by Den Valdron
He jerked back quickly.
“Do you know?” he said quickly. “What do you know? I think you're bluffing!”
He leaned forward, reaching for my hair. Vadak Eth stepped forward his blade half out of the scabbard. The facing guard crouched. The two with Ton Sabat laid their hands on him
His hand halted inches away. I did not move, I simply stared coldly. The fingers trembled.
Finally, he sat.
I could barely hear, my heart was pounding so hard that the blood rushing through my ears was like thunder. I did not even allow myself to blink. My face remained a mask of icy haughtiness.
“What is it that you think you know?” He snapped. “You have nothing. There is nothing.”
Not true, the cold evil thing I played thought to herself.
This is what it is to be a Thern: All suspicion and secrets and icy terror that your secrets will be found. Despotic contempt for all beneath you, and freezing terror of all above. This man had secrets.
I did not need to know what those secrets were. All I needed was for him to believe I knew them.
“Let us dispense with these games,” I told him, “surely you must have realized by this time that I did not come here to dispose of you.”
He blinked rapidly. Somehow, this interview had gotten away from him. He'd expected to terrorize some itinerant priestess, to expose an impostor, to sort a mystery out. But somehow, in some way he didn't quite understand, he'd lost control.
There was an army gathered outside his temple, and exotic poison running through his veins, and he couldn't think of how she must have administered it, except only that one of his trusted acolytes had been turned. And was this the same acolyte that had revealed his secrets? But which acolyte? And which secret? How far did it go? Now, she was offering him his life. He was the one on the spot, being interrogated. What did she want?
I allowed myself an evil little laugh.
“Unless you were incorrigibly indisposed.”
His lips twitched upwards just a little bit, as if he thought perhaps he should show that he appreciated the joke. Perhaps curry a little favour.
“There is the matter of poison,” he said.
“The antidote will be administered,” I replied, “as subtly as before, you will not know.”
“But if I don't know...” he said, “then how will I know.”
I glanced at my fingernails, as if the conversation had lost all interest for me.
“This is now a Reform temple,” I told him, “it is expected that there will be certain adjustments in your staff.”
“Is this why you have come?”
I froze. I allowed my gaze to drift over to him. After a moment, he looked away.
“Surely, you are not such a fool?” I said.
Play up the arrogance. The notion that a high priestess, or whatever, came all the way from Dor to shake up his little temple? Nonsense. Let the implication sink in, the realization that the stakes were vaster, the game was bigger. I watched him work it out for himself. And with the realization of a bigger game, the possibility for advantage...
“I am in your service,” he bowed.
“That's better,” I replied lazily. “Surely you appreciate that the fourth ranked in the new order would not leave the Valley Dor for anything so trivial as personnel issues at a city temple. My business lies elsewhere.”
“Az-Lium,” he guessed. I allowed myself a slow blink. I nodded.
“Where does it lie?”
“Markath Khan guards that information,” he said. “We do not have it yet.”
“I thought Markath Khan was your pawn.”
Oh, oh. I'd made a terrible mistake. He was genuinely surprised. Whatever Markath Khan was, he was not this man's creature. Quickly, I gathered every bit of glacial malice, every ounce of ancient, ageless evil and treachery I could project.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said coldly, “that you have lost control of him. Or are you going to try to claim that he was never your agent.”
He blinked several times. His fingers drummed nervously against his thigh.
“Wait....” he said.
“Answer the question.”
“He just appeared,” he told me. “Out of nowhere.”
“Impossible,” I snarled. “He could not have accomplished what he has on his own. There is someone moving him.”
Whether there was or not, the suspicious nature of this creature must be fed.
“It is not us,” he said.
“I don't know.”
“This is outrageous,” I snarled. “This ... Markath Khan appears, you have no idea who he is or what he is, who his movers are, their agenda, they go on a spree of conquest, they rouse a ten thousand year forgotten city.... and you say ‘I don't know.’”
“Perhaps I do need to reconsider the personnel allocations,” I murmured viciously.
“We have monitored him carefully, we have full reports,” he whimpered.
“That's not good enough,” I snarled. With visible effort, I reined in and drew back the frigid lashing evil.
I drummed my fingers on the table.
“Never mind,” I said dismissively. “You are not in possession of the full picture. There is no way you could possibly know what is at stake.”
“We will have to decide if this changes things. Perhaps there are opportunities.”
I glared at him.
“I want to know everything you know about Markath Khan, and about Diome's campaigns, and of course about this Az-Lium. We will get to the bottom of it. If Markath Khan is not our puppet, then I think he has lived too long.”
“And the Demon Princess,” he hazarded.
Demon Princess? That was the second time I'd heard that reference. My curiosity was piqued.
“The information which has come to Dor is of concern,” I said, “What do you know of this Demon Princess?”
“Not much,” he said, licking his lips. He was trying to decide what to say, how to take advantage of the situation.
I lifted an eyebrow.
“Everything,” I ordered.
He took a breath. “The reports are contradictory, I have sent everything to Dor, I can add nothing.”
“Again,” I said, “from your own lips.”
“Kam Asutra,” he said quickly. “Kam Asutra, is the name of an ancient personage, or perhaps a demigod or demon. It was not a known name of the Az-Lium royalty. It emerged after the conquest.”
I nodded slightly.
“There are stories that she appeared to the Orgus in the Jagged Lands, leading an army of ghosts.”
“The Orgus were terrified of the Demon Princess and her ghost army. They say that she wields Jewels of Power which may strip the flesh from bones and destroy all within site. They say that the Jewels of power are what made the Jagged Lands.”
“There is a report that the Demon Princess appeared before the Orgus Jeddak Hedo Lettus. That she seduced the Jed, Gyal Borhus, and destroyed the Jed, Aspar Aguus, before she was overcome and torn to pieces by wild beasts. The dismembered body was buried in separate locations.”
“Then that should have been the end of it.”
He was sweating a little.
“It's not clear.”
“The Demon Princess appeared in Az-Lium.”
“Before or after she was torn to pieces?”
“After, definitely after. We have confirmed that.”
“All of her?” I sneered, sarcastically. “No missing bits?”
“Then there is a second. Or she is simply a myth.”
“Not a myth,” he said, “the Orgus were certain. We think that there was a second... or...”
He hesitated, licking his lips.
“Or?” I demanded.
“Or perhaps the dismemberment was not sufficient.”
I was astonished. So, somewhere deep in this cold reptile was a bit of superstition? Should I play to that? Best to tread lightly.
“This is what concerns us,” I said, ambiguously. Certainly a demonic force from the ancient past warranted a visit from powers from Valley Dor. “What happened in Az-Lium?”
“At first, stories and sitings, stories of all sort, contradictory. Diome's forces treated her first as a folk tale, and then as some sort of insurgent leader.”
“The City changed. The Orovars of Az-Lium were like sheep. But then, they became like snarling dogs. If not the Demon Princess, then something happened. Markath Khan's grip weakens.”
“Is that all?”
“There's more in the reports, stories, records, testimonies.”
“There are several possibilities,” I ticked off, trying to think of how best to feed this swill of paranoia and misinformation back to him, “it is possible that Markath Khan has roused something more than a mere lost city, but that he has by accident woken something demonic and terrible, sleeping these last ten thousand years. This remains to be seen.”
Little reaction. The old monster played it very close.
“It is possible that there was a Princess,” I said, “who is now dead at the hands of the Orgus, and superstition rules. The Orgus, like all infidel races, are stupid and superstitious and stories such as this take on a life of their own.”
Blink. He didn't quite believe that.
“It is possible that there is more than one Princess,” I said, “that it is a role rather than a person. And thus, the death at the Orgus hands resulted only in replacement.”
He nodded. He might be superstitious, but he was cold blooded enough to see this as the most likely.
“Regardless,” I said, “these Orovar believe in this Princess. If it is a demon, it shall be put down. If it is a person, then they shall be disposed of. If they are already dead, or if it is a role....”
“A role can be assumed.”
I watched him calculate.
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