The crowd that had gathered was immense. The execution ground had numerous stands built around it, for spectators to sit and watch the proceedings. A line of soldiers stood guard, keeping the crowds away from the grounds. In the centre of the stone-paved square was a gallows, its wood polished and shining. Numerous people crowded in around the execution ground, causing a buzz of conversation to run through the stands. No surprise. This was the first public execution in over a decade. Public executions were a sentence reserved only for those guilty of the most heinous of crimes – conspiracy against the throne. It had been a long time since the execution grounds had been used, and so, naturally, many people had come to witness this possibly once-in-a-lifetime event.
That was part of the reason, anyway. The other part was that many of Rosalind’s fans had come to see the outcome. They knew that Elysium was a part of Rosalind’s entourage, and that they were close friends. They had come to see this little drama to its conclusion.
Rosalind was seated next to the Emperor in a tower that overlooked the execution grounds. I stood behind her, while Chancellor Julio stood behind the Emperor. Alpha stood slightly to the right of Julio. Our tower was about twenty meters off the ground, designed so that the spectating citizens had a clear view of the Emperor – to observe his dignity as he oversaw the deaths of his enemies. Many in the crowd kept looking toward the tower, though they were not seeking the Emperor – instead, many of their gazes fell upon Rosalind, who was dressed completely in black, as if she were mourning the death of her friend before the fact.
Rosalind visibly trembled in her seat, causing the Emperor to place his hand over hers, presumably to calm her down. I gripped her shoulder firmly. This was arguably the most dangerous part of the plan. There was no room for error. It was likely that her nerves were the result of the fear of failure, even if she was trying her best to make it seem like she was just dreading Elysium’s death.
We waited slightly longer for the crowd to file into the seats, with the Emperor speaking words of comfort to Rosalind. After some time, a soldier came forth and whispered into Julio’s ear, who then whispered to the Emperor. The Emperor nodded. Shortly after, a procession of soldiers walked in, leading Elysium along, her arms shackled together with manacles that glowed blue. Her feet were similarly manacled together. She had been stripped naked, to further shame her. Her bare, muscled body bore the bruises and scars of numerous beatings. Some of them were still open and bleeding. To add insult to injury, a bit had been fastened around her head, preventing her from speaking. It was painful for me to watch, and I had no doubt that it pierced Rosalind far more strongly – she shuddered when Elysium came into view. She turned to the Emperor.
“Please, my Lord, may I speak to her one last time?”
“…I doubt that she will have anything good to say, but I will allow it, for your sake. However, you must speak to her from this tower.”
“That will be sufficient. I know how to project my voice. She- She taught me how.”
Rosalind’s voice cracked as she mentioned Elysium. The Emperor nodded and signalled to the guards that flanked Elysium’s side. They saluted and removed the bit around her mouth. Immediately, she began screaming, glaring at the tower.
“You fucker! You fucking piece of shit, inhuman, scum!”
The guard next to her struck her face, causing her to tumble to the side. She caught herself and stood upright, spitting out blood. Rosalind winced, but stepped forward, to the front of the tower’s platform. Then she called out, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Elysium, my friend. Please. Please stop this. Please apologise. My Lord is merciful. I’m sure that if you apologise, he’ll forgive you. Please, just defeat. Just stop this. For me. Won’t you?”
Elysium turned her gaze from the Emperor to Rosalind. She clearly hesitated for several moments, but then spat out,
“Shut up, whore! Friend? Ha! You’re no friend of mine! You were just a means, a way to get my chance! You think I’d really bother helping a weak, pathetic woman like you? Well, aren’t you a lucky one? Caught the eye of that fucker, became his woman, didn’t you?! Since all you can do is fucking sing, I guess it’s fitting that you’ve become his whore, isn’t it? Now you can sing for him in his bed! You’d like that, wouldn’t you, you bitch?!”
The Emperor stood up out of his chair and strode forward to join Rosalind, who had broken down into tears, sobbing into her palms. He glared at Elysium.
“It is clear to me that this woman has no shred of decency in her – to thus slander such a gentle creature shows her vile character.” He looked to the guards. “Do it.”
He turned his back and put his arm around Rosalind, leading her back to her seat, whispering comforts into her ear. At the same time, the guards shoved Elysium, forcing her to walk toward the gallows to hang. Yet, before she had taken three steps, a loud shout echoed from the entrance of the execution grounds, from whence Elysium had emerged. All of us turned our attention to that entrance in response to the sound, where we were greeted by the sight of a white blur running into the field.
In a blur of movement, the four guards who had been forcing Elysium forward were knocked to the ground, pinned there by an array of spears crafted from magical fire. The figure stopped in the middle of the circle long enough to show itself as a white-haired woman in a white cloak. A pure-white sword was held in her left hand. The bandages around it were gone, but there was no mistaking that it was the weapon used by my teacher. Although Ruth’s appearance was completely different, it was probably the weapon’s distinctive impression that allowed Rosalind to deduce its wielder’s identity. Too surprised to control herself, Rosalind let out a gasp, but the Emperor paid it no mind – he was staring at the field, dumbfounded.
In a pair of elegant slashes, Ruth cut away the shackles that bound Elysium and handed Elysium a sword. Elysium accepted it and, in the next moment, moved faster than the eye could follow, letting us see only a blur as she dashed across the field and ran up along the side of the tower, appearing before us. The Emperor, too shocked at her vertical movement to react, could only stare at her snarling face in confusion. Behind us, Alpha moved to stand in front of Julio, but made no move to protect the Emperor. Though he was shrouded in the shadows, I could make out the hint of a smile on Julio’s lips.
Elysium drew back her sword, preparing to drive it through the dumbstruck Emperor.
Rosalind quickly got up and shoved the Emperor back, putting herself in the path of the blade, protecting the Emperor with her body. However, Elysium did not stop – she seemed intent on piercing through Rosalind and the Emperor together, with a single strike. She drove the blade forward.
I figured that it was about time to act, and dashed into the small space between Elysium and Rosalind, drawing my knife as I moved. I slashed upward against the approaching blade, knocking Elysium’s attack away. Of course, if she had been using her full strength, a small force like mine would have been insufficient to change the course of her strike, but in truth, she was barely putting any force behind it at all. This was, after all, nothing but an elaborate performance.
In that brief moment of temporal eternity between each blow when two combatants fight, Elysium gave me a meaningful look. I took care not to show even the slightest response, but answered her unspoken plea with my next strike.
You know I will.
We exchanged several blows before she pushed herself away from us. She snarled at the Emperor, then backflipped off the platform, landing on the ground twenty meters below, next to Ruth. The soldiers crowded in, attempting to apprehend the two women, but were quickly overwhelmed by their frankly ridiculous martial skill. I turned back to the Emperor, seeing him stooped over Rosalind, who had feigned a fainting spell. I rushed to her side and took her hand. As I knelt down, the Emperor caught my eye, and nodded his thanks. He gave me the order to watch over Rosalind until she woke up, then he stood up and barked orders to Julio to have Elysium apprehended. I grasped Rosalind’s hand, and she gave me a reassuring squeeze while maintaining her act of being unconscious. With our performance over, I let myself crack a satisfied smile. Our positions in the Emperor’s good graces had been secured. Now we could finally move into Act 2.