Victor, Vanquished, Son
Jeva couldn’t do it though. It wasn’t just the lie at the heart of it, although the fact that she was considering it horrified her. It wasn’t even the fact that it went against everything her people felt about the world. No, it was the fact that Thanos wouldn’t have wanted her to do it that way. He wouldn’t have wanted her to trick people to their deaths, or to force them to face up to the might of Felldust without knowing the truth of why they were going.
“Priestess?” the old man asked. “Are you here to speak for the dead?”
What would he do then? Jeva already had an answer to that, forged from the last time he’d been to her folk’s lands. Forged from everything he’d done since.
“No,” she said. “I am not here to speak for the dead. I am Jeva, and today I wish to speak for the living.”
Irrien walked the fields of the dead, looking around at the slaughter his armies had wrought without any of the satisfaction that normally came from doing it. Around him, the men of the North lay dead or dying, crushed by his armies, slaughtered by his hunters. Irrien should have felt triumph in that moment. He should have felt joy in the scale of it, or power at seeing his enemies slain.
Instead, he felt as though he had been robbed of true victory.
A man in the shining armor of his foes groaned in the mud, trying to cling to life despite the wounds that had been torn in him. Irrien lifted a spear from another nearby corpse and thrust it through him. Even killing a weakling like that did nothing to lift his mood.
The truth was that it had been too easy. There had been too few enemies there to make this a fight worth having. They had raged across the North, cutting through the villages and the small castles, ripping through even Lord West’s former fortress. In each place, they’d found empty dwellings and emptier castles, rooms people had abandoned in time to escape from the horde that had been descending on them.
That wasn’t just frustrating because it meant that he couldn’t have the meaningful victories he’d planned on. It was frustrating because it meant that his enemies were still out there. Irrien knew where, too, because the coward who’d stayed behind in Lord West’s castle had told him: they were on Haylon, reinforcing the island he’d only sent part of his forces to conquer.
That made every moment Irrien spent here feel as though he was chafing at the bit. Yet there were things that needed to be done here. He looked around to watch as his men worked alongside gangs of freshly taken slaves to tear down one of the castles that seemed to spring up here like mushrooms after rain. Irrien wouldn’t leave such things unoccupied behind him, because that would mean giving his foes a place to gather.
More than that, his men seemed satisfied enough with the easy victory. Irrien could see the ones who hadn’t been assigned to work gangs lazing in the sun, gambling with looted coins or tormenting prisoners they’d snatched for their amusement.
The usual hangers-on were there, of course. Someone had set up a slavers’ camp at the edge of the army like its shadow, with its carts and its cages quickly filling up. There was a clear space in the middle where the slavers haggled over the best and the most beautiful, although the truth was that they took what the soldiers were prepared to sell them. The men there were scavengers, not warriors in their own right.
Then there were the death priests. They had set up their altar in the middle of the battlefield, as they so often did. Now, soldiers were bringing them the wounded enemies they found, dragging them over to the stone slab to have their throats cut or their hearts cut out. Their blood ran, and Irrien imagined that the priests’ gods were probably pleased by the whole thing. Certainly, the priests seemed to think so, exhorting the faithful to submit themselves completely to death, as it was the only way to earn its favor.
One man actually seemed to take them seriously. He’d obviously suffered wounds in the battle, ones serious enough that he needed his comrades’ help to get to the slab. Irrien watched as he clambered up on top of it, exposing his chest so that the priests could stab into it with a knife of dark obsidian.
Irrien spat at the weakness of a man who would not fight his way back from his injuries. After all, Irrien was not letting his old wounds slow him, was he? His shoulder hurt with every movement, but he was not offering himself as a sacrifice to keep death at bay for others. In his experience, the only thing that kept death at bay was being the stronger of two warriors. Strength meant that you got to live. Strength meant that you could take what you wanted, be it a man’s lands, or life, or women.
Briefly, Irrien wondered what the priests’ gods of death would think of him. He didn’t worship them except for the effect it had in bringing his men together. He wasn’t even sure if such things existed, except as a way for priests who couldn’t control men with their own strength to have power.
He imagined such things counted against him with any gods there were, yet hadn’t Irrien sent more men, women, and children to their graves than anyone? Hadn’t he given them their sacrifices, promoted their priesthood, and made this into a world they would approve of? Irrien might not have done it for them, but he had done it, nonetheless.
He stood and listened for a moment to the priest speaking.
“Brothers! Sisters! Today is a great victory. Today, we have sent many through the black door to the world beyond. Today, we have sated the gods, so that we are not chosen by them tomorrow. Today’s victory—”
“It was not a victory,” Irrien said, and his voice carried effortlessly over that of the priest. “For there to be a victory, there must be a fight worth having. Is taking empty homes a victory? Is slaughtering fools who stayed behind when others had the sense to run?” Irrien looked around at them. “We have killed today, and that is good, but there is far more to be done. Today, we will finish things here. We will tear down their castles and give their families to the slavers. Tomorrow, though, we will go to the place where there is a victory to be won. To the place all their warriors have gone ahead of us. We will go to Haylon!”
He heard his men cheer at that, their lust for battle reignited by the killing. He turned to the priest there.
“What do you say? Is it the will of the gods?”
The priest didn’t hesitate. He took his knife and sliced open the dead man on the altar, pulling out his entrails to read them.
“It is, Lord Irrien. Their will follows yours in this! Irrien! Ir-ri-en!”
“Ir-ri-en!” the soldiers chanted.
The man knew his place, then. Irrien smiled and set off into the crowd. He wasn’t surprised when a robed figure slipped into the space beside him, matching his step. Irrien drew a dagger, not knowing if he would need it.
“You have been quiet since we last talked, N’cho,” Irrien said. “I do not like to be kept waiting.”
The assassin bowed his head. “I have been researching what you required of me, First Stone, asking my fellow priests, reading forbidden scrolls, torturing those who would not speak.”
Irrien was sure that the leader of the Dozen Deaths had enjoyed himself immensely. Of all of them, N’cho had been the only one to survive attacking him. Irrien was starting to wonder if that had been the right choice to make.
“You heard what I told the men,” Irrien said. “We are going to Haylon. That means going up against the child of the Ancient Ones. Do you have a solution for me, or should I drag you back to be the next sacrifice?”
He saw the other man shake his head. “Alas, the gods are not so eager to meet me, First Stone.”
Irrien narrowed his eyes. “Meaning?”
N’cho stepped back. “I believe that I have found what you require.”
Irrien gestured for the other man to go with him, leading the way back to his tent. At a look from him, the guards and the slaves there left in a hurry, leaving the two of them alone.
“What have you found?” Irrien asked.
“There were… creatures employed in the war against the Ancient Ones,” N’cho said.
“Such things would be long dead,” Irrien pointed out.
N’cho shook his head. “They can still be summoned, and I believe I have found a spot to summon one. It will take many deaths, though.”
Irrien laughed at that. It was a small price to pay for Ceres’s life.
“Death,” he said, “is always the easiest thing to arrange.”
Stephania watched Captain Kang sleep with a look of disgust that seeped deep down into her soul. The bulky form of the captain shifted as he snored, and Stephania had to shift back as he reached for her in his sleep. He’d done more than enough of that while waking.
Stephania had never had a problem with taking lovers to bend them to her will. It was what she was planning to do with the Second Stone, after all. Yet Kang had been far from a gentle man, and he’d seemed to take delight in finding new ways to humiliate Stephania on the way over. He’d treated her like the slave she’d briefly been with Irrien, and Stephania had sworn to herself that she would never be that again.
Then she’d heard the whispers among the crew: that perhaps she wouldn’t be arriving safe after all. That maybe the captain would take all she’d given and sell her into slavery anyway at the end of it. That at the very least, he would share the bounty by giving her to them.
Stephania wouldn’t allow that. She would rather die than that, but it was much easier to kill instead.
She slipped from the bed silently, looking out of one of the small windows of the captain’s cabin. Port Leeward lay just a little way away, dust falling over it from the cliffs above even in the half-light of dawn. It was an ugly city, worn and cramped, and even from here Stephania could tell that it would be a place of violence. Kang had said that he didn’t dare to go in at night.
Stephania had guessed that had just been an excuse to use her one more time, but maybe it was more than that. The slave markets wouldn’t be open in the dark, after all.
She made a decision and dressed quietly, wrapping herself up in her cloak and reaching into its folds. She drew out a bottle and some thread, moving with the care of someone who knew exactly what she was holding. If she made a mistake now, she was dead, either from the poison, or when Kang woke.
Stephania positioned herself over the bed, lining the thread up with Kang’s mouth as best she could. He shifted and turned in his sleep, and Stephania went with him, being careful not to touch him. If he woke now, she was well within striking distance.