“Still not impressed,” you rasp, hand inching towards the flask in your belt.
Rycurgus sneers, and spits in your face.
“Then die,” he says, the blades pressing against your throat, “you miserable…”
You wrench the flask from your belt and fling it. You were aiming for his face, but Rycurgus jerks back, and it shatters against his hip instead. You twist to the side, eyes screwed shut, and hear Rycurgus’s bellow of pain and fury, accompanied by the smell of burning leather and wool. You open your eyes, see Rycurgus trying to beat out the flames on his leg.
Then his eyes narrow, and he becomes a wraith of smoke and mist.
The flames go out.
He solidifies once more and stalks towards you, sword and dagger raised.
You try to get to your feet, but your right leg collapses beneath you with a spasm of pain.
“Damn Croanna and her games,” growls Rycrugus. “She should have just killed you. Like this.”
His sword plunges for your face, and you try to scramble back, your leg clenching into uselessness…
Then his sword clangs off a silvery blur.
Rycurgus snarls in fury, and Lucan is there, his ghostsilver sword spinning as he blocks Rycurgus’s attacks. Rycurgus blurs into wraith form and jumps back, spinning back into physical form a dozen paces away.
“Lucan Maraeus,” he snarls. “I’ve been looking forward to this for ten years.”
Lucan says nothing…but beckons Rycurgus forward with his free hand.
And Rycurgus comes. He leaps at Lucan, flickering in and out of wraith form, his sword and dagger a storm of gleaming steel. Rycurgus is a master swordsman, fighting with a skill you’ve rarely seen, and he’s younger and stronger than Lucan, as well.
Lucan’s just better.
Again and again his ghostsilver sword licks out, scraping along Rycurgus’s ethereal form, and again and again Rycurgus shudders at the agony, jerking away from the blade to solidify back into material form. At last Lucan yanks the dagger from his belt and stabs Rycurgus’s wraith form with the ghostsilver blade. Rycurgus reels back, flickering back into physical form…
…only to find Lucan’s dagger already in his left arm.
Rycurgus’s wrist and hand explode in blood, the ebony bracelet rolling across the grass. Rycurgus himself falls to his knees with a scream of agony, gaping at the ruin of his left hand, and Lucan kicks away his sword.
“I yield,” croaks Rycurgus, shuddering. “I…I yield.”
Lucan doesn’t answer. He can’t – the mindreaver.
You drag yourself to your feet, limp to Lucan, and use your ghostsilver dagger to claw the mindreaver off his wrist.
He takes a deep breath, and the words spill out of him. He couldn’t stop himself from stabbing you. He should have told you about the letter, despite the warning from Croanna. He shouldn’t have let himself fall for it. He should…
“Shut up,” you say, and lean against him. You are trembling, partly from exhaustion.
But mostly from relief.
Siona steps closer, looking up at you, and Lucan reaches down and takes her hand. Her expression does not change.
But she does not pull away.
“What the devil is all this?” booms a deep voice.
You turn, and see Lord Corbould Maraeus standing in the doorway, sword in hand, his bodyguards arrayed around him. You stare at him in confusion for a moment, and then remember that Tylas said the Emperor had plans to meet with Lord Corbould this morning.
“Lord Corbould,” you say.
The old lord’s eyes narrow.
“Countess,” he says. “What is going on here? What’s wrong with the Emperor? Answer me!”
You look down at Siona…and feel yourself smile.
You take her hand and Lucan’s. Lord Corbould frowns…but his icy eyes fix upon Siona, and bit by bit sudden wonder creeps across his stern face.
“Lord Corbould of House Maraeus!” you say in formal High Nighmarian. “I, Caina of House Amalas, present you with a living grandchild. Siona, daughter of Lucan and Livia of House Maraeus. Having presented you with a living grandchild, I accept your terms, and consent to wed your son.”
And you have the very great pleasure of seeing the astonishment on the old tyrant’s face.
CAINA AMALAS and LUCAN MARAEUS wed a week later.
LUCAN MARAEUS had long stayed out of Imperial politics, despite his high birth and family name, but at last accepted a magistracy from the Emperor – the Lord Prefect of the city of Malarae. As Lord Prefect, he could keep an eye on the magi and hunt down slavers – work near to his heart.
Besides, he had a family to provide for now.
NORASTER remained in Lord Lucan’s service, of course, and became seneschal of the Lord Prefect’s new household in Malarae. Noraster had always enjoyed working for Lord Lucan, but he particularly enjoyed working for his lordship’s new wife, as the Countess made efficient use of Noraster’s more…unique skills.
Specifically, when spies infiltrated the household, Noraster…handled them.
Discreetly, of course.
A seneschal’s work is simply never done.
MORESTI remained in Malarae, as he still found life in the capital more congenial than guarding caravans on the dusty roads. The wine was cheap and plentiful, as were the ladies of negotiable affection, and there were plenty of heads that needed bashing.
Especially when the Countess was hiring.
LYSANDER remained in business as a petty spy, but made certain to pass his reports to the Ghosts, first. Sometimes he had nightmares about a woman with cold blue eyes, and what she would do to him if he betrayed her.
ARK returned to work at his foundry, grateful to be reunited with his wife and children – and that they had escaped the horrible fate Croanna had planned for them. Soon his foundry received an order from the Lord Prefect for new arms and armor for Malarae’s Civic Militia, and Ark prospered as he never had before.
The Ghosts looked after their own.
SEPTIMUS RHAZION was annoyed at the loss of his house, but was relieved to have come out of another one of the Ghost Countess’s mad little adventures with his skin intact. Especially given the Countess’s opinion of the magi in general.
So he was very surprised when the Countess sent him a sum of gold to rebuild his house.
He always knew the Ghosts repaid their enemies. Apparently they repaid their friends, as well.
RYCURGUS, as the exiled son of a noble house, stood before an Imperial magistrate. He was convicted of treason and murder, and beheaded in the Grand Market below the Imperial Citadel.
TYLAS, for his vigilance in guarding the Emperor, received promotion to the rank of Tribune of the Imperial Guard.
THE FIRST MAGUS, Aberon, bled to death in the Tower of Corthios, forgotten as Croanna hunted Caina.
The man who would rule the Empire, who saw himself as one of the great magus-emperors of old, died in a pool his own blood, unable to stop the bleeding unless his mistress gave permission first.
With the First Magus’s death, the MAGISTERIUM entered a period of decline. The First Magus’s iron hand had kept the Magisterium focused upon their goal of claiming the government of the Empire, but his successor lacked both Aberon’s political skill and resolve. The magi fractured into a dozen squabbling factions, each more concerned with the Magisterium’s internal politics than conquering the Empire.
But Caina kept a close eye on them anyway.
CROANNA, despite her death, soon became a legend among certain factions of the Magisterium. They spoke in whispers how she developed a form of mind control beyond any other, a type of slavery inescapable and implacable. How if the magi rediscovered her secrets, they could rule the Empire, indeed, the world, with ease. Caina had destroyed every last one of Croanna’s enspelled baubles, and burned her journals and notes.
Nevertheless, the magi tried to recreate her research.
The legend of the GHOST COUNTESS grew. Hundreds of nobles had seen her cut down before their very eyes. Yet she rose again to strike down Croanna and free the Emperor from the exile’s spell. Soon the stories and songs said that the gods themselves had restored her to life, as an instrument of their vengeance, or that no mortal blade could slay the Ghost Countess.
Caina thought the stories absurd. Yet if they kept her foes from stabbing her yet again, she would not object.
LORD CORBOULD MARAEUS regretted allowing his youngest son to marry the Emperor’s pet spy, but he supposed little enough harm could come from it.
He very quickly changed his mind.
Lord Corbould had long ruled House Maraeus with an iron fist, but that damnably impertinent woman! She was his daughter-in-law, and yet she defied him! To his face! And in front of others! And what was worse, she was clever enough to do it successfully.
It was egregious.
And yet, secretly, he was exhilarated. It had been years since he had had such a worthy opponent. Sometimes his hands shook a little, when he thought about the marvelous arguments they would have…
It took a long time for SIONA to speak in complete sentences.
The girl knew a surprising lot about…everything, really. Croanna, despite her crimes, had been brilliant, and Siona learned a great deal from her. But Croanna had also used the girl for experiments, testing her theories on the creating of sorcerous devices.
Siona had suffered, and badly. But if anyone ever dared to hurt her again, they would answer to her father.
And to her stepmother. Especially her stepmother.
Perhaps a month later, Lucan stood by the fire in the sitting room, sharpening his daggers. Now that he was Lord Prefect, he supposed, he had servants to do that sort of thing for him. But a wise man trusted no one else with his weapons.
Caina sat on the sofa, reading a book. She looked like she wanted to be distracted. He would sit down, kiss her neck, and…
Lucan looked up, saw Siona standing in the doorway, wearing her nightgown.
“Can’t sleep?” he said. The girl, unsurprisingly, had nightmares.
Siona nodded, and Caina looked up.
“You can sit up with us for a while,” said Lucan. He smiled. “I know your stepmother was showing you how to throw knives, and…”
Siona crossed the room and sat on the sofa, her head resting on Caina’s shoulder.
Lucan blinked. He had seen Caina in a rage. He had seen her in pain, in a dark mood, had seen her smile.
He had never seen her eyes fill with tears.
“Are you all right?” he said.
She looked at him and smiled.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I’m fine.”