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Chapter 11: Mercenaries
Vivaen – The Palace: Qemassen
Cold shot through Vivaen’s feet as she padded from the warmth of her bed to the round bronze mirror leaning against her wall. The shuffle of Eaflied’s footsteps in the adjoining chamber wasn’t much of a lullaby, and her worries swarmed like flies.
Compared with the many days that made up the patchwork of Vivaen’s life, seven days was nothing. Yet with every sunrise and each sunset that Ashtaroth avoided her rooms, a noose seemed to tighten around her neck. When she slept—which was hardly at all—the coarse threads of the rope’s weave bit through her skin, real enough that when she woke—which was often—she ran to the mirror to check that no mark had been left behind. Some nights, half asleep, she swore the red burn of the rope’s fibers was imprinted for an instant in her flesh, only for it to vanish when she stepped into the ring of light around the closest brazier.
She should have nothing to fear. Eaflied and Aurelius had fought on her behalf, and only Aurelius had been taken. Even that was a gift, after thinking him dead. Though what did it matter that he’d survived, if it was only so they could tear him to pieces in the Eghri?
Vivaen stared at the blurred reflection of her goose-like neck, probing for red scratches, as though if she picked at her skin long enough the scars would emerge from underneath. The only marks that materialized were the ones she made by pressing into her flesh. It was the perfect flesh of a Massenqa bride, not hers anymore, but Bree’s. As Bree, Vivaen was more beautiful than she had ever been in Atlin. Rich meals and afternoons spent lounging about the palace were turning Bree soft where Vivaen was hard. The city and its Semassenqa had seeped inside of her.
A little softness wasn’t a bad thing if she had to run—something to feed off as her funds depleted.
Vivaen started to slide her hands toward her belly.
Seven days to add to the ten that had passed since the week she’d expected to start bleeding. With Vivaen’s bad luck, she might not be the only one feeding off that softness.
She lowered her hand and without tearing her gaze from the polished bronze, she grabbed a nearby scarf and covered the mirror.
Behind Vivaen, Eaflied’s slippers slapped the floor.
Vivaen wrang her wrists like damp clothes. To stop herself from breaking her skin, she grabbed a bottle of rose oil from behind her and dabbed her wrists.
Seventeen days late. Ashtaroth hadn’t touched her. How far would the mercy of Ashtaroth’s family extend once Eaflied was bargaining for a bastard whelp and not just the two of them?
She sucked in a sharp breath and faced her mother and captor. “I have to get out of here. I have to leave.”
Eaflied was clutching the same ceramic cup she’d been slurping from for what seemed like days, eyes red-rimmed, skin splotchy. She might as well have drunk the wine straight from the decanter. “Leave? You can’t leave. I won’t let you. You’re a stupid, silly girl and everything that’s come upon you has been your own fault. Was one prince not enough for you that you needed two?”
No one would have known about that, if it hadn’t been for Zioban, and the slave attack could hardly be laid at her feet. Vivaen had done what she could to help—the Massenqa should be grateful just for that.
“I’m not your daughter,” Vivaen said simply. “You can’t blame me for this when you were there. You saw what they did to Djana! It could have been any of us.”
Or could it? Vivaen had chewed over that suspicion every day since Djana’s murder. Zioban had acted like he’d been making a random choice, but in the end he’d murdered the two ambassadors. The only thing Vivaen couldn’t work out was why. If Qemassen lost Ajwata as an ally, it wouldn’t benefit the slaves at all. They’d be slaughtered by the Lora the same as everyone else.
Eaflied swished her drink, staring past Vivaen at the painted wall. “They’ll catch whoever was responsible. It was horrible and it was tragic and now it’s over. We move on because what else can we do? You may not have been Bree, but you are now. We made a deal.”
It had never been a deal.
Vivaen flung the small bottle of oil across the table. It shattered against the wall—angry, naked, vulnerable. Her shoulders heaved. “You made a demand.”
It wasn’t like her to let her emotions show so obviously. She paced to the door and then back across the room, stopping before the window, staring at the garden below. It was full of men patrolling. She couldn’t see whether they were Yirada officers or palace guards—if there even was a difference. Armed men filled every corridor now, every garden. And outside the city walls, yet more men marshalled, ready for war. Qemassen was summoning her sons home from her villages.
Eaflied set her cup down on a table. The movement jostled a bowl of incense, disrupting the smooth plumes of the smoke for an instant. “Fine. I made a demand, but I’m your queen and it was my place to do so.” She laid her hand on Vivaen’s shoulder. Against all reason, the soft strength of the queen’s touch was comforting and kind. “It’s not such a bad thing I’ve given you. Most people would be proud to be raised so high, happy to be given a crown without having earned it.”
In the riad, metal scraped against metal, or perhaps a sharpening block. It startled a flock of sparrows into the air. They, at least, could fly free.
Vivaen shook Eaflied off. She didn’t want a crown, and she didn’t want this place. What she’d wanted was to stay in Atlin waiting for her sailor, maybe to leave one day, yes, but of her own accord. “Don’t touch me.”
The queen of the Feislands snapped her hand away. “I understand you’re afraid, but wherever you are you’ll be in danger now. Lorar is mobilizing its army. You’ll be glad for Qemassen’s stone walls then, instead of wood and dirt.”
“An army?” Vivaen’s vision seemed to blur as she watched the men outside. She supposed the Lora must be preparing themselves just like these men. War was coming for all of them. “Where?”
Eaflied sighed, far too heavy for the news to be anything but bad. “I’ve had word from my husband, and Eshmunen’s been asked for reinforcements. Lorar’s organizing troops along the marches. Haernafell has fallen. Raiders have already taken a few of the easternmost villages.”
Raiders, like the one’s who’d taken Vivaen’s sister, killed their parents.
She reached absently for the wooden animal still tucked in the folds of her dress. She slipped it between her fingers, over and over. “Do you wish you were there with Ossa?” She turned to look at Eaflied, surprised to see the queen falter.
“My place is here, with you.” Eaflied pursed her lips, as though to disguise a tremble. “You may not want me to be, but I’m your mother now. I won’t let any harm come to you. My husband is a strong man; he can take care of himself.”
Vivaen parted her lips to speak, tears forming in her eyes. Despite herself, she let Eaflied wrap her arms around her, and nestled her head against Eaflied’s neck. “I don’t want to marry him.”
“I know. You will though, and you’ll forget his brother.”
Vivaen grimaced. “It’s worse than that.” She swallowed the lump in her throat, but it wasn’t as heavy as that other burden, the one she suspected had sprouted inside of her. “I’m going to have his baby.”
There was a sharp creak that seemed to come from somewhere close by, though neither of the two women had moved. Vivaen abruptly let go of her foster-mother.
Eaflied fell away, startled. “You’re certain of this?”
“Shh,” hissed Vivaen. She stalked toward the wall and frowned in concentration at its immaculate surface. It looked so ordinary yet seemed odd in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. The noise had sounded like it had come from the wall itself. “Someone may be listening.”
Eaflied scoffed. “Stop avoiding the subject. You’re sure it’s the brother’s child?”
No more sounds came from beyond the room. She must’ve been hearing things, or the sound had carried from the riad.
Vivaen turned on Eaflied, gripped by a perverse boldness. She scowled. “It’s hardly Ashtaroth’s. He hasn’t touched me.”
Eaflied locked eyes with her. “Then we’d better make sure he does because he’ll know the truth even if no one else does. It’s a foolish woman who makes an enemy of her husband before she’s married him.”
Vivaen slumped onto a settee and reached for her carving again. “Those slaves already made him my enemy. I want to leave.”
“We’ve been over this.” Eaflied paused. “You have two choices as I see it. Take your future husband to bed or empty your womb by other means.”
The room dimmed, a darkness felt rather than actual. Vivaen might have made such a choice before Aurelius, had already considered it herself. The idea made her feel strange and brittle.
Maybe she had nothing to worry about. Seventeen days was seventeen days. Her blood didn’t always come on time.
She glanced at her fingers. They were long and bony, like evil thin sticks.
There was a loud bang on the door. Startled, Vivaen dropped the wooden toy and stood up. She bent to retrieve it and the door opened. “I didn’t imagine that,” she whispered at Eaflied.
Himalit stood in the doorway, murder in her eyes and in the way she managed to fill the entrance with her lean frame. “Queen Eaflied, may I have a moment alone with your daughter?”
Eaflied shared a look with Vivaen that suggested she’d stay if Vivaen asked.
Vivaen would have liked to refuse Himalit’s request, but she couldn’t. “It’s all right,” she told her mother. “We can talk later.”
Eaflied’s shoulders were tense as Himalit stepped out of her way. The queen of the Feislands was wary, it seemed, of the former heq-Damirat.
No sooner had the door closed than Himalit marched up to Vivaen, a rare fire in her eyes. “What’s that in your hand?” Himalit pointed at Aurelius’s carving. From her tone, she recognized it.
Vivaen slipped the carving inside her sleeve, out of view. Himalit was frightening only if Vivaen allowed her to be. She couldn’t give in, or Himalit would take and take and take. “Nothing. Something your sons left lying around. I find it comforting.”
Himalit folded her arms across her chest. “As comforting as tormenting my brothers?”
Vivaen recoiled, wanting nothing more than to scream at the bitch, but she bit her tongue. “It’s your brothers who torment me.”
Himalit’s expression was dismissive, almost bored. “They can be vexing, I admit, but neither of them deserves you for a wife. We were happy before you arrived. You could have been satisfied with Ashtaroth. It was all you had to do. He’s a good man, and he’s kind. You’ve got them tearing at each other’s throats. Aurel might die because of you!”
Did she think Vivaen didn’t know that, that she didn’t care? All Vivaen could do to keep from tearing her own throat out was to try not to think about it. Besides, it was Aurelius’s own foolishness that had got him into the mess, suggesting he be punished for the two of them. No doubt he thought he was making some noble gesture, but it was just more selfishness.
“I knew something would happen to us,” said Vivaen. “I warned him.”
“How good of you. You were brought here for a purpose, don’t you understand?” Himalit’s voice was full of emotion, as though she were pleading. What was there to plead for? It was too late for that now. It was too late for any of them.
Vivaen dug her nails into her arm and felt the skin break. “They won’t kill him. He’s a prince.”
Himalit stepped forward till she was so close her breath blew against Vivaen’s cheeks. “Don’t tell me what those creatures will or will not do. No matter what my little brothers have told you, you’re not welcome here. You are not one of us.”
Vivaen dug her nails in deeper. “Those creatures are your family. They wouldn’t kill one of their own.”
Himalit scowled. “They killed my sister, and they would have killed Aurel if they’d had their way. They’ll whip him, and probably very near to death. Besides, he wasn’t the only one you destroyed; Ashtaroth just ran out of a meeting because of you. He was holding back tears the entire time. My little brother, the heir to the throne, crying before his future court over some cunt who can’t keep her legs crossed.”
Vivaen smirked. “I don’t see your sons’ fathers around the palace. You must spend an awful lot of time with your thighs spread yourself.”
Himalit slapped her. Vivaen took the blow without moving, though her cheek stung.
“There’s something wrong with you,” Himalit spat. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something off about you, and when I find it out I will destroy you, inch by wormy inch, until not even a memory remains of you. No Feislanda whore is going to bring evil into my house and go unpunished.”
“Your house? I thought it was Eshmunen’s?” For a moment, Vivaen thought Hima was going to hit her again, but she lowered her hand, some semblance of rationality returning to her face.
Clearly Aurelius’s good humour wasn’t shared by the rest of his family.
“Think on my brothers, will you, after I’ve left? It’s the least you could do, the very least.” Himalit turned and left, and Vivaen sank back on her bed, closing her eyes. She wanted nothing more than to stop thinking about the royal brothers, but every time she tried, Aurelius’s swindler’s smile would appear before her, and she’d feel phantom lips against her skin, ghostly fingers tracing the contours of her body.
“You’re a fool, Aurelius. You’re an idiot.” Why couldn’t she be angry with him?
Because he’s all you have left. Because he’s the only good thing that’s ever happened to you, and you’ll never see his smile again. Because everything that’s happened you’ve deserved, and because you’ve killed him.
Vivaen rested her hand on her belly. She curled her legs against her chest, so her knees pressed against her lips. Wrapping her arms around her legs, she bit down, crying softly to herself, trying to pretend he was there to hold her and make it all go away.
Make it all go away.