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between the devil and the deep blue

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“Shh-shh-shhh.” Vector murmurs soothingly. He lifts his hand off the golden arm of his throne, the throne where yesterday her brother had been sitting, and lets it fall onto her head. Her veil is askew, and he knocks it further out of place as he pets her. ‘Don’t cry.”

Merag doesn’t want to look at him – the sight of him in her brother’s place makes her ill – but everything else in the room is stained with blood. There are corpses piled all around, and Vector’s men are stripping them, collecting their armor and their boots and anything else they can get. Her own hands are red to the wrist, from when she’d covered Nasch’s wound with her hands, trying to staunch the bleeding, even though he’d been dead before he hit the ground.

They are conquered, the Poseidon Lands, torn apart so that their bloody edges can be stitched onto Vector’s empire. Some emperors would be colonizing, or at least trying to make use of the present nobility, but Vector is not one of them. She can hear the screaming going on elsewhere, as they execute every courtier, every advisor, every lord and lady they find.

Not the servants, though, not yet. And not Merag, who instead is down on her knees, chained to the throne like a dog with a collar around her neck, her hands still wet with Nasch’s life’s blood.

You could have saved him, a voice coos in her head. It’s a terrible, terrible voice, but she can’t place it. You could have sacrificed yourself, you knew the spell, and you didn’t, and now every man and woman and child in your kingdom will die.

The spell might not have worked. It might have only made Vector’s monsters stronger. She did everything else she could. All her excuses ring hollow, and she hates herself for being dishonest here, now, when she has no right to one moment of comfort, one second of mercy.

Nasch is dead, Durbe missing, the land plundered. She is the last, and if her suffering is the only thing she can offer the dead, she must suffer completely.

“You look like a cat.” Vector purrs. He leans over the side of his throne and tugs her head up, so that she has to look into his eyes. They are playful, like a child’s, and she swallows hard as his fingers dig into her scalp. “Like a pretty pet. You can do all sorts of things for me, can’t you? You don’t have to die, not if you behave.”

Merag has a vision of herself, in the future Vecor is offering, on her knees somewhere in dark, degraded and lost and alone. She can almost feel his hands on her, dragging her somewhere she doesn’t want to go, a world where she gives up everything to be alive even though living is hell.

She has a vision of Vector, a knife through his careless throat, and then another one of herself, too broken to lift a blade. She doesn’t think Nasch would be angry if she chose to die, right here, rather than let him torture her for the slim chance of revenge.

But Nasch was soft that way. He had even protected her at his own expense, though he had to have known her death might assure his victory. Merag didn’t have that luxury now.

“I don’t have to die?” She asks. Her voice comes out weak, and pleading, and it’s not a lie. She is frightened, even if she wants to be brave, and no matter what story she tells herself about suffering and duty and revenge, she means every pathetic word.

“Not today,” Vector assures her. “Aren’t I a kind king?”