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Part Four: Chapter 42

She lit a final candle then leaned over the table, holding the glass close to the light and frowning at the single dark spot remaining within. This vial had once been filled to the brim with Tiramas Vendhane’s congealed blood: a depository of power from which she’d been carefully rationing since her son first yielded it to her years ago. But at last it had come to this. The day she’d dreaded from the start.

Saedus of Ost let out a sigh before pulling the cork stopper free. Taking up a slender, bladed tool crafted exactly for the task at hand, she inserted this into the vial and began scraping up the last fleck of dried contents. Yet partway through removing the implement she froze, narrowing her eyes to cast an irritated glance over her shoulder.

“Back off, Seela!” she hissed—and the ghostly gray face floating mere inches from her own reacted at once, flying up and away from the table to vanish into the murk beyond her circle of candlelight. Yet Saedus could still sense her pet’s presence as surely as she felt the utensil in hand. “Mind the reason I summoned you. You’re to guard me against interruption—not cause it with your childish spying!”

As usual, the banshee sent no answer into the witch’s thoughts. None of her five ever did so unforced. Theirs was a silent breed of spirit while their leashes were pulled tight. But woe be to any man should the mistress let go…

“Shall I tell you a story, Seela?” spoke Saedus again after a few moments had passed in silence. Her voice was sweet now, like a mother soothing her scolded daughter directly after administering a beating. “Something to pass the time?”

Again no response was received or expected, and another pause lingered as the sorceress went on with her work. If indeed Saedus was about to tell a story, it’d certainly be for her own benefit rather than the banshee’s. Her nimble fingers glided easily through the steps of preparing this potion that she’d brewed now so many times before. A pinch of this, a spoonful of that. Stir, remove the cup from the heat or set it back, and so on. She needed something to distract her from the tedium.

“Once there was a princess with lovely white skin and flowing dark hair. An innocent little twit. Full of spunk and laughter. Her father was none other than Banen Israd, the mightiest warlord Ost had ever known; yet he cherished the girl above all the wealth and power in the world. All she needed to do was keep on laughing and dancing and pouting her days away, and she could’ve lived out her youth in spoiled, ignorant bliss…gossiping with her playmates and mooning at the lads sparring in the castle yard. But alas, that life wasn’t to be! Someone she trusted showed her things he shouldn’t have shown—and set her down the path to secret knowledge from which there’s no return. You know of whom I speak. And how I both love and despise him for it!”

At this point the witch reached for a nearby coffer and pulled it closer to her, unhooking the tiny latch and opening the ornate lid. Inside was a coarse, white powder: all that remained of the ground bones of the Beast of Thirannon. Taking a pinch from the dwindling pile, she dropped this into her cup and stirred before continuing:

“In those days Poltoros was a young man masquerading as a mere charmer, performing pathetic little illusions and such for the amusement of the court. The great Banen had no need of powerful sorceries, you see—and Poltoros was wise not to reveal himself outright. That surely would’ve branded him a dangerous rival in my father’s eyes. So instead he sought to worm his way into favor over time. And part of that plan was his tutelage of me. He knew well that I had my father’s ear: that if he could get me to embrace his arts, Banen would likely place more stock in them as well.”

Her cup had begun to steam again over the burner, and Saedus absently took the vessel off and set it aside to cool. Only the fleck of Vendhane’s blood still lay before her on the instrument’s blade: the final and most potent ingredient to be added. She’d already begun to seal up and segregate the other miscellaneous components for removal from her workspace. And now she rose from the table with an armful of these and a single candle, moving off to the rear of the tent in order to stow them away. Presently her voice came again, intermingled with the sound of clinking glass as she set the containers one by one back in the strongbox from which she’d extracted them earlier.

“At first I simply found Poltoros’ lessons amusing: yet enough so to keep me coming back to him. It didn’t take long, though, for me to develop a real thirst for the arcane. No longer did my teacher need come searching for me nor scold me for not paying attention to his instruction. Soon he wished that he’d never opened the door to begin with, for I came knocking on it uncalled for, day and night, demanding to be shown more and more. I was no longer satisfied with mere parlor tricks, and whenever I pressed and saw him holding back, I became increasingly angry—eventually threatening to reveal his true nature and power to my father. And thereby threatening his very life.”

“It was at this point he finally called my bluff, for he knew if I went through with the boast—and he was either exiled or slain—that I’d be without a teacher; and he knew I’d rather have my learning stifled than ceased entirely. But in this he failed to account for one thing: I had my own plans for continued training. A secret training not even he’d be aware of until…”

“…it was far too late,” a raspy voice finished for her. The old tutor himself, standing just inside the tent’s entrance…

The sound of shattered glass and a sharp curse followed from where Saedus was kneeling over her cache. “Seela! You bitch!” she shouted into the blackness. “I said not anyone!”

“Don’t be too wroth with her, mistress. I do still have a few parlor tricks up my sleeve, after all.”

The witch snorted loudly at this, stood, and began a return to the table where her nearly completed potion sat. On the way back she raised her free left hand to rub its thumb against a ring on her index finger, muttering a few words in the process: and instantly the banshee’s presence—sensed until that moment by both her and her unwelcome visitor—was gone. “Well, now that you’ve succeeded in interrupting me, servant, you might as well come in and sit down.” She took her own seat as she said this, not bothering to face the steward. Instead she picked up the bladed tool and hastily stirred the dried blood into her cup. “I won’t ask how much of that you heard. It’s old news now, is it not? No doubt you’ve run it all through your mind a thousand times more than I have, scourging yourself over and over again for your foolishness.”

Lifting her eyes from the cup, she saw that Poltoros had silently taken a seat across the table from her. With his maroon cloak’s hood drawn in the dim light, the steward’s face was a black pit amidst a shroud of shadows. For the span of a few breaths the pair sat staring at one another…until Saedus raised the potion to her lips at last and drained it dry in a single, slow draught.

“So that was the last of it…” said Poltoros as the empty cup clinked down on the table.

The sorceress nodded. “Enough to see me through the gates of Chalemos, if all goes according to plan. After that…” She let the thought trail off, seeing no need to elaborate. The lich knew how she meant to replenish her stock. They’d discussed it before, after all, and he’d likely be no more receptive to it now than he’d been earlier. Somewhere inside this withered shell before her still lurked the heart and soul of the man Poltoros once was—and that man had been more of a parent to Dragan than she’d ever hoped or cared to be.

It wasn’t that she felt devoid of any attachment to her son. She still recalled fond memories from his youth—and he’d served her unquestioningly for several years into his manhood. But those days were long since gone. Dragan was too strong and willful now to be left unfettered any longer. It’s not like I’ll be without him, she told herself again. It’ll be just as it is with Poltoros. No…better than that. As it is with Valreecius. And as it would likely be with any other who threatened her dominance but was too valuable to simply crush and leave lying in the dust. Dragan would remain her son—and even retain his power, to some extent—but under no circumstances could she allow him to come into his true inheritance.

“I’ll never forget the look on Banen’s face,” mused the lich, “…when he saw the first of the goblins leap down from the wall to the yard. So many times he’d scoffed at my tales of them…sworn they were no more than childhood fancy. I was right there—smiling beside him—when they ran him through. He was too shocked to flee. He drew his blade but only glanced at it like it was some foreign thing he didn’t know how to use.”

“And now you regret it,” said Saedus. “Of course you do! But you couldn’t have known it would come to this. Your decision to join me then didn’t seal your fate. You had so many years thereafter to change your mind…to run back to that rock you crawled out from under. Does immortality truly chafe you so?”

Poltoros was silent for a moment after this—and when he did speak, it was as if he’d not heard his mistress’ rebuttal. “You murdered your father, as surely as if you’d plunged the blade into his guts with your own hand. Dragan is all that’s left of your bloodline.” Leaning into the candlelight, the steward let his haggard face show. “Who’s to say if he sits the throne in Dolras that he won’t simply brood upon it? Or perhaps he’ll choose to wander the land as a beggar—like Santhû Basoth—or even sail off to the uncharted reaches of the world? One may be a King without possessing your ambition, mistress. I advise you to make peace with your son.”

“Make peace with him?” the witch snapped. “You act as if he were already my equal and more! I’ve had enough of this, Poltoros. What brings you here in the dead of night?”

The lich leaned back into the shadows. “A scout has returned. It seems the rumor’s true.”

For a long moment the Spider remained still and silent, appearing as though she’d retain her composure even in the face of such a detrimental roadblock to her long-laid plans. Then suddenly she stood, backhanding her cup from the table in the process. “Berac! That ignorant, driveling bastard!” she raged at the top of her lungs. “How can this be?” She began stalking the tent as if searching for something else to lay her hands on and destroy. “It wouldn’t have shocked me to learn the Sinians were riding south with that dolt’s head in a basket—or even that he’d fled so deep into the desert that only vultures might hope to find him. But this? Lounging like a dog at his master’s feet in Oen’s palanquin, spit-shining the man’s boots like some goddamned scullery maid? Tell me again, lich, why we chose to suffer him over Argen. Van may have lost his grip on sanity for a moment, yes—but we’d never have seen him and Deserus arm-in-arm!”

Poltoros chose to treat this question as rhetorical, whether it was meant to be or not. Silently he allowed Saedus a pause to let the tidings fully register. Then he spoke again: “I’m afraid that’s not all the news. The scout claims Baeldrin is somehow behind this unlikely alliance.”

The sorceress had returned to stand across the table from Poltoros as he was relaying this, and now the look of sheer hatred in her eyes might’ve withered any living man where he sat. But the steward merely pressed on: “I warned you not to dismiss the man lightly. You could’ve dealt with him personally—or at least given me the task. But instead you placed faith in that incompetent ambassador from…”

The witch’s fist thundered down on the table so hard that it broke more than Poltoros’ sentence. A thin crack wandered now through the center of the heavy wood almost end to end, nearly having split the entire table asunder. The effects of Saedus’ potion had clearly surfaced.

Again the lich seemed unfazed, but this time it was the sorceress who spoke:

“They’re dead! As soon as they set foot within my sight, I’ll lay waste to them both!” Her frown gave way to a wicked smile. “No, that’s too good for them. I’ll lash them behind my chariot and drag them within a breath of their pitiful lives. Then I’ll cast them in a cell and delight myself each day with their torture!”

“It might not be so simple as that. Remember Zera’s claim…that the prince unleashed fell spirits to defend himself…”

Saedus laughed at this like a child over her playthings. “What better excuse for him to concoct for such a failure? The entire city’s resources at his fingertips, and he let one unsuspecting man escape his grasp? The most recognizable figure in the city? Ridiculous! Baeldrin could no more command a minion than use his nose to scratch his ass…” Pulling back a chair, she reseated herself at the marred table. “Most likely, Nephos secretly aided Baeldrin’s retreat. In any case, he’ll pay for his incompetence or lies in due time. Domal is of no concern at present. We have their army, so I care little whether he retains order there or not.”

“Yet there were some beyond Zera’s men to support his story,” said Poltoros, digressing somewhat to drive home his point. “Citizens who claimed the prince miraculously survived a plummet from the tower…”

“And by now they’re probably claiming he sprouted wings and flew circles around the palace!” Saedus shook her head in disgust. “How Baeldrin managed to bring about this far-fetched union between Berac and Oen, we’ll learn soon enough—assuming they don’t turn on each other before they ever come within sight. But as I said: all that other rubbish doesn’t matter. What does matter is the enemy host descending on us sooner than we expected—and in untold numbers. That’s what we must discuss. We’ve been taking our sweet time pulling supplies upriver, lingering near every village on the path to let the Domalins grow soft on whores and wine. But no more! From here out they’ll be glad to get bread and water and an hour’s rest to keep their legs beneath them. You hear me, Poltoros? Go. Rouse G’nilbor and tell him to drag Sorec and his captains here by their ears if he must!”

“Perhaps you should summon Valreecius instead, mistress, and let the three of us go over the needed alterations first. I still think it unwise to let Sorec retain command over the Domalin army. What makes you think we can trust the man, especially when you insist on treating him like a common slave? If he were to abandon the field entirely…or worse, go over to Baeldrin…”

“I don’t have the time—or the stomach—to inflate the general’s ego, steward. I’ve promised him the governorship of Chalemos. He needs no more persuasion to remain loyal beyond that. Besides…haven’t you seen how the fool ogles me? It seems the man’s desire for my flesh is strong as his thirst for power. No, Sorec will do exactly as I say. If not out of greed or lust, then out of fear. Fear of what I can do to him should he ever dare betray me.”

In response to this, Poltoros simply nodded acquiescence and stood at once to depart. Yet before he could reach the exit, the witch’s voice came again:

“You and Valreecius shall take the imps and goblins ahead at dawn. I want every Sinian village you find burned to ashes! Their fighting men slain, their livestock butchered, and their women and children enslaved. Am I clear?”

“As you command.”

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