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I had expected death. I had stayed up some nights imagining what tortures they might use and how much pain I would have to endure; drawn and quartered, flayed alive, the iron maiden, crucified, impaled, even placed in the arena to fight for my life against wolves and bears and other prisoners.
At times I entertained a quick death. A death in battle or a quick field trial and a hanging or beheading. Maybe even a ritual suicide by drinking poison or cutting one of my own arteries. Whatever death would come for me I deserved it and I would accept it.
I had made a name because of my defiance, but I was ready to acquiesce to darkness. I wanted nothing more to do with this world. I had done all I could do to take my pound of flesh from the Emperor's men. Now I was truly done. I had family and friends waiting for me on the other side and I had been away from them for far too long.
I missed them. I missed my sis' laugh and the way she ate her potatoes too fast like some rodent stowing away extra food. I missed my ma and how she shouted at me, teasing me about being lazy, even though we both knew she didn't mean it. I missed all the people of that little village, all long dead now at the Emperor's hand.
When taxes came due during a famine there was no gold to give and no grain or other tythe. Instead the healthy men of age were conscripted in the Emperor's name, for some war or another. We knew they would all die. Conscripts never came home. Ever. They were simply fodder to keep the wealthy as far from danger as possible. When the men weren't enough to pay the tythe they took the women of age. When the villagers pushed back against this the soldiers slaughtered them. My ma, my sis, my uncles and aunts and their kids, my friends, my enemies, everyone.
Somehow I didn't die. That wounded eight year old boy clung to life and grew into adulthood with one purpose in life; Defy the Emperor in every way possible. I'd teamed up with bandits and scavengers and rebels aplenty. Anyone who stood in opposition to the law or that I could gain skills from to that end, those people became my new family. While I had my moments of happiness they'd never be a suitable replacement.
Regardless they got me to where I needed to be. Eventually doing hit and runs on the local Lords. One of those men had led the troops into my village on the Emperor's personal command. I cut his throat and kicked him from a battlement during a raid. It was blind luck that he'd chosen to go out into the thick of it, but pure skill that allowed me to dodge his guards and take my revenge. He had bragged about being a personal friend of the Emperor and I had sincerely hoped that to be true. I wanted the Emperor to feel any sense of loss I could cause him.
Unfortunately that's where my infamy would end. I wasn't able to make it back out after killing the man. They beat me nearly to death, but again, somehow I didn't die. There would be no more raids and no more Lords to kill though. I was shackled, placed in a wagon, and sent to the capital for trial and execution.
I could have expected that. It's the most I could have expected. What I hadn't expected was the Emperor himself passing down the sentence. I hadn't honestly expected to ever see the man except in a few fever-dream fantasies where I choked him to death and gouged out his eyeballs with my own thumbs. No one ever expected to see him. The rumors were that he never ventured outside the castle and often times never even outside of his chambers. There were hushed stories in pubs and drinking songs in the raider camps that talked about him. They talked about the best women of the land being ripped from their homes and delivered to him for his pleasure and never being seen again. They talked about the black arts he practiced to keep himself alive despite a crippling illness from birth. They talked about his circus of monsters that used to be people. Cannibalism. Incest. Infanticide. No one had a good story. No one had a positive thing to say about him unless there was a knife at their stomach or a boot on their back.
As I sat there in the hall I understood why awaiting my sentencing I understood all of the hate the people had for him. The best way to describe him was that he loomed. He stood dressed in a black robe with gold embroidery at all the edges his slender almost bone-like fingers protruded the cuffs of the robe and held a large golden staff with a dragon's head. Saying he held it was not entirely correct, he gripped it as if he were holding on for dear life, as if he would fall if it slipped away from him. He paced slowly back and forth with a dragging limp. One of his legs was clearly not working. At one point his robe exposed the leg and I could see how shriveled and unusable it was. He must have caught me looking because he stopped and glowered at me. His face was pale and too thin, dark circles ringed his eyes, and almost white hair peaked out of the hood at the edges of his face.
When the scribe finally arrived the Emperor sat in his golden throne and shouted the sentence directly at me. "For murder of a Lord of MY KINGDOM I sentence you to live as long as you can!" It shocked me for a moment until he started cackling. It was course cackling that sounded like it gave more pain than happiness and ended in a harsh series of whooping coughs. Then he shook his hand at one of the attendants and they read off the rest of the order.
I was not allowed the satisfaction of a public death. My name would be expunged from all records. Anyone to have known me or utter my name was to be captured and sentenced to death in the same manner as I was. I was to be placed in the oubliette with one of the Emperor's pets who would dispatch me, shit out my processed remains, and those remains would be fed to the Emperor's other dungeon "guests". No spectators were allowed to even enjoy my painful demise.
In an even sicker twist I was allowed a means of absolution. If I could hold a lever down until after the Emperor's dinner and keep the cage door from opening the creature would be sacrificed in my place and I would be made a knight of the realm. I knew it was a fool's errand, but some part of me wanted to try simply to be defiant toward this husk of a man. Maybe during the knighting ceremony I could cut him down. But I knew there was likely a catch to anything this man offered.
As the guards took me away to my demise I heard the Emperor cackling again and giving me a parting sarcastic "Good luck!" and then more coughing. With that I was on my way to my doom.
The oubliette was octagonal with a door at one face and a large iron cage at the opposite face. Four sconces held small oil lamps that barely lit the room. I could see movement through the iron bars of the cage but couldn't make out details. It was big for sure. The cage reached the ceiling of the space maybe fourteen feet up. The cage looked to be three quarters full.
Only one guard entered the space with me. He walked me hesitantly toward a lever at one end of the cage. Directly on the floor under the lever was a loop of iron where he attached my shackled legs with a big iron lock. He placed my hands on the end of the lever. "Push down as hard as you can for as long as you can." It was surprisingly gentle and encouraging instructions from someone tasked with bringing you to your death. I started to say thank you but only got as far as "tha..." before the guard pulled a pin and ran for the door. The lever caught me by surprise and I almost lost my grip, the cage door popped up a few inches before I regained control and pushed down harder.
Then the pet startled me, attacking the gate with a black hooked beak almost close enough to touch my arm. I could see it now as my eyes adjusted and as it tried to get closer to me. It was birdlike and yet maybe a little bit lizard, but there was fur or something like fur. The eyes were intense in their focus on me as it gnawed at the bars. Large round pupils the size of plates expanded and contracted after each blink.
I knew it was a losing battle. After just ten minutes I could feel my muscles straining. I wouldn't be able to hold it for an hour much less hours. No one could win this. It was just another way for the Emperor to torture people. It was another way to remind them of how insignificant they were.
That was when I knew I had to make my last act of defiance, whether it was seen by anyone or not. I took a breath looked directly at death on the other side of the cage door from me and let go of the lever. The cage door rolled up at a moderate pace, just enough time for me to second guess my decision. But once it made it one quarter of the way open that black monster inside rushed me knocking me to the ground and taking all the wind out of me. It's heavy front claws had my arms pinned out to either side while some part of its lower body rested on my lower legs and feet. It stopped to look at me one last time before swooping down at my chest. I felt and heard my own clothes ripping and coming away from my chest. I could only imagine the flesh coming away with it, but I felt nothing but the beak on my bare chest. Still it lunged and tugged and I could hear more tearing sounds and yet still felt nothing. I dared to look down and saw the monster picking at the cloth and pulling it away furiously as if it was unwrapping a very welcome holiday present.
I thought it must be further torture. It was the Emperor's pet after all. Why would I have expected anything less than to be stripped naked and toyed with my a giant predator, like a cat with a mouse.
Then the door on the other side of the room opened and the pet froze looking toward the movement. A guard entered carrying a bundle. The pet ignored him and went back to shredding my shirt.
"Jasper! Leave it!" The guard snapped and the monster made a short hop into a sitting position a few feet from me.
I laid there stunned for a moment.
The guard came closer. "Are you going to lay there for awhile until you die of boredom or what?"
I snapped back into focus. "I uh..." and pulled myself up to my feet carefully since I was still shackled. As I stood the last remnant of one sleeve sloughed off onto the floor. I could see little pieces of the shirt everywhere. One sleeve and the back were mostly intact on me, not that it meant much.
"Don't worry about the shirt. I brought you new clothes." The guard said, holding the bundle out just at the edge of my reach.
I took the clothes having no idea what was happening. Was I being rescued? Was this another attempt at torture? Would I make it to the door only to be gobbled up by this trained monster? Would the guards shoot me as I tried to escape?
"You're MY man now," he said. "I hope."
Something about the inflection of "MY" made me look more directly at him. Instinctively I lunged at him; The guard, the Emperor! The shackles stopped me and I almost tumbled. "YOU!" I shouted. "I WILL KILL YOU!"
He smiled just out of reach. "It's going to be very hard for you to do that under the current circumstances." He pointed down to the shackles.
I knew it was pointless. I wasn't stupid. It was just a visceral reaction. I realized that I had to reason my way through if I was going to get my hands around his diseased little neck.
That's when it hit me. He had walked in without his staff and without any hint of a limp. I couldn't have been mistaken though, his bone thin hands, his pale face, his white hair, and his dark ringed eyes, were all those of the Emperor.
"It's a lot to take in." He said. "I need men like you. I want to kill the same people you killed."
It sucked away all of my reasoning. I had no idea what was happening.
"You will be Sir Darek Tromblay, Lord of Skizatch. It's a shithole, but it's your shithole now." He tossed a royal seal, a scroll, and a key at my feet.
"Hire good people you can trust and use your status to mix with the other lords. When you find ones like lord whatshisface cut their throats like you did his, but with some stealth." He headed toward the door. "Those people don't deserve to utter my name."
"Oh and there aren't any guards on the other side of this door, so leave whenever you are ready. Or hang out with Jasper until he's really hungry if you want." He smiled and left the room.
I could only stand and stare at Jasper.