Public executions rarely happen in Tveshė. Every few years, the blacksmiths on Måra Street who keep the sacred smithing temple receive word from the palace that they must sharpen the guillotine. They scrape rust from its steel frame and assemble the killing machine deep inside the Reclaimed Zone.
Here, the sun sizzles on the pavement and the sky never quite loses an undertone like steel. Those of us who decided to watch the executions assembled early in the day, most with parasols to protect us from the sunlight. I wore red for the first time since mourning Kelis. The entire Execution Square was awash with people in vivid scarlet, hardly any other color represented.
This is an event wholly unlike anything else. No vendors are allowed. No one sells offerings to the gods. The only businesses present are the news crews and the young girls and boys selling water from giant wheeled drums.
From the screen projected up high, we could see vital signs for each of the assembled assassins, whom the guards had placed in a pen beside the execution pedestal. As an adviser, I watched with the others from a special seating area adjacent to the stage. I could see everything.
Advisers Tenes and Kurutwe sat beside me. Adviser Tenes grabbed my hand and squeezed it when they brought Sehutañi up.
Two screens mounted at the front of the Execution Square showed Sehutañi ascend the narrow steps, ler mouth and eyes bound with red fabric. Ler heart beat steady, like a metronome. The other heartbeats raced.
I remembered those moments in bed when I pressed my ear against that torso and lulled myself to sleep with the steadiness of that heartbeat. If le feared death, ler face and comportment didn’t show it, but Sehutañi had a sister who’d died. Sehutañi is following in those footsteps, and there is a certain peace in following family, even when they have done something so heinous and wrong-headed.
The guards kicked Sehutañi’s knees out from under lim. Le fell onto the chopping block.
The deathwatch priestess approached a microphone and began to chant from the Book of Ghosts and Demons, which contains Sabaji chants to be said over those who are dying at the hands of the state. A young apprentice stood beside lim with clapping blocks, which le hit together at each line break.
The Old Tveshi means, In undermining the State, you have sacrificed yourself to the State. Through your sacrilege, you will hold up the sacredness of the office of our ruler. By dying, you give your heartbeats to the ones whom you have wronged.
The blade came down. Ler vital signs stopped.
I thought that I was fine, but when the display flatlined, my cheeks went hot. Tears welled in my eyes.
Adviser Tenes squeezed my hand tightly and whispered, “We can leave if you like. You don’t have to stay.” Le put ler arm around me and hugged me close.
Regent Thassañi was here. All of the advisers were here. This was no trivial execution, and I had a duty. I stayed. They mounted the heads on pikes, and I couldn’t watch. This is standard Sabaji practice.
No one prepared me for what watching this many executions done at the same time would do. Every time I close my eyes, I see those faces. I hear that chanting in my ears even though I cannot understand a word of Old Tveshi. Those faces will haunt my nightmares, most of all Sehutañi’s.
After incineration, the ashes will not go to their families. This is high treason. The ashes will be scattered in the soils that yield grain. I made a special, back-room deal with the Regent to retain those of my former lover. Oaths matter. I am not Sehutañi. I keep my oaths.
But still, O Salus, those faces! What will you do to banish them from your head? How will it be to sit here year after year among the advisers every time something like this happens?
I am only nineteen. I might see many executions. This thought terrifies me.
After the final execution, Adviser Tenes and I left.
We parted ways several blocks away from the execution site, when I went to Nitårva Square on the Skyrail. Liga and Suka waited for me there, and as the train rumbled its way to them, I let the floodgates of emotions in. I felt the rage, the pain, and everything else that I have tried to keep hidden. I broke down crying — full-blown sobs, back and chest heaving, snot dripping from my nostrils — while I sat among a throng of people.
Private emotions poison the soul when they stay inside. I let out the venom that I have held inside for so long. Akaćeheñi. This, this here, is that. This is knowing who I am and why I am here.
A young jomela, probably about seven, put ler right hand on my knee while the train shook its way along. Le brought ler left hand to my chin and tilted my head up until we looked into each other’s eyes. This jomela-child had rich, false-color eyes, and le wore children’s play-clothes. An adult stood in the aisle holding a rail, and that one stared down at the two of us together.
The jomela-child said, “Akah, how do I make the crying better? Do you need a hug?”
I looked at the adult behind lim and shook my head fiercely, fighting to speak. The lump in my throat left no room for words.
Le furrowed ler brow and said, “Hold on.”
The jomela-child took a shopping bag from ler guardian and rifled through it for a small box. Le took something out of it while I watched and stumbled back towards me as the train came to a stop. As le opened ler hands, I saw the most beautiful candied flower.
“For you,” le said.
I took it and tried to smile. The child stared earnestly at me.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “You’re very kind.”
Le sat down when the woman beside me vacated that seat, and le rested ler head against my shoulder. We sat together until I detrained in Nitårva Square several stops later.
I never managed to catch that child’s family name.
Other things need to be said, too — that I will stop this journal, which has done me no good. It is far better to cry in public and to see the good in human children, even strangers. But I have one thing more to say.
In Narahja, temples for mourning often occupy places near waterfalls. Water is a liminal thing. It connects people to the sky and to the underworld. Waterfalls bring souls down into the darkness below. It evaporates passively into the air. I needed to see water.
Nitårva Square is not a mourning place. Here, pipes force water up several meters into the air. Children and adults of all genders, some nude, some in quick-drying clothes, run through the jets. Even with an execution halfway across town, people celebrated their lives here — Galasuhi and Shiji, Narahji and Iturji, foreigner and native-born.
The clock on Breeze Hotel chimed. Suka, also in red, stood to the side of the square with Liga, searching for me. I made my way up to them.
I strained to think of something to say that didn’t involve quoting Akah Gysabala. I am suffering. I am so deep in suffering. I have suffered ever since I realized that the Daybreak Movement meant to kill the Fadehin. I said that the cloudless sky was inappropriately cheerful.
A part of me doesn’t want to write what happened next because I want my descendants to believe that I mourned for a long time. I want you to believe that I could not smile. Grief is greedy and jealous. It sees other emotions and only thinks that there should be more space for itself.
Suka kissed me on both cheeks and said, “You were very strong today.”
“We could get ice if you want,” Liga said. “You look like you’re overheating, Salus.”
“It’s these Tveshi clothes. They’re thicker than what we wear in Narahja at this time of year.” I grabbed Suka’s hand and squeezed it.
Liga nodded. “We have some mourning clothing in Karatau’s home that might fit you.”
“Le’s not wearing Karatau’s clothes,” Suka said. Le clicked ler tongue. “Do you know nothing about Salus?”
Liga adjusted ler topknot and bit ler lower lip. I saw many people in lim then: Karatau, of course, but several hundred people behind that — all of the Kohjenya — but the collective fell away from lim suddenly. Le laughed. “You’re right. I obviously don’t know lim at all.”
I nodded vigorously and raised my hand in the traditional Narahji greeting. Le pressed ler palm against mine. “I am Liga tal Bisum,” le said, “Suka’s cousin, Akah.”
I nodded and said, in faux-formal Narahji, “It is a pleasure to meet you. May I address you informally? You have, after all, been reading my journal and listening to my most intimate conversations. I am Adviser Nitañi, but under the circumstances, you may skip the formal address and call me Salus without reservation.” My laugh felt hollow.
Suka rolled ler eyes and wormed out of my grip. “Honestly, you two!”
Liga clicked ler tongue twice. “If you like!” Le giggled.
“Tell me about yourself, Liga.”
“I’m a hacker.” Le poked Suka in the side. Suka looked at lim with the helplessness of anyone watching ler parent poke fun in public — because Liga is not our age. Liga will never be our age. Liga continued, “I am in the Kohjenya, which the Tveshi call Equilibrium Nexus, a collective. I have connections to many people.”
I closed my hand around lers and pulled lim close. Liga and I kissed on the cheeks like intimate friends, and I said, “Let’s undergo the friendship ritual. I don’t mind taking Karatau’s clothing as long as it doesn’t become common knowledge that I have done that. Certainly the only way to ensure that is for us to be friends.”
Liga let go of my hand and put ler arm around Suka. “Yes, let’s do that.”
Le pulled me out of my mourning-mind so perfectly, as always, even if part of why we did it that way was to satisfy the hidden surveillance cameras.
This is not the same grief from Kelis’ death. This death has not pulled me apart as much as I feared. Aneti’s radicalization and death unsettles me, and I have a memory of lim in my arms. I have a memory of ler sister — in the necropolis — and an obligation to both of them because they are dead. I am deep in that grief. Everything I described above regarding the execution is a real feeling.
The difference between now and Kelis is that I feel like I have a future. Kitesrati and I will marry. I have friends who care. I am beginning to understand reality. I have at least a sliver of akaćeheñi.
The last thing we did while we were out was to buy a new set of pale gray sheets for my bed. Liga and Suka changed them for me. I am still injured, but I think that I will call Kitesrati tomorrow for a date. I think that I am well enough now to have sex. Having lim over and going to breakfast in the morning with my family will paint over the events of the past few months with at least some semblance of normalcy. Hopefully, I won’t cry.
The country will not be normal for a while. I — my family — my relationships — won’t be “normal” for a while. And yet, there is so much to do, and unlike Karatau or Tenes, I have one human lifetime in which to do it.