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25: Ultimatum

Larke, 1182

It’s the most humiliating thing, to be carried like a child. I would have loved to walk unassisted, but to my disgrace, Dean wouldn’t even let me try. Something about grievous injuries, extreme exhaustion, blood everywhere, blah, blah, blah. Ridiculous. The rooms went by in blurs, and small chunks of time were lost to me. It was like the space time continuum had become entirely quantized into large sections, and I’d missed several pieces in the transition. My mind was having trouble catching up to events as they were happening, lagging through my foggy awareness.

As he walked, his stride shifted me back and forth, lulling my borderline mental state in and out of consciousness. Then, the swaying stopped. My eyes closed, I felt Dean delicately deposit me onto a chair that was so plush and comfortable, I forgot what was happening. Enjoying the sensation, I ran my hands up and down the sleek, velvet upholstery, my fingers caressing the soft fabric. The cushions were thick and supportive, yet at the same time, allowed the body to sink in comfortably. This chair consumed you, and it was, undoubtedly, the most comfortable piece of furniture I’d even been fortunate enough to encounter. Murmurs echoed in my ears through the haze, which sounded suspiciously like Dean saying something important. I opened my eyes to a slit, allowing just enough light to enter so that I could make out his blurry silhouette.

I blinked slowly, my vision sharpening as I stared through watery eyes. Thick curtains covered a large window, tied shut, and dusty. Dark walls, a dimly lit room, a long, wooden table, edged with stately dinner chairs. I recognized this as the place where I’d met The Raven, and where we’d had several meetings since. I opened my mouth, my tongue dry and sandpaper-like. My eyes peered down, unwilling to move my head, and I saw that I was sitting in The Raven’s bone chair.

I swallowed thickly; my mouth still so dry. This didn’t make any sense. What I saw and what I felt were telling me two very contradictory things. I can feel a soft, squishy armchair, as obvious as can be. But my eyes belied me; they showed me the gruesome violent chair that The Raven claimed as her throne. A very small part of my brain was still functioning enough to think clearly, fortunately, and it concluded that someone must have illusioned this chair to make it look so terrifying. If I saw The Raven cuddled in this squishy, comfortable, chair, I would not have been as intimidated as when she sat in this false seat of skeletal gore.

The complications of the chair overwhelmed me, so I shook my head to try to dispel my train of thought and focus. This was a mistake. The minor movement elicited yet another wave of nausea. I just barely held back the vomit. Blinking, eyes watering, I scanned the room again.

Dean was staring at me, standing close to my side, and looking quite concerned. Another figure stood at the end of the table, who looked suspiciously like the Raven. I couldn’t trust my eyesight, because I could almost swear that Liss was standing next to her, and that couldn’t be right. He was gone, maybe even dead. He never would’ve joined the Naga gang.

“Is she lucid enough to hear this?” uttered a raspy, feminine voice. The Raven.

“I think so,” Dean answered. He snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Larke?”

I recoiled from the noise, but he had gotten my attention. I glared at him, indignant.

“Yeah, I think so. Enough for now, at least.” He backed away, apparently satisfied.

“Fine,” The Raven said, straightening her posture. “Larke, we need to talk.”

She waited for a response, but I wasn’t going to give her one. I killed one of her men today, but they imprisoned me and caused this awful head injury that I am now blessed with. I said nothing, circling my fingers absentmindedly on the soft armrests of the chair.

She sighed. “Everyone here, for the most part, is aware that you are a Suryan Mage,” she said, exasperated.

I stiffened. I glanced at Dean, but he was avoiding my gaze. This whole time, was he playing me while I thought I was playing him? How did they know? And for how long have they known?

I unstuck my dry tongue from the roof of my mouth. “How?” I managed to ask, incredulous.

“I told them, obviously,” she said, not directly answering my question. “I have to take care of my people, just like you.”

I felt thankful that I was sitting in this chair, for the dizziness was increasing the longer I was awake. I was sure that if I’d been standing, I would’ve passed out by now. But the severity of this conversation had my full attention – I wouldn’t be losing consciousness if I could help it.

“But… why?”

I couldn’t articulate all of the questions that I wanted to, but she got the gist. I wanted to know why she allowed me to stay, why I wasn’t immediately imprisoned, why I wasn’t executed, but she would have to fill in the blanks herself. I simply didn’t have the capability right now.

“Why do you think?” she answered cryptically, her lips tightening into a thin line of disappointment. She leaned over to rest her hands on the table in front of her. “Look, it was a risk, obviously, but I’ll cut to the chase.” She paused to make eye contact with me. Her eyes were disturbingly familiar, like two black holes, a vacuum pulling me in. “I want you to join us.”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, genuinely surprised.

Nya’s face flashed in my mind, a gentle smile reminding me of what I’d promised.

She stared at me further, her face blank, and said plainly, “Because if you don’t, I’ll kill you.”

“How generous,” I sneered sarcastically.

It was the best I could manage. Whatever; that was all I had for now. I fought to remain steady, even though I was only sitting.

“I’m giving you the choice, but you should know the consequences,” she said, irritated. “If you won’t join our cause, then you’re a liability. If I keep you around, then you’re a risk then, too. You understand, don’t you?”

I knew I’d be hell to keep around. I can pick locks, I’m deadly, and given enough rest, I can level a whole building with my magic. She was right, she couldn’t keep me a prisoner if she wanted to. I grinned. At least I wasn’t making things easy for her.

“Unfortunately, yes, I do understand.” I shifted in the enchanted chair, trying my best to not move my head and failing. “But loyalty under duress isn’t loyalty, is it?”

“Hmm. Not really. But I know you, and I know that’s the best I’d get for now.” She stepped away from the table and turned her focus to Dean. “And, Dean would be your personal guard. Even more so than he has been, of course.”

Dean nodded at her command, still avoiding my gaze.

“My personal guard?”

She looked at me, pity clear on her face. “… come on, Larke. Did you think he just wanted to spend all of his spare time with you? He’s been watching you like a hawk, at my request.”

I looked down at my lap, desperately trying to pretend that those words hadn’t hurt me. I knew he was assigned to watch me, but he could’ve just kept me secured in my room every evening instead of spending time with me, right? Every action I’d taken up until this moment felt fake, every word we exchanged felt like a lie. And it was, I knew it was, because while he was apparently watching me, I had been watching him, fooling myself into thinking I was the spy here. Was anything I’d done or tried to do even worth the time? Dejected, I didn’t respond, once more. I didn’t have anything to say.

Then, a deep, smooth voice came from across the room. Liss. Apparently, I hadn’t imagined his presence, and he really was here. Either that, or I was in bad enough shape that I was hallucinating.

“Larke?” he said hesitantly, interjecting himself into the conversation. “I know this is weird… but it’s the right thing to do. The smart thing, even.”

“That’s easy enough to say,” I whispered, “even harder to do. What does it even mean?”

“Doing the right thing?” he asked.

I looked up at him, waiting for him to continue.

“Well sure it’s not easy, but that’s the whole point. Aren’t you wondering why I’m even here?”

I narrowed my brows, confused. “They captured you.”

He scoffed. “Okay. Sure, Dean has some potent illusion magic, but I was leaving to come here anyway.”

So… Dean was the illusionist? I had wondered as much, had wondered what exactly his contribution to Spate had been, and now it was confirmed. He must have been the one who put the illusion on the Raven’s chair, too. It occurred to me then that he must’ve been the one to illusion the compound, as well. A powerful illusion mage, indeed.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know that Zante has been thirsty for power for years now. His first taste with the Ryne only fed an insatiable hunger, consuming even my home country.” He sighed, looking up into the ceiling. “I’m tired of killing, and I’m tired of being his pawn. His eyes are bigger than his stomach; Zante wasn’t satisfied with ruling the Ryne. We have our forces spread out too thin, our hands in every single country out there – even our allies. He’s left mere children guarding the palace, as we speak. He goes too far, and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

“We have no right to want anything,” I said, gritting my teeth.

Liss looked at me sadly, his eyes filled with pity. I recoiled from it; I don’t want his pity, or anyone’s.

“It’s what we were conscripted for. We don’t have a choice,” I said harshly, angry now.

“We shouldn’t have been conscripted in the first place!” he shouted.

I sat up straighter; I’d never heard Liss speak this way, never realized this was how he felt.

“Larke, you don’t have to keep up this charade,” he said softly now, almost begging. “Please, help us now. We could use your expertise.”

“You know I’ve made promises.” I said quietly, still staring at my lap. “I must pay whatever price to keep them.”

“Those promises were made empty,” he pleaded. “Isn’t your life more important?”

“My life is worth nothing,” I said, looking up at him.

His mouth held taut, his lips in a tight line, he said, “You know that’s not true.”

I hung my head low, unable to look at him anymore. I had nothing else to add, anyhow. My temple throbbed, my injury aching.

“So, what have they offered you in return for your defection?” I asked, my words sharp and biting.

“Freedom, old friend,” he said, his voice growing in excitement. “If I help the Naga now, I’ll be able to go home. To my family.” He was smiling, his trademark impeccable, perfect teeth shining from behind full lips.

“You have family still?”

As far as he had told me, he had left behind nothing but death and destruction when King Zante Urion had conquered the Telago islands and brought Liss home with him. How would Liss know if he had a family to go home to or not?

“Truthfully, I have no idea. But I want to find out. I’m tired of fighting, Larke.” He gazed down at his hands clasped together in front of his chest. “That’s why I’ve been training the recruits for so many years instead of field work. I’m tired of killing, and especially without reason. Aren’t you?”

I grimaced. “So, you listened well when they offered you freedom?” I asked, aware that his magical talent was the ability to determine truth from spoken words.

“Yes,” he said, answering my unspoken question, “and here I am, accepting their offer.”

Blinking my eyes wide against the sudden random pain shooting through my skull again, I exhaled heavily. I wet my lips with a rough tongue, my entire body aching. I knew what I had to do.

“I will join your cause, Raven.”

I brought my fingers to my temples, rubbing them, in a vain attempt to relieve some pain. It didn’t work, but it did remind me that I was still bleeding halfheartedly from the cut above my eye. My fingers came away, coated in sticky blood.

“In return for one thing,” I said, staring at my hand.

“Agreed,” she said quickly. “Name it.”

I wiped my fingers on my blood-soaked tunic. “I want to know what happened to my family.” I met Liss’s eyes. “I have waited too long.”

The Raven’s face was blank, but she agreed silently, nodding her head. “You and I will have more to discuss, but later.” She quickly left the room, her long blonde hair flowing behind her as she whipped around.

“And fuck, I need a bath.” I said, leaning back into the chair before I succumbed to the darkness.

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