Being an executioner for the state is exhausting, but after a lifetime of dispatching the criminal
and the inconvenient, fifty-eight-year-old Grenda finds it does have its compensations. Her cat-
sized dragon Bjartur and the dragon eggs she tends are all the friends and family she needs. Completely cut off from the outside world, she happily accepts the luxuries owed her status – including a pet octopus named Morrigan – without the faintest twinge of conscience or doubt.
All that changes when she encounters the most unexpected nemesis: a young refugee girl whom Grenda is incapable of executing. Against her will, Grenda finds herself shifting from killer to caretaker, risking her life to defy the state she’s never questioned and help young Allora to freedom. Everything Grenda thinks she knows about her world, her life, and even her own identity cascades out of her control—including the dragon-bond she holds dearer than life itself.
Her last words, I think, will always haunt me.
“You still don’t understand anything about octopuses, do you?”
It rankled, how calm she sounded, even under these circumstances. The dragon on my wrist, sensing my irritation, drew back his vermilion lips to display the kittenish, needle-sharp teeth, and he huffed his leathern wings slightly. I laid a hand on his ridged back, and he settled down.
To this day, I don’t believe Magenna was guilty of the charges. At least, not as they were stated. Witchcraft has always seemed a nebulous thing to me. Too easy an accusation to lob at anyone who speaks too often to ravens or owls, who lingers too long in moonlight, who possesses too rational an understanding of herbs and flowers and fungi. Even then, I wondered if the danger lay not in access to some mythical magick and more in the alternative it offered to the dictates of the state.
But if belief is a dangerous liability for an executioner, skepticism is even greater. True safety lies only in acceptance for acceptance’s sake.
It doesn’t do for a woman in my position to believe or disbelieve anything too strongly. The sentence must be carried out regardless, and beliefs sour quickly into guilt and regret. It’s better to walk entirely in the grey and trust without exception to the system that hands down the verdict. Let them deal in black and white. My dragon and I, we were creatures of mist. We walked in fog, obscured from all but the walking dead. It was a peculiar irony, that the only people who saw us, who knew us face-to-face, were those who would shortly die at our hands.
I am only truly real here, chatelaine at the gateway to death.
And you, should I have ever met you here, would be more real in this moment with me than you had ever been in all your life. Contrary to how stories like to depict us, executioners aren’t hard-hearted, unfeeling creatures. We can’t be. It’s not enough to kill the body, after all. We have to be sure to send the soul on its way, too. Malingering isn’t good for anyone. And a soul simply can’t go if it hasn’t been seen. My dragon helped the dying shed their skin, and I – I helped them shed their invisibility.
That’s all a ghost wants. They don’t persist to wreak some paltry vengeance only the flesh-bound could imagine as a motivation. They don’t need you to provide justice or peace. All your work is here, on this plane marked by hours and rot, and cannot reach them. They only need to be seen. Once. For who they are. Then they can go on.
So if I did my job right, the condemned were less likely than anyone to stick around. And I was very good at my job.
Some people – maybe even most people – are seen long before they meet death. But the people most likely to cross that bridge with my dragon and me rarely had been. If they’d been seen for who they were, they’d probably never have ended up here with us. It’s not about innocence or guilt. It’s about who sees you, as you are.
I didn’t answer Magenna’s question. She knew the answer already. I looked at her, and she looked at me.
Magenna’s veins ran cold like currents deep in the ocean trenches, her heart fluttering faintly as it met mine. A little fear, only a very little. I wanted to take it from her, but I resisted the urge. She had very few things left to claim as her own, and this last fear was one of them. In her eyes, a hawk rested on a column of air, suspended dauntless above an endless chasm. And under her skin, the octopus stretched and unwound its long limbs, reaching for me.
My breath matched the rhythmic pulsing of the octopus’ gills, and I felt the weight of the water rippling evenly along my body. I shifted as the sea-beast altered its colors and textures to match my own, and suddenly I was confused as to whether it looked like me, or I looked like it. The octopus’ alien, slit-pupiled gaze had become Magenna’s gaze, and I fell further in, seeing colors no woman could see, as if they were grains of sand sifted through my fingers rather than bands of light. A thousand soft mouths sucked at my body, pulling the skin, rearranging the bones into a shape that feared no pressure.
Then all at once, they let go. I was back in the cold, sterile room of death, with its harsh electric light and faint antiseptic smell. My subject lay slumped over her own arms on the table between us, her brown hair curtaining her face from any further trespass. My dragon kittered softly in my ear, his talons clutching my forearm, his dark liquid eyes fixed anxiously on my face. I saw the smear of blood on his white teeth and knew the task was done.
That was totally out of order. Dragons didn’t act on their own volition. Bonded to their keepers from the hatch, they were nonetheless wicked clever, and one drop of their venom could fell an elephant within two seconds. Even a hint of rebellious tendencies resulted in immediate termination, a process that usually occurred within the first few days of their bonding. In the rare cases I’d read about where a dragon was terminated later in the relationship, the executioner invariably went mad.
None of that is exactly common knowledge, but little in an executioner’s library is.
Nonetheless, I had no doubts about Bjartur. I understood that when the octopus had reached through my arms, tasting every inch of my intentions, it had directed Bjartur to complete the execution. I’d been wrong to think fear was Magenna’s last possession. Volition, too, she held fast still. This un-wicked un-witch who lay silent and unbreathing on the table had staged one final insurrection, not submitting to her death but rushing to meet it as boldly as any beserker. Unnerved as I was, I could hardly fault her for it.
I rose to my feet, and Bjartur fluttered from my arm to my shoulder, tucking his emerald head well into my gray corkscrew curls. Time to deal with the ordinary people, those we’d neither execute nor see or engage any more than absolutely necessary. Bjartur wasn’t shy – far from it. The unbonded were invariably fascinated by dragons. Bjartur didn’t mind the attention, exactly. He just considered almost everyone else beneath his notice. He refused to be put on display or used as a symbol of anything for anyone. It’s a common trait among dragons. They’re notoriously catlike in their dignity and their arrogance. I can’t explain how that makes them all the more irresistible, but it does. I adored the pretentious little puffer.
I pushed the button beside the door, and the guard on the other side keyed me out. Cleanup wasn’t part of my responsibilities. The husk of the woman I left behind – her name had been Magenna, but the body needed no name – would be burned, its ashes scattered in the ebullient gardens that ringed the Justice Center. It’s not as callous as it sounds. The part of her that was real was gone, after all.
Upstairs in my windowless office, I typed up the execution report on my typewriter and submitted it. Executioners don’t have to muddle with tiresome machines like computers. Don’t have to, aren’t allowed to, what’s the difference, really? Bjartur settled down between my shoulder blades, his talons resting on the harness there while he buried his head against my neck, under my hair, and snored softly, his sulfurous breath uncomfortably warm on my skin. I was well-used to it, though. That’s another catlike feature of dragons – they are inordinately fond of naps.
Although executions have stepped up significantly in the past few years, it’s still not a nine-to-five job. That’s why in spite of the fact executioners possess more status than almost anyone outside of the president, my office resembled a broom closet more than an executive suite. Besides, windows were a security risk, especially here in the heart of the city. I spent a handful of hours there a month, so the grimness didn’t trouble me.
Most of my actual work was done at home, well outside of city walls. As one of death’s many gatekeepers, I kept the hinges swinging both ways. Ushering people out, and dragons in. A dragon clutch can take upwards of ten years before it’s ready to hatch, and caring for them is a full-time job.
I was reaching for the door, on my way to the garage where my car waited for me, when it swung open and nearly smacked me in the face.
Naturally. My favorite person in the Justice Center.
“Fiske.” I made no effort to imbue his name with the least enthusiasm. Our feelings were mutual and required no subterfuge.
“Grenda.” He nodded, irritation at having been caught off-balance at the door flashing in his eyes. Fiske was a man of little talent and much presence, so he was easily perturbed.
“I’m on my way out, Fiske,” I stated the obvious. “What do you need?”
On paper, Fiske would have appeared to be my boss, but that was only true in as much as he was the one who assigned the executions. As far as I was concerned, that made him more my assistant than my superior, and he knew it.
“It’s going to be a busy week.” He pulled himself up to his full height of over six feet tall, a futile effort to intimidate me. I’d hit my maximum height at the age of eleven and was barely five feet tall. Somebody’s bones being longer than mine never impressed me much.
“Magenna Hassan was my only appointment this week.”
Fiske bared his nicotine-yellowed teeth at me in what I can only assume he thought a patronizing smile. “The Army just notified me they successfully closed down an invaders’ camp near the coast. It’s going to be all hands on deck for at least four days. So be sure you’re back here bright and early in the morning.”
Something uncoiled in my belly, something that felt eerily like the slimy, seeking tentacle of an octopus. I swallowed the sour taste in my mouth and nodded briskly. Fiske’s face contorted as he tried on a few different expressions, all intended as dismissal. I pushed past him without waiting to see which one he landed on. Laughter bubbled in my throat to watch him sway back until he nearly fell over in the effort to avoid any contact with Bjartur.
Silliness, of course. Dragons were perfectly safe. Or rather, my dragon was as safe as I was.
Cassondra Windwalker is the multi-genre author of several novels and award-winning poetry collections. She has lived in the South, the Midwest, and the West, and presently writes full-time from the grim coasts of the Frozen North. Regrettably, she has no dragon of her own, but she keeps company with corvids, anemones, moose, and mycelium. Readers are invited to reach out to her on Twitter @WindwalkerWrite.