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Part Three: Chapter 38

The horn blared again much closer now, causing Ranod Lorege, governor of Relinydd, to begin nervously wringing his hands. He’d resisted the urge to flock with the others to the gate, opting instead to vainly hold on to a semblance of authority—as if he meant more to Saedus of Ost than one of the slaves carrying her litter down the wide, paved street. Already he could make out the palanquin and its bearers as they approached the square, for the sorceress had chosen to lead her procession rather than build expectation through bringing up its rear. Beside the fidgeting governor stood Valreecius, motionless as a rock by contrast, in his characteristic garb.

“I warn you again, steward,” said Lorege, suddenly breaking the lull in their conversation. “It wasn’t so hard a task to remind the citizens of ancient law yet standing, pacifying them to Rardonydd’s blood heir. But this…” He cut himself short, gesturing at Saedus’ outlandish procession to let the scene speak for itself. “There’ll be riots, at least. Perhaps worse. I can’t be blamed for their actions…” He turned his face then on Valreecius expectantly but was met with no response. The steward’s mouth was a thin, straight line, yet his pink eyes were locked on Saedus’ litter with an unmistakable mesmerized glee. Spiderlike fingers clutched the moon hanging from his neck, holding the thing slightly off his sunken chest; and these bony features of the man’s body, coupled with his smooth ivory skull, reminded the governor of a skeleton pulled straight from some unearthed tomb. Presently—as Ranod stared on, somewhat enthralled now himself—Valreecius smiled as if an amusing thought had come to mind or someone had whispered something to his liking in his ear. Had the steward always been like this? This creature? Or how and when had the transformation begun? Was this what lay in store for Ranod as well, should he survive long enough in the witch’s service? At the moment he felt not so far removed from that fate.

For a man well beyond his middle years, the governor of Relinydd had long maintained an appearance of youth and vigor—yet the whirlwind of the past few weeks had left him far from unscathed. His face had grown pale and gaunt, his hair seemed to be thinning and graying by the hour, and new lines of age crept up about weary, doleful eyes. He’d been defeated, jailed, thoroughly abased, and even manhandled by the usurping prince all within a brief span of days; and now, in little more than a fortnight from his fall, he was about to endure another changing of the guard. No matter if Saedus had been pulling Baeldrin’s strings all along: with the prince out of the picture now, she might have vastly different thoughts on Ranod’s usefulness as a puppet dictator under her rule. He was but another fly caught in the Spider’s web, awaiting his turn to be sucked dry. And he knew it well.

“Greetings, brother,” came an eerie, unanticipated voice from directly in front of Lorege—and the jittery governor flinched at the sound. Turning his gaze from the steward to fix wide eyes on the scene before him, Ranod quickly realized that he wasn’t the only one startled. Spears were half leveled. Mouths were frozen partially into shouts of alarm. In the midst of his guards stood a maroon-cloaked man with a hooded face aimed at Valreecius; yet Valreecius didn’t appear rattled by the intruder having seemingly materialized from thin air, and his lack of reaction was likely the only thing still keeping Ranod’s soldiers at bay.

“Poltoros,” replied the moon steward. “Welcome, old friend.”

The release of tension was almost tangible. Mouths closed. Grips slackened. A few of the more diligent guards remained facing the newcomer, but most lost interest immediately in favor of the ever-nearing parade. Minus the shock of his stealthy approach, Poltoros was to them but one more mysterious, robed servant: hardly anything at all when set against the bizarre grandeur now on display. Of the marvel of imps and goblins alone the soldiers might’ve had their fill—for there were more of those creatures already inside the city than there were fresh ones streaming in through the gate—yet new wonders and opulence were afoot.

The procession’s head was almost upon them, so they could easily make out the bodies flanking and falling in behind Saedus’ palanquin. Here came the chanting priests swinging incense burners at their sides, women strewing petals on the road, and even a few acrobats juggling or tumbling their way in and out of the throng. Half-naked, painted-bodied dancers stepped and spun in time with the beating of drums. Long lines of slaves pulled a wagon bearing a stone altar heaped with burning elm branches, and a smaller group pulled a cart laden with casks from which serving girls were dispensing wine, mead, and beer into cups and doling them out to anyone holding forth an eager hand. The sorceress must’ve been in a generous mood when she opened Acomalath’s coffers, for all but her lowliest slave was bedecked in strings of pearls, torcs of precious metals, and other adornments fit for Rardonydd’s upper crust…and some lesser coins and trinkets were even being tossed out by the fistful to the roaring crowd. And while these things were going on, the priests’ acolytes were busily reminding everyone of who’d made this entertainment possible. Reaching into their bags again and again, they brought out tiny carven idols of their mistress, kissing the wooden mouth of each one before passing it on to the next awestruck citizen.

Most of the witch’s army would remain without, busily striking a temporary encampment. There wasn’t enough room in the city to house them all, had an occupation been Saedus’ desire—yet Ranod was aware that their stay would be brief at best. Enough time to remarshal and resupply, then the combined force would be swiftly away, marching off to wage war on the plains. Yet here were a chosen few Domalin captains whom the Spider would flaunt before the crowd, prancing in on steeds draped in the same finery as their blazoned riders. In the lead came their supreme military commander—the general Sorec, whom Ranod had met twice before—answerable now only to Saedus herself. His horse was dressed in full silver-plated barding and covered with a black caparison. The man himself wore a cape of the same color, yet his armor and crested helm were shone in both silver and gold. Six chevrons were stitched on the baldric slung across his chest, indicating the highest military rank a Domalin soldier might dream to attain.

And above his captains’ heads waved Domal’s banners: the standard crimson discs and rays dancing on fields of jet black.

“You look surprised, governor,” said Poltoros, pulling Ranod from his study. “Has Valreecius not been forthcoming with you?”

“He’s said enough.” Lorege turned his gaze on the lich and frowned. “Save to explain why you’re here instead of riding in her lap.”

That was a mistake. Poltoros gripped his tyberwood staff and tilted it toward Ranod, ever so slightly, mumbling under his breath—yet the effect of this action was anything but slight. Suddenly the governor felt as if a hive of agitated bees was trying to sting its way free from his belly. Gasping, he doubled over in pain, nearly falling to his knees before the sensation passed. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. One or two of the soldiers swallowed hard and gripped shafts tighter at Ranod’s obvious discomfort…but that was the extent of their response.

The lich glanced at Valreecius. “You’ve been allowing such impudence from this pawn, brother? I’m disappointed.”

“He’s been civil enough till now,” said the moon steward. “But, yes, it seems the queen’s reception has run contrary to the one he envisioned…and I’m afraid it’s jostled his mind. Prepare him swiftly. She’s upon us.”

At these words all eyes turned to Saedus’ litter, catching it just as her tattooed slaves were setting the thing down. It wasn’t a large affair, allowing room for but one person to recline comfortably within. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in its ornateness: carved ivory posts, silk curtains, and a painted metallic canopy. Ranod could see the curtains weren’t drawn, although his view wasn’t such that he could make out the witch within…and apparently she wasn’t in a hurry to exit. The bearers loosed the poles, stepped aside with arms folded, and waited as the rest of the procession began to grind to a halt behind them.

“Come,” said Poltoros, sweeping a robed arm toward the litter, beckoning the nauseated governor to lead the way. The tone of his voice made it perfectly clear that this wasn’t a suggestion but a command. “Stand up straight and play your part. You should know it well by now.”

True enough. But this wasn’t the same as when Baeldrin had strode through the gate. There’d been no such fanfare then. At least not at the onset. Slowly Lorege started forward, forcing his chin high and his hands to his sides. He was rightfully anxious yet perversely desirous as well: eager to look upon the woman whose unnatural beauty he’d only heard told of before this day. He wondered if he should kneel and kiss her hand…or curtly bow…or fall before her feet, fully prostrating himself. All eyes were on him, a hush having descended over the crowd. He came within a few steps of the litter where he could see its occupant plainly within—and hesitated, fighting against the urge to just stand there and gawk at her like the dumbfounded fool that he was.

“Offer her your hand,” spoke Poltoros as he breezed past Ranod, pushing his staff onto the nearest acolyte. Then—without so much as meeting his mistress’ eye—the lich approached the palanquin, lifted from it a polished oaken box, and stepped swiftly aside to let the governor retain the spotlight.

Winning control of himself, Lorege closed the distance, whereupon Saedus of Ost took his hand and rose from the litter. She was nearly as tall as the governor, standing regally before him in an indigo-dyed silhouette dress with the skirt slit up to mid-thigh. Ranod drew a deep breath, scanning the curves of the witch’s body before lighting his gaze above her slender ivory shoulders. Her long, black hair was pulled away from that perfect face, falling in a tail down her back, and her charcoal-painted lips were locked in a wicked smile to accompany the crazed gleam in her eyes: eyes that Ranod met and held with his own for but an instant only, melting under her piercing stare. As he’d already released her hand, the governor settled for a bow instead of a light kiss in greeting. Then, knowing not what else to do, he took a step back from her and turned to the lich, awaiting the next prompt.

Now Saedus raised a hand to the masses in a greeting of her own, turning her head slowly from side to side, taking them in. For a brief moment of uncertainty the stillness lingered—then suddenly a rush of beating drums, clashing cymbals, and reporting horns was struck up by the assembled players, followed by a near-deafening outburst of applause from the throng. The priests and acolytes began to raise their arms presently, motioning for the crowd to calm; then Saedus and her entourage—including Ranod—were on the move again, heading for the steps to the platform beneath the spires of Ophim Nuarin.

Poltoros stepped in line with the governor, caught Ranod’s eyes, and directed them to the box he was carrying. “The Diadem of the Gazer,” he said, spreading a palm out, almost caressingly, over the wooden surface. “Your queen shall see Domal’s golden age renewed, governor. Do as you’re instructed—and perhaps you’ll retain your place in the new regime.”

Lorege turned his face from the lich to Saedus, frowning at the sorceress’ back as she took the steps before him. A tingle in his gut reminded him to be careful with his responses, yet he doubted at this point—with all eyes upon them—that he’d be afflicted again. “This farce will last no longer than Baeldrin’s,” he spoke for Poltoros’ ears alone. “She hasn’t even the blood to back it! Another will rise up and remove her soon enough…if she doesn’t fall to the Sinians first.” Ranod cringed as the last of the words left his mouth, but this time the lich didn’t seem offended.

“Through blood born or blood spilled, it makes no difference. She’ll wear this crown for as long as she desires it. And you’ll be the one to set it on her brow.”

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