Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
AVESTINE WAS IN the throne room listening to another excuse for why the city walls were still weak when Lucina arrived with Anya. Avestine took the opportunity to dismiss the tedious Heron and took Lucina and Anya to her quarters.
“I want their names,” Avestine ordered as she brushed the black hair from Anya’s pale face and observed a large scab and bruises. A tuft of hair was missing from above one ear, which was swollen. Avestine took Anya’s chin and forced her to meet her eyes. “Was it the women who did this?”
Anya shook her head.
“Don’t you want them punished?”
“I don’t know their names.”
“Then you can point them out to a guard.”
“I was their princess before I joined them in the harem. I’d rather not give them more reason to hate me.”
Avestine released the narrow chin and stepped back. She was impressed with Anya’s resolve. Already, a niece of Stede’s king had thrown herself from the walls rather than be so humbled as to take a seat in the harem. But Anya was a survivor, something Avestine had already seen, something she admired.
The rest of Anya seemed healthy. She wore a sheer dress like the other servants. Avestine observed smooth nipples through the reddish fabric. She reached out and touched one. Anya kept her eyes focused on the floor.
“Look at me,” said Avestine. She took hold of Anya’s face with both hands and kissed her deeply. Her tongue slid into the yielding mouth and touched a supple tongue. Her mouth clenched the gentle lips, and she sensed no resistance.
In a voice smoky with desire, Avestine said, “I know you, Princess. You had a reputation throughout the Dark Quarter for piety. You wanted to be consecrated to the Father when you were my age, but Stede needed an heir. Your father forbade you from even entering one of Arujan’s temples, fearing you’d take an oath. You were to be married to a prince of the Awhaz this year, isn’t that so?”
“I am the Emissary. Do you understand?” Avestine caught the look that passed between Anya and Lucina who stood quietly by the door. “Yes, you should listen to Luci. She doesn’t speak, but she says more than most people I know.” Avestine could recognize a hidden alliance. She wondered what might cause a conquered princess to trust the servant of her conqueror.
She asked again, “Do you understand, Princess? The Father works his will through me. You finally belong to Arujan.”
Anya’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded.
Avestine tangled her hands in the long black hair, drawing Anya’s head backward and stretching the delicate neck to reveal an exquisite flow of veins and ligaments. Her lips pressed against the tender skin, touching a heavy pulse. She pushed the dress away from Anya’s collarbone, finally tearing it when it failed to stretch so she could suck skin like cream.
Dampness broke across Anya’s chest and her pulse raced and Avestine didn’t care whether it was from fear or desire, as long as she remained warm and wet. She tore the dress more, revealing soft scoops of two white breasts topped by pink nipples. She mauled them and they grew hard. She threw off her own tunic and unwound the bandeau around her breasts.
When Avestine stood naked, Anya frowned. “Are all those scars from blades?”
Avestine’s body was lean and muscular, her bronzed skin crisscrossed with numerous white scars. She pushed Anya into bed and rested a hand on her cheek. “It’s not what this body looks like that matters, but what it can do to you.”
Anya looked up with curious eyes. “What can it do?”
Avestine’s face grew feral, her nostrils flaring. “You shouldn’t play games you can’t win.” She seized Anya’s chin. “Touch me.”
Anya’s eyes widened as Avestine seized her hand and pressed it between her legs. The small fingers slid through folds of skin. “That’s it,” breathed Avestine. She rocked, and when Anya’s fingers slipped inside, she bore down. She climbed on the bed, pushing Anya onto her back.
She humped Anya’s hip but couldn’t find satisfaction, so she pulled Anya from the bed and pushed her to her knees. When Anya settled her mouth into the patch of hair, Avestine moaned at the sudden warmth. Her abdomen tightened as she thrust against Anya’s mouth. A gloss of sweat gleamed across her shoulders, and her corded body strained against Anya’s mouth. “That’s it.”
Anya’s mouth grew more vigorous until she paused and said, “This would be easier if you lay down.”
From behind Anya came a deep voice. “She won’t be put on her back.”
The voice startled Anya, and she peered around at Rook. He sat at the table as if he had been there awhile.
With a hand to Anya’s chin, Avestine turned her back. “Finish me.”
“Why is he here?”
“Do what I tell you.” Avestine pushed Anya’s head down and moaned when the heat reached her again. She gyrated until she was so shaky with need she silently offered Coth her next six sacrifices if he would just let Cochin visit her for a moment. But Coth’s consort was a stubborn lover, and ecstasy eluded her. She lifted Anya to her feet. “Do it right!”
Anya pupils were dilated and the skin on her chest was flushed with the heat of desire.
Avestine stood with uncharacteristic indecision before she reached between Anya’s legs. A buttery seep covered her hand. She drew it to her face, savored the musk, and felt dizzy. “Sweet Cochin,” she muttered.
She lay Anya back on the bed and mounted her. She pressed her hips against Anya’s and began to ride. When Anya tried to kiss her, Avestine told her to be still.
Eyes closed, hands clenching the sheets, Avestine worked her hips. Sweat broke again across her face and dripped from her chin. Grunts punctuated her aggressive panting.
She adjusted Anya’s hips, finding it hard to keep pressure where she wanted it. Every thrust made a hot smacking sound, made the bed creak, made Avestine groan. Her abdomen ached from the strain, and her fingers were cramping. Ecstasy was close, prowling like some uncertain beast, so she increased her rhythm, and the chase was on.
Her rocking became thrusting, became pounding. She tugged at the sheet and tore it. Anya complained, tried to slide away, and didn’t get far. Avestine seized her wrists and pinned her.
Through clenched teeth, she spoke in an obscene whisper about the things she wanted to shove into Anya. Avestine was angry with need, and finally, she convulsed, her body seizing in waves so sweeping, she couldn’t make a sound. When her climax passed, she lurched forward and groaned into Anya’s shoulder.
She fell asleep but awoke a short time later to see Rook sitting at the table. The serving girl offered a cup of whiskey to Anya, who was wearing the blue robe that had belonged to her father.
“It’s like being eaten alive,” Rook said, looking at Avestine. He turned to Anya. “You get used to it.”
Avestine found her tunic and tossed it on. She took the bottle of whiskey from the table and sat on the bed. “Where’s Luci?”
“I sent her to bed,” said Rook.
“I’ll decide when she’s tired.”
Avestine’s body was exhausted, but she was hungry. She found women who sometimes satisfied her hunger, but the craving always remained.
She smiled. Being the daughter of the emperor had its advantages, but possessing her own harem was not one of them. Now, as regent of Stede, no one would question her taking a concubine. Not that she hesitated to take what she wanted from reluctant servants, but she tired of the need to clear her quarters of sharp objects before she slept.
Anya asked, “Do you always let him watch?”
Avestine looked at Rook. “I insist on it.”
Anya drew her legs together.
Avestine laughed. “No.” She shook her head. “No, he won’t touch you. He’s a man of great virtue, you see. He is virtuous, and I’m an abomination. He accuses me of perverting nature. He says I take pleasure in hurting the weak. He says I’m vulgar and cruel. I’ve never been sure which of my vices he despises the most.”
“But he serves you.”
“He serves, but he’s not a servant. I am his god. He is my Essanti. One day, he’ll die for me. Even then, he’ll hate me.”
Avestine nodded with sympathy for the girl’s confusion. Navigating the complexities of Sahrdon’s imperium was tiresome even for those raised in it. How much more so for the soft daughter of a fat land.
“You’ve satisfied me tonight,” said Avestine.
As if the thought surprised her, Anya blurted, “You’re glad he hates you.”
A wolfish smile split Avestine’s lips. Her eyes narrowed at Rook. “A servant can begin to think he’s doing what he wants because it pleases him. But every time my Essanti watches me lick a girl, he’s reminded that the will he serves is mine.”
“Do you want everyone to hate you?”
Anya’s boldness continued to surprise Avestine, to disturb her.
Having stood behind her father for over a decade, Avestine had learned to make the first cut the deepest. Those you conquer, conquer completely. Control their bodies and destroy their spirits. Make the weak fall on their swords. Make the frightened impotent from madness. Only the strong had to be executed. Only the strong.
She sent Anya away without an answer.
A FEW DAYS later, Rook brought Avestine news that the slave who tested her food was sick. He had Anya brought to Avestine’s quarters.
“You will answer me.” Avestine wanted to hear Anya lie. She could do what she needed to do only if she could hear the lie.
She had believed the girl was too smart to take such a risk. She had even thought Anya might find some contentment in her bed, so she allowed her freedom. Too much. “I’m not only your master. I’m your god. What you’ve done is not treason, but blasphemy. Do you know Darklaw’s penalty for blasphemy?”
Anya’s gaze dropped to the floor. “There seems to be only one penalty for everything under Darklaw.”
Avestine slapped her, and quickly regretted the strength it added to Anya’s defiance. “Pride is something a slave can’t afford.”
“I’m not a slave.”
Avestine’s jaw flexed as she considered whether to beat Anya or simply hand her over for impaling. “Pride makes life short and death painful.”
After a pause, she nodded at Rook, who took Anya by the arm. Anya fought the grip, but no words left the locked lips. When Avestine felt the intrusion of Rook in her thoughts, she turned to upbraid him but lost all her anger when she saw Lucina, pale and shivering.
With distraction, Avestine ordered a guard to take Anya back to the harem.
As soon as Avestine reached her, Lucina collapsed. She was sweating, but her skin felt cold. Her eyes were red and her breathing shallow. She died that evening before sunset.
The following day Rook arrived at Avestine’s quarters. He noted the half-empty bottle of whiskey and untouched plate of food. He stood for a moment beside her table.
When she looked up at him, he nodded. “Your Grace, the healers were at a loss until a seer divined it was hive fever. But that fever’s been gone for generations.”
Avestine studied his face, which was beautiful with strength and proportion. His deep-set eyes seemed to see everything. She decided she had drunk too much whiskey, so she drank more.
“Yes.” She nodded. “Gone for generations. It struck the abbey on Mt. Arscid last year. Did you know? The father of one of the palace servants returned with it. Father had the whole family and their farm burned.”
Rook’s gaze followed the sinuous curl of smoke that rose to the clerestory at the center of the room. “The fever’s in the blood. So they say.”
Avestine finished her cup. “Just the other day I was wondering why Father let Lucina live. Since he obviously didn’t, I’m now wondering why he lets you live.”
“You think he’s responsible for Lucina? How?”
“He’s always a step ahead, isn’t he?”
Rook’s bushy eyebrows connected above his nose in a deep scowl. “It doesn’t matter. He’s no threat to me. You took my hands, and I swore my oath to you. That means you will succeed him. You are the Emissary, and the Emissary must be protected.”
“Do you believe my father will ever die?”
“He’s a man.”
“Oh, he’s much more than that and you risk blasphemy to say otherwise.”
“Do you want to know the status of the troops?” He waited until she nodded, and then he said, “The city wall is repaired except for several darkward sections. The legates want to give the men a two-day rest before they finish the final.”
Avestine’s lip curled. “A week ago I ordered that repaired. They should be working on adding another layer already.”
“Envoys from Annulinia and Marhash are still waiting to meet with you in the audience hall. They have been there all morning.”
“Let them wait.”
“Scouts report an envoy from your father is a few days away. Rumor is that you’re to leave the city in Heron’s command and return to Sahrdon with the Black Tide.”
“I have my own demands for my father. I’m taking a farm and fifty slaves.”
“What about the city?”
“What do I care? It’s not mine.”
“You took it. Maybe you should think about keeping it.”
Avestine had to blink several times before she was sure that Rook was serious, although he was rarely a man of humor.
He added, “Aren’t you tired of losing everything that belongs to you?”
“You can’t manipulate me.”
“It’s time to stand up to your father the way you stand up to everyone else.”
She rose so quickly from her chair that it tipped over. She seized his tunic in both hands, but too much whiskey made her unsteady. She lost her balance. He kept her from falling, and she shoved him away.
“I should kill you,” she said. “You deserve it many times over. And then there’d be nothing else he could take.”