As he watched the girl raise the heavy goblet to her lips, Ozorne wondered – briefly, idly – how different this moment might have felt, had he let his fingers drift an inch or two further that morning.
It was a passing fancy, a lazy thought which nevertheless spoiled the deep satisfaction he got from seeing her swallow. Her lips tightened and then waxed around the lip of the glass, and her throat swelled and narrowed, every part of her body behaving just as it should. Her mother must have taught the girl that habit when she first latched on to the breast in her cold, mountain hovel. That mouthful of nectar was where her life began. It was quite apt, Ozorne mused, quite correct, that she should use that same animal instinct to end it.
He had toyed with the idea of hiding powder in one of his hollow rings, as he had done before when his father had needed a strong mind and subtle hand to aid his political leanings. That morning his fingers had swept over the line of jars in his cabinet, idly drifting from the green powder of arsenic to the silvery sputum of mercury.
Unlike most of his palace, these rooms were a little dusty and cluttered, as he only trusted a few of his slaves to enter. He was the Emperor Mage, not some lowly rock-slinging Conte, and his power rested in these dark and musty rooms. Even a mute slave might remember a sigil, tracing it into the dust for a spy to find some counter-spell. Even a blind slave might inhale the sweet perfume of a potion, and detect the musk of cloves in the sharp tar base.
And so the rooms were untidy. He could not cut out their tongues, gouge out their eyes, mutilate their faces beyond all sense and expect them to work efficiently. He watched the lucky chosen few closely, suspicious that they might feel with their questing fingertips the embossed runes on the furniture. He watched, and listened to the nearby birdsong, and if their laboured breathing through crushed palates grew too loud he banished them to the desert to die. He knew, beneath his petulant irritation, that they did not understand why they were being punished. From the moment their sight was gone, they could not be reached.
The girl could, though. He was quite fascinated by that. She did not realise what had happened to her. Not yet. She winced at the heavy syrup of the pomegranate juice and carefully returned the goblet to the table, looking up apologetically at the loud noise it made. He met her eyes levelly, smiling to reassure her, and asked her what she thought of the drink. She guiltily took another mouthful of the poison, licked her lips nervously, and made an awkward, polite reply.
He hadn’t chosen mercury, in the end. He had considered it at length, but it seemed so... crude. He needed finesse. Her death had to be perfect.
At first, Ozorne could not decide what exactly he wanted to do. He had most of the plan worked out before the Tortallans had even climbed onto their ugly ship, but until he saw them standing in his throne room the Emperor had bitten back his impatience. He had to see them. He had to see the girl, and her dragon, and her skill with animals. He didn’t believe half of the stories about her, but even half of them would be enough to sign her death warrant. If she was as powerful as people said, then she could be dangerous. But if she had come into his court and he had seen a child, weak and cosseted by that arrogant traitor, then he might have kept her for himself.
He had to see her. And when she first stepped into the palace and her arms had tightened around the bundle in her arms, he could not see a dangerous woman holding an immortal beast. He saw a little girl clutching at a doll.
“Your... highness,” She mumbled in an unexpectedly low, melodic voice, and her ankle shook when she curtseyed. He barely bothered to nod a reply. His questions, when he made them, were mostly about the dragon which she carried. She answered clumsily, and without any kind of mature forethought. She was, he decided then, not at all threatening.
Then, as the days passed, his watchful eye saw other details. He saw the way she spoke to Kaddar, and the way that diffident fool began to reply. He saw the way she walked about the palace, entering his aviary as if she owned every valuable creature within. And most of all, he saw the way she spoke to the traitor.
His false name was dust on Ozorne’s lips. She had shouted it across banqueting halls and training grounds as if it were a decent word, not an insult to every ear that received it. And just as she flaunted his presence in this place, he bastardised her own name, making the long syllables just as illegitimate as the girl herself. The emperor deigned to call the child Veralidaine, which courteous action gave the pretence of a full name. The traitor bit it down to one syllable, short and blunt and common and abhorrently intimate. On his lips, the word condemned her.
The plan was to steal her away. Whether she was hidden or buried or genuinely fleeing didn’t matter, because the girl’s fate was irrelevant. The only thing Ozorne cared about was the traitor’s reaction. He knew the man too well, even after all these years, to think he would abandon someone. He would search for her, and break the conditions of the peace treaty, and then the plan would come to fruition. The girl’s role in it was really an afterthought. But as the days lingered and Ozorne saw more and more, he began to see a chance for poetry in her fate.
His fingers had stilled on one jar, sensing the unnatural chill of the mixture within it. It blossomed red and then blue where the warmth from his fingers touched the glass, and he watched it with interest. It truly was a beautiful potion, which took many days to perfect. He was tempted to use it just because it was so lovely. A glass vial of it, dropped into her wine by one of the slaves, would make her unconscious in minutes. She would dream so vividly that the colours of it would glow on her eyelids – red, and blue, and red again, staining her eyes over and over with the dizzy spiral of fever hues. Ozorne peered more closely at the jar and saw his own reflected face smiling back at him.
A swirl of black drifted in the depths, and he frowned and drew back. A flaw in the potion, perhaps, or more likely just a chill in the air making the mixture uneasy. It would still work. There was no reason not to use it. The child would sleep for days, and by the time she awoke everything would be finished. She would be unharmed, and the traitor would have been destroyed carrying out an utterly pointless rescue. He could even gloat about it. As the man stood with his feet beside his executioner’s, Ozorne could whisper it magically in his ear. “She is alive. She will be freed tomorrow. You sacrificed yourself for nothing.”
It had a definite appeal.
And yet his fingers stopped short of picking up the bottle, and once again his reflection taunted him. The black swirl was gone, but its hue had left a bitter taste in the Emperor’s mouth. He remembered the dark fury in the traitor’s eyes, the wild swing of his hand as it crashed against his shield. Ozorne had laughed at the frustrated violence, but inside he was seething. He had cherished his loathing of the man ever since he had fled Carthak years before. It seemed that the traitor had shrugged the whole thing off. He cared more about the girl – about a slight insult to her honour – than he did about his criminal treason.
He cared more about her than he ever had about...
Ugh, Ozorne couldn’t finish the thought. It was unspeakable. The man had been wrapped so firmly in the old Emperor’s affairs that he had nearly caused the man’s heir to be usurped by some interfering power-mad cabinet members. And he was not just the heir, ennobled and distant. Ozorne had been a student alongside the traitor, had shared his meals and his company for years, and yet when he needed his support to gain the throne the traitor had stepped aside. He had not wanted to take sides, he said. He was not political. He was not trying to earn royal favour.
The letters? The traitor claimed they were nothing. They were simply notes between friends. Then, on a night that was filled with nothing but smoke and candle flames and heated words, he snatched the bundle from Ozorne’s hands. He hurled them into the fire, his dark temper flaring. He was burning them, he spat, before Ozorne’s jealousy turned him into a thief as well as a damned fool. Their eyes met over the spitting embers, and the traitor held his wrists as if the prince might still reach into the fire and read them. The smoke smelled of Varice’s perfume and of truth dust.
“Love letters?” Ozorne had demanded, breathless with fury, exhausted by impotent rage.
“She doesn’t love me.” The traitor looked away and never met the emperor’s eyes again. “She finds it easier to take sides than I do.”
“She supports me.” The heir knew it for a fact. His voice felt raw. “Does that mean that you... don’t?”
The traitor never answered that question. Not in words. But when the coup came, he fled. He was no better or worse than fifty other sycophants who had flocked to the dying old Emperor, but his betrayal felt a thousand times worse.
Ozorne hurt. And Ozorne wanted to return that pain. He wanted to make it even. Until the traitor tried to hit him in the aviary, he believed that his plan would do just that. But after that final insult – that proof of absolute incomprehension, he decided that he had to do more.
Pain was not enough. The traitor had to suffer. He would feel how much betrayal really hurt when the girl seemed to run away. Now he would feel the pain of that blow.
The Emperor Mage’s fingers moved a few inches to the right, to the next vial. The liquid in it was yellow, the kind of shade which looked almost green in the right light. In the dim room it simply looked unclean. Ozorne carefully took out a glass dropper and transferred ten drops into a tiny, ornate bottle. It clotted and congealed against the end of the dropper, reacting with the air before he could dash the stray drop into the fireplace. In the vial, brownish lumps oozed softly into the putrid liquid. The potion had no scent and no odour, like many of his concoctions, but the man had never managed to make this one beautiful.
He would not even give it to a slave, he decided. He would do it himself.
As he watched the girl clumsily agree to share his breakfast table later that morning, he decided that he had made the right choice. The yellow liquid was not as painful or slow as some of the other poisons. Of all his concoctions it was the kindest, really. All of his anger was directed at the traitor. He felt very little towards the girl at all. A little regret, perhaps, for she would have made a superior slave for his birds in time. But no malice, and no affection. He saw her as a stepping stone rather than a bridge, and as such he had no real wish for her to suffer. She simply had to die.
And... Ozorne leaned closer and saw the perspiration dewing her forehead...and she had to understand.
He took her wrist, shaking his head at her clumsy flinch when she tried to draw her hand away. Murmuring some soothing nothing-words, he pressed the pad of his fingers to her pulse and felt the sluggish struggle for himself. She tried to pull back again, and when he looked up her water-grey eyes were frightened, bewildered. The irises were a narrow strip surrounding dilated pupils, and the emperor could see his smile reflected in those depths.
“Please,” She whispered, drawing back again. “Your majesty, I...I don’t feel right. I’m sorry, I...”
“Hush.” He shook his head as if she were a naughty child and held her hand. “The juice of the pajeyit fruit is quick, and if you are still it will not hurt you. You will simply fall asleep.”
Her eyes flicked to the glass of juice, and a strange miasma of panic and anger crossed her face. She struggled, of course, and then moaned and wrapped her free hand around her stomach. “You drugged me?”
“No, my dear.” He shook his head and took another long sip of his own juice, tasting the sweetness of it without the tart acidity that would have spoiled her own glass. The girl looked up, horrified, and in that instant he saw that she understood – and that she didn’t believe him.
She couldn’t. The juice looked perfectly normal, and this was a morning like any other, and she had not awoken with any particular foreboding. And her poisoner’s voice was so gentle that she honestly believed that he was mistaken. Ozorne stroked her fingers soothingly and explained. “You will fall asleep, and you will sleep deeply, and then more deeply, and again still more, until...”
“I don’t want...” She whispered, and shuddered, and he felt her skin growing cold. Her eyes still searched for the lie, and her words were full of pleading. “Why?”
He wanted to tell her more of the story, but there was too little time. She read his expression like an open book, and he saw her remember that morning in the menagerie, and her eyes opened a little wider. Then she choked and tore her hand away, suddenly strong as a violent spasm shook her tiny body until she fell from the chair to the ground. One of the slaves rushed forwards to pick her up, but the emperor snapped his fingers impatiently and stopped the man in his tracks.
With deliberate slowness, he lowered himself to the ground and raised her head, gentle and implacable. His fingers met the softness of her hair, and the coarseness of the dust and bird mess and feathers which littered the aviary floor. The tiles were warm now that the sun had shone on them, warmer than the girl’s skin, and drier, and he brushed the filth away from her tearstained cheeks with the hem of his silken sleeve. She shuddered, caught in another seizure with her back arching and arms flailing, until it subsided enough for her to gasp in a shallow breath.
“Do you understand?” He asked her, and then he gripped her hair and asked more forcefully. “Do you understand?”
“Numair...” She gasped it, and the man flinched back. Even now, holding his victory in his own two hands, that name made him sick. Was it the only answer she had to offer? She had cried out so harshly that it could have been a cry for help. Her eyes stared wildly about, rimmed by bruise-like markings which had also stained her lips and fingertips, and she still struggled to pull away from him.
What did she mean? Had she understood? Ozorne stared at her as the bruises broke, spilling treacle-thick, dark blood from her mouth ears and fingertips and from eyes which would never see again. Her heartbeat faltered and failed, and her pallid limbs fell limply against the tiles.
Ozorne untangled his hand with disgust, scrubbing off the lingering feeling of touching a dead thing. He strode away without a word, and left the slaves to deal with the mess.
Her last word had chilled him to the bone.