announced.

And then she was standing there before him, the faint sunlight from the windows gleaming on the gold of her gown and her painted skin. With a gesture she dismissed the servants, the herald, and the four guards who had escorted her. A second gesture was required for the startled guards, who at last retreated reluctantly through the door.

The axeman stood alone with the Empress.

“I envy your defiance,” she said without preamble or greeting. “They will say I ought to be furious with your treason, but I cannot find it in me to be so. You have shown true courage, axeman; shown that you are no mere puppet of the empire.”

“And yet here I am back on my strings.” The axeman’s voice was cold, as though unaware of whom it addressed. “It seems in the end this courage you speak of has been for nothing.”

“You gave the girl another week of life, in all probability the most wonderful week she has ever known. That is more than nothing.”

“It was freedom we sought, not a few short days in the sunlight.”

“You will go free when you have served the empire twenty years, as contracted.”

“My own freedom was not foremost in my mind.”

“The girl’s? My, but compassion has indeed found a home in your heart!”

“You still expect me to perform her sentence,” he said, and though it was not a question he received an affirmative nod. “But what possible purpose could it serve?”

The Empress hesitated. “You know the laws, axeman. For generations, now, the capital has chosen one criminal each day to be beheaded in front of the people as a reminder.”

“A reminder of what? Of the Outer City’s hopeless plight? Of a pitiless power heaved against them, a chance fate hanging over them every moment of their wretched lives?” He could hardly believe his own bluntness, nor could he curb it.

“A reminder,” she replied evenly, “that the empire will not tolerate corruption; that every crime committed is a risk of execution.”

“And has crime receded in the city since this policy was enacted?” he demanded. “The girl stole to keep from starving, Your Eminence. That is desperation, not corruption. If it is corruption you seek, perhaps you should examine the nobility. Do you not find it strange that those of a certain status never seem to be in danger of banishment to the Outer City, and therefore never in danger of being escorted to my platform?”

Fire flashed in the Empress’s eyes, but her response remained calm. “Your concern for the girl is admirable, but have you saved any for yourself?”

“You will recall that her life is at stake.”

“As is yours. She will be executed, whether by your hand or another’s, but your own life may still be spared. If you do not carry out her sentence, as you were ordered to do a week ago, you will die. But if you do, you will live and continue to perform the role to which you were assigned. It is a rare mercy that you have been given this second chance, axeman. Be glad of it.”

He laughed darkly. “A mercy indeed, to choose between two evils.”

“It is the choice the law affords you.”

His brashness reached a new level. “Are you not the Empress? One word from your mouth would change this law.”

“Would it?” Her gold-painted lips smiled gravely, and only now did he notice what must have been there all along: a deep weariness in her eyes, the unshakable weight of a burden or a thousand burdens upon her shoulders. “My position,” she said softly, “has strings of its own, axeman.”

And he knew that she had been right – that compassion had indeed found a home in his heart, for he felt it now for the person he would least have expected. “Can you believe that you are no mere puppet either?” he asked her. “Can you not find in yourself the same courage you have claimed to admire?”

She dropped her eyes and still had not lifted them when she answered at last, “If you wish to save the girl’s life, you must choose another to take her place – another whose name might just as easily have been chosen. That, axeman, is all I can offer you.”

And she left his chamber.

The roar had grown still more anxious.

 

The world and its tumult melted into the background, as it had the first time, when through the slits in his cowl his eyes met Alexandria’s. He did not hear the raucous crowds, did not see the extra guards posted about the platform to prevent another escape. He saw only the girl standing before the blocks just as she had seven long days ago. It was as if the past week had never happened at all but had only been a beautiful dream from which he was now awakening, never having strayed from this spot.

But no, it had been no dream, for she did not now regard him with that same unexplainable expression. Instead there was a tranquility in her eyes, an embracing, a knowing. And the corners of her mouth suggested a smile, not of resignation to an inevitable fate but of calm, willful acceptance.

The axeman entertained no such peace in his own heart.

At last his eyes moved from hers and glanced toward the balcony where the Empress was now seated. She gave him a slight nod, a reassurance that her offer stood.

And then he looked upon the poor souls in the rickety bleachers, crying out and shaking their fists in anticipation along with the lords and ladies seated above them. Here they gathered each day, little caring whose head they would see roll across the platform, each forgetting or ignoring that it might be his own head tomorrow.

…Or today. He looked at them one by one, looked deeply into their eyes, and the Empress’s words hung invisibly, heavily over the scene. Then he looked again at Alexandria.

And he made his choice.

The throng drew a startled breath as the axeman ripped away his cowl and cast it aside. He regarded the startled spectators with a look of calm acceptance, the very look he had seen in Alexandria’s eyes.

Her own eyes had now grown anxious. “Axeman,” she asked, “what are you doing?”

“Her Imminence has given me a choice,” he answered, “and I have made it.”

And at that moment, even as his hands slid up the handle of his weapon and turned the blade inward, she knew the choice he had made. She heard herself screaming, felt herself vainly struggling to pull away from the guards and run to him. But the deed was already being done. Helplessly she watched as the axe hit the platform with its blade propped menacingly upward, watched as he threw himself forward, watched as the fierce curve of steel became buried in his chest.

On her balcony the Empress stood, mouth opened, and darted a painted hand over her heart.

A cry coursed through the mob – a cry of astonishment, of disbelief, of disdain, of adoration, of many other things named or unnamed.

He gave no cry of his own, nor even a whimper. He did not flinch as the blade he had brought down upon so many others now plunged into him, and the stains of the blood he had shed from those many others now drowned beneath a growing red pool from his own mortal wound.

Alexandria shrieked more desperately, struggled more vehemently against the grip of the guards. At last she pulled free of them and fell to her knees beside the axeman. He looked up at her, his face paling as the life continued to drain from him. But his eyes were strangely alive, sparkling with the vitality of a hundred men.

“I don’t want you to die because of me, axeman,” Alexandria’s trembling voice whispered as she leaned close.

He smiled. “It is because of you, Alex, that I ever lived.” He touched her face with a quivering hand. “I am sorry I did not tell you before,” he said, gathering what strength remained in him to speak the words, “but my name is Alexander…though, I do not like to be called by my full name.”

No greater gift could she or anyone on earth have offered him than the one she gave him now: a smile shining through the curtain of her tears, more golden than her smile at the sight of her reflection the night she had first worn her new dress; more golden than the smile at her first taste of ice cream, or at her first glimpse of the glorious green hills of the north.

“Well, then,” she promised him, “I shall not call you that.”

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