Princess Anezka, now Lady Anezka, carefully slips out of her bedroom, past the guard who gives her a knowing look. She does not sleep in the same room as her husband unless he…comes to her at night. She does her duty and nothing more. This distance from him most nights is good for a variety of reasons – tonight, it gives her freedom to do what she needs to do.
The final step.
She meets up with Skaina, still here despite no longer having a determined roll. They incline their heads together briefly in the darkness, lit only by a shuttered lantern held between them and casting ghost-story shadows on their faces. What they say cannot be heard, but they continue down a hall, through a door, deeper into the keep, and finally, to a dark stair leading down.
In a dank stone room beneath the keep a man is huddled, shivering. He is chained to the floor, and his fingernails are bloody shreds from trying to claw his way free somehow. He has pulled on the chains until his wrists are red and purple and raw. He has prayed, but has heard nothing but his own harsh breathing for hours, perhaps days.
Then there is light. He cringes and tries to become smaller, to sink into cold corner, to somehow slip away unseen, but he is the only living thing in the room.
She enters, the Lady Anezka, with her witch-hag from the Lhazaar Principalities, and two other young women the man recognizes from the keep – Danneke and Joli. Danneke is plump and pretty and dark, and is a foster from another noble family – essentially a hostage, kept and taught and protected, but not allowed to go so that there is always a reason to keep the two houses from clashing. Joli has the harsh pale face of the Lord, her uncle once removed or somesuch. She is tall and does not miss opportunities for petty cruelty.
As they enter, they stop speaking.
There is no one else alive down here.
He is gagged to stop his shouting, but he forgets to shout until the gag is already in. He is lifted up on to a table that is brought in, and his arms and legs are tied together under the table so that he cannot move. The strain on his shoulders is painful, but he almost forgets it, watching them work. Then they stand aroud him, with the Lady Anezka at the head of the table – at his head. He can strain and see the witch-hag at his feet. She looks to Anezka.
“Are you prepared?”
Anezka nods, and pulls a glimmering black blade from under the cloak thrown around her shoulders. She shrugs the hood back and looks down at the man bound before her. She is about to speak –
When the Lord Kronan strides through the door, a man-at-arms at his side.
“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS!?”
Everyone freezes – the Lord does not shout, but his face is livid and his breathing heavy.
Everyone, that is, but Skaina, who shouts a harsh syllable and reaches out, touching Kronan on the chest, just above the crest of his house embroidered onto his doublet.
He gasps, and then his breath hitches in his throat. The stench of death fills the room and the color floods from his face, leaving it bone-white, even his straining lips.
The man-at-arms shouts and his sword rings free, but Anezka raises a hand silently and something dark and cold passes between them. He shudders and slumps, suddenly exhausted and feeble. She draws a quick breath through her teeth and flinches before she regains control of herself.
And then Joli is there, ramming a kitchen-knife into his chest. It catches on his chainmail, and he struggles to push her away, but enfeebled as he is she writhes free and strikes again, this time slashing his throat. A spray of blood paints the wall and he slumps to the floor, gurgling up at her.
The Lord Kronan is still struggling in vain to move, to speak, even to exhale. Skaina laughs.
Anezka looks to her teacher, the witch-hag, trembling slightly, gripping her left forearm as if it suddenly pained her. “What are we going to do now? He wasn’t supposed to know – “
“This changes nothing,” Skaina growls. “Have you lost your resolve? No? Good. Then we continue. You are ready.”
“But – but what about Kronan?”
Skaina turns to the Lord, straining, his pale eyes rolling in their sockets. Joli watches. She’s wiped the knife off on the man-at-arms’ tabard, and hasn’t noticed the spattering of blood on her face and chest and right hand. Danneke looks slightly ill, but makes no move to leave.
“Kronan…we will deal with together, and quickly, before he is missed. I doubt anyone heard him down here or will interfere. Doubtless they assume he is…disciplining you. But once you have made the final sacrifice to the Vol, once you have given yourself over to her, I will show you what comes next. You have enough power, enough knowledge…Kronan will serve you, my lady.”