TERRITORY OF THE S’HISBE, GRAND PALACE
The footprints he left on the white marble were red. Red as a Burmese ruby. Red as the core of a fire. Red as the anger in his marrow.
The blood was TrezLath’s own, but he felt no pain.
The murder weapon he’d just used, a sterling silver paring knife about as long as his hand and as narrow as his forefinger, was still in his palm. It was dripping, but that was not the source of the stain he was leaving behind. He had been injured in the fight. His hip. His thigh. Maybe his shoulder, he wasn’t sure.
The corridor was a mile long and sky-high, and he did not know what awaited him at its termination. A door, he prayed. There had to be a door of some kind—this was the way out of the palace, so there had to be … an exit. And when he came unto it? He had no idea how he was going to break out. But he’d also had no clue how to kill another living male, and he’d done that minutes ago.
Further, he had no plan for what was on the far side of the palace enclosure or how he was going to get over the Territory’s retaining walls. No clue where to go, what to do. All he knew was that he couldn’t be in that cell anymore. It was luxurious enough, with silken sheets on a feather bed, and a bath that had its own pool, and a private chef to feed him. He had books written by the Shadow Masters at his disposal, and a full team of care specialists, from healers, to bathers, to exercise commandants. As for his clothes? His now-torn vestments were studded with gems from the treasury, diamonds and emeralds and sapphires cascading down his robes.
And yet his body was regarded as far more valuable than the largesse it bore.
Trez was the sacred fatted calf, the prized breeding stallion, the male whose birth chart had proclaimed he was to sire the next generation of queens.
He had not yet been called into sexual service. That would come in time, when the Princess he was to mate had reached her astrological maturity.
Trez looked over his shoulder. No one was coming after him, but that would change as soon as the crumpled body of that guard he’d overpowered was found—and that wasn’t going to be long. There was always someone watching.
If only he could—
Up in front of him, a door that was flush with the wall slid back, and a massive figure draped in black stepped directly into his path.
s’Ex, the Queen’s executioner, had his chain-mail hooding in place, his features covered by the metal weave. But the sight of his face was unnecessary.
His voice, deep and evil, was pure menace. “You killed one of my males.”
Trez shuffled to a halt, his dragging robes stilling on the floor. Glancing down at the knife in his hand, he knew that the flimsy “weapon” was going to get him nowhere against the Shadow he now faced. The silver blade had been designed to cut pears and apples, not even tenderloin meats.
And the executioner was not like that guard.
“You are trying to leave.” s’Ex didn’t take a step forward, but seemed closer anyway. “Which is not only unacceptable from my point of view, but against the law.”
“Then kill me in punishment,” Trez said in a tired voice. “Rip my body asunder and bury me in pieces outside of the Territory like the traitor I am.”
“I would do just that. In retribution for your taking the life of my guard.” s’Ex crossed his heavy arms over his thick chest. “But the very beating of your heart and breath within your lungs is divine. So that avenue is not open to me—or you.”
Trez closed his eyes briefly. His parents had been thrilled with the news that one of their two fraternal sons had been born upon the perfect moment in time, a preordained, stars-aligned split second that would transform the family—a blessing for them, with attendant riches and social position; a curse for him that had robbed him of his life whilst ever still he lived.
“Do not even think about it,” the executioner said.
As Trez lifted his lids, he found that he had put the knife to his own throat. His hand was trembling badly, but he was pushing the blade in enough to nick the skin over his artery.
His blood, warm and smooth, caressed over his clenched fist.
Trez’s laughter sounded crazy to his own ears. “I’ve nothing to lose except a life sentence for the crime of being born.”
“Oh, I think you do. No, don’t look away—you’re going to want to see this.”
The executioner nodded at the open doorway and something was pushed out …
“No!” Trez yelled, his voice echoing up and down the corridor. “No!”
“So you recognize him.” s’Ex uncoiled his arms and pulled up his sleeves, deliberately flashing bloody knuckles. “In spite of my work. Then again, the pair of you have been together for how long?”
Trez’s vision went in and out of focus as he sought his brother’s eyes. There was no gaze to hold. iAm was not conscious, his head lolling to one side, his face beaten until it was so swollen the features were distorted. His body was bound in a worn leather sleeve that ran from below his knees all the way up to his shoulders and was secured by a brass buckle system. Stains, new and old, darkened the brown of the straps and dulled the glow of the metal pieces.
“Give him to me,” s’Ex commanded.
As the executioner grabbed onto the back of the hold, he lifted iAm’s limp body from the floor with no more effort than he might put into raising a flask of wine.
“Please…” Trez begged. “He is not of this … let him go…”
For some reason, his brother’s dangling lower legs registered with nauseating clarity. Only one of iAm’s shoes was on still, the other having been lost in whatever abduction and torture had occurred. And both feet were pointing inward, the big toes touching, one tilted in unnaturally from a broken ankle.
“Now, Trez,” s’Ex said, “did you think your decision wasn’t going to affect him? I’m telling you to put the knife down. If you do not, I’m going to take this”—the executioner jogged iAm’s limp body up and down—“and I’m going to wake it up. Do you know how I’m going to do that? I’m going to take this”—in his free hand he flashed a serrated knife—“and put it into its shoulder. Then I’m going to twist until it starts to scream.”
Trez began to blink away tears. “Let him go. This has nothing to do with him.”
“Put the knife down.”
“Shall I demonstrate?”
“No! Let him—”
s’Ex stabbed iAm’s shoulder so hard, the blade cut through the leather and went into the flesh.
“Twist?” s’Ex barked over the scream. “Yes? Or are you dropping that butter knife?”
The clatter of the silver hitting the marble floor was overpowered by iAm’s harsh, dragging breaths.
“That’s what I thought.” s’Ex jerked the knife out and iAm started to moan and cough, blood speckling the floor. “We’re going back to your quarters.”
“Let him go first.”
“You are not in a position to make demands.”
Guards came out of that hidden door in a swarm, all black-robed figures with chain-mail masks. They didn’t touch him. They weren’t allowed to. They surrounded him and began to walk, pushing him along with their bodies. Forcing him back to the place he had escaped.
Trez fought the tide, rising up on the balls of his feet, trying to see his brother.
“Don’t kill him!” he shouted. “I’ll go! I’ll go—just don’t hurt him!”
s’Ex stood where he was, that notched, bloodied blade catching the light as he held it aloft. As if he were considering major organs for the next stab.
“It’s up to you, Trez. It’s all up to—”
Later, when the white light had faded from Trez’s vision and the cresting wave receded, when the roar was silenced and a strange pain in his hands began to ride up his forearms, when he was no longer standing but on his knees, he would realize that the first guard he had killed that night was far from his last.
He would realize that he somehow murdered with his bare hands all who had surrounded him …
… and s’Ex was still standing there with his brother.
More than the deaths he caused, and the horror at iAm’s imprisonment with him, more than the copper-scented blood that was so red and now not just marking his footprints, he would remember the soft laugh that percolated through the mesh links covering the executioner’s face.
A soft laugh.
As if the executioner approved of the carnage.
Trez did not laugh. He began to sob, lifting bloody, torn hands to his face.
“The astrological charts did not lie,” s’Ex said. “You are a force in this world, well suited for procreation.”
Trez slumped to the side, landing in the blood, the jewels embedded in his robes digging into his flesh. “Please … let him go…”
“Return to your quarters. Voluntarily and without hurting anyone else.”
“And you’ll let him go?”