Volraag idly pushed a pile of dust out of his way with a magical vibration. With every use of his power, he became more proficient. He stopped and turned in a circle, examining the ruins of the temple of Reman.
“The witnesses all say the same?” he asked.
Otioch, the head of Volraag’s personal guard, eyed the rubble. “They all agree that the temple fell apart before the earthquake,” he answered after a pause.
Volraag ran a hand over what remained of the temple’s outer wall. The stone had been pulverized. Whatever force had done so had come from within. The angles of the destruction showed that much clearly.
“Furthermore, they all agree that the scar-faced young man came out of the temple, and that he… flew.” Otioch said the last word with distaste, as if he couldn’t believe someone would even suggest such a thing.
It had to be Marshal. Didn’t it? But one detail did not match what he knew. “Tell me about the scars.”
“No one seems to have been close enough to see them clearly,” Otioch answered. “Accounts vary. Some claim multiple scars criss-crossing his face. A couple insist that it’s a single, large X-shaped scar. Others aren’t sure of the shape at all, but all of them insist he was scarred.”
Marshal had not been scarred when Volraag spoke with him. But that had been months ago. Something could have happened to his face since then. In fact, with Kishin in pursuit of him, such injuries could be expected.
Volraag frowned. Kishin’s failure and disappearance troubled him, perhaps more than anything else in this strange saga. The assassin had never failed before. A message dispatched to his home received no response. Death seemed the most likely answer, though how Marshal could have accomplished that boggled the mind.
He stepped out of the ruins into bright sunlight. Volraag winced and shaded his eyes. For some reason, he had been sensitive to light since his return. A side effect of his new power? He hoped the adjustment period wouldn’t take much longer.
“What other news have you gathered this morning?” he asked.
“Messages are still sporadic,” Otioch said, “No doubt due to the damage on Zes Sivas. But the Consuls received an outraged missive from the new Lord of Mandiata, demanding you restore his father’s power to him.”
“Tell them to ignore it, of course.”
“Of course. But I do think we should send a spy or two to keep an eye on them, in case they decide to sail here and start a war.”
“That will take time, but it is a distinct possibility. And that is why we must accelerate our plans for dealing with Rasna.” Volraag strode toward the temple courtyard’s gates.
“Accelerate? Are you sure that particular fight is worth it?”
Volraag stopped and turned on him. “There are two things that are of the utmost priority in my plans now. Only two. First is finding my half-brother and regaining my father’s power from him. The second is winning a quick and decisive victory over Rasna. For what is buried on that border land is… worth whatever it takes.
“In fact…” Volraag turned back toward the gates. “Send out the recruiters and pick up another century’s worth of conscripts.”
“As you command, sire.”
Volraag walked through the gates and stifled a scowl at the carriage awaiting him. He would much prefer his own horse, but his newly elevated position meant certain practices were expected. He climbed into the carriage and smiled at the dark-haired woman inside. Cyra did not smile in return.
“Are you through climbing through ruins?” she asked.
Volraag chuckled. “It was a little more involved than that, my dear. Do you recall our visit to a little village up in the mountains a few months ago?”
“I remember you dragging me to a bunch of little villages. I hated every minute of it.”
“But we got to sample all those quaint inns along the way.” Volraag nodded out the window to Otioch and the carriage began rolling. “So many different beds together…”
The concubine smiled. “I didn’t hate those minutes,” she admitted.
Volraag leaned in closer and playfully tapped Cyra on her small, upturned nose. “I didn’t think so.” He kissed her and then relaxed back against the cushions.
Cyra adjusted her skirts absently. “Have you decided on your speech at the ceremony tomorrow?”
Volraag took a deep breath. His father’s funeral. Much of the city would be there, regardless of how they felt about Varion. They would be curious to see their new Lord and hear from him for the first time.
“I know exactly what I will be saying.”
“Any hint at… a marriage?” Cyra asked pointedly.
“We’ve been over this.” Volraag closed his eyes and tried not to react in anger. “I will not marry you. Not yet. I will not give the populus reason to expect a child.”
“It doesn’t have to mean a child…”
“But they would expect it!” Volraag’s eyes flew open. “I will not father a child until and unless all my plans succeed! I will force no curse upon an innocent. My father sired at least a dozen cursed children, my brothers and sisters. And I lived, each and every day, in fear that I would be the one to suffer from his actions next. I will not continue that. I will not!”
Cyra whimpered. “You frighten me when you talk like that.”
Volraag sighed. Beautiful Cyra, all he could want in a concubine, simply could not understand all that he had been through, or all that he wanted to do. The Lordship of Varioch was an important step, but only the first of many. When he finished, all Antises would be transformed.
The palace of Reman was a cold, sterile home. Since the death of Volraag’s mother, it had lacked a female influence on its decor. Even the day-to-day operations were run by men. As he descended the steps leading to the lowest levels, Volraag made a mental note to encourage Cyra to be more involved in palace operations. It would make her feel more important.
He passed several red-cloaked Remavian Guards and spoke a word to each in turn. He made a point of knowing at least one personal detail about each of his elite warriors. Familiarity bred loyalty.
Volraag paused at the top of the final staircase. Everyone had strict orders to stay away from this part of the palace. Even so, he glanced around to be sure no one saw and followed him. Satisfied, he made his way down to a solid oak door. A quick vibratory wave pushed it open.
Inside, the leper assassin, Rathri, sat polishing a dagger. Volraag restrained a shudder. No matter how many times he saw Rathri’s uncovered face—or Kishin’s, for that matter—he could not stifle the disgust. The peeling, diseased skin revolted him. At least Kishin kept his hidden most of the time. Rathri simply didn’t care what others thought.
“I assume he is still well?” Volraag asked, gesturing at another door beyond Rathri’s seat.
“No thanks to you!” called a voice from inside.
Volraag approached the door. A familiar face stared out from a narrow window cut into the door at eye level.
“Why am I here, tyrant?” the false king demanded. “Why even keep me alive?”
“Because I am not done with you,” Volraag said. “You and I still have much to do together.”
“I will not help you again!”
“Yes. You will. When you fully understand… you will.”
“You are a murderer. There is no threat you can give me any longer. I’d rather die than help you.”
“Threats worked with you the first time,” Volraag pointed out. “But I prefer reason. When I have more time, we will talk. I will show you what I am doing. And you will help me. Willingly.”
“You are delusional.”
“Possible. But I doubt it.” Volraag turned to Rathri. “Are you in need of anything?”
“You do not need me here,” Rathri said. His voice, so raspy, made Volraag wonder what the man’s curse had done to the interior of his throat. Was it as damaged as his exterior skin? The thought made him wince.
“No, I don’t. I can assign any guard here now. They all know I have a Rasnian prisoner. You wish to leave, then?”
“No.” Rathri stood and slipped the dagger into a hidden sheath somewhere in his sleeve. “I want to stay near you.”
Volraag’s brow wrinkled. “I… don’t see how that would work. I can’t have you walking about in public.”
“Of course you can. Make me the head of your Remavian Guard.”
“Otioch serves that role quite ably. He has been with me for many years.”
“Then make me second. Either way, I must be near you. Especially when you demonstrate your power to the people at your father’s funeral.”
“I don’t understand.” Volraag knew he owed multiple debts to Rathri, but had been hoping to pay the assassin with his usual gold.
“No, you don’t. But you will in time.” Rathri gestured at the prison door. “You told him that he would understand you in time. I am telling you the same thing. In time, you will understand… and agree.”
Volraag found himself intrigued. “Very well. You will be part of the Guard. But you must conceal your… condition.”
Rathri nodded. He took a step closer. An unpleasant odor of decay brushed Volraag’s nostrils.
“I must be near you as you learn your power. And the more you use it, the more powerful you will become.” Rathri smiled, and Volraag could not repress the shudder this time. The assassin was missing a portion of his upper lip. “And as your power grows, so too will mine.”
The assassin swept down in an exaggerated bow. “And then, you will find me truly irreplaceable.”