She was surprised, to say the least, that she had lived this long. She had expected Zardria to do away with her worthless life long before the Birthright Ceremony — indeed, had been expecting it for years. The fact that she’d been allowed to draw breath for as long as she had was completely unexpected.
Not wholly welcome.
It was stressful, to not know when one’s time was gone. To expect it for so long and never have it realised…. Nightmares were made of this.
Add to that, the very idea that she might never make it into any sort of afterlife, that the Goddesses might not even take her for Tyvian, and the source of all of Zanny’s many neuroses suddenly became very clear.
When the message came, three days after the investiture of her niece and in the middle of the night, that she was to attend upon the Empress in her study it had been a relief. Indeed, she had laughed out loud, a sound that she’d not made for a long time. Before the messenger’s baffled eyes, she said a last goodbye to her rooms and went to meet her end with all the dignity and grace she could muster.
She descended the stairs slowly, enjoying her last physical exertions in this lifetime.
Mayhap her last, ever. Would she be reborn? She doubted it.
Despite the weight of nothingness that loomed up in front of her and pressed down on her, a tiny spark of hope flared to life in her soul — hope that a Goddess would take pity on a woman and let her have more than mere oblivion. Even eternal damnation would be preferable to that terrifying blankness that threatened her, that came closer with each step she took towards the study. That spark of hope turned into a small flame and stayed deep within her, secret and small, un-confessed even to herself.
“Come in, Aunt,” Zardria said, and Zanny jumped, suddenly realising she’d been standing in the open doorway to the study for a while. She took several steps inside and the door swung shut behind her, though no one touched it. She heard the bolts slide into stone, again untouched, and if she could have felt fear she would have felt it then, faced with the young woman who gazed upon her in a decidedly predatory fashion. Thankfully she only felt numb.
“I assume I’ve underestimated your power, Zardria.”
“You have,” the Empress said, rising and coming around to the front of her large desk. “But when have you ever been right about anything?”
Zanny didn’t even flinch. The words no longer cut.
“What are you, Niece?” The question was stupid. Zanny regretted it. Zardria would never tell her — not even with Zanny’s death a tangible, inevitable thing in the air between them.
Zardria smiled slowly, showing her teeth, and Zanny thought she saw pointed fangs, equidistance from each other, white and shining in the Empress’ mouth.
No. That wasn’t possible.
Her thoughts trailed off as she noticed the young woman’s nails.
Or rather, claws. They were black and thick and sharp, and reminded Zanny of the talons of a hawk or eagle or some other predatory bird. Large claws, more than capable of disemboweling a lesser creature with one livid swipe.
A lesser creature like me.
Her eyes darted back to Zardria’s face, and she swore the girl’s eyes had changed from gray to black, the whites totally occluded.
A shiver went down Zanny’s spine as she felt fear, real, honest-to-goddess fear, for the first time in months.
Fast as a snake, then, Zardria’s hand darted out towards Zanny’s chest, and the older woman stumbled back, grateful to have avoided the strike, although it could only have put off the inevitable.
Then, before Zanny’s disbelieving eyes, Zardria’s hand held up a bloody lump, and the Empress’s smile widened.
“Surprise,” she whispered.
Zanny collapsed to the floor, the air around her rushing up and into the hole she could now feel in her chest. Lights danced in front of her eyes as shadows flew in to obscure her sight, and she could swear she saw Zardria begin to eat the organ that had once resided behind its sturdy cage of ribs — supposedly safe from the world, but Zanny knew that to be a lie. Then she could no longer see her niece but perceived a rushing in her ears; a feather brushed her face and as she looked up she saw black wings, a scythe strapped to the strong back of the bare-chested woman who now gathered Zanny up into Her arms.
Zanny tried to look upon the woman’s face, to glean her identity, but it was hooded, and it struck her as oddly fitting that things should be hidden from her in death, just as they had been in life. Then nothing more reached her but the steady rush of air as she was carried up, up, and up, past all mortal knowledge.