Victor, Vanquished, Son
For several seconds, everything was still. N’cho gestured for the death priests to come forward. They came, joining him, obviously wanting to see whatever he was doing. Irrien thought they were fools for it, putting their desire for power in front of everything else, even their survival.
Irrien guessed what was coming, even before a great, clawed hand reached out of the cavern that had opened up and snatched at one of them. The claws punched through the priest, then started to drag him down into the hole while he begged for mercy.
N’cho was there while the creature clawed at the dying man, wrapping a light silver chain around the creature’s limb as easily as if he were hobbling a horse. He handed the chain to a group of soldiers, who held onto it gingerly, as if expecting to be the next victims.
“Pull,” he ordered. “Pull for your lives.”
The men looked over at Irrien, and Irrien nodded. If this cost a few lives, it would be worth it. He watched the men pull, straining the way they might while raising a heavy sail. They didn’t drag the beast from its cave, but they seemed to be able to persuade it to move.
The creature clambered from the hole on clawed legs. It was a thing with paper thin, leathery skin over bones that were longer than any man was tall. Some of those bones protruded through the skin in spikes and spines that were as long as spear heads. It stood as high as the side of a tall ship, looking powerful and impossible to stop. Its head was crocodilian and scaled, a single large eye looking out of the middle of its skull with a baleful yellow glare.
N’cho was there with more chains, running around it and handing them to more men, so that soon, an entire company of warriors held onto the beast for dear life. Even chained like that, the creature was terrifyingly dangerous. It seemed to exude a sense of death, the grass around it turning brown simply with its presence there.
Irrien stood. He didn’t draw his sword, but only because there was no point. How did you kill something that clearly wasn’t alive in any sense he understood? More to the point, why would he want to kill it, when it was exactly what he required to be able to deal with the defenders of Haylon, and the girl who was supposedly more dangerous than all of them?
“As promised, First Stone,” N’cho said, with a gesture like a slaver showing off a particularly expensive prize. “A creature more dangerous than any other.”
“Dangerous enough to kill an Ancient One?” Irrien demanded.
He saw the assassin nod like a bladesmith proud of his creation.
“This is a creature of pure death, First Stone,” he said. “It can kill anything that lives. I trust that is to your satisfaction?”
Irrien watched the men straining to contain it, trying to assess the sheer strength of the thing. He couldn’t imagine trying to fight it. He couldn’t imagine anyone surviving its assault. Briefly, that single eye met his, and the only impression Irrien had there was of hatred: a deep, abiding hatred of everything that lived.
“If you can put it back again afterwards,” Irrien said. “I have no wish to have that coming for me.”
N’cho nodded. “It is not a thing meant for this world, First Stone,” he said. “The power holding it together will burn out, given time.”
“Get it to the boats,” Irrien ordered.
N’cho nodded, gesturing to the men, issuing orders about where to pull and how hard. Irrien saw the moment when one of the men misstepped, and the beast lashed out, tearing him in half.
Irrien wasn’t scared of much, but this thing did it. That was a good thing though. It meant that it was powerful. Powerful enough to slaughter his enemies.
Powerful enough to finish this, once and for all.
Stephania stood impatiently in a receiving chamber within Ulren’s vast home, keeping her features as perfectly expressionless as one of the statues there, regardless of the fear she felt then. There was fear, in spite of her planning for this moment, and in spite of everything she’d done to get there.
She knew from her attempt to seduce Irrien just how badly wrong this could go. One wrong step and she might end up dead, or worse, sold as some rich man’s prize. Hopefully, the former Second Stone would be easier to woo than the first.
The continued presence of the thugs who had brought her there did nothing to calm Stephania’s nerves. They did not talk to her or treat her with the deference that her position demanded. Instead, the two men stood by the door like jailers, while the woman had left, gone to tell Ulren that Stephania was there.
Stephania spent her time working out the best way to present herself. She chose a spot where a couch sat in the middle of the floor, reclining on it elegantly, even seductively. She wanted to make it clear to Ulren from the first moments what she was there for.
When the Second Stone walked into his receiving room, with the female thug walking beside him, it was all Stephania could do to keep from standing and walking away. Keeping a smile on her face was even harder, but Stephania had plenty of practice when it came to disguising what she really felt.
The statues of Ulren might have shown a ruggedly attractive young man in his prime, but now the Second Stone was a long way from that. He was old. Worse than that, age had not been kind to him in its wrinkles and its liver spots, the thinning of his hair and the scars he had accumulated. This was the kind of man noble girls joked about the poorest among them having to marry for money, not someone Stephania should have been considering as a potential husband.
“First Stone Ulren,” Stephania said, smiling as she stood. “It is so good to finally meet you.”
She lied because something far more important than money was at stake. This man could give her back her kingdom. He could return to her what had been taken from her, and more.
“My servant tells me that you are Stephania, the noble who was briefly queen of the Empire,” Ulren said. “You planted rumors to attract my attention. Now you have it. I hope you don’t come to regret that.”
Stephania broadened her smile deliberately, reaching out to touch his arm. “How could I regret meeting the most powerful man in the world? Especially when I have a proposal for him?”
She watched Ulren’s face, trying to ignore the fact that it was hard to keep from picturing what it would be like having to bed him. That was a problem for another time, and in any case, Stephania would do what was necessary.
“What kind of proposal?” Ulren asked. Stephania could see him looking her up and down with the kind of hunger men always had when they looked at her. She hid her revulsion.
“A proposal,” Stephania said. “After all, who else is out there who would make a suitable husband for me?”
Ulren looked Stephania over again, then snapped his fingers. “Oh, I see. A noblewoman looking for sanctuary. Chain her, strip her, brand her, and leave her in my chambers. I’ll enjoy her a little before she goes to the slave block.”
Stephania saw the thugs step forward, and for a moment, her mind flashed back to all the ways Irrien had treated her. He’d been contemptuous of her too, but he had at least had the strength to claim her for himself, and this time, Stephania wasn’t caught in the middle of an invasion.
The woman moved toward her, chains in her hands in a way that said she’d been expecting this outcome, and with a smile that said she’d been looking forward to it. Stephania ignored her, walking toward the other guards instead.
“Don’t think you’re getting away,” the woman said.
The two guards moved to block Stephania’s exit. That brought them closer together, which was all Stephania had been waiting for. She lifted a hand, drawing a small fold of paper from inside her cloak, and blew.
Powder sprayed out, catching the thugs by surprise as it spread. Stephania held her breath to be safe, but there was no need to worry. The guards gasped as they breathed in the powder, struggling for their next breath as it filled their lungs. One scrabbled at his throat as if he could force it to open up. Another clutched at the wall to keep himself from falling.
Stephania ignored them, spinning back toward the woman with a knife in her hand. She rushed in, but the thug managed to knock aside her blow, knocking the blade from Stephania’s nerveless fingers. She hit out, and Stephania winced in pain.
It didn’t slow her, though. People made the mistake of thinking that because she was refined, she must be weak. Stephania stepped in close, striking the other woman with her forehead, then grabbing for the chains she held.
Stephania spun behind her, drawing the chains tight across her throat and pulling with all the strength she had. She kicked the thug in the back of her knee, dragging her off balance and continuing to strangle her. Stephania waited until she went limp, then threw her down on the floor, unconscious. She locked the chains on her pointedly.
She stood in front of Ulren then, drawing a dagger. “Your people were careless, letting me in armed. I’m not as helpless as you thought.”
“I can see that,” Ulren said, and now Stephania could see a note of respect on his face. “You’re anything but helpless. Hmm…”
He was looking her up and down again. If he leapt at her, Stephania would stab him, and take her chances in trying to take his empire from him. It probably wouldn’t work, but she would not be a slave again.
“It seems I underestimated you,” Ulren said. “Tell me again why I should marry you.”
He said it as though he hadn’t just ordered her enslaved. Stephania swallowed her anger, just as she’d swallowed her disgust. If murdering two guards and strangling a third into a stupor was what it took to impress this man, so be it.
“You should marry me because I can give you the Empire,” Stephania said.
“With what army?” Ulren countered. Of course he would think in those terms. Were all powerful men such fools?
“With your army,” Stephania said. “Which will be seen as liberators, since they will support a rightful queen. Which will have the support of the Empire’s people. Which will know every secret there. Think about it, Ulren. I know the Empire better than anyone.”