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Authors: Kim Fielding

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BOOK: The Pillar
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Crack!

This time the whip hit his ass, the tender part near the crease of the legs.

Crack!

Across his shoulders this time. Soon he wouldn’t be able to recognize where the lash was falling. His body would be a single ray of pure agony. He held his breath as he waited for the next spark of pain.

Running footsteps and shouting behind him, but Faris leaned his forehead against the cool stone of the pillar and waited. It was probably Kurjak come running, disappointed to have missed the beginning of the show.

“Stop! Stop this right now!”

That was a woman’s voice.

Faris tried to twist around to see, but the rope was tight, his eyes were blurry, and the square was dark. All he could discern was a flurry of movement. Then the soldiers crowded close to him, and all he could see were their backs. And the fact that they had drawn their swords.

“Stand away!” the bey yelled. “This thief has been sentenced—”

“He is no thief!” a man shouted back. “Faris is our healer!”

“He has been tried and convicted.”

“On false testimony!” someone replied.

Someone else added, “It was all lies! Faris is an honest man. He could have taken everything I own for saving my father’s life, and all he asked for were two good pairs of boots. What thief would do that?” That must be Igor the shoemaker, Faris realized, although he’d never before heard Igor raise his voice.

A rumble of voices swelled in response to Igor’s words. It was difficult to make out what anyone was saying, but the crowd sounded angry.

Then one woman shouted above the din. “Do you know how many motherless babies Zidar would have if not for Faris? He’s eased childbirth pain for half the women in town, and saved many of them from fevers. Nearly every family in town owes this man a debt, and he never demands they pay it.”

“Quiet! Quiet!” A note of alarm had crept into the bey’s voice. “
I
am the arm of the law, and the sentence must be carried out.”

More shouting ensued, and the soldiers shifted uneasily on their feet. Faris stood naked and bound, his skin cold and back burning. Yet a solid warmth built in his chest as he listened to the townspeople cry out in his defense. He recognized a few of them—Mirsada, Tomo the potter, Mehmed who liked to tease him in the kafana—but mostly he just heard a sea of voices raised for him.

But then he heard another familiar voice. “Faris! Oh God, Faris!”

Faris twisted as much as he could, enough to make his wrists sing with pain, but he couldn’t see past the soldiers and he was afraid to call out. But he heard Boro shouting and swearing, and a small uproar that he thought was people holding Boro back, keeping him from rushing at the soldiers.

“Enough!” screamed the bey shrilly. “Stop or you’ll all meet my whip.” When the crowd didn’t listen, the bey pushed at one of the soldiers, grabbed the man’s sword, and rushed to Faris.

Faris’s skin prickled as the blade just touched the back of his neck.

“Silence!” the bey screamed.

This time the crowd obeyed. An uneasy hush descended—except for a single wail of rage and grief that made Faris’s stomach roil. “No,” he whispered urgently. “No, please, Boro, don’t.”

The bey pressed the sword slightly deeper against him. “I
will
execute my duties tonight, one way or the other.”

“And your duty is to fulfill the law.” Mirsada sounded as firm and in control as she did when dealing with drunken or unruly customers. Faris couldn’t move, but he pictured her standing with her hands on her hips, her mouth set in a fierce line.

The bey spat his reply. “Yes.”

“My boy has gone to fetch the qadi. Wait until he arrives.”

After a very long, tense moment, the bey dropped his arm. Faris couldn’t help a shuddering breath when the sword moved away from his neck.

“Faris!” Boro cried again. But there were sounds of a subdued struggle as people hushed him.

Faris was almost glad for the nearness of the bey’s body, which gave him a bit of warmth. He leaned his head against the pillar again and tried not to shiver.

A murmur from the crowd announced the qadi’s arrival. Divjak wasted no time in marching to the pillar. He made his announcement in loud, ringing tones. “I’ve been informed of an important piece of evidence that was missing at this man’s trial. We will wait now for that evidence to appear.”

The crowd roared its approval, but Faris felt simply cold and weak and overwhelmed. What possible evidence could Divjak be talking about?

“For God’s sake,” Divjak said more quietly, apparently speaking to the bey. “Unbind this man and cover him while we wait.”

The bey grumbled and might have refused—there was always an uneasy balance of power between the two men—but one of the soldiers stepped up and cut Faris’s wrists free. Another handed him his cloak. Faris wrapped the cloak around himself, pulled up the remains of his breeches, and clutched at the torn fabric as he turned around.

The soldiers had moved away slightly and some people had lit lanterns and torches, so finally he got a good view of the crowd. It was… everyone. Seemingly the entire population of Zidar was jammed into the square. Boro was at the front, being held back by several burly men. He was bootless and without a cloak, and his eyes were wild.

Faris smiled at him. He tried to convey a message wordlessly:
I love you. Whatever happens next, stay safe. Stay well. I love you.

Maybe Boro understood, because he relaxed a little in the men’s grip and attempted a smile in return.

The bey was glaring furiously at everyone, but the qadi looked as calm as ever. He moved close to Faris and spoke in a low voice. “I will hear this new evidence, but I still must fulfill my duties under the law.”

“I understand, sir.”

“If this evidence does not absolve you of your guilt, the sentence will stand.”

“Yes, sir. I know.” And while Faris did not want to die, he’d meet his death with a lighter heart, knowing that the people of Zidar respected and valued him. Despite how he’d viewed himself for so many years, they didn’t think of him as a thief.

Divjak nodded. “Good. But if the sentence is to be carried out, I am concerned about the reaction of this crowd.”

“Sir, I will beg them myself to stand back and allow the bey to do his job. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

The qadi gave him a long, piercing look before nodding again. “Very well, Faris.”

Faris held up his breeches and gazed out at Boro. The cloak rubbed painfully against his new lash marks, but that was a discomfort easily borne. And when he looked at the other faces in the crowd, he saw concern, anger, and impatience, but not disgust. People smiled at him—even Mirsada. When these people looked at him, they didn’t see an orphan or a thief. They saw their neighbor, their customer, their healer. Their friend. And that was the truth, Faris realized at last.

It was a night full of shocks. He was flabbergasted, bewildered, maybe even a bit giddy. He’d never before had so many emotions storming within him at once.

The gathered townspeople were beginning to shift restlessly when a new commotion arose at the back. Everyone turned to see, and Faris squinted into the darkness at the edge of the square. The crowd parted to let two men walk through and approach the pillar.

One of the men was Safet the barber. He was scowling, and his cap sat crookedly on his head. He was holding the other man by the forearm—dragging him, really. The second man looked terrified. Faris blinked when he recognized the second man. He was one of the guards who’d accompanied Kurjak to Faris’s house.

Safet came to a halt in front of Divjak. “This is my cousin, Habir. He works for that demon Ratko Kurjak.” Safet yanked Habir’s arm, hard. “Tell him.”

Habir shook his head rapidly. “No. No, I can’t.” He sounded as if he was about to cry.

But Safet had no pity. “Tell him, cousin! Faris saved your sister’s life when she was dying from that fever. And what about your nephew? He would have lost his leg at the very least if Faris hadn’t healed him. Now is the time to repay those debts with the truth.”

After a moment, Habir nodded slightly and Safet released his arm.

“Have you evidence to give?” Divjak asked him. The square had grown so silent that his voice echoed off the buildings.

“Yes, Qadi,” Habir replied in a near whisper.

Although Divjak was the shorter of the two, he somehow managed to tower over Habir. “And you realize the penalties for false testimony are severe?”

“I… yes. Wh-what about false… actions?”

“If they resulted in harm to another person, the penalties are also severe.”

Perhaps realizing he was doomed either way, Habir made a strangled little noise. But Safet continued to glare at him so angrily that Faris nearly expected the barber to pull out one of his razors. Habir shuddered. “I don’t… I don’t….”

“Go ahead. Loudly, so that all may hear.”

Habir cast a nervous look over his shoulder at the crowd. When he turned back, his gaze shifted to Faris. Several expressions raced across the man’s face before he straightened his shoulders and again addressed Divjak. “I will tell you the truth, Qadi.”

Everyone waited. Boro was still restrained by several men, and he’d caught his lower lip between his teeth. Faris tasted blood and realized he’d been doing the same.

“I work for Ratko Kurjak,” Habir said in a wavery but loud voice. “I have for many years. I saw him and some of his employees brutalize this man many times.” He pointed at Boro. “Kurjak was very angry that the herbalist would not return his slave. He… he ordered me to keep watch on the herbalist’s house and to send word when it looked as if it would be vacant for some time. I did. A couple of hours later, Kurjak appeared with another of his guards. He gave me a necklace and told me to enter the house and place it under the mattress. I did, sir.”

The crowd began to rumble, but Divjak silenced them with a wave. “And?”

“And Kurjak waited for the herbalist to return home. Then he came to you with his story of the stolen necklace. We were supposed to pretend to search the house for it.” Habir took a deep breath and let it out. “We did. And then we stood by and said nothing while the herbalist was accused of the theft.”

Again, the townspeople reacted noisily and had to be silenced. “Why do you come forward now?” Divjak asked.

“I…. Two days ago my cousin came to Kurjak’s house and dragged me down to Zidar. He kept yelling at me. My whole family yelled at me. They said they knew Faris was innocent. They said that if I didn’t tell the truth, none of them would ever speak to me again. They’d never speak
about
me, even. I couldn’t… I’d rather die than be lost to my family, sir. I would have told you sooner, but your secretary said you’d gone.”

Divjak turned to look at Faris. “I’m sorry, son. I was called away on an urgent matter and just returned this evening.”

Astonished at an apology from the qadi, Faris could only nod.

Even more amazingly, the corners of Divjak’s lips lifted in a tiny smile. “The time and location of your punishment were meant to be kept secret so as to avoid a confrontation like this. It seems as if my secretary has been uncharacteristically… indiscreet.”

That’s when Faris noticed that Ramiz the secretary was standing at the front of the throng, looking very pleased with himself.

There was a certain weight to Divjak’s presence that demanded attention and respect. When he spread his arms slightly, every eye in the square was on him, every ear straining to hear. And none more so than Faris’s.

“Upon hearing this new evidence, and upon careful consideration, I hereby rescind this conviction. Faris the herbalist is no thief.”

The crowd erupted into cheers, but Faris barely heard them. He was rushing forward, trying not to trip over his torn breeches. And Boro’s captors finally let him go, so he ran as well. Boro and Faris collided somewhere in the middle, and then nothing mattered except for the embrace of the man Faris loved.

Chapter Ten

 

W
HEN
SOMEONE
approached the table, Faris looked up from stirring his coffee. Mehmed gave a wide grin. “Nice to see you back. My asthma’s been acting up.”

Faris decided not to mention the talisman that Mehmed claimed kept him healthy. “Come by my house in the morning and I’ll give you some tea.”

“All right.” Mehmed didn’t go away, though. He couldn’t sit down because the other chair was occupied by Boro, who was leaning protectively close to Faris. “Have you heard about Ratko Kurjak?”

Both Faris and Boro stiffened at the name. It was Boro who growled, “What about him?”

“The qadi stripped him of all his land and property and banished him. If Kurjak ever shows his face again….” Mehmed drew his hand across his neck and made a strangled noise. Then he shrugged. “If it was up to me, I’d have tied that pig-fucker to the pillar and flayed him alive, but I guess the qadi was in a lenient mood.”

“I’m glad he’s gone,” Faris said softly.

“We all are. That guard who helped him is banished too. Filth.” Mehmed looked as if he were going to spit but then thought better of it.

“Not Safet’s cousin?”

“No. But Habir is out a job, and he’s forced to rely on his family’s charity to survive. Safet has him sweeping hair and mopping blood in his barber shop.”

Faris was relieved to hear that. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

Mehmed waved happily before returning to his cronies at the front of the kafana.

Boro lifted his eyebrows at Faris. “That’s your doing, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“The fact that Kurjak’s still alive.”

“Um….” Faris decided he wasn’t doing a good job of pretending to be innocent. “I suppose. I asked Divjak not to order his death.”

“Why? He deserved to die after what he did to you.”

“I’d have happily killed him myself for how he treated you all those years. But another killing doesn’t…. You told me once to judge a killing by the motives and the outcome. Kurjak’s death wouldn’t help anyone and it wouldn’t bring peace. And I can’t… I can’t stomach another person being tied to that pillar. I just can’t.” He looked at Boro and hoped he’d understand.

BOOK: The Pillar
7.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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