Edits have finally begun. Should be making the rounds again by October, though if I could swing it this summer, that would be great.
Thirty-Six: The Cats
Zezili pulled back the sheet covering the body, still half-hoping the face would not be one she knew. The sheet stuck to the lips. Zezili tugged it free and saw the empty sockets of the bloodied eyes, the sharp cheekbones, the aquiline nose, the frosty face of eight hundred years of Dhorinian queens.
Zezili looked into the face of the last of them.
“He took her cat eyes,” Zezili said. “Tell me you have him.”
Sir Janvier stood next to her, her cropped brown curls squashed under a woolen cap. She kept her helm under one arm.
The body lay at the back of the inn’s big kennel atop a makeshift table. The cold room stank of dogs and red grass.
“We picked up tracks going south,” Janvier said. Her voice was raw, husky. “A dog, probably carrying two, and a set of footprints. Following them.”
Janvier did not say it, and Zezili would not. Not aloud. King Nathin, whore’s get of the south, had slipped a man into the queen’s circle.
Nathin of Lendynd, self-styled king of savages.
Janvier shifted her feet, wiped at the blunt mash of her nose. She opened her mouth, closed it again. There was another question to be asked, and she would not ask it.
Zezili jerked the sheet back over the corpse. She palmed her own helm lying on the table. She pulled it over her head, fastened the strap at the chin.
“I’m going to Daorian,” she said. She had already sent a runner, likely sent her into death, bearing news such as this, but that’s what dajians were for.
“Sir,” Janvier said.
“I’ll ask her to give you first of the legion,” Zezili said. “I’m serving her my head.”
“On a platter?” Janvier said.
“Silver,” Zezili said. “Is there another kind?”
Zezili went back out to where her big dog Dakar was kenneled. His shoulder was as tall as hers. She hefted the saddle from the pen bar, buckled it over Dakar’s shoulders, cinched it at the chest.
Janvier still stood behind her, motionless at the kennel gate. Zezili pulled herself up onto Dakar and regarded her Second.
“Anything else?” Zezili asked.
Janvier shook her head.
“Then get out of the way,” Zezili said. She kneed Dakar forward.
Daorian was a five day ride, but the snow was light, the roads clear, and way-houses Zezili stayed at were old haunts. She had failed the Queen of Dhorin. She had let the heir to Dhorin die. There was no other fate, no other path, and she went willingly. It would be a gift to take death at the hand of the Queen.
By the time Zezili reached the outer sprawl of Daorian, the city was already wreathed in red, the color of mourning. Great red banners flanked the tower gates, the spires of the distant keep. The city people had put out red kerchiefs in their windows, hung them from the snow-heavy awnings of their shops.
Zezili wound her way to the keep. She had left it over three months before with a dozen of the royal guard. She returned alone. She enjoyed the silence.
People knew her by her armor, the plaited skirt knotted with the hair of dajians and outer-islanders, the image of Rhea holding a sword over a dead dragon etched into the breastplate, outlined in flaking silver. Her helm had no plume, ended instead in a curve of metal like a snake’s tail. Her dog’s scars, the bulk of him, told all who she was as clearly as her dress, and the people came out to see her, muttered about her on their doorsteps, pointed. Some saw her and hid. Two old women made a ward against evil as she passed. It told Zezili something of the Queen’s silent ambiguity regarding her station that they did not spit at Zezili or curse her. The Queen had yet to post judgment.
The city waited.
Zezili brought Dakar up onto the hill of the keep overlooking the harbor, the black water rimmed in dirty snow.
Zezili whistled Dakar to a halt in the courtyard. A kennel girl darted out from the warmth of the kennels, took the reins of Zezili’s dog without looking Zezili in the face.
Zezili paused. She reached up a hand to Dakar’s ears and rubbed at the base of them. She pressed her cheek to his. The dog licked at her face with his hot tongue. She pulled away only to find that she had gripped the hair of his collar in both hands. She slowly uncurled her fingers. She turned away, walked up the loop of the outdoor stair and into the foyer of the hold. She met with the Queen’s public minister, a fat woman with the fey, beautiful face of a clean-shaven mardana man. Zezili could never remember her name.
“She’s been expecting you,” the minister said.
A little dajian ran ahead to announce Zezili. Zezili went to the long hall outside the queen’s audience chamber.
The dajian slipped back out the door, gripped the outer handle and leaned back with all her weight so she could pull it wide.
Zezili squared her shoulders. She concentrated on the length of purple carpet, but could not help but see the willowy length of the queen at the other end of the room, two red banners framing her silver throne. The figures moving at the edges of the room were not her officials, but her cats.
The sight of them sent a prickling up Zezili’s spine. The Queen’s cats were as tall as Zezili’s shoulder, sleek and black, with the queen’s eyes; they moved the way she did. They paced the length of the cold chamber.
Zezili walked onto the carpet. The dajian closed the massive door. Zezili still did not look at the queen. She walked to within a yard of the cusp of the Queen’s belled white gown, stared at the hem, and got down on both knees before her. She took off her helm, set it beside her.
The cats wound closer. A dozen, more? She imagined them chewing on her body, saw claws rent flesh.
She bowed her head forward, reached up to the tangled hair tied at the nape of her neck, brought it forward over one shoulder. She knelt with her neck bared and kept silent. One of the big cats yawned and stretched, lolled down beside her. Its tail caressed her legs, brushed the back of her head.
The Queen moved. A delicate hand alighted on the base of Zezili’s neck. The fingers were cold.
“I charged you,” the Queen said, her voice like a sigh.
“The most important of my possessions,” the Queen said, and her fingers dug into Zezili’s hair.
“I failed,” Zezili said, and the words came out garbled. But the queen did not need her words to understand.
“Yes,” the Queen said. She released her hold on Zezili’s hair, smoothed it back into place, petted her absently.
“And the assassin?” the Queen asked.
“Her consort. The Thordon bauble,” Zezili said. “I didn’t watch him well enough. It is my head. My head and those of my house, if you will take them.”
“Yes,” the Queen murmured. She took her hand away, walked back around Zezili to the cat lolling next to Zezili. The Queen held out her hand. The cat licked it.
“Thordon,” the queen said.
One of the cats hissed.
“I tire long of Thordon.” The Queen stepped up onto the dais. She stepped back into the long curve of her silver throne, the fantastic menagerie of beaten silver rods and spires twisted into the faces of Delaraan demons. The first queen had had their faces set with emerald eyes.
“You have left me one child,” the Queen said. “You have left me the boy. These foolish choices are yours as well as mine.” And then, lower, to herself, to the cats, “I let the boy live.”
“Look at me,” the Queen said.
Zezili raised her eyes from the carpet. She did not know what she expected to see in the Queen’s face, but looking up she saw an unchanged visage, the face of the corpse in the kennels, unmarked by feeling; grief or fear or anger. The Queen was, as ever, a blank canvas, powdered in white, with the long, regal neck and supple form of her kind, the startling eyes.
“What are you doing this spring?” the Queen said.
Zezili could not speak. She looked for words, searched the floor, the carpet, let her gaze linger on the cats. She remembered Sir Kakolyn’s letter about the purging of the Drakish camps, remembered the last time she had knelt before the Queen, swore to cut out her own heart.
“Purging Drakes,” Zezili said, “if that’s your will.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” the Queen said.
Zezili kept her mouth shut.
“I don’t mind speaking,” the Queen said. “I was to take your head, yes, as you offered it to me. I have a platter, here.” She tapped the silver throne. “But my cats are not hungry.”
Zezili looked at the cats lolling about the audience chamber. They stared back at her with the Queen’s eyes.
“There is another use for you,” the Queen said.
Zezili shook her head. “My Queen –“
“I have told you.” She nodded at the cats. “They are not hungry. Another day? Until that time, I have changed my mind.”
“There are Drakish camps, yes. Kakolyn and Orianlyn will clean it. I have some… insects there. They need to be purged. But after, I have a task for you, one your death will not sully.”
Zezili bowed her head.
“You and Storm will go south.”
Zezili brought her head back up. “South?”
“Thordon,” the Queen said. “I want him. I want his country. I want it burned and routed, raped and maimed and mutilated. I want them scattered and twisted. And it is his head you will bring to me. On a platter, no less.”
“Pardon, my Queen, with only two legions?”
“Three. You will have Tanasai’s. I have contacted her.”
Zezili took a breath. Tanasai was dead, packed in snow in the storage house of Zezili’s estate. She tried to think of other things, but the Queen’s gaze had become keen.
“Or will I need to?” the Queen asked.
Zezili gritted her teeth.
“No,” the queen said softly, and her eyes never left Zezili. “No, perhaps I will not have to. Perhaps that time is done.”
“My Queen –“
“So your bauble has gone,” the Queen said, and a strange look came over her face, a turning inward. “Your bauble has committed violence and left you. Sought you out and could not find you.”
Zezili shifted on her knees. She had told no one about what the night keeper of the inn had told her: some hours after her departure, a strange person had come looking for her, too thin to be a woman, the voice too deep, his face hidden in a long hood. She had given him a room. He had disappeared along with the assassin.
“There were tracks leaving the inn,” Zezili said. “A dog carrying two. A third trailing.”
“Then it is both of us owe Nathin something.”
Zezili knitted her brows. “I don’t –“
“You will look. Your wife is south,” the Queen said. “And the killer. You owe Nathin something too, do you not?”
“Yes,” Zezili said. She would find her wife. And Nathin. She saw something opening ahead of her, beyond the throne room. Life. Pursuit.
“There were will be mercenaries from the outer islands. Three thousand Sebastyn pike men, five hundred Alorjan archers. This will not be your campaign, of course. I am giving it to Storm. He has first of the campaign. He decides his subordinates. You understand?”
“Yes,” Zezili said.
“Then we are settled.”
“I await your will,” Zezili said.
“Then rise,” the Queen said.
Zezili stood. Her knees ached. She bowed, turned. She put her back to the cats and the Queen. Her hands were pale, trembling. Cold sweat had gathered along her spine. She had not expected she would be allowed to rise, to leave the door. She had not thought past kneeling upon the carpet.
She saw the little dajian pulling back the door, leaning into it.
The tone was light. Zezili felt fear. She pivoted on her heel, regarded the queen. The cats were uncurling from the floor, stretching, yawning.
“Perhaps there is something else,” the Queen said.
Her cats crept up alongside Zezili, paced between her and the door. They circled her.
“My cats would like a token,” the Queen said. “Just a bit. You will give it freely.”
“Yes,” Zezili said.
The cats pounced.
She did not have time to bring up her hands.