Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




A Coward’s Death

Well, the 101,201st Emperor needed some levies to build a huge statue of himself, so he said, “Okay, all of my recently subjugated peoples: If you’ve got at least two sons, you need to give me your first-born. But don’t worry, I’ll give him back, assuming he can survive ten years of lifting these big heavy stones.”

In some places, people weren’t happy about this. The city of Yashar revolted, and in response the Emperor’s legions killed the men, castrated the boys, and sold all the survivors into slavery in the steel cities (and you know what that means for them). But in my hometown? In Sundi? In keeping with our reputation for learning, we were more philosophical about these things. We didn’t get angry; we got sad.

My teacher, Usurus, was a huge part of the reason for that. After he read out the order for us, he said, “I won’t mince words. This is horrible”—Usurus didn’t talk in a very elevated way, like the other teachers at the academy, which is why we loved him—“but the only alternative is death for our entire people. So there’s really nothing to do.”

I was in the back rows of the amphitheater, not taking notes, just drawing parallel lines in the wax with my stylus. I was the firstborn in my family, and we had seven sons. The sweat dribbled down the small of my back, right down to my butt.

Usurus said, “For for our lecture today, let me be truthful. Some of you are departing here for a life of slavery. The work won’t be easy. It will be hot; it will be difficult; food will be scarce; you will be whipped if you slow down. Many of you won’t survive the march to the capital, much less the work itself. So what’s to be done?”

The question was rhetorical. I mean anybody with any Sight could see the flouncy little ghost of a former Emperor hanging out up in the sky above us—I think the ghost had reigned roughly ten thousand emperors ago, but I can’t be more specific than that.

But Tiktus answered anyway, “I don’t wish to do it. I simply do not.”

My teacher spared a glance upward. “And why is that?”

“I’m not strong of body. I won’t survive a year of toil. I won’t survive even a week.” That’s how Tiktus talked. Very elevated. None of us liked him, obviously.

The former Emperor’s ghost circled us slowly, but it called no attention to itself. That was their way. They wanted us to say what we thought, but if we didn’t think the right things, then, well, that was very bad. This was late in the day, when sweet breezes were blowing off the mountains. My feet dug into the grass on the terraced steps, and I felt a little dapplebug crawling over the nail of my emperor toe.

“Do you have an alternative?” said my teacher.

“No,” said Tiktus. “But why is it my responsibility to provide one? I simply won’t go. They can drag me if they want, but I will not set one foot in front of the other on their behalf.”

“Let us say you do that,” he said. “If they scourge your family, what then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you deny that they have the right to do what they want with your body?”

“I think I do deny it. No free citizen should be forced to labor against their will.”

“Ahh, so therein lies the issue, which is one of improper definitions. Would you say that the inhabitants of a conquered city are truly ‘free?’”

“Yes,” Tiktus said. “I would.”

“By what right then do you enslave your household servant? Xios, correct? That’s his name?”

“He’s a slave. I purchased him.”

“He’s Nureenian, isn’t he? Aren’t you, Xios?”

I turned and saw the blue sky outlining his shoulders. The boy was high up in the stands. He peered over us.

“And wasn’t he sold into slavery because your father sacked his city and tore down their walls, Tiktus?”

“This is sophistry,” Tiktus said. His voice had attained a very high and very screechy quality. He stood up now, and he threw the trailing end of his toga over his shoulder. “I am not a slave. I am free. I won’t do this.”

“But by what right do you refuse?” our teacher said.

They went on like that for quite awhile, and our teacher eventually proved to Tiktus that he was no different from his own slaves. Our teacher proved that there’s no law, in human relations, except the laws of your nation, and that when you live under despotism, it’s your duty to obey the whims of the despot (unless you can overthrow him, was the unspoken addendum, but of course with the Emperor that was impossible).

After Tiktus stomped away—he’s never happy when he’s on the losing end of one of our teacher’s debates—we got a long sermon about how to lead a happy life even in slavery. This was very basic stuff. Misfortune comes into all lives. Even if we were second sons and, hence, managed to escape the forced labor edict, tomorrow we might be trampled by horses and be left crippled.

And yet we could control how we behaved. We could resist temptation. We could hold nothing too dearly. We could keep our emotions in check. We could struggle, even in the worst circumstances, to be good people.

That was the sum of it, and the message was really very stirring. When I left that evening I had a heightened sense of purpose inside my chest. A feeling of nobility, really.

We were followed—the group of us—by the former Emperor’s ghost: a big green hungry mass of eyes and mouths and claws that flitted through trees and walls. The ghost spoke to us. It said during its reign a person had tried to refuse to go into this Emperor’s army, and as punishment, this Emperor had been devouring that guy’s soul for twenty thousand years.

This was true. The Emperor’s mouths opened wide and its arms spread out, and we saw the chewed-up remains of the guy. His head was a mass of red, set off by the shocking white of bone. But even after twenty thousand years, his mouth still worked, and he spoke to us in rusty worn-down words from an ancient language that only one of us, Vellix, had any inkling of.

When we asked him what the guy had said, Vellix replied, “Something about a pie. Strawberry pie, I think.”

That’s not relevant to the story, by the way, it’s simply an odd fact.

• • • •

While I was listening to my teacher, the census-takers had come to my parents’ villa and made a charcoal mark on the door. I knew instantly what it meant: We’d seen a few others on the way home. My youngest brother toddled past, totally naked. He slipped over his feet, tumbled headfirst into the door. I didn’t move, and he got up eventually, then grabbed onto my leg.

My stomach growled, and my brother cried, and still I stood. Then of course it opened, and my grandmother was on the other side, tears in her eyes. She wrapped me up in prayer strands and led me inside, and they branded me and bedaubed me and made lots of prayers to our household gods.

The next morning I was sent out of the house with my dad’s finest pair of shoes on my feet. A troop marched past, made up of ten other guys, ranging from ten years to fifty, and we were all daubed in black and spattered with red in just the same way. I gave my name to the clerk, who rode alongside on a donkey, and he marked it on his stylus. We had two guards, and they had swords, but their armor was light. After what’d happened to Yashar, nobody expected trouble.

Tiktus didn’t even live in a villa. His home was an apartment in the leather-workers’ district. He wasn’t at the door like we were. When the chief clerk blew his conch, we waited for a long time. The heat was intense, and an old woman, taking pity, brought us a pail of water, and we took turns plunging our faces into it. Finally the conch blew one more time, and then we heard thumping and screaming.

The soldiers went up, kicked in the door, and after a few moments they emerged, holding a pair of legs. Tiktus’s body followed closely behind. His father was at his head, saying, “Get up! Get up!”

Tiktus was wholly naked. He had no markings on him, and we all saw his cock flopping around. I winced as they dragged him over the wooden steps. He must by now have splinters all over his ass. Finally the soldiers kicked him down the last few steps and he tumbled face-down into the mud.

Only now did he move, and that was only the slightest bit. His head rolled to one side so he could breathe.

The clerk read some sort of proclamation, but Tiktus didn’t move or speak. The soldiers kicked him. Then one got out the lash, and he was about to whip the student, but we all got a cold feeling along our backs, and we looked up: The Emperor’s ghost was a few feet above us.

“No,” the ghost said. “Do it to the father.”

The eyes of Tiktus’s father got wide. “Get up!” he screamed. Grimacing, a soldier caught hold of his arm. Another took hold of his tunic and ripped it off, leaving him naked.

“Get up,” Vellix said. “Get up.”

Then the chant got louder. Everyone in the street wanted Tiktus to get up. To be a man, to do our people proud. We kicked him a few times, and he groaned, pulling his legs inward. We grabbed him and his face so he could see his father.

By now the whipping had started. They wasted no time. The soldier aimed directly for his groin, and within a few strokes that area was a bloody red and purple mass: It looked like some terrible mushroom that ought never have been exposed to the light.

“Come now!” The shout came from an old man, who leaned forward, grabbing Tiktus by the ears. It was our teacher, who had weak legs and strong, beefy arms from dragging himself everywhere. “This is absurd. You’re proving nothing.”

Tiktus whimpered, saying, “No, no, I won’t.” We could barely hear it over his father’s screams. But when the clerk asked if he’d serve, Tiktus once again shook his head and fell limp, so his father’s beating continued while our teacher stood over him, remonstrating.

After Tiktus’s father stopped moving. One of the soldiers took out his sword and approached Tiktus. “Lay him down, belly up,” the soldier said.

But the Emperor interposed himself: He was still all green mist and flashing mouths. “No,” he said. “Someone else.”

So the soldier turned and moved towards Tiktus’s mother. With one thrust he shoved the blade into her belly. We heard a thunk as it hit her spine, and when she fell, she ripped the blade from his hands.

Tiktus’s eyes were closed now, and no amount of us scratching at him could make him open them. The Emperor flashed all his teeth at us, “Stop!” he said, and we conscripts, startled, dropped our former friend into the dirt.

“Someone else,” the Emperor said. “Find someone else.”

But Tiktus’s little brother had fled, so the old woman, the one who’d brought us water, was the next to be grabbed. And after a few seconds, a sword was raised up over her as well.

That’s when we heard a scream. I froze, thinking this was it—the breaking point. Perhaps the crowd would actually rebel against—but then I saw an old man bent over Tiktus, beating out his brains with a paving stone. The soldiers, caught off guard, stabbed the old man several times, and then they flipped him over to lie on the ground next to Tiktus.

That old man was our teacher, of course.

Nowadays Usurus is venerated in Sundi. You know, because he saved us all. When I finally went home, after ten years in the quarries, people kept asking me if I’d known Tiktus. They wanted to know if he would’ve stopped. If he would’ve given in. And I always said the same thing: “No. Never.”

Another thing I told them is that as we marched away, the Emperor’s ghost stripped the soul from Tiktus’s bleeding body, so not even in death was he able to escape.

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Naomi Kanakia

Naomi Kanakia is the author of two contemporary young adult novels, Enter Title Here (Disney ’16) and We Are Totally Normal (HarperTeen, ’20), both published under the name Rahul Kanakia. Additionally, her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Lightspeed, The Indiana Review, and Nature. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and newborn daughter.