Liar, Liar, Tongue on Fire

Perjured tongues were burning tongues—a familiar saying and reality to Pan, who sat on a bench outside the courtroom. The proceedings were a murmur to his ears, a bored hum overridden by the scuff of his shoes across the floor. A shoe nail in one heel had wiggled loose, catching stone, metal to granite with each swing of his legs.

He caught himself and stilled. His legs protested.

No fidgeting, he told them. You know better.

For now, he was unnoticed—anybody’s servant boy in a cloak and cap—as he waited for a yay or nay so he might return home before lamplighters took to the streets. Nearby, guards crowded the courtroom doorway to better hear the judge.

“Done,” one of them said. “A lefty.”

The guard turned to Pan and jerked her thumb toward the courtyard.

“Your job, boy.”

Left it was, out the Farewell Door and into a fenced yard where the public might watch justice delivered. The hanging platform needn’t be bothered with this one, not for perjury. The walkway in front of the main gate sufficed for the man forced to kneel there. Already, a crowd had gathered, children hoisted atop shoulders so they too might gape.

Pan handed a vial to the court’s hand and retreated to the edge of the walkway. The routine that followed was generations old.

A harness held the perjured man’s mouth open, and pliers extended his tongue. Hands grappled. Tears flowed. The court’s hand announced the man’s crimes and invoked the blessing of Nicero, god of justice, while town criers ran off to spread the news.

The groundkeeper, a lanky man always lurking around the yard, stole up beside Pan with a shake of his head.

“Mark my words, boy. This one deserved it.”

Pan remained silent.

“Wait until you see the next one. They reeled in a true horror. Tongue smooth as rose petals.” The man snapped his fingers, drawing Pan’s eyes to his. “Mark me, boy. It’s coming, and you won’t forget it.”

Anxiety curled fingers over Pan’s scalp, and the boy fixed his eyes to the walkway. He could almost ignore the sour whiff of liar acid as the vial’s cork popped free, but never the screams that followed as a single drop fell from bottle to tongue.


The workroom smelled of lizards, a scent Pan could only describe as hay litter and scales oily with musk. Burning juniper did little to mask the stench and incited coughing when the breeze blew inward, but Pan would take coughing over the reek of bile when it came time to harvest liar acid.

A lizard studied him from inside its cage, its eyes as golden as the acid slicking its teeth. A tongue darted out to lick one eye, glossing it. It gleamed like the rosin Pan melted to protect corks when bottling liar acid.

Acid and gloss. Juniper and musk. Pan hadn’t liked any of it at first, but he was an expert caretaker now and so very fortunate.

“Feathers,” he told Lilac, one of the lizards. “I have a mattress with real feathers. No hay. No make-yourself-a-pallet before the older boys take all the blankets. I told you all about that. And how they stole tongs from the fireplace and made us fight.”

How they’d pushed him to the back of the line whenever guests had come to size up orphans for manual labor or apprenticeships.

He smiled at Lilac. The lizards never complained about his chattering or keeping him company. Sometimes, he fancied they might thank him for the charcoal landscapes he drew for their cages, the sketches detailed down to pebbles and leaves.

Mistress swept into the room, her words brisk.

“Clean the floors. Change hay. Feed the lizards.”

Pan wrote each sentence on the room’s chalkboard, and would cross each one out as he completed tasks. Illiterate as he was, he’d memorized the roster of commands back when Mistress had been the one writing them down, and could rearrange the sentences at will.

“Good,” Mistress said. “Very good. Handwriting says a lot about a person. Funny you slant your L’s the same way. It means we’re clever, according to the quill experts!”

Mistress grinned and handed him a bowl of porridge.

“Of course,” the woman said. “Quill analysis is probably all nonsense. Self-congratulatory nonsense. How was yesterday?”

“Gimper refused to eat his crickets and berries. Not strange, I guess. He’s been moody. I think he’s angry at Sage. Lots of hissing. And I stepped in a puddle when I went to court. Sorry about that, ma’am. I scrubbed my shoes. Not a speck of mud inside, and—”

Pan clamped his mouth over a spoonful of porridge as Mistress’s grin widened. It couldn’t be helped. He had to cram a day’s worth of talking into breakfast before the woman disappeared to the library and her inkwell.

“How did this last one lie to the court?” Mistress asked. “You never say.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”

“But he was guilty.”

“Yes, ma’am. I guess so.”

“You guess so? You’ve no curiosity?”

Sometimes, the way Mistress stared, Pan worried the woman was matching puzzle pieces and would realize her servant didn’t always know what silent nods otherwise implied. That wasn’t lying though. No, no, no. Lies were falsehoods, not silence.

“What if they did nothing wrong?” Pan asked.

“That’s for the court to decide, not us.”

“What if they lied for a good reason or because they had to?”

“And if you found out they’d lied to protect a murderer? Wouldn’t that make your task easier?”

“I guess so. The groundkeeper said the next one’s truly terrible.”

He punctuated the sentence with a shrug.

“Bad form,” Mistress corrected. Pan straightened. “There. Now, tell me what’s going on in that head of yours that you’re pretending to be so dull.”

“Well, ma’am, in the place before here, there was a boy who collected eggs, and one time, he tripped and broke them. No one got their egg for breakfast, and if the other boys in the bunkhouse heard that, they’d have kicked him black and blue. So he said a hen knocked the basket over.”

“I see. But this boy—some other boy—told you the truth, because he knew you wouldn’t kick him, hmm?”

Pan plopped a dollop of porridge onto his tongue, all mush like any words he might have mustered, and Mistress tilted her head.

“Well,” the woman said. “Not all lies are illegal. This boy didn’t lie to the court or some other authority, and I imagine no harm came of it. Surely you remember the first time at court, when I went with you. The accused man had lied about killing a girl, and then nearly got another man executed for it.”

“I don’t remember that bit, ma’am. They said loneliness made him mad.”

“Something made him mad. He murdered her, testified against an innocent man, and then seemed to believe his own lies. That’s madness of a kind.”

Sometimes, family or friends waited to comfort and take the punished home, assuming the offense had been no worse than perjury. No one had so much as waved at that man between the acid and hanging. That detail, Pan recalled perfectly.

Mistress ran fingers along the table edge as though turning one of pages where she found all of life’s answers.

“Pan, you understand, don’t you? That man lied at court, and it would have hurt someone innocent. Stopping that is justice.”

“Because someone else would suffer.”


“Like that day you came to the bunkhouse, when Selli said my drawing of Sailseam Street was his. If you’d believed him, I’d be gone. I’d be in the quarry hauling rocks.”

Or worse. Perhaps he’d be chiseling and polishing nosebleed rocks, which were famous for both their purple coloring and their effect on workers. Once the nosebleeds started, a worker moved on in a hurry or that was just the beginning.

Mistress chuckled.

“If you were in the quarry, how gorgeous your rock drawings would be. That you draw such realism from memory is astounding. I’m sure the quarry wouldn’t give you honey for your porridge though. A crime, that.”

Pan shifted, his feet scuffing across the floor.

“I guess quarry work isn’t suffering,” he said. “Not like getting the noose. Selli didn’t tell a very bad lie.”

“Oh, now. Hold the reins. Comparison’s not my point.”

“But the man who went mad almost got someone else killed. You said…I see, ma’am.”

“Do you?”

“People who get acid told big lies—serious lies—that could kill other people.”

“The court’s not always on the verge of killing someone. That’s…” Mistress’s fingers tapped together, and she grumbled something about children and simplicity of explanation. “Don’t lie to authority, and no one gets hurt. Let’s put it that way. Justice, as the court words it, gives no preference to circumstance.”


This vial had no name, and what an oddity that was. Mistress labeled each one with cloth and ink, the accused’s name noted for all to see. If the accused were found innocent, the vial was emptied onto the courtyard’s walkway so the public might watch acid hiss and bubble on a stone long since warped.

No name. Odd.

Pan turned the vial over and over in his hands, curious when pounding erupted in the courtroom. He saw nothing of the uproar from his bench, but guards at the doorway chattered.

“The black hound would drag her to the void himself!”

“They never found the body, so how do they know she lied?”

“That’s right, you lump. No body. Only hands. She’d be hanging if there were more. She’s lucky she’s only a beggar and only caught in a lie.”

“You believe that beggar rubbish? Look at her staring down her nose at everyone.”

“No one knows who she is! She’s a right banshee out of greytales.”

Pan swung his legs, nail to granite, and leaned forward. He remembered the groundkeeper’s warning about a horror coming to court.

Maybe Mistress was right. Maybe some people deserved acid for serious lies, but liar acid was no less cruel, and little lies couldn’t warrant such punishment. How lies were then measured, Pan didn’t know. His thoughts swirled with the acid, certain of one truth: acid was for people lying upward. Upward lies—lies to authority—were the dangerous ones that could hurt other people.

“Boy. You there. Get back.”

He hurried aside as the accused entered the corridor, and expected to see a monster. Instead, he gasped and clutched the vial of liar acid.

A grandmother! An ancient woman with white and gray hair bound away from a narrow face. Her wrists were nearly thin enough to slip through her shackles, and the tear troughs beneath her eyes were collecting just that. When her gaze caught Pan’s, understanding clenched his heart. He knew that storming of fear and bewilderment—a search for anyone who might help, and how the desperation there might make a person do or say anything. This was why he never looked at their faces.

A clap of commotion carried the woman from sight, but not to the courtyard. Pan dallied, followed, and paused in the doorway. The woman was in a holding cell, a guard stationed outside the room while the others rushed about with unusual urgency. Such a change in routine, and each click of their heels growing distant tapped Pan’s pulse.

What to do? Where to wait? He looked between the holding cell and the guard’s back.


The grandmother’s voice was faint.

“Boy, please. They’ve given me no water.”

She moistened her lips, and Pan covered the vial with both hands, ashamed to be seen with it. She looked nothing like a monster, and so weak she might break from a strong wind.

“Are you dumb?” she asked. “Mute?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Water. Please.”

“I can’t.”

Her voice cracked. “Don’t you know thirst?”

Pan hurried from the room, nearly colliding with the guard.

“She wants water, sir.”

“I don’t care what she wants. Go—” The guard bit off the word, eyes fixed on Pan’s shaking hands. He marched Pan down the hallway with gruff words: “You can get water over there, if you’re so daft-hearted. Be quick. We’re only waiting on the captain.”

Pan stared at the fountain. He hadn’t intended to personally retrieve water. He looked to the guard, who scoffed.

“Don’t you dare cry on me.”

The man walked away, and Pan searched for a cup or vessel. He still hadn’t found one when hands seized and spun him around. The guard had returned.

“Little pisser! Did you help her?”

Her? The grandmother?

“Boy, speak up.”

“Water, sir. I was getting water.”

“I have eyes. Were you trying to help her?”

Was retrieving water wrong? Was that punishable? Pan sealed his mouth and shook his head, saved by a calmer guard’s intervention.

“Stop harassing the child. You can’t seriously think he was distracting you so she could escape.”

“But he—!”

“You left your post. Leave him.”

Pan’s feet hammered down the corridor, passing the room where the grandmother had been held. Guards dallied there, flourishing a piece of metal and squabbling over where the woman had hidden it.

“We searched her. We didn’t find no lock pick.”

“And her hair? Don’t tell me it was bound up on its own!”

Pan shot from the building, lickety-split over cobblestones until he gained distance. He stood at the corner with eyes fixed on the courthouse, waiting for a guard to appear and call him back, but he was again beneath notice. He couldn’t recall anyone ever escaping from the courthouse.

Mistress had a peculiar way of describing unexplained twists of fate: gods and weights. Nicero sometimes balanced the scales of judgment to his own satisfaction, like that time Petals had disappeared after Mistress declared killing the aged lizard the most merciful course. Petals had turned up weeks later, having gorged herself on the rats troubling their pantry, and earned herself two more years and the most elaborate of charcoal drawings for her cage. Maybe the court didn’t always measure serious and little lies correctly, in which case, Nicero intervened as the higher authority.

That, Pan decided, seemed the right order of things.

He traversed backstreets to an empty house and lizards. For once, the silence was welcome. The workroom was undisturbed, and a smoldering lump of juniper was quickly stoked back to flame. The crackling twigs, he later blamed, prevented him from hearing the door open behind him.


He stared at Sage, thinking the lizard had finally spoken. He didn’t know whether to be happy or terrified by that.

“Boy, please.”

The grandmother stood at the door.

“No,” Pan whispered, and louder: “You can’t be here. Why are you here?”

“I have no family. No friends. No home. You’re the only one who’s shown me kindness, and they’ll make a racket soon—have every leper and rat looking for me. Please. Hide me today, and Nicero will remember your good deed for eternity.”

Silence afforded him no answer. She ignored his shaking head, even as his back pressed against the cages as though he might join the lizards in their safe observation of the world. If his existence were forever unnoticed, he might at least be sheltered.

“Boy, I’m not trying to frighten you. This smell…” The woman motioned at herself. “I was hiding among rubbish baskets in the alley. I’m not spry enough to outrun an entire guardhouse. I had nowhere to go and could draw no attention to myself, and then you passed, like the Journeyman’s evening star, to give me hope. You know all the backstreets and how to go about unseen, don’t you?”

“Ma’am, you really shouldn’t be here.”

“What is your name? Let me thank you by name.”


“A nice name.” Her face softened, voice gentle. “I promise not to hurt you. One day, Pan?”

Without an answer, she inspected the storage closet, so near him he could count the buttons on her dress. It was a thud that broke him from immobility, and he bent to retrieve the item that had fallen from her pocket: a signet ring marked by a patterned shield and mountains capped in snow. It was surely a family crest, and an old one since such rings distinguished nobility.

“Is this real gold?” he asked.

The woman plucked the ring from his hands with a sneer.

“Mine. Don’t touch what isn’t yours.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“You’ll forget you ever saw it.”

Pan shrank back. The woman sighed and fluttered a hand.

“Apologies, Pan. I shall be there, behind those boxes. It is the nicest home I’ll have known for some time, and even with no company, that’s better than bad company. Or,” she said with a half-laugh, “company that doesn’t want you. I know you’ll do the right thing. I sense the goodness in you.”

She disappeared into the closet, swallowed by its darkness. For the rest of the day, Pan felt her constant attention to his every move.


Pan stood at the chalkboard, writing Mistress’s orders in the early morning light. The woman fiddled with a window latch.

“Rust,” Mistress said. “I guess it’s been a few years. A decade? These haven’t been cleaned since before your arrival. Add that to the list. Clean the latches.”

Latches? L? The straight letter with a foot?

Pan stared at the woman’s back, chalk frozen against slate.

“There must be something for rust,” Mistress continued. “Maybe…”


Pan hadn’t the courage to look up. He stared at the floor as he spoke.

“The chalk fell somewhere, ma’am.”

“Well, leave it. There’s more in the closet.”

Yes, the closet where she had gone. Pan stared at the half-open door and then a bowl of burning juniper. Someone had broken and added thick pieces of wood to the embers last night, and as far as he could tell, had done so without the pliers boxed on a nearby shelf. The grandmother must have done it, but she looked too frail.

“Pan. Pan?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m afraid that, scholar as I am, I have no expertise with rust.”

“Maybe vinegar, ma’am. I can try that.”

He studied the empty chalkboard with a knot in his stomach. He couldn’t go back to the bunkhouse, and he couldn’t go to the quarry. He must make the right decisions by Mistress and keep in her graces.

His gaze again jumped to the closet.

“Ma’am, I think lemon helps. They might be selling them this season when ships come in.”

“Brilliant. I’ll leave you to it. Ah, and here’s some more parchment. I snagged it from the burn basket.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“I look forward to your next creation!”

But Pan knew there would be no drawing today. He hadn’t the concentration for it as Mistress organized her satchel. Perhaps the grandmother had departed. Perhaps not. Pan latched the door behind Mistress and tiptoed toward the closet.

“There’s no need to sneak,” a voice called. “I know it’s only you coming and going with that loose nail in your shoe.”

The grandmother peeked from behind the boxes.

“Good morning, Pan. Are you well?”

“I’m alright, ma’am. You…you said you were leaving?”

She flexed her fingers and stood too close, but what could such an old, withered person do? She hunched to his eye level.

“Write me a letter, sweet young man. Take it to my friend so he might have a carriage waiting, and I will leave.”

“Can’t you write it, ma’am?”

“My hands ache. The bones, Pan. I can’t hold a quill anymore.”

She stared, and there was a prying to it like the lizards, unhurried but catching every detail down to the bob of his throat as he swallowed.

“No letter?” she asked. “That’s alright. I thought that might be the case, and there’s no shame in it.”

“I’m not stupid,” Pan murmured. “I have a good memory. I can write in my own way.”


It wasn’t a lie! He sputtered, words bouncing off teeth and gums.

“Hush now,” she said. “Your falsehoods are safe with me.”

A secret knowing creased into wrinkles when she smiled.

“Don’t pout. I’m sure you pretended as needed to convince the mistress to take you in. A scholar like her could easily find a more educated servant, and letters are rather basic.” Face red, Pan looked to the floor. “Oh, dear child, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. We all do what we must to survive. If I had to do something horrible to keep my roof instead of living on the streets, I wouldn’t think twice.”

“You’re a beggar.” Didn’t she already live on the streets? “Sorry, ma’am. That was rude.”

“Oh, you are sweet. Look at me.”

He did and marveled at how gentle her words were when her face was chiseled from stone.

“What good is honesty if you’re homeless or dead?” she asked.

“If you’re not honest and people find out, they get angry.”

“That’s why you’re going to keep my secret. It’s why we’ll both keep quiet. Are you good at being quiet?”


She glanced at a drawing he’d left out, considering it, and then smiled at him.

“Yes,” she said. “I think you’re very good at it. Quietly drawing and keeping to yourself. Listen to my promise now. I shall leave tonight, but I’ll need your help with the backstreets. I need a route unseen to the north gate.”

“That’s easy, ma’am. No one walks along Washerwomen Canal at night. There’s a bunkhouse there, near the gate, for orphan boys, but they’ll be locked inside.”

“Perfect. Tonight then.”

But that wasn’t good enough. He must run and fetch the guards, and he must do it now before they dragged him to court and accused him of plotting with this woman, however innocent or guilty she might be. He couldn’t know these things as surely as Nicero. Perhaps he already counted as lying upward for not telling Mistress of the woman’s presence. But then, he was misleading an elder as well now by betraying a grandmother’s trust, wasn’t he? Whether Mistress had higher authority as a scholar, or whether age held sway, he didn’t know.

His stomach clenched, ever closer to vomiting. She’d promised to keep quiet, just like him, and that had always worked. Maybe she had also come from a bunkhouse. Maybe her tongue was stuck in trouble no matter how good she wanted to be. Maybe. Maybe. And she was so old!

But the court demanded words, and if she had lied to the court, it meant dangerous lies. That was the difference, he thought. That’s why the groundkeeper had called her a horror. Perjury meant serious lies that could kill other people. If he told the truth, he wouldn’t be hurt, and no one would suffer for her perjury either.

His heart pounded. He couldn’t let the old woman know he was up to something.

“I’ll be back, ma’am. I need to get lemons for the rust.”

Which was true. He told himself this repeatedly. With the court a higher authority than Mistress and the grandmother, speaking up might wash away all of his little lies as well, even the silent ones, in case they counted.

He found and led guards to the house, so very anxious about having their undivided attention. That anxiety swelled as they stormed the closet with demands of surrender, but there was no reply. The closet was empty.

“She was here,” Pan said. “I swear it. I do. She had a signet ring with mountains. I saw it!”

The guards searched the house, and Pan huddled in the workroom, listening to their boots plod this way and that overhead. Furniture scraped across the floor, but she wouldn’t be upstairs. It dawned on him that there was only one place she might be so hidden, if still present: behind the cages and all those beautiful landscapes he’d drawn. If the lizards knew, they kept their silence, never lying nor helping. He’d learned the art of stillness from them after all.

“Sage?” he called. “ Gimper? Lilac?”

He squatted to better see around them, and an eye of brown, not gold, peered between a crack.

The cages scattered aside, and the woman shoved Pan against the table, one hand on his throat, the other squeezing his nostrils shut.

“You’ll never tell anyone my secrets,” she said.

He gasped for air, and that was all the opening she needed to upend a vial of acid into his mouth. Bubble. Pop. Blistering pain drew darkness ever closer, a burn that consumed every thought, and for what, Pan wanted to scream. What secrets of hers did he have to tell? He’d done the right thing by telling the truth.

Tears stained his cheeks but couldn’t douse the burn or scent of ruined flesh, and that’s how the guards found him: a boy wailing and sucking water from a lizard’s dish, his awareness spiraling ever deeper into an abyss. He pounded a guard’s chest and willed the person to understand that he hadn’t lied—that the grandmother had been in the house!—but the only sound to emerge was a whimper.


The crowd swelled. The street sighed. A hundred faces pressed closer to the fence as a woman knelt, her manacles scraping granite. First would come the burning, and as the harness pulled at her face, tugging her mouth wide, her eyes found a servant boy in his cloak and cap, only now the cloak had been re-hemmed and dangled an inch shorter than it once had.

Ilnia Winslen, the crowd murmured, the last of her bloodline, parading as a beggar to commit murder and dispose of the body, piece by piece.

A noblewoman in disguise, they cooed, never suspected by anyone until the guards had captured her at the family’s countryside estate. How they’d identified her as the beggar sentenced on perjury charges, no one knew.

Pan stood at the edge of the walkway. No friends or family waited to hug the woman, and whatever wealth she’d gained from that ill-fated murder had barely kept meat on her bones. She would have died, he thought, even if the guards hadn’t found her hunkered down in that vacant estate, talking to statues and beetles or whatever suited, but none of that mattered.

He felt more alone than ever surrounded by the public’s jeers. The stench of their enthusiasm would take days to scrub clean, and as Ilnia stared at him instead of the crowd, her eyes sparked. If anyone, she thought of the ruined flesh behind his teeth.

The court’s hand read her crimes. There was no mention of the lies she’d told a servant boy.

As she watched, Pan raised his hands and pretended to slip on a ring. Realization flashed vibrant across her face, another secret she could keep. Tied around the vial of liar acid was a perfectly drawn family crest of a patterned shield with mountains capped in snow.

The groundkeeper appeared at Pan’s side.

“This one,” the man said, clucking his tongue. “This one deserves it, don’t you think?”

Pan didn’t answer.


Pan watched acid well up along the vial’s lip, and made no sound or movement. Silence, after all, was golden.