Hold Fast the Reins – Episode 2

Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017

AVESTINE AWOKE AS warm skin rubbed against her. She rolled onto her back, and her chambermaid climbed on top of her. The small, naked body slid between her arms. Soft breasts pressed against her own firmer chest. The hot mouth was hungry.

Avestine wrapped her arms around Lucina and kissed her, indulging her favorite servant, a slave captured when Darklaw extended its dominion into the Demon Quarter. Lucina never spoke. She was the only person Avestine never felt the desire to hurt, except in those erotic moments when the line between pain and pleasure vanished in the flames.

Lucina’s hair was like silk on her skin. Avestine reached her hand between Lucina’s legs, cupping her palm around the patch of fur and poking her fingers through the tangle to touch the dampness. Lucina rolled her hips. Working Avestine’s fingers deeper, she began to ride.

Avestine braced the back of her hand against her own thigh and stroked Lucina’s inner wall. “That’s it,” she whispered. “Ride it.”

Lucina grunted with each descent. She panted hotly on Avestine’s cheek. Avestine’s desire grew with every racing heartbeat, with every drip that spilled onto her palm. The scent made her feel a little crazy, made her mean. “You like it rough, don’t you?” Avestine’s hand dug deeper.

Lucina whimpered.

Avestine pushed Lucina onto her back and fell on her. She bit her lip, sucked her throat, and squeezed her breasts with rough hands. She tugged on a nipple, pulling hard until Lucina whined. Then she grasped Lucina’s thighs and spread them apart. She buried her face in skin so slick she had difficulty keeping her lips on the fat little clitoris. Lucina squirmed and squealed with pleasure until she climaxed with a weary moan.

Avestine left the bed and sat down at the table. Her serving girl was pouring her whiskey when Lucina knelt on the floor beside her chair. Scooting her chair around, Avestine sat back and spread her legs. “If everyone were as obedient as you, Luci, being a god wouldn’t be so hard.”

She lost her breath as Lucina’s mouth descended on her intimate flesh. “You know what I like.” She groaned and tightened her grip on Lucina’s hair as she began to rock. As her body reached out for ecstasy, the smell of smoke greeted her.

Smoke. The thought confused her for a moment. She pushed Lucina away and shook off the fog of pleasure.

Fire. The palace was on fire. She kicked her chair away. She tossed on a tunic that fell halfway down her thighs and raised her sword from its rest beside her bed. The door opened with her guards looking wild-eyed. Rook was behind them.

“The entire wing.” Rook coughed.

Avestine shoved her serving girl into Lucina’s arms. “Get the servants out of here. Out of the palace, the back way, into the courtyard.” She started from the room, saying to Rook, “Heron warned me that some of Stede’s soldiers hid in the city when we took the palace.”

“You think this is an attack?”

“They’ll be expecting us to put out the fire. They’ll come at our backs. We’re going to greet them.”

“What about the fire?”

“Let it burn.”

He looked her over as she left the room. “And the rest of your clothes?” But Avestine had already raced from the room.

Darklaw soldiers abandoned their posts and followed Avestine until she had a force of twenty men. Past the middle of the palace, beyond the great throne room, they met an assembly of servants. Naturally suspicious, Avestine paused long enough to find the military tattoos poorly hidden by soot-smears. They were imposters.

She charged through the wide corridor, her heavy sword falling on one of the imposters with such ferocity that his blocking arm failed him. Her sword shattered his collarbone, and he rolled across the polished granite floor with a scream. She swung low, dropping onto one knee and cracking the knee of another man who had fallen for her feint and blocked high.

For two years she had fought life-and-death battles in the arena at Sahrdon. She was imposing for a young woman, already tall and broad-shouldered, trained since she was five-years-old in the arts of war. She knew many ways to kill a man and many more ways to torture him. Unlike other girls at court, she had never learned to read or write. She didn’t know how to sing or dance. And what she knew of the gods was that they were her enemies—as surely as every man who had not sworn fealty and most that had. But more than anything else, what guaranteed her victory was that she was utterly ruthless.

As relentless as a storm, she stepped through the mass of soldiers, leaving man after man staggering or dead. Her own soldiers finished off those who slipped by as she split the line. She was hacking the last soldier in front of her when something knocked her to her knees. She felt the burn of metal across her shoulder.

Her body reacted without need for thought. She rolled, the hand of her uninjured arm seizing the hilt of her sword to block the soldier’s second blow. Before he could deliver it, his blade clattered to the stone. His body went limp and wobbly. He crumpled, dead before he hit the floor. Behind him stood Rook, arms crossed, brow sweaty with strain. When his mind touched hers, he sighed with relief and offered her a forearm.

Her soldiers disarmed the last rebel and lined up those still alive. She questioned the prisoners, but they refused to answer.

“Impale them outside the palace walls,” she told Rook, “where the people will see what happens to those who defy Darklaw.”

She left, deaf to the prisoner’s pleas for mercy.

WITHIN A FEW hours of the fire, she had taken new quarters. The room was not nearly as large as the one she had vacated, but after the palace servants brought the best remaining linens, cushions, drapes, rugs, and started a fire in the room’s pit, she decided it would do.

The palace smelled of burnt lime and smoke. Most of her possessions were ashes, so she picked through clothes brought from other palace rooms until she found something suitable: short black boots and leather trousers. She confiscated the black leather cuirass of a Darklaw soldier to keep on hand and held onto a blue robe found among the former king’s possessions.

Avestine sat in her new room while Rook cleaned her wound. As she watched him, she felt his fatigue. He had slept less than her in the days since they took possession of the city. “I’ve always wondered. Does it hurt?”

One of Rook’s eyebrows shot up. “I wasn’t injured.”

“I mean the judgment. When you use it, you seem to be in pain.”

Rook dabbed her wound with a cloth held between his wrists and teeth. He grunted, dismissing the question.

“It tires you.”

He dropped the stained cloth. “When the god works through me, yes.”

Avestine found herself jealous of Rook. His connection with the gods struck her as somewhat seditious. Such was the uneasy relationship between throne and altar that had caused emperors to carefully breed and cull the race of Essanti.

Rook’s particular gift was to offer a prayer of judgment on a man, and if Coth deemed death his due, that man would die. Without the means of worldly power, only faith remains, and great is the faith of the Essanti. As the words of the offertory emphasized, it was faith that gave Essanti their strength. It was the reason they surrendered their hands and all worldly power. No one had greater faith than Rook. That he suffered her abuses and obeyed her nonetheless was proof enough for Avestine.

“Leave me,” she ordered.

“I’m not done. You need another dressing for that wound.”

“Do what I tell you.”

He nodded and left the room.

She refused the whiskey offered and took black tea instead. She felt raw, anxious. She paced, telling herself everything was under control. The fire was out, the enemy rounded up, the battle over. She had control of everything. Everything was under control.

Two legates visited her, offering insincere concern for her safety, which she thanked with just as much insincerity.

Heron was the oldest, prematurely white-haired, and as arrogant as he was strong. He was a bull of a man who had the misguided belief that victory resided in an army’s weapons. Bashint was younger, just as bullish but dark and more open to the notion that strategy could overcome strength and discipline. He had been the only one of the advisors to consider her proposal the first time she brought it to her father. That was when she was seventeen.

Now, at twenty, she had finally proven that strategy. She had not besieged Stede as every army had done before. Instead, her men built a great wall and then they waited.

During past battles, the city had managed to smuggle supplies through underground passages or concealed forest paths. This time, they had no path to freedom. She had the forests burned and caves sealed. For weeks, nothing was able to travel to-and-from the city except the birds, and then even the birds were forbidden when she had her men destroy every nest they found. By the time Stede’s allies arrived, Darklaw soldiers had already built a second wall at their own back.

She smiled as she sat at her table imagining the welcome she would receive upon her returned to Sahrdon. She was popular with the people, whom she entertained in the arena by killing traitors and murderers in spectacular fashion and throwing severed fingers into the crowded seats.

She thought of her father, sure this victory would mark her elevation. He would name her his warmaster and soon, his heir. That meant he would no longer see her as a child. He would no longer need to test the limits of her strength, her resolve, her endurance.

Lucina touched her back, drawing her tunic aside and dabbing a foul-smelling salve on her injury. Avestine removed her tunic and dropped it on the floor. As Lucina dressed her wound, Avestine wondered why her father had never taken notice of her favorite servant.

From the time Avestine was eight, her father had systematically forced her to destroy everything she loved, beginning with her pets. She had done his bidding, beating her hunting dogs to death when he commanded, strangling her household slaves, and finally, there was the day six months earlier, when he had ordered her to execute her mother for treason.

As emperor, her father controlled the army and the people only as long as both feared him. Should that ever change, he would be hunted, and his children would be, too.

Love was the reason for his harsh lessons. He had to make her strong. He taught that her own loyalty to power would ensure the obedience of the army. He taught that observance of her imperial cult would ensure the devotion of the people. He taught that willingness to suffer any pain without complaint would make her beloved of the gods.

The only difference between Avestine and her brother was that she had learned her father’s lessons and passed his tests. The only difference was that she was the monster her father had made, and her brother was merely mad.

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