“So…” the empreena purred, tapping a letter against her mouth as she paced behind her desk, “allow me to get this story completely clear.” She cleared her throat delicately and smoothed her peplos before continuing. “Bellica Yarrow, of the First Regiment and supposedly our best,” and there was slight emphasis on the adjective, “in her effort to kill Seigneur Timor, used terrabane, the most lethal and illegal poison known to Atherians. Furthermore, she claims to not remember her actions, and thinks herself mad. Am I missing anything?” she asked, pausing for effect.
Miranda, already unable to keep still with her news, fidgeted, silently pleading to be believed.
Zardria ignored her. Tapping her lips with the letter again, she paced a bit, pretending to find her place in the story. “Oh, yes. The witness. Jules deTania, Chief Medical Officer in the First Regiment, witnessed this crime and said nothing of it to his superiors―namely, the empress or myself.” Finished, she turned to face the young girl who stood in front of her, still fidgeting.
“A wild story, to be sure, Miranda,” Zardria said. Her contempt stung the air. “Our great Yarrow is too honourable to use such a thing as poison―and even if she did, and had no knowledge of it, she would be so honest as to throw herself on the mercy of the court.” Not that she would receive any.
The heir-apparent placed the letter in a drawer in her desk, locking it with a thought. Its business would have to wait until later. Sniffing delicately, she continued. “How can I be sure that this…story you told me is indeed true and not…fantasy?” In one carefully spoken word, the empreena dismissed the girl for her youth―and stirred up an instantaneous fury.
The girl lost her temper―and her wits, thought Zardria, if she had any to begin with.
“It’s no more fantasy than your ability as ruler!” Miranda near-shouted at her mistress, forgetting the danger. A second later her mouth dropped open in horror as she realised her mistake. Zardria snarled and grabbed the girl by the wrist, long nails digging into golden-toned skin similar to Zardria’s own. She drew Miranda’s face close so the girl could not escape the anger in her eyes.
“And do you think you would do better, you petulant child?” The empreena bit off each word. She had no patience for stupid youngsters. Or stupid elders, for that matter. “I have worked for years―since I was younger than you―to gain what I have. To gain what was rightfully mine, though others should have liked to deny me.” She half-turned her head and hissed, baring her teeth as she did so. She could hear the thoughts crossing Miranda’s mind―the girl was projecting in her terror―about how feral she was. She turned back to the girl and smiled―not a pleasant sight, Miranda’s shudder told her. “My mother, try as she might, was weak of heart―and unwilling to think that anyone except a copy of her exact self could do any better. A strong ruler, perhaps. But arrogant. It is better that she is gone.”
Her fingers tightened on the young spy’s wrist, and Miranda whimpered in pain. Zardria glanced and saw she was drawing blood. Good. Make the girl realise it bodes ill to displease me.
In her pain and terror, Miranda tried making excuses. “Please, mistress, forgive me―I spoke without thinking. The night has been long and I am tired―but I swear to you on the life of my family that I speak the truth.”
Zardria grunted, only slightly mollified. She would not forget this insult. Miranda fidgeted again, and she realised the girl would be of little use to her if her wrist was broken. She loosened her hold but did not let go. Her smile turned sympathetic as she quickly wove her words to inflict the most amount of hurt. “Forgive my anger, my dear, but you understand how hard it is to find good spies nowadays. I merely had to check to make sure you were completely honest. Now, I think, is the time for you to be assigned somewhere else.”
Miranda visibly brightened at this prospect. Knowing how much the youngling hated being in the hospitalis, Zardria let her smile grow with genuine pleasure―a pleasure that bespoke ill for the girl. Using her unoccupied hand, she carefully traced a sharpened fingernail down Miranda’s cheek―not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to leave a red line where blood rushed to the skin. Comprehension slowly dawned on Miranda’s face as the empreena spoke, nearly purring the words in her fun. “I think it time for you to be assigned to the stables. The manager has needed a new stall-mucker for some time now.”
Miranda’s scream of rage echoed through Zardria’s study and the rest of the Spire. It inspired fear, but not shock, in the servants.