When Theron was executed it was supposed to absolve all of them. The whole city tried to crowd into Alsacz Square to see him die and receive that pardon. The old king and his young consort, the princesses and the prince, waited in their bannered box, all as pale and anxious as if they were to kneel for the headsman. Very much below them, but on a platform that gave them a view over the common heads, were the minor ministers and the courtiers, whose especially guilty and frightened manners were owing to Theron's former position as the most beloved, the brightest, of their number. There, Helena stood with her father, a minister so minor that this was, probably, the closest he had ever come to his sovereign. Helena, who affected to look only as interested as propriety demanded, was in fact gripped by an excitement that she was not consciously aware of, and would not, in any case, have been able to understand. She was pleased that her father seemed to have been given some kind of honor, amused by the carnival atmosphere of the execution, and quite looking forward to Theron's apotheosis on the scaffold.
She had seen him before, admired him but, of course, never spoken to him. She had observed him at length during the trial and developed what she would not think of as a fascination with him: his great beauty, his elegance, his aloof impenitence, his imperturbable, heartless calm. He had not contested the charges, but he had also not defended or explained himself. Treason, murder, theft, necromancy and every wicked sorcery known: he had met each charge in collected, silent agreement. Theron, still in his rich courtier's clothes, his beauty and grace now turned to an affront as great as any of his other crimes, had answered them only once.
"Because I wanted to," he had said.
When he was brought up the steps to the block, Helena stood on her toes, leaning on her father's arm, to see him better. Those bright, lovely courtier's clothes had been traded for the condemned's black suit. He had not been badly abused, but those visible marks lent a fragility to his beauty and prefigured its despoilment. He looked as untroubled as he had during the trial. He had, as always, the air of a figure in a fête galante, either wholly innocent of the world or so jaded by it that he had the wisdom to discount it.
The list of his crimes and the decree of execution were read. He knelt when he was told to, with that same courtly diffidence. The headsman, in his merry death's-mask hood, held out his sword for the royal blessing. As he turned, his blade caught the light, and this reflection glanced across Theron's neck moments before the blade itself. In that brief space of time, Helena was seized by a furious, transporting jealousy, of the sword, of that band of light, that they should be the last things to touch his damned throat.
The scaffold, and Theron's body with it, was burned that evening, tended by palace guards and the mayor's pikemen. The fire was feted by dancing and drinking and singing, and less decent things. From her window, Helena could hear the revelry, smell the smoke, but she saw nothing past the steeply pitched roofs and narrow chimneys of the city. Some of the quality, she knew, had slipped through the streets to the bonfire, in very poor disguises, drawn by death and fire, drawn to do in the tigerish shadows those things, Helena thought, that Theron had done by day as the least of his crimes. As she lay, still and sleepless, she remembered how he had knelt in those rough black clothes; and yet the regalia of degradation they had surrounded him with seemed to her now as necessary and futile as the bruises on his flesh: they were the symbols of his wickedness, which must always have been a vital part of his beauty, and which, in memory, Helena perceived as a golden nimbus around him. No: as an affinity between him and the pure, haughty sword of the executioner - of the soul of the executioner's sword - of the light that flashed off the sword.
In the morning, Helena, her mind and body strangely enervated by insomnia, noticed a hushed consternation among the servants and her father, who left the breakfast table without finishing. She pressed her maid for information and, determined to see the marvel for herself, coerced two girls of her acquaintance and their chaperones to accompany her to Alsacz Square.
It was full of roses. On the charred ground where Theron had been condemned, dozens of roses had grown overnight. The morning dew glistened on the curve of the white petals exactly as the light, reflected from the executioner's blade, had played along his white throat. The king's guards and the mayor's pikemen had made only a half-hearted attempt to encircle the area. There were other knots of onlookers, awed and fearful and edging very close to panic. One of Helena's companions fainted. Helena noticed none of that; she was snared by a terrible ecstasy, some sleek, joyously fanged sensation. She was poised at the edge of that invisible world that Theron had trafficked with, and all she saw, all she thought or felt was the light shining on the dew, on the executioner's sword, on Theron's rose-white, tender throat.
They burned the ground again, but the next morning the roses were back.
After the third day they stopped burning the roses: they only grew back thicker. A minister had suggested that the square be torn up and the earth salted, but no one had the courage to find out what might happen then. All windows facing the square were shuttered, and pikemen were posted at all entrances. Nothing further could be done because no one, aside from that lone minister, could discuss it. It was all they thought of and, in that way, all they spoke of; no one could be certain that even the simplest exchange had not alluded to that luxury of roses in the forbidden square. Their sweet, fresh scent, crisp and velvety like the flesh of apples, filled the city and found its way into every room.
Helena, in one of the pleasant galleries of the palace, drew in a deep breath of the scented air, tasted it on her tongue. She stood demurely in the shadow of her chaperones, with several other girls, all courted gently by a corps of finely bred young men. Some of them, maybe, had been acquainted with Theron; some of them, perhaps, his intimates. One of them, Leander, conducted himself with a kind of refined insouciance, and had an elegant throat, laid fashionably bare to his collarbones. Helena took another taste of the delicious air. As her companions nervously laughed and talked, a realization, the complete apprehension of something she had brooded on without quite knowing that she did, came over her. A blaze of golden light, rising within her body until finally it filled her eyes with a scintillating glory; then, as swift as that, a rich, hushed twilight, a sensation as if she stood at the edge of a well and wonderful, unseen things were rising to the surface.
He had said: "Because I wanted to."