“I'll bet you anything it was those Mystics,” theorized skekEkt, clutching his robe to himself like a shield. “They did something to him. Something dreadful, because they knew he was one of the best of us.”
No one answered, though one or two shuddered.
“Maybe it was all those mushrooms and berries and slop he was always taking,” skekLach posited quietly. “Roasted his brain.”
If it were anyone else, someone might have made a crude comment, pointed out that there wasn't much brain left to roast now. No one did.
“Is all beside the point, really,” skekSil reasoned. “Heretic stood before Skeksis and said things he did, with own beak. Had many chances to recant, and did not. There is no creature more dangerous than one who believes itself to be in the right.”
The surrounding Skeksis nodded. What else was there to do, save this?
They gathered around the small sitting room like attendees at a funeral, clad in silken night gowns and thickly padded evening wear. SkekAyuk had brought them cups of wine which was heavy and dark and had had a hot poker thrust into it, ostensibly to help everyone sleep, but in truth, it was to give them something to do with their mouths and hands. When they remembered that the dinner hour had come and gone and nobody had eaten, he vanished again, returned with leftover soup he'd heated up, rich with bits of nebrie shoulder and shining with fat.
It had been trine since they'd congregated this way, close enough to reach out in any given direction and touch one another.
The punishment itself had been one thing; they'd known how to respond to that. It had been loud and visceral, something tangible before them to direct their pain and rage towards. But now it was over, and skekGra's twitching, drooling body had been dragged from the hall to be left to the cruel mercy of Thra itself. The Podlings had fallen upon the smears of blood, cleaned them with a kind of fear-driven meticulousness. None of them knew how to feel now.
“It's too much to bear!” mourned skekLach. “First the Mariner, now this...”
SkekOk sat leaning into their smaller side, which didn't prevent him from huffing. “The Mariner's quarrel was with skekSo. She didn't stand before all of us and wish us extinguished from the world...no, worse than that. The Mariner didn't try to convince us our only value rested in laying down and extinguishing ourselves!”
When the clatter of the carriage up the path reached them through the stillness of the night, there was a scramble for the window, as though the mere sight of it returning might offer them some solution to their misery. It didn't, and indeed, there was a new finality that sat in their stomachs like cold, wet stones. SkekUng and skekVar's mission had been to cast their once comrade in arms into the Swamp of Sog. There was something in the knowledge that this had came and went that frightened them unspeakably, this thing that was now forever.
They drifted back to their seats to wait with bated breath, listening to the halls, wondering if either warrior might surprise everyone present by joining them in their circle of grief. SkekVar rejected all talk of anything that so much as hinted at the before, and even when they were all much younger and dealt with distress by huddling together like frightened Landstrider calves, skekUng's preferred method of coping had involved striking things. And yet, somehow, both had intervened when skekSo had threatened to come down hard and cruel on any display of sentimentality – understanding maybe, even through their dismissal of soft things, that the Skeksis would never accept the Heretic if they couldn't first mourn the Path-Breaker.
But when the doors parted it was skekZok who entered, hair and feathers damp from the baths, ceremonial robes traded in favor of flowing evening ones, saying nothing until he'd retrieved himself a glass. In the confined space of the room, beneath his favorite blend of soap and bathing flowers, he still smelled of the ashes that were now all that remained of skekGra's personal effects.
“...It is done,” he said at last.
“You didn't burn anything good, did you?”
“No, Collector. The Heretic's spoils of war remain untouched. You can go over them yourself if it pleases you.”
SkekOk cocked a brow. “Speaking of pleased, you sound less than. I would have thought an occasion like this would have been the highlight of your next ten trine.”
He may have phrased it as innocuously as possible, but there was a note of insinuation that none with their hearing intact could have possibly missed. SkekZok's love for doling out pain went far beyond the realm of duty, and everyone knew it, accepted it with a philosophical shrug. But the Ritual-Master just fixed him with a flat stare.
“I assure you, Scroll-Keeper, I have never taken less pleasure in anything I've ever done.” He pulled at his wine, frowned, added a pinch more spice from the bowl laid out with its miniature spoon. “Where is the Scientist? I would have imagined, well...”
“He was down in the lab when I brought him soup,” skekAyuk answered. “Said he might come up later, but...”
“Poor thing,” said skekEkt, and was met with grim nods from all around. All save skekZok.
“Sitting alone in the dark can't possibly do him any good. They were close, certainly, but he was far from only one to care for skekGra.”
“Well, of course he's sitting in the dark,” snapped skekAyuk. “Time was, if something went utterly catastrophic, skekGra was the first one he went to. If there was trouble with the Crystal, he sought out skekGra. But now skekGra's stood before him and said he thinks the world would be better off without him in it. Who's going to comfort him now? You?”
SkekZok had nothing to say to that.
“I never would have guessed it would be him,” skekEkt confessed. “Never. SkekGra took so much pleasure in everything, all the time. Always laughing, always telling us how much he adored coming home to victory feasts--”
“Always putting on those boring puppet shows,” added skekLach.
“Yes! Exactly! An attack of conscience, stumbling across a Gruenak and deciding all at once that he liked it, that would be just like him. But this wasn't about his campaigns at all, it was...it was...”
Tight circles about the air with a wrist, searching for the words, or simply the strength to cope with the inevitable bitter taste of them.
“Was as Scroll-Keeper said,” skekSil finished, taking mercy. “As Heretic now sees it, Skeksis are less than whole. Just broken pieces, like Podling jug dashed on ground, waiting for plaster.”
SkekLach gave a dark, vicious hack. “Stupid little Skeksis, sitting around their castle thinking they'd like to keep on existing! Better to be the squalid half of some glowing monster's guilty conscience!”
“Perfect, shining, monotony!” skekZok added coldly. SkekOk took up the thread, thin shoulders quaking with rage.
“Best lay down our lives, everyone! SkekGra the Heretic has decided they're forfeit, meaningless! How dare we enjoy another moment on the face of Thra? The unmitigated nerve of us, choosing to be!”
“Oh, stop it!” howled skekEkt. “I can't bear to even hear it! To lose skekGra, that would be awful enough. But how can our Conqueror see us that way?”
He dabbed at his eyes furiously, sniffling until skekAyuk pulled him in close, giving him something to hide his face against. Nobody noticed the Gourmand's amber eyes growing darker as he smoothed a stray lock of his partner's hair, until...
“...I think we should have killed him ourselves.”
The chorus of shock and dismay that arose was deafening.
“The very idea!
“How can you even say such a thing?”
“I can't help it! I do! Even as we speak, the Heretic is lying somewhere out in the night, repulsive notions and all. He's a danger and it doesn't matter a particle that he's not likely to see the morning, much less learn to walk and talk again. He's harmed us enough and we shouldn't have to even consider what he might do to us someday down the line.”
The invocation of this, their first taboo, was both the final stray on their frayed nerves and an excuse to lash out at something, and it was more than enough to set them off, shouting and accusing and hissing each other until skekSil's voice, as it often did, rode its own shrillness above the din.
“Friends! Friends! Should not squabble, not on a night like this! All are hurting terribly, yes, but should not let this lead us to turn on one another. Should not give Heretic the satisfaction of sowing division.”
“Why not?” skekLach groused. “We may as well sow it, since it's the one thing he apparently can't stand.”
“Ever the voice of reason, Chamberlain?” intoned skekZok dryly. “So above it all?”
SkekSil blinked with gentle affront. “Of course not! Heretic's plea was directed at me as much as anyone in castle. Is a terrible, terrible thing to live with. All the more reason to come together now. To remember that we are not trapped in time before...we make us, we decide what Skeksis are.”
They fell upon his assurances like satchels of antidote to a poison. At any rate, left skekAyuk's grim suggestion to languish, the way they wished they could leave this day as a whole.
SkekOk had been sitting with an expression of deep, deep thought; the one that went part and parcel with his most intricate, most demanding reading materials. All the while, talons traversing and re-traversing the same paths over the thinning lilac feathers that covered skekLach's wrist.
“...I wonder if the fear of it got the better of him in the end,” he said, softly. “If given the choice between two deaths, he chose the death he felt looked the least like one.”
The mere mention of it cut through them, waking them up and widening their eyes.
“That's no reason to--” skekEkt began.
“No, no, of course it isn't. But think on it...he only ever told us of his victories. Out there in that savage wilderness, surrounded by enemies, how many close calls must he have had? And perhaps one day, it all just...became too much.”
Heads cast downwards, contemplating. Gauging, testing the weight of the Conquerer's betrayal against the question of how much to grant.
“I wish he would have just said that,” said skekLach finally. “If that's what it was about.”
“The Emperor's word rules, of course,” skekZok said, all cautiousness. “But I...would have been less inclined, if not for the fact that his toying with such matters places us all at incalculable risk.”
SkekEkt sniffled quietly. “I think that may be the worst part of it all. We have our silly little flaws, certainly, but we thought so very much of him. And in the end...he thought absolutely nothing of us.”
No one offered a reply, and the weight of the silence that hung in lieu of one rested heavy on all their shoulders. And it may have been that there truly was nothing else to say.
“...Do you...suppose something will come of it?” skekOk dared to wonder.
“I don't,” said skekZok. “The Mystics may never say as much aloud, but they know full well what it would mean.”
“Is truth in what you say. Would we want to spend forever with us, if we were Mystics? Will make excuses, move slowly if at all, and whatever comes, will not be due to ravings of single maddened Skeksis.”
“Exactly,” skekAyuk quickly agreed. “We've got precisely as much to be afraid of as we did three days ago, no more and no less. Just life carrying on as usual.”
The wine had been polished off ages ago, the last speck of spice nursed from the last ornamental rim, and the Podling night crew came and removed their cups without making themselves noticed. Suddenly, the day behind them felt like twelve.
“We should push the beds together. Like we did when we were younger.”
“For Thra's sake, Scroll-Keeper.”
“No, no, not like that! Sleeping, waking, all of us together. Surely none of you have forgotten.”
They glanced about, uncertain and perhaps the slightest bit fearful. No one wanting to commit to anything until at last skekEkt clapped his talons together.
“Do you know what? I'm all for it. It's been a horrid, lonely night and it would do us all good.”
SkekAyuk, who would have slept in a gobbler patch if skekEkt decided he was going to, nodded. “We're Skeksis and we should be together tonight. ”
“Wonderful idea, yes! I join too!”
“Fine, but if any of you drool on me, the Heretic was right.”
“You drool, skekLach. From your very first night, as I well recall.”
SkekZok straightened his robes as he stood. “The Emperor will be up all night, no doubt, and I should remain close at hand. But I bid you all good evening, and a more pleasant tomorrow to come.”
If anyone entertained questions of whether or not he was telling the truth, they went unvoiced.
The amassment of beds where they'd once stretched out together, naked and vibrant and radiant, was long, long gone; the comfortable, airy, lantern-lit room since converted to storage. But they still kept guest rooms on hand, not all of them sized for Gelflings, and it was without too much complication that they located one with four beds, easily combined.
There was a much-needed comfort to be taken in how easy it was to slide around one another, limbs falling into old, loved positions.
None of them had quite reached the point of sleep when skekSil slipped first from their reposeful tangle, and then quietly as taloned feet could hope to, from the room itself. No one felt the need to comment on it. No one necessarily expected him to return.
But return he did. And there, silhouetted by his side, was skekTek.
He was dressed in a loose fitting evening robe; they'd long since forgotten how easily he grew cold, but they recalled it now, how skekGra always used to warm him. Wordlessly, they parted to allow him into the center of their arrangement, passing him a pillow. They covered him with themselves, almost buried him, and when he swallowed hard, they heard it.
“Oh, darling...” skekEkt said softly, extracting his arms just so that he could hold them out. “Come here.”
SkekTek latched onto him hard enough to pierce the silk. There wasn't a single one among them who failed to notice him trembling.
They would all awaken together by the light of day; arms still draped, tails still falling over limbs, warm and quiet and safe. SkekTek's tears would have dried, and in the shadows cast by the heavy window shades, the picture he made in sleep would be almost as they remembered him; tail drawn up against his chest, strands of his crest falling over his eyes.
But skekGra would still be gone.
And their final memories of him would still remain.
And the next time they pushed the beds together, it would be the last.