If the shindig assembled to watch Barclay Jamison Willis’ neck get stretched wasn’t the largest ever assembled in the Crux’s history, Phoebe hadn’t been alive to see its better. She sat beneath a pavilion with Underground to her right, Quique to her left, and the Witthered wearing a cowl and sitting next to a red-headed man he introduced as his captain, Treacy Yeang.
They watched the crowd singing hymns, the Grangers praying that the end of this blight on the Crux would bring back the forgotten gods. A glance at the Hunter revealed a wistful look on his face. Phoebe reached over and squeezed his hand with hers.
“You’re sitting next to me, mighty Hunter,” she reminded Quique while fluttering her lashes at him. “It can’t be that bad.”
He almost chuckled, but caught himself with a furtive glance at the surroundings. She had to be contented with his wry, crooked grin. “Not bad at all, Phoebe. The song reminded me of when I’d go to Meeting before I turned to wandering, is all.”
Phoebe wrinkled her nose at their words. They sang of the day the ones who had forsaken them would return from their voyage and heal this broken world and shivered. “I hope not. Because they won’t get what they want.”
Quique regarded her with an arched eyebrow, but glancing back at them, he nodded. “I doubt I’m ready for that day either.”
If only it was that, my brave gunslinger, she thought while recalling her night in the circle, and the claims of the demon who still held a promise against her. She managed a weak grin and replied, “I’m fairly certain I’ll never meet their definition of pure in heart, Quique.”
Underground, whom Phoebe had known for years as Madame Amber McCrea, pondered the two of them with a finger curled under her chin. “I would not have imagined him to be the one to catch you, Miss Hanako. In fact, I’d wondered if I could entice you with my offer this time. I’ll be needing someone to take over The Fair Shake eventually.”
Phoebe smirked. “But you made me a citizen. Why would I have to do that now?”
Amber returned the expression. “Who said anything about need, Miss Hanako? We both know the folly of spurning desire. I have a friend who works in Antura. You would be trained by the finest of courtesans. That doesn’t interest you?”
Phoebe felt Quique’s hand tighten around hers. Glancing up at him, she saw his eyes were narrowed. Her stomach fluttered, flattered and frustrated at once. She knew what the woman Quique wanted her to be should say. But everything in her experience reminded her that the kind of security Amber was offering could open doors to the heart of the Crux. Before she could bring herself to answer, Amber rocked back and clapped her hands. “You two are sweet on each other!”
As Phoebe blushed and Quique cleared his throat, Amber waved her hand. “Even scoundrels like us deserve company when we can find it. Enjoy yourselves while you can. The Crux will have need of you both again, and I won’t forget about either of you when it does.”
Turning to the pirate behind them, Underground added, “Or you, Captain Yeang.”
Chortling, Treacy answered, “Here I was ready to sell my dreadnought to the Crux and hang up the rapier. After you generously honored Mistress Smallwood’s contract, I don’t think I need the headaches anymore.”
“You will always want to fly,” Duma’s voice rattled despite his attempt to speak in a hushed tone.
Treacy rolled his eyes. “You were a blazin’ awful second. I don’t know why I let you rejoin my crew.”
“Because it’s a lot harder to get shot when his staff is spinning?” Quique supplied.
The Captain nodded sagely. “That’s it. Self-preservation. The most important instinct a pirate can possess.”
“I’m sure Outside would be grateful to trade that dreadnought you’ve acquired for a dirigible more to your liking?” Amber tapped her chin and shot a knowing glance at Phoebe.
“It’d be built to my specifications?” Treacy inquired.
“Within reason, Captain,” the Madame replied. Her eyes sharpening as she continued, “The Crux has already given you two large payments in the last two months.”
The pirate chuckled. “Are you trying to whittle me down before Outside gets his whack at me?” He winked at her. “Since we’re clearly negotiating, maybe you’d provide me with an incentive to be receptive?”
Quique’s eyes raised to the top of his brow, and Phoebe shook her head. But Amber smirked. “Very bold, Captain. Don’t let my son hear you speak this way to me. But it’s been some time since I’ve heard a man be so brave. We’ll speak again.”
The singing stopped as the sun reached its zenith, directly over the gallows, where a lone woman sat between two deputies and the hangman. A prison cart’s wheels squeaked until stopping at the foot of the scaffold. A door opened, and Barclay Willis was thrust forth from within, tumbling to the dirt when his manacled feet got tangled in the chains. A burly deputy hoisted him upright and shoved the condemned forward.
Willis’ eyes rose to the noose, and his posture straightened as one who has seen the face of his god. Phoebe knew the look well and leaned into Quique’s side. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and the memory of the Circle faded to a dull presence. The hangman placed the noose around Willis’ neck and a Sheriff stood before him.
“The condemned before us,” his voice boomed across the Wastes without sounding like a bellow. “Barclay Jamison Willis, has been found guilty by a jury of his peers of Treason, five counts of Murder, Conspiracy against the City’s Government, Conspiracy to commit murder, Theft of Crux property, consorting with enemy powers without permission of the Ten, and seven counts of assault. He is hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. But before your execution, your widow would speak.”
The tall, slender woman stood as a foal testing her legs. She gathered herself and accepted a speaking horn from the deputy alongside her. She looked over the throng and then announced in a clear voice. “I am Lyla Smallwood, wife of this traitor. I disavow all his actions and murderous liaisons. He brought foreigners into our home and threatened the lives of my son and me if we did not keep silent about his scheme to overthrow the Ten. I swore before Preacher Gaal, whose life I helped save, that I had no part in his schemes or desire to see the Crux overthrown.”
Returning the horn to the deputy, she turned to face her husband. Phoebe tightened her free hand in a fist as the two Willis’ stared at one another. The silence was broken with the sound of a slap as Lyla struck Barclay across the face. After spitting in his face, she sneered, “Bark in Hell tonight.”
“Nice theater,” Treacy muttered. “I don’t believe a blazin’ word of it.”
Amber’s face as she drummed her fingers once on the chair. “As likely as not you’re right. But enough trouble for one day. Founders won’t like it. But we’ll watch her.”
Lyla stepped away and the hangman pulled the lever. The trap opened and a groan rose from the throng. A crowd of urchins ran for the platform. They were common to every hanging, seeking to drape themselves on the hanged man’s legs to finish him quickly in return for the few coins he kept in his shoes or pockets. But this time the deputies ringing the gallows pushed them away, ensuring the traitor would suffer.
Willis kicked at the air three times in rapid succession. But his feet remained four feet from the ground, hanging suspended between sky and ground. Then the spasms began, as the life was choked from his body. Phoebe found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the scene until his twitching came to its end. Then, in a final display for one whose family had once traced back to the Original Ten, they left his body hanging for the carrion birds to feast when the crowd left.
The singing began again as the Grangers filed out. The deputies ushered the children away as well, giving them candy in place of their hoped-for gold. Quique offered Phoebe his hand, she accepted it, whispering, “I’ve never known a man who deserved to hang as much as him. But it’s still ghastly.”
“I’d never watch one of these if I didn’t have to,” Quique conceded. “Not even his.”
The Crux had rolled the Heroes of ‘The Estanian Incursion’ as it was already being called, in by coach. (The Estanian Kingdom, for its part, was disavowing any aggressive intent, and claimed the squadron had veered off course after overreacting to a pirate attack.) Now it carried them back to the city. Quique and Phoebe shared one, and he helped her up to it, with his hand lingering on her back before joining her inside. When the door closed and wheels turned, she saw the Hunter regarding her with a wolfish gaze that traversed every inch of her frame.
“What are you thinking about, Quique De Soto?” she asked in her most innocent voice. Though it was betrayed by the flick of her eyes along his rugged body.
He reached into his inside vest pocket and produced a deck of cards. “I thought of an intriguing way to pass the time with a pretty gambler.”
“Oh ho! You think you can beat me at my game?” She laughed and clapped her hands. “What are the stakes, darling?”
Quique shuffled the cards in his hands. Her eyes instinctively following for any skifting his deft fingers could manage. “Whatever you wish to play for,” he answered in a seductive voice. His eyes ignoring the shifting deck to rest on her bosom.
Leaning forward to allow him a better view, her teeth peeked out to nip at her lower lip before replying in a husky tone, “I see a problem with this proposal. That being we both want the same thing, darling. Who is the winner in a game that cannot be lost?”
He began to put the deck away and sighed. “Then you don’t wish to play?”
Her hand darted out and caught his hand. Tracing his palm with her fingertip she smiled coyly at him. “I’m sure I can imagine something to make the game worth playing.”
His wry smile returned and she felt her heart begin to pound as the cards flew. This was living! she exulted. And it might even be fun to let him win.
She paused to pick up her hand before adding, Every once and a while.