by Den Valdron
My spy was waiting on the street outside the Inn. It was the same spy from yesterday.
In a city where everyone marched or cowered, where all eyes were fixed rigidly forward or staring at the ground, spies were so obvious. They were the only ones who loitered, who looked around, who did not move with insect-like purpose.
Mentally, I steeled myself. Face, stance, expression, was my hair right? My clothes? No time now. I marched boldly forward, Vadak Eth and Ton Sabat in tow.
“You,” I called. “Come over here immediately.”
He looked panic struck.
I suppose no one but superiors ever ordered spies about. I hoped that he was terrified of superiors.
“Name and Rank?” I demanded.
“Gor Mitel, Lieutenant,” he sputtered.
I slapped him across the face.
“This is an insult,” I said, “I was told to expect a Colonel at least.”
“A Colonel...” He sputtered, “you mean...”
“Show me your notebook!”
“Show me your notebook,” I ordered, “are you simple?”
“I can't --“
I slapped him in the face again.
I slapped him a third time. He handed over the notebook. I pretended to flip through it. I could not read Diome's script, it was gibberish to me, so I just faked it.
“You didn't even spell my name right,” I swore. “And what's this? These are terrible. Were you even paying attention?”
Sweating, he glanced around for aid, giving away his fellow spies. Ton Sabat and Vadak Eth made note.
“What's this?” I asked, thrusting the notebook open to some random page in his face.
“Breakfast,” he stuttered, “you had two eggs and a glass of–“
“Well of course, you idiot,” I snarled. “Anyone could have noted down my breakfast. But the conversation, the nuance, did you pay attention to the servant, I dropped a napkin to get your attention but where is it here?”
“You dropped – I didn't –“
“Of course you didn't notice. Were you even awake? How did a simpleton of your obvious incompetence even manage to obtain your position. Admiral Latta will be hearing about this.”
“I don't report to Admiral Lat --“
A final slap.
“Admiral Latta will hear about this, and you will be hearing from whatever servile nobody you call a superior, and his superior will be hearing from Markath Khan.”
He turned white and made a gleep sound.
“You have one more chance,” I said, “come with me.”
Our spy, sufficiently flustered, followed as we marched along. I allowed myself a small moment of relief. I thought of it as a warm up, a bit of exercise before the real contest. With Vadak Eth leading, we marched in silence to the temple.
Orgus began to appear as we approached, until finally, the street before the temple was thronged with them.
I turned to the spy.
“What are all these Orgus doing here. Is this your doing?”
He looked panic stricken.
“Never mind,” I said, I pointed. “Go up to that one and tell them to go away. I'll not have my temple district cluttered with infidel monsters.”
Of course, he had no luck, finally slinking back to me.
“What exactly are you good for?” I asked with all the coldness and contempt I could muster. He literally withered in front of me.
“Never mind,” I said. I gave the appearance of thinking things over. “Stand right here, wait until I come out. Don't move. Do you think you can handle that?”
I didn't wait for an answer. Instead, I turned and with Vadak Eth and Ton Sabat beside me marched into the temple, perhaps to our deaths. My stomach fluttered and my heart pounded, but I dared give no sign to those I knew must be watching.
An acolyte met us within the temple doors.
“Your Holiness,” he began.
“Shut up,” I said, “and take us to the Hekkador.”
“The Hekkador is indisposed,” he began.
“Then dispose him,” I told him, “he has begged to meet, I have much to do and very little time. I will not be held to the lackadaisical schedule of some provincial chaplain. He can sip his tea or molest his boys or fraud the treasury after we have finished.”
The Acolyte stared at us with mute horror.
I clapped my hands.
“Now,” I said, “go.”
As he fled into the inner chambers of the temple, we followed. Therns, bald men and women, some of them covered with red paint, others pale skinned, scattered about. We were escorted to a chamber, as the Hekkador hurriedly flew in, accompanied by decidedly rugged looking Acolytes.
“You were to attend at noon,” he said, with exasperation.
And give you time to prepare your web? I thought. No, that didn't appeal to me.
“You begged an interview, you do not dictate terms.”
He thought about making an issue of it. Then he noticed that the chamber was full of Therns.
“This is private,” he said angrily, “between Hekkador and High Priestess. Only those designated may stay.”
The room emptied out, except for selected guards. Two of them took up position beside Ton Sabat, ready to seize him before he could reach for a weapon. If things went wrong, they were in for a hideous surprise. The third guard faced Vadak Eth. I placed my faith in the talents of my own set of murderers.
The Hekkador took a seat, staring at me. I stared back.
What were the Therns? They were a race who believed that they were anointed by God. Or Goddess? Which sex was Iss? I hoped that didn't come up.
Never mind. The Therns were a people who held all of creation, every other person and every other race as inferior and beneath them. A race, Vadak Eth assured me, that had cultivated arrogance and treachery to a high art.
I took all that and thought about the most cold blooded evil character I could imagine. I had that character stare back at the Hekkador as if he was a bug.
“Your wig is quite remarkable,” he said, “it looks entirely lifelike.”
“Thank you,” I said, “it is.”
I waited a beat.
“It is the fresh scalp of an Orovar, harvested this morning,” I told him.
He did not react to this.
“You will not remove your wig?”
I did not respond. I simply stared at him. He could expose me by reaching up and tugging my hair, we both knew that. But we both knew that if he was wrong, then it would be a terrible, terrible mistake. He did not know how bad a mistake it would be. Therefore, he could not take the risk.
Cold, I thought, cold and ancient malice. The most arrogant product of an arrogant race. I stared through him, as if looking down from a mountain.
He decided to try again.
“Your facial features...” he said, “resemble these Orovar slaves we see now in the city.”
I allowed myself the faintest trace of a smile.
“Do they?” I said. “We have only ancient statues in the Valley Dor for examples, but we had hoped...”
“So you are here ... something to do with the Orovars? Something to do with Az-Lium?”
I assumed his spies, or Markath Khan's spies, assuming they were not the same, had told him that the High Priestess seemed very interested in Az-Lium. He was fishing.
Or perhaps the High Priestess was herself a fraud, an Orovar somehow pretending. Suspicion was woven into their souls, these Therns.
But here I was. So I was either immensely stupid, or colossally reckless.
Or I was real. And if I was real, what exactly was that? How dangerous was that? How awful and lethal?
He didn't know yet.
I am the pinnacle of a thousand generations of evil, I thought. Pale little nobody, insignificant worm, you are as far beneath me, as the dust under your feet is below you. I hold your death, I thought, as a whim. I can sentence you to torture for the rest of your life, and never give it another thought. Our eyes locked.
He looked away.
“There is a Linku Lans in the registries,” he said petulantly. “But she is an Inquisitor in the Orthodox sect.”
“There has been a consolidation in Dor,” I said.
He waited. I didn't give him anything more.
“We have not heard of it,” he said.
“You are intimately familiar with the current politics of the Holy Valley?” I asked. “Was that why you were sent to this forsaken mound of rubble?”
“I don't believe you,” he said flatly. Was there a trace of uncertainty in his eyes.
A servant came in, set down two goblets between us, and poured wine. Our eyes never left each other. I ignored my goblet. Carefully, I reached for his goblet, watching his eyes. Was there satisfaction there? A race steeped in treachery would poison your goblet. But then, that would be expected. So to counter that, they would poison their own goblet, expecting you to take it. I handed it to the servant.
“Drink,” I ordered.
The servant suddenly looked frightened.
“Now,” I said.
A fine sweat broke out on the Hekkador's forehead. The servant hovered, uncertainly. Finally, he drank from the goblet and set it down.
“Poisoned of course,” I said.
He did not reply.
“You have an immunity,” I said. A surprised blink. Both goblets had been poisoned. He had expected to drink and survive, and for me to drink and die, no matter which I chose, or forced upon him.
The servant boy looked stricken. The Hekkador's eyes narrowed.
“How long does he have?” I asked. “I imagine it will be suitably painful.”
“Hours,” the Hekkador admitted.
“Send him away and have the antidote administered.”
“There is no antidote.”
“Of course there is. You weren't certain it was safe to kill me. You would leave yourself an escape, just in case you felt you'd made a mistake.”
“Are you sure.”
I just stared coldly at an intemperate little bug.
The Hekkador sighed in frustration.
“The antidote is in my private store, I will administer it after we finish.”
“I am a senior Hekkador of the Spiritual faith. Reform or Orthodox, it is nothing to me. You have no authority in this temple. I am answerable only to Sarak Atruka, herself.”
“Sarak Atruka is dead.”
His eyes widened slightly, I'd shocked him.
“When?” he said. “Is Jayb Ayor the new–“
“Jayb Ayor,” I told him, “holds a position in the Reformed sect.”
“That's not possible!”
Pointedly, I looked away, my gaze drifting as if he was not worth the effort of being seen. Lazily, I let my gaze drift back.
“I told you, there has been a consolidation.”
“I don't believe you,” he said too quickly. He blinked twice, fingertips trembled.
A bug, I thought. He is merely a bug. They are all merely bugs, worth noticing only when it is time to crush them and forget them. I radiated pure evil.
“I am a Hekkador, I will not be trifled with in my own temple by some mere High Priestess.” He began.
“I am not a High Priestess,” I snapped.
“It's the highest position these vulgar barbarians know of, that is all.”
“Then what are you?”
“I was an Inquisitor, now there are but three who stand above me.”
He digested this.
“It is said of Linku Lans that she is of surpassing rapaciousness, infinite cruelty and all encompassing ambition. It was thought that she would climb high, at least until someone got around to having her killed.”
I did not need to reply to this.
“What is your purpose in coming here? Why have you placed yourself in my power?”
I barked a laugh.
“In your power?”
“Bah,” he snapped angrily. He picked up the remaining goblet and swallowed down a mouthful of poison wine. He tossed the goblet aside, in a desperately flamboyant gesture. “You're nothing but smoke and mirrors, I am the power here. You'll not leave this temple alive without my say.”
“Three reasons,” I told him.
“The Orgus gathered outside,” he said, “accompanied by Diome's spies?”
“The other two?”
“You have been poisoned,” I told him. “With rather more subtlety than your ham handed effort.”
I did not bother to answer. I watched his eyes dart to his guards, as he simultaneously tried to back track through the last couple of days, review the loyalty of his underlings, and plot his next move.
“The third?” He asked. I could tell he was buying time. It amused the bottomless well of evil that I wore.
"The third..." I smiled.
I beckoned him closer. Despite himself, he leaned towards me.
“We know your pathetic little secret,” I whispered, “we know everything.”
BACK TO NOVEL INTRO AND CHAPTER NAVIGATION CHART