Tithi Luadthong/

I raise my head, bloody, beaten, broken, and gaze into the crowd.

“Citizens, behold your would-be king.”

Staff in hand, Deltor, the conqueror of humanity, steps onto the cliffside beside me, his cobalt cape flapping in the wind. He glances at the chains binding my wrists and feet, and after shooting me a condescending smirk, turns to face the people.

“And how,” he continues, “should we treat our royal highness, the rebel? What manner of death does he deserve?”

The crystal at the top of his staff begins to glow, casting a faint and sickly light on the world below. The same magic he used to subjugate humanity flows through its center, and I shrink back, afraid, remembering all too well the pain it conjured the last time the staff and I were acquainted. Meanwhile, the crowd looks up beneath an overcast sky, sallow-faced and numb. The sight of them breaks my heart, but there is nothing I can do.

“Perhaps we should let him decide.” Deltor faces me once more. “What will it be, rebel? Ask for mercy and I’ll give you a swift death. You’ll see, I’m not without some kindness.”

After days and weeks of beatings, of having my bones broken, then healed, broken, then healed, I’m ready for it to end. I open parched and withered lips, and in a reedy whisper, I begin to speak.

“M’lord, please—”

But I cannot continue, for a child has caught my eye on the rockface below. He stares at me with zombie’s eyes, the light of hope within utterly extinguished. He’s grown up believing freedom is just a bedtime story told in furtive whispers before the light of a dwindling fire, and now, in his presence, I’m about to give up the only freedom I have left.

I think, What I do now still matters. I, their leader, was captured and thus failed the rebellion. But perhaps, by teaching the rest of humanity how to be strong, I can redeem myself. I desire death like a desert longs for rain, but I can’t give in now, not when there’s still something I can do.

“M’lord,” I say again, then stop and pretend to cough.

Amused, Deltor steps forward. He gazes down at my swollen, broken body, decides I’m not a threat, and kneels before me, close enough that I can smell the sweat rolling down his neck in beads.

“What will it be?” he whispers. “A merciful death? All you have to do is ask.”

I peer into his charcoal eyes, alight with supernatural malice. That demeaning smile has always infuriated me, but today, the corners of my mouth twitch into a smile of my own.

Deltor frowns.

“What do you find so amusing?”

I tilt my head back, and by way of reply, spit in his face.

“I will ask nothing of you,” I cry, loud enough that all the assembled can hear. “You are a blight on the world, and with my dying breath, I call on everyone who stands to strike you down or die trying.”

For a moment, those inhuman eyes widen in surprise.

That wasn’t part of the plan, they seem to say, and in that moment, I know I’ve done all I can do.

Deltor is shouting now, spittle flying from his mouth. The light from his crystal has turned a bright and angry green, and soon I will learn the true meaning of pain. I ask myself if it was worth it, then glance at the child below to find that her eyes now sparkle with a light of their own.

Courage, I think before my mind is scoured in that green and terrible light. I gave them courage, and now there is nothing left to do but embrace the pain and suffer the sting of death with dignity.

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