Victor, Vanquished, Son
She dripped the poison along the thread, keeping her concentration as Kang murmured something in his sleep. One drop trickled down toward his lips, then a second. Stephania prepared herself for the moment when he would gasp and die, the poison claiming him.
Instead, his eyes snapped open, staring up at Stephania for a moment in incomprehension, then anger.
“Whore! Slave! You’ll die for this.”
In an instant, he was up on top of Stephania, pressing her down against the bed. He struck her once, and then she felt the crushing pressure of his hands fastening on her throat. Stephania gasped as she felt her breath cut off, thrashing around as she tried to get him off her.
For his part, Kang bore down with all his great bulk, pinning Stephania beneath him. She fought and he just laughed, continuing to strangle her. He was still laughing when Stephania drew a knife from inside her cloak and stabbed him.
He gasped with the first thrust, but Stephania didn’t feel the pressure on her throat ease. Blackness started to come in at the edges of her vision, but she kept stabbing, thrusting mechanically on instinct, doing it blindly because now she couldn’t see anything beyond a faint haze.
The grip around her throat loosened, and Stephania felt Kang’s bulk collapse on her.
It took far too long to fight her way out from beneath him, gasping for breath and trying to push her way back to consciousness. She all but fell from the bed, then stood, looking down at the ruin of Kang’s body in disgust.
She had to be practical. She’d done what she intended, however difficult it had proved to be. Now for the rest.
She quickly rearranged the sheets to make it look more like he was sleeping at first glance. She went through the cabin quickly, finding the small chest where Kang kept gold. Stephania slipped out onto the deck, her hood up as she made her way to the ship’s small landing boat at the stern.
Stephania stepped in, starting to work the pulleys to lower it. They creaked like a rusted gate, and from somewhere above her, she heard the shouts of sailors wanting to know what the noise was. Stephania didn’t hesitate. She drew a knife and started to saw at the rope holding the boat. It gave way and she plummeted the rest of the short distance to the waves.
Grabbing the oars, she started to row, heading for the harbor while behind her, the sailors realized that they had no way to follow her. Stephania rowed until she came up against the docks, then clambered up, not even bothering to tie the boat off. She wouldn’t be going back that way.
Felldust’s capital city was everything it had promised to be from the water. Dust fell on it in waves, while around her, figures moved through it with ominous intent. One closed on her, and Stephania flashed a knife until he backed off.
She went deeper into the city. Stephania knew that Lucious had come here, and she wondered how he’d felt while he was doing it. Probably helpless, because Lucious didn’t know how to relate to people. He thought in terms of storming up to people and demanding, of threats and intimidation. He’d been a fool.
Stephania wasn’t a fool. She looked around until she found the people who would have real information: the beggars and the whores. She went to them with her stolen gold and she asked the same question, again and again.
“Tell me about Ulren.”
She asked it in alleys and she asked it in gambling houses where the stakes seemed to be blood as often as coin. She asked it in shops that sold layers of wraps against the dust and she asked it in the places where thieves gathered in the dark.
She picked an inn and settled herself there, sending word out into the city that there was gold for those who would talk to her. They came, telling her snippets of history and rumor, gossip and secrets in a mixture Stephania was more than used to sorting through.
She wasn’t surprised when they came for her, two men and a woman, all in the wrappings the city used to keep off the dust, all wearing the emblem of the former Second Stone. They had the hard look of people used to violence, but that could have applied to almost anyone in Felldust.
“You’ve been asking a lot of questions,” the woman said, leaning over the table. Close enough that Stephania could have put a knife in her easily. Close enough that they could have been confidantes sharing gossip at some courtly dance.
Stephania smiled. “I have.”
“Did you think that those questions wouldn’t attract attention? That the First Stone doesn’t have listeners in the shadows?”
Stephania laughed then. Did they think that she hadn’t considered the possibility of spies? She’d done more than that; she’d relied on it. She’d fished for answers in the city, but the truth of it was that she’d been fishing for attention as much as anything else. Any fool could walk up to a gate and be denied entry. A clever woman made it so that those within brought her inside.
After all, Stephania thought with more amusement, a woman should never be the one doing all the chasing in a romance.
“What’s so funny?” the woman demanded. “Are you mad, or just stupid? Who are you, anyway?”
Stephania pulled back her hood so that the other woman could see her features.
“I am Stephania,” she said. “Former bride of the heir to the Empire, former ruler of the Empire. I have survived the fall of Delos and Irrien’s best efforts to kill me. I think that your lord will want to talk to me, don’t you?”
She stood as the others looked at one another, obviously trying to decide what to do in the face of this. Finally, the woman made a decision.
“We bring her.”
They moved in on either side of Stephania, but she made a point of moving with them, so that it looked more like a noble escort than her being taken prisoner. She even reached out to rest her hand lightly on the woman’s arm, the way she might have with a companion walking around a garden.
They led the way across the city, and since it was one of the rare gaps in the dust storms off the cliffs, Stephania didn’t bother with the hood of her cloak. She let people see her, knowing that the rumors of who she was and where she was going would start.
Of course, in spite of what she made it look like, this was still a long way from a pleasant stroll. These were still killers beside her, who wouldn’t hesitate to murder her if Stephania gave them a reason. As they came toward a large compound in the heart of the city, Stephania could feel the fear knotting in her stomach, pushed down only by her determination to do all the things she had come to Felldust for. She would have revenge on Irrien. She would get her son back from the sorcerer.
They marched her through the compound, past the working slaves and the training warriors, past statues depicting Ulren in his youth, standing over the bodies of slain enemies. Stephania had no doubt that this was a dangerous man. To be second only to Irrien meant that he had fought his way to the top of one of the most dangerous places there was.
To lose here was to die, or worse than die, but Stephania didn’t intend to lose. She’d learned the lessons of the invasion, and even of her failure to control Irrien. This time, she had something to offer. Ulren wanted the same things that she did: power, and the death of the former First Stone.
Stephania had heard of people basing marriages on worse things.
Ceres stepped from the small boat onto the bank, in awe of the fact that a place like this could exist somewhere underground. She knew that the powers of the Ancient Ones were involved, but she couldn’t see why they would do this. Why make a garden in the middle of a nightmare?
Of course, from the little she’d seen of the Ancient Ones, the fact that there was a nightmare might be a sufficient reason for the garden.
Then there was the dome, which seemed to be composed of pure golden light. Ceres walked closer to it. If there was an answer to be found here, she was sure that it was somewhere inside that dome.
There was a faint haze to the light, and inside, Ceres thought she could see a pair of figures. She just hoped they weren’t more of the half-dead sorcerers. Ceres wasn’t sure she had the strength to fight any more of them.
She pressed into the light, and Ceres couldn’t help bracing herself for some kind of shock or force designed to fling her back. Instead, there was just a moment of pressure, and then she was through it, inside the dome and looking around.
Here, it looked like the interior of some opulent room, with rugs and divans, statues and ornaments that seemed to hang from the interior of the dome. There were other things too: glassware and books that pointed to a sorcerer’s art.
Two figures stood at the heart of it. The man had the same look of grace and peace that Ceres had seen in her mother, and he wore the pale robes that she had seen in the memories of the Ancient Ones. The woman wore the darker robes of a sorcerer, but unlike the ones above, she still seemed young, not desiccated by time.
Looking at them, Ceres realized that they also had the faintly translucent look she’d seen in other parts of the complex, in the memories there.
“They aren’t real,” she said.
The man laughed at that. “Do you hear that, Lin? We aren’t real.”
The woman reached out to touch his arm. “It’s an understandable mistake to make. After all this time, I imagine we look mere shadows of what we were.”
That took Ceres a little aback. On impulse, she reached out for the man. She found that her hand passed straight through his chest. She realized what she’d just done.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” the man said. “I imagine it is a little disconcerting.”