She felt an anger she’d never felt before flood her. It was not her other side, she could tell. No, this rage was pure Zardria.
Somehow, against all logic, the empress with no formal fighting training was beating a man who had served beside her mother, and killed her sister — best bellica in the realm — and beaten her Consort to a bloody pulp.
Perhaps that was why.
Zardria kicked Lord Exsil Vis in the face and broke his nose, her heel digging into his cheek. Before he could regain himself, she punched him in the stomach and brought his face down to meet her knee as it traveled up.
“Yarrow was mine to kill, you greedy bastard,” she spat at him, although the rage she’d felt for her sister had long since passed. With two fists she hit him on the back, and he groaned and fell to his hands and knees. “And how dare you hurt my Consort,” she hissed as she kicked him in the stomach. “Have you not your own toys to play with?”
She went for another kick, but her leg froze behind her. She tried to move and found herself paralysed.
What in Umbra’s name… she started to think, and was cut off by the very One she thought of.
“What a fine sight indeed!” a voice boomed through the banquet hall, and could she have moved Zardria would have clamped her hands over her head. “Two of My servants fighting each other! I cannot leave this plane alone for more than a minute, it seems. Tell Me, children, how do you suppose I am to succeed in My take-over if My Chosen Ones cannot even get along?”
Zardria would have screamed apologies, screamed her rage, but she could not get her mouth or throat to form the words. The only thing she could do was stand, her leg behind her, as the realisation that Lord Exsil Vis also belonged to her Goddess pounded her psyche again and again, like waves against a cliff.
Umbra hadn’t chosen only her.
Umbra didn’t love her.
She was just a pawn.
She would have cried, had her body been able to obey. Umbra’s voice boomed down again, but she felt loath to follow the order.
“I’m busy at the moment, so play nice — or I’ll kill you both.”
The presence was gone.
Zardria fell to the ground, her body suddenly unfrozen. At her feet, Lord Exsil Vis rose, and smiled evilly down at her.
“Little does our Goddess understand, Zardria, I was playing nice,” he said, and drew his cutlass.
He couldn’t kill her, she knew. But he could hurt her.
In a panic she scrambled backwards as fast as she could in her peplos, which seemed determined to keep her in place. She hoped Caelum had run. She would keep Lord Exsil Vis occupied. The man would only kill her Consort and that was a pain she could not bear.
Lord Exsil Vis advanced slowly on her, still smiling that smile, and she felt a sinking feeling as she realised she wouldn’t be able to kill him. He was also a servant of Umbra.
Where were those damn Magi?
His boot stepped on her peplos, then, and she could not move backwards anymore. She was pinned in place. He readied his sword for a strike against her, and she gritted her teeth for the pain she knew would come.
There was a very loud noise.
Lord Exsil Vis looked surprised, and he looked down. A blossom bloomed on his chest, red and spreading fast. He turned, and her view no longer obscured, she saw Lares stood at the door to the banquet hall, pistol in his hand still smoking.
“That was for Hope,” the man said, his voice laced with venom.
Zardria sat on the ground in shock. Lord Exsil Vis wasn’t immortal? Was she?
Before she could move, Caelum ran up with his sword drawn. He thrust it upwards into Lord Exsil Vis, under the ribs. Zardria watched in wonder as the sword tip came out the top of the man’s skull. “That was for Isidora,” Caelum whispered, and withdrew his sword.
Now and truly dead, the man fell backwards, landing on the floor beside Zardria. Now she could move; she scrambled away. Caelum helped her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her, his sword on the ground. She was shaking.
Lares had re-holstered his pistol; now he walked up to them. He kicked the foot of Lord Exsil Vis; there was no response. His gaze darted across the room and Zardria’s followed, where her sister lay dead. For some reason she felt her heart twist in pain.
“It’s over then,” the Vocan said, and she nodded.
“Find the Admiral and tell her, if you would, Lares,” Zardria said, surprised to find her voice so steady. Lares bowed and left the room.
Her eyes hadn’t left Yarrow’s prone form. She found herself walking to the corpse, then, and standing at Yarrow’s head. The woman’s eyes were closed; her face as beaten as Caelum’s. Her neck was purple with bruises.
Caelum came up to the other side of Yarrow and knelt down. Zardria could feel his sorrow as a palpable thing, but did not — for once — feel jealous.
His hand reached out and checked Yarrow’s pulse, then he put his head at her chest. “Zee,” he said, looking up in wonder. “She’s alive.”