Francis imagined the faint glow of a torchlight illuminating the cold, damp den. No light shined through the contraption on his head to bring the wretched creature any hope. The sound, provided the prisoner hadn't been hearing things, only spelled more agony for him. He reacted to it by writhing – in lingering pain from past torture or to the thought of what was still to come. The pain was not physical, which wasn't to say it hurt any less.
Yet the dread brought the prisoner to life. The approaching danger made blood surge into his head. Erratic thoughts raced across his mind, gradually becoming more and more organized and uniform as time ran shorter.Think, Francis.
He was alive for a reason. They still had some use for him. Information? Or was this personal? No – not personal. The knight captain was petty and Francis had undermined his authority with the constable, but pettiness wasn't what had driven this.
Then why the hell was this happening? They hadn't even interrogated him yet. The man pulling the strings, Jean de Lairenne, hadn't bothered to come to him, at least to Francis's knowledge.
It was just the assassin, Key. She came to Francis time after time, to deprive him and play with him. Francis was hoping they would begin to interrogate him soon. Perhaps that would drive Key away.
At first Francis had thought to go with the strategy. To avoid pissing them off and to act stupid and harmless. He had wondered just how much he could've safely given away and weighed on his options. He had expected them to want information about Glass and Killian. Perhaps even the Enclave itself, though Francis couldn't have helped with that. There were line he had never crossed, because knowing certain the answers to certain questions would only made him a risk.
Francis had been planning to let something big slip. Something Glass would know only Francis knew. Something that would show Jean's involvement to them. Him. Whoever Glass worked with or for.
These people didn't care at all about the Foundry's secrets. They didn't even want to listen to him. Whatever information Francis had, none of it mattered here. He had hoped for a chance to barter with the little information he had, but it seemed like there was nothing his captors needed from him.
It was like most of the world had been swept away: the only law that applied here that Key would always return to torment him.
Francis had kept his hopes up by assuring himself that people were searching for him, but after the first few visits a darker thought struck him. Would Glass or anyone in the Foundry even care? Why would they? They already knew it was Jean de Lairenne. Francis had nothing new to give them, why risk anything trying to save him?No, they'll come for me. I'd do the same for them. We're comrades.
The words lost impact each time he had to tell them to himself. Despair was slowly setting in. He couldn't keep it together for much longer.
He wriggled in his bonds, making a desperate effort to free himself.
”Francis Avery Eston”, Key's soft voice whispered playfully.
”You must've been so lonely without me.”
- - -
Even though Francis's throat and mouth were dry, he could taste iron through his coughs. He was alone. Initially the realization had felt like a respite. By now it had turned to another form of torture. He knew it would go on for a while; Key liked to play on the sense of isolation. If only she had let him keep his Goodsea pebble, then he would have had something to lean on.
How long had he been here? Days? Weeks? Months? Or had it only been a few hours? He couldn't tell. The shorter time he had been a prisoner, the more he would still have to endure. The longer it had been, the less likely it would ever end in anything but death.
Death was close to becoming an alluring notion. A final, sweet embrace. A release to end the suffering?No.
Francis still had something to live for. Even when he was lying alone in a dark stupor, a flame burned inside him. His cause, his mission.Sacrifice and justice. The Republic.
When it was pitch black, even a dying flicker of light felt blinding.
Francis knew it wouldn't last.
- - -
With nothing but the occasional visits in the dark, Francis had begun to rely on them. Key always appeared eventually, ending his loneliness and beginning his humiliation. Even though it nauseated him to think back on the deprivation, abuse and molestation he had been through, Francis had become morbidly dependent on Key's presence.
Memories of the visits surfaced again. She had made him her pet and a toy for her sick games. Frustration, anger, self-loathing and bitter resentment took Francis over. Inside his head, he made Key squeal for the wrongs she had committed on him. He flailed, spat and growled, but the bonds would not relent, and it fed his frustration.
He closed his eyes, pressing his eyelids together as hard as he could, as though he could dig so deep into his memories the pain couldn't find him.
The faces were distant, but he saw them again, hovering in the vast emptiness. He had sworn to always remember them, but even Clement's face seemed hazy. Francis had dealt with those people in another time, in a world that now seemed like a far-away dream. This world knew only degradation and ultimately, if Key would have mercy on him, death.
Amidst the agony, there was a flicker of hope from within. A small voice inside his head. It was scolding, but it was on his side. Francis knew the voice had always been there, but now it extended a hand to him and he had no choice but to take it, to seek refuge with the voice.This is all your fault, Francis. You've been weak.
The words burned inside his head, scorching the shame into ashes. Francis tried to close his mind from the world, leaving him alone with the voice.None of this would ever have happened had you been more rational, Francis. It's a cruel world that wants you dead. You must to hurt them before they hurt you.
The words were captivating, dominant. Even though Francis was still haunted by the visits, the voice Francis was locked in with felt safe and protective. It was like a portion of the pain was turned away by its mere presence.You entered the province with a purpose. You got on the right track, but somewhere along the road you got tangled in their schemes. This world is only as complicated as you want it to be. With my help, we can make it all simple again
, his inner flame promised.From now on we will do things my way. You only have to listen.
There was a violent quality to the voice that Francis hadn't noticed before. He closed his mind from it and returned to his bleak, lonely existence as a prisoner. Listening to voices was for raving lunatics.
He was about to fall asleep when the voice caught up to him.You know what's going to happen, Francis. Cast away your illusions. No-one's coming to save you. I'm the only friend you have. No-one else cares.
He could only lay half-awake on the floor. This time the voice was soothing and pleasant in spite of the raw truths it spoke.Key has made you her bitch. Is getting violated by a lowlife scum until you waste away really what you want?
It took a while to decide, but no. It wasn't.Good, Francis. Now what do you want?
The Republic. A safe tomorrow.No, that's old you. Naïveté gets you killed. You want to escape, at any cost. You can't have your revenge while you're imprisoned. The gruel they feed you isn't making you any stronger.
Francis wanted to disagree, but he was alone and helpless. He wasn't sure if it was wrath or justice his inner fire burned with, but in the current situation it was the only ally he could have and there was no spitting on its face. He was ready to die for the Republic, but what would dying here achieve? Here he could only die for his own pride, unwilling to bend and face his own iniquities.Do you think Glass would die for you?
No, Francis knew. Pawns are meant to be sacrificed. You didn't sacrifice yourself for them.It's time to quit being a pawn, Francis.
- - -
”Who is he?”
”Is he important?”
”We've got you.”
”Eston, it's Stardane. You're going to be okay.”
”At least he isn't a large man.”
”Glass is gone.”
”Listen to me Francis. She's not here. It's me, sport. Me.”
”Use your fewkin' magic!”
Freedom after such a long time was an amazing thing. As weak as Francis's body was, there was a sense of euphoria for having finally been freed. It was fleeting, followed by an empty, hollow sensation: what now?
The inner flame was quick to fill the emptiness. Francis had potential. He had not yet recovered, but it didn't stop him. He made his way out of the confining hospital room and into the Fort. There was a light drizzle that danced on Francis's face as he looked up to the vast, cloud-marked skies. Despite the rain, Francis thought he could still smell ash and burnt flesh. It was nostalgic, like returning home. For the first time in months, Francis could breathe freely.
A darker thought immediately echoed: it wasn't home. Home was in Ghaenthgrand by the Goodsea. He knew he would never return there and the memories had partially faded, replaced by a sense of approaching calamity. He would have to be careful, or he might well forget why he had come in the first place.
He had sacrificed a finger and his face for the Venerated Republic. For such a great cause, the sacrifices were next to nothing. Much more would still be given for a better tomorrow. Francis might have to partake, but it was now others' time to make sacrifices, whether they wanted it or not.They shouldn't have entered the province if they weren't ready to die for the Republic.
What was ahead of him should've felt overwhelming, but he was ecstatic to return to it. He embraced the chance to fight for what he believed in. Months of containment hadn't taken the fight out of him: it had festered, swollen and now ready to be released upon the wicked.
He limped along the street, with all the determination of someone who had months' worth of work to make up for.
- - -
Francis sat in the dark. He was on the edge of the seat, his back hunched and his elbows leaning on his thighs. The candle had burn out a moment ago, leaving him to brood alone.
He still held the crumpled copy of Maerdyn's death report. A single sentence had caused Francis to get lost in his thoughts, something doctor Sacasa had written.
There is a tattoo on the cadaver's mostly intact left wrist. It appears to be a letter, "V".
It had brought back the letter Francis had received about Daith Deas and Erinne. That had been signed by 'Y', a supposed trade officer.
Even though Francis was not at all surprised of the prospect of Maerdyn being a member, the way the organization came back to haunt the Foundry annoyed him.
Francis felt transition was in the air. If he couldn't bring Glass back after taking Jean out, the Enclave would sense the situation and wither away or stand back and make way for Francis and Dudley.
Times changed and it was only natural that new people would step in to replace the old. The next generation.
He took a quill and gently brushed the feather along his lips. His hold of the pen tightened, and he started tapping the end of the quill on the table almost violently. Like holding a dagger.
His face turned into a brooding frown.
Jacqueline Holden was still sitting on Glass's seat. It felt like sacrilege.
Francis let the quill slip past his fingers and pushed himself to his feet. You couldn't carve your way to the constable's seat with a pen.
- - -
Even though Francis hadn't expected it to happen so soon, the news of Dudley's death hardly surprised him. He had always been a stubborn one, a bright flame that burned out too quick.
Dudley Rexrode had been a strong person who had tempted fate, whereas Francis knew when to swallow his pride and back away.
Now looking at the late knight marshall, Francis felt the impending dread that was closing in on him. He stared at the bloodied corpse and his eyes became unfocused as he thought back to what Dudley had said earlier that day.
With Jean de Lairenne back in the Fort, Llareth had been supposed to move Augie, the witness who would testify against the new constable, to safety the previous night. When the sun rose, there was no trace of either Llareth or Augie except for Llareth's knife that Dudley had found in the evidence locker. It had set all of Francis's plans back.
Yesterday it was John Llareth, today it was Dudley Rexrode. Would it be his turn tomorrow?
Hunting down the former associates of Glass was not beyond Jean, but a risky move like this at the present sounded unlike him. He had already gotten what he wanted – the constable's seat.
Francis approached the corpse and dropped to one knee. Something, perhaps a spear, had punctured through Dudley's chest, or so it seemed. From experience Francis knew the signature weapon of Jean's assassins was a crossbow.
He stood up and turned to Leandra to accept the curiosities she had gathered from the deceased. A tremor ran through Francis as he took one of them in his hands. Alban's glasses.
Alban Glass had, in some ways, been like a father to Francis. He had took him in, showed him how the province worked. Glass had been – was no saint, and had never claimed to be. He had showed Francis the world like it was, a cruel but honest act.
Glass had always been one of the people Francis had distrusted the least, because unlike most others, Glass never claimed he had anything to hide. He had been honestly untrustworthy.
Glass would never have let emotions slow him down. Glass had been mentoring him, fostering him for something and at the same time protecting him from it until he'd be ready.You're ready now, Francis. In time, you could even become the constable. You're above all these quarreling fools. Imagine how much you could do. For the Republic.. for yourself.
The inner flame was right. He was ready.
He was ready for a lot of things. Something the inner flame didn't seem to understand that being ready for something didn't mean you had to do it.
The inner flame was the aspect of him that saw clearly, albeit mercilessly.
As he felt the Goodsea pebble in his pocket through the uniform, he realized the inner flame lacked certain traits that had kept Francis's head above the water despite all he'd been through.
Patience. Self-control. Humanity.
Despite acknowledging the inner flame's flaws, Francis had to admit that the path was enticing.
Fifteen minutes later Francis he sat in Alban's former office in the Republic keep and watched the room through the lenses. They distorted nothing.
Confusion turned to admiration towards the genius of the first constable Francis had known. Glasses had helped Alban see, not enhancing his physical sight but showing him how the world truly was.
When Glass fled the Fort, he had left the glasses for others to be found. And now, beginning to see what was to be done himself, Francis wondered if this had been Glass's plan all along.
- - -
"Welcome to my office", Francis said, spreading his arms around the bleak stone room before sitting down, taking Alban's glasses off his face and placing them on the table.
Faustine rubbed the back off her neck in an uneasy gesture.
"Ah. Ye've reclaimed it." She looked aside and moved to sit down.
"Ye see well enough without 'em now?"
Francis winced, though Faustine likely didn't notice. He took the glasses and put them on again. His tone was matter-of-fact.
"What did you want to talk about?"
Faustine leaned forward to stare at Francis.
"Ye look a lot like him."
He couldn't help but break into a smile. The words weren't intended to be flattering, but they were.
"That's not what you came here to say, though", Francis steered the conversation back.
"Are ye going to be coming to Dudley's pyre?"
"I'm nae sure. I've left it up to Lea to make the announcement."
"I'll be there if I can."
Faustine nodded. Several seconds passed in silence before she continued.
"Ye seem to be taking his death well."
Her eyes searched over Francis, who sat stiffly in the chair.
"He wasn't the first gendarme I've seen dying."
"Nae... But you and him seemed closer. Closer than your typical comrades, eh?"
"Don't let that impression fool you. All men in the gendarmerie are simply comrades."
"Glass used to say that we all knew how this'd end up when we signed up."
Faustine looked down at her lap, letting out an unsure "mm"-sound. But Francis wasn't done; he leaned closer, keeping his eyes fixed on her face.
"We're all just resources. You, me. Rexrode. The constable."
"He warned me nae to love a gendarme."
She rolled her shoulder weakly and looked up as Francis leaned back against his chair.
"Love nothing in this province. Everything is expendable. No love lasts but love for your Republic: that's the only love you know you can take to your grave. Rexrode and Llareth knew it well."
"Love everything in this province. It's the only way you'll fight properly to save it – and them – all", Faustine retorted, squinting at him. Her tone was unbelieving.
Francis sighed soundlessly. He was getting frustrated with this.
"While at first it was adorable, your naivete is giving me a headache now."
"What're ye on about?"
"Ah. I seem to have.. Hm."
Faustine narrowed her eyes as Francis stood up.
"Wait there. I will show you something."
She pressed her lips together and stood up to watch Francis leave the room. When he returned with Llareth's knife, she moved her hand to the pommel of her sword. Francis returned to his seat and let the knife clang on the table.
"What's that?", Faustine asked while she approached and sat down.
"Llareth was supposed to perform a duty with certains risks involved last night." He took a pause and watched the words sink in.
"What're ye talking about, Francis?"
"Rexrode came to me today, he had found his knife in the prisoner belongings locker."
He watched Faustine's lips purse and brows furrow.
"I'm not implying anything. But I haven't seen Llareth since." His tone was just as calm as it had been throughout the conversation.
"What was John supposed to do last night, Francis?"
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"I will tell you. Llareth had a witness. Someone the constable had hired back in the day, to deliver me in his hands. He was caught, and ready to testify against de Lairenne. With de Lairenne taking the constable's seat here, Llareth was to take the witness elsewhere for safekeeping so the constable couldn't kill him – so. If my fears are confirmed. We lost Llareth yesterday, Rexrode today and tomorrow it could be my turn."
Faustine paled and sunk back in her seat. She searched over Francis face for any indication of falsehood, but Francis had never found the templar girl particularly difficult to manipulate. Her eyes were welling up with tears and her face twists into something of a pained grimace. Francis did his best to keep his face weary and dourly stoic, like that of a man who's accepted his fate. Deep inside his head, he was triumphant.She's buying into all you tell her, Francis. You make me proud.
"Nae.. Nae, it can't be.. He.. Not him too.. Not.. He cannae be dead, Francis.."
Francis watched her plight from behind the glasses. Faustine looked crushed, the weight of the world caving her chest in. Her voice was uneven, eyes spilling over.
"What about the w-witness? Someone has to know something.."
"Disappeared with Llareth."
While the scene was intriguing to watch, Francis knew he had to deliver the final blow. Drive her over the edge. Someone had to rally against Jean de Lairenne, and he wasn't going to risk his own skin. He stood up and dusted off his coat. Faustine's face grew red.
He approached Faustine, appearing on her side. When he spoke, his tone was mockingly gentle.
"Should've left your naivete in the Rumbling Pass, Faustine. I can't comfort you. I have no proof of Llareth's demise, but always expect the worst."
"How can you support this constable, Francis?", she blurted out, sounding downright offended. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
"I'm not supporting him personally. But I'm doing my duty here. Welcome to the world we live in, Faustine Bystrand."
"The world does nae have to stay as it is, Francis! And it should nae be allowed to grow darker still!" Her voice was desperate, but Francis brought his hands together behind his back as he kept listening with a weary expression.
"It can be fixed. It can be saved."
"So save it."
"Then why won't you help me?!"
Francis shook his head softly. She just didn't get it.
"Help you how? What do you want me to do? You're just crying at me right now."
Faustine sniffed and wiped away her tears hopelessly. New ones formed almost instantly despite her attempts to get herself composed again.
Francis took off his glasses and offered Faustine a forced, comforting smile while he rested a hand on her shoulder. Faustine trembled under his hand.
"We have to stop this, Francis.."
"There is no happy way to end this, Faustine. You can forget your 'maybe he can still be redeemed' bullshit. Confront him about this, especially looking like that, and he will laugh you off."
"Then it will end with the death of one man. And it will be the one whose only redemption can be in his death. It will be his. You said you have no evidence, but there must be, Francis. There must be. Somewhere."
She was getting on the right track. It was time to strike.
"See", Francis began with a disappointed tone.
"The truth has broken you, and you still cling to your childish beliefs."
He inhaled and exhaled before screaming to Faustine's face.
"WAKE THE FUCK UP!"
He straightened his back and shook his head, moving next to his seat.
"This man runs the Fort now. You're not gonna do shit with proof, not that you could find any at this point."
He huffed in frustration, putting the glasses back on. She had stiffened and stopped crying, and Francis hoped he hadn't overdone it.
"Unless someone runs him through with a sword, it won't end. He will never face trial in the Fort he runs. He even brought his own gendarmerie here."
"I don't need a trial. I need evidence. It's nae for the jury."
"That's what you need, and I wish you luck in finding it", Francis announced with a calmed tone.
"Jean de Lairenne was the one who captured me. Jean de Lairenne tried to have me and Jax assassinated before that. Jean de Lairenne's goal all along was to kill Alban Glass and even Killian if they stood in his way."
"And what will you do? You'll wait for him to try again?"
"I've got a lot of experience in the field of surviving, Faustine. You need evidence. I don't. I've got all I need. If you keep suffering, then you will."
"I need evidence to bring an army against him. And that's what's fewkin' needed."
Francis resisted the urge to sigh on her face. She was so close to getting there, and now she started all over again with this evidence bitching.
"I can't help you unless you help yourself. The door is behind you. The evidence won't be found in this room."
Faustine avoided his gaze and lowered her eyes to her lap. She curled her arms loosely around herself and looked back to Francis, who spoke.
"I really don't see how I can help you if mine and Llareth's disappearances aren't enough. Perhaps you should ask Jean himself. I wouldn't be surprised if he was arrogant enough to admit it."
"I've taken your advice. I've sent word to request a meeting."
"Sounds like you got it, girl", Francis quipped and brought his hands together behind his back again.
"You're nae him, Francis.. But ye've nae been yourself either ever since ye came back.."
Faustine pressed up to stand and a flash of emotion raged through Francis. What the heck did she expect? That after months of what he had to go through with Key, he'd be the same?! Faustine stood up, and Francis forced himself to calm down.
"Regrettable, if true. You don't see me crying either."
Faustine searched over him miserably, and he answered her gaze with impatient weariness.
"Do you have keys for the whole of the Foundry building?", she finally asked.
"Not the treasury. The undercroft, the barracks, the warehouse – yes."
"Is that where his office is?"
"I don't know where he keeps his office. He's been laying low."
"Glass said he's smart enough to do that, aye.."
"Mm. We would've taken him out earlier if he hadn't."
"I'd like copies of what ye do have."
"Two what purpose?"
"Evidence. And failing that, to be able to move more freely if I need to be fewkin' running for my life when he catches on."
"Very well", Francis lied.
"I'll find someone to make more keys. Just understand what happens to you if his men catch you sneaking about here."
The templars against Jean de Lairenne's goons. Now that was a juicy thought.
"Aye. I die. There's a shite ton of ways to die, aren't there?"
"Yep", Francis agreed. He wasn't going to find out, but if he had played his cards right, Faustine might force Jean to.
"Pick your favourite."
"Well it sure as fewk won't be while I'm sitting on my hands."
"Glad to hear it."
"I've got some blank keys back at the cathedral's office", Faustine gestured aside.
"Bring them to me", Francis urged.
She sniffed again, trying to pull herself together before stepping out into the hall.
"I'll wait here", Francis said to her back. He hoped he had set enough wood beneath Jean's feet to light a pyre.
- - -
With the necessary groundwork done, Francis was relieved to move on to the next stage: his own death.
He packed what he needed and climbed over the wall of Aiwella, well out of sight from the horde pushing against the gate. The light steps that showed no trace of the limp he displayed publicly led him inside the ruined chapel, then up the stairs to the top of the tower.
It was there where he began his work. He withdrew a small knife from his belt. He had taken special care to keep it clean on the way through the festering ruins. Now it cut into his palm, which then smeared the blood on his hat and the spare glasses he had gotten from Dudley along with Alban's.
He idly dropped the hat on the stairs, brought his boot down on the glasses and dropped some blood on the ground from the wound of his palm as he listened to the crackling.
It was time for the culmination. He wrapped his hand in a bandage and reached for his Goodsea pebble, casting a final glance at it. In the past he might've taken a moment to reminisce, but he was a different Francis now. Today he would give up the act. There was no Ghaenthgrand, no home by the Goodsea. The First Province was his home. During his time there he had grown to become alike it.
His glove grasped the stone firmly as it hit the floor. There was a thud. Then a moment of silence, as Francis prepared to hit again. Another thud. Each time he struck the pebble on the floor, he shot another bolt at Selene Durai's corpse, watched Roseline and Clement bleed to death one more time.
When it was done, Francis cast one final look at the scene. It was through the glasses Alban had worn.
As he turned to walk down the stairs, the morning sun greeted his face. The light was bleak and emotionless, just like him.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfeNFTIneQA