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The Inquisitor's Chair

Michelle Muenzler, known at local science fiction and fantasy conventions as "The Cookie Lady," writes fiction both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Her short fiction and poetry can be read in numerous science fiction and fantasy magazines, and she takes immense joy in crinkling words like little foil puppets. Her weirdly dark and squidgily humorous novella, The Hills of Meat, the Forest of Bone, is available at Amazon, and you can also check out more of her work at michellemuenzler.com.

There's a joke the Ja'deen used to tell, back when they first broke past the smoking ruins of our city walls and claimed our land their own:
How many rebels does it take to make wood bleed?
The answer, of course, is however many the Ja'deen inquisitors can get their hands on. That, and everyone those rebels love beside.
There's but a minute's warning before the inquisitor knocks on our door, but that minute is enough.
"He's not here," I say, squinting at the broad midday light and panting like I've run through half the streets.
The inquisitor--Inquisitor Thaeron, according to the tag sewn onto her lapel--glances at the dim disrepair that is the single-room home behind me. A small dresser is overturned, and clothing coats the floor in a maelstrom. Half a loaf of bread sits forgotten on the table.
Even my little wooden toys--the few dozen tiny horses and soldiers, and the handful of puzzle boxes I keep to remind me of my past--lay scattered like so much detritus.
"I see," Inquisitor Thaeron says. She signals to a companion behind her, a familiar sign to check with the sentries already posted around the neighborhood to watch for runners.
They always post sentries. Because everyone always runs.
I take a deep breath before launching into the spiel I've been practicing since I first caught my son months ago stuffing rebel propaganda into a pack and sneaking out the door.
"He fled last night." I pause a moment as her expression tightens and wonder if I've said too much. She doesn't instantly declare me a liar, though, so I continue, still trying to catch my breath after the flurry of activity a few minutes before. "Got wind you were coming--someone for the cause has ears, I guess--and packed everything he could for the hills."
She watches me, and I hope the dim lighting in the room hides my sweat. "And yet," she says, "you remain."
I try to laugh, but my laugh turns into a choked sob. "I'm lame," I say, pointing to my leg. "Not much run in me. Certainly not enough to get out of the city with an inquisitor right behind."
"And so your son left you behind," Inquisitor Thaeron says, "even knowing what that meant? That seems... unlikely."
I'm not sure if the twist in her voice is pity or disgust. I'll take either.
"Well," I say, not bothering to hide the wetness clinging to the corners of my eyes, "I never claimed he was a good son."
After the inquisitor's cursory search through the chaos of my obviously empty home and countless hours shivering in a lightless stone cell with nothing but my cramping stomach to remind me of what's to come, I'm finally brought to the questioning room.
The inquisitor's chair is oak. Gleaming and golden where the lamplight strikes it. Where the stains don't mar its shine.
It would be beautiful if it weren't so terrible.
"This is good wood," I say. "I'd have loved to work with wood of this quality in my younger days."
Inquisitor Thaeron's brow furrows. Her two companions strap me into the chair--gently, thanks to what's turned out to be pity after all, though that pity will do me no good once the questioning officially begins.
"Ah," she says, gesturing at her companions to leave the room. She unrolls a large cloth on the table beside me. Reveals her tools. "Were you a carpenter once?"
It's hard to tear my gaze away from those cold implements, but I do. Stare at the blank wall beside it, instead. "No, no, nothing like that. Before the war, I was a toymaker." I laugh, though the laugh sounds wrong. "Puzzle boxes mostly. Things of little use... after."
She picks up a small metal pick. Examines it. Places it back atop the cloth. "Puzzle boxes, hmm?"
"I was quite good at it," I continue. Already, sweat beads my brow. "My best were the ones with hidden compartments. My son loved those when he was little. Oh, how he loved them."
Inquisitor Thaeron's hand pauses a moment above her cloth. Above her tools. But then she shakes her head. Grabs a small curved hook.
"Yes," I continue, voice hoarse with both fear and anticipation, for oh how angry the inquisitor will be when she learns the truth of where my now long-gone son was hiding during her perfunctory search. Our home's wooden walls, the ultimate puzzle box. "You might even say they were his favorite."
There is another joke you hear whispered. In dark corners, in alleys, in the ears of young men who ought know better but never do.
How many rebels does it take to make our conquerors bleed?
All of them... or so I hear goes the response. That, and everyone they love, beside.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Author Comments

Resistance isn't always flashy. Sometimes it's the small things that carry the most meaning. And sometimes it's all we can do just to breathe for one more day, for one more hour even, to protect the things we love

- Michelle Muenzler
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