SILENCE cradled the final note of the minstrel’s song. He remembered standing still as pond water, clutching his prized bone flute close to his chest as the Red Queen’s court looked on in horror. A Roseheart guardian had snapped his bone flute in half and crushed it beneath his heel on the glossy granite floor. The Red Queen herself had descended from her throne, airy skirts aflutter, to slap him across the face.

No one had asked him to sing the song that he did. Certainly nobody had told him to bring a knife. She was heavily pregnant. That was why he hesitated. If he hadn’t, there would be one fewer Queen to worry about.

Now he sat atop a bloodstained table in a tiny, damp, and dim room in the bowels of the Rose Fortress, pondering his fate. No one had discovered his intent to push a blade through her heart, thank the gods, or else he’d already be nailed to a post. If North and West Kandrisev had anything in common, it was their love of crucifixion.

He knew they wouldn’t kill him. Not that he feared his death. The Rosehearts were infamous for their…alternative methods of punishment. Some said they didn’t actually kill their enemies, just maimed and deformed them such that they could never hope to walk again. “Black Stumps” wasn’t a song about cutting down trees, after all.

The door banged open and two red-clad men entered carrying a large back-basket by the straps. It knocked aside the lone stool placed next to the door, which the shorter man pulled up to the table. He sat down, rummaging through the back-basket. “I’m not in the mood for hard work today, so we’ll give the easy way a fair go to start. Tell me where you learned the song and I’ll leave you be.”

The minstrel glanced nervously from side to side. That was the thing. He hadn’t learnt it anywhere. He wrote it himself. He could tell them it was Zerhei’s idea—the little twat always took the good spots right in the middle of the market district. He wasn’t even that good of a singer, but he sure was pretty.

No, the gods wouldn’t look favorably on that. He kneaded his hands, searching for a better answer. Perhaps he could say he heard if from a wandering bard crossing the border into Chovrek. Useless enough to turn up nothing, but believable. He stammered out, “Agrovik of Ksenolishni. He’s a wanderer.”

The short man dug around in his sack. “And where can we find this bard?”

The minstrel grimaced. “He was leaving for Chovrek when I saw him last.”

“And dare I ask why you thought it would ever be appropriate to sing such disgusting things in the Red Queen’s court?”

“I—It’s just that—I just—”

The short man placed three tools neatly on the table, the sight of which made the breath flee the minstrel’s lungs. First, a thin pair of tongs. Second, a hammer. Third, a knife of similar length and shape to the one he had intended to kill the Red Queen with.

“I do hope for your sake that there was an Agrovik in Ksenolishni that made his way into Chovrek,” the short man said as he sat on the stool. “Now. Has anyone read you your punishment?”

“No,” the minstrel squeaked.

“Here we are then.” He dug around in his pocket, clearing his throat as he unfurled a parchment. “I solemnly declare and consent to the guilt…yes, yes…ah, right here.” He tapped his finger on the paper. “Consent that his eyes must be plucked out,” he lifted the tongs. “His fingers crushed,” he said, lifting the hammer, “and his tongue cut from his mouth.” The torturer picked up the knife, shaking it a bit for effect. “But I demand his ears be left intact.”

Woozy, the minstrel leaned over and tried not to be sick. “But I told you who—”

“But you still thought it would be amusing to insult our Queen, humiliate her in front of her court, and further have the gall to assume you would face no punishment.” The short man waved over his companion, who produced a small hand drum from the folds of his robes. “You’re known in Igna for your rendition of “Did You Ever See Poor Karchanya,” are you not?”

His limbs caved in to tremors. He couldn’t look anywhere but at the hooded man with his drum.

“I suppose you’ll never see poor Karchanya again, though I doubt you’ll ever forget my associate’s rendition,” the torturer waved back at the tall man. “So. Since you were honest with me, I’ll be generous. Shall we start with your eyes, your fingers, or your tongue?”





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