Lyahn rolled over, staring at the ceiling, watching the lights play over the stonework from the city outside.
It had been a long day. She only realised then that she had been up for nearly twenty hours, and her body was rebelling, reminding her that she never lived like this before.
The ball had been the final straw, though – when those assassins had decided that they wanted to take a shot at her… it made her sick to the core to think that, only a few years prior, she would have had no compunctions about doing the same thing herself.
Admittedly, there had been an up side to the ball, and she glanced across at the small bouquet of flowers sitting in the crystal vase beside the bed, a cluster of blood-drops and rulers-eyes. She knew that flowers had meanings, but after she worked out what the blood-drops were for, she
She watched the blood-drops bobbing slightly in the faint breeze from the ventilation, the long curved body of the flowers looking like beaks pecking at the air, and on one, a tiny droplet of the sweet nectar was forming. Reaching out, she touched the droplet gently, and lifted the finger to her lips, her tongue slipping out and wiping across the tip of her index finger, relishing the exquisite flavour, and remembering the blush of the poor noble who had given them to her.
Then again, she had been blushing too…
Dismissing the thoughts from her mind, she relaxed, drifting. She knew she had changed so very much since she was in House Elilith – the stark reality of the knowledge bubbled up through her mind, unbidden, along with a few memories.
And, as she drifted off to sleep, one memory swallowed her into a dream…
Under cover of night, a dark shadow moved, a figure dressed in a long black robe slipping through the night. Through the dappled shadows cast by the light of the moon fluttering down between the dense forest of buildings reaching for the sky, the figure moved slowly, hugging the walls and the greater areas of shadow. Through a low, stone-linteled doorway it slid, crouching, then stood again, looking around the deserted drill yard.
Two guards were patrolling the wall above the courtyard, intermittently flashing torches like searchlights down onto the yard. Once again, the figure moved, hugging the thick, high heart-stone wall, moving like a phantom, sliding through the main door into the yard, and into the brightly lit corridor beyond, where it immediately removed the robe, revealing a worn leather tunic and trews, shaking out long, coppery hair, and straightening out of the hunch she affected, her glowing blue eyes alert and serious.
She looked up and down the corridor again, and sighed quietly, gracefully walking forward, the robe folded and slung over her shoulder.
Two guards stepped out of the intersection of the corridor.
Casting a quick look around them, they saw nothing out of the ordinary, nodded to each other, and moved on. The girl saw this, eagle-spread across the ceiling between two light-fittings, then lightly settled to the floor a few seconds after they left, darted to the intersection, and, casting a quick eye around her, she turned, and started up the corridor the guards had just exited.
The Catacombs of Elilith were known for their labyrinthine nature, and only someone who had spent several years or more navigating them would get anywhere other than hopelessly lost in the stony depths. But this girl knew exactly where she was going, pausing, watching, waiting, seeing guards go past on their rounds, unaware of her.
She stopped before a featureless section of the passageway’s wall, slipping back into her robe and pushing against a brick, which yielded with an unnaturally loud grating, but the whisper of the section of wall opening up and revealing a dark passage behind, and into this she walked.
“Child of Harmony.”
A voice in the dark. Male. A basso, rounded rumble. The girl spun into a crouch, facing the direction the voice had come.
“I am Child of Harmony,” she said quietly, teeth cletched, voice slipping up an octave.
“I am the Grand Master, my child,” said the voice, and Lyahn straightened in surprise. “I sent your instructions myself. I trust you were successful?”
“I was, Grand Master,” she said, her voice hardening. “I have seen the girl that is to be Queen, and she is a pitiful wreck. She could not handle a man, let alone this city. And the Queen herself, she is an over-emotional woman, governing the city on a whim. Even the Prince-Consort is a weak-minded man, bowing and scraping.”
“Have you seen, then, what your purpose is?”
There was silence.
“You are a promising student. You have already achieved more than I ever thought possible – already a Master-Third, already even beyond the ‘student’ qualifier. Some day, you could be the next Grand Master of Elilith,” he said, and the girl laughed, self-deprecatingly. “I’m deadly serious. You should know the Council of Masters has recommended to me that you should be Raised to Master-Second. Tomorrow, the Raising will start.”
“Thank you, Grand Master,” she murmured, bowing.
“You should return to your quarters. I do not think anyone would be appreciative of you being out this late. It is barely after midnight, and I think you would be able to get back to your quarters without being noticed. Off you go.”
“Yes, Grand Master. Good night,” she said, bowing yet again, slipping out of the corridor again, and making her way to her warm, welcoming bed.
As she slid under the covers, she thought.
Only yesterday, she had received her instructions. Observe, analyse, report. Get close to them, but never, ever let them see you.
She had seen a family today, a happy family. A small part of her mind noted the similarity in resemblance between her and the members of that family, but she dismissed that as inconsequential. She had seen the girl – perhaps her age? Perhaps older? She couldn’t tell – making her first attempt at courting a man. She had seen the man and woman’s mutual love for each other.
She had seen happiness, there, and she realised that her place was with a family like that, not a grim world of Masters and hatred and assassination. And she suddenly felt so much less than the hope of the House, so much less than Master-Third Elchalyahn, Child of Harmony.
She knew she had to escape.
Lyahn sat bolt upright, panting.
She knew the hatred she had felt within herself in that moment, the hatred of her mother, her father, her sister… all people who meant so much to her now, even if her mother had passed away, and her father was a traitor to the crow. But her sister…
Lyahn knew how much she owed Ana – her life, her crown. And yet, she knew a small remnant of that fear and hatred remained buried deep within herself, and she knew she had to do something about it before it destroyed her.
She knew how it could pan out: the history books acknowledging her as the traitor Queen, the Queen who broke Kihedra forever, the hands of House Elilith. Slayer of kin, destroyer of hope, and forever the ideal of harmony would be destroyed. The city would remember her name, a scar like those she wore as badges of honour, but as malignant growths, destroying whatever of the city would be rebuilt.
The city burned in her mind’s eye.
She shook her head, and looked across at the small clock on the wall, the dimly glowing markings showing it was about an hour before sunrise. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep, now, so she made her way about the room, turning on the lights, peering out the window onto the city, noting how peaceful it looked. Very few people were up this late, or this early, but enough lights glimmered against the dark to show Lyahn that the city, her city, was still alive.
She settled down on the long couch to read, glancing up at the window, noting how the inky blueness of night was slowly, distantly lightening, out over the plains. She had never been awake this early before, and she relished the freedom she had.
As she turned a page in the thick bound volume on her knee, there was a quiet, quiet sound from behind her. Lyahn’s eyes narrowed, and, without moving her head, made a survey of the room. She could hear something behind her, off to her left, near the door, but nothing else seemed amiss. She yawned hugely, using it as a cover to slip the book off her lap, and pull two short-daggers from their sheaths, the warm glow of the room glinting dully off the blades.
The sound came again, and this time she was on her feet, poised, catlike, creeping in stance towards the door, blades held before her in a guard.
She was pressed against the side of the door by the third time she heard it. It sounded more like footsteps, now, heavy boots trying to move stealthily over the stone floor outside, and for anyone lesser, it might have succeeded. But the fact that she was able to, even barely, manage to identify the footsteps outside was beginning to push her training to its limits.
The doorknob slowly turned, a very, very slight squeak from the oiled mechanism, and Lyahn made a note to arrange for unoiled hinges and door mechanisms. The door slowly, soundlessly swung open.
The heavyset man stepped into the room, looking at the bed, which still looked rumpled. As he took another few steps into the room, his eyes moved to the couch, where the book was lying open. He blinked owlishly a few times, expecting to have found a person here, not just an empty room.
“Looking for someone?” murmured a voice in his ear, a light, female voice, heavy with promise, tinted by a wry smile. Then two solid blows struck him just below the line of his ribs, fists punching heavily into his lower back, and he let out a grunt, the pain lancing across his hips. Another three blows followed, down the line of his spine, leaving him barely able to move one leg, and feeling it collapse underneath him.
He started to topple, stretching out his hands, but with a sudden swiping motion of her feet, both his hands were left flailing in the air, and his face impacted the stone floor. She seized her belt from where it sat on the sideboard, and made quick work of looping it around the man’s hands and feet, binding them tightly together behind his back, standing upright to survey her handiwork Oddly, she felt no rush of adrenalin; her moves were fed by instinct and brute strength alone.
There was a quiet grunt behind her, and she spun, blades flashing out, instinctively holding them up in a cross-block and feinting to the left. The long blade clattering to a jarring halt, her blades biting deeply into the soft metal, but it slid back, quickly, the two nicks in it not deep enough to make the other blade unstable.
Lyahn danced, the fierce, metallic clanging echoing oddly around the chamber, setting up odd dissonances. Distantly, she heard bells start to ring, and footsteps, running.
With another ringing clash of metal, one of her daggers was knocked to the floor. She rolled, trying to retrieve it, barely missing the flash of the blade, and seeing a handful of strands of hair hit the floor. She darted forward, pressing her agility as an advantage, but it didn’t achieve much against the broad defensive sweeps of her attacker.
Behind her, she heard the snap of leather, and cursed, realising that the man she had subdued had come around, and was struggling against his bonds.
“That was my best belt!” she grunted, fending off her sword-wielding assailant, trying to get him down before she had another person on her hands.