Princeps' Fury, Page 40Jim Butcher
"My lady," Lady Aquitaine said smoothly.
"Judge the male taker's progress," the Vord queen murmured. Her voice was a buzzing thing, as inhuman as her eyes, and sounded like many young women speaking in almost-perfect unison.
Lady Aquitaine inclined her head again and turned to Brencis. She walked over to him, her chitin-coated feet clicking sharply into the silence with each step. Then she knelt over the prostrate young man and ran her fingers lightly through his hair.
Brencis shuddered in reaction to her touch, and looked up with eyes as heavy and hopelessly adoring as any of the other slaves in the courtyard.
"Tell me what you have accomplished, dear boy," Lady Aquitaine murmured.
Brencis nodded. "I've been working without stop, lady. Recruiting more Citizens and Knights, with a focus on earthcrafters, as you commanded. Another hundred and twenty are now ready to accept orders when you wish it."
"Very well done," Lady Aquitaine said, her tone warm with approval.
Brencis jerked in place, shivering in forced pleasure, and his eyes rolled back into his head for a moment. A moment later, he stammered, "Th-thank you, lady."
"Sixscore?" asked the Vord queen. "Too slow."
Lady Aquitaine nodded. "Brencis," she said, "it's time for you to tell me how the collaring is accomplished."
Brencis closed his eyes. His body tensed and twisted again, though this time it was obviously not in pleasure. His face twisted into a grimace, and he said, through gritted teeth, "I. Will. Not."
"Brencis," Lady Aquitaine chided, "you're going to hurt yourself. Tell me."
The young man ground his teeth and said nothing. A trickle of blood suddenly coursed down from one nostril.
Lady Aquitaine did not move for a long second. Then she rose, and said, calmly, "Very well. Another time. You may remain silent."
Brencis gasped and almost seemed to melt into the earth. For several seconds, the only sounds were his panting sobs of release from agony.
"I'm sorry," Lady Aquitaine said, turning to speak to the Vord queen. "The standard collar I fitted him with can't match whatever it is he does to alter the bonding process. I can't compel the secret from him."
The Vord queen tilted her head slowly to one side. Dark, glossy black hair fell in gentle waves from beneath her hood. "Can you not cause him to fit himself with this same collar?"
Lady Aquitaine shook her head. "He is collared already, my lady. A second such crafting wouldn't take."
The queen tilted her head the other way.
"It would have no effect on him," Lady Aquitaine clarified.
The queen blinked slowly, once. Then turned her gaze past the sobbing Brencis.
"Why was this one pleased when he resisted?" the queen asked. "She restrained a smile. The facial indication of pleasure, is it not?"
"It is. Though there are nuances of meaning to smiles that can become complex," Lady Aquitaine said. She looked past the subjugated Brencis to Rook, who also lay prostrate, her face downward. "A young woman. Perhaps she has attached herself to his future. Encouraged him to remain silent, so that he could preserve all the power he could."
The Vord queen considered that for a moment, and paced silently toward Rook, standing over her. "So that she could benefit herself."
"Individuality is counterproductive," the queen said, her voice calm. Then her form blurred, and Amara saw a gleam of dark, green-black chitin at the tips of the pale queen's fingers as they ripped half of Rook's throat away.
Amara's heart all but stopped at the sheer, sudden viciousness and speed of the attack. She had to fight down a scream, and with it the impulse to fling herself to the wounded woman's defense.
Rook made a sound that was more of a wet, wheezing gasp than any word. She rolled partly onto one side in reaction, her arms and legs thrashing weakly. Blood rushed from the gaping wound in her neck.
The Vord queen stood over the dying woman with a mildly interested expression on her face, staring down at her with unblinking eyes.
"What," the queen asked, "is Masha?"
Lady Aquitaine looked on impassively, her expression remote. Even so, she averted her eyes from the dying woman and said, "It is a female proper name. Perhaps her sister or her child."
"Ah," the Vord queen said. "What is Countess Amara?" Her head tilted slightly, and her unsettling, faceted eyes glittered in the light of torches and furylamps. "A woman. Ungroomed."
Lady Aquitaine's head snapped around toward the queen abruptly. "What?"
The queen looked up at her without expression. "Her mind. There is an increase in activity preceding death."
Lady Aquitaine hurried to Rook's side, reaching down to turn her face slightly to one side, and her eyes widened in recognition. "Bloody crows." She looked up at Brencis, and snapped, "Healing tub, now."
She clamped her hands over the gaping wound in Rook's neck, her eyes narrowing. "You've . . . Crows, the wound is . . ." She looked up and snarled, "Brencis!"
"What are you doing?" the queen asked. Her tone was politely interested.
"This woman is an agent of Gaius Sextus," Lady Aquitaine said, her voice tight. "She might have information that--" She broke off suddenly, shuddering.
"Dead," the Vord queen said, her voice clinically detached. To punctuate the word, she lifted the scoop of bloody flesh she still held in the taloned fingers of her hand and nipped off a small bite. A spot of Rook's blood, still hot, sent out a wisp of steam into the cool night air as it smeared the Vord queen's chin.
"What did you see about Amara?" Lady Aquitaine asked.
"Because it could be important," Lady Aquitaine said, frustrated exasperation hidden in her words.
"Because she, too, is an agent of Gaius," Lady Aquitaine said, rising a bit unsteadily from the body. "She and Rook have worked together before and--" Her eyes narrowed abruptly. "Amara must be here."
Amara felt a surge of terror join the helpless rage and sickened pity in her breast, and pushed them both aside to call upon Cirrus. Borrowing swiftness from the wind fury, she drew back her arm and flung the stone knife at Lady Aquitaine, the weapon letting out a sharp crack like a whip as it tumbled toward her with an almost lazy grace to Amara's fury-heightened senses.
Amara's aim was true. The heavy stone knife hit Lady Aquitaine just right and center of her chest, upon the form of the quivering Vord . . . thing that crouched there. The knife, furycrafted from heavy granite, would have made a poor tool, its blade too dull to be of everyday use, but for its intended task of parting the flesh of a single victim, it more than sufficed. The sheer mass of the thing made its tip as deadly as any arrow or blade of steel, especially at the speed with which Amara had thrown it. The knife plunged through the Vord creature as easily as through a rotten apple, and continued on to the flesh beneath, cracking bone with moist snapping sounds, hurling its target from her feet and to the ground.
Amara gritted her teeth at how badly wrong the plan had gone, but there was no help for that now. Brencis had gone running off to fetch a tub, and had been nowhere in sight, and Lady Aquitaine--no, Invidia, Amara thought viciously, for she was no Aleran Citizen anymore--would have circumvented Amara's veil in seconds. So before Invidia's feet had hit the ground following the impact of her shoulders, Amara had turned and leapt skyward, calling Cirrus to bear her aloft.
Amara's feet were perhaps seven feet from the ground when she felt hands like stone wrap around the ankles of her soft boots. Desperately, she called upon Cirrus to bear her up with even more force, even as she drew her steel dagger from her belt and twisted to thrust it down at her attacker with the instant, blindingly swift violence of trained instinct.
Yet as fast as she was, the Vord queen was faster.
She released one of Amara's legs to spread the fingers of one pale hand wide. Amara had time to realize that the queen's hand was still wet with Rook's lifeblood, as the tip of her dagger
pierced the queen at the center of her palm.
There was no more reaction than if Amara had thrust her knife into the ground. Without any expression beyond one of steady concentration, the Vord queen twisted her wrist, the knife still trapped in her flesh, and tore it from Amara's grasp. Amara kicked one leg, trying to get loose of the queen's remaining grip as they continued to rise from the courtyard, albeit slowly, but the Vord's grasp was inhumanly strong. Her alien eyes glittering more brightly, the Vord queen swarmed up the length of Amara's body, hand over hand, and Amara felt the tip of her own dagger thrust twice into her flesh in hot bursts of tingling pain.
Then an iron bar pressed against her throat, and her vision darkened.
Amara struggled wildly, but it was useless, everything spinning down to a tunnel. She saw the walls of Ceres rushing at her, and in a last burst of defiance called Cirrus with every remaining ounce of her strength to rush them both toward the obdurate stone.
Amara awoke with a gasp as water trickled into her nose. She coughed and tried to lift her arms to her face, but couldn't move them. Her body ached in every joint and muscle, and she was ravenously hungry. She flung her head back and forth, and realized that she was almost entirely submerged in something liquid and warm.
Her eyes flew open in a panic, images of sleeping bodies wrapped in glowing green croach filling her thoughts, her body contracting and convulsing to pull her free. Her arms flexed but refused to move from her sides, and her legs stayed firmly clasped together. Pain burned through her biceps, her thighs, and the warm liquid covered her face entirely as she slipped lower into it.
"--her head out of the water befo--" shouted a woman's voice.
It was cut off completely. Then a fist seized her by the hair and hauled her up, out of the warm liquid.
"--ld have warned me she was about to wake!" said a petulant male voice. The hand grasping her hair kept hauling, and she suddenly fell over a slippery barrier of some kind and onto hard, cold stone.
Amara coughed the water--for it was water--clear of her nose and lungs and lay panting for a moment, dizzy and drained with the aftereffects of a watercrafted healing. She looked down at herself and found her arms bound to her sides, her legs trussed together at thigh and ankle. She was still clothed, though her outfit was soaked entirely through.
"Welcome back, Countess," came Invidia's voice. "We feared for you for a time."
The voice of the Vord queen buzzed weirdly against Amara's senses. "I did not."
Amara shook her head, blinked the water from her eyes, and looked up at them. If she didn't show them defiance quickly, the cold air of the deep night would suck the warmth from the water soaking her clothes and leave her shuddering and freezing. She thought the defiance might be less convincing if she waited for that.
Invidia sat in a chair that had been brought out from one of the nearby buildings. She looked hideous. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her skin was a deep, sallow shade of saffron. The Vord creature upon her chest was gone. Holes like little gaping mouths in the pale flesh beneath where it had been leaked dark fluid that only faintly resembled blood.
"Invidia," Amara said. "Finally, the outside matches the inside. Treacherous, cowardly, petty."
Invidia sat in her chair and slowly withdrew a hand from the waters of the healing tub. She tilted her head at an angle that made Amara acutely aware of the fact that she currently lay bound at Invidia's feet. Other than that one motion, she did not move, until she turned her head to the Vord queen. "Well? She lives."
"Yes," the Vord queen said. She walked past Amara's view, pale ankles and delicate feet tipped with green-black toenails walking with deliberate grace across the stones and stepping over Amara's bound form. She stopped behind Invidia's chair.
Invidia shifted her body, settling her back upright against the chair's straight back and gripping the arms with weak fingers. "Countess," she said. "As ever, swift to judge."
"Perhaps you're right," Amara said. "You must have an excellent reason to explain why you are toadying for the enemies of the Realm and murdering and enslaving her citizens. Any reasonable person should be able to forgive and forget. Surely."
Invidia narrowed her eyes. "Does it look like I would be here if I had a choice, Countess?"
"I don't see a collar on you, Invidia," Amara said.
For the first time, the other woman seemed to notice the way Amara had entirely omitted her title. Her expression flickered with surprise, then offended anger, then--for just an instant--with what might have been a flutter of regret.
"The people here, the ones you've had broken and enslaved, they didn't have a choice. You took that from them."
The Vord queen settled her fingers lightly upon Invidia's neck. The tips of her green-black talons dimpled the delicate skin of the former High Lady's throat. She shivered and rippled hideously, as if some other creature entirely had writhed in its sleep beneath her skin. Her fingers tightened, and tiny trickles of blood coursed over Invidia's pale white skin.
"After your mentor betrayed me," Invidia said, her mouth spreading into a rictus, "and left me bleeding on the ground with garic oil poisoning my wounds, I fled and was found by my new liege." She tilted her head slightly back toward the Vord queen. "She made me an offer. My life for my loyalty."
"You make it sound like barter," the queen murmured, her faceted eyes half-lidded. "It is not so much an exchange as an ongoing arrangement." Then she closed her eyes, and shivered again, something undeniably alien in the motion, and Invidia fell silent.
Amara shuddered and stared, revulsion and fascination competing for her thoughts.
The Vord queen smiled slightly, let out a little sigh, and parted her dark, soft lips. Impossibly long, spidery legs slowly began to emerge from between them. As they appeared, they grew like the branches of a tree, but with horrible rapidity. Once they reached better than a foot in length, they began to stir, slowly, waving about like weeds growing in the sea near the shore.
The queen opened her mouth wider, and a bulbous body emerged from it, shaping itself as it came, until it settled into the form of the creature Amara had seen on Invidia before, albeit a bit smaller.
The Vord queen lifted her hand to her mouth and took up the creature in it, as gently as any mother handling her newborn. She reached slowly around Invidia's body and held the creature against the Aleran woman's chest. The creature spread its legs, fluttering them lightly over Invidia's torso, and, in an abrupt motion, struck with every leg at once, nearly a dozen limbs lashing out in separate serpentine motions. The creature clutched hard to Invidia, then slammed its head forward, long mandibles burying themselves in the Aleran woman's flesh.
Invidia closed her eyes for a moment, shuddering, but not moving or struggling against the creature. It seemed to adjust itself for a moment, then settled, its legs each sinking a talon into her flesh, drawing more dark fluid from her.
Within seconds, her color had begun to improve, and Invidia let out a shuddering sigh. She blinked her eyes open a moment later. "Ah. My thanks."
The Vord queen simply stared at Invidia for a moment. Then she shifted her attention to Amara.
"Now," Invidia said. "Where were we, Countess?"
"Fidelias," Amara said. She struggled to keep her voice calm, but she couldn't do it. The cold had settled into her soaked clothes, and she began shivering. Her voice shook with her.
"Yes," Invidia said, her voice growing steadier by the word. "Dear Fidelias. I don't suppose you know where he is?"
"To the best of my knowledge he was in your company," Amara said. "Or dead."
"Really?" Invidia asked. "That hardly seems likely. You were close to him, after all. He was your patriserus."
Amara clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering. "He was a traitor."
"Doubly," Invidia mused. "I had thought your type had a name for that sort of thing, but perhaps I was mistaken." She glanced down at the cre
ature on her chest and shifted her shoulders gently. Its legs flexed slightly, and she winced. "Mmmfh. He could hardly have struck at a better moment. I was incognito. Had he succeeded, I would have been buried as a nameless camp follower, an unfortunate casualty of war--and one of Gaius's most capable foes would simply have vanished. A High Lady of the Realm, gone without a trace."
"I can't see where he failed," Amara replied. "I see no High Lady here."
Invidia stared at her in deadly silence for a long moment.
Amara bared her teeth at her in a humorless smile. "You may have lived through the attack, but High Lady Aquitaine didn't survive it."