Chapter 1: An Audience AN AUDIENCE
You will hear this story as I lived it.
Count yourself lucky to hear a Kingman tell their story. There has been no other account like this. And all I ask from you, in return for the greatest story ever told, is a small favor and to let me live long enough to tell it.
To learn how I earned the title of king killer, we must begin on the night before the Endless Waltz began, the last remnant of my youth.
Not that I ever really had one.
After my father’s execution, I spent years struggling to survive in a city that wanted to see shackles on my wrists and my head roll. It might not surprise you to hear that I spent much of my time conning the nobility, which was always easier than it should have been. Even without hiding the brand on my neck or how suspicious my intentions ever were.
And my actions were as suspicious as usual that night I oversaw a duel between my friend Sirash, a former Skeleton, and his target: a rather drunk and rather obnoxious country-born Low Noble who had never been to Hollow before. The mark was so fresh to the city, he hadn’t even had time to change into something more befitting of a Hollow noble, and was still wearing layers of clothes that lacked a uniform style or color. It showed everyone how low he was, as if that wasn’t evident enough when he called Sirash a copper-skinned savage. The so-called civilized people only did that in the comfort of their own homes.
The Low Noble pointed the flintlock pistol at Sirash, then showed it to his painfully sober brother before peering down the barrel himself. His finger was on the trigger the entire time. Thankfully for him, it wasn’t loaded. Not that he was privileged to that information. “Sure you want to do this, Skeleton?”
Sirash didn’t reply. We were already past the point of no return, and the nobles were ensnared in our trap. There was no chance they were escaping unscathed.
But that didn’t stop the brother from trying. “Adrianus, we shouldn’t do this. Guns are still illegal here and the last thing you want is to be seen with one. They’ll execute you.”
“Adrianus,” I said quietly. “I am compelled to inform you that unless you apologize, this duel will proceed. Should you decline, with the Endless Waltz beginning so soon, your reputation will be ruined.”
“He’s a Skeleton!” Adrianus said. “What could he do to me?”
I looked at Sirash. He was sitting calmly on a stone wall, fiddling with the other flintlock pistol I had brought. Since he was masquerading as a Low Noble, he was clean-shaven, wearing long, dark-colored trousers and an almost see-through, partly unbuttoned white shirt. The only odd detail about his appearance was the bone tattoo on the back of his left hand. A remembrance of his past. Much as the rusted ring on my middle finger was for me.
“Look at him. He’s clearly risen in society,” I said.
“Could he be a Low Noble?” Adrianus asked.
“Maybe. High Noble Morales has added many new families in recent years.”
“Even a former Skeleton?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Adrianus considered my words, nodding as he studied the flintlock pistol in his hand.
“Enough of this,” Adrianus’s brother said. “Forget the Skeleton. We should go and receive the Eternal Flame’s blessing for the Endless Waltz tomorrow. High Noble Maflem Braven can protect us from gossip and rumors.”
“But what if he names me a coward and the women want nothing to do with me?” Adrianus said, worrying as only an underconfident boy could about those of the opposite sex. “I don’t want to please Father and marry Jessi. I want a more adventurous future than breeding horses!”
“What if someone hears this duel and arrests you?” his brother said.
I put my hand on Adrianus’s shoulder. “We’re in the middle of the Fisheries. There are no members of Scales or the King’s Ravens down here unless there’s a riot about taxes. Most of the locals are asleep.”
“Is… is the gun ready?” Adrianus asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve prepared it for you. All you have to do is point and shoot.”
“Let us do it,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Before his brother could protest, I made a sweeping gesture and guided Adrianus into place with my hand on the small of his back. “Listen closely, Adrianus. Instead of the typical ten steps, turn, then shoot, you’re simply going to stand a distance apart and shoot. That way no one cheats and turns early. Sound good?”
Another nod as I signaled for Sirash to take his place opposite from him. “You will shoot on three. Aim true.” With a final pat on the back, I took my place.
“On my mark!” I shouted. “One! Two! Three!”
They shot. White smoke billowed across them both and they were lost in it for an instant. As it cleared, there was a crash, and Sirash fell to the floor. Blood poured out of his knee and upper thigh, soaking the ground around him. Despite being unharmed, Adrianus screamed and dropped the gun, letting it clatter to the stone.
“Shit!” I was at Sirash’s side in an instant, my hand over his knee, staunching the blood. It ran cold over my hands regardless, flowing over the stone around me. “He’s bleeding out.”
Adrianus stood there moonstruck. “What have I done? I didn’t want this. Wanderer, forgive me!”
I checked for his pulse. “Your shot severed an artery and he bled out in a few heartbeats. He’s dead.”
The noble retched and then puked all over the stone, his shocked brother patting him on the back. Adrianus mumbled to himself as he recovered, and it wasn’t long before his mumbles turned to sobs as he repeated to himself, “I killed him. Oh, Wanderer, I killed him.”
“I didn’t think you’d actually hit him. Why couldn’t you apologize!”
Adrianus’s brother stepped forward and pointed at me. “No, this is not happening. I knew who you were the moment I saw that brand. You are Michael Kingman, traitor son of David Kingman, and you are going to fix this.”
I felt the crown brand on my neck throb, whether from being reminded it was there, or from my racing heartbeat, I couldn’t tell. “Fix this? How do you expect me to bring him back from the dead?”
“I don’t.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a bulging purse, and shook it at me. I suspected it was a sizable part of his allowance for the Endless Waltz. “You will take this, get rid of that body, and we are never going to hear from you again. Understand?” He sneered at Sirash’s body. “I doubt anyone will miss him. If someone does, they can always import a new slave from the Skeleton Coast.”
“You want me to cover up a murder for you and your brother?”
He pushed the bag of coins against my chest. “I don’t want you to. I’m telling you to.”
“If I don’t?”
Lightning began to form and crackle around his right arm, saying more than any idle threat could. I hadn’t realized he was a Fabricator, though it explained why the moonstruck fools had been sent to Hollow for the Endless Waltz.
I held my tongue as he bundled Adrianus away from the scene, first pushing and then dragging him away by the shirt. Once they were out of sight, I wiped my stained hands off on my shirt and then kicked Sirash in the ribs to signal we were in the clear.
“Seriously? How am I supposed to convince someone you died from being shot in the knee?”
Sirash sat up and grimaced at his dirty clothes. He’d broken a sheep’s stomach full of blood for effect during the duel. “Oh, I’m sorry. Next time I’ll grab my chest after he points the gun at my leg. We’re lucky he aimed anywhere near me. Unlike the last one.”
“All I’m asking is for an easy one, so I don’t have to come up with some artery in some random place to explain why you dropped dead. You should be grateful I can talk us out of these problems.”
“Literally every time you open your mouth, all you do is get us into more trouble.”
“Then why am I always the one doing the talking, not the shooting?”
“Because no one would hesitate to shoot you.” Sirash grinned at me wickedly. “So, how much did we get?”
I returned his smile and crouched down, emptying the bag of coins in front of us. We began to spread out the gold, silver, copper, and iron, making sure to count as we did. “Almost eleven suns,” Sirash said.
“I would have expected more from a noble coming to Hollow Court.”
“Must’ve been poorer than we thought. You should have tried to get Adrianus’s allowance, too.”
“Maybe if he had less to drink I would have.”
We split the take. Sirash took seven suns to cover his expenses and to help his lover, Jean, pay for her tuition at the College of Music. I took the rest—enough to cover my expenses and potentially buy another cure if I haggled the oddity merchants down a bit. With it safely in my pocket, I asked, “How much more do you need for the month?”
“Another three suns. I’m not sure how many more Low Nobles will come to Hollow for this ridiculous courting ritual—”
“Call it the Endless Waltz. We’ve been doing this for two years now; it has to be second nature if we’re masquerading as Low Nobles.”
“How much do you need?”
“I don’t know. This should cover my mother’s medical expenses. I’ll talk to Trey and figure out how much more I need tomorrow. I might have to start covering part of his bills while he’s indentured to a High Noble family—”
A bell rang out in the city, and we turned our heads toward the sky, looking for the piece of the moon falling from it.
“I can’t see it with all this light,” he murmured.
Before I had a chance to respond, the city began to darken. Seizing the guns, Sirash and I emerged from the alleyway and looked down the street. The gas lamps that ran down the length of one of the main roads in Hollow held a strong flame within them, burning brightly. One by one they were being snuffed out by the lamplighters, and it was Lights Out in the city. The spreading darkness was accompanied by a symphony of slamming shutters and windows.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
I didn’t. Tenere, our smaller moon, was full, its orange-bluish mass clear in the dark, even at a distance. In front of it, much larger, was the ever-broken Celona, its seven major pieces bright and white. They were surrounded by dust and smaller rocks, most of which would eventually hit the world below. The stars around them looked dull and flickering… and then I saw the falling piece of Celona. I strained to make out what color the tail was, hoping for red. If it was blue or white, it would mean the end of Hollow, no matter how the king and Scales attempted to stop it.
Their infamous Celona defense system, built to reassure the general public, was little more than a trebuchet. I’d love to see the imbeciles tasked with aiming that thing at a fast-falling piece of the moon try to save Hollow. It would be a show worth watching before the city’s inevitable destruction.
“We need to find cover in case a second or third bell starts ringing,” Sirash said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I should have been at the asylum already. Celona be damned.” I slapped Sirash on the shoulder and took off, running through the streets, knowing Sirash would find shelter in the sewers, as he always did when the bells rang.
Amidst his laughter, Sirash shouted, “Michael! If you don’t take moon-fall seriously, one of these days it will be the death of you! You’d be the bastard that gets hit!”
Doubtful. The Kingman family did not die with whimpers. History was shaped by our births and deaths, and whether I liked it or not, I would be no exception.