-- prequel story to "In the Service of Samurai". A young Ietsugu learns that the stories about the supernatural are real.
"Asaka-sama, we have been beset by the foulest of demons and nothing we do will rid us of it." The prostrated villager quivered from head to foot on the tatami floor. "Please, we are unworthy but would beg for your help!"
Ietsugu's heart raced at the statement, though he maintained his features as schooled as possible. He threw a glance at his father, the lord of the area, to see how he took the entreaty. The lined, square face appeared as calm and impassive as ever. Ietsugu hoped one day he too could keep his emotions so well hidden. Though he practiced, he still found the skill difficult to master.
The dire words hung in the air making a strange contrast with the warm sunlight and the soft morning breeze coming through the open sliding doors. Charms hanging from the rafters outside clinked occasionally, adding to the diversity.
After several long moments, Ietsugu's father finally spoke. "What do you think, my son?"
Ietsugu frowned down at the villager, though inside his pulse raced faster still. "Send me to investigate this for you, Father." He tried to sound sure and commanding, as a strong vassal should. "I will assess whether there's truly a need and correct it. Or, if the villagers are only making excuses not to pay their tribute, take steps." In the few years he'd studied at his father's side, this wouldn't be the first time a village tried to weasel out of their obligations.
The villager clapped his hands together in supplication. "Truly, lords, our trouble is real!"
"So we've heard." His father turned toward him. "Go and seek the truth, my son. Take Mitsuo-san with you and whatever provisions you think you might need. I will also have some ofuda prepared in case the supernatural is truly involved."
Ietsugu bowed, hidden excitement rising in his chest. "Thank you, father."
"You won't regret this, young lord. The village will be very grateful for your help." The villager named Taka flashed him a smile, urging his mare to move forward.
Their destination lay nestled in the mountains two days ride from Lord Asaka's seat. As a man of sixteen, this would be Ietsugu's first foray in service to his father. Something he hoped to be able to do frequently. While the intricacies or rule fascinated him, he also wanted to get to know the land he would oversee one day as well.
He refused to look behind him as they left the small city, not wanting to mar the excitement of his leave taking with a flood of wistful emotion.
Taka turned out to be a knowledgeable guide, chattering about plants, the best waterfall views, and the local deities. Time passed quickly.
"How much farther, Taka-san?" Ietsugu said.
"We will be there by nightfall, Asaka-sama." Taka tried to bow though he was seated on the old mare.
The side of the mountain was steep, but zigzagging paths of steps made with dirt and logs made the way easy enough for men and horses.
At random spots, Ietsugu spotted rock statues or small shrines erected for the worship of the local kami, or spirits. Moss made a carpet of green and red across the land and rocks, with maples and oaks providing welcomed shade. The shrill sound of cicadas and the chirping of birds kept them company.
As the sun lit the horizon in flaming colors, the path widened and opened to a cleared area. A covered well sat in the middle, surrounded by twelve family homes with thatched roofs.
Beyond the small village, Ietsugu caught a glimpse of a cultivated mountainside, terraced with rice fields. The maturing shoots waved in the breeze.
A high squeal from a naked four year old trumpeted their arrival. Surprised faces peeked out of doorways, some pale with fear.
Upon seeing Taka astride the mare, the villagers brightened and flooded out to greet them. Almost as one, they bowed low as soon as they spotted Ietsugu and his teacher.
A stocky man with gray in his black hair stepped forward wearing a fudoshi and haramaki to cover his privates and midriff, a simple brown linen short coat draped on his shoulders.
Taka dropped from his horse and bowing to Ietsugu hurried to make introductions. "Asaka-sama, this is our village leader, Gendou-san."
"We are so pleased to see you here, sir."
Ietsugu dismounted and nodded, following it with the slightest of bows. "I only hope to serve." He turned eagerly toward his companion. "This is Mitsuo-san, my father's vassal and my teacher. He speaks with my voice."
Everyone bowed again as Mitsuo came forward, his misshapen, stooped form making him appear short and weak -- an assumption far from the mark.
"Please accept the humble hospitality of my family," Gendou said, bowing again. "You and your companion can rest in my unworthy home for the length of your stay. You shall have total privacy. Please make your needs known and they will be seen to immediately." The older man turned and shooed the villagers from before him to open a path back toward his home. Several of the men were instructed to take responsibility for the horses and supplies.
Whispers, stares, and nods trickled after them as Ietsugu, Mitsuo, and Taka followed.
The chief's home resembled the others except for a broad porch in front proceeded by a set of steps. The interior of the house was a single, wide room with a square hole in the center, housing a fire pit. Rolled up blankets took up one corner, along with built-in shelves and boxes.
Gendou's wife, three daughters, and young son bowed as they entered, their gaze firmly planted on the ground.
"Please sit, Asaka-sama. Though we are unworthy, allow us to extend our hospitality to you and yours." Gendou pointed toward the place of honor.
Ietsugu sat with folded legs on the wooden floor, Mitsuo settling a pace or two behind him as was his want.
Gendou's wife took command at that point and plied them all with tea, rice, and small pieces of meat, probably deer or boar, wrapped in leaves.
Once they were served, she sat at the corner of the room, observing the men and rising when needed to refill cups or bowls.
Though the fare was simple, Ietsugu was glad for the food. The sounds of night rose around them, the deepening gloom kept away by the light of a short tallow candle. The quiet company, the warm tea, and the meal, seemed to bid as a good portent for the coming enterprise. Wallowing in the sensations a moment longer, he then set his empty dish back on the floor and made eye contact with his host.
"My father has sent me to help your village as requested. Taka-san spoke of evil demons and other troubles. What more can you tell me? Has a priest been called as well?"
Gendou bowed to the floor. Taka almost immediately followed suit. Ietsugu couldn't be sure, but he thought the peasant looked afraid. "I wouldn't dare pile more upon your shoulders when you've only so recently arrived, young lord." Gendou sounded nervous. "It is late, very late, and I couldn't possibly impose upon you until you've rested. Please, relax, take your ease until morning. Then all will be revealed as much as you wish."
Ietsugu's brow rose. Were they that frightened of speaking of demons and spirits in the dark? Surely they didn't believe they'd be overheard. He decided not to be rude and force the issue despite the obvious evasion to his questions. It had been a long ride after all; the rest would be welcome. "Till morning then."
Gendou's wife gathered the dishes, the atmosphere around them easing. Taka got up, bowed, and left in an obvious hurry, as if unsure the samurai wouldn't change his mind. The sounds of packages being placed on the porch rang loud in the evening air. Moments later two of the daughters returned and stood meekly to the side. Gendou rose. "My daughters will turn down the bedding for you, Asaka-sama. If you have any wish for warmth, they would be happy to accommodate in that as well."
The leader pushed his two daughters forward to where they could be clearly seen in the light. Both held their heads bowed, their hands gripped before them.
"The nights at this time of year are comfortable enough. Thank you all the same." Though to take one was within his rights, the fear pouring like water from the two girls didn't warm Ietsugu to the prospect.
"As you wish." The two girls unrolled several sets of bedding then escaped in prompt order.
"I will be in the house to the left. If you need anything at all..."
"Yes, thank you." Ietsugu still hadn't moved from his sitting position.
Gendou's wife joined him at the door and both bowed before leaving. Her expression seemed to be carved in stone and hadn't changed all evening.
"Lord." Mitsuo's deep slow tones bid for Ietsugu's attention. "I will sleep outside and guard the door."
"Sensei, I doubt it's necessary."
The old samurai creaked to his feet. "Nevertheless."
Ietsugu nodded, knowing better than to argue with his stubborn teacher. In some things, the old man couldn't be budged. He took his role as samurai and vassal even more seriously than his father. "Good night, Mitsuo-san."
Once the sliding door had closed, Ietsugu removed his swords and set them above the wooden pillow. Next he removed his outer coat and then the kimono underneath. Folding both and setting them to the side, he blew out the candle and by the light from the coals in the fire pit, settled under the bedding.
Ietsugu shivered, his first thought as he awoke was that it was terribly cold. A great weight pressed against him from above, making it hard to breathe. His eyes snapped open.
It was still night. He lay in the same place as where he fell asleep. Yet through what little light seeped from the window behind him, he saw his breath turn white as he exhaled. The weight upon his chest increased, becoming painful. But he could see nothing there. Fear nipped at him.
He bid his arm to move, to reach behind him for his katana, but it would not. He couldn't move at all. How could this be? An act of treachery from the peasants? The food must have been poisoned. But what had they to gain from such a maneuver?
His breath coalesced before him as he breathed out again.
No. This must be something else. The cold was real and not a part of him.
That's when he heard it -- the barest of whispers. Yet, it seemed to come from right in front of him, from where he felt the weight, from where there was nothing.
"Leave this place..."
His pulse sped faster. And though he tried, he couldn't speak. But he dared not let his fear show. He schooled his face into an impassive mask, the one that was a samurai's alone.
"You are not of the village. You must leave this place..."
A mist spread above his blankets. It floated upwards toward the ceiling, like strokes of a brush creating a painting. It formed before him into the shape of a beautiful young woman.
Tears covered her face. Her clothes were entirely white. Wisps of light floated around her head.
Ietsugu had heard too many stories not to know what she was - yurei - a ghost.
"You will leave this place...or die!" Her face came close, the features changing as they rushed near. Full and lovely cheeks shrunk, thinned and hung as if there were no meat behind the loose skin. Her dark hair rose around her, spiking in every direction. Sad tearful eyes turned to burning coals of hatred.
Cold pierced his soul as she shot through and past him. Then she was gone.
Ietsugu leapt to his feet, no longer weighed down, his limbs his own once more. His skin broke out in goose bumps, the previously muted sounds of the night now overtly loud. The warm night sucked away the cold as if it had never been.
The door slid open behind him, and at the sound Ietsugu whipped around with a gasp.
"Asaka-sama! Is all well?" Mitsuo knelt at the entrance, his gaze piercing every corner of the room, his hand on the hilt of his katana.
"Yes. Nothing to be alarmed about." Ietsugu hoped his teacher couldn't hear the harsh galloping of his heart. Pretending a calm he didn't feel, he sat down on his bedding, all thoughts of sleep fled. "The village indeed has a problem."
With the first hint of dawn, Ietsugu stepped out to the well, waiting for the peasants to awaken. He stood with one hand on his sword, the other on his hip, a blank expression on his face. He had to fight the urge to pace.
As soon as one of the villagers peered out their door and spotted him, they sent sleepy children running in several directions, including the house where the chief and his family slept.
Within a minute Gendou rushed from the house, hair in disarray, and prostrated himself before Ietsugu's unhappy gaze. "Asaka-sama, is something the matter? Have we somehow displeased you?"
The rest of the village poured out to find out about the trouble, but all kept their distance from Ietsugu's dangerous expression.
"It is morning. I wish to have the meeting...now." He raked the entirety of the village with his gaze. "Do not make me wait."
He strode back to the chief's house and entered it without once looking back.
He'd barely seated himself, arranging his swords so they wouldn't hinder him, Mitsuo moving to stand at the back wall on his right, when Gendou entered.
Taka wasn't far behind him, helping an older man up the steps. One other, whom Ietsugu hadn't met before, brought up the rear. The samurai said nothing as he waited for them all to be seated.
Gendou's wife came in with a tray of rice cakes and tea, but Ietsugu waved her away. He didn't even give the new men time to introduce themselves.
"Tell me about the ghost."
The four men stared at one another in confusion. "Ghost? Asaka-sama, many apologies, but there is no ghost. Our troubles come from a demon," Gendou said.
"Several people have seen it," Taka added. "They all described it as a monster."
The oldest of the four leaned forward. "All the signs are there, great lord. It began months ago with many bouts of lighting and horrid storms. We tried to appease the demon as our ancestors did in ages past, but it didn't work. People have been attacked in their sleep." The old man's voice shook. "Our livestock have been hurt or killed. The walls holding the water for our crops were damaged so we very nearly lost everything. It is why Taka was sent to seek your help. We are most desperate." He bowed to the floor, his hands clasped together in supplication.
Ietsugu stared from one to the other. Could it be they truly didn't know? Isolated as they were, might it be possible? "The actual harm to the village, when -"
A piercing scream cut off his words. As one, they rushed outside.
A young man in traveling clothes stood in open-faced shock, a woman unconscious at his feet. Several men of the village rushed him and grappled him to the ground.
"Do not hurt him!" Ietsugu took the lead, the crowding villagers parting at his approach. "We need to ascertain what has occurred here first."
A heavily bent old woman pushed through the crowd from the side, poking stomachs and elbows with her gnarled staff. She knelt beside the fallen woman. "She still breathes. It looks as if she may have only fainted." She cackled with harsh humor.
Ietsugu couldn't fathom what she could possibly find amusing about the situation. There was a puzzle here and it would be unraveled. "Stand him up."
The men holding the newcomer jerked him to his feet. The young traveler's eyes went wide when they settled on Ietsugu's swords.
"Who are you?" the samurai said.
"My, my name is Daisuke, sir."
Ietsugu nodded. "Tell me what occurred here."
The young man opened his mouth but no words came out. He swallowed hard and tried again. "I just came into the village, sir, and called out a greeting to Izumi-san. But when she saw me, she screamed and fell dead away to the ground. I don't understand it."
"So you have been to this village before? You are known here?" Ietsugu felt a tendril of dread as a dark suspicion itched for his attention.
Gendou bowed his way forward. "That is correct, Asaka-sama. He spent a short time with us during the winter before last."
"Yes!" Daisuke nodded quickly. "I'd meant to come back much sooner -- just as I'd promised. But a long illness befell me and only recently was I well enough to travel again." The young man gazed at the gathered faces around him. "Where is Haruka-chan?"
The crone patted the face of the unconscious woman, her other hand holding tiny leaves to Izumi's nose. She cackled again. Everyone grew strangely silent their gaze anywhere but on the young man or the samurai. The men holding onto Daisuke's arms released him.
"Asaka-sama, I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding -- nothing to concern yourself about. We will take care of it." Gendou placed himself between Ietsugu and the traveler. "Why don't we go inside so we can continue with our meeting?"
Ietsugu stiffened, his previous sense of dread growing. He sensed Mitsuo doing the same. Something wasn't right here. "I haven't finished, Gendou-san." He put as much disapproval into his tone as he could.
Gendou instantly bowed and stepped aside, his face hidden.
"She's coming around now." The crone helped prop Izumi against the side of the well.
The woman moaned, her hand rising to cradle her head. Then she snapped up straight and her gaze locked with Daisuke's. Her face paled and tears sprang to her eyes. "Oh ohhhhhh."
"Izumi-san?" Daisuke pushed forward and knelt beside her. "Are you not well? And where is Haruka-chan?"
Izumi would no longer look at him, turning her face away and hiding it behind her sleeves.
Looking baffled, the traveler rose to his feet and stared about him as if never having seen any of them before. "Where is Haruka-chan?"
"She's dead." Gasps rang all around as Ietsugu answered his question.
"What? How can that be?" Daisuke turned to face the samurai.
"That is something the village will need to answer. All I know is that I have seen her angry ghost with my own eyes. She is now an onryo."
Several villagers fell to their knees, groans echoing around them. Daisuke's face paled, even as he stared at Ietsugu with incomprehension. "A vengeful spirit? Why would she be a vengeful spirit?" He turned on the villagers. "What have you people done?"
Ietsugu turned merciless eyes in Gendou's direction. "Yes, Gendou-san, tell us what was done."
The village leader groveled on the ground, his face in the dirt. "This cannot be. It cannot be." He shook his head. "You must believe us. We saw the signs! An offering had to be made."
"What did you do?" Daisuke shook where he stood, obviously fighting for control.
The answer didn't come from the leader, but from Izumi. Her low voice sounded lifeless. "You hadn't returned. We didn't believe you would. And she was the loveliest and most pleasing... The one most likely to satisfy the demon and therefore save the village."
"No. No, no, no no no. Haruka!" Daisuke slumped to the ground and covered his face with his hands.
Ietsugu didn't acknowledge Mitsuo's soft voiced comment though at the moment he totally agreed. "What was actually done with the girl? How was she offered to your imagined demon?" He held back none of the disgust he felt from showing in his voice.
The adults cringed. Several small children cried out, sensing the distress of their parents.
The older of the four men who'd come to hold council that morning, crawled forward. "There, there is a cave on a cliff not too far from here. It is where our ancestors left offerings in the past."
"You will take us there. Now."
High on an exposed side of the mountain, the cave appeared as nothing more than a dark depression in the wall. A narrow ledge offered a ready grip for a grapple and rope.
Of the villagers, only Gendou and Taka were allowed to come and show the way. The rest were to wait at the village. Diasuke trailed behind them, looking lost and numb.
The basket procured from behind a set of bushes, contained a rope ladder. After several halfhearted attempts, the two villagers secured it to the ledge.
"The two of you will remain here." Ietsugu said. Mitsuo watched them coldly, his hand resting on the pummel of his sword, making a promise of what would be their reward if they decided to disobey the order. Both men stared only at the ground.
Ietsugu took hold of the ladder, and after testing it, climbed up. Mitsuo and Daisuke followed.
Sunlight only penetrated a foot or so into the cave. Cold air emanated from the interior. Mitsuo lit a lamp and handed it over to Ietsugu. Making sure the sacred papers his father had obtained for him before his journey were still safely tucked within his sleeve, Ietsugu held the lamp before him and turning sideways, shuffled inside.
Daisuke followed him, with Mitsuo remaining to guard the entrance outside.
The cave was narrow for several arm lengths then widened. The cold rose in intensity and the stench of rotting flesh grew cloyingly close.
The diffused light parted the darkness. An ancient shrine sat on the left, hasty repairs and more recent offerings of food and incense evident.
The back of the cave went deep. Yellowed, brittle bones and bone dust covered the floor there like a bed. Nestled in the middle of it lay the decomposing body of a young woman. Bindings were tied around her ankles and wrists, dried blood staining them from her struggles to get loose. A gag was set firmly in her mouth.
Ietsugu frowned, knowing this to have been a dishonorable and agonizing death. Worse, it was done to her by her own people. The anger he'd been holding back so fiercely glowed a little brighter. His knuckles turned white on the hilt of his sword.
"Haruka!" Daisuke lunged past him to fall on his knees beside the decaying body. "Oh, my beloved Haruka!"
The already low temperature plunged. Their breaths frosted before them.
A cloud of mist formed above him, taking on the shape of the dead woman on the floor.
"Haruka-chan!" Daisuke's gasp was filled with both exhilaration and horror.
Moving incredibly slowly so as to not attract attention, Ietsugu set the lamp on the ground behind him.
"Beloved... You've finally come for me." Her ghostly arms extended toward the young man. "I've waited so long." Her face peeled back into rows of jagged teeth. "You've come just in time to join me in death!"
Daisuke screamed as he was bodily picked up off the floor and flung the length of the cave. Ietsugu rushed forward and slashed at the apparition with his sword to no effect. The blade slid cleanly through Haruka's floating body, not slowing her in the least.
"Come, Daisuke, prove your love to me. Give me your life." She glided forward affection and hate warring over her features.
The traveler struggled to stand, holding his right arm tight to his body.
"Stop! He is not the one who did this to you!" Ietsugu tried to get between them.
With only a flick of her wrist, Haruka sent him flying back onto the bed of bones. Something sharp and hot pierced Ietsugu's hip, making him grimace with pain. The scent of blood wafted around him.
The ghost enveloped Daisuke. His eyes bulged, his left hand rising to his throat.
Ietsugu used his sword to pull himself up to his knees. He reached inside his sleeve for one of the folded papers with the almost unintelligible cursive script.
As if sensing the item in his hands, a shrieking wind swirled in the space with brutal torrential force, pushing Ietsugu to the floor and sliding him back toward the entrance.
Flailing for purchase, he stabbed his katana into the ground to keep from being pushed away farther. With gritted teeth, he removed his wakisashi, keeping the ofuda pressed tightly between his hand and the short sword's hilt.
Struggling against the wind, and grimacing at the use he was putting his swords to, Ietsugu used the blades to drive them ahead of him into the dirt and loose shale to pull himself back toward the dead woman's body.
Risking a glance in the ghost's direction, her entire attention appeared to be riveted on her strangling lover. Ietsugu pushed to move faster, knowing she wouldn't be diverted forever.
By the time he made it to the corpse's side, his arms and body shook from the strain of fighting the wind.
Sending a prayer to Buddha and Amaterasu, he let go of the wakisashi and slapped the blessed papers onto the forehead of Haruka's physical body.
Her ghost form screamed as the two made contact, light flashing from the corpse. Her keening wail forced Ietsugu to cover his ears in pain.
Haruka's form expanded and expanded until she seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the cave. With a final shriek, there was a sudden release of pressure, and she was gone.
Daisuke dropped to the ground, coughing. As Ietsugu labored to stand upright, Daisuke seemed to realize the ghost was truly gone. His face scrunched up in pain and unashamed tears poured down his cheeks. "Beloved!"
"Asaka-sama!" Mitsuo squeezed into the room, his sword drawn. Spotting him, the weeping Daisuke, and no one else, he hurried to his master's side confusion warring with the need to make sure his young charge was well.
"I'm all right." Ietsugu waved him off. "We should leave this evil place."
Ietsugu stared at where the cave entrance had once stood, full of satisfaction. For four days the villagers were pressed into service to mine rock from the mountain so the cave could be filled and then sealed.
Taka had been sent back to the city with a note to summon a priest and monk. For the last day, the Shinto monk and Buddhist priest had done their best to lay those within to their proper rest and also make sure no demons or spirits were still tied to the place.
Every villager would go through rituals of purification and pay penance through prayer for their part in the misdeed and also help build a proper shrine and housing for a monk. The errors of the past would not be repeated.
Ietsugu removed his gaze from the thick woven rope and lightning shaped papers draped about the closed entrance and stared with some pity at Daisuke. The young man no longer looked quite the same. Lines of sadness and of the things he saw marked him.
The samurai had already decided the young man would go back with them. The sooner he left this place, the faster he might become himself again. Perhaps one day Daisuke might even forget Haruka and the betrayal perpetrated on her by her own people.
-- prequel story to "Price of Mercy". Origin story for Sylvanna.
"If you could have anything, my dearest madam, what would
you wish for?"
Sylvanna turned on her side
beneath the covers to stare at her lover. A swath of early morning sunlight lay
over them both, coming through the wide window of the hidden attic room in the
palace. "Children. I've always thought it'd be
wonderful to have a gaggle of children."
A panicked look crossed Emperor Narpess'
blue eyes before they turned deadly serious. Before he could say anything,
however, Sylvanna laughed. "Don't worry. You asked me
a question and I answered it, it doesn't mean I've stopped taking precautions."
She gently flicked his long nose. "You've nothing to worry about."
She laughed again when his expression didn't clear.
"If you're going to fret about it so, we can stop our amusements any time you
like." She sat up, her long black hair falling over her breasts like a draped robe. "Then there'll be nothing to worry about." A tilted
smile took the sting out of the comment. "Tempting as it might be to have a
royal bastard, I would prefer to be a properly married woman before creating my
throng of offspring."
Narpess' expression turned
petulant. "I'm not ready for you to leave me. And no one is fretting about
anything." His creased brows disagreed. "I only asked the question as I was
thinking of getting you a gift."
The comment gave her a small thrill quickly followed
by a chill. "You shouldn't, Narpy. You know you
shouldn't. We've talked about this."
"I can be discreet. She won't find out." His lower lip
pushed out like a spoiled child's despite his twenty years. "I'm the emperor. I
can do as I like!"
Sylvanna shook her head,
looking away, surprised yet again how such a man, who could be smart and clever
when he applied himself, chose to remain so blind where his mother, his
position, and the power of the empire were concerned. "Only
within reason. And giving me a gift is not. She gets reports of every expenditure, of everywhere you go, of everything
you do. That you stumbled over some of the palace's secret passages is the only
reason we're able to meet at all."
Narpess sighed and fell back
onto the pillows. "She's only trying to make sure I'm the best emperor I can
Sylvanna sighed as well, but
made sure he didn't see or hear it. "Yes... It is her duty to do so, of course." Trillena just didn't have to go to the extremes she did.
But making Narpy understand this was a battle she'd
reconciled herself as having lost long ago. Her son would never see Trillena for what she truly was-a tyrant and a master
Love could be blind and not just for lovers.
Sylvanna had come to court
when she was thirteen. It'd been such an honor to have been chosen to be one of
the empress's ladies in waiting, especially since they'd only met once, and
briefly at that. It was only after she'd been here for some time that the truth
of why her family had been so honored came to light. Though their duchy was far
out in the provinces and her family not all that well off, her father was
popular and full of radical ideas. The dowager believed him a little too popular, as it turned out. Having a
daughter living at the palace was seen as a mark of favor, but it was also a form
She fought to hold back another sigh.
Oh, Trillena would never
threaten directly, but Sylvanna too clearly
remembered what had happened to Kareen. A little
dumpy and slow, Kareen had been one of the sweetest
people ever to have been forged by the Maker.
The only one of the handmaidens who didn't fawn all over the place, or
only thought about how to best better their station in the dowager empress's
eyes. A true and honest friend, only too thrilled to serve. This hadn't stopped
Trillena from 'losing' an important item and then
having it be said Kareen was the one responsible for
taking it. That it was found amongst her things, a clear sign of guilt. So she'd been sent home in tears and covered
in shame, ugly welts raking her back from the lashes. Suddenly her father's new
lucrative contracts, which he'd worked to gain independently of the crown, fell
through due to the smear. Later, they were conveniently picked up by others
more favored by the empress. Those so privileged then in turn increased the
empire's coffers with lavish monetary gifts for the introductions to the
foreign dignitaries, of course.
Once the blinders came off, Sylvana
hadn't been able to put them back on - the bars of her prison no longer hidden
behind curtains or lace, but clanging with the empress's every word and action.
What had appeared before as stoicism and grace were revealed as total
indifference and single-minded selfishness.
She threw a glance at Narpess
wondering when and how he'd come to realize his life wasn't entirely his own,
as she had. It was something she'd not dared ask about.
The parties and picnics with the dowager were no
longer the glamorous affairs she'd believed them. The lavish presents of dresses
and perfumes weren't true gifts, given only to make them stand out, so those
around them would remember what they actually were -- hostages to ensure good and
loyal behavior from their parents. Yet the families and the other daughters and
sons housed here preferred fooling themselves and those around them, rather
than face the facts of their precarious existence.
Sylvanna rose from the bed, the
morning chill nipping at her flesh. She reached for her shift, her mood soured. "We should get back. Someone will come
looking for you before long and I need to be ready to attend the empress since
she habitually rises earlier than her precious son."
A groan reached her from the bed. "She's been harping
on that lately, but I'm not about to give up on my one and only real vice." The
bead creaked as he rose. "It's the only way I get to spend any time with you."
His every waking hour was planned-had been since
he'd been old enough to walk. As her eyes had been opened to her real
situation, so had they been opened to his. That he'd
stumbled upon her as she hid crying behind one of the manicured bushes as he
tried to steal a few minutes for himself hadn't hurt either.
He'd asked her if she was all right, a knowing look in
his eyes. Something, which in his position, he need not have done, yet he'd
taken the time, even at the risk of being found earlier than he might have.
Showing there might be someone living in the gilded cage who
Sylvanna had seen a kindred
soul in him, someone who understood and didn't just live the lie, someone in
need of help if not a little pity. Compared to him, she had more freedom, more
control over her life. She could more easily escape the empress' notice than he
-his shiny prison filled with many invisible chains, unlike her own.
Narpess swept the hair away
from her neck and planted a kiss there. "You've made life tolerable for me."
A smile tugged at her face as she turned around.
"You've done the same for me and more."
The excitement of their secret meetings gave her
something to look forward to. The ability for her to be able to vent her
frustrations, safe in the knowledge whatever she said wouldn't be shared with anyone
else. The wonder at the things she
learned about the world as she bumbled with him through some of his lessons. The
joy at watching a gangly youth grow to a man and the empire's most important
figure-The Maker's Avatar.
The sex...had been unplanned.
Curiosity mixed with trust and the need for education
and relief. It'd worked out well for them.
His kiss migrated to her lips as if agreeing with her.
Sylvanna allowed herself to wallow in the sensation for a moment, then pulled
away. "I really do need to go." She grabbed her green morning robe and slipped
it on. "I'll see you tonight." She started toward the door.
She glanced back at him, surprised. "Yes?"
He turned his back to her, picking up his own purple
robe with gold filigree. "Mother has arranged for a visit."
She turned to face him. "Another
"Is there any other kind with her?"
She was surprised she'd not heard of it. But then
again with the less than satisfactory results of the last two attempted matches,
perhaps the empress had decided to keep the subject private and test the waters
first before letting everyone in on the possible match.
"I know she's only doing this with my best interest at
heart, but really. I'm only twenty. Why the hurry?"
Sylvanna couldn't stop her
brow from rising. "You're the emperor. Your mother and the people expect a
secured line of succession, and you can't get that without marriage and
children. You know all this."
"But I don't want to marry any of these 'carefully
chosen' women. Why can't I just marry you instead?"
Again that strange thrill and chill wove through her body. "You mustn't say
that. You must never say that! It'll never
happen. We must be reconciled to that."
A hurt look flashed across his face, and she was sorry
for it, but these were the realities of their situation.
He shook his head. "You have noble blood. You come
from a good family. It shouldn't be that unfathomable a thing!" He sat down
hard on the bed, scowling at her.
"You mother will not have it. She doesn't like my
family. Not in a thousand years would she think of giving them the power they'd
gain by having their daughter become the emperor's
"Surely you exaggerate."
Sylvanna could only stare, a
kernel of dread forming inside her. Had she been the one lying to herself all this
time? Did he really not understand her precarious placement? Or just didn't
want to? If his mother ever suspected he might want such a thing...
She rubbed her suddenly cold arms.
"Narpy, I'm begging you, if
you care for me at all, don't ever say those words again where someone might
Not looking at him, she turned away and fled from the
out the door, she gasped in surprise, again having forgotten about Narpess' bodyguard, Lissan. Dark
skinned, he blended with the deep shadows in the tight, badly lit corridor.
That he towered over her and his skin showed all manner of old scars, didn't help her feel any easier about him even after
all this time. "Apologies..."
hurried past him, resisting the urge to glance back over her shoulder. He always
seemed to know where Narpess was. It never mattered
how hard they tried to elude him. Yet her friend never seemed truly concerned.
She'd asked about it once and Narpess told her he'd
sworn Lissan into secrecy so all was well. He'd
insisted Lissan could no more break the oath than she
could turn her body into that of a man's. Despite his reassurances, Sylvanna knew money could loosen all manner of tongues, but
after all this time there wasn't even a rumor of their dalliances, so the oath
had been kept.
touching the wall to count the panels for her turn, she hurried forward.
she'd wondered if Lissan were one of the fabled
Twelve-the empire's secret guard. Even living at the palace, she'd never seen
any real proof of them. Narpess had never mentioned
them, and neither had the dowager empress. But stories of them persisted
nevertheless. The Twelve were supposedly creations from before the Age of
Blight. Many believed them imbued with powers-as they'd been made before so
much was lost to the chaos of the Blight. Though no one
trusted magic anymore. Not after
what had happened, not after Mad Manta. Those with the aptitude were closely
scrutinized and controlled. Yet unlike so much else, the Twelve had seemingly
survived and served the empire still, as spies and sometimes assassins, keeping
the empire together. Or so the stories said.
one had ever seen them. Or if they had,
they'd not lived to tell about it.
Sylvanna quickened her steps.
The dowager empress chose to break her fast with her
handmaidens in one of the larger gazebos of the extensive imperial gardens. The
girls sat at a round glass table beside the dowager's smaller, more intricate
one-a bouquet of bright flowers in taffeta and silk, beside the thin, austere
stalk in black.
"You've been with me for some years now, haven't you, Sylvanna?"
The question caught her off guard and made her rattle
her teacup as she set it back on its plate.
All conversation at the table died, every last one of
them turning to look Sylvanna's way.
"Y, yes. Almost nine years, Your Highness." She couldn't quite keep the slight quiver
from her voice at the unwanted attention.
"You've been attentive; carried out your duties well.
You even keep your tongue in check, which others would do well to emulate." Trillena's scathing glare scoured the rest of those at the
table and one or two of the girls hunched down in their seats.
They would blame Sylvanna
for the rebuke, of course, despite the fact she'd had nothing to do with it --
she was an easier target than the empress. They wanted nothing more than to be
seen in the best light possible, not understanding their true standing in this
place. It was but one of the many games Trillena
liked to play-pitting them against each other.
"Such devoted service should be rewarded, don't you
Sylvanna cringed inside,
knowing such favor would only bring her even more into her fellows' unwanted
attentions. "I live but to serve the throne, Your Highness. No rewards are
"Be that as it may, I'm going to insist." Trillena gave her a small smile. "I've arranged a match for
For a moment, Sylvanna
couldn't breathe, the fanciful side of her filled with glee, assuming Narpess had spoken to his mother despite Sylvanna's wishes and had convinced her to see things his
way. But she knew better, she'd always known better. Still, there were worse
things than to have your hand given away in marriage with the empress's
blessing. Except, she knew the woman was never kind without hidden reasons, and
all of them to her gain. Narpy would be beside
Sylvanna forced her heavy
tongue to move. "You honor me, Your Highness." She slipped off her seat into a
curtsey. "Might I inquire as to whom I am to be united with?"
"You may." The empress's eyes glittered with barely
concealed amusement. "To the handsome Trevor Simille,
first son of Duke Simille."
Sylvanna bowed her head, her
chest suddenly tight, her cheeks flaming. The odious woman! Of all the people
she could have chosen for a match and it just happened to be someone from the Simille family? She forced in a deep breath and looked up,
slipping back into her seat before her shaking legs betrayed her. "That is...an
unexpected...choice, Your Highness."
"Of that I am quite sure, my dear."
She couldn't look at the dowager directly. If she saw
the smug expression on the woman's face, she wasn't sure she'd be able to
control herself. Simille, her family's sworn enemies.
And the dowager would be handing her over to them. Fear and anger warred inside
for dominance. What slight had her father committed now, or was this just some
long term calculated retribution?
"The joining of your two families will hopefully bring
an end to the enmities of the past."
That it would not! And she was quite sure it was the
empress's intention in the first place. This would only incite her father's
anger, divert his energies from anything he might want to achieve politically.
It was a cruel distraction. The fact that over thirty years ago a young Duke Partan Simille and some of his
cronies had crossed into their territories and run amok in a drunken pillage
through one of their outlying villages, despoiling and killing the women, men,
and children there and then setting the lot to the torch, wasn't something they
would ever forget. Simille bought off the officials sent for him after her
father brought forth charges at the imperial court. The man had even had the
gall to spread rumors that her father did this to his own people in order to
discredit the Simille family, jealous of their
prosperity. It was a point of honor and duty and her father's main reason for
wanting to make changes to policy. Lavish gifts to the crown and her officers
should not dictate the justice for the realm and its people.
Her father would be livid at this insult. It would
also break her poor mother's heart. And what would happen to her at the hands of
the Similles she shuddered to think about. Nothing
good could come of this. And as Sylvanna finally
dared glance up at Trillena's face amidst all the
congratulations (some heartfelt and others not) from her fellow maidens, she
knew the empress was well aware of all of it.
What she couldn't understand was what had prompted it.
Had Narpy spoken to his mother about them? Or was
this some twisted request of the Similles with too
much gold being passed to the imperial coffers for the empress to refuse?
Sylvanna tried to smile and
appear cheerful though her insides filled with despair.
The reason the empress had done this didn't matter. It
was her inescapable future she should be worried about.
"I won't allow it!"
Sylvanna flinched as the
book smacked against the angled roof of the secret room and fell with a tumble
to the floor. "Narpy, there's nothing to be done. My
father cannot refuse. I cannot refuse. It's an imperial decree."
She turned her face away, trying to hold back the
tears. She'd come to their special place the night before and sobbed herself to
sleep, alone. She never heard the door open and had cried out in surprise when
she'd been swept into Narpess's arms. He'd still been
wearing a jewel-studded jacket, most likely chosen by his mother to better make
an impression on his hopeful paramour.
Though hours had passed since, he was no happier about
what happened than when he first learned of it.
"Imperial decree be damned. I
am the emperor!" Narpess
smashed his fist against his chest. "I
am the power here." He paced the short length of the room and back. "Mother
will see reason. I'll make sure. What's mine is mine. Not hers to do with as she sees fit."
Looking upon him at that moment, Sylvanna
didn't recognize him. She'd never seen this hard expression on his face, but
had on too many other occasions seen its equal on his mother's. And rather than
give her comfort, it made her more afraid than before. "Please, for both our
sakes, for my family's sake, don't do anything rash. I beg of you."
"Have you no faith in me?"
"It's not that at all! This is just very dangerous.
There could be repercussions we don't know about. To my family,
to the empire. The Similles are very wealthy.
They wield a lot of power because of it. If she's already told them of the
match, it would be a great insult if it was suddenly taken away for no reason.
They could withdraw their monetary support. This could have an effect on the
court, on yourself."
He wouldn't like hearing it, but Sylvanna
went on knowing he must see reason by any means necessary. "Your mother shields
you from certain matters." Something she suspected he was aware of and possibly
encouraged, but she never dared ask about. Someone would have taken it upon
themselves to inform him and try to profit from it if he weren't.
"Never from anything actually
important." His nostrils flared. "So what specifically are you talking
"I've not heard any of it directly, but there are
rumors, and once or twice I've overheard comments from visitors after an
audience. The empire is not as solvent as it should be."
He waved at her with impatience. "That can't be true.
She would have told me. And why have you never mentioned it?"
"She's very protective where you're concerned, you
know that." Sylvanna shook her head. "And I didn't
want to trouble you. Our time together is to escape from what's out there. I
didn't want to take that from you by bringing up such things."
"That explains last night, then..." A snarl marred his
"What do you mean?" She was sure she wouldn't be happy
with what he was about to say.
Narpess started pacing
again. "My new prospect for marriage-I thought her an odd choice-barely of
age and not a foreigner like the others. Mother was even more insistent than
usual before the meeting, about keeping an open mind, on making sure of a good
impression. The girl's name is Lareenial Simille."
Sylvanna gasped, his words
feeling like a blow, though they shouldn't have. That odious family would be tied to the
throne? Surely the Maker would not allow such a terrible thing. "Do you see?
There's more than we know happening around us. We must be careful."
"I will not lose you." His stare was hard, his body
stiff, fists coiled at his sides. "I will not."
Although she couldn't quite say why, rather than give
her confidence or warmth, his words and manner filled her with dread.
"There you are!"
Sylvanna looked up from her
stitching, though in truth, she'd paid little attention to her needle work that
morning. Unlike the others, she'd chosen a remote corner of the dayroom –
placing herself as far away from the dowager and the other women as she could.
Upon her return to her official bedroom that morning, she'd found several of
her gowns stained, her pillows ripped, and nails pounded in her shoes. The
reprisals and jealous fits had started. It wouldn't have been so bad if she
actually wanted the match, but she did not.
She didn't recognize the man standing eagerly before
her. He was around her age, light brown hair made into a cascade of curls to
his shoulders. He also wore more lace than she would know what to do with in a
year. His face was round and pleasant, almost pretty, like a slightly
overweight aunt's, which was odd for a man. His clothes were of the newest
styles, yet of a dark gray, and looked as if they'd just been freshly tailored.
"I'm sorry, do I know you,
sir?" A part of her already knew and wanted nothing but to run, yet the rest of
her refused to give him and the dowager the satisfaction.
"Oh, I beg your pardon. I am your future husband -- Trevor
Simille. At your service." Putting one pointed shoe forward, he gave
her a sweeping bow, his gaze never leaving her.
So they'd already been told. She shouldn't have been
surprised. If his sister was here, why wouldn't he be? They were most likely in
a hurry to finalize matters before anyone could object. Not that anyone would.
She tried to ignore the hard, nervous clench of her
"What can I do for you, Monsieur Simille?"
Sylvanna tried to keep her tone pleasant, already
feeling the curious stares of the others on them. No matter her personal
feelings, she must keep this civil, her family the ones who'd be made to suffer
for any insult. Had her father been informed of her future fate yet? Or were
they hoping to have matters settled before he even knew their plans?
Fear and trepidation crowded in close, perspiration
making a cold finger down her back.
"Oh, so formal. But then the very reason for my visit, mademoiselle." He
gave her a small, self-deprecating smile. "If we're to be joined, I thought it
would be wise to get to know each other better and hopefully set your mind at
ease as well. You see, I hope we'll be the messengers of peace between our two
families. Bury the deeds of the pasts and make amends if possible. Much will depend
She couldn't tell if he meant what he said or if it
was only for the benefit of their audience. She supposed time would tell. "Then
please sit." She indicated the far end of the couch she was using.
Trevor sat closer than where she'd indicated, but not
"I'm sure our match probably came as quite a shock to
you." He kept his voice low where the others might not overhear. "But please
understand, it's come purely with only the best
intentions, despite the fact it will benefit our house. While he will never openly
admit it, my father has long regretted the incidents of the past, the ones which
put our families at odds. It is a weight I will inherit with his passing, and
for which I hope to make amends. I believe the two of us can make up for his
error. My family's fortune used to make
the lives of both our peoples an envy to behold. If you are willing..."
Sylvanna studied his face
wanting to believe but afraid to. If he truly meant what he said, life for all
involved could prove happier than ever before. Her children a mingling of
bloods that could make more of what was there. And even if love had no part in
it, surely it'd be worth it.
A slight smile tugged at the edge of her lips. "If you
speak truly, how could I not be?"
He gently took her hand in his. "You won't regret
this. I swear it."
"I think it's going to be all right, Narpy."
The emperor lounged in a short chair reading a book,
his coat and cravat on the floor. "What is?"
Sylvanna hesitated for just
a moment, noticing the sunken look to his eyes, and how he was wearing powder
beneath them. "The marriage your mother arranged. Trevor, I mean, Monsieur Simille, is not like his father, and seems quite earnest to
repair the breach between our families." She smiled, the memories of the last
few days sweeter than she ever expected. "I might be able to have that gaggle
of children sooner than I thought."
"What?" Narpess lunged to his feet. "You've given yourself to him?"
She took a step back, startled. "No,
of course not. We've been chaperoned at all times. Why would you think
such a thing? It would be foolish to indulge before the wedding."
"Then come here and prove it to me." He slumped back
into the chair, beckoning to her.
She stared at him, confused, and didn't move closer. "Narpy, what's wrong? Did something happen?"
"I told you to come here." He glared at her. "I am your emperor, do as I say!"
A chill tiptoed down her spine. "No, I don't think I
will. You're supposed to be my friend, and I yours. Not a servant to piss on or
order around whenever you feel like it."
He sat forward, his lips pressing together into a thin
line. "You've never denied me before."
She stomped her foot. "You've never demanded before!"
She tried hard to reign in her temper. "Besides, if I'm to be married, it'd be
best if we stopped. I'll always be your friend and we can meet until it's time
for me to leave, but the... the physical exercises should come to an end."
His eyes narrowed to bare slits. "Just
She felt a pang of sadness, hurting her friend the
last thing she'd ever wanted to do. "You knew this wasn't forever, Narpy. We can only hide from our duties for so long."
"Now you sound just like Mother." His gaze was cold.
"Go away if that's what you want. Go fawn all over your precious Trevor."
Tears prickled her eyes and she furiously blinked them
away. She couldn't do what he wanted, yet she didn't have the faintest idea how
to ease his pain without making things worse. She'd so hoped they could remain
friends, but if this was the cost of saving her family and perhaps helping
create a better future, so be it. "I'm sorry, Narpy.
I really am."
Giving him a deep curtsey, Sylvanna
left the hidden room for what was probably the last time.
Again she almost ran into Narpess's
bodyguard out in the hallway. "Oh! Apologies." She
didn't look at him directly hoping he'd not notice her wet cheeks.
"Be careful, mademoiselle."
The deep gravelly voice surprised her. She doubted
she'd ever heard the man speak before. Sylvanna
nodded then went on her way, her mind frantically trying to figure out if he
spoke of rushing into the hallway, or, as a budding kernel of fear exclaimed,
meant something else entirely.
Sylvanna strolled down the
path in the manicured garden, oblivious to the colored flowers around her or
the sculpted bushes. Still within shouting distance of the others, she'd
escaped, wanting a moment for herself.
"You seem troubled, my dove."
She turned, startled that there was someone with her.
Trevor bowed with a flourish and offered her a white rose with red tipped
"How can I help?"
She blushed, though the reasons weren't entirely clear
to her. Was it because he'd noticed or because he'd offered to help or both?
The more time she spent with him, the more she believed she could be very happy
as his wife.
"It's nothing, and you've already made it better by
being here." Even as she said it, she knew it was true. If only Narpy would understand, if he'd only try to be a little
happy for her, her heart would soar. He was her friend, had been her lover, but
to her own astonishment this man, this man could possibly be her love. She took
the rose and allowed its light fragrance to weave over her.
"My sister, Lareenial, is
quite jealous of us." His eyes glittered for a moment then dimmed. "Though
she's met with the emperor several times now, he doesn't seem to be warming up
to her at all."
"It must be very difficult for her." She dreaded to
think of the pressure the girl's father might be putting on her to please Narpy. Guilty conscience or not, she doubted the duke would
not do everything in his power to make the match happen. A sad twinge echoed
through her. She couldn't help Lareenial, and thus
Trevor, despite all she knew about Narpess's likes
and dislikes. She wouldn't be able to explain where the information came from.
And too much was at stake.
He steered her towards one of the benches nestled in a
set of high, shaped bushes which would give them some privacy. "Like I said
before, my father is no longer the man people assume him to be. While he'd be
overjoyed at the match, he realizes his wants are not always in the Maker's
Sylvanna nodded. "I wrote to
my father. I explained to him everything you told me,
and that...that I'm not averse to the match, so he need not worry over it."
they were, it felt as if they were in a world all of their own making. They
couldn't stay unchaperoned and out of sight for long,
or tongues would run wild, but for that moment, it felt utterly right.
The flashing smile on Trevor's face even more so. "I can't wait for us to start our life
She responded with one of her own. "Neither can I."
When he leaned just a little toward her, she followed
suit. Their first kiss was chaste and light, like two rose petals touching. For
the next they were both a little bolder and it lasted much longer.
She was about to pull back to catch her breath when
she felt someone slide onto the bench behind her and crushed her forward.
Trevor's lips pulled away from hers with a startled grunt. Sylvanna
opened her eyes only to see his already open and unnaturally wide. They stared
at whoever had trapped her between them. Hot breath coiled at her neck.
"You will not have her. She is mine."
Recognition slapped her, making her gasp. Fear speared
through her cold and hard.
There was movement at her side and then warmth gurgled
over her dress. She brought up her hand and it was covered in red. "No..."
She glanced up at Trevor and saw his face grow pale,
his eyes dimming.
glee in Narpess's voice chilled her soul.
Trevor slumped forward, robbing her of breath as she
sat pinned between the two men.
"Look at what you've done. But don't worry, I'll have mercy on you."
Then the pressure behind her was gone and she heard
the sound of metal striking stone.
Looking down, she saw a bloodied dagger on the
Holding onto Trevor, her love, her bright future, she
pushed him gently back to look into his face again. His eyes were dark, his
face slack - all signs of life were gone.
A scream tore across the garden and only belatedly did
she realize it came from her.
Hurried footsteps came towards her and she held on
that much harder onto Trevor. Other screams tore through the garden and several
of the handmaidens swooned to the ground. Hardly able to breathe she watched in
horror as the crowd of servants and girls parted as the dowager came forward.
"Help him. Please help him." She held out Trevor's
unmoving form, hoping, praying someone could do something. "Help him!"
"Mother, stay back!"
The dowager and everyone else present turned in
surprise. Narpess came at them, seemingly out of
nowhere, with Lissan and a shorter man behind him.
"Woman, what have you done?"
The question, as it came from the one who should know
better, almost paralyzed her tongue. Almost. "I, I did
not do this! You know I didn't!"
"The dagger at your feet and the blood on your dress would
state otherwise." She'd never heard Narpess sound so
cold. "You won't be able to talk your way out of this, sorceress."
Gasps rang all around. Those gathered round as one
took a step back, murmurs filling the air.
Sylvanna's heart skipped.
What was he saying? She was no sorceress. They were all tested at birth for the
ability; if she'd had it, she would have been given to the care of the guild.
Before she could say anything else, Narpess made a
gesture at the shorter of the two men with him.
The plain faced man made several odd gestures with his
hands. It was then Sylvanna finally recognized him,
the knowledge causing fear to punch through the growing numbness. It was the court
wizard. But she'd not realized it was him without the robe he normally wore
over his clothes. And without them, you'd never give that face a second glance.
He wouldn't look at her directly.
Sylvanna tried to deny the
charge only to find her voice gone. Her hand rose to her throat but no matter
how much she tried to speak or scream, no sound came
from her mouth.
"Narpess, let the palace guard handle this." The dowager came
forward her keen gaze moving from him to the wizard to Sylvanna
to Trevor's body and back again.
"Oh, I don't think so, Mother. I've left too many things to others for too long. It's
about time I truly took my proper
place in the world."
Sylvanna trembled, as
surprised if not more so than the dowager at his degrading tone. Madness. It was all madness.
"You there!" Narpess pointed at two servants standing unobtrusively
behind the others. "Take the body to the surgeon's."
They darted glances in the dowager's direction.
" Do not look at her. I am your emperor. You will do as you're
distraught." Trillena made calming gestures with her
hands, but also looked wary as if she did not recognize her own flesh and blood
and expected to be bit at any moment. "There are people to handle these things.
Narpess ignored her and
glared at the servants. "Do as I've told you or I will have you whipped!"
The two men rushed forward. Sylvanna
shook her head as she held onto Trevor unwilling to part from him. His body all
she had left of him.
As the servants hesitated, Lissan
strode forward and gently, but undeniably pried the body from her. Under his
breath, so softly she doubted he even spoke, Lissan
said, "There are worse fates than death."
Heart suddenly hammering in her chest, she saw the
truth of what he said in his eyes, despite the fact she didn't understand it.
As he pulled away and the servants recovered Trevor's body, she remembered the
dagger on the walkway.
She lunged off the bench to grab it and end herself.
Narpess's command rang in
her ears as her fingers wrapped themselves around the weapon. A sharp pain at
her wrist made her drop it. She stared at the glinting metal, her one means of
escape, as she was pulled away from it. Someone held her fast as Narpess came close with quick, curt steps.
The slap across the face shocked her more than hurt
her, but made her look into the face of the man she'd thought had been her
"Fool! I'm doing all this for us." He brought his face close, using the body of the man holding
her to keep anyone from seeing. "Stop fighting me!"
Tears welled in her eyes and ran unchecked down her
face. How had she never seen this in him? How had none of them?
He stepped back and picked up the dagger, tucking it away.
"Frayden, bring her along. Tellos
and Lissan, follow me please. Mother, do come as well." He gave her a wave of his hand as if
adding her in were but a bothersome detail, as if she'd not been running and
ruling the empire for the decade since his father's unexpected death.
The dowager straightened, a blank mask slamming over
Sylvanna was grateful for
the man holding her, not sure she could have walked otherwise. Perhaps this was
a nightmare, one she would wake from at any moment. But even as she thought it
she knew it was a lie.
The hallways of the palace were unusually silent as
the small group entered inside. Narpess led them to
his mother's office, a place he'd sat by her side often, learning what she
deigned to show him of the empire's business.
Sylvanna was led to a wide chair
and allowed to sit. She gasped with surprise as a handkerchief seemed to appeared on her lap out of nowhere. Looking up, she saw
the face of them man who'd helped her here, young and blond with very sad eyes,
which quickly looked elsewhere. Not wanting to think on it, she dabbed at her
face with the kerchief, too numb for anything else.
"Tellon, seal the room."
The wizard nodded then made more gestures with his
hands, never once looking in Sylvanna's direction.
"It is done, sir."
Narpess dropped into his
mother's chair and draped a leg over its expensive armrest.
Trillena glared at him, her
displeasure at his lack of decorum there for all to see, but he only smiled at
her, though before such a look from her would have had him sitting up straight.
"Narpess, explain yourself."
"Mother, I'm the emperor, I
have to do no such thing." He sat forward, the leg coming off the armrest, and
set his elbows on her desk. "But I will, for you, just this once." The smile faded and hard lines marked his face.
"Because I want no misunderstandings... I'm taking what is mine and you will do
Trillena shook her head.
"You're not making any sense."
But Sylvanna understood and
she felt cold, very cold.
Narpess slapped his hand on
the desk. "I've allowed you to coddle me for too long, Mother." He stood as if
to emphasize the point. "I'm the most powerful man in the empire, yet
everything is taken from me. Things are hidden
from me. But no more. Things will occur at my whim
from now on, not yours."
"You don't know what you're saying-"
He pulled the dagger from his coat and stabbed the
He shook where he stood as if fighting to restrain himself.
The dowager took a step back. Fear flared on her face then
was quickly subdued; her composure back in place, but it had cracks.
Tears prickled at Sylvanna's
eyes. She'd been such an utter fool. They all had.
"Oh, don't worry, Mother,
I will marry that useless girl for her money. I will make the necessary sacrifice for the empire."
"Why are you talking to me like this? I've only ever
had your happiness and future in mind. You
are my son."
Sylvanna couldn't help
staring. Had the woman truly thought all her invisible chains and manipulations
were in his best interests and not her own?
"Be that as it may, all that's finished now. I've been
very busy these last few days. Looking into what else you might not have told
me for my happiness. I even found out all I need to know about the Twelve."
The dowager raised a hand to her chest, appearing
surprised. "You had one of them
"No, Mother. He wasn't worth it. I did that."
Frayden appeared at the
dowager's side and helped her sit as she swayed where she stood. Sylvanna blinked sure she'd not seen him move across the
room. Was he one of them...? Her
"And they shall be extensions of my will, as planned
when they were first created. And my will alone. They will protect the imperial line, but it
is my commands as Melak's Avatar which they will obey
above all others-not yours. Your time leading our people is done. And with
them at my side, no one will be able to say different-and live."
He turned his attention to Sylvanna,
dismissing the dowager as if she'd suddenly ceased to exist.
How had this happened? Surely he'd not changed this
much purely because she was going to leave him for another! He could not have
been dependent on her that much, could he? Guilt and shame rose inside her. But
how was she to know? What could she have done differently?
"Dearest, I know everything must seem confusing to you
at the moment, but I tell you all is going according to plan." He smiled and it
was a happy smile, one she'd not seen from him in some time. Yet it made no
sense to her whatsoever.
She looked everywhere but directly at him.
He pulled a parchment from his vest. "This will makes
everything perfect. I signed it yesterday, as certain steps had to be taken
before others could happen."
She didn't understand the almost underhanded glance he
threw in Lissan's direction.
"But it will be posted soon and be made official
throughout the land."
For a short second Sylvanna's
hopes rose then died. Nothing on that paper could put right what had been done
to Trevor. Nothing it said could erase the emperor's accusation of sorcery before
all those witnesses.
Much to her surprise, she found she had her voice
back. "What...what is it?"
His smile grew bright. "Your
condemnation as a traitor for the murder of Monsieur Simille
and also your execution orders."
Sylvanna blinked rapidly her
mind not able to process the words right away, the room swaying around her.
Maybe she was the one who'd gone insane.
drink for our guest."
The tall bodyguard came forward her holding out a cup.
Sylvanna stared at it, not taking it, wondering if
she could be fortunate enough for it to be poisoned. Then all this madness
would end. Her hands shook as took the offered drink.
"Go on. It will make you feel better. Then we can
discuss the rest."
Her throat grew dry. There was more to this insanity?
She drained the cup hoping the dark contents might make her choke. The fine
vintage made her tongue tingle-perhaps it was part of the condemned's last
meal. But how could one enjoy it knowing it was the end?
"Good. Good!" Narpess looked
even more pleased than before. "Your execution will be faked, of course. And
rumors are already circulating about how odd you've been acting for sometime --
disappearing from your rooms, keeping yourself aloof from other people, things
like that. Basically what everyone will
be saying is that you've been ill, up here," he tapped the side of his head, "for
a while. Everyone knows how magic warps the mind. The impact to your family
will be minimized. The empire will even make reparations to them, for we should
have seen the signs and gotten you help before tragedy struck."
Sylvanna stared at her lap,
her chest so tight she thought it might cave in. Her family, her father! Though
he tried to sugar coat it, her family would be impacted -- her mother and
father would blame themselves for ever having allowed her to be brought to the
capital. And reparations? It was more like a bribe to
just let things go. "The Similles..."
"They've nothing to complain about. I'm going to marry
that daughter of theirs, which should more than make up for their loss."
Cold. She felt so cold. How
could he be so callous about all of this? He killed a man! He killed her love,
her future! "But why? Why?"
His whole face changed to a brooding, dark expression.
"Because you're mine. And what is mine will stay mine." Then the
weird transformation to happiness again. What had happened to the friend
who cared for her? Who thought about her feelings?
"You're to be moved to a villa not far from the
capital. After the wedding is done with and I figure out my routine, you'll be
brought back and settled in a nice place in the city. We'll figure out how to
meet up again then and be as we've always been."
She stared at his face, not sure how he could believe
such a thing. Something had broken. But when or how, she wasn't sure. She'd
never thought she could mean so much to him he'd kill to keep her. She wouldn't
stay, however, no matter what he thought. She would kill herself at the first
opportunity if need be.
"Oh, I know what you're thinking. You've always been so very stubborn. But it's
too late now."
The smugness in his tone made her shiver.
Narpess laughed and came to
her. Sylvanna cringed in the chair and tried to pull
back as he took her hand.
"The pact has been sealed. And it will solve
everything to everyone's satisfaction. Mother need not even worry about
accidental children and I won't worry that you'll ever try to leave me again."
She stared at him. She wouldn't have children or leave
him? He was still a fool. "I will not cooperate with you."
"But, dearest, you already have! You've already taken
the step to becoming part of the Twelve. And it's one which can't be undone."
He looked at the cup still in her hand.
She dropped it, not knowing what it meant, and not
Narpess's smile was very
bright. "Fraydin, please show her what she can expect
to happen soon, won't you?"
The blond's brown gaze
locked with hers. She could have sworn he was asking for forgiveness.
For a moment, she didn't even realize anything was
happening. But then Fraydin's eyes changed color to a
bright gold, his face elongating even as his hair was sucked back into his
body. Scales wiggled out from beneath his skin like living insects to form a
shell around him.
Soon all trace of the handsome young man was
gone. All that remained was a monster
with slit eyes and a long tongue flickering in the air as miniscule strings of
lightning coursed across the scaly skin.
"You will never ever leave me again, beloved."