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Donal sat in the back of a police cruiser as it drove through the shadowed, broken streets of Lower Danklyn, past purplestone tenements that lay cracked and deserted. White lizards watched from the rubble. High overhead, a Tristopolis PD scanbat glided, observing.
I've seen men die before.
Not just men. His beautiful, lovely Laura, her head blown apart in a gray spray of brains and bone and black blood—
This one had better suffer.
But he could summon up no real joy. On some level of abstraction, Donal knew that Alderman Kinley Finross would take three hours to die. The bastard deserved every agonized second he was about to endure. Donal felt a sense of rightness—but only that.
There should be more.
Perhaps a living man would now feel his heart beat faster, his skin grow damp with perspiration, his stomach grow queasy.
In a living man, emotions would arise from masses of neurons in the body organs, and a flow of peptides almost as complex as the nerves themselves. But Donal was cold—would feel icy to another person, to a normal human touch—and his heart, Laura's heart, beat at the same unvarying pace inside his chest.
Laura. Oh, my Laura.
It hadn't been Finross who pulled the trigger. Senator Blanz had ripped Donal's Magnus from his grip, and used it to destroy Laura before swiveling to shoot Donal in the heart. After dying, Donal had awoken with his chest cavity split open, with paramedic mages finishing the installation of a black heart. Laura Steele's zombie heart—already beating inside him.
"Not long now." Al Brodowski, his massive shoulders convex with muscle, turned the steering wheel. "Has weasel-face gotten his self supporters?"
There was a bend in the road. A group of people stood beneath billowing, floating banners: Rending Renders Society Cruel. They opposed the death penalty as a matter of principle. Donal wondered if they spared a thought for the near-invisible wraiths they were using to hold the banners overhead. Perhaps those boundwraiths had their own opinions on dealing with murderers.
"Can we run over 'em?" Bud Brodowski, hulking like his brother, was in the front passenger seat. "Just a couple, please, Lieutenant?"
"Don't tempt me," said Donal from the rear.
But he spoke on an inhalation, which gave his voice a strange resonance, as if he were Zurinese. He saw the shared glance between the Brodowskis.
Damn it. There's too much to remember.
So much changed when you had to consciously control the lungs, when breathing was no longer necessary. When, arguably, you were no longer a person but a thing, an abomination created by thaumaturgical intervention instead of allowing extinction to...
To provide bones for the reactor piles? Would that have been better?
Farther back, Unity Party supporters glowered at the police car. Officially, their party did not condone this demonstration, not when their man Finross had been complicit in the death of Maria daLivnova, a very human diva.
To either side in darkness, amber eyes glowed, then disappeared as the deathwolves turned their attention elsewhere, before shining again as they refocused, following the progress of Donal's car. They belonged to the prison pack, normally patrolling inside the grounds.
"You think they're expecting trouble?" said Bud.
"Nah." Al shook his head, but still pulled his shotgun from its dashboard clip. "Going to be a quiet day."
"Not for Finross," said Donal.
The prison gates looked like darkened pewter, two feet thick, on which the crossed axes of the Federal Prison Authority were embossed, overlaying a yin-yang whose dots were a serpent's eyes. The gates swung inward, and the cruiser passed through.
Gravel sprayed as Al turned the wheel, following the arc of the driveway.
"Sorry," he said. "Shit."
"I hate this place," muttered Bud.
The gravel was formed of knucklebones, taken from prisoners across the centuries. Mostly, it came from corpses, but some came from the excision of living fingers: a punishment for infringing prison discipline.
Near the main steps, where white runes glowed upon the flagstones, Mayor Dancy's official limousine was parked. The city's Tree Frog insignia glistened on the black doors.
"Probably his assistant," said Donal. "His Honor doesn't like these things, according to the Gazette."
"Don't blame him." Al drove past perhaps twenty parked cars. "Here we go."
"Got newspaper guys here." Bud replaced the shotgun in its clip. "Maybe they'll interview you, Lieutenant. You being a hero and all."
"Huh." Donal held out his hand, palm up, fingers extended. "You want to see my new heroic trick?"
Al halted the car, pulled up the hand brake, and switched the engine off. He and Bud turned in their seats.
"Like this," added Donal.
Using neuromuscular control that he'd never possessed while living (although he'd known a living dancer with the ability) Donal curled just his little finger tightly, while the others remained outstretched. Then, slowly, he curled the ring finger, then the forefinger, and finally the thumb. The middle finger remained outstretched.
Then he raised the middle finger horizontal to the vertical.
"Pretty neat, Lieutenant."
"Ya gotta teach us that one."
Donal slid out of the car, smiling. Then his shoes scrunched on knucklebones, and he looked up at the dark massive pile that was Wailing Towers, the city's largest prison. His smile was gone. If zombies could shiver, he would have.
It won't bring Laura back.
Still, Finross's death would count for something.
Someone had redecorated. The viewing chamber held rows of plush, dark-red upholstered benches, instead of the hard bonewood furniture that Donal remembered from four previous visits. In Tristopolis, unlike other cities, the arresting officer always witnessed the execution. It granted cops a sense of perspective on their work.
As always, the benches were arranged in tiers, sloping down to an armored hexiglass barrier, floor to ceiling. Beyond it lay the execution chamber. Inside, a stone bier waited, its empty chains and straps dangling.
Donal stopped in the aisle, deciding where to sit. Several journalists and bureaucrats glanced at him. Some noticed just the pale complexion. Others—Donal deduced, from the minutiae of widening eyes, a tiny rolling forward of the shoulders—knew him for the lieutenant who had taken down Senator Blanz, dying in the process.
It's not me they're afraid of.
Choosing a near-empty row of seats high at the rear, Donal threaded his way past a down-at-heels journalist, then two men in gray suits. Each man wore a small black stud in his left lapel; inside the stud were superimposed a U and P, the symbol of the Unity Party. Neither man responded to a zombie detective lieutenant squeezing past them. Or perhaps they were fascinated—fearfully fascinated—by the waiting bier, the imminent reality of Finross's death.
It's the necrofusion piles that scare them. The thought of their own death.
Or perhaps they feared ending up like Donal, except that no Unity Party member would dream of taking out a life policy. As he sat down, he noticed several people flinch, just as he himself felt something cold from across the room.
A black-coated doctor was entering with stethofork in hand. His skin was palest gray, almost white. He stopped, looked up at Donal, and nodded. His eyes were like chips of slate.
Donal nodded back.
Another of my kind.
The doctor paused at the front row, then ascended the aisle and made his way along the row below Donal's. Drawing close, he stopped. His hand, when he held it out, was long-fingered. Donal expected his handshake to be cold.
But when two zombies shake hands, their bodies are at the same temperature.
"I'm Thalveen," said the doctor. "Odom Thalveen."
"Donal Riordan. Good to meet you."
A faint scent of formaldehyde wafted from Thalveen's black coat.
"I guess you're here to make sure," added Donal, "that Finross lasts the course?"
The shock of Rending would kill an unmedicated person within seconds. It took skilled medical care to ensure the vagus nerve and heart remained functioning. Anything less than two hours dying was considered "easy and unusual kindness," prohibited by law.
"I am here to prepare Finross. Also the hookwraiths." Thalveen's hair was lanky, and he brushed it back with one long finger. "The wraiths do not enjoy their work, I assure you. I attempt to minimize their suffering."
"While maximizing the prisoner's, I hope."
"Why, Lieutenant." The doctor gave a cold zombie smile. "That goes without saying."
The gray-suited Unity Party men stiffened. Then they let out tense breaths, releasing their anger, and looked at each other.
Thalveen shook his head, saying loudly: "Too bad Senator Blanz isn't here."
Perhaps provoking the UP was unwise.
"He wouldn't see a thing," said Donal, not caring. "My hands were sticky when they resurrected me."
"What do you mean, Lieutenant?"
"Isn't it called aqua humerus, or something? I think it's humorous."
"Aqueous humor," said Thalveen, "is a liquid inside the eye."
"Then that's what I had on my fingers, when I took out Blanz's eyeballs."
Donal had raked with his hands like claws even as the shot took him in the heart. The memory endured, an undertone of terrible joy failing to offset the shock of seeing Laura's head explode.
One of the UP guys had grown very pale, his complexion almost matching Donal's. Donal considered pointing that out, but Thalveen was offering his hand again.
"I have to take my place. It was good meeting you, Lieutenant."
"Likewise, Doctor." This time, it was no surprise that Thalveen's hand felt thermally neutral. "I hope we meet again."
Donal watched Thalveen make his way down to the front row. Ordi_nary living humans—prison guards, bureaucrats, and journalists—paid special attention to the black-coated doctor. Some frowned, some looked away, while others deliberately forced down their squeamishness and nodded to Thalveen as an equal. No one ignored his zombie nature.
So it's always going to be like this.
Perhaps Donal would get used to it.
It was exactly nine minutes later—Donal somehow knew, without looking at his watch—that an old woman with cataract-milky eyes limped up the aisle. One of the gray-suited men rose, and went to help. He led the woman to the seat he had been sitting in, sat her down, and took the place beside her. The other gray-suited man, on the other side of her, said something and patted her hand.
"Holy Mother of the Seven Blades," she said. "It isn't right. Not my Kinley."
A zombie could feel icy cold, for Donal realized who the woman must be: Alderman Finross's mother. A UP man was glaring at him, but Donal reacted in a way he could not have done when living. Consciously, he forced the guilt to recede toward an imaginary horizon, and into oblivion.
That was fine, because Finross, ultimately, was the person responsible for his own execution.
Down below, Commissioner Vilnar was entering the chamber, along with Commander Bowman of Robbery-Haunting. Vilnar was blocky and shaven-headed, his suit expensive, his body overweight but muscular. He greeted one of the journalists, then the mayor's assistant, who was sitting in the front row as far from Dr. Thalveen as possible.
Bowman, recognizable from his red buzz-cut hair, was an unknown factor to Donal. But he glanced in Donal's direction and gave a minuscule nod, which was more recognition than Vilnar was granting.
Politics? Or something else?
Commissioner Vilnar had attended Laura's funeral, against political advice. Grant him that much. There had been few mourners at the graveside. Commander Laura Steele was a cop who had died in the line of duty, in the Capitol building at the heart of Fortinium—but she had been a zombie.
Vilnar must know Donal was here. Still, he took his seat and sat back, folding his thick arms without looking around.
Meanwhile, on the same row as Donal, Finross's mother drew a prayer chain from her purse, and began to mutter the verses of a Septena. From his orphanage days, under the stern rule of the Sisters of Death, Donal remembered the prayers, and wondered if she was about to recite the entire forty-nine-verse sequence.
I'm not enjoying this.
Donal had made his guilt recede, but there was no joy to replace it. Conscious control of the emotions was a zombie's hallmark, wasn't it? So why couldn't he stop feeling empty?
Finross's mother faltered in her prayers.
Several seconds later, a door opened at the rear of the execution chamber, some fifty feet away and separated from the viewers by armored hexiglass. Finross's mother had sensed the door's opening in advance. Donal wondered whether Kinley Finross's abilities as a minor mage—unlicensed and illegally trained—were inherited.
Or perhaps it was ordinary maternal awareness, raised to new heights of perception in this awful place. She resumed her prayers in a tense, rapid mutter. Donal wanted to tell her to shut up. He wanted to tell her that everything would be all right; but it wouldn't be.
A gurney rolled into the execution chamber. On it, strapped naked in place, was Alderman Kinley Finross. He was gasping, hyperventilating, struggling against manticore-sinew cords and kimodo-leather straps that would never break. The cords binding his limbs together had left white marks on his soft skin; the barbed straps, holding him to the gurney, had drawn blood.
As the gurney drew alongside the stone bier, Finross bucked, achieving nothing. Instead, the gurney seemed to shrug, retracting its straps, rolling Finross onto the bier. Freed of his weight, the gurney then backed away, rolling more easily, perhaps glad to be leaving.
Several thin chains rose from the side of the bier, curled over Finross, descended, and tightened. As his movements were confined, his face bulged with pressure. He looked like someone about to have a coronary, but Thalveen would have made sure that such a premature ending could not happen. Not today.
Finross's mother prayed faster.
He was helpless when you brought him into the world.
Donal wondered what kind of awful symmetry was here, when a mother could see her son's ending in such a way. What childhood paths had led Finross to love power enough to ally himself with an illegal organization whose mages would eventually abandon him?
No. He's not the victim.
Remembering Laura's death was all it took to destroy that illusion. Finross deserved what was coming.
If only his mother weren't here, and praying.
Several minutes later, the flamesprites that lit the viewing chamber seemed to soften, to lower their illumination to a glimmer, while the execution chamber brightened. It was bizarrely akin to a stage show's beginning.
The hexiglass barrier did not transmit Finross's scream. Donal wondered why the audience needed insulation from the sounds but not the sights of agony. Even as he considered it, one of the bureaucrats, a fleshy man with oiled hair, brought a pair of burgundy-colored opera glasses to his eyes, leaning forward.
Maybe they should serve beer. Make a real occasion of it.
"—Mother of the Seven Blades deliver my enemies into my hands, and bring thy demon host upon their—"
As the old woman's prayer lowered in volume once more, Donal could see what had changed. A network of tiny holes had punctured the soft bare soles of Finross's feet.
A fine fractal blossoming began.
It was a ghostly gray tree that formed, a spreading network of threads drawn from the skin by an ethereal hookwraith. Squinting, Donal could just make out the wraith's attenuated form. Then a second hookwraith flowed over Finross's fat white thighs, and bent to work on the tender inner flesh, not yet targeting the groin. Soon, fine threads sprouted here as well. Slender wraith talons drew Finross's nerves through his punctured skin, and spread them in the air.
Looked at in a certain way, it was a form of art.
From the Hardcover edition.