They stopped at the end of a dark corridor, made light by the small ring of light projected by the lanterns they carried. “If you don’t mind, I’ll stay outside. It’s a little too painful to go in there, still,” murmured Ana, breaking the silence, her voice tight. Trying to maintain some semblance of calm.
“That’s all right. It takes a lot more than a dark room to scare me,” said Lyahn.
Ana smiled wanly, then pushed the door open, a small cloud of dust fluttering up off the floor, and Lyahn slowly walked into the chambers of the Queen.
Looking around, she saw a woman with a spartan lifestyle, who lived alone. Widowed, perhaps? She couldn’t tell.
The furnishings were sparse but comfortable, and a few tall vases stood around the room, once filled with flowers, but now empty except for the dust.
Making her way into the bedroom, she saw nothing to suggest an illness. In the corner, with a shock, she saw a large version of the painting that stood inside her locket, two small girls, both wearing identical babyish smiles, chubby faces glowing with life. Behind them, her mother, smiling regally, the crown on her head conveying at least some of the twinkle, and beside her stood a man, the same regality around him, but deferred, as he held one of the small children.
There was a fluttering behind her, as if fabric was moving, and Lyahn spin, instantly poised, catlike, facing behind her, looking around, alert.
She held the position for a few seconds, then straightened slowly, looking deeply suspicious.
“Ana, is that you?” she called, quietly, pitching her voice so it would not carry out into the corridor… and she heard no reply. A good sign, she hoped.
“Just winds and shadows, that’s all,” she muttered to herself, turning back to the painting.
All at once, her hands were seized, held roughly against her back, and she instinctively kicked out behind her, guessing from the heavy, deep breathing that it was a man behind her. The grip lessened momentarily as her kick made contact, and she twisted her arms, breaking the grip, and spun to face her attacker, still mostly shrouded in the darkness.
The lantern was propped on the side table, and she knew if she could get him near it, she would have a chance of getting out of the situation – just a small chance, but one nonetheless.
“Ana!” She hoped that her sister was still conscious, her shout made panicky by the situation, as the man fell back slightly.
“Lyahn?” The answering voice sounded startled, somewhat shocked, and she guessed that Ana hadn’t seen anyone entering the chambers behind her. What that meant was still a mystery to her, but either someone had snuck in, or someone had been in the chambers the entire time.
“Call the guards. There is an assassin in the Queen’s Chambers. Now!”
She had no time to hear Ana’s reply, as the man started towards her again, arms outstretched in a traditional fighting stance she remembered very well – so well, in fact, that she slipped into a slightly different version of the same pose, with a shorter, more solid footing – and she drifted forward along the cold rugs, preparing to jump into an attack.
She swept a leg out from underneath her attacker, watching him stumble, unconsciously gauging his responses and reactions, then beat forward with two solid blows, sending him flying backwards a few steps.
With a pair of quick blows, the man was writhing on the ground, trying to seize her ankle and flip her, but she knew the trick, and instead she stepped, hard, on his wrist, feeling it groan under the pressure.
“See, I don’t like to break bones,” Lyahn said calmly, coldly. “I broke my arm once, and that wasn’t pleasant. But if you keep annoying me, you will have to put up with it.”
“I won’t stop annoying you!” snarled her attacker from ground level, still struggling to rise.
“Really? Okay, then.”
With a sudden, violent motion, she punched downwards, striking his solar plexus firmly, hearing the sound of bones breaking in his ribs. He let out a gasping sigh and whimpered.
“How about now? Feeling like you won’t annoy me any more?”
He coughed, a dark trail of blood dribbling from his mouth where it hid behind the balaclava he wore. She knelt, pulling it roughly from his face, trying to determine the identity of her attacker, and let out a horrified gasp.
The face that stared back at her, eyes colder than she remembered, face lined by age and years of cruelty, was that of the man in the painting…
“Who are you?”
“I’m the one who has you pinned to the floor. Perhaps you should answer my questions.”
The man sighed. “My name is Ai’massid-suterne-Eldera. I was Prince-Consort until my wife died.” He coughed again, but there was no blood this time. “People thought me consumed by grief, thought I had taken my life. But I have stayed hidden here in the apartments, since her death. You are the first person to enter these rooms since then. Not even her daughter… our daughter… came here.”
Lyahn let her knee move from his chest, and let him up, lifting him onto the bed, and laying him down, sitting beside him.
“I’m sorry, but you look familiar. You look like Ana, but you can’t be her… she never had any skills as a fighter, or any strength to speak of.” He chuckled, weakly.
“My name is Lyahn. I’m Queen-Nominal.”
The man shook his head, looking like he was weakening fast. But something in his voice sounded oddly familiar to Lyahn, and she wished she could remember… it was only just out of reach…
“I’m dying… you cannot be my daughter. She was taken, years ago. We never knew what happened to her.”
“You aren’t dying,” snapped Lyahn, but stopped, breath catching with the realisation that she knew exactly where his voice was familiar from. “I know your voice.”
Ana burst in at this point, a small group of guards standing behind her, each holding their own torches. She pushed up to Lyahn’s side, to see the man lying on the bed, looking broken and battered.
“Father –! But… but you died,” Ana burst out, stuttering like a cold engine. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. There’s a woman, standing next to you… she says her name is Lyahn – my daughter, speaking to me as I die,” said the old man on a sigh.
“What are you talking about, Father? Lyahn is standing here. She came home,” said Ana, her voice throbbing with joy.
“That’s impossible,” he wheezed. “No one has seen her for years.”
“Except that’s a lie,” snarled Lyahn. “That’s the biggest lie you’ve spoken today, Father,” she said, her voice dripping condescension for his name. “You knew I’ve been alive for years, and you’ve been hiding the truth from everyone, Drillmaster-Third!” Her fury thundered in the small chambers, even as she spat the title, icy venom in her voice, her anger inflating further at his expression of shock, which he quickly tried to mask, but there was no denying it was there.
“N-no, girl, you are mistaken. I haven’t heard of any Drillmasters, let alone a third one,” the broken man said, but Lyahn barely acknowledged her father – her father! – who taught her how to fight, how to kill, and how to die, even as she did not know who he was.
“You’re here to finish off some filthy plot you never quite wrapped up. I’m betting day in, day out, seeing my face so like the face of your own daughter, twigged you to the fact that I am who I am! Coisc’arra, mie A’ilith, tol drava marisch,” and the alien words flowed from Lyahn’s tongue, meaning nothing to Ana, but making the bent, broken man on the bed look even more shrunken and shrivelled, cowering back in… fear?
“Lyahn,” said Ana, urgently grabbing her arm as she raised it. “What is this?”
“You are part of House Elilith!” Lyahn’s scream was like a bolt of lightning, striking around her, her hand outstretched, the tendons in her neck taut and standing out firmly against her skin, adrenalin fuelling the rage.
Beneath her fury, her father sighed.
“I am, Child of Harmony,” he said, using the name bestowed upon her by the rogue House. He sounded proud, and it was buried in this pride that he remained for the few seconds it took before the young hand hit his face with enough force to split his lip.
Hundreds of metres down below the city, Ana stared at the emaciated form lying on the bed, the last of the dozen medics filing out. The cell door closed with barely a squeak, but the clang it made when it bumped closed was almost deafeningly loud in the midnight silence.
“Why did you do it, Father?”
Ana’s plaintive voice reached out across the intervening space, wrenching at her father’s heart.
“Once, we were the House of the Elements, thousands of years ago, before the Oathbreaking, before Elilith was branded the House of Broken Promises. Once, we were mighty.”
“But now, look at you. Trying to kill your own children, your wife – no.” Ana looked at him, eyes hardening. “You didn’t.”
“I didn’t do what?”
“Please, tell me you didn’t kill my mother!”
The man sighed, and in that moment, all at once she knew, her breath leaving her body, in one huge rush, like she had been punched in the gut, not him.
“I did what I was ordered to.”
Ana turns, her hair cascading down around her face, hiding the expression of agony that was etched upon it in that moment.
“How could you?” she whispered, the despair in her voice making him, in that moment, regret everything he had done. “How could you do that to the woman you loved, your own children?”
“I’m sorry,” he began, but her scream was like an axe to his speech, cutting it off with a sharp finality.
“HOW COULD YOU!”
She turned, and ran, into the darkness of the catacombs, making for the central staircase. She couldn’t face him – and she knew she had stopped thinking of him as her father.
“I was trying to protect you!”
She hears the piteous cry behind her, and presses her eyes together even harder, scrunching them up against the world, trying to block out the voice of the man who had destroyed her life, her world.
Behind her, a gust of cold wind followed, and dropping like tiny stones to the solid floor, her tears fell, and as they ran down the fine runnels carved into the stones thousands of years ago, the face of her father, filthy, bruised and bloody started to pull into a rictus of wickedness.
Lyahn sat bolt upright, seconds before the door burst open, her long sought-after sleep dissipating like wisps of cloud before the sun as she heard the footsteps loudly thudding up the stairs. She slid out of the bed, landing catlike on the floor, facing the door.
Ana burst into the dark chambers, and collapsed against the door, sliding down it, sobbing and panting, solid lines of tears trailing like some deranged war paint down her face, flecks of mucus following them onto the top of her dress, and onto her kerchief, clutched in one hand.
The soft, quiet voice, so like her own, lifted her eyes from her knees where they were, sat before her face. Lyahn, no longer convinced of any threat to herself, quietly padded across the room, donning a thin shift, her thick woollen socks comfortable against the cold of the night, opened a small lamp, and sat down beside her, against the door.
“Did you go down to the catacombs?”
She couldn’t answer beyond a nod.
“Ana, what happened down there?”
“He… he…” She couldn’t bear to continue, and Lyahn saw it in her face, pulling her into a tight embrace, cheek-to-cheek, identical faces pressed together. Their hair, combined, formed a thick halo around the both of them.
“What happened?” murmurs Lyahn, coaxing it out of Ana, trying to make her talk.
“I asked him if he… if he murdered Mother.”
She took a long, ragged breath. “He did.”
Lyahn shut her eyes, letting her head float back, thudding unpleasantly against the thick door. “I knew I should have ended him back then, when I had him at my feet, grovelling.” The disdain and anger in her voice were woven with something else – resignation? – and Ana was quick to spot it.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I… I suppose I sensed he was something else,” she said. “And I recognised his voice.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“It’s getting late, Ana. You need sleep. It’s been a long day.”
Without waiting for an answer, she gently, gracefully slid her arms around her sister, and hefted her into her arms, bridal-style, carrying the half-asleep woman to her bed, and easing her down onto it.
“Get some sleep, sis,” mumbled Lyahn into her hair, then she padded across the room, closing the light, returning the room to the light of the stars through the two small, narrow windows, and, as she slid into bed, returning to only her underclothes, she heard Ana’s quiet reply.
“Love you, big sister.”
“Love you too, little sister.”
A smile touching her face, she rolled over, closing her eyes.