|Variety:||Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Viognier|
He worked but rarely, but when he did, times were busy. There were seven people set for the block today, and while his own role in proceedings would be brief, he still had to stand on ceremony for an hour or more for each person he dealt with.
Even before he went out, there was much to prepare for. The axe had to be sharpened, for one. Others in his line of work might be lazy, letting their axes go blunt through lack of care. Others might let theirs go blunt due to corruption - "Give me sixty Shamels," they would say, "and your loved one will go into the next life quickly and painlessly. Give me nothing, and they will live in agony. It may only be for minutes, but I promise that for them it will feel like an eternity."
He, however, was a professional. He would not have been able to survive so long otherwise. Sure, there was the temptation to become corrupt and lazy, but those who were must be happy to spent the rest of their life in some back-door county, else risk facing the block themselves. His discipline had allowed him to survive five dukes, two emperors and a king. Some called him turncoat, as he swung the axe down on his former employers, but he never believed he was. He stuck to his own code of ethics, his own rituals and his own loyalties, and if those who hired him did not like him for it, then they at least viewed him with respect.
Seven people to deal with today.
He had read their crimes, of course. A traitor - there always was one, even though the charges rarely seemed to hold up to scrutiny. Three highwaymen, saved from the gallows because their leader was a Noble's cousin. Two murderers - no shame to see those go. An adulteress.
He felt pity for the last one. He knew her husband, and had he been subjected to matrimony with him, he would have done far worse than sleep with the blacksmith's son. The only difference was, he would not have been fool enough to get caught.
This is what he told himself, though the thought still disturbed his meditation. Focus was paramount in his profession. He had killed plenty of times before. He had heard the tears of those who had once called him friend, and still he had done his duty. Men and women. Young and old. So long as the forms were obeyed, he would take their lives.
And yet, he had never executed an adulteress before, and it bothered him.
Bells rang outside.
Morning vespers was over, and in an hour the first of the ceremonies would begin. It was time to begin the cleansing ritual.
A bowl of water had been set out for him. Someone had scented it with rose oil, which was a kind thought. It did not matter, of course - the ritual would be completed without it - but he appreciated the care that had been taken for him.
He washed his hands, carefully scrubbing under his nails to make sure no trace of dirt remained. He was a sinner, just like every other man, but the symbolism was important. Only the pure had the right to take a life. And what was lacking in reality could be gained, if but for a short time, through ritual.
Once his hands were clean, he could complete what was, to him, the most important part of his ritual.
An executioner must not show their face.
It was hard to remove one's face. The pain was excruciating, and it did not fade until the face was once more rejoined to his body. But it was worth it. How could he take a life if he was not willing to bear the same amount of pain himself? Life could not be worth so little that he could take it from another without any sacrifice on his own part.
And so he began the painstaking process of removing his face.
There was a place behind his ears, and if he pushed it just right, the skin would begin to lift off. He had never looked at it, but he imagined it was deep enough to remove his features, but not so deep that it took away his nerves. Certainly, he felt himself exposed as he stood on the scaffold. He could feel the eyes of the crowd watching him. There really was a sense of being watched. It felt like a hundred needles prickling you constantly, testing your skin until it found a way to eat at your soul. Most people could not feel it, for skin is tough, and even a hundred needles will not pierce it unless they are applied with force. But for those who lack a face to protect their mind, the gaze of others is more painful than anything else imaginable.
He wondered how the adulteress would look at him. The gaze of the truly guilty rarely hurt him, save for proven traitors, who often as not believed in the justness of their own cause. It was not something that should worry him, save that he had never killed an adulteress before.
The face took a long time to remove. Nerves caught at the skin, reminding him that he was taking on an unnatural role. When this happened, he massaged his skin with oil, causing the muscles to relax and allowing the skin to come off smoothly. He could have ripped it off, but then all who saw him would mark him as the Executioner by his ugly and misshapen his face. That defied the point of removing the face, or so he thought.
At long last, he peeled the last of his face off of the tip of his nose, and left it suspended in a saucer of salt water to keep it safe. It floated there, spread out so wide it looked like a parody of himself.
Outside, trumpets sounded. It was nearly time.
He pulled his hood forward. It kept him in shadow, which he liked. Even with his face removed, he liked to keep as hidden as possible. He was not a man as he acted his role today. Call him what you will - the State, Justice, Fate - he was not acting as an individual, but rather as something greater than that. It was not meet for them to see his features, for on this day he did not act as a man, but rather as a tool of the order that must be imposed on the city.
He made his way to the scaffold. He was entitled to a guard, but he had never requested one. He was known in this city, and they did not dare touch him. They would not dare touch him. His presence was noted, of course, and it was not long after he took his accustomed place on the scaffold that the crowd had filled the square.
The condemned had been brought out earlier. A judge presided over the proceedings, and would pass down his sentence once the accused's cases had been heard. The king claimed that this was so justice could be served openly, however the Executioner knew that these sentences had been decided long before the accused ever made it to trial. Had they not, his services would not have been required.
The murderers were put on trial first.
The second murderer the Executioner would have killed without compunction, even without having gone through the ritual of cleansing. There were some people, he thought, who drained the world of virtue, simply through being alive, and this was one of them.
The first murderer, on the other hand, the Executioner would rather not have killed. Not because the crime was not horrid, but rather because the Executioner doubted his guilt. This was a thought he easily put aside, though, as he swung his blade down upon the condemned's neck. Justice demanded action, not merely accuracy.
Next came the highwaymen. They were tried as one, and executed as one. Their punishment deserved hanging, however rich families could purchase a noble death for their own, even if they deserved far less. There was corruption in this, however this did not concern the Executioner overly much.
After all, dead was dead, no matter what the cause was. All that mattered was that the legal formalities were obeyed.
And then there were two criminals left. The traitor and the adulteress. He felt uneasy about these two executions. The traitor's gaze was already looking into him with unmitigated pain. Whatever his crime, he was one who truly believed in the righteousness of his actions. It would hurt to kill him.
The adulteress was still yet to glance in his direction. Instead, she looked steadfastly at the ground. He was glad of this in some ways, for he could not tell how her gaze would feel to him, and he feared that it would be painful.
The traitor's trial came next.
This was unsurprising. He had lived through many rulers, and none had been so foolish as to let the traitor's death be the thing that people talked about as they went home for the day. Perhaps this was what the adulteress was for. Let them feel sorry for her, so they forget the bravery of the traitor – for he could tell already that the traitor was brave. Criminal he may be, but his stare was resolute, and the Executioner had felt it slice into his soul for most of the day.
It would be a relief to the Executioner when the traitor was dead.
It was a long trial, for the king had many proofs of treason that must be aired in public - or so the king believed. The executioner had nothing to do during this time but stand still and wait for his role to be fulfilled.
He fell into meditation, and was pulled out rudely - not by the end of the trial, which would have been a pardonable offence, but instead by the gaze of the adulteress.
The traitor's trial had given her time to come to her senses, and she had chosen to look at the executioner. This was fair enough, he thought. After all, he was her Doom, and everyone had the right to gaze upon their death. What upset him was the way her gaze pulled him apart. It did not hurt in the way the traitor's did. Instead, it tugged upon his nerves, making him lose his centre.
Pain he could bear, but the dizziness that this brought on was not something he was used to. It created such discordant feelings within him that when it came time to kill the traitor, he took two blows to sever his head. Never in ten years had this happened to him before. It was unprofessional, and it was at odds with the reputation he had tried so hard to gain.
If only the adulteress would stop looking at him. Her guilt was known, so it should not have been so hard on him. Perhaps it was just nerves. If he could kill her, it would not be so hard the next time he was faced with one of her kind. It had been a long time since had had a first, after all.
He did not look at the adulteress during her trial. It shook him less if she could not stare right upon where his face should be. It would be over soon, he told himself.
And indeed it was. After all, the adulteress's guilt was proven. All that was needed was the judge's seal, which was sought for by her husband and readily given.
She was lead up to the block, and the Executioner looked away as her eyes pleaded for help. Many people had looked at him the same way before, so why should he treat her differently, just because her gaze pulled at him? He told himself this, even as his hands trembled in time with her own, and his heartbeat raced as it beat in time with hers.
If this was what it was to kill an adulteress, he was glad he had never been called to do so before, and would be pleased if he never had to do so again.
A tear ran down her face as she was forced down upon the block. The Executioner knew, because he could feel its twin running down his own. It burned him raw as it snagged against exposed nerves. It was hard to keep the meditative state he needed to perform his duties.
He raised the axe as a sob burst out from the adulteress's mouth. He felt the same sob swell within his own throat, and quickly brought the axe down. The adulteress's death scream drowned out his own cry of fear, and once the deed was done, she felt nothing - and so, for the first time since he had removed his face, did he. A numbness swept over him in an ecstatic relief, much as he imagined death felt when it took departed souls from this world of suffering to the world of light that existed behind the veil. The deed was done, and not even the cold wind biting against his cheeks could bring him any pain.
He had now killed an adulteress, and he was unsure of how he felt about it. For the moment, he felt nothing.
The day was finished, and the crowd went home satisfied. It was a good day for justice, they said, and it was a shame that such a beautiful woman should be brought low by adultery.
The Executioner went home too, and began the painstaking process of replacing his face, carefully folding it back around his skull so it knit once more to his nerves.
It hurt much less than it had on previous occasions, he thought. And when he looked at his handiwork in his mirror, he saw a visage that was lumpen and ugly, as though the face he once took as his own no longer fit.