Ana awoke with a scream.
She looked around her, seeing her bedclothes tangled, and rolled herself out of them, trying to work out what had startled her so. She felt a stab of fear again as she crossed the room, almost so severe that she wanted to curl into a ball and disappear.
“Now I’m just being silly,” she muttered, taking a draught from a small goblet of water, filled from the stone pitcher by the window.
And then she heard the alarm bells, distantly ringing, but getting louder as the clamour of bells starting worked its way up the tower. She dropped the goblet on the table, grabbed her dress from the night before, sliding easily into it, then hurried out into the corridor, heading towards Lyahn’s chambers, adjusting the shoulder straps as she went, watching people standing in the corridor, looking confused as she jogged past them.
She went up two levels, to the queen’s chambers, noting that the high nobles were being gradually supplanted by lines of guards rushing towards the chambers. She reached out, trying to feel for Lyahn, trying to find her in her mind, and finally she knew where the fear that awoke her was coming from.
Ana stopped, noting the congregation of guards, sighed, and elbowed her way through the unmoving crowd. The guards standing directly outside the chamber were staring in, entranced by the sight within, and Ana found herself speechless at the sight within.
Lyahn, clad in barely more than her underclothes, one dagger in hand, another lying on the floor beside her, pressing the attack against a giant of a man, wielding a rather large broadsword with one hand, parrying and blocking the metre-long blade with a short dagger, barely longer than her forearm.
The snarl on her sister’s face was amazing to behold. Ana noted that she showed none of the fear that she felt thundering through her body, only a fierce determination to stay the fight and win. Even this early in the morning, with the sun barely drawing a line over the horizon, Lyahn had the fighting ability of a bull na’khai.
But it was fading fast. She looked to already have been fighting for some minutes, and her moves, while precise and well-placed, were slowing slightly. The broadsword was getting closer to her than it had before. Each strike of blade against blade looked more and more jarring and taxing.
And then Ana saw the lumbering hulk of a man, staggering, somewhat dazed, behind her sister. She took a deep breath, ignoring the instincts yelling at her not to get involved in the fight, grabbed a pair of blades from the guardsman next to her, ignoring his grunt of protest, and started forward, blades outstretched in a guard, footing firm and well-placed.
She pressed forward, against the dazed man, hoping that his confusion would give her the upper hand. And it did, a few times: she managed to get in several strokes which drew some blood, but not enough to wound seriously. Yet, she kept up the offensive, trying to push away her qualms about seriously injuring someone.
Lyahn became aware that her sister was fighting, too, behind her, stance flat-footed, heavy, nowhere near as light as it had to be, using traditional fighting forms that were almost useless against these men – and yet, she seemed to be doing well.
“What are you doing, Ana?” hissed Lyahn, ducking and weaving.
“Watching your back, big sis,” replied Ana, trying to sound calm and confident, as she put a pair of deep gashes on the other man’s upper arms, which he blinked at blearily.
“Well, you could at least have brought me some bigger daggers,” she said, with some asperity, and Ana let out a single laugh, a flat, dark note. “Go for his legs, get him down on the ground again, and push forward. Wear him down. You can do it.”
The quick muttered hint was enough to revitalise Ana’s blade-strokes, and she pushed forward, knives humming as she pushed the man back, pressing him up against the wall, one blade pinning him there, the other flashing around to slam, hilt first, into his head, and with a sickening crack, and a grunt of pain, he fell, the side of his head looking oddly crumpled.
Ana turned, to see Lyahn bearing down on her assailant, but fading fast, the broadsword strokes getting worryingly close. They had to have been fighting for nearly half an hour, now, stroke after thunderous stroke battering up against the immovable block that Lyahn held before her, the blade biting in slightly, but in a different spot every time, weakening the whole blade overall with each stroke, but not enough to cause it to fracture.
Lyahn, for her part, was, at last, being exerted beyond her capabilities. Her breathing was ragged, sweat plastered her hair to her face, but she could not spare the few moments she needed to sweep it away, so she fought squinting through a mesh of dark copper. Her underclothing was unpleasantly damp from the perspiration, but she still moved more than fast enough to keep the handspan-wide blade from touching her at all.
Ana slowly worked her way around the room, trying to get a better angle on the man, and she moved in, blades outstretched, just within reach of the flashing blade.
“Ana, look out!” screamed Lyahn, moments before the blade swung past her sister’s torso, with only a finger-breadth to spare…
Ana caught the blade in a scissor-grip on the inside of the hand-piece of her pair of daggers, and just for a moment, she could feel the heat of the blade against the inside of her wrists, a sickening sensation.
The momentary respite was just enough to give Lyahn time to move in, to land a heavy blow to the top of the man’s hand, nearly hard enough to break bones, and startlingly painful enough to force him to drop the blade. Almost immediately after it, she brought her other knife up, flat-first, to slam hard into the flesh of the man’s wrist, pressing and holding it there, twisting it slightly to force the razor-sharp edge against the inside of his forearm.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” snarled Lyahn, her words punctuated by the sound of the heavy broadsword clattering to the floor, the clang ringing dully against the heart-stone walls.
As she expected, the man remained steadfastly silent. She had met his type before: silent, even in the face of astonishing pain. And, of course, she knew exactly the weakness to exploit, having done so countless times before.
Still pressing one blade hard into the man’s forearm, the other flashed down towards his groin, and stopped, with the tip resting against the thick reinforced-leather trousers, perfectly poised to cause a serious injury.
“Have you ever seen a man get knifed here? I have. He was dead within a few minutes. And the amount of blood was amazing,” hissed Lyahn, applying a sudden pressure against it, feeling the blade bite through one ply of the reinforced leather. The only sign that he was aware of anything happening to him was the slight tightening around his eyes as they stared straight ahead, not making eye contact.
The tableau was frozen there, Lyahn’s breathing slowing somewhat, as she stared at the broad, fleshy face of her attacker.
And then, without warning, one meaty hand flashed forward, grabbing her by the neck, and lifting her into the air with a yelp, making her release her grip on both blades. One fell to the floor, but the other was suspended, almost comically, from where it had dug into his trousers.
Lyahn forced herself to breathe, even in spite of the meaty hand pressed firmly against the line of her gullet, compressing it into her neck. She swung slightly, then extended her feet, and thudded them violently into her attacker’s gut, triggering little more than a rumbling grunt, but the hand at her neck tightened, lifting her higher.
And at last, she remembered the other weaknesses that these sorts of fighters had, as her vision darkened, fluttering at the edges like a disturbed butterfly, taking wing, flying away.
“What do you want with me?” she repeated, her voice a faint rasp, and at last he answered, the undisguised glee on his face sending a frisson of fear down her spine.
“I bring a message from people who want nothing better than to see you dead… and unfortunately, they do not want to give me that pleasure,” he said, his rough voice gloating.
The last thing Lyahn knew was the wrenching cry of her sister, a sob and a howl rolled into one sound.
And then she lost consciousness.
The smell of age, rotting decay, and, oddly, vanilla.
The sound of scraping, and then a sputtering hiss.
Matches, she guessed, her mind still fuzzy from her unconsciousness. She sniffed again, a bitter, nutty smell just tickling her mind, triggering a memory to rise with it.
Two lines of students, uniformly dark grey robes hiding their figures. One line kneeling before the other. The Drillmaster, calling to proceed. And in unison, holding the neck of their peer with one hand, they thrust a rag soaked in chloroform over the nose and mouth of the other. Lyahn remembered the peer, a shapeless girl of indeterminate age, sagging against her, nearly making her topple. Down the line, someone did fall as their victim collapsed towards them.
She forced her eyes open, to see a dark room, the only light coming from a candle that was still slowly brightening. From what she could see the room looked quite large, the edges of it disappearing off into the darkened distance.
“Child of Harmony.”
She tried to turn her head to look at the speaker, but found that she was restrained, the leather straps digging into her skin somewhat.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
The basso rumble. The tone, the speech.
“Indeed, Child of Harmony. It is good to see that you still remember after your … unfortunate escape,” he said, moving into her field of view, a tall, black-robed figure. “I have been looking forward to meeting the new Queen of Kihedra… I wonder if you know anything about her.”
Something in the voice kept setting off alarm bells in her head. She thought, rapidly, and while she did so, she tried to buy herself time by playing him.
“Oh, yes, I know her. She’s an interesting woman.”
“Really? Perhaps you could regale me with something interesting about her.”
“They found her in the undercity,” Lyahn began.
“A convenient excuse,” interrupted the Grand Master smoothly. “It could be anyone they wanted it to be. You yourself told me of the ineffectiveness of the heir, and if they don’t want to fall into the trap of an incompetent leader, they merely find someone who is… more interesting. More appealing.”
And finally, she knew who he was, and she barely suppressed the hiss of fury that threatened to spill from her mouth. Instead, she spoke, her words taking an acid, biting tone. “Of course, you have always known they would find her in the undercity. You always knew that there was just the person for the throne there. In fact, someone who came through the walls of Tower Elilith itself.”
The man before her nodded – or perhaps bowed his head briefly – and spoke. “I always knew, daughter of mine, who you were, what you could achieve. I had your Tower name picked out for years after I orchestrated your kidnapping. I always knew you would be the Queen. I always knew.”