The young man dipped his head low to his chest and stepped from the doorway onto the street. It was raining; the fat, wet drops drummed a million icy fingers onto his neck and back, soaking him to the bone. Muted light from solar lamps strung across the cobblestone streets danced in the growing puddles like fireflies struggling against a glass jar, unable to escape their confines. He hopped from one puddle to the next, obliterating the imaginary jars, but when he looked back the puddles had already reformed; the light trapped again.
The young man stopped at the sound of his name. Up ahead, a shadow formed across the stone wall of the houses that lined the street, chased by a wisp of a boy. The boy waved his spidery-thin arms, and Niko recognised little Arrian, his youngest brother.
‘Niko! Have you seen the wall? Have you seen it?’ said Arrian, breathless.
Niko put his hands on the boy’s shoulders to calm him.
‘Woah kid, settle,’ he laughed. ‘What are you talking about?’
The boy took a deep breath and pointed down the street, towards the distant sound of the ocean that bordered the island of Ataraxia. Through the darkness, Niko could see shadows growing and moving in dark waves along the cobblestone streets.
‘The sea walls’, the boy said, still trying to steady his breath. ‘There is writing… all over the sea walls.’
‘Writing? Arrian, what do you…?’
‘Please, come quickly Niko.’
The rain fell heavily, puddles turning quickly into rivers rushing towards the ocean. Arrian clasped Niko’s hand, pulling them down the street with the rainwater, towards the shadows.
‘Arrian, I have to get home. It’s late, I’m wet – what are you even doing out this late?’
‘Niko please…it… it looks like one of your stories.’
Niko broke into a run.
Ataraxia stood defiant, one of the only islands left in the Mediterranean with a population not left decimated by the Great War. Eight-foot tall, three-foot thick steel and concrete sea walls bordered the island, protecting its people from the warm, rising ocean and thousands of refugees from mainland Europe, desperate for the safety and security that Ataraxia offered its citizens.
For the first two decades after the War, the sea walls were manned with Guardians who had orders to shoot invaders on sight. Now, forty-eight years since the last bomb fell, the flood of refugees had become a mere trickle, and the Hands felt the towering sea walls themselves were enough of a deterrent. Now, their Guardian regiments could be of more use inside the walls.
By the time Niko and Arrian reached the sea wall at the end of the street, the Guardians had begun to disperse the crowd of curious citizens. Niko could see Tobin, his oldest brother, snaking his way through the crowd towards him.
‘What the hell is this Niko?’ Tobin whispered through gritted teeth. He wiped the rain from his face, a futile gesture in the downpour.
‘No idea,’ said Niko. ‘Arrian brought me here, said there’s something written on the wall – one of my stories?’
He strained to look past the crowd but couldn’t make out what was written on the concrete wall in front of them. Tobin grabbed his arm tightly and squeezed.
‘Shh! Are you crazy?’ Tobin hissed. He took a furtive glance at a nearby Guardian who was checking the identity documents of one of the onlookers. ‘Don’t say things like that out loud, brother. They’re taking people away for questioning.’
Tobin pulled Niko closer to him.
‘Why the hell would you do something like this?’
Niko jerked his arm away from Tobin, offended.
‘Do what Tobin? I haven’t done anything. I’ve been out all evening.’
‘I heard one of the Guardians talking,’ Tobin whispered, ‘they say the Hands have already ordered raids on homes in the area. They say whoever has done this will hang by morning.’
He pointed towards the sea wall, between a gap in the crowd. Niko could hear thunder. He wondered if it was the storm brewing in the sky, or the heavy thump of the blood rumbling through his body.
The wall towered ominously against the slate sky, turning the rain into a cascading waterfall against the steel and concrete. Swirls of letters, written in fresh, bleeding white paint stretched the length of the wall, hundreds of metres towards the Capitol, as far as Niko could see. He began to read, but quickly realised that even as the letters melted down the slick grey concrete, illegible, he knew exactly what they said.
One moment Bird was singing, the next he dangled from Lion’s mouth. How did he end up here? Lion was always telling him how she kept Bird safe from the jackals and the snakes and the eagles that threatened to eat him. But here he was in the mouth of his friend, about to be chewed up. Bird squeaked and squawked and flapped his wings.
Don’t eat me, he pleaded. I promise I will sing you a more beautiful song!
But Lion crushed him in her jaws anyway, and as the life left him, Bird took one last look in Lion’s eyes and saw that she wasn’t a lion at all. She was a Chimera, a monstrous creature with the head of lion but the body of a jackal. Her tail was a snake and her talons those of an eagle. She was not his friend at all, she was all the creatures Lion had warned Bird about.
She was Death, and she swallowed him whole.
The rain was relentless, and as the paint pooled in cloudy puddles at the base of the sea walls, the crowd thinned. Niko looked around for Tobin, but his brother had disappeared.
‘Arrian, where’s Tobin?’
The boy shrugged.
‘He never said. Just told me to go home.’ Arrian shivered in the cool night, his clothes drenched. Niko took off his jacket and pulled it around the boy’s shoulders.
‘Maybe you should listen to him – off you go before you catch a cold.’
‘Go on now, I’ll be fine,’ said Niko. He wasn’t sure if he believed it.
‘But… that story,’ said Arrian. ‘I remember you reading me that story at bedtime. Tobin got angry at you, said it would give me nightmares. Remember?’
Niko nodded, then turned in surprise at a noise behind him.
An explosion in his skull; shattered glass and fireflies a supernova behind his eyes. The world went bright, then black.
‘Nikolaos Rooke. You have been charged under section 16A of the Public Communications Act, for causing writing to be communicated to the public and in a public place without the formal approval of the Hands.’
Niko sat frozen in his seat, his head bowed, the iron shackles heavy on his wrists and feet. A panel of six senior Hands, members of Ataraxia’s governing council, sat before him at the front of the Court. One of the Hands, a solemn, grey-bearded man robed in dark red velvet, spoke.
‘In doing this, not only have you defiled public property with this egregious graffiti, what you have written falls well outside the rules outlined in the Enchiridion, our societies most sacred text.’
A low murmur swept through the watching crowd.
The Hand stood, holding a large book. He made his way down from his seat to the floor of the Court, his robes dragging along the dusty stones. When he reached Niko, he placed the book on the table between them.
The book was ornate; the spine cast in gold, with luminescent fish skin vellum bindings and gold leaf gilting. It looked otherworldly, an artefact from Atlantis or a gift pulled from the ruins of the Parthenon. Niko couldn’t help but stare at it, irresistibly tempted to crack it open and breathe in all its secrets.
‘Do you know what this is boy?’ the Hand said.
‘It’s the Enchiridion, your Honour.’
‘And tell me Nikolaos, what does the Enchiridion contain?’
‘The rules, your Honour.’
‘That’s right Nikolaos, the most important rules in our society. And like the brave Guardians who serve and protect our island nation, the Hands are sworn to serve, protect and enforce the rules of the Enchiridion.’
The Hand turned back to the remaining five members of his council, who nodded in agreement.
‘Almost fifty years ago, our home of Ataraxia rose from the ruins of the Great War. Far from the fires and famine of Europe, our thriving fishing industry and strong border policies helped us build a society where our citizens could prosper. But it was not enough for them to feel safe from the radicalism that plagued our mainland neighbours. To do this, we needed the Enchiridion; the book that guides our actions and words to ensure our society remains safe from the anarchy of so-called “free speech”, the very thing that stirred the conflicts that led to the Great War in the first place.’
He placed his hand on the cover of the book.
‘Your flagrant disregard for some of the most important tenets outlined in this book puts the safety of our citizens at jeopardy. Do you remember what the law states regarding public writing Nikolaos?’
‘The law states that only those who have passed the Test can be granted approval by the Hands to write publicly.’
‘Correct. Tell me Nikolaos – have you taken the Test before today?’
‘No, your Honour.’
‘Will you take the Test now, before the Court and these witnesses?’
There were audible gasps from the crowd.
‘I will not take the Test,’ Niko continued, his voice steady, ‘because the Test asks me to prove my knowledge of the rules within the Enchiridion, and I do not know what these rules are.’
Niko paused, knowing what he was about to say would be his undoing.
‘Nobody knows what is contained within the Enchiridion, your Honour. No one, except for the Hands. But if I take the Test and fail, I am to be publicly executed in the Capitol Square. This is why so few of Ataraxia’s citizens take the Test; if we are not perfect in our responses, we die. So, we stay quiet; we do not dare to write anything publicly, because without the approval of the Hands our words are criminal, and we will die.’
He straightened his back, his eyes locked with the Hand.
‘I will not take a Test I have no chance of passing. It is cruel, unfair and I will not submit to it.’
The Court room erupted in shouts of outrage; fear-tinged voices determined to show the watching council they disapproved of Niko’s words. The Hand waved at the crowd, appealing for calm.
‘Quiet!’ he boomed. ‘This Court will not be a place of unruliness. Nikolaos Rooke – your offences under the Act, your subsequent refusal to take the Test and your outrageous comments in this Court today leave me with no choice but to impose the maximum sentence. Tomorrow, you will be executed. Your body will remain in the Capitol Square as a reminder to all that Ataraxia will not stand for rebellion such as yours. Guardians! Take him back to the cells.’
The crowd cheered as Niko was led out of the Court.
Arrian stood in the Square, his face raised to Niko’s lifeless body. The execution had ended, and the crowd had moved on hours ago.
‘Let’s go home Arrian,’ said Tobin, resting his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. Arrian shrugged him off.
‘He didn’t even write the words on the wall Tobin; I know he didn’t.’ He was innocent.’ Tears welled in Arrian’s eyes, but he didn’t wipe them away. They dripped onto the collar of his jacket; he was still wearing the one Niko had given him the night before.
‘It doesn’t matter who wrote the words on the wall Arrian, the Guardians found Niko’s notebooks in the raids. He wrote the story – he wrote hundreds of them. He knew the consequences if he were caught.’
He took Arrian’s small hand in his and began to pull him away from their brother’s body, towards home. They walked in silence along the street, waves pounding a steady beat against the sea wall to their right as the sun melted into the horizon. The solar lamps flickered on as the sun set; their soft, warm globs of light reflecting on the surface of the remaining puddles left by the storm the night before.
‘Take care here,’ said Tobin, side-stepping around a puddle. ‘You don’t want to get your shoes wet.’
Arrian let go of Tobin’s hand as he followed his brother. A large puddle had formed at the base of the sea wall, its glassy surface twinkling with reflected light from the hanging lamps above. Arrian kicked it, shattering the glass, and sending a burst of fireflies into the sky.
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