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"Science Fiction" means—to us—everything found in the science fiction section of a bookstore, or at a science fiction convention, or amongst the winners of the Hugo awards given by the World Science Fiction Society. This includes the genres of science fiction (or sci-fi), fantasy, slipstream, alternative history, and even stories with lighter speculative elements. We hope you enjoy the broad range that SF has to offer.

Fair Aliquant

Chip Houser's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Podcastle, Bourbon Penn, New Myths, and numerous other markets. Links and more of his work can be found at chiphouser.com.

In fair Aliquant, where the soils are rich and the brooks clear, where the woods are filled with game and the mountains silver-veined, where the laws are just and all citizens are treated as equals, the executioner stands beside her scarred block.
Behind the executioner, the heavy palace gates are thrown wide, flanked by the royal guard in their silver and crimson panoply. Through the gates, a rare glimpse into the queen's lush private garden, a hopeful vision of what awaits the faithful beyond this world. In fair Aliquant, it is said the faithful will walk forever with Ilsemance in her celestial garden. The faithful who, to reach their goddess's garden, must be as perfect as their murdered princess. Perfect, unlike the executioner, whose hood hides her misshapen ear from the gathered citizenry.
Before the executioner, the square is full, the crowd eager to see justice served for their princess. So what if the accused is a twelve-year-old boy? In fair Aliquant, where the truth is held above all else, treason is still treason. Her place is not to weight the merits of the charge, her place is simply to carry out the judgment.
Inside her hood, the executioner prays to Ilsemance for strength. Not for physical strength, she is the executioner at just twenty years of age in part because of her uncommon strength. Rather, she prays for divine grace to steady her hands, to guide her in her duty on this day. So why the executioner's unease? Perhaps because she has never beheaded a child.
Earlier that day, the council had presented its case before all who wished to see in the polished marble majesty of the courts. The facts, the council claimed, were regrettably simple: though not allowed in the palace, the apprentice gardener had been found cradling the dead princess in the hall outside her chamber. The silver platter, the scattered meats and cheeses, the spilled goblet of spring cider, the council had explained, were merely the boy's ill-conceived attempt to make it appear he was surprised. To make it appear the princess had fled her chambers, upending the platter and its contents as she ran into his arms. To make it appear she clung to him as she bled, as she weakened and sagged to the floor. To make it appear he had remained by her side as she expired, he but a faithful servant come a moment too late to thwart an unseen assassin.
How absurd, the council had concluded, an assassin in Aliquant! The boy's claim was but a naive attempt to hide the vile truth! Who but this boy, consumed by deluded passion, would want to murder their beloved princess?
The queen had risen from her gilded throne and declared the boy a traitor. Despite her deep sorrow, she ordered the apprentice gardener beheaded rather than the customary drawing and quartering. Ever merciful, the queen, like Ilsemance herself. The citizenry had rejoiced as they marched to the square.
The executioner's role is simply to carry out the judgment, not to weight the merits of the charge. Yet nothing is ever so simple as it seems. She suspects the boy's treason was in truth concocted in darker chambers by whisper, bribe, and barter. She suspects truth is an ideal made malleable by privilege. That sometimes in fair Aliquant justice is delivered through an undeserving vessel. A vessel like this boy, with soft brown eyes and dark hair so much like hers. She may have delivered false justice before, but never to one so young.
In fair Aliquant, children are frequently consigned to the council to curry favor, to secure a royal position, or to settle a debt. The executioner does not know what she bought her family. On her thirteenth birthday her parents gave her to the council. She had been tall for her age, and unusually strong. But she was imperfect, and they hoped for a better future for their infant son. Her brother, yet so young he could not say her name.
"You will guard the queen herself," her mother had said, the lie dulling her eyes. Among the two score candidates for the queen's guard, the executioner-to-be had proven the swiftest and strongest. The queen had noted her size and strength, and surely her skill, but instead chose a green-eyed girl with flowing raven hair like the queen's own. Thus, she became the executioner.
Though she has not seen her family in ten years, the executioner hopes they are here watching, hopes that they recognize her, hopes they are proud of her. She also hopes they are pleased with what they received in return for her conscription. She wonders what the parents of the gardener's apprentice sacrificed to secure such a prestigious position, wonders if they have the stomach to be here, wonders what they now think of Aliquantian justice.
The royal herald stands before the executioner's block now, the particolored tassels of her velvet poulaines bobbing above the pressing crowd. As she pronounces the boy's guilt, her voice rings with legitimacy. In a tall gallery above her garden, the queen and her council nod in unison.
The boy wears a clean white tunic. Boys of his age normally wear their hair loose, but he's attended enough executions to know to tie his hair up high. Bound behind his back, dwarfed by the oversize rope and knot, his hands grasp at each other in a quaking, pale-edged hug.
The herald's decree complete, she sweeps her hand, palm up, from the boy to the block. "May you one day walk in Ilsemance's garden."
The crowd erupts.
The executioner remains impassive, as is her duty, despite the unctuousness of the herald's traditional decree.
The bailiff guides the boy to the block and removes the rope. The boy does not struggle; guilty of treason or poor circumstance, he appears calm.
Is he simply resigned, or does he believe his sentence just?
The boy kneels on the heavily embroidered cushion, thicker than usual to make up for his size, thick enough to allow his narrow chest to nestle in the concave hollow on his side of the block, for his thin neck to span the narrow waist of scarred oak, his ponytail spilling down, and for his chin to rest in the hollow opposite. He presses his palms to the wood on either side of his shoulders, his pale fingers folding onto the broad top surface of the block.
The executioner steps forward, her shadow a dark stripe across the boy's shoulders. He breathes in hitching gasps now, his small body trembling. She will strike strong and true as a mercy to him. As a mercy to his parents. She gently shifts the glossy cascade of his ponytail off his neck and freezes--
The top of his ear is wide, curling down and inward, malformed. Like hers. The executioner steps back, not her usual measured step but hastily, as if trying to catch her balance. Questions flood her mind, followed by the doctrine she has been taught:
Is this boy her brother?
Executioners do not have family.
Did he murder the princess?
You are the executioner, not the judge.
Who is she to question the queen or her council?
You are imperfect, you will never walk in Ilsemance's garden.
The executioner raises her axe; a hush sweeps the square. Before her, the crowd looks hungry, with half-smiles and shining eyes. She knows her role, she knows her duty. Yet nothing is as simple as it seems.
"Strike strong, strike true," she whispers, and brings the axe down.
The boy's body flinches as the axe sinks deep into the block. The square resounds with a thousand voices, some bright with joy, some graveled with anger, some clipped high with shock, some rising with bloodlust.
Traitor or scapegoat, the executioner has served her justice.
"Run," she says to the boy. She wants to say more, to pull off her hood and watch recognition light in his brown eyes, to hear him speak her name.
Without a word, without even a glance, the boy scrambles to his feet and races past her into the queen's garden. Burdened by their polished armor, the royal guards are too slow to stop him. The executioner hopes he escapes; the queen's garden is vast, but surely he knows it well from the tending, knows of secret paths among the lavish beds and curving hedges, knows of hidden doors that open to the forest beyond.
The citizens surge toward her, a screaming, roiling mass bent on delivery their own justice. The executioner removes her hood, hangs it on the axe's polished knob, and stands beside her block.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 30th, 2022
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