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Hubris: Chapter One
Hubris: Chapter One
[I'm going to put a 'mature warning' on this. Some parts of it have adult themes that are only appropriate for mature readers. This is still in the drafting process, please feel free to leave feedback. I think it's still overwritten, personally. Still! Draft of chapter one. Enjoy and thank you for reading. Hubris by Lu Stanton-Greenwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.]
“We could be very agreeable together, you and I.” – ‘Heart’ Violes, ten years prior to present events.
Zeth Ridge, Valkyre, 2429 – Zeth Ridge
The Temple was seated atop the highest plateau of Zeth Ridge. It balanced at the tip of a torch-lit ziggurat that overlooked both the fortress and the canyon. The upper floors were quiet within its marble columns and arched windows. The only disturbances to its tranquillity were the echoes of wordless voices and footsteps from its belly. The breeze drifted down through the humid air to the distant lights of military campfires, which resembled nothing more than ruddy, wavering stars.
A robed figure climbed the steps to the Temple's glass doors. The Acolyte's steps were patient and unhurried. She walked directly past the two similarly clad doorkeepers and into the surface level, sparing no glances for those few who stopped to offer her respectful bows.
There was one who approached her. His cloak hung over his bent spine, and a white, braided beard trickled out from underneath his hood. He kept his hooded face down and his hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe.
“Mistress, he asks for you.”
She acknowledged him with a light touch to his cheek and began the winding descent into the flickering amber light of the Crypt. The corridors were much like a rabbit warren. They teemed with robed inhabitants.
A bull groaned from within a chamber without a door. Blood could be heard splattering onto the floor, and the heavy fall of the animal’s body was almost drowned out by chanting. The warm smell of its innards slunk out of the room and filled the corridor with a heavy butcher’s aroma.
She went far further than the others. They milled between doors and spoke in hushed voices that went silent as she passed. She walked past the levels that had tiny, square windows cut into the sides. Each corridor grew quieter and emptier than the last, until she came to a door that had been washed black and carved with the single insignia of a three faced skull.
She produced a key from the layers of her robe and twisted it in the lock.
The room inside was cramped. It had a curved ceiling, and many cluttered, round-backed bookshelves lined the walls. Small, halved skulls sat as mortars on the desks, accompanied by well-used candles struggled to keep the light above a depressing gloom.
In the centre of the room lay the man who had asked for her. He was supported on a cushioned chair that reclined horizontally. His long body seemed too big for it. He appeared to be rotting into it, the upholstery as dilapidated as his tattered robe.
As she approached more of him became visible. He had black skin and a frail build. His bones jutted out of him like an awkwardly shaped and badly wrapped present. His breathing was ragged and his right leg twitched rhythmically. He bent his fingers into the arms of the chair, his brittle, curved nails resting in the holes left by his bedridden state.
The real oddity about this man was his head. Three sets of brows wrinkled beneath one bald scalp. His three identical, hairless faces had the same uncomfortable displeasure written across them.
“You took your time,” each mouth hissed at her. He had a voice that sounded as though he had a habit of chewing on gravel and soot.
“It's not as though you're going anywhere, dearest,” she pointed out, her hood flicking as she looked him over. “What's wrong?”
She began the careful process of untying the sash of his robe, parting the fabric so that she could look properly at his torso. His build was no bulkier underneath the clothing, his ribcage protruding and hanging like a coastal shelf over his concave stomach. His pitch skin remained without hair, and on his right side, had begun to rot away. Embedded into the far side of his stomach, above the flank, was another face. Unlike the others, it didn't have its own skull. Rather, it seemed to be emerging out of him in some sort of unnatural growth. One of its eyes, half caved in from decay, slid sideways to look at her. The mouth hung open, jawless and unable to form full words.
“So he is,” she agreed. She straightened, removed her gloves and then began to probe around the point where his flesh had turned necrotic. The face gurgled its displeasure at her. She ignored it and slotted two fingers into its mouth. She withdrew it, and looked at the cold, clotted black blood on her fingertips.
She reached for a cloth. “I don't think we can save him this time, my love,” she sighed. She put the sullied cloth down. “He's decaying right back into your stomach. He'll take you with him if I try.”
The fourth face released a scarcely human howl at her assertion, and tried to close its teeth to snarl at her.
“I thought that might be the case,” he affirmed. “Can you remove him safely?”
“If I can find a replacement for whatever organs are failing,” she mused, pursing her lips and returning to probing the flesh over his stomach. “Primarily your intestines, I think. Perhaps a kidney, it depends how far back the rot goes. I suspect your liver will be fine, but I might hunt one down just in case. I'll have to flush you, too.”
He gritted each set of teeth and tried to nod. The weight of his head kept him largely immobile, however, and he gave up quickly.
“There will be plenty of bodies soon,” she told him, bending to kiss the central part of his forehead gently. “The battle is ending. Unfortunately, I don't think I'd be able to reap what we need in time.”
“Conscript, then,” he told her, looking up into her hood. His left arm quivered and rose from its comforter, a golden shine slithering across a simple ring on his fourth finger. His claw-like nails slid within the hood and pulled it down.
The Acolyte was a woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. She had angular, delicate features, and alabaster skin so pale that took on a bright nimbus in direct candlelight. At a glance, her eyes were the colour of a fouled pool of stagnant water. Up close, however, it became apparent that they were actually a very striking shade of green, stabbed with black shards that extended from her pupils to the limits of her iris. Despite her features being shrouded, she wore dark cosmetics that contrasted against her natural pallor.
He balanced her chin between his thumb and forefinger, one browned nail resting beneath her bottom lip. “I miss seeing your face.”
She smiled and brushed a hand over the expanse of his scalp. “I will fix you,” she assured him. “All of you, this time. And then we can finish this business, and go home.”
He gave her a comforted smile, and wearily let his hand drop.
She turned from his chair and tugged on a tattered cord in the corner of the room. Somewhere nearby, a bell chimed.
The crooked old man who had spoken to her upstairs soon rattled through the door and into the room, bowing his head towards the black-skinned man in the chair. “Master,” he greeted. He turned to the Acolyte afterwards. “Mistress. You summoned me?”
“Yes, Gorvel,” she acknowledged. “I need you to find me a healthy-gutted man in his twenties. One of the novices should do fine; we had several through from the military rejections. And a bowl of maggots.”
The old man bowed, though it looked more like a bouncing crouch, and scuttled back out of the door.
The Acolyte turned back to the room and went over to the desk. She produced a leather box out of it, and opened it. Within it, were various different kinds of surgical knives and a bottle of clear liquid. She mixed several spoonfuls of it with a basin of water and rolled up her sleeves. She bathed her hands and forearms in it and then began the process of cleaning each of her knives and laying them down on the table next to the chair.
“You said the battle was nearly over.”
“Yes,” she reaffirmed. “We are winning.”
He made a thoughtful sound in his throat. “That didn't take much.”
“Surprising, isn't it?” she remarked as she rubbed down a scalpel. “But it makes our side of things terribly easy.”
He regarded her for a moment. “You intend to put her on the throne,” he deduced.
“I do. What better for us than an Empress who owes the Temple her power?”
He chuckled. It was an unpleasant, throaty sound that seemed to come from embers in his throat. “Very simple. Bear in mind, though, that you're playing with the trust of a beast.”
“She's far more than a beast,” she reckoned. “But I'll repair you. And then we can do it together. Nothing fails when we do things together.”
He made a sound of agreement.
Gorvel returned half an hour later with a small cart. The torso she'd requested, a barrel and another leather box were jumbled into it. The dismembered piece she required dripped from the arm sockets onto the floor, its waist wrapped in rapidly reddening cloth.
And so it began.
She started with a stretch of wire with a wooden handle at either end that enabled her to cut out large portions of flesh. She bent over his stomach, and began the process of cutting down into him. His blood oozed rather than flowed, bubbling out of his skin and leaking onto the protective sheet laid down beneath him. It pooled like siege tar.
The face shrieked throughout. As she brought the wire behind it and began severing it from his body, it choked on the thickened fluid that clogged its mouth and nostrils. Soon enough, she could lay aside her instrument, and lift off the face from her husband's quivering side with a series of slippery sounds and no difficulty. Gorvel took it from her oozing arms and dumped it into the barrel, where it still tried to breathe like a fish out of water.
The Master lay prone. His inhalations hissed through his very white teeth and his exhalations left his broad nose in snorts. His side lay exposed in a marbled pattern of black against pink. She took a smaller knife from Gorvel and began to cut into the black, drawing it out and dropping it into the barrel with soft, wet splats. The old man gave her 'patient' a knife handle to bite down on as a long groan left him.
By the time she washed the clinging, deep brown substance from her arms, his side's opening was entirely pink. She left the maggots on it to ensure she'd got all of the dead flesh, and then peered into the barrel to see what she'd removed.
“I need the right kidney and... Perhaps six feet of the small intestine, three of the large,” she told Gorvel, wiping her arms dry and once again bathing them in the solution she'd mixed together earlier.
The old man obliged with surprising speed, washing his own arms before he carefully cut into the fresh torso on his cart and handed her the kidney first. She took it, a mortician's needle and thin thread, and crouched carefully next to her husband's cavity. Gorvel supported him off to one side to ensure she could reach everything she needed, and she began to stitch.
He lay there whilst she repaired him. His teeth dented the wooden knife handle, though he refused to close his eyes. He watched her all the while with an adoring expression on each of his faces, his head slightly tilted so that he could see her with as many eyes as possible. The more clinical she became, the more he was intent on absorbing every movement she made. He observed as she meticulously plucked maggots off his flesh, marvelled over how precise her stitches were and quirked a grimacing, fond smile at her repeated bouts of perfectionism. Eventually, the pain was completely forgotten. It was replaced by simply watching her repair him. The expression of dissatisfaction on her face when she stretched tanned skin over his side to hold it all made his mouth slacken on the wood between his teeth. He knew what went through her mind in that moment; how she wanted it to be black, too, how she loathed having something so imperfect to use as a tool. He knew that in the coming months, she'd find another replacement, and redo the entire skin-stitching to ensure he matched.
Her need for perfection ceased his trembling.
When she was done, she stood up and flexed backwards to ease her spine. She washed herself, and Gorvel began to clean up.
She perched on the side of his chair and removed the knife from between his lips. They exchanged one long look, and he recognised the slow spread of a lascivious smirk across her mouth. She bent to kiss his central lips with a heat he knew all too well.
“If it wouldn't ruin my work,” she murmured, not so far from his lips. “I'd have you right here.”
He was too exhausted to offer her much of a response, but his answering grin said enough.
“When you're better,” she assured him, hand smoothing over his forehead. “Sleep. I'll watch over you.”
Vandenita Cioskar’s heavy boots clunked as she went up the dark steps leading to the internal corridor of the citadel. She ignored the shocked stares from milling citizens and aristocrats’ wives. She stood just over six feet, and beneath intricate leather armour, her heavily muscled body moved over a lithe, Y-shaped frame. She was handsome enough. Her almond-shaped eyelids had been tattooed with three precise outward curls and one dot. They swept around from her eyelashes and into the build of her cheekbones. Bloody and unclean, she hadn’t bothered to stop for a bath.
The stairs led to a columned archway. Marble statues of chimeras rose in differing positions at either side of her with their sightless eyes fixed on another piece of carved stone. Each bore the burgundy standard of the Empire between their claws. The stronghold was spread across the canyon gap between two mountain ridges, and its high, grey walls pressed seamlessly into the rough faces of the natural rock. Windows in the mountainside suggested that caverns within them had been domesticated. The citadel spread much more extensively than it appeared to.
She was halfway up those steps, toying with one of the many small, golden hoops punctured through her ears, when she heard it; an exuberant, overdone, girlish cry of false delight that took the form of the word, “Dearest!”
She groaned inwardly. Dark eyes raised their gaze up to the top of the stone staircase. There, waiting in all her teal and satin glory, was the over-ripe form of Heart Violes-Cioskar. The redhead had both delicate hands clutched together in an expression of pleasure, and her green eyes were alight with masterfully feigned anticipation.
Vandenita continued up the stairs. She offered her gauntlets palm up to Heart with a small smile. A smile her eyes didn’t agree with. “My love,” she murmured quietly, bending to cover that height difference and accept the eager kiss offered to her.
The far shorter redhead leaned in with her emerald earrings tinkling, using those upturned palms as anchors for her own fingers. Her eyes widened once she’d taken her greeting kiss.
“You look a fright,” she stated, attempting to draw her towering counterpart back towards the internal corridor. “It must have been awful out there. Come, the Emperor has sent for you.”
Vandenita agreed with a single nod, following the sweeping woman with a brief glance to the guards. The corridor swallowed them, and they began the inclined walk to the pinnacle of the mountain ridge citadel.
They waited until they were out of earshot, and then Heart promptly dropped the arm she’d been clinging to and smoothed down the front of her rich, gold embroidered gown. “If you’ve stained my dress, you’re buying me a new one,” she stated firmly as she looked down at herself in the hunt for any dark smudges.
“It’s all dried, woman,” Vandenita answered, unconcerned. “I assumed I’d be buying you a new one anyway.” She adjusted the shoulders of her cloak, and then returned her gaze to being directly in front of them.
“You assume correctly,” Heart assured her, fluffing her wealth of copper ringlets. “In fact, in the last year and a half you’ve bought me fifteen of them. The ladies are all terribly jealous of just how doting you are, even in the midst of all your glorified butchering. Adoring from afar, don’t you know.”
“Naturally.” Vandenita tucked her thumbs into her belt and drew in a long inhalation.
As they came to the end of the corridor, Heart returned to her side, and looped one of her manicured hands around the Kyrian’s leatherbound bicep. They paused at the double doors, exchanged a long look, and then Vandenita pushed the ornate double doors open.
Beyond was a room of decadence. No divans, simply pillows; multitudes of satin wrapped, plush pillows that obscured the floor from view. Cradled in the centre of which, with a wine glass in one hand and a military report in the other, was the hawk-faced Emperor of Valkyre. Swathed in elaborate deep red silks, he posed a regal, if lethargic, sight.
There were three others in that room. The first, a messenger waiting for dismissal. The second was his personal advisor, a much older man with a single line of white facial hair and angular dark eyes. He sat with his legs crossed behind the Emperor himself.
The third was the Acolyte. The willowy woman had her own seat. She was unsurprisingly draped in black, wrapped three times around her waist with a thick sash. Her hood covered all but her chin and lips from view.
The Emperor didn’t look up from his missive, continuing to read even as those doors opened. “Vandenita Cioskar,” he greeted. His tone was more thoughtful than hailing. He eventually deigned to glance up, seeming mildly surprised. “When they said you were tall, I reasoned it must be exaggeration.” He laid down the missive, propping himself up on one elbow. He looked the pair over. “I am acquainted with your lovely wife, of course.”
Heart nodded once, reaching down and outwards in a brief, underdone curtsey. “His Imperial Majesty has been very curious about your exploits.”
“Indeed I have,” he agreed. He laid aside the military report and straightened. “And your Lady has given me the most glowing reference of your character and deeds. So much so, that I had to ensure its complete, unfiltered truth from your superiors and colleagues. Do you realise just what sort of reputation you have?”
“I don’t, your Majesty.”
“Your lessers are in awe of your capacity for leadership,” he enlightened her. “Your equals are jealous of your prowess and dubious of your womanhood, and your betters steadfastedly refuse to promote you because they believe your success to be unnatural for both a foreign national and a woman to accomplish without some sort of bad luck befalling the Army.”
A wry smile touched Vandenita’s lips. “It has ever been like that, your Majesty. Some things never change.”
“In this case, it’s about to,” he informed her. His Advisor passed him a scroll, the wax seal unbroken and the wood carved with unnecessarily ornate designs. “Without your capabilities we would never have won this particular scuffle. I have displeased your previous betters by putting you in command of the Kyrian units as General, thus making you their equal. If you continue to exhibit such exceptional skills, I will grant you more units under your control. But, for the present, raising you so high so swiftly would be political suicide. You will stay with your own nationals, for now.” He rose, stepped over the cushions and reached the document out to her.
Only the slightest moment of staring at the rolled up parchment betrayed her surprise, but soon she moved to take it from him. “You do me great honour, your Majesty,” she murmured, leather creaking as she bent in a surprisingly fluid bow, each muscle visibly adjusting.
“Only where it is due, General,” he assured her. He clapped her once on the shoulder, and then turned to go back to his cushions. “I grant you permission to rejoin your wife in her quarters, should you wish it.”
Both women dipped in unison to perform another gesture of respect, before he waved them off dismissively and went back to his missive. They turned, left the inner chamber and began the downhill walk back to the lower levels of the fortified city.
“Together?” Heart muttered darkly. She removed her arm from where it had been, only to fold it with the other underneath her bosom.
“It’s expected,” the recently appointed General answered unsympathetically. “A year and a half is a long time for two people so passionately in love as we are to be apart.”
“Not so long when one is enjoying it,” she pointed out. “And one was.”
“As was I,” Vandenita replied blandly, loosening her belt slightly. “You’ll survive. I’ll sleep on the carpet if it suits you.”
“Don’t placate me, Nita,” Heart interrupted with a negligent gesture. “It seems too much like you care when you do that, and it makes me uncomfortable. Just grunt and shut up.”
The General didn’t grunt, but she didn’t reply, either. Instead, they continued their appearance. Heart required support down the steep steps, and they occasionally leaned in to murmur intimately to one another. Both had learned the art of the effortless, easy smile. They executed it frequently.
Vandenita bathed. The tub was embedded into her red tile floor in a large room constructed of glass. It was much like the garden houses littered around the lawns. Each wall had an elongated, oval piece of clear glass in the centre, and was surrounded by chunks of square-cut, thicker glass that obscured detail. The roof’s segments were simply substantial pieces slotted together at a diagonal angle to the stone wall.
Outside, in her allocated section of lawn, was a gazebo that looked thirsty and solitary in the dry weather. The General had candles and incense burning in each corner of the room to soften her atmosphere.
She was laid quite comfortably against the back of the tub, both arms stretched across either side of the marble. She lifted a leg to examine the dark streak running up her shin to her knee. It had healed quite nicely.
The tranquillity of being home was soon shattered by the double doors to the stone half of the room being opened by the Emperor’s Advisor. He was dressed in an off-white robe and burgundy cloak, the dragon insignia of the Empire dyed onto his chest.
The moment he realised she was bathing, he flushed a bright crimson and turned his back on her, folding his arms indignantly. “I wish you’d learn decency, woman,” he grumbled, squishing a rolled piece of parchment into the nook of his inner elbow.
There was an amused, throaty laugh from behind him, accompanied by the sound of a weak splat as the General flicked water at him. “You’re a prude, Cheran,” she commented whilst she doused her hair by leaning back into the water. “I’m in my own quarters, it’s not considered improper. Besides, you could have knocked.”
“Your people have some strange notions, girl,” he straightened and went to sit at her mahogany, glass topped table with his back still firmly to her.
“As do yours, boy,” she retorted. She lifted a candle to watch the wick wilt beneath the flame. She smiled a little, absently glancing at the averted Cheran and then continuing her response. “Well, I know you wouldn’t still be in my painfully naked presence if you didn’t want to talk to me. What does the Priesthood require of me now?”
Cheran unrolled the parchment that had bent in the fold of his arm, straightening it and then holding it out behind him. She rolled her eyes and lifted herself from the water. Apparently she wasn’t going to be able to bathe in peace at this particular moment. She supposed she was clean, at least, which had half the job done. She lifted a drying blanket from its neatly folded place on the floor, wrapping it around her chest and tucking the end underneath her armpit. Her braid hung limply by the side of her face, the rest of her hair still poker straight and over her shoulders.
She seated herself at the opposite end of her table and held out an expectant hand. Once he’d handed it over, the General drew it in front of her face and scanned down it. One eyebrow lifted before she’d even read a paragraph. She reread it, and placed it down on the glass tabletop.
“I hope you’ll sign it,” Cheran murmured, a pleading tone in his voice whilst his eyes tried to keep hold of hers. “We have everything we need except force. We’ll need it, if things go awry.”
She snorted derisively, leaned back in her cushioned chair, levelled a dark look at him and gestured contemptuously at the document. “It will go awry. That Emperor is too wilful to see any reason you may have in that shambles,” she turned it around and quite pointedly slid it back across to him. “You’ll all face the axe, or worse, for treason. And if I joined you, he’d have my head on a block faster than he could uncork wine. That’s not the making of a rebellion. It’s a death wish. You don’t have the people behind you. You don’t have the forces to make the people back you. You don’t have the resources to afford to keep a force big enough to bring the Imperial Army down. You can’t honestly be serious. Has she lost her mind?”
“She’s entirely serious, General,” Cheran replied quietly. He drew the paper back, rolled it up and tucked it away inside his robe. “Surely you can see why this has been drawn up.”
She shrugged. “Of course I can see it,” she acknowledged. “But do you honestly think he will? The man has more cushions than sense. He’ll see it as an affront to his power, which, in all fairness, it is, and he’ll crush you. You aren’t strong enough, Cheran.”
“But we can be!” he hissed, whilst he rose and looked over the table at her, his fingers spread and balanced on either end of the glass. “If you came to us we would have the power to change the entire Empire!”
She rose also, though she made no forward movement. She looked directly at him and set her jaw adamantly. Though not particularly opposing in a bath towel, she still stood in opposition to his aggressive position. “Your answer is no.”
He glared at her and impatiently swatted the chair away from his legs with a scowl. He swept past her and yanked one of her oriental double doors open. “You’re a traitor to the people, General.”
The door slammed.
She sighed, and cast off her towel with some relief. Her body was muscular and slender, her stomach rippling with the sinew that came with her lifestyle. Scars were apparent in various places - her aforementioned shin, an old stab wound through her left shoulder andthe peppering of shrapnel marks across her shoulder blades and right bicep. The longest proved to be from her kneecap to the centre of her abdomen, skirting her crotch with a single, dark line. Her hands bore the general scars that one would expect from dealing with weaponry, her nails cut short and her fingertips calloused. Her face and wrists were darker than the rest of her body. She was strangely hairless, a peculiarity of her race, from the neck down.
She reached for the brush on a small table and sat on the edge of her divan. She let her mind wander whilst she went through her hair distractedly.
Already a visitor, and all she wanted to do was collapse and be silent for a day or so. Her mind was uncomfortable with the calm. Her body was unused to comfort. She needed to adjust.
The prospect of seeing Heart again filled her with dread.
She finally managed to flop onto her spacious, frameless bed wrapped in a black linen robe. She lay with her legs together and her arms apart, palms flat down against the soft comfort she had been denied. Her tattooed eyelids fluttered shut, though she didn’t sleep or doze. She mused. She remembered. She contemplated the steps she had taken. The truths that would be hidden from the people because they were simply too brutal. She had seen no passion like it.
But to the people, honour was maintained, they had won a glorious victory, they were safe once more. They paid no heed to the widows still clawing their way through the soldier camps in hysterical certainty that their husbands were still alive. Nor to the motherless now rent of their fathers who lined the sides of the roads and raised their hands like talons for any spare copper.
The end justified the means.
She awoke from her half-doze around two hours after she had escaped to her bed. There had been an addition to her room that had entered silently, and settled in an even quieter fashion than that. She had managed to weasel her way into the nook of Vandenita’s shoulder, and there she had placed her cheek on her collarbone and settled with her.
“Heart?” the General murmured in vague surprise. She presumed she had fallen asleep, or else been too deep in thought to realise that her wife had joined her.
“You bathed,” the redhead approved, smoothing her hand up the material covering Vandenita’s stomach. “You were thinking again.”
“Yes,” Vandenita agreed, letting her head tilt back into a more comfortable position while Heart caressed the skin of her jaw. “Yes, I was.”
“Of unpleasant things?” Heart enquired. Her green eyes watched Vandenita intently.
“My thoughts are always unpleasant,” Vandenita answered, her eyes closing momentarily.
“Even when they’re of me?” Heart pouted. She quickly used the same lips to kiss the exposed skin of her General’s neck.
“Especially when they’re of you.”
Heart ceased her kissing. Her right leg slotted over the General’s hips. Her skin was considerably paler than the woman beneath her, softer and unscarred. She was a stark comparison to the General’s straight athleticism. Her pampered life lent her a soft, plump hourglass shape.
Heart’s forefinger gently tilted Vandenita’s chin down so that she could see her properly. She deliberately untied the loose knot that held her own robe together. It fell open easily, but she further parted it with salacious, slow hands and leaned back to ensure the General got the complete eyeful. When Vandenita’s eyes didn’t stray from hers, Heart became impatient, and she took hold of one of the General’s hands and pressed it directly to her ample breast, leaned down, and kissed her. After a moment she stopped and smirked very close to Vandenita’s face. “Even now?”
The General returned the smirk and effortlessly lifted her wife, turned her over, and changed their position so that she was laid on top of the smaller woman. She very gently kissed the pale navel beneath her, and trailed her tongue up and over it. Heart smiled a self-satisfied smile, but it soon vanished from her features.
Vandenita stepped off the bed and towards her bathtub, crouching to blow out the candles. Outside, the light was fading.
Heart levelled a malicious little glare at Vandenita and grasped the sheets in temper, sitting up with her back straight and a furious expression on her ripe features. “I hate you,” she spat.
“Yes,” Vandenita agreed. “You make that quite clear.”
Heart rose from the bed and folded her arms beneath her bosom. She changed the subject. “Has Cheran been to see you yet?”
Vandenita turned and looked directly at the politician with a dubious expression. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Did he say he was coming to see me?”
“He’s wanted to talk to you for months now,” Heart answered. She sauntered over to a decanter of fruit water on a nearby table. “You wouldn’t believe how persistent he’s been.”
“I think it’s an idea worth considering,” Heart continued. “The Emperor will surely think his only enemies are outside the nation, and therefore won’t be looking at his own back. The safest place to sleep is at the demon’s back, you know.”
“Why do you think I sleep behind you?” Vandenita mused. “I told him no, so there’s not much point discussing it any further.”
“Oh, you didn’t!” Heart exclaimed crossly with a turn from the table. “I worked hard to get that proposal outlined perfectly! And you have to go launching into it with your damned thick-headed loyalty complex. Cheran will be so upset with me.”
“Is Cheran’s opinion particularly important?”
“Is the Emperor’s Advisor’s opinion important?” Heart demanded incredulously. “Of course it is, you dolt! Are you honestly this politically dense, or did you get knocked out by some Tanperian boy whilst you were out there?”
“My question,” Vandenita clarified, “Wasn’t to do with his political opinion. Had that been your intention, I’m quite sure you’d have said, ‘upset’ and ended it there. His personal opinion, however, is what you referenced. His being upset with me would be a political imperative. I’m the one who said no.”
Heart stared at her, the analytical method of deconstructing her sentences striking her off-guard. “No more than it should be,” she answered. “There’s a party tonight to honour your promotion. You ought to get dressed.”
Vandenita made no further comment. She pushed herself off the post with a sinuous shoulder movement and walked over to her imposing wardrobe. Heart bit her lip and watched her with her nails tapping against the glass of fruit water in an apprehensive fashion.
“What colours will you be wearing?” she asked tentatively.
“Does it really matter?” She selected black satin with intricate golden patterning.
“Yes, I have to dress to match you,” Heart pointed out. The General gave her a long, weary look that spoke volumes of her lack of concern for whether their clothing complimented one another, and she looked down at the floorboards. This evening looked like it might well be one of the most tedious yet.
Once they had dressed, they spared a moment for an old ritual; namely, that of checking one another’s appearance, correcting any inconsistencies and effectively grooming one another to the other’s satisfaction. Heart took longer, and looked over everything from the oriental gown to the hairpins, golden trinkets and collarbone-reaching earrings. A cursory glance seemed to suit the General just fine.
It was time to play the game.
The event for which they would play their elaborate game was the Imperial celebration. Those who had cause to rejoice in the victory at the fronts would arrive and proceed to drown themselves in various types of festivity, from beverages and brawls to the carnal and business. The five great halls of the Palace were flooded with richly clad nobles and their fawning squires, regal widows and cherub maidens. The Emperor celebrated alone.
The red flags draped from every possible hanger, and the chimera columns sported small draperies from their maws, decorated with the black and gold insignia of the House of Cioskar. The air was heavy and filled with an overwhelming atmosphere of pleasure. It was an occasion worth smiling for.
The General herself had arrived quietly. She wished for no fanfare or introduction. The black, Kyrian silk tunic hugged her curveless torso, the design creeping up the left side of the decorative material that of an embroidered elephant on its hinds. The collar rose high to encircle her ears and highlight her cheekbones and clasped at her sternum.
Beside her, Heart had wrapped herself in flattering, dark brocade. It was simple, though her neckline plunged and it carried an almost nuptial train. She hung on Vandenita’s arm like a puppy, leaning in when speaking to her and using all the appropriate pet names. She asked permission, feigned obedience and made reference to an idyllic lifestyle that just didn’t exist. She played at being proud of her military lover; of having the rich, decadent lifestyle as the beloved of a war hero.
They spent the evening milling around and socialising in small but necessary amounts, showing face, smiling politely, and playing happy. Several comments were made as to the happiness that had returned to Heart’s face at Vandenita’s return. However true their words may or may not have been, the General was unsure if they were being anything more than just polite.
Midway through a conversation with a noble whose name had been forgotten almost instantly, the General’s eyes lifted. She was sure she was being watched. She found herself looking directly at the hidden face of the robed figure from earlier that day; the latest emissary from Brimvayre, The Acolyte.
Vandenita placed her fingertips against Heart’s elbow in silent excusing of herself, and drifted across the glossy floor to stand close to the robed figure. A deep nod of respect was given, and she offered her hand forwards.
“Acolyte. Would you like guidance to the table?” An offer made more out of the desire to talk to the woman rather than an assumption that she was blind. Her eyes pierced from behind cloth, and the General was quite sure she was aware of more than it seemed she was.
The Acolyte took the offer and the hood moved in what could be assumed to be an acknowledging nod. The Acolyte spoke with a very rich, mature voice, one that might place her age between thirty and forty. Her accent was remarkably similar to the Tanperian scholars who had taught Vandenita to speak their tongue
. “You are most kind, General,” she responded, permitting the more muscular woman to guide her towards the table. “How do you find being home?”
Vandenita often found conversation with the Acolyte to be unnerving. Her tone was always neutral, almost cold, despite any implication of kindness in her words.
“A culture shock, as always, your Excellency,” she answered. She reached for one of the gold-inlaid goblets. “Would you like water, or wine?”
“Water, if you would, General,” the Acolyte answered, making no move to suggest she’d seen Vandenita’s hunt for the goblet. “It’s cooling in summer. Brimvayre is significantly kinder in climate. I take it my associate came to speak with you?”
The General nodded as she poured the liquid into her collected goblet. She put it directly into the Acolyte’s hand. “He did. But I don’t think I can deliberately sabotage the last bit of stability that this country has. Now isn’t the time.”
The Acolyte took a delicate sip as she listened. She conceded with a nod and took a moment before answering. “I don’t think here is really the place to discuss such uprooting politics, General,” she pointed out as her hand gestured rather vaguely to the room around them. “My musings have never been directed at the present. The Priesthood and I merely have a few concerns about the deviation, or rather, degeneration, of this Empire. We’ll soon fall into a state of disrepair without proper leadership.” The goblet lifted, tilted towards the General in a respectful dip. “We will talk, but later. I trust you’ll hear me out before making any firm decisions.”
Vandenita nodded once, and glanced back across the room at the politician she’d left to socialise alone. Her wife turned to look over her shoulder at her, one brow lifted in question.
“I will listen,” she assured the Acolyte.
The Acolyte stretched upwards towards, Vandenita’s cheek as she murmured, “Go back to her, before she punishes you with a week of silence. I’ll be in touch, General.” She reached up to lay her hand atop Vandenita’s wrist, and the robed woman turned and walked back into the talking crowds.
As Vandenita returned to Heart it became apparent who she was talking to; the Advisor himself. She rejoined the two of them and placed one hand against the curve of the politician’s spine.
“Is it the fate of the evening to be discussing uprooting politics at a celebration?” the General enquired, looking between the two of them and taking note of the unusual proximity.
“We weren’t discussing anything of the sort, General,” Cheran assured her with an easy smile. “Rather more a personal enquiry.”
“Is that so,” Vandenita replied blandly with a sidelong glance to Heart. “How nice.”
“You must forgive her this incurable insipidness, Cheran,” Heart remarked. “Every time she comes back from barking orders at filth-faced soldiers she seems to forget how to talk to civilised people.”
“Quite forgiven, I assure you, my dear,” the Advisor replied. “I can’t imagine how much of a shock to the system returning to find everything so different must be. I must compliment you, however, on your wife’s impeccable behaviour during your absence. She has proved a very pleasurable asset to our little intrigues.”
“Oh, I’m very sure she has, your Excellence,” Vandenita agreed. “So many people tend to take pleasure in her company these days. I wish I could partake of it more often.”
Heart, who had wrapped her arm around the General’s at her return, gave her bicep a pointed squeeze. “I’m sure his Excellence doesn’t need to hear your gushing, dearest. Civilised, remember.”
“I apologise,” Vandenita said, without any inclination that her statement was, in fact, an apology. “I could go on for days, really. Perhaps we ought to retire before I regale him on your entire wardrobe of assets.” She turned her eyes onto the Advisor, and gave him a particularly neutral look. “Although, I’m quite sure his Excellency is aware of a good portion of them. Shall we?”
Heart passed Cheran an apologetic glance and took a better hold of the General’s arm as they turned from the conversation, maintaining a flawless smile as they left the room that only melded into a displeased, dark glare on passing through the archway to the corridor.
“What in the name of damnation was that?” Heart demanded the very moment they had closed the door to their own quarters.
“You make a fool of me in public now,” the General answered, tossing her earrings with some peevish force onto the dressing table.
“What are you talking about?” the politician hissed, beginning to take out the pins in her hair and equally irately placing them in their box.
“First his opinion of you is a concern – moreso than mine, I might add -, secondly, a personal discussion with a man you claim is merely a political cohort, and thirdly apologising for my behaviour to him? I can read the signs, Heart, I’m not as metal-headed as you assume.” The General didn’t bother lighting candles, despite the night’s darkening of the room.
“Oh, please, how paranoid are you becoming?” Heart asked in an exasperated tone. “Personal interaction is suddenly some raging affair?”
There was a long silence. Vandenita couldn’t look at her, and her expression wavered between self-reproach and anger. She approached Heart slowly with all of her confusion evident on her face; did she apologise, or did she slowly throttle the woman who made her so paranoid in the first place? Her hands twitched.
“Whatever I am,” she murmured quietly. “You make it of me.”
Vandenita made no move to touch her. The little politician’s hands traced the knuckles she drew to hold in her fingers, looking them over. She kept her head down when she spoke.
“I hate that these hands have seen so much of your world that I will never see,” she murmured, lifting them both to her face and placing her lips between them. “I hate that they’re always with you, when they should always be with me.” She stopped to look up at Vandenita’s face.
“I’ve watched you watching me all evening,” she continued, her face rising to look at her lover. “I’ve watched you wanting to be happy. I’ve watched you wanting to feel again. I’ve watched you trying to escape the pain of your own mind.” She drew both hands to the back of her dress where it tied. “I’ve watched you secretly wanting to rip this from me and be us again.”
She moved away from the General, who stood with her arms by her sides, motionless. The glass of the bathing room allowed little light, and all that could really be seen of her was the silver line of contours. Vandenita watched in silence.
Heart’s fingers nimbly skipped through the laces running up her spine and breathed a small sigh of relief when it was loosened. Once more she looked over her shoulder. “Will you help me with this?” she asked softly, smiling delicately.
There was a moment where neither of them moved. Then, after brief hesitation, Vandenita appeared behind her. Heart had turned her head forwards once more. The room was cold. She could feel her skin tighten to try and keep some vestige of warmth. Cloth slipped from her shoulders, and a light shudder trickled down her spine at the soft rush of Vandenita’s silent exhalation on the back of her collar.
Fingertips brushed the cold skin of her side, tracing the curve from her ribs to her hips. She looked down. The dress has collected at her feet, its warmth gone.
The General’s lips fluttered across the skin that ran between Heart’s neck and shoulder. Vandenita’s hands slid around her waist and onto the lines of her hips, crossing one another until Heart pressed back onto the front of her tunic.
Heart turned and lifted her hands over the torso before her, finding the pulse of Vandenita’s neck. Her fingers moved behind it to her skull and tilted her head down. She angled her own jaw upwards, but hesitated. Paused together, they stopped.
Vandenita returned to her marital bed with an aggression suitable only for the battlefield, and took her wife in the most consuming, unsympathetic way she could conceive. She was sure she had become intent on possession and brutality.
And Heart let her. She submitted. She became passive. She exposed herself to whatever beasts would be unleashed on her, and accepted it with a yielding, secretive delight. The possession intoxicated her.
She would smirk a small, smug little smile to herself in the mirror every morning thereafter, until her bruises faded.