Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |
Epic fantasy |
THE FOLLOWING DAY, the envoy reached the city ahead of schedule—but not ahead of Avestine’s ability to plan.
She stood beside Rook on Stede’s wall watching the approach of imperial troops. Below her stood Heron with a detachment of the Black Tide. Following tradition, the flagman from each party rode ahead, exchanged standards, and rode back.
When the envoy reached the gate, Avestine was glad to see it was Garren, the warmaster’s second-in-command. He was a man with some political acuity. Just as she began to think her plans would succeed, what she saw left her stomach feeling like it was falling out of her.
Heron rode out and greeted Garren briefly, ordered the troops behind him to part, and then led the envoy and his party into the city.
Avestine dashed from the wall, already giving orders and planning how the next few hours would go.
She made her way through the scarred palace corridors to the throne room, where she had her guards seal the doors. She paced and waited for the orders she had given to be carried out. When a great deal of time had passed and no one arrived, she glanced at Rook, who did not need her verbal order. He left the room.
As she continued to pace, her anger grew into rage.
She knew how Heron would defend his disobedience, and she had to be clear about her response. The next few hours would either put her head on a pike or change the face of the empire forever.
Soon, the throne room doors parted with the sound of grinding metal. The room echoed with strong, jovial male voices.
Wearing his ceremonial yellow armor, Heron entered with Garren, who was laughing. Bashint followed, his manner reserved. Each legion’s second-in-command and advisors accompanied them. The envoy’s party followed, and Rook entered last.
Avestine walked down the steps from the throne to greet Garren with a grand gesture. “I was pleased to see my father sent me the warmaster’s adjutant, a brave man renowned for his wisdom.”
Garren glanced from Avestine to Heron and back. “I’m honored to greet the conqueror of Stede and to bring the acclaim of the people of Sahrdon. They have already given you the title ‘Avestine of the Hunt’.”
“How I miss Eternal Sahrdon, a people beloved of Arujan.” Hand to her chest, she added “My people.”
Garren took a satchel from one of his assistants as he said to Avestine, “Then you’ll be pleased to receive the Architect’s letter. Of course, it’s for you to read alone, but my sense is that you are to return with a trium—”
“Thank you, Adjutant,” interrupted Avestine, one hand raised, “but your delivery will have to wait.” She turned her attention to Heron, who was watching her with devious eyes. “Legate, do you recall the order I gave you at the gate?”
“I do, Lady, but as soon as the emperor’s orders arrived…” He turned with one hand indicating Garren. “I was obligated to honor those.”
“I see.” Avestine never diverted her cold blue eyes from him. “Was there an emperor at the gates this morning?”
“I see. You thought you would abide the request of an adjutant to a servant of the emperor, rather than the orders of the regent of Stede, who is also your campaign commander?”
Heron hesitated. “Adjutant Garren carries the emperor’s sealed letter.”
“Have you read that letter, Legate? Do you suppose it grants you the substantial authority to disregard my orders?”
“Of course not, Lady.”
“I know you to be a loyal servant.” She glanced around the room as she said, “Give me your sword.”
Heron’s white brow furrowed as his dark eyes glanced about. “My sword?”
“Perhaps the emperor’s letter might have something to say about why you don’t need to yield your weapon to a superior officer when commanded?”
Heron continued to glance around uncertainly, but he drew his sword and handed the hilt to Avestine. She held it up, letting the torchlight flash across the blade. “Made in the traditional ten-year cycle. The abbey on Mt. Arscid made it, I believe. Isn’t that so?”
“A generous gift from my father, just this past year. Isn’t that so?”
He nodded again.
Avestine’s chest burned. Her hand tightened around the hilt. “My father honors you above all his legates. Some would say…” She forced a smile as natural as she could make it and nodded at Garren. “Some would say he values your counsel even above that of his warmaster. Isn’t that so?”
Heron glanced from her to Garren and licked his lips.
She smiled, nodded, and shoved the blade between the plates of Heron’s armor.
Mouth gaping, eyes round with disbelief, he fell forward and grasped her forearms. She pushed the blade deeper. It crackled through sinew. She shoved his dead body backward to the floor. With one foot braced against his chest, she pulled the bloody sword free.
“Randist!” She looked around the group of stunned men. Heron’s second-in-command shifted foot-to-foot behind Bashint. “Come here.” Randist made his way to her as the other men took a step back. She handed him Heron’s sword. “Such a fine weapon shouldn’t be buried with a pig.”
Randist took the sword with some relief. “Yes, Lady.”
“Do you think you can follow my orders?”
He glanced at Heron’s body and nodded.
“Show Garren and his men from the city.”
“But Lady,” said Garren, although he went silent after a hard look from Avestine.
She told him, “You’ll return to Sahrdon and inform the Architect you weren’t able to deliver your message because the gates were barred.”
“He’ll have me executed.”
Avestine thought a moment. “Likely.”
“I don’t wish to be a party to treason.”
“Treason?” Avestine tried to ease his tension with a friendly smile. “What I want, I take. It’s no less than my father would do, and nothing other than he expects. He won’t get me back to Sahrdon without offering me something better than what I have here.” She took several deep breaths as she studied his worried face. “Relax, Garren. You’ll live, because I’ll need a clever man as my second when I become my father’s warmaster.”
“Warmaster? What about Mimner?”
Warmaster of the empire at twenty was unprecedented. She swelled at the thought of surpassing her father, but reminded herself he had set in motion the circumstance that would allow it to happen.
She suddenly felt very tired. Those moments when she thought she had outmaneuvered her father, she always discovered he was a step ahead of her. With an intuitive leap, she knew Mimner was already dead, the result of some manufactured crime or accident.
Her father was ready for her to be his warmaster, but there was no way he could simply hand the office to his daughter and maintain the allegiance of all factions. She had spent years killing prisoners in the arena, but anyone can kill. Getting others to kill for you is the true test of power. She needed to demonstrate to the world that she could manage both an army and an ambitious imperial court.
Defeating a kingdom that had been the bane of generations was an impressive start. Executing the senior legate of the empire for plausible reasons so she could engage in a power game with the emperor went further to enhancing a reputation for courage and cleverness.
Her jaw clenched when she felt Rook cautioning her in her thoughts. To Garren she said, “Your guards will be sent back to Sahrdon, but you and your servants will be given quarters.” She nodded curtly. “Bashint.” The legate stood at attention as Avestine continued, “You’re senior legate. I expect a report on rations and weapons allocations in the morning. And send confirmation when the envoy’s guard has left the city.”
She turned to leave, but remembered one order that had not yet been carried out.
She turned back and walked up to Bashint. She got in his face and said in her most precise voice, “If the final repairs aren’t finished on the wall before the men sleep, I’ll nail your balls to the gate.” She nearly tripped over Heron’s body when she turned again. “Get this trash out of my city.”
“What should we do with him?” asked Bashint.
Avestine studied the new senior legate for a moment, aware that his loyalty was not something she could count on. He had possessed a fondness for the dead man, so she should do the careful thing. Still, her instinct was to add to his fear rather than cajole his cooperation. “What happens to any traitor? Stick his body on a pole and let the vultures feed.” She always followed her instincts.
She nodded to Rook, knowing he would keep a watchful eye on the official activity, as he always did. She left the room, followed by her guards. She had to keep herself from running as she made her way to her quarters. When she arrived, she cleared the room, sending her guard to the corridor and the servants to their adjacent quarters. She paced as she struggled to stop her hands from trembling.
One step away from the throne. One step away from claiming everything. She told herself she would make more of that power, claim more of the world, demand more of the gods than her father ever had. She was stronger than he knew, and she would outlast him. She would surpass him.
She threw a ceramic cup against the stone wall. She smashed a second one. When she had control of her trembling, she opened the door and sent a guard for Anya.
Anya arrived asking when she was to die.
With a weary headshake, Avestine sat down. “No more killing today.”
Anya sat down in a chair, and Avestine thought about scolding the presumption, but she missed familiarity, the kind she had with Lucina. She wondered if a princess could learn such devotion.
“I’ve executed my father’s senior legate,” said Avestine. “There will undoubtedly be a few enterprising soldiers, including his second, who think assassinating me will gain prestige or position. On the other hand, the envoy is a man of some political astuteness, but there’s no telling just yet with whom he’ll ally. I made a show of my trust for the new senior legate, but he may well be trading poisoned words with the envoy at this very moment.”
Anya nodded slowly.
“The senior legate was an arrogant bastard and a man my father loved like a brother. I was happy to kill him.”
“What will your father do?”
“Make me warmaster and commander of all the legions of Darklaw.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he taught me well.”
Anya nodded slowly again. “But you said you have a palace of men who would like you dead. Will you even make it back to Sahrdon? Including Rook. You said he hates you, too. Is there anyone who doesn’t?”
Avestine’s eyes narrowed a few times as she searched Anya’s face. A bitter smile spread her lips. “Absolutely no one.” She laughed. Her laughter grew until she was holding her belly. She doubled over and laughed herself out.
Anya said, “I tried to kill you.”
“Next time, try something less obvious than poisoning my food.” It occurred to Avestine that having a princess for a servant might have certain benefits, like the companionship of someone who knew the burden of power, of navigating a world of necessary lies.
An unfamiliar desire made her sit up. “You should know that my Essanti is wrong. I have no interest in the weak. They’re not even good sport. If you had wanted to die like your cousin, who threw herself from the wall, I wouldn’t have given you a second thought.”
She rarely felt the need to explain herself, and the vulnerability made her uneasy. She cast about in her thoughts, imagining what she might do to Anya to regain her sense of control.
Anya dug her fingernail into a crack on the table for an idle moment before regarding Avestine again. “They say you’re a demon.”
“No.” Avestine smiled. “Just the daughter of one.”
She looked Anya over, appreciating her soft contours. She led her to the bed and undressed her, kissing her neck and telling her how beautiful she was. Then she pulled her onto the bed and took pleasure far into the night, while the palace plotted against the woman who would one day rule the world.