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The Devil You Know

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He was halfway to Tyra when a hand grabbed him by the collar and slammed him into the nearest wall.

"And you didn't even realize anyone was shadowing you, did you?" an alarmingly familiar voice mused. Ozorne tsked. "Really, Numair, you make a remarkably lousy spy." He paused. "Is it still Numair? Or are you going by Arram again? Wait, no, I still have men out looking for you under that name, too. Have you made up a new one yet?"

Black fire raced down Ozorne's arm, only to slide like oil off gold-tinged red. Numair, pressed rather awkwardly against the barn by a man a full head shorter than him, growled and gave the former emperor the best glare he could manage. He twisted out of Ozorne's grip.

"Aren't you supposed to be a Stormwing?" Numair snapped.

Ozorne grinned; sunlight struck his teeth and reflected back cold. "I did warn you, you know."

Numair simply stared, face utterly blank.

"Ah, yes, I remember that expression," Ozorne said with glee. "It's your 'I fucked up and refuse to notice' expression. Tell me, did you really think I was stupid enough to claim godhood without actually being of divine stock?" He raised one imperious eyebrow at Numair's stonefaced silence.

"Well," Numair drawled, "I was more under the impression that you were a delusional lunatic, really, but you can call it what you like." Finally, the stony expression cracked, and a trace of utter bewilderment crept through. "How-?"

Ozorne tucked his arms behind his back and stood there, head canted to the side, observing Numair with a placid, almost soft expression. "How did divine blood end up in the imperial family? Or how can I stand before you still in man-shape?"

Numair made an inarticulate noise, and gestured impatiently.

Ozorne smiled, faintly. "This is the story we are told as children, those of us who are of the imperial line: the first Emperor-Mage of Carthak, the great warrior Zernou, met a man one day in a field. The man mocked him, his strength, and his kingdom, then mocked his sister and his sister's son. Zernou could stand the insults to himself, and even swallow the insults to the state, but could not abide these insults to his family, and so he fought a fierce duel of honor against the man until the man finally cried for mercy, promising Zernou anything he wished in exchange." Ozorne paused. "Zernou, derisively, asked for divinity for himself and all his heirs, and to his immense surprise the man, none other than the divine Mithros in disguise, assented, and said that because it was for his sister and his nephew that Zernou had fought him, the Emperor's heirs would always be their sister's sons, and that divinity would thus be passed down the female line."

"Your uncle was emperor before you," Numair said softly, almost absently. "And Kaddar was always your heir, wasn't he?"

Ozorne's too-yellow eyes glittered with amusement. "In an unbroken line of sister-sons since Zernou himself. Yes." His smile faded. "I don't hold out hope for the line continuing on, though, since Kaddar as yet has no sister, and Fazia is unlikely to remarry."

"That still doesn't explain why you're not a Stormwing right now," Numair said.

"Doesn't it?"

"If your godly blood prevented transformation, it would've stopped you from turning into one in the first place."

"True. I am not exactly a god; I am a mortal granted divinity." Ozorne's smile was razor-sharp. "And now, thanks to you and your former pet, and that pathetic attempt at a trap from that Stormwing, I am a divinity with, shall we say, sharp edges." He grinned again, and long ropes of gold-red magic rose around him, and for just an instant he was a thing of steel and frigid burning light, an intimation of steel wings on air.

Numair laughed brokenly, and covered his face with one palm. "I truly cannot catch a break, can I?"

Ozorne's laugh was the grating cry of a bird. "No, you can't. You don't deserve one."

In the next instant, Ozorne's hand was back on Numair's collar, dragging him down, and his mouth was on Numair's, and all Numair tasted was steel teeth and his own red blood.