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First Lords Fury, Page 2

Jim Butcher
she had taken with her father and brothers.

  "Emotional bonding," the vord Queen said.

  "Yes," Invidia said. "And. . . it is pleasant. "

  Empty black eyes looked at her. "Why?"

  She shrugged. "It gives one a sense of stability," she said. "A daily ritual. It is reassuring to have that part of the day, to know that it will happen every day. "

  "But it will not," the Queen said. "Even in their natural habitat, it is not a stable circumstance. Children grow and leave homes. Routines are disrupted by events beyond their control. The elderly die. The sick die. They all die. "

  "They know that," Invidia said. She closed her eyes and for an instant thought of her mother, and the too-brief time she had been allowed to share her table, her company, and her love with her only daughter. Then she opened her eyes again and forced herself to look at the nightmare world around her. "But it does not seem that way, when the food is warm and your loved ones are gathered with you. "

  The vord Queen looked at her sharply. "Love. Again. "

  "I told you. It is the primary emotion that motivates us. Love for others or for oneself. "

  "Did you take meals like this?"

  "When I was very young," Invidia said, "and only with my mother. She died of disease. "

  "And it was pleasant to have dinner?"

  "Yes. "

  "Did you love her?"

  "As only children can," Invidia said.

  "Did she love you?"

  "Oh, yes. "

  The vord Queen turned to face Invidia fully. She was silent for two full minutes, and when she finally spoke, the words were spread apart carefully for emphasis - it gave the question a surprisingly hesitant, almost childlike, quality. "What did it feel like?"

  Invidia didn't look at the young woman, the young monster that had already destroyed most of the world. She stared through the nearest set of windows at the dinner being set down at the table.

  About half of the people inside were Placidans, taken when the vord had completed their occupation of Ceres and moved forward over the rolling plains of that city's lands. They included an old man and woman who were actually a couple. There was a young mother there, with two children of her own and three more that the vord had deposited in her care. There was a man of early middle age who sat beside her, an Imperian farmer who had not been wise enough or swift enough to avoid capture when the vord came for Alera Imperia and the lands around her. Adults and children alike were tired from a day at work on the steadholt. They were hungry, thirsty, and glad of the simple meal prepared for them. They would spend some time together in the hearth room after the meal, take a few hours of time to themselves with full stomachs and pleasantly weary bodies, then they would sleep.

  Invidia stared at the little family, thrown together like a mass of driftwood by the fortunes of invasion and war and clinging to one another all the more strongly because of it. Even now, here, at the end of all things, they reached out to one another, offering what comfort and warmth they could, especially to the children. She nodded toward the candlelit table, where the adults actually shared a few gentle smiles with one another, and the children sometimes smiled and even laughed.

  "Like that," she said quietly. "It felt like that. "

  The young Queen stared at the cottage. Then she said, "Come. " She strode forward, graceful and pitiless as a hungry spider.

  Invidia ground her teeth and remained where she stood. She did not want to see more death.

  The parasite writhed in agonizing reproof.

  She followed the vord Queen.

  The Queen slammed the door open, disdaining the doorknob, to shatter its entire frame. Though she had displayed it on rare occasions before, her raw physical might was unbelievable from such a slender figure - even to Invidia, who was well used to seeing earthcrafters perform feats of superhuman strength. The Queen strode over the splinters and into the kitchen, where the little family took their dinner at a table.

  They all froze. The youngest of the children, a beautiful male child perhaps a year old, let out a short wail, which the young mother silenced by seizing the child and placing her hand over his mouth.

  The Queen focused on the mother and child. "You," she said, pointing a deadly, clawed fingertip at the young woman. "The child is your blood?"

  The young holder stared at the vord Queen with wide, panicked eyes. She nodded once.

  The vord Queen stepped forward, and said, "Give him to me. "

  The woman's eyes filled with tears. Her eyes flicked around the room, haunted, seeking the gaze of someone else - anyone else - who might do something. None of the other holders could meet her gaze. The young mother looked up at Invidia pleadingly, and she began to sob. "Lady," she whispered. "My lady, please. "

  Her stomach twisted and rebelled, but Invidia had learned long ago that retching sent the parasite into convulsions that could all but kill her. She ate seldom, of late. "You have another child," she told the young mother in a calm, hard voice. "Save her. "

  The man sitting beside the young mother moved. He gently took the boy from her arms, leaned forward to kiss his hair, and held him out to the vord Queen. The child wailed in protest and tried to go back to his mother.

  The vord Queen took the child and held him in front of her. She let him kick and wail for a moment, watching him with her alien eyes. Then, quite calmly, she held the boy close to her body with one arm and twisted his head sharply to one side. His wails ceased.

  Invidia found herself about to lose control of her stomach, but then she saw that the child still lived. His neck was twisted to the breaking point, his breaths coming in small, labored gasps - but he lived.

  The vord Queen stared at the sobbing mother for a moment. Then she said, "She feels pain. I have not harmed her, yet she feels pain. "

  "The child is hers," Invidia said. "She loves him. "

  The Queen tilted her head. "And he loves her in return?"

  "Yes. "


  "Because it is the nature of love to be answered in kind. Especially by children. "

  The Queen tilted her head to the other side. Then she stared down at the child. Then at the young mother. Then at the man seated beside her. She leaned down and touched her lips to the child's hair and paused for a moment, as if considering the sensation.

  Then, moving slowly and carefully, she released the child from her hold and passed him back to the weeping mother. The young woman broke down into shuddering sobs, holding the child close.

  The vord Queen turned and left the cottage. Invidia followed.

  The young Queen walked up a nearby hillside and, once they had crested the hill and moved into sight of a vord landscape stretching out before them, stood with her back to the little steadholt for a time. "Love is not always returned among your kind. "

  "No," Invidia said simply.

  "When it is not," she said, "it is a kind of pain to the one who has loved. "

  "Yes. "

  "It is irrational," the vord Queen said - and to Invidia's shock, there was a quiet heat to the words. An anger. The vord Queen was angry.

  Invidia felt her mouth go dry.

  "Irrational," the Queen said. Her fingers flexed, the nails lengthening and contracting. "Wasteful. Inefficient. "

  Invidia said nothing.

  The vord Queen spun abruptly, the motion so swift that Invidia could barely track it. She stared at Invidia with unreadable, alien eyes. Invidia could see a thousand tiny reflections of herself in them, a pale, half-starved woman with dark hair, clad only in a suit of vord-chitin carapace that fit her as closely as her own skin.

  "Tomorrow," the vord Queen said, smoldering anger filling the normally empty tones of her voice, "you and I will have dinner. Together. "

  Then she turned and vanished in a blur of green silk into the endless rolling waves of croach.

  Invidia fought the sense of terror spreading through her s
tomach. She stared back down at the collection of cottages. From her place on the hillside, the steadholt looked lovely, furylamps glowing in its little town square and inside the cottages. A horse nickered in a nearby pasture. A dog barked several times. The trees, the houses, they all looked so perfect. Like dollhouses.

  Invidia found herself suppressing a laugh that rose up through the madness of the past several months, for fear that she would never be able to stop.


  After all, the vord Queen was not quite nine years old. Perhaps that was exactly what they were.

  Varg, Warmaster of the fallen land of Narash, heard the familiar tread of his pup's footsteps upon the deck of the Trueblood, flagship of the Narashan fleet. He peeled his lips back from his teeth in macabre amusement. Could it be the flagship of a Narashan fleet when Narash itself was no more? According to the codes, it was the last piece of sovereign