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A Change of Hands MAG
“Maria Sanolvi Arino,” muttered Death.
“And do you know your charge?”
She turned to face the tall boy dressed in warrior’s clothes. How young they set out to conquer the world! Had it always been this way?
“I can guess well enough,” she said.
“Murder, first degree. Witchcraft. Heresy.” He leaned toward her. “There’s something else, something not quite right about you, Ms. Arino. The people fear you. They want you dead. Do you understand?”
“The people want me dead,” she repeated.
“I don't know what to do. You have demonstrated certain ...” he was loathe to say powers “... abilities that go beyond what might be considered natural. You walk through a garden and it grows twice as lush as the one next door. You touch a girl and free her from her nightmares. You refuse to visit a house and the son comes down with a fever. How can you do these things?” He peered into her eyes as if hoping to glimpse the answer hiding there.
“The truth is a powerful thing,” she said, and the interrogator paled visibly.
“Let me make your situation a bit clearer, mistress. Technically, you have done nothing wrong. Stop these strange acts and I may be able to let you go. But continue and I will have no choice but to hang you.”
“And?” prompted Death.
“And others are beginning to follow in your footsteps. The Petrici girl, for one. Katharine. A fortnight ago her mother found her in the yard holding a pigeon with a snapped neck. After a second it flew away. Thought her eyes were deceiving her. But we know better, you and I, don’t we?”
“Yes.” This was an interesting development. She knew that the position of Death was served in terms of a thousand years in an attempt to keep the messenger of foul tidings from going mad. Or madder. By that measure, her time was almost up. She had stopped caring about her job, stopped feeling like a human should. Death fed on the soul, unrolling compassion and regret until there was nothing left inside. Soon the limbo between the two worlds would consume her entirely and another would have to take her place. She sighed. “Only too well, my fellow.”
“You’ll cease, then?” He was barely more than a child, really. She could sense it in his lack of guilt. And there was no hatred burning in his eyes. She knew he’d keep his word if he could.
“Well, then.” He spread his hands wide, but the gesture seemed too large on him, like an overcoat borrowed from an older man. “Will you repent your sins, at least?”
“No, I cannot do that either.”
“Come now, even a child repents on Sunday morn. Surely you can do at least this and free both our consciences?” He was pleading with her now. She felt nauseated and turned to look at her lap. Yes, Maria’s time as Death was almost certainly up.
“You misunderstand me. I cannot sin. To sin is to have a choice, to be human, and I have neither alternatives nor humanity. What is in my nature, I cannot change. My role is as necessary as any other, and for my burden I am not obliged to apologize.” The woman was torn to the point of breaking. This could not go on much longer without some dire consequence.
“Then I will be sorry for you. May God grant you peace in Heaven.” His face closed suddenly, and she knew that they were done. It was time to look in the mirror once again, perhaps for the last time.
The woman, or the thing like a woman, walked through a corridor between the bodies that pressed together like a wall of jeering flesh. The sky was tinted red, not only in her mind as it had been many times before, but truly darkened, finally corrupted beyond repair. She was unable to make out the words the crowd was shouting, if indeed individual words existed among that hysteria, but she could feel the intensity of their hatred on her skin like pulsing heat. The death wish remained the same through the ages. It was time to move on, and their voices pushed her forward into the abyss.
If only they knew the futility of their fervor. What good was a threat of death thrown in the very face of the beast? Death had come into the world even as life itself was stirring. They were one. What good was it to defeat death, only to see your own face staring back from the corpse’s stricken pose?
I am death, thought the woman, and she envied those who met her gaze and fell away shivering. Knowledge, she reflected, was not the true gift given to Eve but freedom. The ability to face one’s fears and fail but to go willfully and with purpose.
I am not free. For the first time in a millennium, she longed to be human again. Her time was nearly up in this guise, anyhow. What happened after that was a matter of much disagreement, yet she knew that it would not be the thing she coveted. That choice had come and gone long ago.
From her place on the hangman’s scaffold she could see the blue-eyed Katharine. Her face was pure, unmarked by sorrow. Had Maria ever been so untainted? She could not remember. But she knew unquestionably that this girl’s features would be molded by fate into her reflection. This was the inescapable calling card of Death, and there would be time for regret in the centuries to come.
The noose slipped over her head and rested on her chest. The woman had been through this a hundred times, so she felt no fear, but rather tense excitement. This was the last time. She knew it to be so.
“Have you any last words?” asked the hangman.
The woman turned toward the child in the crowd, so much like herself yet with an eternity between them. What did it mean to be Death? What good was control over others if you could not control your own destiny? Why stay for a thousand years if you could never truly live? Something passed out of her then, and she felt it: relief.
“Go well, Katharine,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek, and Maria died.
Down in the crowd the girl called Katharine found herself weeping without knowing why. Oblivious, but not for long. Innocent, but such things cannot last forever. Not even death is eternal.