“Logan Tamar, on this the fifth anniversary of your citizenship status, we mark the day of the ascension of a formal peasant…”
I stood tall before the general’s emissary, as he rattled off my military accomplishments. I had done a lot of good during my deployments, won battles, stamped out the Resistance to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. I had helped my people escape poverty, given them jobs as servants in my properties, provided educations for their children. I was a good man.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Melissa lean over to whisper something to a guard. The one who’s hand she had taken instead of mine. My shoulders sagged. She didn’t care even to listen to the good I had accomplished. I had lost all traces of her affection.
Leila smiled at me, from where she sat next to her mother. I gave her the slightest wink, slipping from protocol just for her. It was a desperate move, because if I should lose Leila’s affection…there would truly be no more reason to live. But my attention was on Johnathon. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest and his eyes spoke murder.
“Accept then, this the symbol of your prestige and ascendance, oh Sergeant Tamar.” The emissary gave me presented me with a medal, the corners of his lips lifted in the pretense of a smile.
The crowd burst into raucous cheers. They could not have done otherwise, they would not expose their families to the wrath of the government, but I knew they resented the empire. You don’t have to be peasants! I wished I could scream at them. I had been among them once, now I was wealthy, honored, protected.
But the price.
I shoved the thought down, reaching for the medal offered to me. If only the Resistance would cease the pointless fight, there would be peace, no more bloodshed. It wasn’t unattainable. I would see to it. My hand closed around the gold.
The wood of the stage creaked and my heart suddenly plummeted with the certainty that she was in danger.I spun around in an instant, balanced, ready to defend my family with my life.
The pounding of my heart muted all sound. At Melissa’s throat was a jagged sword. And wrapped securely around her waist was his arm. He held her. The guard whose hand she held, whose ear she whispered in. Melissa rested her head on his shoulder, relaxed, at home.
“Drop your weapons!” I knew what he was saying, though I heard nothing. My soldiers were alert, aware of every detail as they’d been trained, waiting for my signal.
“Release my wife,” I said slowly, clearly, deadly. I took a step forward. My trained eyes caught the way he shifted his weight, confirming what I already knew.
“I’ll kill her!”
My stomach wrung together at the thought. If I was wrong…I rested my hand on the hilt of my sword, tapping my fingers subtly. “Will you really, traitor?”
Around me my soldiers shifted into position, surrounding the guard who held my wife. I drew my sword, the sound echoed fifteen times.
The traitor guard moved so suddenly, and Melissa crumbled to the floor so abruptly… My heart jumped to my throat, blocking all air. The world caved in on itself. Melissa…But no bitterness tainted the cool, autumn air. There was no blood. In that moment of shock, the traitor guard leapt off the stage. A split second later, my soldiers leapt into action, but my focus was on my wife.
Melissa watched after the traitor, worry evident in her features. My relief was knocked aside by anger. I slammed my sword into its hilt. My hand crushed Melissa’s wrist and I yanked her to her feet, ignoring her cry. Still, her chin was lifted, not an inkling of shame on her face. My teeth ached, as they held back a flood of words. A flood which I would release the moment we were away from prying eyes.
“You don’t love me anymore!” Melissa’s accusation riled years of held back emotions, stretching my box of anger to the breaking point and I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“You’re one to talk of love.” Her hand was clutched to her stomach. I had hurt her. Good, perhaps she would respect me now. A small part of me recoiled, pushing acid up my throat.
“What are you saying?” she demanded. There was a slight quaver to her voice. She was grieving too.
She knew what I meant. I threw my hand back to point at the traitor, now subdued by my soldiers. “You and that guard are awfully friendly.”
“You shame our family, collaborator,” Melissa hissed, her face flushed. I scoffed in disbelief. She was bringing up my affiliation with the empire? I had joined for our family. She knew that.
“Collaborator!” A handful of peasants echoed the insult, but I barely heard them.
“I have not been disloyal,” I growled, so angry I could barely form words.
“You are the disloyal one,” she snapped. “You coward!”
“She prefers real men!” the traitor guard yelled from behind me where my soldiers held him.
“Do not address me in that way, dog!” I whirled around to face the traitor, prepared to punish him, when Melissa called out from behind me,
“We’re not done here!”
Her words echoed through the square. Reality came flooding back into my senses. My shoulders were tensed, my hands fisted. Every single being was focused on me and my wife. And Johnathon…there was no fear in his face, only dark anger. And Leila…she stood huddled against Johnathon’s leg. My daughter, staring at us—at me—in fear. But none of that mattered, because the emissary was scrutinizing us, his eyes scintillating triumphantly.
I turned around slowly, as our conversation replayed in my head. Fear froze my blood. Never had Melissa’s antagonism of the empire been so evident.
“Wife,” I said slowly, “Remember your vows.”
Hair had fallen loose from Melissa’s hairband. Her eyes glittered with anger as she stepped forward. Panic coursed through me, as I realized she was about to slap me. Don’t do it, Melissa. Then, she spoke and I wished she had. “Are you going to punish me, o husband?”
Her words filled the square like a thundercloud, but the words that followed were lightning.
“Yes,” the emissary stepped forward, eyes like a shark’s. “Will you punish her, Sergeant?”
I saw surprise filter through Melissa’s eyes, registering our audience for the first time. But then she raised her chin, a challenge. Who will you choose? Her eyes asked. Me or our overlords?
Her. I would always choose her. I held out my hand for a whip, even as bile filled my mouth. I had to do this for her. If only she could see that. A soldier presented me with the hair rope. My stomach twisted with dread, as my hand closed around the thick rope, but if I appeared weak…it would be all the worse for us all.