“If I count less than ten thousand and thirty-four beans in this capsule when you return it to me, I’ll spill them out again.”
Those are my rabse’s first words to me on the most important day of my life. They are muted by the cold patter of beans across the galley floor. As I watch them roll gently across the scuffed metal paneling, he throws a pair of chopsticks down with equal derision.
“Use these. I catch you using your fingers, I pull the nails off.” His bare feet strike naked, angry footsteps back to the door, and I jolt when he slams it. Through its window, my rabse is smaller but no less capable of making my heart shrink into an aching ball. Age has turned his skin more mold-colored than green, and the feathers of his mustache and twin-tailed beard are dried out and sparse. He has no hair on his head, only purpled age-spots.
But I am afraid of him.
“Rabse Aleem,” I struggle to keep the plea out of my voice. “Forgive me!”
Lips curled in disgust, my teacher turns off the artificial gravity and the lights. One sliver of yellow luminescence follows his voice into the galley: “Ten thousand and thirty-four, Ashak. Consider your failure and return when you have learned.”
The small ray disappears as he shuts the sliding window. I am alone.
My name means “Red Knuckle”. I was supposed to kill a man today.
I killed three.
I make a game of my punishment to ease the passing time, twisting my body to avoid touching as many airborne beans as possible. Rabse Aleem instructed me to stretch, after all. My heightened senses adjust quickly in the void-like darkness. Cradling the capsule under my right arm, I reach out with my left snatch a bean with Rabse’s old wooden eating sticks. It is a smooth, hard little thing, slipping twice from my grasp before I manage to capture it. My fingers buzz with the desire to use more strength, to crush the small bean. But then Rabse would find only ten thousand and thirty-three when I finished. He would force me to gather them again. I do not want to miss tonight’s hunt.
My rabse has used beans in our training since he selected me. I am his youngest recruit; my parents had wanted to be rid of me as quickly as possible. Apparently, I’d tried to smash my brother’s skull in as he slept. Rabse Aleem is an executioner, someone who only kills other killers. It is odd he would choose me. My instinct to destroy cannot decipher between the condemned and the just.
But Rabse Aleem is a persistent man. After I was injected with The Gift, he taught me patiently how I was to use it. Beans were his choice examples: I was only to break the rotted beans. Every good bean ground to dust with my Gift meant a week cleaning spilled beans in the galley. If I crushed a bean with my bare hands, my rabse would punish me cruelly. He would bind me to a chair and blindfold me, so that I could not use my Gift or my clever, strong fingers. Rabse Aleem himself would spend the day with me, singing to me and speaking such sweet words that I screamed and shook. He would bathe the bruises I created by beating against my chains and stitch the cuts I inflicted on myself. He would love me, and I would want to kill him for it.
These punishments are the worst form suffering; I don’t want my rabse to die.
My knuckles skim the metal table that is welded to our floor. Our abbey is beyond the 37th system ring, a place well-known for vagabonds. There is always a need for executioners, but we most only kill the guilty. I could not survive in this abbey without Rabse Aleem, for it is impossible to understand the difference between an innocent and the man who killed his wife with a table like this one. Bouncing off the tabletop, I manage to catch two beans with a single swipe. Now I have gathered 5,000. I should reflect on how I disappointed my rabse.
I did not fail with the execution method: the target’s heart is to be suffocated. It is supposed to be painless. This is simple; I do not desire to cause pain. Death is the temptation I wrestle with. It is so beautiful, and people are so ugly. When I see a living person, I imagine how pretty they would look if they were a little less alive. Usually this is only a daydream; if our eyes happen to meet, though, I become hungry.
A bean brushes my wrist. I hiss at the unexpected contact. It makes my skin crawl to imagine being surrounded by things that can touch me without permission. Beans are bad enough, but living people are worse. People can look at me. People can love me.
Rabse Aleem knows I cannot stand being loved. That is why his voice is always cold, why he throws things at me and spits on my feet. He is cruel to me for my sake, not for his.
For my sake?
I feel the chopsticks crack into the shell of bean number six thousand and two. Now I will be punished. Rabse Aleem will love me until I scream and writhe in the chair. He will do this because I have made him angry. But why does he punish me so? Which is his true face: the sneering one behind the door, or the gentle whisper to ease my tears? Does he prefer to beat me, or to bind my wounds?
No, no, no. I shake my head, but the insidious doubts are already gnawing at my nerves. They clatter against my heart like beans on the floor, a hissing roar that rises to drown me. I grab two fistfuls of beans and pulverize them with my fingers.
I don’t want my rabse to die. I don’t want him to love me.
The lights blare around me. When my eyes clear, I am sitting on the floor with a nearly full capsule of beans in one hand and a pile of meal in the other.
The servant does not even blink. He tells me that Rabse Aleem is waiting.
Barefoot, I glide down the hallway to his study. The walls are covered in portraits, all children like myself. But my picture is not among them; it is sitting on my rabse’s desk. How did I never notice?
His eyes are cold when he turns to me.
“Come, demon child.”
I want to run away, but I walk into his open arms. My cold, bloodied heart grows hungrier every second. Looking up, I meet my rabse’s gaze. His eyes are too soft, his arms are too warm, and there is not enough hatred in his smile.
“Let me go,” I hiss.
“I will never do that.”
The words are not a threat. He thinks they will make me feel safe. Liar, liar, liar! I am screaming inside, battling with my voice against the rush of falling beans.
“Ashak?” He holds me at arm’s length. I look at my picture on his desk. He is standing next to me, one arm around my shoulders. There is pride in his face, hope and kindness. If I could cry, my cheeks would be salt stained by now.
I swallow against sorrow I cannot feel.
“Ashak,” he says again. “What did you learn today?”
I wrap my hands around his throat.