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       Paper, p.2

           Kell Inkston
 
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many–year performance.

  “…Performance?”

  “You see, I’ve just made a doppelgänger more perfect than yourself, and after it beats you in a fight and throws you in a cage with the other yous, it will go and take your place, eventually become mayor, and slowly, year by year, push the town into oblivion–this is their punishment for defying me, lifetimes and lifetimes of misery.”

  Ralic had always heard from Tenay’s father that the food shortages were worse than ever, and often the adults had to go without food for a day off and on so that he, the hero, could develop into a strong, energetic man. He sees it now. The man he knows as his father, more properly the thing he knows, was made of paper and magic, lying and making mistakes day after day, but still trusted by the people because of what they thought it had done for them.

  He runs forward to the fake Ralic, yelling at the top of lungs.

  II

  Tenay has been sitting in the center room of her father’s shop, sifting for metal shearing when a gaunt lad rushes in.

  “The hero’s made his return!” he says with a yellow–toothed grin. Tenay rises up from dust, brushes the shearings off her apron, and hurries to the gate.

  A young man blows the great horn as the gates open way. Standing in the center of the road is Ralic, tall and with the blood–stained cloak of the overlord gained under his arm. Cheers abound and music begins as, like clockwork, the hero returns six hours after he left, just like every previous hero. He looks over the crowd and sees the way Tenay looks at him, the expectation in her eyes.

  “I’m back,” he says, radiating strength that Tenay’s never quite seen in him. His shoulders are broader, just a tad, and in his eyes exists not a hint of uncertainty, but truly, she can understand he would be filled with pride–he did just kill the overlord.

  She kisses him and wraps around him. “Welcome home,” she says, nudging against his chest as he throws the cloak aside. At that, they all sit down for the great feast, Ralic and his father sharing knowing glances as they sit together at the end of the round honored table. While the others sit in the dirt or stand, only the two Ralics and their wives may take the small table. As the poverty is great–only the hero’s and mayor’s homes consists of more than three rooms.

  “What was it like?” is the first thing out from Tenay’s mouth before her first bite. The young Ralic smiles and pats her on the back as he shoves his mouth full of beef. Tenay stares Ralic down a moment with a bland look about her and gently taps down with her heel into just above his right ankle. When she hits that sensitive spot she’s known since childhood, the one that would cause howling of the loudest sort he’s capable, Ralic does not so much as flinch. She leans into her seat and begins looking over Ralic with a weighted stare. Her eyes stop at his perfect, scarless face.

  “So…” she takes a breath, “So where did the scar g–”

  Ralic spits out his wine, shares a quick glance with his father, and both look at Tenay with pointed, alert gazes. “What scar, dearest?” he says in a tone she’s never heard from him.

  “When you…when you were leaving for the wood, I peeked over the wall and saw you trip. You fell onto a rock and gashed your fa–”

  “Nonsense!” the older Ralic says with a slap on the table as he nudges his wife, a woman that has no difficulty in displaying her misery every day–Tenay thinks now she sees why. As Ralic delivers a long, eloquent sentence insulting her intelligence Tenay stares at nothing, in particular, wide-eyed and calculating. She knows.

  Tenay turns to her husband, “Brat?” she says. The older Ralic’s wife starts shaking her head with a horrified stare, and quickly gets up from her chair and leaves.

  The young hero looks to his wife. “Well, that’s rude. No need to call me a brat,” he says with a grin.

  She nods to herself and focuses on his eyes. “You’re not really Ralic, are you?”

  He shakes his head. “Of course I am, you delusiona–”

  “You’re not him. Ralic would have a scar, and you don’t. What did you do to him?” she says with a calm, but pointed tone. The two Ralics exchange knowing glances and turn back to her equipped with belittling grins.

  “You won’t be getting him back. You should just play along,” the young hero says to his wife.

  “…Yeah?”

  “Yeah. If you don’t play along I’ll just have you killed–how’s that?” he says, leaning into her. Tenay’s father, the blacksmith, has unusually good hearing, rendered sensitive from all the years listening for his daughter’s voice over the clank of his hammer. He’s never listened in on the conversation at the great table of the hero, but he cannot help himself when she’s up there. He knows too, and his old head starts churning.

  “What will you do, kill me in front of everyone?” she asks, her gaze searching for a solution.

  “No, I’d just make everyone kill you for me,” Ralic answers, motioning his head towards the crowds surrounding them. “So, what will you do?”

  Tenay takes a deep breath, and thrusts the cutting knife in her right hand into Ralic’s side–out of sight from everyone except her father, who as the “bearer of destiny” is held to stand near and to the side of the table. Ralic’s grin widens and he begins shaking his head as if receiving an ignorant answer from a child, waiting to be corrected.

  “Looks as though your mind’s made up. So be it.” Ralic takes a gulp of wine, picks himself up, the knife slipping out with a faint tearing sound, and his face instantly becomes grim with terror as he holds the wine–covered knife in his hand.

  “How could you?!” he shouts, stumbling from his chair. Everyone’s eyes are on him as Tenay looks over to her father, who spotted the stabbing from the side of his gaze. “This, you evil woman! I have been fooled! How, on this, my greatest day, I should find out your deception. You stabbed me! Overlord worshipper!” Ralic accuses as he holds his side in mock pain. The knife slips from his hand, and the crowd riles the second the blade hits the ground, proving his ruse with weak, but sufficient evidence. The men, women, and children rise to destroy the attacker just when the blacksmith calls out.

  “It’s witchery, girl! Remember what your mother said!” he calls as the people scramble up onto the stage. In a single blink of the mind, Tenay remembers the stories of the witch man of the wood, who tricks entire towns and takes their things with his paper people. As quickly as she delivered the knife to Ralic’s side, she takes one of the torches near the table and pushes it into Ralic’s front, too caught up in acting to retaliate.

  Just as myriad hands reach for her, they see Ralic burst and curl in painless flame. His body does not offer resistance like the skin of man–but accepts it, ashing away eagerly like paper. He does not realize what is happening until his entire backside is gone. He gets to his feet, a flimsy, lanky abomination of paper and person, and speaks to Tenay.

  “You’ll never win,” and he burns away.

  Tenay is released just as quickly as the older Ralic is constrained and burnt himself by the townsfolk. There is sorrow, anger, weeping, and talk of vengeance. The men grab for torches, tools and weapons, and the blacksmith points the way off to the wood. Yet, there is something inside Tenay that tells her this is not done; there’s something more to this. She goes by the mayor’s home as the men rush off to the overlord’s keep. Before she gets to the door; however, she is stopped by the wife of Ralic the Eleventh.

  “There’s something you must know,” she says, her dark crow’s feet scrunching into themselves.

  “Wh–what?” Tenay stops shortly, glancing between the old woman and the sortie of men passing through the gates.

  “There was a story my grandmother had told me, and now I can tell it. You must listen.”

  Tenay’s the sort to respect her elders, so she stops and listens.

  III

  Ralic the Twelfth awakens to find himself in darkness and misery. He’s unsure how that copy of himself beat him so flawlessly, but his defeat was absolute and instant. Now he f
inds himself chained in darkness, only enough light from above to see across the black–stone floors to the other cell, containing the bearded, ugly man who was at the table with the overlord and his sword of destiny, glinting tauntingly in the middle of the two cells.

  “Let me out, you fool! I’m not done with you yet!” Ralic screams in the dark.

  The old man across from him sighs with years of sorrow on his breath. “It’ll never answer. Get used to it.”

  Ralic jerks in lively frustration, exerting every fiber against his chains. “And who are you to tell me? I bet you’re one of those forest men!”

  “I’m definitely no one you’d care about; I didn’t care about the old man in the cell across from me either.”

  Ralic squints at the man as a chill runs down his young spine. “What do you mean? Who are you?”

  “Ralic’s my name. I suppose you’re the Twelfth. I left before you were even born.” The old man stares forward into his son, relishing the moment. Ralic the Twelfth stares upon his father, the Eleventh and realizes his situation fully. He’s silent, wide–eyed and tearing.

  “…Father?”

  “Yes.”

  Here, the young man begins to weep just as a group of twenty men reach the front gates, Tenay not far behind.

  “Search the place! Find the real Ralic and kill the overlord!” the great blacksmith cries, his beard drenched with the dark rain as they press into the
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