It has been three months since. The healer tells me that the fire did not kill me as quickly as it could have. I was the first in: I was the first out. Perhaps this kept me alive over the others. There is hope for a greater life, meaning for greater things.
"Perhaps this is destiny," she tells me. "Even now, you smell of wood-fire."
She smiles again, and dresses my skin in common ritual. I watch as her bare, delicate fingers stroke her lumpy, numbing concoction into gaps where my burned tissue was cut away the first week. She covers these wounds with the cadaver skins and seals them again with the mush.
I have been told they help protect me well from evil spirits as I heal. Perhaps, I think, they summon them to me. I feel nothing but loathing, and it curls in my stomach like a snake.
"Skin from healthy bodies are always best," the healer continues. She prefers to speak in the silence, the sole person I have seen since I woke up screaming. Her manner is soft as it is controlled. Nothing I do sends her away. "Just like your neighbour. His was very healthy."
I know better than to ask. I have spent the weeks in this cell of stone on this bed, my hate ground between my teeth without a word.
There is one other who made it: the man who tried to comfort me, only slightly older than I. He, who fought the guards until he bled screaming that he was tainted, no virgin they required. I stopped hearing him in the hallways after the nights grew quieter and the festivities faded away to the traffic of Capital business.
The day after, she came with a new skin for mine.
What I permit her of my body, the healer now methodically wraps in white bandages, murmuring language I do not understand under her breath. Over this, she redresses me carefully in finery today, instead of the usual robes. Silks I cannot feel slide against my scorched, still healing flesh. She adorns me with gold hoops around my right wrist, and an armband around my left upper-arm. A chain necklace is loosely looped several times around my neck.
The healer dips her fingers in a bowl of water, and writes too many characters on my forehead to decipher.
"You travel to the next world today," the healer tells me, when she is finished. "I have prepared something your stomach can take that will warm your belly."
She sits me up from my hard-wooden bed, and has me swing my feet onto the hard, dry earth, before she disposes of my bandages on the first tray she brought with her.
One large sleeve is folded back as she elegantly slides a hand back into the air. She reaches for the second wooden tray, upon which sits a beautiful china bowl, a flat-bottom spoon, and a clay pot with ladle, smelling of soup.
It is unfamiliar in scent and appearance to me, but she raises a spoonful to my lips and I drink, closing my eyes so she may guide it into my mouth.
The fire has reshaped my face into something that would likely be unrecognizable. My left arm has been amputated at the elbow and I have lost several fingers in my remaining hand. There is little I can comfortably hold on my own.
I was never vain. I still possess my legs. But I find in myself a weakness of shame, a weakness of anger. A fear. Exhaustion.
Am I so resigned?
"The soup is salty," the healer notes suddenly. The spoon is pulled away. "I will get you a new bowl." She does not mention my tears.
After she returns and I eat, she guides me out of the cell and down the long hallway. The cell where the other man was kept is still wrecked: a body lays there, and the smell is warded away by the spell-work woven into the bricks.
I dry-heave, feet suddenly weak.
A hand settles on my waist. She steers me away.
Outside, sits a small, unmarked wooden palanquin on the ground. The sun has set, and the sky is dark. Unimpressed guards with solemn faces stand at all four extended handrails. It is clear they have been waiting. At our appearance, they turn to her and cup their hands together in a wordless salute.
She returns it, bowing her head low, before she helps me into the palanquin.
The wood is hard underneath me. My body feels stiff, unused. The palanquin is small--meant perhaps for young ladies once upon a time, but in commission now for anything but comfort.
"Be wise," the healer tells me, eyes down, after I have settled. Her hands have slipped into her sleeves.
Before my eyes, she bows low to the ground, forehead pressing against the dirt. When she finishes, she moves to lower the blinds.
It is impersonal. Quick. Efficient.
"Thank you," I manage out, before I can help myself. My voice rasps from underuse.
Her hands still, but she isn't looking at me. The more I look at her, the more I can see: her eyes are teary, and her lip trembles.
My fingers grasp suddenly at her sleeve, in desperate, desperate fear. "Please," I rasp out, "can't you--"
She pulls away, without looking at me, and runs back into the building. The skirts of her robes flying at her ankles is the last thing I see before the blinds stumble down.
It is like this that the guards take me away to the bonfire, this time, lit by the Beast's fire. It is easy to tell what it is, unlike the fire of Men. When they burn me this time, I am merely numb.