Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
So, this was a business meeting after all, she thought. He had not summoned her to partake in the celebration, it seemed. He was torturing her, ever so gently, and this new setting gave him a fresh opportunity. She had to be careful. There were eyes upon her, hundreds of them, women of the city among them. Like her, they had been beaten and raped, but they didn’t get to feast with Pacmad. They only had their pain and sorrow. Turning against her could give them respite from their misery. Out of pure envy. Or just simple pettiness.
Ever since receiving Bart’s letter, Sonya had made sure she was nice to the other women. They could betray her, and there was no reason to encourage them. Clerks, cooks, even maidservants, each one might choose to give her away, for a favor or out of malice. Sonya had even found a gift or two for Janice, to keep the stupid little bitch appeased.
The worst part was, women had intuition. They could smell something was wrong. All those whores might decide to interpret Sonya’s reactions or even facial expressions as a sign of weakness and then use it against her.
Charming Pacmad with his cock in her warm palms, in the privacy of her chambers, was one thing. In public, she was exposed, vulnerable.
She had the numbers imprinted in her mind. “The artisan workshops promise ten new blades and twenty spears every day. The fletchers have over nine thousand arrowheads to deliver. The gates have been strengthened, too.”
Pacmad grabbed a pickled onion from a platter and bit into it, juice running down his chin and dripping onto his tunic. “Majestic. How their hearts have turned.”
Sonya did not comment. Anything she said would just be wrong. Her plans had to be flawless; they had to be. If not, then she truly didn’t deserve to be the queen of her nation.
There was music in the hall, too. Men were sort of dancing, a tipsy gait and flailing of limbs punctuated by grunts and laughter. There were several instruments playing, bags and pipes and strings, each hooting a melody of its own. It sounded chaotic.
Sonya noticed the chair to the left of Pacmad was empty. She didn’t know why that was. Other warriors sat on both sides, busy talking and wolfing down meat, unconcerned with the vacant spot. Her tongue burned with a question, but she withheld it. She could not betray her curiosity. Whatever Pacmad did was significant, and soon enough she would learn. His lessons were simple and brutal.
The throne hall doors were closed, containing all that blue smoke within. Then, almost on cue, they opened, and the haze swirled. There was a definite change in the atmosphere. Men stopped making silly noise, their throats turning soft with hums and sighs of wonder. The pipes went silent, too. Sonya frowned. What was that?
Pacmad kept eating his onion, pointedly not looking at her now. Sonya brushed hair from her forehead, annoyed.
The crowd of killers parted, and Aileen came forward.
, Sonya thought with astonishment, her blood going cold.
Pacmad tossed the half-eaten bulb on the table, leaned back, and burped, a speck flying from his lips. “Aileen, join me,” he said nonchalantly.
The young woman was dressed in a thin, sheer gown. White lace and silk and gauze, with a touch of silver. It was a beautiful dress, and it fit her young form all too well. She looked breathtaking and very much half Sonya’s age. There was not a single bruise on her face, not a single tear on her cheeks. She looked serene, maybe even content, her eyes were clear and free of pain, and she walked steadily toward Pacmad’s side. Eagerly even.
Whore, bitch, slut
, Sonya thought. She realized she was gripping the handle of the carving knife too damn hard. Gently, she released her grip, pretending nothing had happened.
Aileen weaved past the slobbering fools and murderers and sat by General Pacmad, opposite Sonya. The chieftain leaned toward her and whispered something. Aileen chuckled. Sonya was forgotten in that moment, forgotten, abandoned, betrayed.
One ugly surprise after another
, she thought sourly, all her appetite gone. That little bitch used to cry when he raped her, and now this! What kind of foul trickery was this?
Pacmad spun around quickly. Sonya almost flinched. She thought she saw pure delight cross his features before he made them mellow again, as mellow as his brutal lines could be. “Richelle disappointed me. She told me she would give me a son, but she didn’t. Aileen here”—he probed behind him and
put a meaty hand on the girl’s thigh, not even bothering to look—“she will give me sons. Won’t you, Aileen?”
“I will,” the little slut said happily.
How do you fight someone half your age and with a healthy womb
, Sonya wondered.
, her mind replied. Her thoughts were dark, thick, gooey, like gelid winter ink. She had never wanted to kill someone so badly. Rip open the girl’s stomach and tear out her woman’s parts while she watched and screamed and begged. Whore.
She had not expected this. Oh, she had not expected this.
Pacmad dug a finger in his nose, came out with a nugget, and flicked it across the table. It landed in someone’s broth, but the warrior didn’t notice. “I want you to teach Aileen city business,” he ordered.
Sonya kept her lips pressed tightly, making sure no froth of indignation and rage escaped. She had to be careful what she said now. “Trade?” she managed eventually.
The chieftain gestured vaguely. “Everything.”
Aileen looked past the man’s shoulder. What was that? Sonya did not quite catch that glance, but she remembered holding the girl’s hand with Pacmad grunting on top of her.
, Sonya thought, on the verge of crying.
There was a sudden commotion in the hall. Several men had cornered one of the serving women. She was trying to fight them off, begging, but they just laughed and hollered. Not quite a rape yet, but close enough.
Suddenly, it was too much. Sonya recalled the day Leopold was killed. She recalled her own violation. Bile rose in her throat, and she gagged, and retched on her plate. Pacmad made a grim face, but that did not stop him eating more meat.
“I’m sorry,” Sonya confessed, feeling weak, old, and defeated.
“Something you ate?” he asked casually.
“Maybe she’s with a baby?” Aileen supplied happily, her face alight with sincere hope.
Pacmad raised his brows, then shook his head. “Nah. Pregnant women puke only in the morning, I was told.”
Sonya wiped her mouth. She drank some wine and sloshed it in her mouth, trying to wash away the acid taste. The fumes rose in the back of her throat, numbing her panic just a little. “Too much smoke,” she heard herself say.
The Father of the Bear pursed his lips, looking disinterested. “You have my permission to leave. Go out, breathe some fresh air.”
Sonya wanted to tell him she would stay, even if she coughed blood, because she did not dare miss this cruel manipulation. Instead, she nodded, rose, and shuffled out of the hall, surrounded by wild mirth and singing and the soft whimpers of the maid getting raped under a table.
The cool evening summer air slammed her in the chest like a mace. She almost gasped. The stars in the sky turned blurry. No, no, no. She was not going to cry. She was not going to cry. Queens did not cry.
There were dozens of Kataji troops walking about, slightly resentful for being on duty this night, chatting, talking about their simple lives and ambitions, talking about women, food, and battles. Some were gambling. Others were retracing their steps in silence, counting off the minutes till the next shift.
Sonya found herself on a city street, free to roam, free to go anywhere she wanted. With the siege so tightly in place, and the gates shut and chained, Pacmad no longer feared to let his captive women wander about freely. He knew they had nowhere to go. That was a part of it.
The other part was, caged animals never wanted to leave their prisons. They felt safe and sheltered inside. Sonya knew she could run away and hide in a cellar until the war ended. But she could not do it. Not really. The fear of being found and punished was unimaginable. The ever-so-slight doubt of Eracian defeat gripped her soul, an invisible, ghostly tendril. She knew that as long as Pacmad lived, she would never be truly free.
Pacmad had broken her.
She stood there for a while, breathing hard. Slowly, her pain receded, leaving her numb and weary. She wiped the tears that had somehow budded on her eyelashes. She was the realm’s queen. Her noble, brave, loving husband was out there, and he was going to save her.
If things were easy, any fool could have done them, she thought.
This task has befallen me, because no one else has the wit and courage to do it. No one. You alone can save Somar, and you must endure the suffering and mockery and all the lies and threats
Aileen was a dreadful enemy. Pacmad was smart and ruthless. She would never deny that. He was maybe the smartest man she had ever met. But that was no reason to admit defeat. She could not stop now just because she faced a terrible challenge, a great obstacle.
Get a grip on yourself. You’re behaving like one of those whores
, she berated herself.
This is unfitting the queen that you are. What would Bart think if he saw you like this?
She had to be pragmatic. She could never fight age, or the childhood disease that had left her barren. She could never change that. But she had other weapons. She was much, much smarter than Aileen, vastly more experienced and ruthless. The little whore might have a tender, soft pink treasure between her
legs, but she knew nothing about court, manipulation, extortion, negotiations.
This is a great opportunity
, she tried to convince herself. Pacmad had asked her to take Aileen under her wing and teach her. Mold her. Influence her. In fact, Sonya would have great power over the young cunt. She would be able to steer her in any which direction she wanted, maybe even turn her against the mongrel. Yes, that was it. This was a golden opportunity. Maybe alone she could not defeat Pacmad, but if she had Aileen at her side, even as her unwilling ally, she might actually gain so much more than by acting alone. Pacmad expected deceit and lies from her. He would not expect them from that whore.
Sonya had no idea how much time had passed when she got back in the hall. By then, her cheeks were dry and soft, and her eyes failed to register the fate of several other serving women. They were not her concern right now. Her eyes were locked on Aileen. Her target, her insider. The key to Pacmad’s soul. Perhaps through his loins, but still.
This was how a proper queen behaved. This was how a queen took initiative and led, unafraid, undaunted.
Pacmad’s eyes narrowed when he saw her enter. He seemed to sense a change in her, but she gave him no chance to explore it further. She grabbed a pitcher of wine and poured herself a cup, one, two, three, drinking happily, pretending to enjoy the birth of another bastard son. With each swallow, it became easier, this pretending, and her darkest thoughts sank deeper, away from Pacmad’s prying questions and his penetrating blue gaze. He would never know now.
Tomorrow, she would teach Aileen all about trade. Tomorrow, she would teach the little whore about manipulation. Everything she knew. Everything.
anid watched with serene delight as the carts entered the enclosure of his camp. Two families with all their belongings piled in the backs of those wagons, one driven by an old ox, the other by a pair of mules. Children stared at this new world of theirs, eyes big as coins.
Followers came forward to greet the newcomers, the latest pilgrims to join the holy site outside Keron. The rumor of a pious man assembling his own sect was no longer a rumor; it was a hard, solid truth. From all corners of the Old Land, people were flocking to him, disillusioned by war and the empty promises of their rulers. Even in the Safe Territories, some felt they might be better off seeking this religious figure and asking for his blessing. Tanid could not be more pleased.
The Army of the One God counted tens of thousands of souls now, and for the first time in twenty human years, Tanid felt confident. He had a vast, powerful human shield around him.
The small camp had grown, spread, become alive. It was a self-feeding, self-sustaining entity, with men and women growing crops, carpenters building houses, pens for animals, and low sheds where meat could be smoked and cured. They had a palisade, and watchtowers, three wells, and a dozen temples
now. The people of Keron often came to trade their goods with Tanid’s followers, and sometimes, they stayed, charmed by the mystical, spiritual power of this place.
Tanid had never intended to make himself so visible, so exposed, but it just happened. Well, he was the one surviving god, the god of all, and he understood why people would be drawn to his divine presence. Even if their minds did not know it, their souls felt the ancient magical bond with their creator. It was only natural.
Power begot problems, complications, though. The presence of thirty thousand people outside a town that housed less than half that created a dangerous imbalance. So far, the Parusite king had not challenged him, but his clerks came and went, examining the place, talking to merchants and peddlers and chatty women, writing down reports. Army patrols were often seen trudging down the dusty lanes and through fields surrounding his camp, keeping a close eye on the size and might of the strange faction growing like a wet blister just outside Keron.