There was a groan nearby, breaking the moment.
“Ah, and it seems our other visitor is now awake. Excellent,” said the Grand Master, a satisfied smirk on his face, turning and walking out of Lyahn’s line of vision, but not out of her earshot.
The groan came again, this time louder, more noticeable. With it, a female voice. “Who are you?”
Lyahn sagged in the straps she was in, recognising the voice.
“I am the Grand Master of House Elilith. I lead the actions, and the destiny of this Great House.”
“He totally reformed the house about forty years ago when he was elected to Master-First, and was made Grand Master by the Council of Masters,” said Lyahn, blandly, her voice monotonous and flat. “I knew him as Drillmaster-Third; he could never get away from teaching. You know him as Ai’massid-suterne, Prince-Consort of Kihedra, married into House Eldera by the hand of Her Ladyship Elaynaeldera, late Queen of Kihedra. Your father, Ana.”
“Lyahn?” The piteous voice wrenched at Lyahn’s heart. The voice of her sister, her poor sister, so unused to the wilds of the world and now tossed into the eye of the storm that was sweeping over their house.
“Ana, just stay calm. I’ll get us both out of here,” said Lyahn, trying to remain calm and composed herself, and for a moment, it sounded to both of them like a realistic hope.
“Escape? Oh, yes… after your last escape attempt, we changed a few things. I imagine it’ll be much harder to get out now,” the Grand Master hissed. “We learned from you, Child of Harmony. We learned much about the way that the human mind works from you, how we push back when we are powerless. We have learned the limits of humanity: of the mind, of the body, of the spirit,” and his glowing smirk was so clearly audible in his voice that Lyahn merely wanted to slap him. “So, yes, I think you can try to escape from here. I look forward to meeting you again in that case.”
As it was, Lyahn snarled, tugging at the tight bonds against her arms. “What do you want with us?”
“Oh, House Elilith has given me permission to do what needs to be done to get the Queen on side.” He returned to Lyahn’s field of view, smiling evilly. “I can do anything I want.”
Lyahn closed her eyes, letting her head drop back against the board she was fastened to, thinking quickly.
“Father, why did you do this?” Ana’s voice was hard and cold, the voice of a woman born to power, born to rule. “Why did you join the Oathbreakers?”
He laughed, a single barking sound, and spat on the ground, sneering, walking towards her. “The ‘Oathbreakers’, as you so disdainfully call the Great House, my child, is very much an institution of greatness. I was recruited at a ball, much like the one you enjoyed last night. Two nobles found me, then, seeing me for what I was: a young man, handsome, virile, influential in my house and in the social scene.
“They invited me to come to the Great House to meet with the old Grand Master, Ei’amannan. He was a weak, cowering man, hiding behind the fading power of that hidden house. I took the house, long years training, understanding… I became Grand Master.
“It was that same evening that I met your mother, too, for the first time… how the sight of both of you last night reminded me of her. And that lovely gentleman who appears so besotted with your sister… he reminds me of myself at that age. It is so curious to see history repeating itself so clearly, so fully.”
He was quiet, contemplating for a moment, settling into a comfortable armchair before them, a grey, padded chair, almost invisible in the darkness.
“Tomorrow is Turnover, my Queen.” His emphasis of the title both crowned her and disdained her. “Tomorrow is the day when you would be crowned the ruler of Kihedra. And tomorrow, if you cannot be found, the city will fall into civil war – it is balanced so precipitously on the edge of a knife, poised to fall, and it is my duty to make it fall, and your duty to make it rise.”
The Grand Master took on a brooding, philosophical tone. “Which of our duties is greater? I would say mine, you would say yours. My people would say mine, your people would say yours. But who is right? Who is the person who has the most duty to the city?
“We have reached an impasse, or so it seems… a point of no return and a place with no way back.
“I have thought long and hard about this position, and that is why this point, this helpless point for you, this position of power for me… this point is where I have steered you to. Letting you escape… letting you become a street-wise girl… letting you reach the echelons of power, becoming Queen-nominal, and the next Queen of the Great City? I decided this.”
Lyahn’s face was carefully blank. He was monologuing, telling his story… and that was perfect. She had found a loose binding, the one against her right wrist, and she began to work it, pulling it slowly loose by methodically, repeatedly twisting and working her arm and wrist, feeling the knot begin to give against the bottom of the board.
“I have thought about who benefits if either of us were to win this little scene, this battle of the greater war. I have thought long and hard a dozen years about how to play this situation to my advantage, and now we are in it, I hold all the cards.”
“You think too much, Father,” said Lyahn, at last, her voice strident and demanding in the cold, uncomfortable room.
“Really, my child? I, the head of the greatest House that Kihedra has ever seen? I think too much?” He laughed, a long rumbling laugh that Lyahn found almost endearing, if not for the truly vile nature of the man before her. “I merely need to say one word and the entirety of Kihedra falls to my control in an hour.”
He was bluffing… she could see the sham for what it was the moment she saw it, peering through eyes slitted to appear closed, seeing his expression waver for just the fraction of a moment.
“Then do it,” snarled Lyahn, snapping her eyes open fully, glaring at him. “Destroy the city you want to rule. Destroy it for both of our futures… send it burning into the annals of a long, bloody history, stained with the blood of millions of innocent people and the soot of a billion homes and businesses going up in smoke.”
The Grand Master turned his fearsome scowl on her, two expressions of utmost fury, hatred and disgust slamming together with almost palpable fury and force, but behind it, she saw, it was a sham, a charade.
“You can’t, can you?” Ana’s quiet voice cut between them both. “You can’t destroy this city any more than you can bring yourself to kill us. Does that make us any less weak than you, you bumbling, incompetent fool?”
He stood, and in the space of two strides, crossed to her, and slapped her, hard.
Lyahn could feel the pain her sister experienced, dully, as if through a thick blanket. That was what spurred her to act at last, wriggling, easing her limbs, feeling the single, long tie-down strand loosening as the knot fell away from behind her wrist, letting her slowly fight her other limbs lose, pulling them free from the leather restraints.
Once free, she lay there, fighting to keep her breathing even, trying to stop it from giving her away.
“You think, you hopeless wimp, that you can call your own father ‘fool’? You think you disowned me so easily?”
“Yes, I do,” said Ana, calmly. “I disowned you the moment you killed my mother. Because from that moment forward, you weren’t my father. You were just another man who betrayed my city, betrayed my trust.” Her voice was worryingly flat, calm, composed, ringing every alarm bell in Lyahn’s head – that was exactly how she reacted before great violence would be committed, and for once, she found herself condoning it, her usual restraint gone.
“Oh, I know I betrayed you. But I am still your father, no matter how many times you disown me.”
“You’re wrong,” said Lyahn, spinning free from the tie-down board, and landing two heavy blows from her tight fists on his back, sending him staggering to his knees, limbs flailing against the board her sister was tied to. She saw the flash of grey, the silver-grey mane of hair flashing past her face as she swung her her bare feet at his hips with grace and finesse, the kick landing with a smack, and a satisfying jarring sensation.
He groaned, and, clutching at the board, staggered back to his feet, limping towards her, and Lyahn beat forward at the old man before her, all her allegiances falling away.
Her allegiance to House Kihedra, tenuous as it now was… gone.
Her allegiance to him as her father… gone.
Her allegiance to her city, in trust of her leadership… gone.
And now, the man before her staggered, fell back, pleading for his life. The man who destroyed her life, tugging on the strings like a puppet master of the highest order, twitching and tangling her life with the lives of all the people around her.
She had always prided herself on how detached she was, and now she knew why. Because, she realised, she was vulnerable. She was vulnerable to people who were shaping her life like it was their personal plaything, pushing and pulling on it like it was modelling clay. And now, she knew, it was her turn to be solid, her turn to shape her own life.
As Lyahn beat forward, Ana lay, watching her, feeling the exultant thrill of each strike she laid against him. She made no move to escape, though, and that, she knew, would cost her dearly… but watching her sister was like watching a professional dancer – the way she darted, ducked and wove around the feeble strokes of her father, built from the thundering fury.
Ana snickered. “May the fury of a thousand fish descend upon you, father!” she yelled, hoping to distract him –
And it worked. Lyahn snapped two rapid punches to the middle of his chest as he left it exposed, dropping his guard momentarily, and he fell like a stone.
As he lay on the floor, panting, Lyahn turned, ducking back towards her sister, and hastily untied the leather strip that held her down, and eased the ties over her limbs, feeling the muscles roll and tense under her hands as they were let free.
“Thanks,” said Ana gratefully, levering herself to her feet.
“Come on, sis,” yelled Lyahn, already halfway across the room to the exit, and Ana jogged forward, puffing from exhaustion already. “Let’s move!”
They pushed the door open, Ana finding the grating of stone on stone distressing at the least, a sensation of incredible tension forming, but they stepped out into the empty, well-lit corridor beyond, it eased again – but Lyahn’s inner tension didn’t abate as she looked around the featureless corridor, like every other corridor in this place.
They had to navigate the Catacombs of Elilith.