by Den Valdron
The morning passed as a relentless interrogation. I allowed few questions. I asked many. I scoured the Hekkador's mind for local conditions. I figured it would be the safest thing to ask him, the vagaries and ins and outs of local politics. Even if he'd reported that sort of thing to the Valley Dor, a person such as I played could not be bothered to read such triviality. But now that I was here, I wanted to know every bit of gossip, who the players were in Markath Khan's empire, what the rivalries were, who we owned, who we didn't own, where the loyalties of the various Orgus dragoons lay, the disposition of mercenaries, the factions.
I didn't really care, myself. But the character I had assumed cared deeply in her monstrous heart. She would look for advantage, hunt for entries into schemes, seek ways to turn things to her advantage. So I probed and tested, and occasionally prodded, leaving the Hekkador squirming.
And who knows, some of it might be useful to me. Sometimes I saw opportunities to throw the Hekkador off my scent, to divert him towards false paths.
In a day or two I planned to vanish from this forsaken city. It would be a good idea to have him looking for me in the wrong places.
“Markath Khan,” I said finally.
The Hekkador looked up, he seemed drawn. Had I worn him out? Had this encounter been as frightening and exhausting for him as it had been for me? Mentally checked myself, trying to radiate poise and confidence.
“I've told you everything we know of him.”
“It's not enough,” I said.
He stared blankly at me.
“If we do not own him, we must destroy him.”
“What do you propose?”
I stared at him.
“Was that a challenge?” I asked, malice dripping from my voice. “Do you feel that I am so low, or that we are so familiar that you may treat me with such disrespect.”
Waves of cold evil radiated off me. Once you'd picked up the knack, it was actually kind of fun.
His eyes dropped.
“Unfortunately, there are other matters at stake, and I have no time to deal with him myself,” I told him sternly. “I shall leave Markath Khan's destruction to you.”
“Thank you Holiness,” he said. I could not tell if he was being sarcastic.
“The city is full of slaves,” I told him, “go among these Orovars, minister to them, help them, I think a slave revolt will do nicely.”
“Will there be written orders,” he said.
I laughed without a trace of humour.
“Hekkador,” I told him, “I was never here.”
At that point, I took my leave, marching unmolested from the temple, Vadak Eth and Ton Sabat following. My heart pounded, my legs felt disembodied.
Beyond the temple, the Courtyard and streets were full of loitering Orgus and a handful of spies. I walked past Aspar Aguus, without either of us acknowledging the other. I caught the eyes of my Diome spy and nodded, he followed in behind us.
“Take us somewhere private,” I ordered him. He led us through a warren of winding streets.
As soon as we were away from the crowds, out of sight of men, I stopped and put a hand up against the wall to steady myself.
“Wait,” I said.
Vadak Eth stepped up, looking at me.
I threw up.
He stepped back quickly, but not quickly enough.
“Sorry,” I whispered, wiping my mouth, spitting to wash the taste free.
“It's all right, Princess,” he said, wiping his chest off with a rag.
Princess? I hoped no one had heard that.
I leaped upon him. The awful tension of the morning seemed to boil within me. I tore at his loincloth, wrapped my legs against his. On his face shock mixed with exertion. Even as our bodies joined, and I twisted against him, he pushed back, thrusting me against the wall. Our coupling was frenzied, and all too quick. I felt him stiffen and then weaken.
I wasn't finished. I reached for Ton Sabat who looked as if he wanted to flee, and we too coupled furiously, as Vadak Eth watched in exhaustion and the spy with frightened attention. Even, too, as I peaked, and peaked, Ton Sabat too was worn, and so I wrapped myself around the spy, too frightened and excited to resist.
When I felt him find his release, and the growing softness of him, I released him and stepped away.
“Go,” I told him, “and tell no one of your participation in a sacred thern ritual. If your masters know you have been claimed, they will kill you. Get out of my sight, until I call for you.”
He scurried off. We watched him go.
How would I call for him, I wondered. I didn't know his name. I shrugged. As long as he was scared, confused and silent, I didn't care if I ever saw him again.
“Secret Thern ritual?” Vadak Eth asked.
“Well,” Ton Sabat offered, “if it's not, it ought to be.”
I smirked. Actual humor. It was another of those disorienting signs that behind his brain damage, an agile mind worked. His speech, jagged and awkward, was slowly getting better.
“What he said,” I said. I bent over, my legs shaking.
“Are you going to throw up again?” Vadak Eth asked.
“No,” I shook my head. I didn't think I would. The spasm of awful stress that had overcome me was past. I could still feel my heart pounding, the slow easing of tensions.
“So, how did I do?” I asked. “Did he buy it.”
“Brilliantly,” Vadak Eth replied.
“So what will he do?”
“He'll be cautious not to arouse your ire. But he will begin making inquiries. Likely, he'll send an agent to the Valley Dor.”
“Of course,” Vadak Eth said, “Therns suspect everything. He believes. But even believing, he must assume that there have been great changes in Valley Dor, a consolidation of the churches, new politics, some who ascend, some who fall, a new landscape. He will need to know.”
“Yes,” I said. That seemed sensible.
“So he will inquire. And he will find nothing.”
I thought of that evil old man, and how he would react to the knowledge that a fraud had walked into his temple, into the heart of his power, sold him a pack of lies, and terrorized him to the base of his vile dishonest soul.
I didn't want to be around for that.
“How long will we have?”
Vadak Eth thought.
“He'll be very cautious. He will do nothing for a day or two, waiting to see if you have further moves.” Vadak Eth replied. “He'll wait and watch. But he has to learn the new politics. So he will send out inquiries. Maybe in three or four days. A week at most.”
“He won't dare to send anyone low level. And no one he can't trust. He'll go himself, or send someone trusted and valuable. There'll have to be preparation, bribes. While he prepares, he'll be vulnerable,” I said.
“He's afraid of you now,” Vadak Eth said.
“We can buy more time,” I speculated. “Spin him in circles.”
“Maybe another couple of days,” Vadak Eth said, “but Princess, it may beyond your skills.”
I thought about that. There was an entire world of Thern politics, rivalries, alliances, sects and churches, there was ten thousand years of theology and debate and history I was entirely ignorant of. I might fake my way for a bit, with Vadak Eth's help, perhaps last a bit longer. But the sham was hopeless.
“Let's be far away from here, very quickly.”
“We might,” Vadak Eth suggested, “gain a little more time.”
I looked at him.
“If the Hekkador were to be killed, it would throw things into confusion.”
I thought about that.
He was an evil old man, I thought. Nasty and soulless, and doubtless, he'd had many people tortured to death, had done all sorts of awful things.
But then again, he hadn't earned my malice. He'd been minding his own business, when this stranger had walked into his life and terrorized him. Did he deserve to die for that?
Did I have the right to work his murder for my convenience? I did not share these thoughts with Vadak Eth, he had the murderous practicality of this new world. It was a murderous practicality that I wanted nothing of. He and the rest of them would doubtless laugh at my sentimentality, but for the moment, no I would not see him dead. It might be that further along, there would be no choice. But for now, whether he deserved it or not, I would not order his death.
“I'll think about it,” I told Vadak Eth. “In the meantime, do nothing. Confusion can work against us, and only a fool stirs a hornet's nest.”
The rest of the day passed without incident. I played the part of a High Priestess. Admiral Latta came by and we passed a pleasant evening in conversation, Japh Leah playing the role of a slave boy admirably. I couldn't help smirking at him.
The next day, I toured the city with Vadak Eth, as Japh Leah, unattended, scoured the cities underworld, brokering jewels, collecting funds, covertly arranging our departure.
More had happened than I realized, I reflected, glancing at Vadak Eth's solemn profile. For in that narrow empty alley after the temple, I had made my choice.
Ton Sabat, athletic and inhuman, was never really a possibility. It had always seemed to come down to Vadak Eth and Japh Leah. But truthfully, Japh Leah was but a smirking clown, a posturer, a joker, full of his own secrets, unreliable, as often irritating as he was pleasing. There was an excitement to him, certainly. But his youthful recklessness paled before Vadak Eth's watchful competence, his careful certainty and skill.
It had not just been sex in the alley, not wholly sex anyway. On a level deeper than thought, my decision had been made. Vadak Eth was the man who would claim my heart.
Distracted, I did not notice the Orgus before he appeared before us. I glanced around quickly, seeing that the tusked warriors were all about, they had unobtrusively followed and surrounded us. The street was empty but for them.
I felt no fear.
“So?” I asked the warrior who faced me. “What message?”
He swung at me with his club. I saw it from the corner of my eye and tried to dodge. It clouted me on the side, sending pain lancing through me. My legs buckled. Behind us, I heard sounds of quick and rapid struggle as the warriors took Vadak Eth.
I fell to my knees. Reaching a hand towards the pain radiating from the side of my head. My fingers came away sticky.
“Wait,” I begged.
He raised the club again. The world went black.
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