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Chapter 5

     It was freezing cold, but Leon did not mind. In his mind, Kota was supposed to be cold—it was part of its year-round charm. Night was falling on the mountains when he arrived at the small village. Snowflakes danced in the auras of streetlamps lining the narrow road to the square. It looked as if it had been snowing for weeks. To either side, drifts were piled high to the tops of quaint stone houses. The pathways shoveled to their doorsteps made waist-high banks, and even the footpaths between were covered in packed snow, making it impossible to tell where the ground began. In front of the houses were white mounds from pine and spruce shrubs, slumbering beneath their snowy blankets in the heart of an endless winter. The drifts crept up to the bottoms of windows; some were cut off unnaturally by the hand of man in his plight to maintain a view of the world outside. Some inhabitants were not so ambitious and let the snow pile well past their windows, the only evidence of their existence a faint yellow glow emanating from the snow itself.
    The square was set low in the village, and as Leon drew closer to it, he could see children sledding down the hill beside it as their parents watched from benches surrounding a snow-covered monument at its center. Their conversations were visible clouds, and it was evident by the children’s gestures that they were laughing and shouting, yet Leon could hear nothing outside the crunch of snow beneath his feet. In a place so full of life during the early evening hours, the snow muffled all sound, and even if the source was visible, all remained silent. It was Leon’s favorite thing about Kota—the silence allowed you to take in its beauty unfettered. It was a soundlessness so unique it seemed to separate Kota from the rest of the world—a utopia to those who lived there, detached from the depravity outside.
    He stopped for a moment. The crunching ceased beneath his feet, and he embraced the silence. He looked to the houses and watched the snowflakes flutter in the light from the lamps and windows, relishing in his contentment. He wished his work would bring him to Kota more often, but his line of work had little business in a place like Kota.
    Despite the serenity surrounding him, he could not help but close his eyes for just a moment—a moment where amidst the silence, he could pretend nothing else existed. This was one of his favorite rituals when visiting Kota. It was here that Leon could experience what was, in his mind, the closest he would ever come to nothingness. It granted him the freedom to pretend there was nothing in the world besides himself and, thus, nothing for the world to ask of him. A sense of desperation overcame him as he tried frantically to forget even himself, hoping to feel what it would be not to exist at all. Yet his consciousness remained, nagging—a reminder that he did, and he cursed it. Still, he embraced the nothingness around him for a moment longer, as if it were all the world could ever offer him that was good and worthwhile.
    Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and continued his trek. The crunch of snow resumed beneath his feet. He looked at the children, and a wave of pessimism came over him. It often did in the quaint village, and for good reason. Leon adored Kota, yet the only reason he ever got to visit was on business, and those on the receiving end did not welcome his business. The Order’s justice, regardless of righteousness, never seemed appropriate in a place like Kota. Watching someone cry at the demise of a mark was nothing new to him. He had been doing it for so long that he had learned to tune it out. It was harder in Kota, however. The juxtaposition between contentment and grief was just too palpable. It made him feel as if he were the criminal, wronging the sacred utopia by bringing the misery and suffering of the world outside into it. A blood spatter in the same snow that allowed for the silence he so adored was enough to set him brooding over something he had done countless times before. He always had to remind himself that he was doing right and that any grief he wrought was a necessary evil. If he let the wickedness remain unchecked, it would fester, eventually corrupting the village and its people. The idealistic utopia he envisioned would cease to exist. Despite the sound rationale of such a philosophy, Leon never found much solace in it.
    As he approached the square, the children’s shouts became audible—joyous and full of laughter as he knew they would be. His love for the silence gave way to another of his favorite sounds, and he took it in with fervor. It was not often that the only sound you heard on Id’Etat was laughter, not without it being combated by the droll of some unnatural machine or shouts from frantic mobs. Such a sound in such a place was enough to let him pretend that the world outside was in a better state than he knew it to be. He found it fitting that the snow muffled all sound and the laughter could not carry outside the village because it seemed there was no place for such unfettered bliss in the world outside.
    He continued through the square toward his destination, and as he drew closer, his mind began to shift from such idyllic thoughts to his mark. He could not blame Gasal St. Clair for hiding out in Kota, despite knowing it was not out of practicality that he chose it. In a village as small and close-knit as Kota, all newcomers were noted on arrival—and if they were a wanted criminal, they would know who they were as soon as a bulletin was posted. Gasal likely chose Kota for the same reason Leon loved being there, figuring it was the ideal locale to remember as your last place on Id’Etat, or your last place as a free man on Id’Etat at least. Unfortunately for Gasal, it would be the former.
    A band of rebels, loyalists of a deposed despotic senator in Kalibrek, opened fire at a rally for the candidate set to succeed him. Their cause lost, they took the lives of 31 innocents, including two visiting senators attending in support of the candidate—one final act of defiance. The massacre was committed with illegal, military-grade firearms—and since quelling the rebellion, the Order had been dead set on finding their supplier. It was not hard to track down the outfit’s low-level traffickers, and despite a valiant display of loyalty early on, it did not take the Order long to get the names of their superiors. An iron heart and the most devout loyalties became quite frail when the Order asked the questions. The name Gasal St. Claire came out in the culmination of their interrogations, exchanged for lives of confinement as opposed to none at all. With its highest-ranking officers imprisoned or eliminated, the outfit’s operations had ceased. One thread remained to be severed before the case could be closed. Being that final thread, the “demon’s head,” as they called it, Gasal St. Clair had nothing left to offer the Order. He was in violation of Order Statute 37.33 pertaining to accountability, which held him directly responsible for all 31 deaths.
    There was no doubt he heard about the massacre and recognized the rebel group that committed it. He knew what was coming for him.
    A returning quiet pulled Leon to the present. He was past the square now and looked back. Aside from a few lingering glares from the parents, the children continued on joyously. Soon the snow muffled their laughter entirely again, and despite his love for the silence, he would not have minded listening to them for a little while longer. Yet the sound of innocence could only carry so far, and as he tried to recall traces of his, he realized he might have arrived at his destination. Nothing marked the house with the number 18 he was looking for, but a conspicuous snowbank at the foot of its walkway caught his attention. Leon used his forearm to wipe the snow away from a stone post to reveal an ornate number 18. He could not help but pity the desperation.
    There was no gate, just packed snow flanked by high banks to the door. The house was small and quaint, with stone walls and an indistinguishable roof beneath the white drifts that covered it. Snowflakes danced gently in the lamplight beside the door, and a faint light emanated from the window to the right, too dull to be a significant source—likely a fireplace. He made his way up the snow-covered steps and stood before the door for a moment. He reached for the ARM holstered beneath his coat and, as he gripped it, became aware of the numbness in his fingers. Standing inches from the door, most would have jumped at the opportunity to escape the cold, but Leon would have given anything to stay out there in it.
    He knocked—his misgivings no match for his will. A moment yielded no response. He put his ear to the door, straining to hear signs of movement, but there were none. He knocked again, harder, and when there was still no response, he reached for the knob. To his surprise, a gentle turn yielded no resistance—it was unlocked. He opened the door cautiously. When he entered, he could see the sporadic light of a fire through an archway to his right. Years of experience in the art of stealth carried him soundlessly to the wall beside the arch. He peered into the room and found an eerily unsettling site—the blank face of Gasal St. Claire staring back at him. Frantic, Leon jumped back behind the wall and listened for sounds of movement—an attempted escape—but none came. He had seen that look before on the faces of countless men and women, and it was never a welcome sight. Even evil men feared death, which led them to fear Leon. This was not the garden variety trepidation that washed over the masses when a sentinel was present, but pure unadulterated fear. Knowing you were the source of such fear was a burden for even the strongest-willed. Yet there was also a point beyond the fear once a mark accepted what was coming and gave into despondence. That was worse, and it was where Gasal was now—no longer a man, but a vessel just waiting for it to end.
    “I’m not armed,” Gasal proclaimed flatly. Leon hesitated, considering options that did not require much consideration—an attempt to delay the inevitable. He wished he was armed—that he planned on fighting back. He could justify his actions then rather than play the executioner. Justification never came easy when they did not resist.
    “Honestly,” he continued. There was a chilling calm in his voice, a complacency in defeat. “I know what you are. Even if I were armed, we both know it wouldn’t mean a damn.”
    “Are you Gasal St. Claire?” Leon asked.
    “Would you believe me if I said I wasn’t?”
    “No, but then I’d have to confirm you weren’t, and that would draw this out longer than either of us would like.”
    “This is my last moment on this rock. What makes you think I don’t want this to take as long as possible?” He offered a meager snicker devoid of any genuine amusement.
    “Trust me,” Leon told him. “This will be more pleasant if you cooperate.”
    “I know, I know,” he paused. “You got me. Gasal St. Claire.”
    “Gasal St. Claire—”
    “Come out where I can see you,” he interrupted. “I don’t want the last conversation I have to be through a wall.”
    Leon peeked out hesitantly. Gasal remained in the chair, clutching the armrests. Leon entered the room, keeping his ARM at his side rather than raised at the defenseless mark. Beads of perspiration were evident on Gasal’s forehead, and an intense heat from the fireplace left Leon unsure if he was the cause. Aside from the fireplace and the chair, the only other fixture in the room was a small table beneath the window on the street side. There was a picture of a woman on it, but Leon could barely make out her features in the low light. He preferred it that way.
    “That’s better,” Gasal greeted him, smiling nervously.
    “Gasal St. Clair,” Leon began with authority, “the Accountability Clause, as outlined by Order Doctrine—”
    “Please,” Gasal interrupted again, waving his hand. “None of that. No need for protocol or formalities or whatever. I know what happened—the part I played. I don’t need to hear it from anyone else.”
    “Order policy dictates—”
    “Yeah, yeah,” Gasal cut in again. Leon let the interruptions slide. It was Gasal’s only form of dominion over him, and he was okay with offering him the one meager victory. “I’m sure your policy dictates some predetermined jargon or whatever. But I already know what you’d say. I know how this ends—and why. Who’s going to be around to tell anyone you never said it? I don’t need the sum of my crimes reiterated to me another time.”
    “Okay,” Leon acquiesced. “But that sum was a lot of innocent deaths.”
    “I know, and that sucks. More than anything,” he paused, his eyes glazing with watery angst. “You think I wanted that?”
    “I don’t know what you wanted,” Leon answered. “I don’t know you.”
    “Well, I didn’t.” His voice held a note of passion for the first time, as if appalled by what the person he had never met might think of him. “What’s your name?” he asked.
    “Well, given the circumstances, Leon, I’m not going to tell you it’s nice to meet you.” He paused, pensive. “Under other circumstances, though, I think I might.”
    “Fair enough.”
    There was a brief silence. It was Gasal who broke it.
    “I never expected it to get as big as it did,” he said. “My outfit, whatever you want to call it.”
    “We interrogated a lot of people. It was big.”
    “I know. I couldn’t help it. It was addicting. Intoxicating in a way.”
    “I’m sure it was. I imagine that level of wealth would be quite alluring.”
    “But it wasn’t the wealth, it was—” Gasal paused, trying to find the words to illuminate precisely what he was thinking. His eventual solemn glare signaled his failure. “I don’t know. It’s the feeling, I guess. I can’t explain it.”
    “The feeling of being an enabler of death?”
    “What? No,” he answered, somewhat frantic. “Not like that. Not like that at all.”
    “Then I can’t say I know what you’re talking about.”
    “You wouldn’t, not with all that you’ve done. You’re a sentinel.”
    “I was a machinist before all this. I made specialty parts for manufacturers. That was it. But you, you travel the world, doling retribution to the wicked,” he paused, “or the misguided, perhaps. Regardless, you do something that matters. You leave a mark; all I ever did was make parts.”
    “Okay,” Leon was not sure he would have minded a life spent making parts. “But I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
    “Really? It’s simple: you leave your mark on the world—on history, and all I ever did was make parts.”
    “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
    “Yeah, there is—for someone like me there is. I don’t know why; it’s always been that way for me. My whole life, I’ve been plagued by a desire to do something more than what I was doing or, more importantly, more than what everyone else was doing. It’s a superiority complex; I admit that much—and I’ll also admit I’m not sure the potential was ever there to warrant it in the first place. Just this strange jealousy that compelled me to try to be something more than everyone else.” There was a slight pause, as if the honesty were catching even himself by surprise. “I think at the heart of it was that I wanted to be remembered. If I were just like everybody else, no one would remember me when I was gone, and that scared the hell out of me. It still does.”
    “It scares a lot of people, I’m sure,” said Leon, his interest in the stranger’s honesty the only thing keeping him from ending the uncomfortable encounter outright. “But I can’t say I’m sure why you’re telling me this.”
    “I’m not so sure myself. Justification, I guess. It would be nice to validate my actions to someone before I go, even if it’s the person sending me off,” he snickered half-heartedly. “You can give me that, at least, right?”
    Leon stared at Gasal, the beads of sweat on his forehead, and could not help but pity him. Despite everything he did, he was still human, and from the look of him and the way he talked, you would not think he had a drop of bad blood in him. In the end,
    Leon succumbed to his sympathy and curiosity, despite knowing it went against everything he had been taught.
    “Sure,” he said.
    “Good,” Gasal nodded appreciatively. “How I got into all of this is irrelevant—to the point I’m trying to make, at least. But it was chance, really. My wife passed, and I was in a bad place,” he paused. “An opportunity arose to make some money, and I took it. Then my drive got me to the top, I guess. Not entirely sure how.”
    “The people we talked to seemed to respect you. Sure, they sold you out, but they resisted for a while. Maybe it was that—the respect you garnered. Their surrenders were quite solemn,” Leon reflected.
    “I think they felt bad for me, maybe more so than I did for myself.”
    “I’m not sure self-pity is warranted in any of this.”
 “No, it is. To me, it is, and it’s self-pity—so that’s my prerogative.”
    “If you say so,” Leon snickered at the perceived astuteness of such a conviction.
    “You’re right either way, though; they did respect me. I’m confident of that because we were always on the same page.”
    “The page where you cash in on the distribution of illegal firearms?”
    “Yeah, and no. I told you, it wasn’t about that for me. I wouldn’t sell to anyone, and if any of my guys tried to sell to the wrong type of people, they were done. No matter the size of the deal.”
    “In my experience, you can classify anyone looking to illegally purchase large quantities of military-grade firearms as the ‘wrong type of people.’”
    “Not necessarily. I’m talking about bad people, genuinely bad. I didn’t want to sell to them, and anyone directly beneath me was there because they accepted my philosophy. I quickly realized there were enough decent people in the world needing weapons who couldn’t get them legally. No one can these days, so we capitalized on that.”
    “Decency is apparently a gray area in your book. Do you consider the rebels decent people?”
    “At this point, no,” he admitted. “But when we sold to them, all they were to me were rebels. And I guess you’re right; decency was a gray area. But rebels aren’t out to hurt people without cause; that’s what makes them rebels. They have an ideal or a purpose they’re fighting for. They’re part of the history our world was built on. Rebellions aren’t typically led by the depraved seeking selfish gains.”
    “And the rebels in question, what exactly was their noble cause?”
    “I’m not sure,” Gasal admitted. “We didn’t get that far with most of our buyers.”
    Leon snickered, “Then, so long as they claimed to be rebels, you could justify your actions, and their credits were good?”
    “No. I told you; it wasn’t about the money.”
    “Yes, you said that, but the more you talk, the more your reasoning sounds like a means to an end.”
    “I won’t lie, the credits helped, but that wasn’t why I was doing it.”
    “Then why?”
    “I told you.”
    “Did you?”
    “Yes,” Gasal paused, either embarrassed or unsure how to explain himself. “I said I didn’t want to be another nameless face in history. All my endeavors have been an attempt to remedy that. The money only helped bolster my resources. To me, that’s all it was ever good for.”
    “So, what? You were hoping one of the groups you sold to would do something significant? Something great? That way, a note might pop up somewhere about Gasal St. Claire, the intrepid arms magnate who fueled the rebellion? You could just ride their coattails to eternity?”
    Gasal nodded, and the first real tear broke through and mingled with the beading sweat.
    “There’s so much shit in this world,” he said. “Is it so hard to believe that one of those groups might have managed to do something about it? About any of it?”
    “Maybe not. It’s simply hard for me to comprehend anyone going as far as you did just to be remembered—and as a footnote, at that.”
    “I told you. Something in me isn’t right. Mortality terrifies me. Not death itself, but the finality of legacy. Like I said, it’s always been that way for me,” he paused, “and it sucks that it led to all this.”
    “It does. But no matter what your intentions were, what you did was wrong. Even if it did lead to one good thing at some point, it still would have been wrong.”
    “I know, and now that all of my justification has revealed itself for what it was, that’s clear to me now.”
    There was another brief silence. Leon adjusted his grip on his ARM nervously. His palm was beginning to sweat.
    “Does it scare you at all?” Gasal asked.
    “What? Mortality?”
    Leon considered, not because he was unsure of the answer, but because he did not wish Gasal to think he saw his fear as weakness. Though he might have deserved it, Leon had little desire to upset him further. Yet Gasal had been candid with him, so in the end, he felt his own honesty was the best thing he could offer.
    “No,” he answered. “It doesn’t.”
    “Really? Wish I felt that way.”
    “Me too,” said Leon, and he meant it.
    There was another silence. Both were running out of things to say. Leon’s heart raced uncharacteristically.
    “In a way, I guess I was successful, though,” said Gasal.
    “How so?”
    “I hoped the rebels would do some good, and even though they did the opposite, they still did something. Sure, it was awful, but it was something on a scale that will be remembered, so maybe I’ll be remembered, too,” he laughed meekly. “Forever locked into the Archives. Gasal St. Claire, the ‘Rebels’ Insidious Supplier.’”
    “You would be okay with being remembered that way?”
    “You know,” Gasal paused, considering. “It’s not ideal, but I can honestly say it beats the alternative.”
    “Fair enough. We’ll leave it at that, then.”
    Leon raised his ARM and a retort snapped flatly, muffled by the snow outside. The bullet entered Gasal’s throat precisely where Leon had intended, ending his life with swift humanity. A torrent of blood gushed from the wound, running down Gasal’s chest and legs to the floor in seconds. Such sights were far from foreign to Leon, but this one proved harder to stomach, and nothing could have prepared him for what came next when he turned to exit.
    It was a little girl bundled tightly in snow-spattered clothing and clutching a sled. She was waist-high to Leon with wisps of dark hair sticking out from beneath her hood. Her bright blue eyes, set in a face that undoubtedly resembled Gasal’s, welled with tears. He had mentioned a wife but never a daughter. The gravity of the situation sucked the air from his lungs. His work put him in distressing situations before, but none seemed to compare to this. The silence was unbearable. She blocked the arch’s opening, but he did not dare push past her. A certain disrespect seemed evident amidst such a moment of his creation. He cursed the sweet, innocent face and the longing he felt for a daughter possessing such beauty. It was no secret that his work orphaned children. Yet he rarely had to face them, not after such profound interactions with their parents in a place he held so dear.
    “What’s your name?” He got down to one knee. Steady streams flowed from her eyes.
    “I’m sorry,” he whispered when she did not respond, striving to convey his sincerity. “Your father seemed like a nice man, but he did some very bad things.”
    She was unreadable, yet her expression seemed surprisingly solemn, as if she had been expecting it. Had Gasal warned her? Or was Leon simply underestimating the perceptiveness of children? The tears flowed steadily, but any other signs of distress were difficult to read.
    “I’m a policeman of sorts.” He motioned to his signet. “A sentinel of the Order. Have you heard of us?”
    She nodded, and even the meager response helped to lighten the load his spirits were buckling beneath.
    “Good. I’m so sorry,” he said again, half whispering, desperate for her to grasp his sincerity. “But as I said, your father did some very bad things, and because of this, the Order sent me—” he choked. He did not want to say it, but he did not expect the words to physically stick in his throat the way they did. Then, likely not wanting to hear it herself, she nodded in understanding. Relieved, he stared at her another moment waiting for her to move, but she remained fixed to the spot.
    “I know many things,” he told her. “But it’s not easy to know what to say in these situations, so I’ll say this: sentinels are special—skilled and resourceful. If we ever cross paths again somewhere down the line and you recognize me—I might not recognize you, not if you’re all grown up—tell me you’re the daughter of Gasal St. Claire. If you do, I swear to you I will do everything in my power to give you whatever you ask of me at that moment. I promise.”
    She stared at him quizzically until she finally spoke. “That’s a strange promise,” she said, her voice soft and grief-stricken, holding a fighting bit of innocence that likely would not be leaving Kota.
    “Maybe, but it’s all I have to offer you.”
    She stared blankly.
    “I mean it, though.”
    She still did not budge. She just continued to stare. He cringed. Was hatred brewing inside of her at that moment? Not a simple sense of childish contempt, but genuine hatred—previously foreign to such a youthful soul? He shuddered at the thought.
    “You should say goodbye to your father,” Leon motioned toward the body, desperate for a way out. “Someone will be here soon to take him away.”
    She stared at him a moment longer, likely wrestling with her burgeoning contempt for the man who deserved it just as much as he did not. Finally, she made her way around him and toward the body. He stood abruptly and headed for the door, not daring to look back.

     < Chapter 4

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