Through tears I watch the boy’s body break down in the heat of the flames. I measure time by the breakdown of hair, skin, fat. I know it all, of course. I’ve seen this fifty times before at fifty different pyres. I know how a human body burns and what remains after.
This is the first time I’ve really cared about it.
Someone needs to witness this. Someone needs to give his life and his death meaning. And that is the job of the pyreman. We don’t exist to just clean out the dead from the Pits to make sure disease doesn’t spread. We exist to honor the dead. To watch on this last journey. To respect them as even their form leaves.
Everything Tannen says is clicking into place.
But it’s even more than that. That boy died because of me. If I hadn’t saved him from the burning tent, if I hadn’t dragged him to the edge of camp, if I hadn’t enraged the men from the Pits, he would still be alive. Sure, he’d have plague, and he’d be dying, but he wouldn’t be dead now.
It’s my fault. I owe him. The least I can do is watch.
I’m starting to be able to feel the cold wind. The coals of the Plaguer Camp won’t keep me warm much longer, and after that, well, I guess I die. But at least I could watch this child burn first.
I hear footsteps on the rough earth behind me. It could be someone from the Pits here to make sure everyone in the camp really is dead or gone. It could be another plaguer. It could be a lot of people. I don’t even look. It is my job to watch the dead.
Whoever it is breathes heavily. I’m guessing it’s a man; the footsteps are very heavy. Whoever it is sits beside me. His breathing is annoying.
Finally, he speaks with a thick voice, “They were angry.”
“Yeah,” I answer. I don’t recognize his voice.
“They were angry because they thought the plaguers were coming to make everyone sick.”
“Yeah.” What am I supposed to say? I never wanted to make anyone sick. I never had the plague, right? A dog bit me. The wound got infected. That’s not necessarily plague. Sure, it’s my fault everyone panicked. I guess.
No, it is my fault they panicked.
Which means… it’s my fault they burned the camp. They were burning it to keep all the plaguers away. It’s my fault the camp burned.
A new wave of guilt washes over me. I hold back a sob. It won’t do any good now. Just watch the dead.
“That’s why I’m here,” the plodding voice continues.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because a plague got me sick. He threw his blood at me. And then he hit me until I couldn’t think anymore.”
There is no way.
I tear my eyes from the boy. Beside me, a vacant expression on his face, sits Perrin Fasko, the redcap who tried to arrest me. The redcap I fought against. The redcap I sat beside until someone could find him – or at least I made sure he was still alive.
I never thought about the damage I must have done to his body. But look at him. He doesn’t even recognize that I’m the one who attacked him.
“I don’t want to leave, but I can’t go back to the Pits,” he says. “When I saw you here, I thought I would sit with you.”
Well, you know, awkwardness always makes crushing guilt more livable, right?