Snippet – The Truthful Lie (The Unwritten Words III)

6 Aug

Prologue I

Imagine … imagine two worlds.

One of them is human, as common and comprehensive to us as our own.  People are born, grow up, marry, have children and die … a pattern we understand, even if we do not follow it slavishly.  The rules are universal, binding everyone; they are relatively simple, understandable and have few loopholes.  The rules themselves are unbreakable.

The other world – realm, really – is so inhuman as to be beyond our comprehension.  It is a single point that is both infinitively large and impossibly tiny at the same time.  It does not, in fact, have time, not in any sense humans would understand.  The inhabitants of the alien realm are eternal, bounded within their universe and yet unbounded by cause and effect, by the harsh and unsentimental rules of the human world.  They are, in effect, patterns of energy shaped by ideas … ideas that are so inhuman that we literally do not have words to describe them.  They are – they were – so different from us that their world and ours were never intended to meet.

But they did.

Historical records from that time have been lost in a haze of pain, horror and simple incomprehension, but certain things are clear.  The direct contact between humans and the idea entities was utterly devastating.  Human minds shattered under pressure from entities so powerful as to defy understanding, human society bent and broke as the laws of the known universe twisted and warped through the presence of the entities.  The entities themselves were exposed to time for the first time in eternity, to the loves and lusts and hates of a race they found utterly incomprehensible.  Both sides recoiled, tearing away at themselves in a fruitless bid to save themselves from madness.  The universe itself screamed in pain as the Old Gods took form.  They ruled for an eternity. 

And then the New Gods arrived.  Born of contact with human minds, shaped by human thought and belief, they united the power of both races.  They turned on their parents, sealing them back into the realm of ideas.  They sought to rule as the God-Kings of Eternity, to command both races in a quest for glory everlasting.  Everyone would bow and praise their names.  Their rule, it seemed would never end.

But the New Gods had underestimated their human allies.  Determined to free themselves, the humans united their world and turned on their former masters, using powers and knowledge they’d gleaned from the New Gods to lock them out of the human realm.  The New Gods howled in frustration as they fell back into the realm of ideas, the Godly Realm, and watched helplessly as all knowledge of them was erased from the world.  What could not be destroyed was sealed off, left to rot until time and tide removed it from living memory.  The purge was terrifyingly complete.  Little knowledge of the entities lingered for the Bookworm, many thousands of years later, to absorb when she triggered an ancient trap and started the chain of events that brought the Empire down.

All that time, the New Gods were waiting.  Timeless, they could wait for eternity.  Humans being humans, they didn’t have to.  The Fall of the Empire shattered the barriers keeping the New Gods from returning to the human realm.  They could only advance slowly, at least at first, but smaller creatures – shadows that had haunted humanity’s nightmares since the New Gods were driven out – went ahead.  The New Gods made contacts, offering power and prominence and everything else the humans wanted … in exchange for worship and unthinking servitude.  And, on the Summer Isle, they made their first beachhead.  The death of the former monarch ensured their tool, Lord Havant the Usurper and his sister, Queen Emetine were in position to take control.  It looked as though they could not be stopped.

They were not to know that Crown Prince Reginald of Andalusia would mount a bid for the Summer Isle himself.  Claiming the former king had left his kingdom to King Romulus XIII of Andalusia, Reginald and his ally, Isabella the Sorceress, led an army to the Summer Isle.  There, they encountered the entities and their pawns in open battle, winning through a combination of luck, guile and exploiting rules they did not – yet – understand.  Their victory, however, came at a price.  The entities – and Queen Emetine – made the jump to Andalusia and took control.  Thinking themselves safe, they reached into the heart and souls of everyone in the kingdom … and began preparations for their ultimate return.

Reginald returned, to discover his father a broken shell of a man and his sister in servitude to the entities.  Forced to fight for his kingdom, Reginald drove the entities back to one of their old haunts in a final desperate bid to stop them.  There, the entities performed a ritual to bring one of the most dangerous New Gods back into the world.  They succeeded …

… And now, the entire world is in dreadful danger.

This is, of course, the truth.

But … it is also a lie.

Prologue II

Kings didn’t shake.

King Forsyth of Zycrest sat in the tower and shook.  It was undignified, to say the least, for an absolute monarch to shake, but he couldn’t help himself.  The fear – the fear of everything had pervaded his mind for years, well before his father had died in glorious battle and Forsyth had inherited the throne.  He’d been cursed, perhaps.  His father had been a brave man, a man who’d been easy to follow if not to like, but Forsyth was a coward.  He could barely get out of bed each morning, let alone make the hard decisions.  He was so afraid of everything that he’d shut himself up in the tower and hidden from the world.

He knew, intellectually, that there was no reason to be scared.  He’d inherited a powerful kingdom, with a council and bureaucracy that existed to make his every whim law, but he was too scared to use it.  The fear was just too strong.  He wished his father had had more children, a younger son who could take the throne instead of a cripple king.  He wondered, sometimes, if he’d been cursed.  It was possible.  The fear seemed to have no focus.  He wasn’t scared of the dark, or spiders, or assassins … he was scared of everything.

Tears pickled at the corner of his eyes.  The councillors were already plotting.  He knew, although he couldn’t have said how he knew.  They were trying to find a way to legally remove him, to put a distant relative on the throne.  Forsyth feared the council, as much as he feared everything else.  It was just a matter of time before they declared him incapable of ruling and packed him off to a country estate.  Why not?  He was too scared to stand up to them, let alone rally the people and lead them in war against the usurpers.  The worst of it – he admitted to himself, if no one else – was that he’d be relieved if he was removed from power.  Who wanted a king who was afraid of the dark?

Bitter resentment welled up within him.  It wasn’t fair.  It just wasn’t fair.  He had male cousins who were strong and manly and performed great feats of daring … all, no doubt, with one eye on the throne.  He had female cousins, so cunning their guile far exceeded the councillors themselves, who were nudging their husbands towards the throne.  A strong king would have no hesitation in slapping them down, in reminding them who was boss, but Forsyth couldn’t so much as bring himself to issue a mild reprimand.  His weakness shamed him.  His weakness humiliated him.  And he was too afraid to do anything about it.  There was no doubt, in his mind, that he would be removed.  It was just a matter of time.

His hands shook, again.  He willed them into stillness.  Maybe he had been cursed.  The fear was so strong that nothing, not even alcohol or potions, could quench it.  Drunkenness only made the fear worse.  The potions … he shuddered, recalling the one time he’d tried to use magic to overcome the fear.  The results had been horrific.  He’d shamed himself in front of the entire court …

… And something was behind him.

Forsyth knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something was there.  He could feel it pressing against his personal space.  A strange sense of calm washed over him as he stood and turned, one hand dropping to the sword he didn’t know how to use.  The air seemed … twisted somehow, as if whatever was there wasn’t truly there.  Forsyth eyed it as it took on shape and form, a humanoid figure that looked as if it couldn’t decide if it were male or female.  He knew he should be scared, he knew he should run, but … for once, he stood his ground.  The feeling was so wonderful he wouldn’t have cared if the figure had come for him, if he could take the feeling of being brave to the grave.

“I greet you.”  The words seemed to appear in Forsyth’s mind without ever passing through his ears.  “I greet you, Chosen of the Gods.”

Forsyth felt the fear start to return.  He’d heard tales of the chosen ones, of men and women honoured by the gods and sent on quests … quests he knew, all too well, he could never handle himself.  His old nursemaid had told him tales until his mother had overheard and told the woman never to speak of such matters again.  She’d been dismissed shortly afterwards, without a single bronze coin to her name.  It was funny how he’d forgotten her until now.

“I greet you,” he managed.  He was king, yet … a god or a god’s messenger was so far above him he might as well be scrabbling in the dirt.  It never occurred to him to doubt the entity.  It was just so real.  “I … what do you want from me?”

The entity seemed to come closer, without actually moving.  “Lead your troops,” it said, the words hanging  leaden in Forsyth’s mind.  “Restore us to the world.”

The fear grew stronger.  “I cannot,” Forsyth admitted.  The shame overwhelmed him as he sank to his knees, crying like a child.  He hated the fear, hated himself … hated himself with a self-loathing too powerful to be ignored.  He wanted to stumble to the window and throw himself out, but he was scared of death as well as everything else.  “I’m … I’m scared.”

“You do not have to be scared,” the entity said.  It loomed over him, millions of miles tall even though cold logic told him it couldn’t possibly fit into the chamber.  “Accept me into your heart, King of Kings, and all will be well.”

Forsyth swallowed.  He was suddenly aware, very aware, that the council had made its decision.  He was to be removed from power and … removed.  Killed, he knew.  They were going to murder him.  The new monarch could hardly keep the old one around, just in case he decided to retake his throne.  He felt a sudden surge of pure rage, overpowering in its intensity.  He was sick, so sick, of being scared.  He wanted to be free!  He wanted to rule as he pleased, to exert his power, to do whatever he wanted.  He wanted to be the man his father had been, the man everyone had served …

He looked up.  “I accept.”

The entity moved forward.  There was a flash of insight as it flowed into him, a sudden awareness that he might have made a terrible mistake, then nothing.

***

Xhafer, High Chancellor of Zycrest, made his way up the steps towards the king’s chambers, feeling oddly unsure of himself.  The council had debated for days and weeks over precisely what they were going to do with a monarch who started at shadows, a coward who was too afraid to do anything … even protect himself.  They would never have dared to even consider the issue when the last king had been alive – he’d had a temper that had cowed even brave men – but the current monarch was a nightmare.  The kingdom had too many problems to risk leaving a coward on the throne.  Xhafer regretted having to turn against a man he’d known since childhood, but there was no choice.  Better for everyone, including the king himself, if he was quickly removed from power.  He was no threat.

The air seemed to shift around him, a faint air of unreality brushing against his awareness as he reached the top of the stairs and stopped for breath.  The king’s ancestors had designed the tower for defence, ensuring that anyone who climbed the stairs would be exhausted by the time they reached the top.  A brave man with a sword could hold the landing indefinitely, as long as his courage and stamina held out.  There was no way to escape, as far as Xhafer knew, but who cared?  A king who fled, back in those days, would be king no more.

He told himself he was seeing things as he straightened.  He was too old, really, for such malarkey.  It was why the council had chosen him to bear the message.  If he was arrested for high treason – as if the coward-king could muster the will to do it – he would be dead well before the torturers started their work.  Or so they’d said … Xhafer snorted at the sheer absurdity of the thought.  The poor king would go into a gilded cage without a fight.  There was nothing to be gained by killing him.  It wasn’t as if he posed a threat.

The antechamber stood empty.  Xhafer frowned.  Where were the guards?  The king needed to be protected at all times, but the guards were gone.  His eyes narrowed, then he shrugged as he walked into the bedchamber.  He had a flicker of unease as he passed through the doors, a sense that something was wrong … he dismissed it, effortlessly.  The king was a coward and a fool and …

His thoughts seemed to slam to a halt.  His mind was assailed by a series of disjointed impressions.  The throne, looming large … impossibly large.  The guards, standing beside the throne, their faces so cold and hard that it was no longer possible to believe them human.  And, sitting on the throne, a king … a true king.  Xhafer felt his knees buckle as he met the king’s eyes.  They were so … so certain that he found himself dropping to his knees well before his conscious mind caught up.  The man in front of him was no coward.  Fear washed through him as he remembered the council’s debates, remembered how the king’s father had treated traitors.  And now … resistance was inconceivable.  They’d plotted against a true king and his wrath would be terrible.

“Look at me,” the king said.

Xhafer looked up.  It was like staring into the sun.  The king was Forsyth … and yet it wasn’t.  He had a presence so strong that Xhafer quailed, unable to muster the will to do more than follow orders.  The king’s eyes bored into his, leaving him feeling naked and helpless.  He thought the shadows were closing in, reaching out for him … he couldn’t look away.  The king had him in his thrall.

“You will serve us,” the king said.  “And this kingdom will be the core of a whole new empire.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Xhafer managed.  His mouth was dry.  He stumbled over the words.  “I am your loyal servant.”

“Indeed.”  The king’s voice was amused, vastly amused.  He knew what they’d been planning.  “Summon the remainder of the council.  It is time they pledged themselves to me.”

Xhafer stayed on his knees as he inched backwards.  The king … the king had suddenly become a true king.  He couldn’t rise, let alone turn his back … the door slammed closed the moment he passed through, but he couldn’t so much as consider any thought of defiance or resistance.  He’d been the king’s man from the moment he’d entered his presence, all thoughts of a palace coup melting like snowflakes in the fireplace.  The king was a true king who’d lead the kingdom to glory, who’d reunite the empire under his banner …

… And nothing, Xhafer knew with a certainty that could not be denied, would ever be the same again.

Chapter One

He was bored.

Sergeant Theodore Ashworth stood outside the door and tried not to look bored, even though the boredom was killing him.  He was used to action and adventure, to marching with the army and fighting with the foe, not standing on guard outside a simple iron door.  The Queen Sorceress had given him his orders personally, and he was ruefully aware she could turn him into a frog – or worse – if he disobeyed, but … he was bored.  He peered up and down the corridor, wondering if anyone would so much as dare to enter the dungeons.  The Queen had taken them for herself, when she’d married King Reginald and moved into the castle.  She’d issued orders to keep everyone out of the very lowest levels, unless they had her permission.

Theodore snorted to himself.  The castle had only been reoccupied and cleansed six months ago.  The prisoners who’d been held at the king’s pleasure had been dead well before the Crown Prince had reclaimed his throne.  There was no reason for a queen, even a sorceress, to secure the dungeons for herself.  It was just a matter of time before the king started filling the cells with new prisoners, with men who’d defied his will or … Theodore snorted, again.  King Reginald was out fighting a war with men who’d defied his will.  Theodore doubted any of the aristo bastards would last long enough to grace a prison cell.  The king wouldn’t leave any of them alive, no matter how much they grovelled.  They were just too dangerous to leave alive.

I should be out there, Theodore thought.  He wasn’t blind to the trust the king – and his family – had placed in the guards, but he wasn’t a fancy-pants palace guardsman.  The uniform felt itchy and unpleasant, as if whoever had designed it hadn’t wanted the guards to move freely.  I shouldn’t be here.

He allowed his eyes to roam the stone walls, silently counting the bricks and stones.  The queen was in residence, as were both surviving princesses, but … they were in no danger.  It would take a brave or foolish man to challenge a sorceress, particularly one in her place of power.  Theodore knew the advantages and disadvantages of magic as much as anyone else.  He knew what would happen to anyone who tried.  It would take time and effort to break down the wards, time the sorceress could use to best advantage.  Theodore shivered, despite himself.  He was a brave man, but magic still made him weak at the knees.  The entities who’d infested the kingdom were worse.  He’d sensed enough of their power to fear it.

And they’re still out there somewhere, he reminded himself, sharply.  They could be anywhere …

He forced himself to stand up straighter.  There might be an inspection at any moment, although he doubted it.  The officer commanding was an experienced man, smart enough to put competence ahead of appearance.   He wouldn’t punish Theodore for having a button out of place, but if Theodore happened to fall asleep on duty … the beating would be savage, the demotion would be worse.  Theodore sighed as he returned to counting bricks.  He would be relieved shortly, allowing him to get back to the barracks and catch some sleep.  Or go into the city for some fun.  The city was slowly returning to normal.  The local sellers were happy to open their wares to the king’s personal guard.

Help me …

Theodore blinked.  He’d heard … he’d heard someone calling for help.  His hand dropped to his sword as he listened intently, wondering if he’d just imagined the cry.  It could be another maid, being harassed by an aristocratic buffoon.  Or an innocent village girl … Theodore smirked, coldly.  The Crown Prince had issued strict orders against harassing the villagers and given his guardsmen permission to do whatever they had to do to stop it.  Theodore had enjoyed those days.  It wasn’t often he got permission to manhandle aristos and he’d made the most of it.  And he’d been careful not to let himself be identified.  The vengeful assholes hadn’t known who to punish.

Help me …

The sound echoed through the air, brushing against Theodore’s mind.  He tensed, turning his head from side to side, as the call came again.  It seemed to come from a great distance, yet he was hearing it … it was coming from behind him.  He turned to look at the iron door.  He’d been given strict orders not to open the door without permission, let alone permit anyone to enter or leave the chambers beyond, but … someone was crying for help.  His orders warred with the increasing desperation in the voice, with the certainty of punishment competing with the desire to help the person on the other side.  The world itself seemed to dim as his fingers moved of their own accord, grabbing and twisting the iron knob.  The door clicked open.  He practically fell into the chamber.

He stared.  The giant chamber had been turned into a workshop.  Two wooden tables were placed against the walls – a third wall was covered with half-full bookcases and potions supplies – but they didn’t catch his eye.  His gaze was locked on the iron cage in the centre of the room.  A young girl sat in the centre of the cage, wearing a simple white shift.  Her eyes were modestly downcast.  Theodore felt a sudden surge of protectiveness, even though he was aware – at some level – that something was badly wrong.  The girl … the girl looked strange, almost inhuman.  She was his ideal bride given shape and form.  He knew she couldn’t be real, yet he refused to believe it.  He didn’t want to believe it.

She looked up.  His resistance melted away.  She was a prisoner … it was outrageous she was a prisoner.  Whoever she was, whatever she was, she could not be held prisoner.  Theodore stumbled forward, his eyes searching for the lock.  He’d open the cage, free her and … he wasn’t sure what he’d do then, but it didn’t matter.  All that mattered was letting her out of the cage.  His hands touched the iron padlock and pulled at it, trying to get it free.  It was useless.  Desperation overwhelmed him at the thought of failing her.  He wanted to die … he tried to tell himself not to be silly as he looked around for tools.  He’d pick the lock and free her and let her go and all would be well.

Blue sparks flashed.  He found himself flying across the room, slamming into the far wall without any clear memory of what had happened.  His fingers hurt, as if he’d burnt them on a hot stove or picked up a superheated rock without thinking.  The pain was so intense he was completely unmanned, screaming so loudly he was sure the entire castle could hear him.  He thought he saw, just for a moment, something utterly alien within the cage, something so alien his mind couldn’t even begin to grasp what he was seeing.  And then it was gone and the girl was looking at him with despondent eyes and …

Something blocked his gaze.  He looked up into the queen’s eyes.  “I …”

The queen stared back at him.  “Why did you enter the room?”

Theodore hesitated.  He wasn’t sure himself.  There’d been a voice calling to him and … his memories were a jumbled mess.  He’d disobeyed orders and he wasn’t even sure why.  He cursed himself under his breath, as thoroughly as he knew how.  The very least he could expect was being summarily demoted and sent off on a suicide mission.  King Reginald was known and respected for being fair, but … there was no way he could let the matter pass.  No one would blame him for ordering Theodore’s execution.

“I … I heard a voice,” he said, finally.  “It needed help.”

“I see,” the Queen said.  “And you listened to it?”

Theodore forced himself to look up, into her eyes.  Queen Isabella was … odd, by the standards of the princesses and aristocratic ladies and even the maids who’d once swanned around the court.  Her dark hair was cut short, defying fashion; she wore a simple leather shirt, a jerkin and  a pair of trousers rather than the dresses the other ladies wore.  Theodore knew she’d been a mercenary as well as a sorceress, hired when Crown Prince Reginald had invaded the Summer Isle to claim his patrimony.  He felt a flash of admiration that had nothing to do with her stern face, muscular arms and magic.  She had the position and power not to have to care what the ladies of the court had to say.  She didn’t follow fashions.  She set them.  The next summer was going to be interesting …

He put the thought aside.  He was woolgathering.

“I had to,” he managed.  The voice was a fading memory.  He felt an urge to look past the queen, to look at the girl in the cage … he suppressed it, ruthlessly.  “It called to me.”

The queen studied him for a long cold moment.  “Go outside and wait,” she ordered, curtly.  “And don’t come back inside, whatever you see or hear.”

Theodore stood and bowed.  “Yes, Your Majesty.”

***

Isabella watched the sergeant go, closing the door behind him.  It had been sheer goddamned luck – her lips quirked at the thought – that Sergeant Ashworth been unable to open the cage and release the entity.  He was a good man, with a splendid record of loyalty and devotion to his monarch, but he’d nearly been seduced into disobeying orders and doing something incredibly dangerous.  No, he had been seduced.  Isabella had worked as many protective hexes and charms into the chamber as she could, designing them to make it difficult for her to operate without being aware of her every movement, yet they’d nearly failed.  The entity had called the sergeant into the chamber, manipulating him effortlessly.  And, somehow, it had bypassed most of the protective spells.

She turned, already knowing what she would see.  A young woman knelt in the cage, looking innocent and helpless and frighteningly pure.  She looked like Isabella herself, but a version of Isabella that had been washed clean of all taint and corruption and the scars of a troubled childhood, a magical education and years as a mercenary.  Isabella wondered, idly, what the sergeant had seen.  The entities were shaped by human thoughts, emotions and desires.   It was, in some sense, what they were.  The sergeant would have merely been the first to die – or be warped beyond recognition – if he’d opened the cage.

Maiden Lembu looked up.  Her eyes were utterly inhuman.  Isabella forced herself to stand her ground, even though finely-honed instincts were screaming at her to run.  The entity was no longer pretending to be anything other than a monster.  She shivered, remembering her first meeting with the three-in-one.  She’d tutored Isabella, showing her how the new rules worked.  And she’d offered more, for a price.

“I have eternity,” Maiden Lembu said.  “It’s just a matter of time.”

Isabella said nothing.  The entities were bound by strange rules, governed by logic so alien she could barely comprehend it.  And yet, some of those rules were clear.  As long as the cage remained locked and sealed, as long as there was no way out, the entity was caught like a rat in a trap.  The other entities couldn’t try to free her either, not directly.  But if they did something that accidentally damaged the cage or opened a path for the entity to leave …

“I offer what you most desire,” Maiden Lembu added.  “It’s just a matter of time.”

“So you keep saying,” Isabella said, curtly.  She knew the entity was right.  Lembu – Mother, Maiden or Crone – was timeless, effectively immortal.  It was just a matter of time before she seduced someone long enough to compel her victim to free her, or for something – anything – to happen that might let her go free.  “And yet, right now, you’re my prisoner.”

“A prisoner you cannot contain for long,” Maiden Lembu said.  She stood, her dress spilling down around her as if it were made of shimmering light.  Perhaps it was.  “You have only the barest fraction of understanding.”

She stepped up to the iron bars.  “And I will teach you, if you pledge yourself to me.”

Isabella shook her head.  She understood, now, how the entities really worked.  They traded power – miracles, really – for worship.  They demanded servitude and respect and, in exchange, they promised to grant wishes and … everything.  And, the more they manifested on the human plane, the more damage they did.  She didn’t think they were malicious, not in any sense a human might understand, but it didn’t matter.  Their motives didn’t matter.  The results were horrific and that was all that mattered.

“Your husband may stray,” Maiden Lembu said.  “Do you not wish to bind him to you?”

“I know a hundred love spells,” Isabella said, tartly.  “And they are all banned, with good reason.  Do you think I would gain anything by crushing his free will?”

“You wouldn’t be breaking his will,” Maiden Lembu said.  “He would just never stray from you.”

Isabella snorted.  “One cannot remain faithful and have it mean something if one doesn’t have the option not to be faithful.”

Maiden Lembu smiled.  “And you don’t want to fit in here?  I could make it happen …”

“Really?”  Isabella snorted, again.  “You promise the world, but the price is too high.”

She waved her hand, dismissively.  She had no doubt the entity could – and would – keep whatever promise she made.  It was one of the rules.  The entities had to make a good-faith effort to keep their side of the bargain.  But the price was just too high.  Isabella had to admit, at least to herself, that she didn’t enjoy being regent in Reginald’s absence.  She didn’t like having to alternatively cajole and threaten the king’s councillors to make them follow orders, even though the princesses were both in her corner.  And she didn’t like the sneers the women of the court aimed at her back … she rolled her eyes in disgust.  If sneering was the worst they could do, she could endure.  She would even feel sorry for them too.

“You can’t keep me here forever,” Maiden Lembu said, again.  “And you may come to regret not pledging yourself to me.”

“We shall see,” Isabella said.  “You’ll be trapped here until long after I’m dead and gone.”

She allowed her eyes to wander over the entity.  The human seeming was starting to collapse into something many-angled and dangerous.  Her head hurt just looking at it, as if the entity existed in realms and dimensions the human mind was not designed to comprehend.  The appearance of a harmless maiden was just the smile on the face of the tiger, the hints of knowledge and the promise of something more a lure to draw her into pledging herself.  She’d worked out some of the rules, through trial and error and observation.  She’d work out the rest for herself, given time.  And she wasn’t alone.

“Your husband will return changed,” Maiden Lembu informed her.  “And you will regret it.”

Isabella said nothing as she turned away.  The entities claimed to be able to predict the future, and to offer their insights to their human servants, but she’d never been convinced the future was fixed.  And the insights could be twisted, until they were neutralised.  Princess Sofia’s prediction might have promised trouble, but Isabella had outthought it.  There’d been a price to pay …

“We shall see,” she said, again.  There was no point in debating with the creature.  She couldn’t afford to let herself forget, now or ever, that she had a dragon by the tail and that the slightest mistake might get her killed.  Or worse.  “Goodbye.”

She glanced at the workbench, where she was brewing a mind-expanding potion, then turned and walked through the door, replacing the damaged or destroyed charms as she moved.  The chamber was surrounded by cold iron, the one metal the entities couldn’t bend to their will, but Maiden Lembu had clearly managed to get a message through the gap.  Isabella scowled as she closed the door firmly, muttering another charm in hopes of keeping the metal in place.  She’d thought the design was airtight – it wasn’t as though the entity needed to breathe – but there had to be a gap somewhere.  She would have to find it, sooner rather than later.  The maiden had been right.  It was just a matter of time until she found a way to break free.

“Your Majesty.”  Sergeant Ashworth knelt, clumsily.  “I offer my life and …”

“Don’t worry about it,” Isabella said.  It wasn’t the queenly thing to do, she was sure, but it was practical.  Sergeant Ashworth was a good man.  It was how the entity had crawled into his mind.  Besides, she’d felt Maiden Lembu’s power for herself.  She’d been tempted with knowledge.  It had been sheer luck she’d pulled back before pledging herself to the entity for evermore.  “Just … be careful.”

She turned and headed down the corridor, wondering if she’d done the right thing.  She couldn’t serve as Queen Regent and guard the prisoner, not indefinitely.  She wasn’t even sure she was safe, when alone with the entity.  Maiden Lembu was the least of the three-in-one.  The mother and the crone were far more dangerous.

And we still don’t know what happened to Emetine, Isabella thought.  She still had bad dreams about the ritual, when Sofia and her father had both met their deaths.  She knew Reginald had them too.  Or the entity she called into the world.

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