“They are upon us.” There is no drama in her voice. It’s hardly needed. We all know that the siege is ending, that they will break through our walls any time now. Sanisia didn’t call us here just to give us the news that our world is about to be destroyed, because it’s not news.
Everyone is here. Thousands and thousands of people, everyone I’ve ever known or seen or walked past in the street without noticing, watching Sanisia. A few look terrified or desperate, but too many have that horrible blank you get when you’re past even despair. They’ve given up, we’ve given up. There’s nothing we can do anymore, even I know that, but somehow I feel they should at least be hoping for a miracle. There’s no point to it; they’re being realistic and I’m not, but maybe, just maybe… Sanisia could have a plan. She doesn’t need to tell us what we already know, but maybe there’s something we don’t know. Even as the thought begins to flash through my mind, I see that her face is blank as anyone’s.
“Any time now, they will bring down our walls. The lucky among us will be killed. I don’t need to say what will happen to the survivors.” So of course, we’re all imagining the worst things we can think of. Surely it can’t happen, it just can’t. Miracles happen, right? Or, well, one could happen, anyway. It has to. This just can’t happen.
“So there must not be any survivors,” Sanisia continues. I don’t understand her, at first. We don’t want survivors? But that means we want to die, and we don’t! I know we can’t fight the invading army, but shouldn’t we at least try? Or try yet again to surrender? Or, I don’t know, just not die yet?
“My people,” Sanisia says, and a tear rolls down her face. “I’ve let you down. The only thing left I can do is give you a choice. A choice between a fate worse than death, and death, a quick painless death. We can watch our children hacked to pieces before your eyes, or we can give them a few sips of liquid and let them go softly into eternal sleep. We can live in torment as captives, or we can die peacefully and go onto a better world. I know which I chose.” She gestures towards a row of enormous vats. “There’s enough for all of us. It only takes a few drops. I’m sorry this is all I can give you.” Tears stream down her face as she takes a cup from a pile next to the vats, fills it with liquid, and pours it down her throat.
She dies quickly, and quietly. One moment she’s standing before us, and the next she’s dead on the ground.
The crowd rushes towards her. No, not towards her, I realize in horror, but towards the vats. Those at the front of the crowd are already following Sanisia’s example, and everyone I can see seems to be merely waiting their turn.
There’s not going to be a miracle. Everyone’s going to die, me included. Better to make it easy on myself and drink the poison. I know that. The flow of people pushes me towards the vats. It’s not like I have a choice, do I? Everyone, everyone around me is drinking from the vats. The cups are mismatched, as if Sanisia told someone to bring as many cups as they could get, and they brought whatever they could get. Somehow that makes me laugh. It’s not funny, but I laugh and laugh and suddenly stop laughing and don’t understand why I ever had been.
I see Iha, whose children I watch for her sometimes, give them each a sip of liquid from a mug with a broken handle, then swallow the rest herself. They all drop dead. The mug falls to the ground and breaks in two. The ground around me is littered with dead people and broken cups, more of each joining every minute. The cups that manage to survive the fall are snatched up by people eager to die.
“Piromee,” I hear my name, and look around. It’s Halica, my best friend. She’s holding a silver goblet and a wineglass. “Let’s drink together.”
“I don’t think I want to,” I say, unsure.
“Look, I’m scared too, but think how much worse it would be if we were surrounded by swords about to slash through us. At least this way is easier, and among our own people, and by choice. And we can do it together.”
I don’t know if I am scared. I should be. My people are dying, and I’m about to die, and the enemy is going to break through the wall and slaughter whoever’s left any time now. I was scared, when I came out here earlier, but now I don’t even remember how to be. It’s not that I hope for a miracle anymore. It’s too late for that now. And Halica’s right. We’ll die together. That’s how it should be.
“Okay,” I say. My voice shakes, so I think maybe I am scared. Halica offers me a cup. I take the wineglass, and we fill them with the poison. It’s clear, and it smells sweet.
“On three,” says Halica. I nod, and we count together. “One. Two. Three.” We both lift the cups to our lips.
Halica’s faster than me, more sure of her decision, maybe, and she’s swallowed the liquid before my glass is even level with my mouth. I mean to drink it, I meant to drink it, but I just can’t. Halica crumbles to the ground. I stare at the poison, willing myself to down it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I pour it out over Halica’s body.
All around me, the ground is piled thick with bodies. The only people still standing are crowded around the vats, waiting for the chance to drink.
I walk away. I don’t want to watch anyone else die. I walk through empty streets until I have to stop because of the wall. I haven’t been here for a while. We’re told to stay away, in case we’re crushed when it falls. Like that matters now. The cracks from the enemy’s battering rams are huge now. I’m surprised it’s still standing. It won’t be for long.
I throw the empty wineglass against it. It’s not like the one more little impact would do anything to the wall. I don’t want to be here, either, so I turn around and walk back.
Everyone’s dead. Where there’d been a crowd of people, there’s only bodies. I tell myself that it can’t be everyone, that some people must have decided to take their chances with the army. Maybe they went home. Maybe some people never even came at all, never heard Sanisia speak, don’t even know what’s happened. I run through the streets, screaming for anyone to come out. I bang on doors and open the ones that aren’t locked and shout and yell. I think I do this for hours, until my hands are bloody from banging on doors and my voice is nearly gone. There’s no one else left. Just me.
I hear the battering ram at the wall again. I don’t know how long it’s been going on for. It’s loud, but I’m used to blocking it out by now. Why doesn’t the wall collapse yet? There’s nothing to protect anymore, and I don’t want to just wait, alone in a city of corpses. Anything would be better than that.
There’s still poison left. I could change my mind, and the idea is tempting. But I don’t want to, and I don’t want to think about it. Why can’t they just invade and get it over with already? Then at least I’d know I’m not the only person alive in the world.
I go to the city gates. They’re strong and thick and barred firmly. It takes all my strength to pull down the bars. I feel traitorous doing this, but there’s no one to betray anymore.
Finally the gate is unbarred and I pull it open.
The invading army is camped outside, of course. I knew that. They’re not expecting much to happen, except maybe for their battering ram to finally break through the wall, and that’s on the other side of the city. They don’t seem to be doing much at all. The group nearest the gate is playing cards. Everyone within eyesight slowly turns towards me. They seem too surprised to do anything, but I they’ll get over it fast, and I’ll be dead any minute now.
“It’s over,” I say.
Some of the soldiers come over. I expect them to kill me, or at least grab me, but they don’t. “What do you mean?”
“Everyone’s dead,” I say, and to my chagrin, burst into tears.
The soldiers look awkward. They’re young, only a few years older than me, and they have no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. I’m the enemy, obviously, but I’m just a single, unarmed, crying girl. One of them has the presence of mind to go off to get a superior. The rest of them just stand around looking confused. “There, there, it’s all right,” one of them tries to comfort me, and this is so ridiculous that my sobs change to hysterical laughter.
I’ve come to my senses by the time the superior officer arrives a few minutes later. He’s older and less confused, or else he hides his confusion better. He questions me, with particular emphasis on whether I’m sure I’m the only one left. Eventually, when I’ve gone over what happened countless times and answered every possible question, he tells me not to go anywhere. “Where would I go?” I ask. The officer just nods, and leaves. A few minutes later, several platoons march into the city.
I don’t have anything to do. I just stand there for a while, until the awkward soldiers invite me to play cards with them. I accept. Sure, they’re the enemy, but, well, they’re the enemy because they were attacking my people and that’s a moot point now. It all seems stupid to me, and I just can’t make myself hate them. So we play cards.
A few hours later, the platoons that went into the city come out. They confirm my story, of course. I guess there’re all kinds of meetings for the army to decide what to do now. I don’t know anything about them. Nobody seems to be sure about what my position is. I doubt they’ll kill me. They could, but it just doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. If they’d invaded the city they would have taken captives, but there’s not much point in having just one prisoner. They all seem rather embarrassed about the whole thing anyway. I eat with the soldiers, and at night someone sets up a spare tent for me. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep, after everything. It was only this morning that I was standing wondering what Sanisia would say, hoping for a miracle. Now I wonder if maybe I got one, and then feel guilty for thinking it. But I’m not dead.
Everyone else is, though. I cry myself to sleep.
I’m woken up by loud noises early the next morning. Everyone’s packing, bags and tents and weapons. “We’re leaving,” says Jarth. He was the soldier who tried to tell me it was alright. “They’re keeping some troops in the city to get it cleaned up and figure out what to do with it, but the rest of us are going home.”
“What about me?” I say.
He shrugs. “I think everyone pretty much figures you’re coming with us.”
“I don’t have anywhere better to go,” I agree.
I go back into the city, to pack a bag and just to see it one last time. There’re soldiers burying the bodies. I don’t go to say goodbye to anyone. They’re dead now, and I don’t want to see the bodies again. I take a few things from home, but feel no connection to the place itself. It’s dead now.
I try to avert my gaze as I walk back past the soldiers burying corpses, but I don’t want to trip over a body, either, so I have to look. My eyes fall on Halica’s body. I could be next to her, but I’m not. I could have died with them, but I didn’t.
I don’t regret it.