Hurry! She must hurry! So little time. There was so little time before the window of opportunity would close, before she could not intervene to stop the terrible crime about to happen.
Her bare feet pounded on the floor as she ran. Her breath was ragged now and all she could hear was her own heartbeat in her ears. She turned the last corner too quickly; when she finally threw the heavy doors open, her shoulder ached from the impact.
“Stop! You must not do this thing!” It was as though the words were ripped from her mouth. There must have been fifty people in the chamber, and all arranged around the central platform, where two soldiers had just forced the prisoner to his knees. Everyone in the chamber, except for that same prisoner, had turned to look at her. All was still while she struggled to catch her breath. A moment later, she was ready; her heart still flew inside of her chest but she no longer needed to gasp for air.
“You must not do this,” she repeated. “You cannot execute this man.”
She stepped forward. The people nearest her automatically moved out of her way. Every watchful eye was fixed on her. Every citizen knew her face and that she was among them, they deferred to her.
“Madelyne,” the Lord President greeted, stepping into her path with open arms. His face was grave. “See sense! This man is our enemy. He must die.”
“Can he be redeemed?” she asked, although she knew both what his answer would be and what the truth of the matter was. “The Law says that only the irredeemable are to be executed.”
“We are at war. This man is an important soldier for the other side. Surely, if anyone is irredeemable, it is he!”
“We are at war,” she echoed. “Do you believe that every single one of our soldiers has gone willingly, out of a sense of patriotism? Many would not have left their families if not for the senate’s decree. By the same token, do you believe that every enemy soldier wants only to kill us? Have you even tried to understand him? Have you considered his reasons? Or did you shackle him immediately and bring him here to die?”
The Lord President’s regal features tensed. She nodded; it was as she had suspected. He lowered his arms, but did not move out of her way.
“This prisoner could be the key to our victory. His death could save thousands of lives on both sides of the war. Surely that is a good enough reason.”
She gave him a scathing look. There was no reason good enough to justify an execution like this. In war, one killed to protect himself, his fellow soldiers, and the children of his homeland. Enemy or not, did it make such a difference? She stepped around the Lord President and continued to approach the prisoner. She was close enough now to see that he was blindfolded, a strip of black fabric tied around his eyes. Despite that, though, his chin was high and proud and what she could see of his expression was full of anger and pride, but empty of fear. She had almost reached the pedestal now, and another man stepped into her path. This one was a soldier, a captain.
“Even shackled, this man is dangerous,” the captain warned. “Please come no closer; we won’t be able to protect you, ma’am.”
Madelyne met his eyes, unafraid. “You have done your duty by me, captain. You need fear no consequence if I am hurt or killed. It is my decision and the consequences are likewise mine to deal with.” He bowed his head and stepped back. She climbed onto the execution platform. Now she could see that the prisoner’s ankles were chained together and the chains fastened to the floor. His hands, which he held clasped in front of him, were likewise bound. His expression had changed; he sneered at her. Still, nothing about him suggested fear. It was as though he was prepared to face whatever was in store for him, and determined not to satisfy his enemies by asking for his life.
She knelt before him. With one hand, she reached out. As soon as her fingers brushed his skin, his hands flew to her throat. The anxious crowd hissed and murmured, but Madelyne remained unfazed. He was not trying to harm her, only threatening, testing her will and her courage.
“You should have listened to them,” he growled. “I’m dangerous. I could kill you right now. You would be dead before anyone could get here to help you!”
She raised her hands to his cheeks, but he knocked them away and continued to speak:
“I have killed one hundred and forty-seven people with my own hands. I have ordered hundreds, thousands more deaths. If anyone deserves execution, I do. Stop interfering and let me die!”
He shoved her away with such force that she tumbled down to the floor. Madelyne stood again as quickly as she was able, but even so two of the soldiers had already halfway onto the platform.
“Stop!” she demanded, flinging out a hand. The soldiers froze, their swords halfway drawn. Under her glare, they retreated and averted their eyes. The prisoner had settled back into the same pose as before, as though he had never moved at all. She adjusted the straps of her dress and stepped up again.
“It is said that a man keeps track of his sins only so that he can make amends for the wrongs he has done,” she murmured, kneeling again and reaching behind him to untie the blindfold. The crowd muttered its discontent, but no one tried to stop her. However unhappy they were, her power held more sway than even the Lord President’s.
The prisoner inhaled sharply, his entire body going rigid as the knot came undone. He looked her full in the face, shocked at what she had just done. His eyes were a light, sharp blue, and in them she could see that he did not understand. Madelyne smiled. “Your death will not make amends, my brother; only your life can do that, if you will try.”
Once again, her fingers brushed across his cheek. This time, he sucked in a short breath and flinched as far away from her as his chains allowed. He glared at the floor, refusing to look at her again.
Madelyne stood straight and scanned the crowd for the Lord President. “The Law allows him three months to acclimate to our society. Grant me this man as my charge for three months and I will help him to redeem himself.”
The Lord President glared into her eyes. “And if you fail?”
“If he fails,” she replied, placing a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, already claiming him as her responsibility. He trembled at her touch but did not move. “If he fails, I will turn him back to your custody. You may do with him as you want and I will bow to your judgment.”
She held her breath. The Law was not supposed to apply to foreigners. If the Lord President denied her, she could not continue to push her case. It was amazing that she had even gotten this far.
The Lord President scowled but inclined his head.
“He is yours for three months. His actions will reflect on you. If he has not become a functioning member of our society in three months exactly, you will return him to this room and he shall be executed,” he snapped. Madelyne released the air she had been holding. The watching senators were utterly silent. She looked at the captain of the soldiers, the one who had warned her against approaching the platform. He handed over a key but avoided her eyes.
As she reached for the prisoner’s wrists, the Lord President spoke again. “Remember the Law, my Lady. He must be restrained while he is yet dangerous.”
She nodded slowly and released his wrist. The prisoner still had not moved. He refused to acknowledge her. He held as still as stone while she unbound his ankles and did not even tremble when she laid her hands on his shoulders again. At her silent urging, though, he stood and followed her out of the room. His eyes remained fixed on the ground.
Madelyne pulled the heavy doors closed again, shutting out the uproar rising inside. When she turned to the prisoner again, he had raised his head and was staring at her with those wide, wild eyes.
“You saved my life,” he spat. “Why?”
“Because I don’t believe that you deserve to die. You will have to convince me of that,” she replied. His eyes sank to the floor again and he did not reply. “What is your name?”
“0399072,” he intoned.
“What is the name your parents gave you?” she tried.
He scowled mutely at the floor for a long time. When he finally did answer, it was as though the answer had to be dragged up from the depths of his memory. “Aaron.”
“Eran,” she repeated, and he nodded grudgingly. “Walk with me, Eran.” He trailed along beside her as though led on a string.
She took the time while he ignored her to examine him. His clothes were of heavy fabric and he was still wearing his battle armor. They had probably captured him during a battle and transported him here as quickly as possible. He wore heavy leather boots on his feet, which was unusual; no one wore shoes in the capitol. It was not Law, just custom. Shoes were unnecessary.
“Would you like to take off your boots?”
He gave no answer, which she took as a negative.
“Where are you from?” she asked next.
He muttered “Entara” without breaking stride.
“Where is that?” He said nothing. “Do you have a wife? Children? Any family at all?
He shook his head jerkily.
“Do you want a family? Or does being a soldier mean everything to you?”
“You are very frustrating to talk to.”
“Then give up.”
“Never. You are precious and can do much good in your life. All I have to do is convince you to try.”
She smiled faintly. “My name is Madelyne. I am the caretaker of the sacred gardens. I also care for the war orphans, and now I care for you. Come this way.” She took his hand and led him down a new hallway. This one was much different from the ones they had already been down. Those were Senate hallways, stately and austere. These were her hallways, light and airy, with widows to let the sunlight in and carpets soft and green as grass. Gradually, the hallway became more outdoors than it was indoors; the carpet gave way to real grass and the windows grew bigger and bigger until the walls stopped altogether. The roof opened up to the sky and then, with no abrupt change, they stepped into the gardens proper.
“It’s Madi!” “Miss Madelyne!” “Madelyne’s back!” “She has a friend!”
Children appeared as if from nowhere. There were dozens of them. At any one time, Madelyne might have as many as sixty orphans in her care in addition to her normal charges. All of them were younger than four years old. At four, children left home to begin their schooling.
“These are the war orphans,” she told Eran, who stared at the beaming crowd. “Some of their parents left to join the fighting. Others were killed when enemy soldiers attacked our villages. Many of them will find new homes with families who have no children. Some of them will stay here with me until they are grown.”
The children clumped into whispering huddles, shooting furtive glances at the imposing newcomer and giggling at their own courage. He, for his part, watched them as though he thought they might attack, or explode.
“And now I am one of your war orphans,” he muttered sourly, speaking quietly so as not to be overheard.
“No. Now you are my brother and I am going to do all I can to save your life.”
“Against my own will?”
“I will save you from yourself if necessary, yes.”
He scowled at her once more and refused to reply.
“In the morning, I will show you around the capitol. Rest, my brother, and be at peace. No one here will harm you.”
Eran only scoffed.
The sun set.
The sun rose.
It had been eleven weeks. Madelyne was pleased and proud of Eran’s progress. The first week, he had slept with his wrists chained to the wall as a precautionary measure. His nightmares had kept both of them awake. They had abated after that as he settled into Menniyor’s peaceful lifestyle, and Madelyne had ignored the prescribed precautions. She trusted him with her life. Her trust had paid off. Despite his numerous threats, he had not made any move to harm her during the night.
The first days had been spent tending the gardens with him, including her personal vegetable patch. The warm climate allowed any family who kept a garden to grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs around the year, different crops in different seasons. He had also seen the large farms outside of the capitol city, where farmers grew grains to make breads and pasta.
He had begun to meet people, although a combination of his reputation as a dangerous prisoner of war and his own standoffish personality meant that, while people were politely genial, they quickly found excuses to leave. He did not make friends easily. Even now, so close to the completion of the three months, he shied away from the war orphans. They gathered around him whenever they saw him, but he kept his eyes firmly down and strode through them to get wherever he needed to be. Eran never spoke to them and only looked at them when he had no other choice.
“The weather is nice today,” she commented.
“Have we fallen so far already?” he grimaced, using his hands to dig through the soft earth. Once he’d made a sizable hole, he picked up one of the sprouts lined up between them and nestled it gently in place. “Talking about the weather – there’s got to be something else, hasn’t there?”
Madelyne smiled. She loved his sense of humor, which he had shown more and more over the last few months. “Why don’t you tell me about Entara?”
Eran sat back on his heels and looked at her for a moment, frowning as though confused. Then, he shrugged. “Why don’t I not?” He went back to work.
“Well,” she tried, “have you decided what you will do when your three months with me are over?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, next week we go in front of the senate and plead for your life. I’m certain they’ll agree – you’re a model citizen now. Once that’s over, you’re free. What kind of job would you like? And you will need a place to live; the cottage next to mine is empty if you would like it. You should think about whether you would like to marry, and whether you want children.”
At the mention of the word, Eran went still. It happened every single time she spoke about children, as if the mere thought of them terrified him so much that he froze up. Madelyne smiled fondly. Here was a man who had seen decades of war, a man who had not even flinched when he was sentenced to execution – and yet he was thoroughly incapable of coping with an innocent child!
His paralysis lasted only a few seconds. Then, Eran shrugged and shifted to begin digging the next hole.
“I think I’m particularly ill-qualified to be a father, don’t you? Although it isn’t like I’d have to raise it.”
She frowned. “What do you mean? Of course you would raise your own child.”
“Until age four,” he agreed. “Then they’d be shipped off for ten years of school and the child I get back at the end won’t even be my own flesh and blood.”
“A child is a child, Eran. Every child might as well be your flesh and blood.”
He sat back on his heels and considered her silently. At first, she ignored him, but as he continued, she grew more and more uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Finally, she had to ask what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he replied and went back to his work. “I don’t think I’ll stay in the capitol, that’s all.”
“Is it too busy for you? I thought you would be the kind who likes the noise – but the countryside is very peaceful. It’s lovely.”
He smiled faintly. “It’s hard to imagine somewhere more peaceful than here. No one ever gets into arguments – not even the politicians!” He shook his head, chuckling.
Madelyne frowned. “Politicians? Why would the senators fight? They’re generally very efficient. Anyway, the Law is usually very specific, so it’s easy to tell if it has been broken.”
“Yes, but there are never new laws. They just enforce the Law that’s already there.”
“And? They can make new laws, but there’s no need.”
“And that’s why I decided not to be a politician,” he nodded, returning to the original question. “I’d want to actually do something. They’d laugh me clear out of the building.”
Madelyne planted her third seedling and moved along the row.
“But you’re happy?” she probed. “When we face the senate, you’ll be able to demonstrate how well you’ve adjusted?”
“Of course,” he replied easily.
“There is nothing that I can help you with? Nothing you need clarified?”
He shook his head. “Your country is not very complicated. I understand how things work.”
She nodded, relieved. Eran looked up at her as she worked. She had been so good to him. She had helped him in any way she could, any way he asked for. And she was so… simple. She had pulled a very bold political move in saving his life, and so he had expected to find that she was a shrewd political player beneath her soft, matronly exterior. In reality, there was nothing of the sort. As everyone else, she was peaceful and complacent. Her compassion never failed to astound him, but nearly everything else about her set him on edge.
And Madelyne wasn’t the only thing about Menniyor which unbalanced him. It seemed to him as if no one understood anything. The capitol was walled and gated for security, but the four gates were seldom closed. Even when they were shut, the gates had no locks. Anyone who wanted to could simply push them open and come inside.
There was no meat anywhere in the country, either, not so far as he could tell. Madelyne had never even heard of a cow. The people grew their own vegetables which, while reasonably tasty, did not satisfy him.
He couldn’t stay here anymore. It was peaceful, as he had said, but it was too peaceful. Here was a nation at war, and not even the keeper of the sacred garden – one of the most important, most well-informed people in the nation – could tell him where the fighting was. No one knew the name of the enemy, the name of the nation where Eran had been born. They didn’t even know why they had been fighting for nearly half a century! None of them wanted to know. No one here liked him, but only because the senate had told them that he was dangerous.
Worst of all, though, was that they understood nothing about war. As soon as a soldier left, their friends and family spoke of them as if they had died. There was no expectation of anyone coming back. No one understood why he had nightmares. After one week, he had learned that Madelyne comforted by touching; that was the last thing he wanted. He had hidden the dreams from her.
Neither did they understand why he couldn’t bring himself to look at a child. He had seen too many children die in too many horrible ways. He would never see a child without seeing death. Madelyne and those who worked with her had taken his fumbling explanation to mean that he was nervous around them – or, equally ridiculous, afraid of them.
He stared down into the hole he was digging. His hands were covered in dirt, but he could still see the bloodstains on his skin. It was another thing that set him apart. He knew what blood looked like. He knew about horror and fear and the realization that his life was not going to last through the battle. He saw blood everywhere. He had spilt so much blood. Someday he would have to make amends for it. Madelyne had promised that he would have the opportunity to make a difference, to make reparations. How, though? The only thing he could do here was settle into a box and live in peace for the rest of his life.
Perhaps, if he hadn’t seen so much violence, so much death, he could have loved Menniyor. He thought that he would have found it idyllic, even perfect, if he had been another man. But he was not another man, and he was being suffocated slowly. The weight of every citizens’ expectations, piled on top of the burden he already had to bare, would crush him before long.
Madelyne was confident that the senate could not still find him guilty. Eran knew she was right. He could easily prove his worth as a citizen. It would be simple. His life would be painless.
Eran dug another hole.
The sun set.
The sun rose.
This time, Madelyne had not run through the hallways of the senate building. She had walked, calmly, side by side with Eran. He held himself as she had not seen since that first day, in the execution chamber: he strode forward without hesitation, his chin high and his wild eyes glinting with regal pride. He exuded confidence which awed her. There was no way, she thought with a smile, that the senate would find this man guilty.
They went not to the execution chamber, but to the senate hall. Instead of the fifty or so who had been in attendance the first time, there would be nearly two hundred senators and many more curious citizens. Two soldiers pulled the doors open for them. Eran did not falter even for a second when he saw the size of the crowd, but strode toward the center of the room. There he stood with his feet planted firmly and his hands clasped in front of him. Madelyne met his eyes, smiled to encourage him, and took her place in the front row of the tiered benches where the senators sat.
The Lord President stood. Everyone in the hall instantly stopped whispering. He and Eran stared at each other, each with their own brand of haughty self-assurance, neither giving any ground.
“Eran, son of Entara,” intoned the Lord President at last.
“Lord President of Menniyor,” Eran replied.
“Have you spent your three months well?”
“Have you learned about Menniyor?”
“Have you adjusted to our way of life?”
Madelyne watched Eran closely as the questioning continued. The Lord President asked him about all aspects of life in Menniyor and Eran answered each and every question calmly, completely, and correctly. She began to relax. He would be fine. He would live! She had never doubted him, not even for a second.
Finally, the Lord President concluded with, “Eran, son of Entara – have you been redeemed?”
For the first time, Eran did not answer right away. He took his time and considered his answer. But why? He had been redeemed, Madelyne knew that he had! And he knew it as well as she did! Why didn’t he answer?
The silence stretched.
After three minutes of silence, a soft whispering began to build in the spectator benches. They wanted to know what was going on.
The senators were beginning to shift restlessly. One or two of them coughed to break the silence.
The soldiers posted to give the proceeding an official look began to glance at one another, uneasy.
Finally, Eran broke his silence.
The answer startled everyone.
“No?” the Lord President questioned.
“I have not been redeemed,” Eran clarified calmly. “I am the same man I was when you lifted me from the battlefield. I don’t wear chains anymore, but I have not changed.”
Madelyne jumped to her feet. “Eran! You have been redeemed!” she cried. What was he doing?!
He did not even look at her.
The Lord President seemed taken aback. “You realize that you are sentencing yourself to death, do you not?”
“Yes, I realize.”
“And you still want us to believe your word, contrary to what the keeper of our sacred garden says?”
“I think I should know the answer better than she does.” Eran smiled humorlessly and refused to see how she sank back into her seat, her shoulders trembling and her eyes full of tears.
The Lord President stared at him.
“I have been watching you, Eran,” he said slowly. “You have worked hard and have not broken the Law. You have kept to yourself, but not out of ill-will toward the citizens of Menniyor. You could claim life and no one would question whether you deserve it.”
The prisoner met his gaze without flinching. “No one except me.”
As they stared at him – Madelyne, the Lord President, the senators, the soldiers, and the spectators – he began to smile. His eyes shone with something that she could not name. It was as if he was sad, but it was not sorrow. She had never seen anyone smile like that before. He bowed his head and chuckled softly.
“I didn’t expect you to understand,” he murmured, then raised his voice. “I realize that I am choosing death. Now let me die.”
The Lord President hesitated. “Very well,” he conceded at last and raised a hand. As one, the soldiers moved in. They seized Eran’s arms and escorted him to a side door. Once he stepped through, he would never be seen again. Madelyne sniffed quietly and began to cry.
“Farewell, Eran, son of Entara,” the Lord President said as the group approached the door.
The prisoner stopped, staring fixedly at the open door.
“My name is 0399072.”
He stepped forward and was gone.