art by Jonathan Westbrook
by C.L. Holland
After he brought the Emperor back to life, they cut off his hands.
"Now you can never use your gift for anyone else," the Emperor's most loyal advisor said. Blinded by pain, Sora barely heard him. The physicians continued their work, spreading salves over the wounds that made it feel like they were on fire. He was barely conscious even before they tipped honey-sweetened laudanum down his throat.
When he came to himself the wounds were already healed. The skin was shiny and smooth, as if burned, and boasted a thick white scar where the flesh had been sewn together.
"You had a fever," the physicians told him. "We thought you might die. But you're healthy now. Take your payment and be on your way. The Emperor thanks you for your service."
They guided him through narrow corridors to an ironbound door guarded by two impassive soldiers. As Sora turned to ask where he should go the door closed in his face, and he found himself alone in one of the many white stone alleys around the palace.
He wasn't alone for long. Like vultures, thieves watched the labyrinth of passages. They waited, he assumed, for those like him: cast out of the palace missing parts and carrying a reward. He shrugged the bag of coins from his shoulder and fled.
Born outside the city, he had no idea where he was. The stone beneath his feet was thick with mud, and everyone looked at him with pity and horror and turned away.
When night fell, he huddled in the lee of a tavern and tried not to think of his flute, lost with his reward and useless now, anyway.
"You shouldn't stay here," a voice said.