Outer Flower, 54

Rizla and Elymas

It was only a woman, and a small woman at that. A serving girl come to clean only to find herself caught within a pall of smoke, her gown whipping about her as she stood in the last of the grotesque, flickering shadows. The dark hair was loose and down about her shoulders.

A girl.

One moment Elymas was screaming for his life and the next in pure rage at the figure who stood before him.

“You sneaking bitch,” he shouted. “I’ll have you flayed alive for surprising me like this!”

The woman stepped closer, touching the last shadow as if she were pulling off a veil, and now there was nothing between them.

Elymas gasped in shock.

Standing before him was no servant, but a dark sensuous beauty with kohl-lined eyes. Elymas clutched the goblet he still held, and wondered if he was going insane. Clearly, she was not a Casorian; Casorian women tended to be tall and fair, light-skinned. Those that were tall were large as beef. This woman was olive-skinned, delicately formed, and carried an air of refinement. She wore a gossamer gown that made no attempt to hide the richness of her body. Memory nudged him, causing him to wonder if he’d seen her before. That wasn’t possible, he assured himself. He’d treat her like a servant until he found out who she really was.

“If you’ve come for the bottles, he told her. “take them and get out. And the floor . . . I spilled some wine. Wipe it up.”

He pointed to a puddle beneath the first bottle, which lay on its side.

The woman did not deign to answer, but blinked lazily as if she’d just awakened.

“You were a fool to try and kill the King,” she said. Her voice was low and without accent. He couldn’t place where she was from; not local, not from the lower classes. “Fortunately, I arrived in time to neutralize the drink.”

“Woman, you are speaking treason.” His voice was low as well. Underlings cringed when it dropped to this pitch. “Do you know the infinite number of ways traitors die?”

Elymas questions Rizla

She laughed and stepped closer. Her laughter wasn’t unpleasant. Indeed, it sounded like bells as it echoed in the vastness of the empty room.

“Tell me,” she said, “Tell me the number of ways that traitors can die. Head on a block? Flayed alive? Sliced?” She looked pointedly at the region below his mid-section. “Or would you rather see me stripped and bound, straining against knots, bared for the whip?” She made a crude gesture and laughed again. “For you? I think not.”

Elymas made a groan because words failed him. Clearly, she was insane; the insane were known to have unusual strength. He’d have to be careful. He had drunk quite a bit. Elymas decided to wave her way, let the matter go.

Then he realized his hand wouldn’t move.

“What is this?” he roared.

Furious, he strained against cords now made visible. Elymas was no longer afraid; he knew exactly what was going on. This was a small-time practitioner in the Black Arts, a village witch, who had somehow learned of his plans and wished to be included in the coming change. It wasn’t hard to guess how she’d gained access to the castle; her beauty would open doors. Nor would it be difficult to learn which of his Sacred Servants had proven vulnerable.

He concentrated his powers in an effort to undo the cords that bound him.

The first was simple and not a knot at all; more like slipping off a too-tight ring.

The second proved looser, yet more resilient. Easy to undo, but the effort came in not allowing the loop to tie itself again. And now the third. He strained against it. When it didn’t give, he muttered, cursed, and threw enough spells to shatter rock. The knot remained firm.

He looked up. The woman was watching him with the same sort of detachment with which he too had watched the struggles of the weak. Flushing, Elymas realized how predictable he’d been.

“Who are you?” he asked.

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