The scattered crowd of mostly men began to hoot as the door to the dungeon was opened and the guards appeared, chains between them holding a young woman, her white flesh shining brightly under the noon sun. She was naked, and even from the heights of the small room, streaks of grey grit could be seen on her flesh.
Ardala, Claire thought as she watched the frightened face dart to the men of the crowd. It was only a few weeks prior when she had seen the same woman in the halls of the castle, busying herself with bed changes and cleaning. She was one of the few servants that didn’t seem totally worn down by the atmosphere of the castle. Eventually, all of them shared the same vacant eyes as the count. Claire wondered if her own eyes looked like that.
“I thought she talked,” Claire said.
“She did,” Sarthius said. “She told us everything, and with not much effort, I must say. The torturer was disappointed.”
“Most disappointed,” Daniels said, casting a sickly look to Claire.
“Yes, but she was lying,” Vindrel said. “The Lady was not in the bar when we went.”
“She was telling the truth,” Sarthius said. “I could see it in her eyes.”
“Then why are you killing her?” Claire felt sick as she watched the young woman being led up the steps. The fire blazed off the end of the platform.
“Because I am a man of actions, not words,” Sarthius said. “Whether she lied or not, the result was the same.”
“But do you have to?” Claire said. She squeezed back tears as a leather bag was placed around the young woman’s neck.
“I do,” Sarthius said. “Power does not exist unless you use it. This must be done. For her. For these men here. For all who would betray me.”
Claire turned away, covering her mouth. “You… Have no betrayers here, lord,” she said through a choke.
“Do you not wish to watch?” Sarthius said. “It is so rare that we can use such methods.”
“No, I don’t want to watch, lord,” Claire said.
“Then why did you come up here?” Sarthius’s eyes remained fixed on the scene outside.
“I just…” Claire took a breath and looked out the door. “Wanted to inform you of the death of King Graslund.”
“That is good news,” Sarthius said with a smile, still never taking his eyes away from the window.
“Yes,” Claire said. “It seems that his grief over the excommunication and banishment of his last son was too much for him, and he succumbed to his sickness.”
“The writ of ascension?” Sarthius said.
“It is being cleared by the high priest as we speak,” Claire said. “We can organize the coronation as soon as the writ has been acknowledged by all the other high lords.”
“Good,” Sarthius said. “It seems your job will require a bit of haste, Vindrel. I want the Lady here for the coronation.”
“I have a good idea where she’s heading,” Vindrel said. “I’ll need a ship.”
“I’ll give you more than that. Captain Daniels? Or is he admiral now?” Sarthius smiled at Daniels.
“I think it’s a fitting time for a promotion,” Vindrel said.
Daniels bowed with a smile. “Thank you. I shall not disappoint you, your highness.”
“I like the sound of that. Your highness,” Sarthius said. “Claire, you may leave now, if this scene does not suit you.”
“Thank you, my l – your highness,” Claire corrected herself.
“Oh,” Sarthius said. “I have another stipend for your daughter’s studies.” He reached in his pocket and drew forth a small bag.
Claire looked at Vindrel, who seemed not to react. The bag, made of burlap and topped with a simple string, sat in Sarthius’s palm.
My daughter. Marriage and children were not permitted for the devotees of Verbus, the priesthood that managed the church itself, serving as clergy to all other clergymen. The Church of the Twelve was the source of all knowledge in Diederon, and indeed the world, for outside of the divine continent the land seemed to be filled with warring savages: men who had forgotten the light of the Twelve Gods and their gifts to man. The Verbian calling was a critical position, and could easily be soured by the temptation of power, especially those who were high up in the church or served as an advisor to noble families, as Claire did. The scriptures proclaimed the folly of hereditary, and history proved that folly it was. When you have heirs, you have ambition.
Claire’s daughter Maribel was the result of her failing at being neutral with the nobility. The girl’s father had been a prince in the warring kingdoms of the divine strand, the remnants of the last great holy empire, and that put her at great risk of harm from competitors to the twelve thrones. She had managed to enroll her daughter in a devotion path to Nostera, the goddess of healing, much younger than would normally be allowed, in order to keep her hidden away. This she kept a secret to all, even the girl’s father, but Sarthius had known about Maribel almost as soon as she had accepted a position as minister in Cataling. Somehow, the count knew everything. He had come to her offering charity, but she understood what it truly was: a threat, and the sort of threat that keeps a woman up at night. That was part of his power, and that knowledge had been well-used against Claire. With her connections in the church, she had caused several key members of the nobility to be exiled as apostates, all with a mysteriously sharp drawing of guilt and evidence of which Sarthius seemed to always know.
Maribel needs this.
Claire stepped forward to take the bag. At that moment, she saw, as if slowed in time, Ardala the servant girl being thrown naked onto the bonfire in the courtyard below. It seemed like she could not look away as a scream escaped her mouth. She felt her fingers clutching the bag, but turning away from the execution seemed impossible. Vaguely she felt Sarthius’s spider-like fingers around her wrist, holding her. Flesh blackened as smoke and flame enveloped the count’s victim. Silence in the crowd answered the woman’s tortured cries.
The bag of gunpowder around the woman’s neck finally exploded, ending her pain in a flash of fire and blood. Sarthius pulled Claire close and whispered with hot, sickly breath in her ear. It was like the hissing of a snake.