Katherine L. P. King
It was hot in the little bookshop on Corinth Avenue. The smell of coffee emanated from the counter in the back of the room where a line of customers stood waiting, and from the white porcelain mug in front of him. The young man peered into the mug, rubbing his hands together. Despite the heat blowing into the shop from overhead vents, he wore wool gloves, dark in color and well-worn. The coffee was a bland, pale brown thanks to the milk he’d added to make it near palatable. He took another sip and grimaced. It was thick and heavy, like motor oil sliding down his throat. The shop was dim, with a few overhead lights near plush couches where people–mostly old men, he noticed–sat reading books and newspapers. He occupied one of half a dozen tables for two near the window. Bookshelves lined the walls; he considered getting a book to read, but wasn’t in the mood for it. Instead he sat with his coffee and watched the people in the shop. A man he thought he recognized shuffled past his table toward the door with a pastry bag in his hand.
He looked out the window following the old man. Movement drew his eyes to the left and he saw that on the other side of the dirty glass, very close to him, was a young woman. She was walking, but stopped entirely when their eyes met, one foot partially raised in the air.
The young man stared and the young woman stared back, that singular pane of glass all the space between them.
Then he turned away, back to his coffee, and she resumed walking south down the sidewalk. The gaze had lasted seconds at most, but it was long enough. The young man sat very still for exactly sixteen and a half minutes, his face grim and hard, his jaw set. Then he stood, grasped his coffee mug, and returned it to the counter at the back of the bookshop. The pretty teenager working there smiled and wished him a good day. He nodded but did not smile. Pulling his jacket closer to him, he stepped out into the street. Wind blowing furiously from the south tossed his hair back from his face. He turned his eyes north and began heading that way, toward home. He had no hood and was soaked thoroughly by the time he reached his street. His fingers were numb through the gloves and his face was numb, as well, but he walked past his little home, a white one-room cottage, the lawn overgrown with cattails and sunflowers, their rotting heads bobbing on long stalks. He checked over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, then walked to the end of his street and headed south again. Casually, he checked his watch. It had been thirty-nine minutes since he’d seen her through the bookshop window. Heart beating wildly, he walked into the wind, passing empty houses and large dark apartment complexes.
With the heavy dark-gray clouds remaining overhead he didn’t expect many people to be out, and he wasn’t disappointed. There were one or two businessmen in blue suits with umbrellas waiting for carriages, but that was it. He walked quickly, eyes darting in all directions. In the reflections of the windows he passed he searched for someone–anyone–following him. The windows showed him to himself; a tall figure, slightly stooped, with dark hair falling to his shoulders and a pale face. Not someone people might remember unless he was foolish, and he did not intend to be so.
He walked three blocks south and headed east, crossing Corinth Avenue to Griswold street and the market district. He kept his mind calm, thinking of tomato soup and garlic bread, or a rare steak topped with mushrooms. Inside his pockets, his hands shook. After two more blocks he could smell the ocean, and after four more blocks, he could see it. This time of year it was rough all day; the gray surface of the waves rolled forward and pounded the white shore. More clouds were on the horizon, moving in slowly with the wind. The city was on a hill overlooking a small bay, in which a dozen ships bobbed; most were commercial, transporting goods. The young man stopped, surveying the curve of the coastline, the swell of the sea. Then he went into a building on his left. It was an abandoned apartment building, where tramps and addicts hid out. He went down the metal staircase to the building’s basement, which was full of moldy, empty boxes, cigarette butts, and dust. He counted boxes with the purple crown of the Empire on them until he got to nine. Then he shoved the box aside to reveal a small hole in the floor–a ring of darkness. He sat down, scooted to the edge of the hole, dropped his feet in, and slipped through.
He landed hard on an old mattress which sent up a cloud of dust. This set him coughing harshly, his chest shaking. She hadn’t come this way, then, he thought, unconcerned. There were many ways to get to where he was going. He stood and peered around, looking for the passageway. It was just ahead, carved from rock beneath the city but heading south toward the sea. He walked forward, slapping dust from himself. It was almost as cold down there as it was above ground, and he shivered.
The young man followed the passage in the dark for about a thousand fathoms. The air grew steadily colder. When he reached the end of the main tunnel, he came upon a wooden door built into the rock. Into the grain one word had been carved and was almost faded away completely: Ignis. When the young man stood still, he could hear the sea above him, grinding at the rock. He put his hands on the door and slowly pushed on it, wincing when it creaked. He was suddenly sure no one would be there; he was too late, it was too dangerous. But the door opened and he saw a pale, nude figure bright against the dark walls around her. He recognized her better that way than he had outside the bookshop. The door fell slowly shut behind him, closing them in. The young woman stood nonchalantly across the small cavern, regarding him with soft blue eyes. She had aged six years but he couldn’t see it; the curves of her body, the tousled way her hair–dirty blond and thick–tumbled past her shoulders, the perk of her breasts, the little mole just above her left hip. He knew it all, and even the sea above them seemed to whisper her name, so he did, too, holding out arms that could not stop shaking. “Gloria.”
“I’m here,” she said, her voice breaking. She walked to him slowly, bare feet padding lightly on the smooth ground. “I knew you’d come. I knew.” She pushed herself to him, pressing her face to his shoulder–not crying, but succumbing. He wrapped his arms around her, encasing her. Despite her nudity in the chill of this cavern she was hot. She brought her lips to his ear and whispered, her breath sweet and light like the kiss of a flame: “You shouldn’t have come.”
He pulled her back to look into her eyes. They were the same; everything was the same. It was as if the pain and terror of the last six years had never been. “All that’s left to risk is what we have here, between us,” he whispered back, hugging her close to him tightly. They could never be close enough.
She kissed him, and her mouth was a furnace of spices, of sweetness; his knees buckled and he felt himself growing warmer in the cold room. He moved away and took off his jacket, fanning it out on the earth. Gloria lay down on it, her hands outstretched to him, her legs spread slightly. He scrambled with the rest of his clothes and went to her, blinking back tears. She caught him in her embrace and before he made love to her, he put his face in the crook of her neck and breathed in her scent, familiar and comforting. “Oh, Joseph. Dear, dear Joseph,” she said, smoothing his hair, combing it with her light fingers. Then, looking up at the ceiling of rock, she asked absently, “Why did you ever look up? Why did you see me?”
He could not answer her. Instead, he kissed her again, and there was ecstasy and fire between them, consuming them, burning them alive. Every inch of her was hot; he had never known such heat. They fell asleep peacefully in each other’s arms. Joseph dreamed of floating red faces he had once known; they smiled at him and told him they forgave him through bleeding, toothless mouths.
He woke to a bright light in his eyes. Someone was shouting at him, and a strong blow impacted his ribcage and sent him rolling off Gloria, who woke with a start. Joseph was blinded by the lights and by pain, but then he made out what the roaring man was saying. “ON YOUR FEET, BASTARDS! GET MOVING!”
His heart fell into his stomach. Fear sent his blood racing and he leaped up, gunning for the light. Another sharp blow landed in his gut and he recoiled, every muscle in his body contorting in pain. Gloria screamed incomprehensibly nearby. Joseph looked up to see the two men dressed in purple. Each carried a large torch, and both were struggling to hold Gloria, who flailed, naked, using all her strength.
“BACK UP!” one of the men roared. “WE NEED BACK UP!” He kicked Gloria in the knee and made her scream louder yet. The sound reverberated off the walls and urged Joseph to get up again. He ran at the man who had kicked her; they flew off their feet and landed together in a pile. Joseph fought, hitting and kicking the officer’s body, aiming for his head.
Two rough hands grasped him from behind and pulled him back. Someone screamed in his ear, but he refused to listen. The cave filled rapidly with officers as they came to secure Joseph and Gloria. Three of them forced him to the ground and wrenched his arms behind his back, where they cuffed him. They yanked him to his feet and he turned to see Gloria on the ground, receiving the same treatment. The officers marched them to the tunnel, Joseph first. His heart raced, and his tongue was too dry for speech–not that it would have helped him. He could hear Gloria growling and fighting the molesting hands of one of the officers, and it made him struggle.
Finally they reached the end, where a rope ladder hung from the top of the hole in the basement of the apartment complex. He hung his head, choking back a moan when he realized that they had been found because of him. The officers made them climb the ladder with their hands behind their backs. Joseph went first, then stood in the dim basement with three officers and the presiding colonel, waiting for Gloria. Partway up the ladder she screamed, “Get your hands off me!” There was a shout, and the sound of someone hitting the ground. Joseph moved to the edge of the box and saw Gloria jump off the ladder and run down the passageway. The officer who had been climbing up after her had fallen. The other leaped after Gloria and sprinted down the tunnel.
“RUN, GLORIA!” Joseph screamed, before the colonel slapped him on the back of the head so hard he stumbled forward.
There was more screaming and scuffling. One of Joseph’s guards went down and the three of them dragged Gloria up the ladder. The colonel, a small man also in purple with a gold sash over his lapels, motioned for them to bring Gloria to him. They dragged her and forced her to her knees in front of the colonel. He slapped her with the back of his hand; once, twice, eight times. She screamed and fought, but he continued. Joseph clearly saw the gleam of a heavy ring on the hand the colonel hit her with.
When the colonel was done, he let Gloria fall to the floor on her side. Her back heaved with her sobs. One of the officers bent down next to her, unclipping a small device from his belt. Simultaneously, Joseph felt a warm hand grip his arm and the tiny pinprick of a needle near his elbow. Gloria gasped as they did the same to her. Behind Joseph, a high-pitched electronic beep sounded.
The colonel looked at the readings. “Joseph Monroe Connor and Gloria Heather Stanley. Both on probation. Ex-members of Ignis.” Joseph heard a few slow steps as the colonel paced. “Come now, you both know the law. Fraternization between convicted traitors is forbidden.”
Neither of them spoke. Neither of them would beg.
“You’ve nothing to say for yourselves? No bribes, no explanation?”
The silence was loud around them.
“Very well. Your punishment will be carried out immediately.”
“No,” Joseph hissed, and one of the officers clapped him on the back of the head. They turned him toward the exit, and he understood they were not going to receive clothing. They would be paraded on the streets this way, a warning to others.
When they went up the stairs and out onto the street, Joseph caught a glimpse of Gloria’s face. It was puffy and red; one of her eyes was swollen shut and her lip was split.
Outside, the rain had stopped. The streets were slightly busier than they’d been a few hours ago; people stared at them as they marched toward the ocean. Some, the younger people, gaped openly. Others, these Joseph’s age or older, looked away. He could not blame them. They remembered.
The officers led them downhill toward the docks. Joseph’s lungs could not gather enough air for his brain to function properly. He stumbled over cracks in the cement, the wind cold on his naked flesh.
It was nearing nightfall. He stared at the ocean as they walked, absorbed in it; the size, the grayness, the apathy. He could not imagine land beyond it–land untouched by the Purple Crown, by the Empress’ cold grip. What he wouldn’t give to go there and see it. Perhaps that was where Gloria had been headed this afternoon. On her way to some ship willing to smuggle her, eager to get out . . . he felt a pang of sorrow so harsh it made his chest throb. It was easy to imagine her on the prow, her wind-blown hair tangled and her cheeks pink with excitement.
They marched to a lone, abandoned wooden pier which extended several hundred feet out on the water. Splinters lodged in his feet from the rough wood, and the wind whipped his hair around, beating him with it. He felt very small.
The officers marched them to the end of the pier and made them stand with their toes curled over the edge. Below them, water slammed against the starfish- and barnacle-covered pillars that supported the pier. He looked at Gloria, whose face was downcast and pale. She was so beautiful.
The colonel approached them from behind. “Maybe if you both get on your knees and praise the Empire, I’ll send you to the catacombs instead.” This close, Joseph saw he was a young man, not much older than they were, but his eyes were purple and mad. He looked between them, clearly savoring the tears running down Gloria’s cheeks.
“Go to hell,” Joseph spat.
“Hm, that’s probably wise of you,” the colonel agreed. “In the catacombs, they’d cut out your tongue, your manhood, your hands and your feet, and put you to work on the bellows.” He turned to Gloria. “And they’d cut off your breasts, mi’lady, and sew up your nether regions and make you tend to the lepers.”
Gloria whimpered; this pleased the colonel. “Perhaps I should send you to the catacombs after all. It would certainly deter your fellows from following suit.”
Joseph broke, imagining Gloria maimed and leprous, himself an unrecognizable monster. “Please,” he whimpered, “please, just end it.”
“Very well,” the colonel sighed. Joseph looked at Gloria, willing her to see him, to know him, to remember him; he tried to memorize every bit of her face. He braced himself for the fall, the cold embrace of the water. He closed his eyes and only opened them when he heard Gloria gasp, very softly. He looked and saw her looking up at him with serene, blue eyes as she fell toward the water.
“NO!” he screamed, falling to his knees on the pier. She slapped the surface of the ocean and a rush of foam came up to take her place. Joseph could see a pale, wavering shape sink slowly out of sight. He screamed until his throat was raw, until he couldn’t see or breathe.
The colonel made them wait ten minutes to be sure she did not surface. Then he yanked Joseph to his feet. “Get up. Act like a man, for heaven’s sake.”
“Murderer,” Joseph sobbed, jerking away from the colonel as he stood up.
“I prefer executioner,” the colonel said. He smiled. “Merciful executioner.”
“The Empress will burn,” Joseph spat, unable to stop the trickle of tears down his face. “Burn the Empire, burn–“
Katherine L. P. King is a writer and Chapstick enthusiast from California. Her work has been published in Wild Violet Online Literary Magazine and HelloHorror.