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  • I know why I’m here. Where we’re going. Made my peace with that months ago, in a dark cell on the edge of sanity. Others in line, they’re not so lucky. Fella up ahead wears his fear on his shirtsleeve, quaking and moaning like he’s heard the rumors. But he doesn’t know where we’re going. Foreign by the look of it, businessman. Criminal with a quill, not a knife. Doesn’t matter what you go in for, if the time’s right you all come out going the same way. Fella two steps behind, he wears his fear in his eyes. Size of a house, scarred body and mind, but he knows where we’re going. You don’t grow up in these shadows without seeing what happens to people like us.

    At this point the chains are just for show, mostly. Nothing around but dust and weeds, nearest life a week away west, on the sea. Days are hot out in the badlands, and if you don’t dry out that way the nights will freeze you solid. Nothing like the rest of this miserable excuse for a country, but I guess that’s what that damnable grit does to a place. There’s forests back south, beautiful year round, like the castles and mountains and clouds. Used to look up at those when I was small, find shapes in them, think about the Quest. The Great Adventure, some call it, but I don’t. It’s all just a big show, always has been. Sometimes I think Nalageos himself was just that, a show, but I guess I wouldn’t know. He left again what seems like an Age ago, but he went alone this time. Didn’t take his company. Weren’t any bells that day.

    The chains clank as we walk, keep a cadence. Not a one of us is thirsty now, the guards see to that. No point in having us die on the way there, that’s not our punishment. The irony’d probably be lost on the fella behind me. No no, we’re not being paraded all the way out to the Gorge just to die. We’re going there to audition. You can see it now, spreading across the landscape like the scar it is. They say it was carved by a river, cut deep into the stone, but I figure it had a little help. There’s a guard post, right there on the edge of the cliff, where the elevator is. Line snakes all the way to it, but it’s not waiting for us yet.

    Seems like we’re all here now, line doesn’t fade off into the distance anymore. Pack us all up, herd us in, make us watch the lift. It’s coming up now, can’t help but watch it go. But there’s no guards on it, and nobody like us, not anymore. There’s just him. Doesn’t matter who he was before he went in. He auditioned, and he won the part. Maybe he wanted it, maybe he didn’t, you can’t read it in his face. Nothing left to read, save his stride. Purposeful. No guards take him, no shackles await him, he just walks away, back like he’d once come. Nobody gets to do that but him, not today. But the time will come. Businessman’s gone quiet, quit his wailing. If he didn’t understand it before, he does now.

    See, the other roles, they have their schools. Their monasteries. There’s the ones that govern, the ones that teach. That’s how they run the place, guess it’s always been that way. Nalageos needs his company. He needs his Midwife, his Harlequin, his Friar, and who all else I can’t bother to remember. Got to put on a show, got to disappear and never come back, over and over again. The Quest. But I’ve got it figured. Those people, they don’t want the role, they want to just miss it. They want to be the understudy. They want to always get just passed over, so they can have all the glamour and keep it that way. Keep the power that comes from being the best, the closest to those who went first. At least Nalageos used to choose himself, shake things up. But he’s long gone. Not worth trying to game the system anymore, it’s all been figured out. And that’s not going to change.

    But there’s one role that does change. It’s the one nobody wants. Life trains you for it, the Gorge is your monastery. Nalageos never chose it, there’s only ever one to fill it. And everyone in the line knows it now. They’ll take us down, leave us there, let us sort it out. They’ll return to the cities, to the empty prisons, and start it again. Then they’ll come back, back with another line to go down, and they’ll have their player. If he wasn’t ready when he went in, he will be when he comes out. Saw it in his eyes when he walked past, any fear was long gone. He could see the stage we all play on, the scripts we all recite. The painted clouds, the clay mountains, the cloth trees. He sees what I’ve already seen. And he’d tossed his lines away.

    The Manslayer

    We’re on the elevator now, not the first batch to go down and by no means the last. Sounds like an argument’s already broken out below. We’ve got plenty of time for that, maybe years, no sense in starting early. But it doesn’t hardly matter. The guards will leave, try to forget about us down here, until the day they do it all again. We’ll keep busy while they’re gone, one by one we’ll lose out to those better suited for the role. But I don’t intend to lose.

    Nalageos needs his company, after all.

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