Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
“YOU DON’T HAVE to prove anything, Princess. Even the gods fear me. How much less are you?” Avestine nodded for the guards to release the woman. “I’ve done what my father couldn’t. What no man has done in five generations.” She pulled the leather tie from her queue of blonde hair and tossed it to the table. “And now, I’m going to do what no man has ever done to you.”
“I’m not afraid to die.” Anya stood a little straighter.
“Oh, I’m not going to kill you.”
Anya took a step backward, but Avestine reclaimed the step and took a few more, coming closer, crowding her.
When Anya tried to run, Avestine trapped her, pressing her against the cold marble wall. She groped her thighs and kissed her cheek.
“You’re afraid,” Avestine whispered. “All that matters is what you’re going to do about it. Your father believed in his gods. I think you’re smarter. Believe in me.”
Avestine kissed the defiant lips and smiled. She returned Anya to the guards and ordered her escorted to the harem.
When she was alone, Avestine sat at the table that had belonged to Stede’s king before she had put his head on a pike. That was two days ago. Two days ago, when the world seemed a much larger place. Two days ago, when death was probable and prophesies unlikely. She mulled over decisions and considered likely futures.
Sometime later, a knock startled her from her scheming.
“Coth’s Balls!” She stood as Rook entered the room. “Where have you been?”
Rook’s shaggy hair swung into his eyes. “Delivering your orders to the legates.”
“It took all this time? Was there trouble?”
“As you expected.” He acknowledged her insight with a nod. “They said they didn’t have to follow orders delivered by a boy.”
Although he regarded her with his implacable blue gaze, Avestine sensed his pleasure in that inner space they shared by virtue of her destiny and his service to it. He enjoyed the game with the legates as much as she did—testing the arrogance of men who usually took commands from an emperor.
She would have enjoyed seeing their bluster when a boy with no title—or hands—delivered unwelcome orders from a girl the commanders thought had no business being in control of twelve thousand men.
“So tell me…are they building the wall, or do I need to go to them myself?”
“With your usual prescience, you had the legates meeting where they could see the pike. I reminded them what happened to the last man who didn’t take you seriously.”
Rook continued, “The city gates are secured, but scouts iceward saw the remainder of the cavalry riding along the shore of the Gasjamey. Probably heading to Annulinia.”
“No, they’ll cut through the Nomad lands to Marhash and skirt Annulinia. They won’t find an ally at Trushin’s court, but the rebels in Marhash will be eager to take them in. Common cause against my father.”
“What does the Architect have to fear from Marhash?”
“Ha! You shouldn’t believe everything you hear from the imperial tribunes.” She paused to allow the insult a moment to settle. Rook had been her personal servant since they were both children. He was knowledgeable of all that happened within the imperial family, yet he lacked political instincts.
Even the hint of innocence irritated her, especially from a man whose purpose in life was preserving her life.
“Despite my father’s propaganda,” she continued, “the rebels were far from routed. Now, like new wine, the angry soldiers will have them drinking in dreams of revolution.”
Rook nodded slowly, his curious mind probing into the hollow of hers.
She didn’t like his presumption. “What are you staring at?”
“You’re not celebrating. I thought I’d find the princess naked.”
Avestine sneered and sat back down. “I sent her to the harem. A little humiliation should temper her attitude.”
“But you like attitude.”
She called for whiskey, and a serving girl arrived.
Rook sat down and took a cup between his wrists. Despite his lack of hands, he managed to drink using his studded leather wrist covers to grip. “I recall your immense pleasure when you deflowered that smug priestess with a bottle. And what about your brother’s concubine? She tried to kill you for what you did to her.”
Avestine spit out a little whiskey as she laughed. “Oh, she wasn’t complaining when my tongue was in her.”
Avestine felt his cool eyes accusing her. “She got what she deserved.” A memory hit hard. She frowned. “In the end, we all do.” When she looked back at Rook, she saw regret. Or something worse. “Don’t pity me.”
“Never, Your Grace.”
She seized his tunic with an angry hand. “That’s right, you shit.” She shoved him away, but a slow fire was warming her blood. She felt his rapid pulse as if it were her own. Her eyes narrowed. “You better make it worth my time.”
She stripped off her tunic and trousers and watched as he struggled to remove his clothes. He had been handless since he was twelve. Even after ten years of practice, dressing and undressing was difficult for him.
She didn’t take pleasure in his difficulty. It was merely a fact. An Essanti warrior’s hands were the price for his power. What Rook lacked in martial prowess, he compensated for with his spiritual gift. In the same way, what he lacked in appeal to a woman who preferred her sex soft and wet, he compensated for with patient devotion.
“You didn’t kill anyone in the final assault,” Avestine said as she sat down on the bed.
“You didn’t need my help.” He worked on untying his trouser laces. “Your soldiers were adequate. And your strategy—that was brilliant.”
“What kind of king was he? A cowardly pig! Sending women and children from the city.”
“He didn’t have enough food.”
“Why would he think I wouldn’t slaughter them like sheep the minute he sent them through the gate?”
“Then the city would have hated you more and fought you harder. No, he was clever, but you were more so. You let the families starve on the plain while their fathers and husbands watched from the city walls. The city’s army was demoralized. Even the legates were shocked. One day, your name will be feared more than your father’s.”
“No. The Architect—not his daughter—will be on the lips of the generations. This is his vision, not mine.”
“Defeating Stede was your vision. He gave you the Black Tide, and you’ve turned it into the best legion in the empire. What will you do with it now?”
She thought for a long moment. Finally, she sighed. “What my father tells me.”
“No, Your Grace.” Rook shook his head. “Your father can’t live forever, and your brother is nothing to worry about.”
Rook was naked now. He lay down on the bed and Avestine mounted him.
With her nimble hips, she scooped his meaty erection inside. It soothed her ache. Bracing her hands on his shoulders, she rode with eyes closed. Rook pressed his forearms against her thighs.
She groaned, giddy from the pressure inside as she churned her hips around his heat. She sensed him close to climax and stopped moving. A warning glare from her had him glancing away. She allowed him one still moment before she began to ride again, more quickly this time as her wetness stole much of the sensation.
Her thoughts drifted to distant memories of innocent eyes wide with fear, of spread legs and bare skin wet with excitement. She recalled Anya’s halting breath and her trembling shoulders. She imagined Anya’s moment of submission like the many women before. She rode faster. Her lust-choked thoughts drifted through the images of domination that were essential to her arousal.
Pleasure erupted from between her legs. She cried out, her body clenching. Ecstasy radiated downward through her legs and up through her neck in waves that rolled on-and-on. After they diminished, she fell forward. Pleasure left in shivers.
She rolled off Rook and studied his lethargy. His mouth was open. His chest rose more slowly with each breath as he surrendered to oblivion. She found him a curiosity in these post-coital moments, when he was empty of passion. It was a feeling she had never known.
Her evaporating sweat began to chill her, so she wrapped a blanket around herself. She shook him awake and dismissed him. When she was alone, peace remained elusive.
She told herself she had done it, what her father had failed to do, what the legates said no one could do. She had surpassed her father in every way. She was more ruthless, more commanding. Her father—King of the Dark Three, Architect of Darklaw and Emperor of the Sahr, Emissary and Beloved of Arujan—had failed for five years to capture a strategic city that she conquered in three months. In command of three legions, she had taken the kingdom of Stede, capitol of the Khaimeign and passageway into a wilderness with secrets even the gods had yet to uncover.
But the war was only the most recent of her triumphs. Her father had given her this chance because she had already triumphed over every decent and defiant impulse he had aroused in her.
She had proven herself more loyal than the legates. She had proven herself more ambitious than her brother. She had proven herself superior even to the gods, who had surrendered to the first princes of Sahrdon. Now, one thousand years later, they wore the yolk of Darklaw, and one day soon, those reins would be in her hands.