Story – Hold Fast the Reins

This story takes place before the events of Darklaw: Book One of the Darklaw Saga. Content Warning: rough sex, graphic violence, slavery, alcohol use

Hold Fast the Reins

The legend of the Emissary begins amid high politics and personal pleasures.

“You don’t have to prove anything, Princess. Even the gods fear me. How much less are you?” Avestine nodded for the guards to release the woman. “I’ve done what my father couldn’t. What no man has done in five generations.” She pulled the leather tie from her queue of blonde hair and tossed it to the table. “And now, I’m going to do what no man has ever done to you.”

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“I’m not afraid to die.” Anya stood a little straighter.

“Oh, I’m not going to kill you.”

Anya took a step backward, but Avestine reclaimed the step and took a few more, coming closer, crowding her.

When Anya tried to run, Avestine trapped her, pressing her against the cold marble wall. She groped her thighs and kissed her cheek.

“You’re afraid,” Avestine whispered. “All that matters is what you’re going to do about it. Your father believed in his gods. I think you’re smarter. Believe in me.”

Avestine kissed the defiant lips and smiled. She returned Anya to the guards and ordered her escorted to the harem.

When she was alone, Avestine sat at the table that had belonged to Stede’s king before she had put his head on a pike. That was two days ago. Two days ago, when the world seemed a much larger place. Two days ago, when death was probable and prophesies unlikely. She mulled over decisions and considered likely futures.

Sometime later, a knock startled her from her scheming.

“Coth’s Balls!” She stood as Rook entered the room. “Where have you been?”

Rook’s shaggy hair swung into his eyes. “Delivering your orders to the legates.”

“It took all this time? Was there trouble?”

“As you expected.” He acknowledged her insight with a nod. “They said they didn’t have to follow orders delivered by a boy.”

Although he regarded her with his implacable blue gaze, Avestine sensed his pleasure in that inner space they shared by virtue of her destiny and his service to it. He enjoyed the game with the legates as much as she did—testing the arrogance of men who usually took commands from an emperor.

She would have enjoyed seeing their bluster when a boy with no title—or hands—delivered unwelcome orders from a girl the commanders thought had no business being in control of twelve thousand men.

“So tell me…are they building the wall, or do I need to go to them myself?”

“With your usual prescience, you had the legates meeting where they could see the pike. I reminded them what happened to the last man who didn’t take you seriously.”

She smiled.

Rook continued, “The city gates are secured, but scouts iceward saw the remainder of the cavalry riding along the shore of the Gasjamey. Probably heading to Annulinia.”

“No, they’ll cut through the Nomad lands to Marhash and skirt Annulinia. They won’t find an ally at Trushin’s court, but the rebels in Marhash will be eager to take them in. Common cause against my father.”

“What does the Architect have to fear from Marhash?”

“Ha! You shouldn’t believe everything you hear from the imperial tribunes.” She paused to allow the insult a moment to settle. Rook had been her personal servant since they were both children. He was knowledgeable of all that happened within the imperial family, yet he lacked political instincts.

Even the hint of innocence irritated her, especially from a man whose purpose in life was preserving her life.

“Despite my father’s propaganda,” she continued, “the rebels were far from routed. Now, like new wine, the angry soldiers will have them drinking in dreams of revolution.”

Rook nodded slowly, his curious mind probing into the hollow of hers.

She didn’t like his presumption. “What are you staring at?”

“You’re not celebrating. I thought I’d find the princess naked.”

Avestine sneered and sat back down. “I sent her to the harem. A little humiliation should temper her attitude.”

“But you like attitude.”

She called for whiskey, and a serving girl arrived.

Rook sat down and took a cup between his wrists. Despite his lack of hands, he managed to drink using his studded leather wrist covers to grip. “I recall your immense pleasure when you deflowered that smug priestess with a bottle. And what about your brother’s concubine? She tried to kill you for what you did to her.”

Avestine spit out a little whiskey as she laughed. “Oh, she wasn’t complaining when my tongue was in her cunt.”

Rook shrugged.

Avestine felt his cool eyes accusing her. “She got what she deserved.” A memory hit hard. She frowned. “In the end, we all do.” When she looked back at Rook, she saw regret. Or something worse. “Don’t pity me.”

“Never, Your Grace.”

She seized his tunic with an angry hand. “That’s right, you shit.” She shoved him away, but a slow fire was warming her blood. She felt his rapid pulse as if it were her own. Her eyes narrowed. “You better make it worth my time.”

She stripped off her tunic and trousers and watched as he struggled to remove his clothes. He had been handless since he was twelve. Even after ten years of practice, dressing and undressing was difficult for him.

She didn’t take pleasure in his difficulty. It was merely a fact. An Essanti warrior’s hands were the price for his power. What Rook lacked in martial prowess, he compensated for with his spiritual gift. In the same way, what he lacked in appeal to a woman who preferred her sex soft and wet, he compensated for with patient devotion.

“You didn’t kill anyone in the final assault,” Avestine said as she sat down on the bed.

“You didn’t need my help.” He worked on untying his trouser laces. “Your soldiers were adequate. And your strategy—that was brilliant.”

“What kind of king was he? A cowardly pig! Sending women and children from the city.”

“He didn’t have enough food.”

“Why would he think I wouldn’t slaughter them like sheep the minute he sent them through the gate?”

“Then the city would have hated you more and fought you harder. No, he was clever, but you were more so. You let the families starve on the plain while their fathers and husbands watched from the city walls. The city’s army was demoralized. Even the legates were shocked. One day, your name will be feared more than your father’s.”

“No. The Architect—not his daughter—will be on the lips of the generations. This is his vision, not mine.”

“Defeating Stede was your vision. He gave you the Black Tide, and you’ve turned it into the best legion in the empire. What will you do with it now?”

She thought for a long moment. Finally, she sighed. “What my father tells me.”

“No, Your Grace.” Rook shook his head. “Your father can’t live forever, and your brother is nothing to worry about.”

Rook was naked now. He lay down on the bed and Avestine mounted him.

With her nimble hips, she scooped his meaty erection inside. It soothed her ache. Bracing her hands on his shoulders, she rode with eyes closed. Rook pressed his forearms against her thighs.

She groaned, giddy from the pressure inside as she churned her hips around his heat. She sensed him close to climax and stopped moving. A warning glare from her had him glancing away. She allowed him one still moment before she began to ride again, more quickly this time as her wetness stole much of the sensation.

Her thoughts drifted to distant memories of innocent eyes wide with fear, of spread legs and bare skin wet with excitement. She recalled Anya’s halting breath and her trembling shoulders. She imagined Anya’s moment of submission like the many women before. She rode faster. Her lust-choked thoughts drifted through the images of domination that were essential to her arousal.

Pleasure erupted from between her legs. She cried out, her body clenching. Ecstasy radiated downward through her legs and up through her neck in waves that rolled on-and-on. After they diminished, she fell forward. Pleasure left in shivers.

She rolled off Rook and studied his lethargy. His mouth was open. His chest rose more slowly with each breath as he surrendered to oblivion. She found him a curiosity in these post-coital moments, when he was empty of passion. It was a feeling she had never known.

Her evaporating sweat began to chill her, so she wrapped a blanket around herself. She shook him awake and dismissed him. When she was alone, peace remained elusive.

She told herself she had done it, what her father had failed to do, what the legates said no one could do. She had surpassed her father in every way. She was more ruthless, more commanding. Her father—King of the Dark Three, Architect of Darklaw and Emperor of the Sahr, Emissary and Beloved of Arujan—had failed for five years to capture a strategic city that she conquered in three months. In command of three legions, she had taken the kingdom of Stede, capitol of the Khaimeign and passageway into a wilderness with secrets even the gods had yet to uncover.

But the war was only the most recent of her triumphs. Her father had given her this chance because she had already triumphed over every decent and defiant impulse he had aroused in her.

She had proven herself more loyal than the legates. She had proven herself more ambitious than her brother. She had proven herself superior even to the gods, who had surrendered to the first princes of Sahrdon. Now, one thousand years later, they wore the yolk of Darklaw, and one day soon, those reins would be in her hands.

***

Avestine awoke as warm skin rubbed against her. She rolled onto her back, and her chambermaid climbed on top of her. The small, naked body slid between her arms. Soft breasts pressed against her own firmer chest. The hot mouth was hungry.

Avestine wrapped her arms around Lucina and kissed her, indulging her favorite servant, a slave captured when Darklaw extended its dominion into the Demon Quarter. Lucina never spoke. She was the only person Avestine never felt the desire to hurt, except in those erotic moments when the line between pain and pleasure vanished in the flames.

Lucina’s hair was like silk on her skin. Avestine reached her hand between Lucina’s legs, cupping her palm around the patch of fur and poking her fingers through the tangle to touch the dampness. Lucina rolled her hips. Working Avestine’s fingers deeper, she began to ride.

Avestine braced the back of her hand against her own thigh and stroked Lucina’s inner wall. “That’s it,” she whispered. “Ride it.”

Lucina grunted with each descent. She panted hotly on Avestine’s cheek. Avestine’s desire grew with every racing heartbeat, with every drip that spilled onto her palm. The scent made her feel a little crazy, made her mean. “You like it rough, don’t you?” Avestine’s hand dug deeper.

Lucina whimpered.

Avestine pushed Lucina onto her back and fell on her. She bit her lip, sucked her throat, and squeezed her breasts with rough hands. She tugged on a nipple, pulling hard until Lucina whined. Then she grasped Lucina’s thighs and spread them apart. She buried her face in skin so slick she had difficulty keeping her lips on the fat little clitoris. Lucina squirmed and squealed with pleasure until she climaxed with a weary moan.

Avestine left the bed and sat down at the table. Her serving girl was pouring her whiskey when Lucina knelt on the floor beside her chair. Scooting her chair around, Avestine sat back and spread her legs. “If everyone were as obedient as you, Luci, being a god wouldn’t be so hard.”

She lost her breath as Lucina’s mouth descended on her intimate flesh. “You know what I like.” She groaned and tightened her grip on Lucina’s hair as she began to rock. As her body reached out for ecstasy, the smell of smoke greeted her.

Smoke. The thought confused her for a moment. She pushed Lucina away and shook off the fog of pleasure.

Fire. The palace was on fire. She kicked her chair away. She tossed on a tunic that fell halfway down her thighs and raised her sword from its rest beside her bed. The door opened with her guards looking wild-eyed. Rook was behind them.

“The entire wing.” Rook coughed.

Avestine shoved her serving girl into Lucina’s arms. “Get the servants out of here. Out of the palace, the back way, into the courtyard.” She started from the room, saying to Rook, “Heron warned me that some of Stede’s soldiers hid in the city when we took the palace.”

“You think this is an attack?”

“They’ll be expecting us to put out the fire. They’ll come at our backs. We’re going to greet them.”

“What about the fire?”

“Let it burn.”

He looked her over as she left the room. “And the rest of your clothes?” But Avestine had already raced from the room.

Darklaw soldiers abandoned their posts and followed Avestine until she had a force of twenty men. Past the middle of the palace, beyond the great throne room, they met an assembly of servants. Naturally suspicious, Avestine paused long enough to find the military tattoos poorly hidden by soot-smears. They were imposters.

She charged through the wide corridor, her heavy sword falling on one of the imposters with such ferocity that his blocking arm failed him. Her sword shattered his collarbone, and he rolled across the polished granite floor with a scream. She swung low, dropping onto one knee and cracking the knee of another man who had fallen for her feint and blocked high.

For two years she had fought life-and-death battles in the arena at Sahrdon. She was imposing for a young woman, already tall and broad-shouldered, trained since she was five-years-old in the arts of war. She knew many ways to kill a man and many more ways to torture him. Unlike other girls at court, she had never learned to read or write. She didn’t know how to sing or dance. And what she knew of the gods was that they were her enemies—as surely as every man who had not sworn fealty and most that had. But more than anything else, what guaranteed her victory was that she was utterly ruthless.

As relentless as a storm, she stepped through the mass of soldiers, leaving man after man staggering or dead. Her own soldiers finished off those who slipped by as she split the line. She was hacking the last soldier in front of her when something knocked her to her knees. She felt the burn of metal across her shoulder.

Her body reacted without need for thought. She rolled, the hand of her uninjured arm seizing the hilt of her sword to block the soldier’s second blow. Before he could deliver it, his blade clattered to the stone. His body went limp and wobbly. He crumpled, dead before he hit the floor. Behind him stood Rook, arms crossed, brow sweaty with strain. When his mind touched hers, he sighed with relief and offered her a forearm.

Her soldiers disarmed the last rebel and lined up those still alive. She questioned the prisoners, but they refused to answer.

“Impale them outside the palace walls,” she told Rook, “where the people will see what happens to those who defy Darklaw.”

She left, deaf to the prisoner’s pleas for mercy.

***

Within a few hours of the fire, she had taken new quarters. The room was not nearly as large as the one she had vacated, but after the palace servants brought the best remaining linens, cushions, drapes, rugs, and started a fire in the room’s pit, she decided it would do.

The palace smelled of burnt lime and smoke. Most of her possessions were ashes, so she picked through clothes brought from other palace rooms until she found something suitable: short black boots and leather trousers. She confiscated the black leather cuirass of a Darklaw soldier to keep on hand and held onto a blue robe found among the former king’s possessions.

Avestine sat in her new room while Rook cleaned her wound. As she watched him, she felt his fatigue. He had slept less than her in the days since they took possession of the city. “I’ve always wondered. Does it hurt?”

One of Rook’s eyebrows shot up. “I wasn’t injured.”

“I mean the judgment. When you use it, you seem to be in pain.”

Rook dabbed her wound with a cloth held between his wrists and teeth. He grunted, dismissing the question.

“It tires you.”

He dropped the stained cloth. “When the god works through me, yes.”

Avestine found herself jealous of Rook. His connection with the gods struck her as somewhat seditious. Such was the uneasy relationship between throne and altar that had caused emperors to carefully breed and cull the race of Essanti.

Rook’s particular gift was to offer a prayer of judgment on a man, and if Coth deemed death his due, that man would die. Without the means of worldly power, only faith remains, and great is the faith of the Essanti. As the words of the offertory emphasized, it was faith that gave Essanti their strength. It was the reason they surrendered their hands and all worldly power. No one had greater faith than Rook. That he suffered her abuses and obeyed her nonetheless was proof enough for Avestine.

“Leave me,” she ordered.

“I’m not done. You need another dressing for that wound.”

“Do what I tell you.”

He nodded and left the room.

She refused the whiskey offered and took black tea instead. She felt raw, anxious. She paced, telling herself everything was under control. The fire was out, the enemy rounded up, the battle over. She had control of everything. Everything was under control.

Two legates visited her, offering insincere concern for her safety, which she thanked with just as much insincerity.

Heron was the oldest, prematurely white-haired, and as arrogant as he was strong. He was a bull of a man who had the misguided belief that victory resided in an army’s weapons. Bashint was younger, just as bullish but dark and more open to the notion that strategy could overcome strength and discipline. He had been the only one of the advisors to consider her proposal the first time she brought it to her father. That was when she was seventeen.

Now, at twenty, she had finally proven that strategy. She had not besieged Stede as every army had done before. Instead, her men built a great wall and then they waited.

During past battles, the city had managed to smuggle supplies through underground passages or concealed forest paths. This time, they had no path to freedom. She had the forests burned and caves sealed. For weeks, nothing was able to travel to-and-from the city except the birds, and then even the birds were forbidden when she had her men destroy every nest they found. By the time Stede’s allies arrived, Darklaw soldiers had already built a second wall at their own back.

She smiled as she sat at her table imagining the welcome she would receive upon her returned to Sahrdon. She was popular with the people, whom she entertained in the arena by killing traitors and murderers in spectacular fashion and throwing severed fingers into the crowded seats.

She thought of her father, sure this victory would mark her elevation. He would name her his warmaster and soon, his heir. That meant he would no longer see her as a child. He would no longer need to test the limits of her strength, her resolve, her endurance.

Lucina touched her back, drawing her tunic aside and dabbing a foul-smelling salve on her injury. Avestine removed her tunic and dropped it on the floor. As Lucina dressed her wound, Avestine wondered why her father had never taken notice of her favorite servant.

From the time Avestine was eight, her father had systematically forced her to destroy everything she loved, beginning with her pets. She had done his bidding, beating her hunting dogs to death when he commanded, strangling her household slaves, and finally, there was the day six months earlier, when he had ordered her to execute her mother for treason.

As emperor, her father controlled the army and the people only as long as both feared him. Should that ever change, he would be hunted, and his children would be, too.

Love was the reason for his harsh lessons. He had to make her strong. He taught that her own loyalty to power would ensure the obedience of the army. He taught that observance of her imperial cult would ensure the devotion of the people. He taught that willingness to suffer any pain without complaint would make her beloved of the gods.

The only difference between Avestine and her brother was that she had learned her father’s lessons and passed his tests. The only difference was that she was the monster her father had made, and her brother was merely mad.

***

Avestine was in the throne room listening to another excuse for why the city walls were still weak when Lucina arrived with Anya. Avestine took the opportunity to dismiss the tedious Heron and took Lucina and Anya to her quarters.

“I want their names,” Avestine ordered as she brushed the black hair from Anya’s pale face and observed a large scab and bruises. A tuft of hair was missing from above one ear, which was swollen. Avestine took Anya’s chin and forced her to meet her eyes. “Was it the women who did this?”

Anya shook her head.

“Don’t you want them punished?”

“I don’t know their names.”

“Then you can point them out to a guard.”

“I was their princess before I joined them in the harem. I’d rather not give them more reason to hate me.”

Avestine released the narrow chin and stepped back. She was impressed with Anya’s resolve. Already, a niece of Stede’s king had thrown herself from the walls rather than be so humbled as to take a seat in the harem. But Anya was a survivor, something Avestine had already seen, something she admired.

The rest of Anya seemed healthy. She wore a sheer dress like the other servants. Avestine observed smooth nipples through the reddish fabric. She reached out and touched one. Anya kept her eyes focused on the floor.

“Look at me,” said Avestine. She took hold of Anya’s face with both hands and kissed her deeply. Her tongue slid into the yielding mouth and touched a supple tongue. Her mouth clenched the gentle lips, and she sensed no resistance.

In a voice smoky with desire, Avestine said, “I know you, Princess. You had a reputation throughout the Dark Quarter for piety. You wanted to be consecrated to the Father when you were my age, but Stede needed an heir. Your father forbade you from even entering one of Arujan’s temples, fearing you’d take an oath. You were to be married to a prince of the Awhaz this year, isn’t that so?”

“Yes.”

“I am the Emissary. Do you understand?” Avestine caught the look that passed between Anya and Lucina who stood quietly by the door. “Yes, you should listen to Luci. She doesn’t speak, but she says more than most people I know.” Avestine could recognize a hidden alliance. She wondered what might cause a conquered princess to trust the servant of her conqueror.

She asked again, “Do you understand, Princess? The Father works his will through me. You finally belong to Arujan.”

Anya’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded. 

Avestine tangled her hands in the long black hair, drawing Anya’s head backward and stretching the delicate neck to reveal an exquisite flow of veins and ligaments. Her lips pressed against the tender skin, touching a heavy pulse. She pushed the dress away from Anya’s collarbone, finally tearing it when it failed to stretch so she could suck skin like cream.

Dampness broke across Anya’s chest and her pulse raced and Avestine didn’t care whether it was from fear or desire, as long as she remained warm and wet. She tore the dress more, revealing soft scoops of two white breasts topped by pink nipples. She mauled them and they grew hard. She threw off her own tunic and unwound the bandeau around her breasts.

When Avestine stood naked, Anya frowned. “Are all those scars from blades?”

Avestine’s body was lean and muscular, her bronzed skin crisscrossed with numerous white scars. She pushed Anya into bed and rested a hand on her cheek. “It’s not what this body looks like that matters, but what it can do to you.”

Anya looked up with curious eyes. “What can it do?”

Avestine’s face grew feral, her nostrils flaring. “You shouldn’t play games you can’t win.” She seized Anya’s chin. “Touch me.”

Anya’s eyes widened as Avestine seized her hand and pressed it between her legs. The small fingers slid through folds of skin. “That’s it,” breathed Avestine. She rocked, and when Anya’s fingers slipped inside, she bore down. She climbed on the bed, pushing Anya onto her back.

She humped Anya’s hip but couldn’t find satisfaction, so she pulled Anya from the bed and pushed her to her knees. When Anya settled her mouth into the patch of hair, Avestine moaned at the sudden warmth. Her abdomen tightened as she thrust against Anya’s mouth. A gloss of sweat gleamed across her shoulders, and her corded body strained against Anya’s mouth. “That’s it.”

Anya’s mouth grew more vigorous until she paused and said, “This would be easier if you lay down.”

From behind Anya came a deep voice. “She won’t be put on her back.”

The voice startled Anya, and she peered around at Rook. He sat at the table as if he had been there awhile.

With a hand to Anya’s chin, Avestine turned her back. “Finish me.”

“Why is he here?”

“Do what I tell you.” Avestine pushed Anya’s head down and moaned when the heat reached her again. She gyrated until she was so shaky with need she silently offered Coth her next six sacrifices if he would just let Cochin visit her for a moment. But Coth’s consort was a stubborn lover, and ecstasy eluded her. She lifted Anya to her feet. “Do it right!”

Anya pupils were dilated and the skin on her chest was flushed with the heat of desire.

Avestine stood with uncharacteristic indecision before she reached between Anya’s legs. A buttery seep covered her hand. She drew it to her face, savored the musk, and felt dizzy. “Sweet Cochin,” she muttered.

She lay Anya back on the bed and mounted her. She pressed her hips against Anya’s and began to ride. When Anya tried to kiss her, Avestine told her to be still.

Eyes closed, hands clenching the sheets, Avestine worked her hips. Sweat broke again across her face and dripped from her chin. Grunts punctuated her aggressive panting.

She adjusted Anya’s hips, finding it hard to keep pressure where she wanted it. Every thrust made a hot smacking sound, made the bed creak, made Avestine groan. Her abdomen ached from the strain, and her fingers were cramping. Ecstasy was close, prowling like some uncertain beast, so she increased her rhythm, and the chase was on.

Her rocking became thrusting, became pounding. She tugged at the sheet and tore it. Anya complained, tried to slide away, and didn’t get far. Avestine seized her wrists and pinned her.

Through clenched teeth, she spoke in an obscene whisper about the things she wanted to shove into Anya. Avestine was angry with need, and finally, she convulsed, her body seizing in waves so sweeping, she couldn’t make a sound. When her climax passed, she lurched forward and groaned into Anya’s shoulder.

She fell asleep but awoke a short time later to see Rook sitting at the table. The serving girl offered a cup of whiskey to Anya, who was wearing the blue robe that had belonged to her father.

“It’s like being eaten alive,” Rook said, looking at Avestine. He turned to Anya. “You get used to it.”

Avestine found her tunic and tossed it on. She took the bottle of whiskey from the table and sat on the bed. “Where’s Luci?”

“I sent her to bed,” said Rook.

“I’ll decide when she’s tired.”

“You’re not?”

Avestine’s body was exhausted, but she was hungry. She found women who sometimes satisfied her hunger, but the craving always remained.

She smiled. Being the daughter of the emperor had its advantages, but possessing her own harem was not one of them. Now, as regent of Stede, no one would question her taking a concubine. Not that she hesitated to take what she wanted from reluctant servants, but she tired of the need to clear her quarters of sharp objects before she slept.

Anya asked, “Do you always let him watch?”

Avestine looked at Rook. “I insist on it.”

Anya drew her legs together.

Avestine laughed. “No.” She shook her head. “No, he won’t touch you. He’s a man of great virtue, you see. He is virtuous, and I’m an abomination. He accuses me of perverting nature. He says I take pleasure in hurting the weak. He says I’m vulgar and cruel. I’ve never been sure which of my vices he despises the most.”

“But he serves you.”

“He serves, but he’s not a servant. I am his god. He is my Essanti. One day, he’ll die for me. Even then, he’ll hate me.”

Anya sighed.

Avestine nodded with sympathy for the girl’s confusion. Navigating the complexities of Sahrdon’s imperium was tiresome even for those raised in it. How much more so for the soft daughter of a fat land.

“You’ve satisfied me tonight,” said Avestine.

As if the thought surprised her, Anya blurted, “You’re glad he hates you.”

A wolfish smile split Avestine’s lips. Her eyes narrowed at Rook. “A servant can begin to think he’s doing what he wants because it pleases him. But every time my Essanti watches me lick a girl, he’s reminded that the will he serves is mine.”

“Do you want everyone to hate you?”

Anya’s boldness continued to surprise Avestine, to disturb her.

Having stood behind her father for over a decade, Avestine had learned to make the first cut the deepest. Those you conquer, conquer completely. Control their bodies and destroy their spirits. Make the weak fall on their swords. Make the frightened impotent from madness. Only the strong had to be executed. Only the strong.

She sent Anya away without an answer.

***

A few days later, Rook brought Avestine news that the slave who tested her food was sick. He had Anya brought to Avestine’s quarters.

“You will answer me.” Avestine wanted to hear Anya lie. She could do what she needed to do only if she could hear the lie.

She had believed the girl was too smart to take such a risk. She had even thought Anya might find some contentment in her bed, so she allowed her freedom. Too much. “I’m not only your master. I’m your god. What you’ve done is not treason, but blasphemy. Do you know Darklaw’s penalty for blasphemy?”

Anya’s gaze dropped to the floor. “There seems to be only one penalty for everything under Darklaw.”

Avestine slapped her, and quickly regretted the strength it added to Anya’s defiance. “Pride is something a slave can’t afford.”

“I’m not a slave.”

Avestine’s jaw flexed as she considered whether to beat Anya or simply hand her over for impaling. “Pride makes life short and death painful.”

After a pause, she nodded at Rook, who took Anya by the arm. Anya fought the grip, but no words left the locked lips. When Avestine felt the intrusion of Rook in her thoughts, she turned to upbraid him but lost all her anger when she saw Lucina, pale and shivering.

With distraction, Avestine ordered a guard to take Anya back to the harem.

As soon as Avestine reached her, Lucina collapsed. She was sweating, but her skin felt cold. Her eyes were red and her breathing shallow. She died that evening before sunset.

The following day Rook arrived at Avestine’s quarters. He noted the half-empty bottle of whiskey and untouched plate of food. He stood for a moment beside her table.

When she looked up at him, he nodded. “Your Grace, the healers were at a loss until a seer divined it was hive fever. But that fever’s been gone for generations.”

Avestine studied his face, which was beautiful with strength and proportion. His deep-set eyes seemed to see everything. She decided she had drunk too much whiskey, so she drank more.

“Yes.” She nodded. “Gone for generations. It struck the abbey on Mt. Arscid last year. Did you know? The father of one of the palace servants returned with it. Father had the whole family and their farm burned.”

Rook’s gaze followed the sinuous curl of smoke that rose to the clerestory at the center of the room. “The fever’s in the blood. So they say.”

Avestine finished her cup. “Just the other day I was wondering why Father let Lucina live. Since he obviously didn’t, I’m now wondering why he lets you live.”

“You think he’s responsible for Lucina? How?”

“He’s always a step ahead, isn’t he?”

Rook’s bushy eyebrows connected above his nose in a deep scowl. “It doesn’t matter. He’s no threat to me. You took my hands, and I swore my oath to you. That means you will succeed him. You are the Emissary, and the Emissary must be protected.”

“Do you believe my father will ever die?”

“He’s a man.”

“Oh, he’s much more than that and you risk blasphemy to say otherwise.”

“Do you want to know the status of the troops?” He waited until she nodded, and then he said, “The city wall is repaired except for several darkward sections. The legates want to give the men a two-day rest before they finish the final.”

Avestine’s lip curled. “A week ago I ordered that repaired. They should be working on adding another layer already.”

“Envoys from Annulinia and Marhash are still waiting to meet with you in the audience hall. They have been there all morning.”

“Let them wait.”

“Scouts report an envoy from your father is a few days away. Rumor is that you’re to leave the city in Heron’s command and return to Sahrdon with the Black Tide.”

“I have my own demands for my father. I’m taking a farm and fifty slaves.”

“What about the city?”

“What do I care? It’s not mine.”

“You took it. Maybe you should think about keeping it.”

Avestine had to blink several times before she was sure that Rook was serious, although he was rarely a man of humor.

He added, “Aren’t you tired of losing everything that belongs to you?”

“You can’t manipulate me.”

“It’s time to stand up to your father the way you stand up to everyone else.”

She rose so quickly from her chair that it tipped over. She seized his tunic in both hands, but too much whiskey made her unsteady. She lost her balance. He kept her from falling, and she shoved him away.

“I should kill you,” she said. “You deserve it many times over. And then there’d be nothing else he could take.”

***

The following day, the envoy reached the city ahead of schedule—but not ahead of Avestine’s ability to plan.

She stood beside Rook on Stede’s wall watching the approach of imperial troops. Below her stood Heron with a detachment of the Black Tide. Following tradition, the flagman from each party rode ahead, exchanged standards, and rode back.

When the envoy reached the gate, Avestine was glad to see it was Garren, the warmaster’s second-in-command. He was a man with some political acuity. Just as she began to think her plans would succeed, what she saw left her stomach feeling like it was falling out of her.

Heron rode out and greeted Garren briefly, ordered the troops behind him to part, and then led the envoy and his party into the city.

Avestine dashed from the wall, already giving orders and planning how the next few hours would go.

She made her way through the scarred palace corridors to the throne room, where she had her guards seal the doors. She paced and waited for the orders she had given to be carried out. When a great deal of time had passed and no one arrived, she glanced at Rook, who did not need her verbal order. He left the room.

As she continued to pace, her anger grew into rage.

She knew how Heron would defend his disobedience, and she had to be clear about her response. The next few hours would either put her head on a pike or change the face of the empire forever.

Soon, the throne room doors parted with the sound of grinding metal. The room echoed with strong, jovial male voices.

Wearing his ceremonial yellow armor, Heron entered with Garren, who was laughing. Bashint followed, his manner reserved. Each legion’s second-in-command and advisors accompanied them. The envoy’s party followed, and Rook entered last.

Avestine walked down the steps from the throne to greet Garren with a grand gesture. “I was pleased to see my father sent me the warmaster’s adjutant, a brave man renowned for his wisdom.”

Garren glanced from Avestine to Heron and back. “I’m honored to greet the conqueror of Stede and to bring the acclaim of the people of Sahrdon. They have already given you the title ‘Avestine of the Hunt’.”

“How I miss Eternal Sahrdon, a people beloved of Arujan.” Hand to her chest, she added “My people.”

Garren took a satchel from one of his assistants as he said to Avestine, “Then you’ll be pleased to receive the Architect’s letter. Of course, it’s for you to read alone, but my sense is that you are to return with a trium—”

“Thank you, Adjutant,” interrupted Avestine, one hand raised, “but your delivery will have to wait.” She turned her attention to Heron, who was watching her with devious eyes. “Legate, do you recall the order I gave you at the gate?”

“I do, Lady, but as soon as the emperor’s orders arrived…” He turned with one hand indicating Garren. “I was obligated to honor those.”

“I see.” Avestine never diverted her cold blue eyes from him. “Was there an emperor at the gates this morning?”

“His envoy.”

“I see. You thought you would abide the request of an adjutant to a servant of the emperor, rather than the orders of the regent of Stede, who is also your campaign commander?”

Heron hesitated. “Adjutant Garren carries the emperor’s sealed letter.”

“Have you read that letter, Legate? Do you suppose it grants you the substantial authority to disregard my orders?”

“Of course not, Lady.”

“I know you to be a loyal servant.” She glanced around the room as she said, “Give me your sword.”

Heron’s white brow furrowed as his dark eyes glanced about. “My sword?”

“Perhaps the emperor’s letter might have something to say about why you don’t need to yield your weapon to a superior officer when commanded?”

Heron continued to glance around uncertainly, but he drew his sword and handed the hilt to Avestine. She held it up, letting the torchlight flash across the blade. “Made in the traditional ten-year cycle. The abbey on Mt. Arscid made it, I believe. Isn’t that so?”

He nodded.

“A generous gift from my father, just this past year. Isn’t that so?”

He nodded again.

Avestine’s chest burned. Her hand tightened around the hilt. “My father honors you above all his legates. Some would say…” She forced a smile as natural as she could make it and nodded at Garren. “Some would say he values your counsel even above that of his warmaster. Isn’t that so?”

Heron glanced from her to Garren and licked his lips.

She smiled, nodded, and shoved the blade between the plates of Heron’s armor.

Mouth gaping, eyes round with disbelief, he fell forward and grasped her forearms. She pushed the blade deeper. It crackled through sinew. She shoved his dead body backward to the floor. With one foot braced against his chest, she pulled the bloody sword free.

“Randist!” She looked around the group of stunned men. Heron’s second-in-command shifted foot-to-foot behind Bashint. “Come here.” Randist made his way to her as the other men took a step back. She handed him Heron’s sword. “Such a fine weapon shouldn’t be buried with a pig.”

Randist took the sword with some relief. “Yes, Lady.”

“Do you think you can follow my orders?”

He glanced at Heron’s body and nodded.

“Show Garren and his men from the city.”

“But Lady,” said Garren, although he went silent after a hard look from Avestine.

She told him, “You’ll return to Sahrdon and inform the Architect you weren’t able to deliver your message because the gates were barred.”

“He’ll have me executed.”

Avestine thought a moment. “Likely.”

“I don’t wish to be a party to treason.”

“Treason?” Avestine tried to ease his tension with a friendly smile. “What I want, I take. It’s no less than my father would do, and nothing other than he expects. He won’t get me back to Sahrdon without offering me something better than what I have here.” She took several deep breaths as she studied his worried face. “Relax, Garren. You’ll live, because I’ll need a clever man as my second when I become my father’s warmaster.”

“Warmaster? What about Mimner?”

Warmaster of the empire at twenty was unprecedented. She swelled at the thought of surpassing her father, but reminded herself he had set in motion the circumstance that would allow it to happen.

She suddenly felt very tired. Those moments when she thought she had outmaneuvered her father, she always discovered he was a step ahead of her. With an intuitive leap, she knew Mimner was already dead, the result of some manufactured crime or accident.

Her father was ready for her to be his warmaster, but there was no way he could simply hand the office to his daughter and maintain the allegiance of all factions. She had spent years killing prisoners in the arena, but anyone can kill. Getting others to kill for you is the true test of power. She needed to demonstrate to the world that she could manage both an army and an ambitious imperial court.

Defeating a kingdom that had been the bane of generations was an impressive start. Executing the senior legate of the empire for plausible reasons so she could engage in a power game with the emperor went further to enhancing a reputation for courage and cleverness.

Her jaw clenched when she felt Rook cautioning her in her thoughts. To Garren she said, “Your guards will be sent back to Sahrdon, but you and your servants will be given quarters.” She nodded curtly. “Bashint.” The legate stood at attention as Avestine continued, “You’re senior legate. I expect a report on rations and weapons allocations in the morning. And send confirmation when the envoy’s guard has left the city.”

She turned to leave, but remembered one order that had not yet been carried out.

She turned back and walked up to Bashint. She got in his face and said in her most precise voice, “If the final repairs aren’t finished on the wall before the men sleep, I’ll nail your balls to the gate.” She nearly tripped over Heron’s body when she turned again. “Get this trash out of my city.”

“What should we do with him?” asked Bashint.

Avestine studied the new senior legate for a moment, aware that his loyalty was not something she could count on. He had possessed a fondness for the dead man, so she should do the careful thing. Still, her instinct was to add to his fear rather than cajole his cooperation. “What happens to any traitor? Stick his body on a pole and let the vultures feed.” She always followed her instincts.

She nodded to Rook, knowing he would keep a watchful eye on the official activity, as he always did. She left the room, followed by her guards. She had to keep herself from running as she made her way to her quarters. When she arrived, she cleared the room, sending her guard to the corridor and the servants to their adjacent quarters. She paced as she struggled to stop her hands from trembling.

One step away from the throne. One step away from claiming everything. She told herself she would make more of that power, claim more of the world, demand more of the gods than her father ever had. She was stronger than he knew, and she would outlast him. She would surpass him.

She threw a ceramic cup against the stone wall. She smashed a second one. When she had control of her trembling, she opened the door and sent a guard for Anya.

Anya arrived asking when she was to die.

With a weary headshake, Avestine sat down. “No more killing today.”

Anya sat down in a chair, and Avestine thought about scolding the presumption, but she missed familiarity, the kind she had with Lucina. She wondered if a princess could learn such devotion.

“I’ve executed my father’s senior legate,” said Avestine. “There will undoubtedly be a few enterprising soldiers, including his second, who think assassinating me will gain prestige or position. On the other hand, the envoy is a man of some political astuteness, but there’s no telling just yet with whom he’ll ally. I made a show of my trust for the new senior legate, but he may well be trading poisoned words with the envoy at this very moment.”

Anya nodded slowly.

“The senior legate was an arrogant bastard and a man my father loved like a brother. I was happy to kill him.”

“What will your father do?”

“Make me warmaster and commander of all the legions of Darklaw.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he taught me well.”

Anya nodded slowly again. “But you said you have a palace of men who would like you dead. Will you even make it back to Sahrdon? Including Rook. You said he hates you, too. Is there anyone who doesn’t?”

Avestine’s eyes narrowed a few times as she searched Anya’s face. A bitter smile spread her lips. “Absolutely no one.” She laughed. Her laughter grew until she was holding her belly. She doubled over and laughed herself out.

Anya said, “I tried to kill you.”

“Next time, try something less obvious than poisoning my food.” It occurred to Avestine that having a princess for a servant might have certain benefits, like the companionship of someone who knew the burden of power, of navigating a world of necessary lies.

An unfamiliar desire made her sit up. “You should know that my Essanti is wrong. I have no interest in the weak. They’re not even good sport. If you had wanted to die like your cousin, who threw herself from the wall, I wouldn’t have given you a second thought.”

She rarely felt the need to explain herself, and the vulnerability made her uneasy. She cast about in her thoughts, imagining what she might do to Anya to regain her sense of control.

Anya dug her fingernail into a crack on the table for an idle moment before regarding Avestine again. “They say you’re a demon.”

“No.” Avestine smiled. “Just the daughter of one.”

She looked Anya over, appreciating her soft contours. She led her to the bed and undressed her, kissing her neck and telling her how beautiful she was. Then she pulled her onto the bed and took pleasure far into the night, while the palace plotted against the woman who would one day rule the world.

THE END