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After the final execution, the bonfire was lit.
Thick columns of smoke wound their way up to the heavens, the flickering flames casting moving shadows over the converted arena.
It looked as though the figures carved into the walls were dancing.
The effect was strange and disturbing.
One of the Grims Davey had seen around one of the bonfires a few nights ago approached the flames with what looked like a jam jar in his grubby hands.
He paused, said a few words that were hidden due to distance and the general hubbub in the arena.
Then he took the lid off the jar and hurled it onto the flames.
Instantly, a flamebow rose up, the colours mostly on the red side of the spectrum.
The arena was bathed in blood red light for a few minutes.
Dark red smoke began to pour from the flames.
The Grims gathered round, eagerly shovelling handfuls of it into their faces.
Within minutes, they were rolling round on the floor, tears of mirth pouring down their faces.
Davey could hear their laughter from the royal box.
‘Having quite the night, aren’t we?’ the King smiled.
Davey nodded. ‘It’s been great.’
‘Shall we go down and join our brethren?’
‘You are aware that, in spite of our exhibition of what will happen to law-breakers, there could still be enemies of yours among the crowd?’
‘I’m aware. And I refuse to live my life in fear.’
The King clapped a massive hand onto his shoulder with force enough to almost buckle his legs. ‘And still my respect for you grows, Davey lad.’
He looked at him like a proud father.
‘Come on then, let’s go. The food is just being served.’
The journey through the crowd to the fireside was something else entirely; the swathes of red smoke, the awestruck crowd, some of whom were spattered with the blood of those executed, the vast flames, the flickering shadows over the intricate and ominous architecture.
What was even more bizarre was the crowd parting for Davey and the King.
Most knelt, though the King seemed to frown upon it.
They moved out of his way, clearing a path right to the fireside.
This particular fire was strange in that it seemed to radiate cold, instead of heat.
Still the red smoke spilled from the flames, still the Grims did their utmost to inhale it all.
The laughter down here was deafening and contagious.
Davey found it hard to keep a smile from his face, in spite of the events of the past twenty-four hours.
But he did his best not to inhale it.
‘Have a go,’ the King said, noticing his reticence.
‘I was always brought up to believe drugs were a bad thing.’
The King nodded. ‘As was I, but this is something I myself had a part in manufacturing. There are no ill effects on the body, it simply makes you laugh. The next day there is no hangover, no comedown, just the way you would normally feel when you wake up. Steam is the perfect drug.’
Davey studied his face closely. ‘Have you tried it?’
‘Of course. And I have never felt any ill effects from it, unless you count aching sides from laughing so much.’
Davey thought about it, decided he had nothing to lose.
He moved in close.
‘Just breathe in normally,’ the King said. ‘Don’t do what those daft buggers are doing,’ he indicated the Grims who were laughing and capering and grabbing great handfuls of steam in their hands.
Davey moved to the fireside, again his ears hurting a little from the sheer volume of the laughter around him.
One of the Grims whacked him on the back. ‘Go on, lad,’ he bellowed, hard enough to make Davey’s ears ring.
Davey found that he felt inexplicably nervous about doing this; it felt like he was breaking some sort of promise to his murdered parents.
But then he thought that they would want him to be happy, and this seemed like a good way of achieving that.
He saw a big trail of smoke rise from the fire and moved into it, inhaling gently as he did so.
It felt like the steam from the shower, only warmer and more welcoming.
If he’d been in a shower like this he’d have never wanted to come out.
It was comforting in the extreme, like a hug from your most treasured someone, like a hot drink on a cold night, a favourite meal after a bad day.
It was like sharing a belly laugh with close friends.
It was a multitude of little comforts that he had taken for granted at the time but desperately needed now.
But most of all, he could have sworn he felt his mother’s arms wrapped tight around him, settling him down to sleep after a nightmare.
It was a feeling he never wanted to end.
Life had been one long nightmare of late.
His anxieties melted away from him like bark falling from an aging tree.
The memories of what had happened with Old Jimmy in the woods fell away, as did the murder of his family.
It felt as though his lungs were filled with healing light and it was spreading through him.
‘He’s steamed,’ the Grim who’d patted him on the back said, his face cracking in a gargantuan grin.
A cheer went up for him.
His world shuddered as a seemingly endless stream of hands patted him on the back and shoulders and head.
Instead of being afraid in the company of so many rough-looking strangers, he felt like he had come home.
Like he was among family.
He smiled, mirroring the grin on the Grim’s face.
‘Have some more, lad,’ the Grim bellowed, arming vast swathes of smoke into Davey’s beaming face.
Davey threw caution to the wind and drew in the lot.
As soon as it hit his lungs it felt like he’d simultaneously been told every joke he’d ever laughed at.
The laughter burst out of him, so hard it hurt his stomach and ribs.
He spun to look at the King, who was smiling at him.
The Grim threw his arm around Davey and started dancing around with him.
Davey followed, laughing at the top of his lungs.
It had been a long time since he’d laughed at anything, so this was welcome release indeed.
If this was what being a steamer felt like, he didn’t ever want to turn back.
The flames seemed to twist and writhe, but he wasn’t sure if this was due to the steam he’d imbibed.
He and his fellow Grims bellowed with laughter, and he felt closer to them than he even had to his own family.
When the buzz died down a little, he went back to see the King to thank him for his part in this.
He was still chuckling a little.
‘You deserve a little mirth, Davey,’ he said, a smile playing across his lips. ‘Hey, there’s some food here.’
A man was pushing along what looked like a cross between a motorbike and a garden shed.
Davey was impressed by how the King insisted that the Grims eat before him, refusing to be the first one served.
The Grims engaged in a round of back-slapping with the King and feasted on the wagon’s wares.
‘Eat up, Davey lad,’ the King laughed, handing him what looked like a dubious concoction of tacos and curry.
Davey sunk his teeth into it.
The flavours and textures released were incredible.
It was simultaneously sweet and sour, spicy and mild, coarse and fine.
He devoured it.
‘What was that?’ he breathed.
‘Special execution day grub,’ the King beamed, licking thick clumps of the curried sauce from his palms. ‘Nice, isn’t it?’
Davey nodded, eyes wide.
‘’Nother one, young sir?’ the man behind the counter said, eyeing Davey with a kind smile.
‘Good evening to ya,’ the man said, with a wink and a thumbs up.
The King handed Davey a can of something that tasted very much like the shandies his dad had used to make him, back before alcohol had been outlawed in the city.
He necked it in one, the flavours perfectly complimenting the meal he’d just devoured.
‘Enjoy yourself, Davey lad. I am going to retire,’ the King said.
‘Aw don’t go,’ Davey said. ‘I feel like I’m just starting to fit in here.’
‘You are indeed. But I must go. I can’t have a day off like the rest of you. Enjoy your night. If you need anything please do not hesitate to ask. Max will accompany you back to your home.’
Davey ran up to him and threw his arms around him. ‘Thank you so much for everything. There’s no way I can ever repay you.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that,’ the King said, a glint in his eye.
Davey found that the King had been right about the steam; he woke up the next morning feeling more refreshed than at any time in recent memory.
It seemed like the steam had made him focus on the good things in his life and forget about the bad.
He had a little bit of a thirst, but he found that was normal when he’d spent the night next to a bonfire.
He smiled, whistling one of the songs that the Grims had sung around the campfire at the end of the night.
The smile faded a little at the thought of going down to the bait cabin and waiting in the line again.
Just as he turned his mind to this, there was a knock on his door.
Max stood there, a huge sub roll in his hands.
The bread looked thick and soft, the meat inside tender, still oozing blood and juices.
‘Special delivery,’ Max beamed.
Davey took it – and the steaming cup of Joe that Max held – and wasted no time in getting into it.
‘What is that meat?’ he asked.
Max sighed. ‘Everything around here is put to good use, David. As the King says; Today’s top dog is tomorrow’s hot dog.’
‘I don’t get you.’
‘Probably for the best.’
A moment of silence passed.
‘Whatever it is, it’s delicious,’ Davey said.
‘Thank you. I cooked it myself.’
‘You should make more,’ Davey laughed.
Max laughed too. ‘The King was pleased to get to know you a little better. He has something he would like to ask you.’
‘Anything. I’ll do anything for him.’
‘I’ll not accept that as your answer. In matters like these it is best to first hear what is being asked of you.’
‘I trust him. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.’
‘Still, hear him out before you agree to anything. As soon as you’re ready, I’ll take you to speak with him.’
The walk through the camp was quicker than Davey remembered, but he was now starting to get his bearings a little better.
He was unsurprised to see that some of the Grims were still gathered round the fire, throwing on jars and huffing in the resulting smoke.
They were still as loud and lairy as they had been the previous night.
He smiled at them, waved as they shouted a greeting to him.
The King’s compound looked much less unsettling in the daylight, although the same could definitely not be said for the King’s bodyguards.
The King was asleep on his throne of bones, one big hand propping up his broad head.
He snores loud enough to wake the dead, Davey thought with a smile.
He couldn’t help but stifle a laugh as Max shook the King awake. He came to life with a comically confused expression.
‘Whaaat? Ah, young Davey,’ he said, his brow still furrowed.
‘Greeting, Your Highness.’
‘Ah, come on, Davey lad, you should know by now that I don’t stand for that bullshit.’
‘Ok, King Solomon.’
‘Never mind,’ King Solomon said, waving it all away like it was an embarrassment.
‘So, what is it you’d like to see me about?’
‘Please, give me a moment to get woken up properly. Matters like this need to be discussed while fully alert, so both parties are aware of what they are getting into.’
‘Of course. Take as long as you need.’
The King smiled at him. ‘Such manners are so rare, especially in this day and age. It is a joy to behold. Anyway, I will be but a moment.’
The King returned, his face noticeably cleaner and shinier.
He smelt like he’d showered, his clothes were clean, his boots polished.
His beard looked groomed, the edges freshly trimmed.
He held two steaming cups of Joe.
‘Here, David. I find it best to discuss matters such as these with a nice hit of Joe.’
They clinked cups and Davey let out an involuntary, ‘Cheers, big ears,’ a remnant of a life long gone extinct.
The King smiled sadly, seeming to get the reference.
The pair of them stared at their shoes for a moment of mute contemplation, then the King broke the silence.
‘You have told me of the circumstances surrounding your appearance here, David. And I understand where you are going and what you want to achieve. I believe we were fated to meet here, for many reasons.’
‘I do too.’
‘Well, as I’m sure you remember, to earn entry to our community proper, not just stay temporarily as a guest, there are various initiation ceremonies. Something must be given before something is taken, so to speak.’
‘I understand. I have to earn my place.’
The King nodded.
‘I like the way it works.’
‘Thank you. So, the majority of new arrivals go to work in the bait cabins or the factories or on clean up duty.’
‘I’d be happy to do any of those.’
‘I know you would. But the point is, David, that you are not in the majority. There is something special about you. I have known it since the first moment I met you.’
The King didn’t acknowledge that Davey had spoken. ‘And there is something very special that I need doing. Please understand that it is not something that needs to be done today, or tomorrow or maybe even this month, but one day it will be done. And I am certain that it will be you that does it.’
‘What is it?’
Solomon took a deep breath in. ‘I need you to kill someone for me, David.’
Time seemed to stretch out for an eternity before either of them spoke again.
Though Davey had killed before, it was not something he was keen to repeat, despite his respect and awe for the King.
‘Who is it?’ Davey said, before he agreed to anything.
Now he understood why Max had been so wary of him committing himself.
‘There’s this very bad man, he lives in a village near the West side of the city,’ the King began, and before he even finished his sentence, Davey knew who it was.
Next chapter is here